It is often a difficult question: who should we side with in the event of a break-up? I happened to be friends with Robin when he started seeing Michelle, but I had only known him for a couple of years, and during the time they were together, I would feel more of an affinity with her than with him. When he left her a few months ago, for a new colleague at the place where Robin and I work, a marketing firm, my sympathy was with her. Yet Robin was my friend, however poor happened to be his behaviour, so while I told him I thought he had acted badly, I didn't go so far as to contact Michelle and tell her so.
Yet about five weeks after the break-up, with Robin half guiltily admitting he was a rogue, half-joyously enjoying the company of the new work colleague who looked at him with eyes Michelle never managed, Michelle contacted me. Would I be willing to meet for a drink? In other circumstances I might have felt obliged to ask for a friend's permission; in circumstances that would have been based on a mutual break-up with no lies or cheating involved. But this was one where there had been lies and cheating, and if I still owed it to Robin not to tell Michelle anything about this aspect of the end of their relationship, I also didn't at all feel that I should ask Robin for his permission to meet with Michelle, nor even tell him about the meeting at all.
We arranged to meet in a basement cafe in the New Town, halfway between her flat out near Blackford Hill and mine in Trinity, near to the sea. I'd moved to Edinburgh a couple of years earlier after five years living on the edges of London, commuting in for work and pleasure. By the end of the five years, I would only go in for work, feeling too exhausted at the weekend to go anywhere beyond my local pub in Southgate. I had moved to London from a small English town to expand my horizons, and found instead shrunken expectations: I felt the city enormous logistically and yet dwarfing any sense of possibility. I started looking for jobs elsewhere, and when I saw a post as marketing manager, I applied without much thought, but when I was given an interview and believed it went well, I returned to London knowing that if they gave the job to someone else I would take the rejection with more than a sense of disappointment. When they gave it to me I needn't exaggerate: I almost cried; the relief was enormous and the decrease in salary irrelevant.
It was during her time with Robin that I had talked to Michelle about this, and in turn she had told me about working for two years in London after mainly living before that in Bristol, and how by the end of her time in the capital she had no sense of her own personality. She would put on clean clothes, apply a bit of make-up and get on the tube for a forty-minute ride to work. She had no personal pride after two years, she said, believing that London was a city for the impregnably egotistical or the obliviously rich. Everyone else would go about their business, which really consisted of augmenting somebody else's. Money was being made in London, she knew (she worked making promotional videos for finance firms), but so many people she would see each day on the underground were making it for others. Michelle and I would sometimes have these conversations when we were in the pub with Robin and some friends, and for some reason (or perhaps because of the example I have just given), Michelle and I would gravitate towards each other and share our metropolitan scars.
So when Michelle asked if we could meet up, I didn't think that she wished to do so just to inquire about Robin and the break-up. Any information that I possessed which she didn't have access to I would keep to myself, feeling that however badly Robin had acted, it wouldn't benefit from me acting badly too. But over the next two hours as Michelle and I drank tea, shared a raw cake made up of various healthy ingredients which nevertheless possessed the density of a meal, my disclosures would have been irrelevant next to Michelle's own.
In the first couple of weeks after Robin had told her that they were breaking up, she didn't go out at all. The corporate video she was working on had been shot; she just edited it very slowly, telling the company that she needed to do more post-production work than she thought would have been necessary, and pushed the deadline back by ten days. She did work on it, but most of the time she looked at the ceiling and the wall, cried into various garments and soaked a few pillows. She said this with a humour that would no doubt have been absent at the time, and I wondered whether she was really feeling so much better after just a few weeks, or this was her way of keeping the tears from flowing once again.
She said during that first fortnight after the break-up, she went over the details of the relationship numerous times. At what moment had it gone wrong: was it the time they met his parents at a restaurant and she forgot to put her napkin on her lap; was it that after eating and the waiter took away her plate there were a few grains of rice on the table next to where the plate had been? Maybe it was that argument she and Robin had over a film they had seen; a film he had liked and that she had detested. She hated seeing people, people not unlike her parents, mocked like that. Robin suggested she had no sense of humour; Michelle reckoned Robin had no sense of consideration for others less well off than himself. She even wondered if Robin had been a little jealous of her relationship with me; all those chats we would have to the detriment of others who when they would shout over the table in the pub, or sit next to us after ordering a pint and would ask what we were talking about, and, realising they lacked an entry point so involved did the conversation happen to be, retreated. She thought in such moments she would occasionally see Robin look across, wondering what was so interesting about our conversation. He never said anything, not even once after a night out. But she sensed it.
Most of the time Michelle would meet up with Robin's friends; her own mainly still in London and Bristol. He was from a family of lawyers, went to Edinburgh's best known private school, and most of his friends came from the same level of comfort. I'd never asked Michelle specifically about her background: it was as if she didn't want to talk about it and yet couldn't stop talking about it, but would offer remarks that made it clear her parents had struggled and her solidarity was with poorer people than Robin and his friends. One evening, during one of those nights out, she told me of a story she had read earlier that day in the papers. A boy had taken from school a few sachets of ketchup to make some tomato soup with them for his dinner. Hot water and ketchup sachets for dinner she said. It was bad at home but never that bad she insisted. I am sure at the moment she looked across at Robin with contempt, perhaps even disgust, seeing in this well-fed, rosy-cheeked big-boned character, that somehow happened to be her boyfriend, a person responsible for the fate of the boy making tomato ketchup soup.
What had brought Michelle and Robin together? It was a question I am sure I wasn't alone in asking, and suspect I asked it with less prejudice than some others. I think for Robin it was sex and for Michelle loneliness. Before meeting Michelle, Robin had told me he had started seeing someone, a woman around his age who he had met a few nights earlier in a club. She was there on her own, had recently moved up from London, and looked like she wanted company. He offered it to me over lunch at work as if decent company met regular sex, and added that in the four days since he met her they'd been at it non-stop. They'd first seen each other on Thursday night, hardly slept, went to work on Friday, met up after work, and spent most of the weekend in bed. Monday night they managed to stay apart so they could get a good night's sleep, but he couldn't wait to see her again that evening. He hadn't had sex like this since he was eighteen and had an affair with his friend's mum.
I suspected I would never meet Michelle, something in the way Robin pronounced her name and was so graphic to play up the sex made me think that this was either going to be a brief affair or a private one, and I think that is exactly what Robin would have wished it to be had not Michelle threatened to call it off if he didn't introduce her to his friends. So one night after work, Robin, another colleague he knew well, and I arranged to go out for a couple of drinks and Michelle would join us. I remember asking if she might bring a friend or two of her own, and Robin said succinctly she didn't have any, or at least not in Edinburgh. He said it almost as if she didn't deserve to have them, and when I met her I could see why, without failing to like her myself.
Michelle seemed someone who revealed her sexuality far more quickly than her feelings; she didn't emanate warmth but instead an allure. This partly lay in the way she dressed: she would often wear heels, at least eyeliner and lipstick, always clothes that hugged her compact, slim but curvaceous figure, and her voice had a throaty authority that nevertheless failed, or didn't wish to conceal, an accent I would later find out was Cornish - she had grown up in Newquay till she was eleven. It was a detail like many she had offered, without context.
Over the next couple of months, Michelle would come out with Robin and his friends, and their girlfriends, but the only person she seemed to gravitate towards, after a while, happened to be me. I noticed a few times her attempt to chat with others, but I would see in their faces a look that suggested Michelle was too abrasive, too determined to engage with them specifically and too made-up for them to take her as seriously as she was determined to take them. They would usually go off to the bathroom or to the bar, or for a cigarette outside, and on their return sit somewhere else. On one of these occasions, I saw Michelle sitting on her own for a few minutes and joined her. She asked me what the problem was; didn't Robin's friends like her? She sniffed under both her arms as if to say maybe she smelt, but it wouldn't be her underarms that were the question. Michelle would usually wear a perfume, and though she wore it subtly, as she wore her make-up, nevertheless the scent carried with it what might have seemed like a warning to the other women: that Michelle could have had any of the men in the room. She wasn't only pretty; she seemed also like a woman who knew what it was to be someone who men found attractive.
Indeed we had this conversation one evening in the pub as I breathed in the scent of mango and apple. It was a body lotion rather than a perfume she said when I asked about the smell, She said she liked to smell nice, saying also that some women know how to make themselves feel attractive for themselves but not always for the opposite sex. When they did try and make themselves look sexy for men, they would overdo it. She thought this was often the case with British women, and I realised that the other women in the group were probably not responding to Michelle overdressing or being overly made up but more that she internalised her sexuality, could see herself as men would see her and as she would see herself. She said she had lived for a year in her early twenties in Paris, and proved it less with an explanation of how or why than with a very efficient grasp of French and what seemed like a logistical awareness of the city that would have been unlikely from a tourist. It was a city she said where many women had mastered this capacity to be both themselves and desirable for others. In their walk, in their voice, in their clothes, in the scents they wore they had mastered femininity. It is a clich she admitted, and maybe not without its problems, but there is no Ann Summers in Paris, she said, a shop I vaguely recalled for the often vulgar nature of its underwear. Sexuality in Britain, she often believed, was abrupt and indiscreet: underdressing and getting drunk on a Friday night; buying something saucy to turn your husband on for a special occasion. She said it with humour, but with a disdain too that indicated she had too often been looked at as if she were vulgar and saw instead the greater vulgarity of others.
So when we met in the basement cafe in the New Town I was not surprised that she had come looking by the city's standards as if she were meeting me for a date, and yet what she told me that afternoon did surprise me, even though perhaps it shouldn't have done so since a key aspect, so to speak, of what she told me about had been prefigured a few weeks before Robin and Michelle broke up. A dozen of us had gone out for a meal in an expensive restaurant that no doubt would have accepted the scruffy but wouldn't have been happy doing so, and it was the one occasion where Michelle didn't look overdressed next to everyone else. Most of the people there were couples, except for me and an acquaintance who had been invited along perhaps to team up with me - a colleague from work, Melinda, who will prove pertinent to the story very soon. I arrived a little later than everyone else and with Melinda to Robin's left, with Michelle to Robin's right, I sat in the only available seat next to Michelle, thus giving me no easy access to the work colleague.
Over the four courses, I spoke mainly to Michelle and a little to the couple directly across the table. At one moment, about halfway through the main dish and with a few drinks inside both of us, Michelle turned to me complicitly and said she had a little secret, a strange coincidence. I asked what unusual thing could be both a secret and a coincidence and she said, seeing such curiosity on my face, it would be a shame to give away the mystery so soon and promised she would tell me over coffee. I said a promise was a promise and she must stick to it. When she said this I don't think Robin would have heard: he was immersed in the conversation with Melinda and the couple across from them, and I wondered if this mystery she was soon to reveal was one already shared with Robin, would be divulged to whoever cared to listen round the table, or would be for my ears only. How secret could it be after all if she was willing to speak about it and risk others listening in?
The coffees arrived, and I said I was ready to hear what she had to reveal, but she said that no, it must be like a striptease, asking me to unwrap ever so slowly the accompanying chocolate as she started to tell me that a week or so earlier she had arrived at the main door entrance to her place, after popping out still half asleep to buy some bread and milk, had absent-mindedly gone into her handbag and taken out without noticing the keys for Robin's place. She turned the lock and the door opened, and it wasn't until she was on the top landing she realised it was Robin's flat keys she had in her hand and not her own, and that the front door key to his flat was the same as her main door flat key. As she spoke, this simple detail contained within it a very unusual frisson, perhaps a little like when we pass someone who could be our double, or when we have bought a coat on the other side of the world and find in our home town or city someone wearing a jacket that is identical. It is the uncanny of the unlikely: the odds so slim that we feel it as a terror. I'd finished unwrapping the chocolate, popped it into my mouth while finding it felt sticky and dry there, my throat as if incapable of swallowing, and I glanced around to see if anyone else appeared to have heard what Michelle had just said, most especially Robin.
But Robin was engaged in conversation with Melinda, who of course he would go off with a few weeks' later. What I noticed as I went to the bathroom and watched them for a moment as I waited for somebody to vacate the toilet, was that Melinda listened to Robin with the sort of concentration usually reserved for complicated problems or fiendish puzzles. I knew it would flatter Robin to seem intelligent in the eyes of somebody else as I recalled that only a couple of weeks earlier Robin had said that he often felt stupid in Michelle's company. Socially, he might have been perceived as the cleverer one, with a better education and so on, but he could never answer back or come up with a quick retort as she could. As I watched Melinda I reckoned this was a woman who would assuage Robin's insecurities while at the same time fitting more neatly into his social circle. A couple of days after she had started working in the firm Robin told me that she had been to the same school as him. I was not to know at the time that Michelle's revelation and Robin's flirtation would lead to a further confession a few weeks later, but there I was sitting with Michelle in the Stockbridge cafe telling me what she had done.
As she said, in the first few weeks she couldn't stop thinking about Robin and tried to work out what went wrong, where she had gone wrong, and wondering how and if she should fix it. All he had said to her when they broke up was that he didn't think that things were working; they were arguing too much, didn't want to do the same activities most of the time, and felt if they parted it would give her time to find someone more compatible. I didn't tell her what I of course already knew: that his need for her to find someone more compatible was an excuse for Robin already having done so, and I didn't like being put in the position where I couldn't disclose to Michelle, out of a useless loyalty towards my friend, that he left her for Melinda. With the information, she then gave me I supposed she might be able to find out for herself.
So after a few weeks of moping, she realised she needn't be so inactive: she had access to Robin's flat if she could find her way into the building. She didn't act on this impulse straight away, but the thought of it made her quietly happy, or rather no longer distressingly passive. One of the terrible things about being dropped by someone, she reckoned, and she supposed everybody knew, was that you don't so much feel weak, though you are, but that you feel disarmed. Your energy and activity wants to engage with the person who has broken up with you and that person doesn't want to engage with you at all. You're tempted to press their buzzer a dozen times a night, to leave endless messages on their answering machine, to follow them down the street, but you know, finally, that all these avenues will lead to further misery and despair. And they do so, she thought, because the other person is in control of the situation, they somehow know that you are overreacting, that in a year or two you will look back and regret your actions. You know, she said, that in the process while you are doing something you are also weakening the sense of who you are in your own eyes. You are losing your dignity. She said this to me as if she were speaking of me as much as of herself, and I wondered what exactly Robin had told her of my own personal life, all offered to Robin one work night, a month or two after I had started working at the company.
Anyway, Michelle said, the thought of getting into Robin's apartment in his absence somehow gave her the sense of power that in the previous few weeks she had lacked, and she felt no immediate desire to act upon it, but she was sure she would. I wondered as she was telling me this whether she thought I would tell Robin: that I would warn him and insist he change the locks. But at that moment I realised I had no intention of doing so; since I hadn't told Michelle of Robin's affair, I wouldn't tell Robin that Michelle could, if she so wished, and if she could get through the main door, rummage around his apartment.
I supposed if she did so she would be committing a minor demeanour, while Robin's affair wouldn't at all be a legal matter. To aid and abet an affair carries no penalty, but was I involving myself in a crime knowing I wouldn't say anything to Robin about this key? I then asked her whether after telling me that night in the restaurant if she had told Robin about the issue with the locks. She said she hadn't, and hoped I hadn't either. I said her secret was safe but that I wasn't sure if breaking into his flat was a good idea. She said she wouldn't be breaking and entering - just entering. She said there was a film on that - on a young woman besotted by a cop who gets the key to his apartment and would spend a few hours there when he was at work. It was all very benign, Michelle said, even if the young woman ended up flooding the flat. She said we could watch it sometime.
What Michelle hadn't told me that day, nor on any previous occasion, was how precious Robin happened to be about his apartment. I knew Robin almost never had people round at his flat, which was why I was a little surprised, within my broader astonishment at the coincidence, when Michelle told me that she had a set of Robin's keys. He had admitted to me not long after I got to know him that he was perhaps too precious about his place; that after sharing for a few years with flatmates he was so pleased to buy his own apartment, to decorate it as he wished, to know that when he closed the front door nobody would come in an hour after him, that he was even reluctant to have visitors over. He had lived there for more than a year and the only people who had been in the place were his parents who helped buy it, his brother who helped him move into it, and his sister who helped decorate it. I asked him what happened if he wanted to bring a woman back after a date; he said that he'd told them the place was in no fit state and instead they went back to theirs. It was with this memory in mind I said to her that I knew Robin could be very possessive over his apartment, and that I was surprised that not only had she been allowed into it, but that he had even given her a set of keys as well. Yes - she had been given a set of keys, she said, but no, she had never been in his flat. I looked surprised: the surprise that incorporated both conventional astonishment that she had been with Robin for several months without seeing inside his place, but also the logical puzzlement: that she had his keys but no access to his apartment. As she had earlier explained, she arrived home one day and put the key in the main door lock and then afterwards discovered that it was the same one as Robin's front door, the one he said was his front door key, though she'd never actually used it. He just wanted someone he could leave a key with, she said. As soon as they broke up he asked for his keys back; she gave him them, thinking little of it until it occurred to her that she could still get into his flat if she so wished. There was something especially empowering, she giggled, knowing that she could get so easily into a flat surreptitiously that she couldn't get into legitimately before.
As we parted that afternoon I sensed that while Michelle was still probably pained by the break-up, her personality was more than intact. I would have liked to think she wasn't going to work her way into his apartment any time soon, but knew that the thought of it seemed consistent with the mischievousness she had shown on the various occasions we had talked while out with Robin and his friends. I think Michelle saw herself as a woman with a sense of humour and a sense of perspective - break-ups are often very successful at undermining both. I was pleased that Michelle could still find things amusing and hoped that the idea of getting into Robin's apartment would remain exactly that.
For the first few weeks after Michelle and Robin broke-up, Robin didn't speak to me too much, sensing I suppose that since I'd often talked to Michelle when we were all out together, my sympathies might have been with her rather than with him, and I couldn't pretend that I was happy not to spend time with Robin and Melinda. To go for a drink with Robin didn't seem to be a sign of disrespect towards Michelle, to have gone out with the two of them appeared to be. Nevertheless, I would see Melinda and Robin often together at work, see them canoodling in the canteen at lunch, sometimes see them holding hands in the coffee shop next to the Quartermlile after work, and would see Robin lean over Melinda explaining to her how something worked in a manner that didn't seem neutrally professional. I was witnessing behaviour that would no doubt have hurt Michelle if she had been seeing it, but my purpose I believed was to keep what I saw to myself, and refuse to spend time with Robin and Melinda as a couple. One afternoon, about a week after I had met up with Michelle and she had told me in the cafe about the key, Robin said that he was going to lunch with Melinda and it would be nice if I would join them. I am not sure if he really wished for me to go, but I think he wanted to see how much I might be disapproving of their assignation. I said no, but offered an excuse. I had to send a couple of things off at the post office; if I had time I could perhaps join them. I had no intention of doing so, and didn't even have anything to send off, but I didn't want to sound sanctimonious in my refusal. My purpose was to be fair to Michelle; I felt she wouldn't have been happy if I lunched with Robin and his new woman.
Was this a strange loyalty to someone who I knew really only as a casual friend's ex-girlfriend? I saw it somehow as the equivalent gesture to telling Michelle that she shouldn't sneak into Robin's flat: that they were situations I had an ethical obligation to act sensibly within. Neither Robin nor Michelle really should have concerned me, but I am not so sure if it isn't in the realm of the disinterested that the ethical most fruitfully functions. If we are at the bedside of our child as they lie very ill, we would hardly call this an ethical decision at all: it seems too interested, too personal for that. But to go each day to the bedside of a distant relation knowing that nobody else is in attendance would seem far more of an ethical decision. Ethics it seems to me often takes place in a liminal area between the personally motivated and the impersonally just. It felt just that I should avoid lunch; no less so that I should advise Michelle to eschew the temptation to enter Robin's flat secretively.
A week after Robin's lunch invite I received a call from Michelle; would I like to meet that Saturday afternoon for a coffee? As we met up again near my work in the Quartermile, a cafe she suggested, so I saw she wasn't wearing make up for the first time since I had known her. She was wearing leggings, a sweatshirt and trainers. Her hair was tied back and she had beside her a yoga mat. I told her that I didn't know she did yoga, that it was something I had been doing, if very lightly and informally, most mornings for the last ten years at home. We talked for a while about it as she said she'd been practising yoga for a few years but hadn't found a good yoga teacher in Edinburgh until the previous week and that is where she had just come from. It was round the corner and she was now going three or four times a week and coming here afterwards. But she also thought she had been going so often to yoga because the idea of turning up at Robin's flat had become ever more tempting. She wished she could just throw away the key but of course it wasn't only the key to Robin's place, it was the main door to the building in which she lived. Had it been only her own front door flat key as well as Robin's she might even have changed the lock. But how could she tell thirteen other owners and renters that she wanted to replace the lock of the main door entrance? It was crazy, and what was even crazier were the thoughts she had when she thought of convincing them. She conjured up a story that someone was getting into the apartment building, perhaps an ex-tenant who had been unfairly evicted from their flat and had been coming back to damage the property. She thought that she would have to destroy some bikes in the stairwell to prove her point, perhaps pull out a few plants that the ground floor people had been cultivating out at the back. She looked at me as if to say she knew she was crazy, and I looked at her and said that she was certainly inventive. She laughed saying that to be ethical in one direction (getting rid of the key that fitted Robin's door) would demand that she be in unethical in another (damaging people's bikes and tearing up plants).
As far as I knew Michelle still didn't know that Robin had started seeing Melinda - worse, had left her for Melinda. I suspected if she did find out, and more especially discovered that she'd been left for someone else, her moral reservations would go and Michelle would find her way into Robin's apartment. I had a choice, I suppose: tell her myself and tell her all I knew and dissuade her from doing anything rash, or not telling her anything at all and hope that if and when she did find out Robin was seeing someone she had been sitting close to that night at dinner and was now his girlfriend, that she would no longer care. I decided for the moment to opt for the latter, perhaps because I managed to convince myself that non-involvement was the more just of the two options.
What I tried to do at least was avoid Robin and Melinda's joint company. Edinburgh is a small city; people pass each other all the time; find themselves in the same cafes or bars. If Michelle happened to see me with Robin she might not be pleased but I had the feeling she wouldn't quite see it as a betrayal. If she saw me with both Robin and the woman who had been sitting on the other side of him in the restaurant more than a month earlier, how could she not think otherwise? But, of course, this is exactly what came to pass, through no deliberation on my part, a horrible intention on Robin's, and on contingency beyond that. One afternoon at work Robin said we hadn't caught up one on one for a while, perhaps alluding to the idea that I seemed unwilling to meet up with both himself and Melinda, perhaps thinking no more than that we hadn't really met up since shortly after he stopped seeing Michelle. We arranged to meet in the cafe in the Quartermile, Saturday around midday and within a few minutes he asked me if I had seen anything of Michelle. I'd suggested another cafe knowing it had become her regular place, but he hadn't seen my message and so I met him there nevertheless. He looked tired and furtive, twiddling his thumbs and playing with his hands like a smoker who'd recently quit, but Robin had never been a smoker as far as I knew. I replied that I'd seen her several times and that while I didn't wish to take sides, and of course knew Robin before Michelle, nevertheless she seemed in need of company more than Robin did. It was hard to keep a sense of moral authority out of my tone as I said that sometimes it is more important that we remain friends with the person who gets hurt rather than the person whom we seem to know better. He said he knew what he d,id was wrong, had thought a lot about it over the last few weeks, and believed that while he didn't know whether he could win Michelle back, he reckoned he should break up with Melinda.
Did Melinda know he had thought of separating? He hadn't said anything; he wasn't yet sure himself. As we talked he said Melinda would pop by a little later, He understood now that the reason I hadn't gone to lunch that day had nothing to do with the post office and I didn't deny it. He would understand, he said, if I wanted to leave before she got to the cafe. But as he said this I thought in doing so I would appear to be holding Melinda more responsible for what happened than Robin, since there I was sitting with Robin, and would leave before Melinda would arrive. I wouldn't have said Melinda was innocent, but more so than Robin happened to be, and so I stayed.
But, of course, I was also risking what I most dreaded - that Michelle would pass and see the three of us together. After all, was this not now Michelle's regular cafe. She was with what I guessed were a couple of Yoga colleagues and seemed not yet to have noticed me as she stood in the queue and ordered. I thought I should leave abruptly but that made me feel like a guilty party when of the three of us sitting there I was surely the innocent one. Even if I left she would still see Melinda and Robin, and would be more hurt assuming that she was seeing a couple rather than, if I stayed, three colleagues who worked together. Instead of getting up and leaving I instead hoped that Robin and Melinda would at least resist showing affection towards each other. Apart from a brief kiss on the lips when Melinda came in, they had kept their hands and mouths to themselves, but I saw that Melinda noticed Michelle in the queue (Robin, his back half turned away from the counter, was oblivious) and started putting her hand on his in a moment perhaps indicating anxiety, or, equally possible, possessiveness. Robin's view was partly blocked by Melinda's who was sitting to his left, while I was seated opposite and had a clear view of the till and the people waiting at it. I now wished I had said something to Michelle the last time we met, believing that to witness this little scene of affection with me looking on would almost certainly lead to that key in the lock getting turned. I disappeared into the toilet and had a think about what to do, but when I returned to my seat, Michelle was gone, and with her the two friends. Admittedly the queue was long, but did she leave because she had seen the three of us sitting there, or perhaps just the two of them?
In the middle of the following week, at lunchtime, Robin followed me out of the office and asked if he could join me for a quick lunch. He knew once or twice a week I'd go to a nearby place with a great salad bar, and it seemed too much of a gesture to say that I wanted to be alone. I suppose I also wanted to know whether he had broken up with Melinda; received any messages from Michelle. If she had seen him with Melinda I had a feeling she would have contacted Robin; would likely have offered a very choice text. I had texted her on Sunday and received a brief reply, with no sense that she had seen us or otherwise. Her texts were always brief and to the point so I read nothing into it. As Robin and I ate on high chairs looking out the window as the sun came streaming in and caused us to wince at the light, he said to me that he broke up with Melinda over the weekend, over at her flat. Before he had done so, she had told him Michelle had briefly been in the cafe, suggested that she might be stalking him, and said a few other things about Michelle that allowed him to justify in his mind breaking up. Melinda had talked about Michelle as if it were Melinda who had been wronged, as if Michelle attempted to come between them. Robin said if anybody had been wronged it was Michelle, that if anybody came out of the situation well it was her, and said to her that Melinda was the worst of them all since she had stolen him from someone else.
He looked at me as he said this, opening his hands as if to say he knew that he was easily the most guilty of all, but then added that he hadn't at that moment cared what he said to Melinda. They threw insults at each other for a few minutes and then she asked him to leave. Robin said he gave the impression of hurt but what was mainly evident was relief: he had broken up with Melinda without the guilt he had felt when telling Michelle it was over. Just as this had happened while at Melinda's, so he had told Michelle over at her place. He could walk away; he had no reason to eject anybody from his flat. As he said this I asked him about his apartment, how protective he seemed to be of it as he told me what I already knew: that he wasn't happy having girlfriends in his place. I asked who he would now let in to his apartment. He laughed and said the meter reader and that was about it. His family? Not really even them, though of course they had seen his place when he moved, helped him with it. When his parents visited the city centre they would usually drive in and drive back - they lived in North Berwick. If they did occasionally get the train in and go for a meal, drink some wine, they would book into a hotel. In the year he had owned the flat, while he had considered having girlfriends come back there, friends over, even a small dinner party, he would think it through and the change his mind. I didn't ask him what he thought through; by then I was thinking about just how traumatic it would have been had Michelle found her way into his apartment with the key that worked for both buildings.
I contacted Michelle again a few days later. I wanted to know if she had seen Robin, Melinda and I that day, perhaps to tell her that Robin and Melinda had broken up, maybe even to tell her that Robin had talked to me about his precious approach to his flat. When I texted I got a long reply back saying that she was very busy, that she had a few days earlier received an offer to make a big corporate video and now she was in the thick of it. She would be in touch as soon as it was finished. There was no sense in the text that she was angry with me, and I didn't think anything more about things.
But about a week afterwards, with still no news from Michelle, I saw Melinda in the office corridor; she was leaving the company. She was moving back through to Glasgow where she had worked before. Though I could see she was tired, had no doubt lost a lot of sleep in the last couple of weeks, she also seemed triumphant. A decision had been made and it was hers. I asked her if she had a job to go to - yes, she said, and would commute back and forth for a month or so until she found a new flat and the lease was up on her present one. She didn't want to stay in a place that had been ruined by somebody else. She mentioned no names; she had no need to, as I thought that this was the very thing Robin had avoided happening to him.
The beginning of the following week, with Melinda no longer in the office, Robin looked like he had gone through a few sleepless nights. I asked him if he was fine and he said he would tell me after work if that was okay. Maybe we could get a tea and talk. Sure, I replied, hoping that Melinda was okay too - his look seemed so desperate, so fraught, that I wondered if she had done something stupid. An odd phrase, really, when so many stupid things are indulged in - from stealing traffic cones to hollering O Flower of Scotland at one in the morning. No, whatever she might have done, it wouldn't have been stupid. I thought all that day about why we would say somebody trying to take their own life is idiotic, concluding that it wasn't the deed that was stupid, but possibly the motivation. If Melinda had taken pills to assuage her loss, to get Robin out of her head, then I might too have thought she was being stupid, as another clich came to mind: he isn't worth it.
But no, as Robin and I sat drinking tea and sharing a cinnamon bun I ended up eating myself, with Robin showing no sign of an appetite, he said he reckoned Melinda had broken into his flat. She still had the keys. Surely you know when someone has broken into your flat, I said. Well, usually perhaps, but not in this instance, he said. Nothing had been broken, but a couple of things had been moved. One of the chairs and the sofa. Not by much, but he knew for sure that the chair had been moved because it was always at a particular angle for the TV; from its new position he could see only half the screen. The couch was up against the wall: usually he would keep it about two inches from the wall so that it wouldn't mark the paint. Surely, I said, if Melinda had broken in she would have done a bit more damage than that. Who would break into an apartment and move two items of furniture? Well, maybe it was a way of playing with his mind, he reckoned. She well knew how particular he could be about his space, a space she of course never got the chance to occupy. What I found odd, I proposed, was why he had given her the keys in the first place (while keeping to myself that I knew he had done the same with Michelle), if he was so determined to keep her far away from his premises. Well, he said, maybe it was a bit perverse, but he wanted to show that he trusted Melinda while at the same time making clear his place was his own.
My feeling was that Melinda hadn't been in Robin's flat at all but that Michelle had, and so, when I managed to meet up with her some days after talking to Robin, she admitted the impulse had got the better of her and she had taken advantage of a pragmatic opportunity. I looked at her with curiosity as she told me that for the corporate video she needed a typical well-appointed flat somewhere in the city centre, the sort of sterile, hardly-lived-in apartment that would look good on film. In the past she had always hired a show home flat for several hours, at a reasonable price that the company she was making the video for would cover. This time she had the idea that Robin's flat would probably be perfect. One morning, about a week earlier, she hung around outside the apartment, saw the postman coming and dashed in behind him. She went up the three flights of stairs, saw Robin's name on the door and turned the key. The apartment was perfect for her needs; it was as if nobody lived there bit wasn't quite un-lived in either. There were Persian rugs on the varnished floors, a kitchen with all the latest appliances, from a mixer to a juicer to an espresso machine. Various ornaments around the apartment that would have probably been bought from some expensive shop or other that gave the impression they had been purchased by the flat-owning well seasoned traveller, but wouldn't have been. She of course saw the flat with the jaundiced eye of the irritated ex, of someone who had never before entered the inner sanctum and once there finds nothing to see: a vacuum of a place reflecting a character she couldn't quite countenance, someone she had gone out with for several months and put it down to loneliness in a new town. She had with her a video camera and tripod and recorded for about twenty minutes before vacating the flat. I asked her if she had moved anything in the apartment. She had, but put everything back as she found it. I didn't say that Robin was even more particular than she realised.I asked her if it was only professional prgamatism that made her use his flat. She said that she had seen him canoodling not long before in a cafe.
I saw no reason to tell Michelle that Robin knew someone had been in his flat, but I did wonder if I had some obligation to tell him that Michelle had been there since it seemed unfair that he should blame Melinda for Michelle's 'wrongdoing'. Yet the next time I saw Robin at work he took me aside for a moment and said it seemed that Melinda couldn't have been in his apartment. She had handed the keys in to the office reception a couple of weeks earlier. It was only that morning the receptionist had mentioned they were there. He'd noticed that the chair and couch had been moved more recently than that. I suggested that he'd been imagining it, that his need to control his space was making him see things that weren't there. He seemed to concur, as if he would prefer to lose his mind than imagine another person in his space, though I suggested to him that to keep his sanity maybe he should be a little less precious over his personal territory. He said I might well be right.
A while afterwards I was round for dinner at Michelle's for the first time in her flat, one that looked very different indeed from how she described Robin's. Michelle had travelled, and from the rugs on the floor to the books on the shelves, from the candleholders on the dining table, to the crockery in the kitchen, I saw that she was an impulsive collector with a good eye not only for a bargain but also how that bargain would fit into her home. There she must have been in another part of the world and could imagine it already in her flat back in Bristol, London, and now in Edinburgh. I asked her if the flats were very different and she said not really. She had more space now and so would no doubt create more clutter, yet her self-deprecatory tone was unnecessary - the place wasn't cluttered at all but lived-in, the sort of space where anyone walking into it would recognise a personality even in her absence. I suspected Robin missed the space as well as her.
After dinner, where I told her she had acted unethically and she insisted that she had acted mischievously, we sat down to watch the full-length, three-minute video made fora bank and there was Robin's flat fitting perfectly into the corporate ethos. There was no possibility that Michelle could have used her own, and I thought a little about my own apartment too, how close it might seem to be to the corporate or its eschewal. As we both sat there, generating an intimacy we both probably knew should be best avoided, I suggested that maybe we could make some sort of film. It would be a film very far way from the work we both happened to do and far away from the sterility of Robin's flat. She proposed that I write a treatment, one that might attend to a few of the ethical nuances that she thought the corporate world had little time for, and we could see from there. I said perhaps, but she should take a look at that movie I'd mentioned a while back, that benign film about someone 'invading' another's apartment. She suggested we watch it together, as I asked whether we ought to do so in her flat or mine.
© Tony McKibbin