Loyalties

28/07/2012

1

Perhaps these thoughts have no place in a short story but, since they were notions helping me crystallize some thoughts around a recent situation, maybe it would be useful to say a few words about them first. In philosophy at least since the time of Leibniz, thinkers have generally distinguished between a priori reasoning and empirical thought, between statements that can categorically be made because they are self-contained, like in mathematics and pure logic, and others that are based on evidence, as in science. For a long time, in certain areas of philosophy, anything that fell outside these remits of thinking were seen as too woolly and metaphysical, but there was still the problem of ethics.  This is a story I think about the subtle interaction between the three elements: the a priori, the empirical and the ethical. But also, and most importantly, this story concerns a fallout between a casual friend and I that no amount of philosophising could quite clarify, and which forced upon me an awareness of my own suspect ethos.

Several years ago in the city in which I still live, in a cafe where I would regularly drink coffee, sometimes meet friends, and frequently read books, one of the friends I was sitting with asked if I noticed a woman probably a few years younger than either of us (we were in our early thirties), whom he thought was beautiful. I admitted I hadn’t noticed her, engaged in a long, convoluted point with one of the others at the round table the five of us were sitting on, but a couple of days later I saw her again when I was sitting at the same table, roughly at the same distance from her once more (about ten metres), and observed her attentively. She was very attractive but the word beautiful seemed to suit her less than exotic: she was olive skinned and had dark, brunette hair that in a certain light might pass for black, and eyes that were almond-shaped and probably a shade of green: a guess I was making based on the bottle green slip she was wearing that would have matched her skin but even more so matched her eyes if they were the colour I was assuming. The friend I suppose hadn’t observed her so much as judged her: decided she was a beautiful young woman worthy of a remark, and hadn’t said much more than that. This was Mark’s usual way of seeing women, and if he was attracted enough, or the situation offered the justifiable opportunity for an approach to be made, the remark would be father to an action. ‘I was just telling my friend how beautiful you happened to be’, he might say, or ‘I was looking at you from the other side of the room and I thought you were beautiful. Seeing you in close-up I was too hasty. Actually you are stunning.’ They were lines of course, but not as unsuccessful as they should have been, but since they were offered within the context of flirtatious possibility, it is as if he wanted to use language that wouldn’t expose him but create a situation: that his interest was not in a discussion but in a liaison.

I was never very good at separating the two, and usually hoped that any liaison with a woman would come out of the discussion; that we would seek what was original about both of us, rather than immediately fall into the ready discourse of seduction. Mark may have been someone who did his PhD on semiotics, on sign systems, but he practised it in the college in which he worked, and the way in which he lived, in what I would call a conservative manner. He didn’t teach his students to question the sign system; more to learn how to manipulate it: he taught in the marketing department. He sometime said that with women or with work it was the same thing: your purpose was to get what you wanted. He would look at me sometimes and shake his head as if talking to a recalcitrant child or an incorrigible romantic: I was somebody who would never learn he would insist, when I told him I had discussed, casually, with other designers a design project I was working on, or when I might tell him that I didn’t go to bed with someone because after the dinner date I reckoned we had nothing more to say.

2

Someone listening to such exchanges nevertheless might have found them ironic. Mark had never been in a relationship that had lasted more than several months, and each time the women had left him, they left because they were bored, irritated, frustrated. He never knew this but a couple of them had even talked to me about it in the very cafe where we saw the beautiful young woman. On both occasions they came over, asked if they could sit for a moment, and announced that they had liked Mark very much but couldn’t ever talk to him. They could talk to me, they said, and sat for twenty to thirty minutes doing exactly that, before noticing I had a book I clearly wanted to read and went back over to their own table. I don’t think I tried to extricate myself from them because of loyalty to Mark; more that they were women I was never attracted to initially. It was as if anyone who wanted to go to bed with Mark was the antithesis of a woman I would want to get very close to, and my loyalty as a friend need never be questioned. Yet over the twelve years I had known him I had been in three relationships, each lasting two to three years, and each ending, partly, because my girlfriend decided to live elsewhere: Virginie wanted to move back to France, Beatrice to work again in Africa, and Lillian moved to London after getting a job there.

I also suspected Mark hadn’t been with someone he could very much love because his approach to friendship was more nuanced, perhaps contained more loyalty also, than his approach to going out with someone. I suppose the reason the women got bored with Mark was because he was somehow bored with them also. He relied on energy and enthusiasm more than seeking understanding and comprehension, and once they had been seduced, with flattery, flowers, meals and travel trips, he ran out of things to say and do, and the realization that Mark was a random man and they for him a random woman, led to break-ups that were inevitable but apparently quite painless. If mine were painful for me, but also I think for Virginie, especially Beatrice, and also Lillian, then did this pain not lie in seeking meaningfully personal encounters initially, rather than like Mark playing well within the contours of social convention? And yet the ex most relevant here was Beatrice, as I’ll later explain, someone for whom the pain was more evident for her than for me, but who nevertheless I think recovered quite well from any distress I might have caused.

3

I saw the young woman Mark commented upon two or three times more in the cafe the next week, and on each occasion she was reading a book and taking notes in the margins with a pencil, and notes with a pen in a notebook. I never worked out what she was reading, and once a trip to the bathroom that I hoped would yield information was curiously unenlightening when just as I stood up, she popped her things into her bag and went to get herself another coffee.  When she returned, and after I was back in my seat, she was walking ahead of someone who happened to be carrying the tray and who was, I could see, her boyfriend.  I noticed, in the manner in which they talked to each other, in the subtlety of their gestures of affection, and in a moment where he took a book out of his bag and she flicked through it to find a reference she wanted to comment on, that it reminded me of my own relationships, and I didn’t doubt that here was a couple ‘made’ by the needs of the individual over the demands of the social. If they were to split-up, I found myself thinking, it would not be like Mark and his partners, but more like my own partings: complex, convoluted and probably painful. These thoughts didn’t so much pass through my mind as reverberate through my body as I returned to the book but couldn’t quite concentrate on the page.

4

It would have been a couple of years later when I met the boyfriend of this exotic woman through a close acquaintance of mine, Martha, who happened to be a good friend of his. They had known each other in Paris. He was in the department at the art college and this acquaintance was designing a poster for an upcoming art exhibition that he was curating. He focused mainly on painting, and the exhibition was on a local painter he wanted to promote whom he also happened to know. The artist worked in a realist mode and he thought the painter was one of the most interesting in Scotland whose work was being neglected because it wasn’t abstract enough. Martha, whom I’d met years earlier at a conference, told me this one afternoon after she had accepted the commission, and I said that he sounded interesting; it would be nice to meet him. I also had problems with much abstract art, but usually said nothing about it because I was ignorant of the area and felt anything I had to say would be based on populist prejudice rather than enlightened thought. But I was interested to hear what an educated angle might sound like. The sort of people who shared my perspective usually offered no more than a lazy opinion: people like Brian Sewell, Roger Scruton and Julian Spalding. There always seemed to be a newspaper column available for such opinion, but who was working with the problems of abstraction if it was a problem at all? I wondered if this friend of Martha’s was one of these people.

The three of us met in the cafe I would usually frequent, and where I had seen him a couple of years earlier. Jean-Paul was neither beautiful nor exotic, but when I first saw him with his partner in the cafe I remember thinking he looked like a figure as out of place as his partner in the city, but for different reasons. If she gave colour to the place, he seemed to give it immediate intellectual credence. He wore bold glasses with black frames, and had a head of thick black hair on top of a thin face and a slight body, a figure I felt I had seen in films, a shape that lent itself well to the comedian as intellectual. He was indeed, when the three of us talked, funny, but when at one moment he got up to order the coffees, I noticed the body moved with despondency, as if all the comic energy came out through verbal language, but could not quite convert itself into body language. My memory from before though was of someone who moved much more lightly and enthusiastically through space. At that moment it occurred to me he was no longer with his partner.

When he returned, Martha said that I had wanted to meet him, wanted to talk about some of the problems he had with conceptual art, since I as a designer had problems with it too. He started talking about something a writer he much admired had said. The writer was John Berger, whose work I also knew well, and he said Berger said somewhere that art must be a work of resistance, perhaps political, certainly formal. The artist must shape the work out of various forces that yield to his or her will – the work of art is a work of will. Much conceptual work Jean-Paul reckoned lacked this will to art, and suspected often because it also lacked a political will also. When he would often go into a gallery and see contemporary work, he felt the flaccidity of the artist’s will, or, at the other extreme, the labour of people other than the artist. This might take the form of someone working in the gallery for eight hours and standing around making sure no one touched an object that in other circumstances could be found in a dustbin. It could equally take the form of a large-scale object where it was obvious the artist worked with a team of assistants – all doing piece work for an autocratic mind. Jean-Paul said he didn’t at all want to be reactionary, believing that the conservatism was not his but the art establishment’s. He also said something about Tolstoy, who, in a book called What is Art?, which I’d never read, believed many of the problems of art stem from 18th century notions of beauty and sensuality, and the notion that it is either a disinterested form as it was for Kant, or a medium in which our senses are aroused (as it was for Baumgarten). As Jean-Paul talked, he did so with the intellectual acumen entirely in keeping with the assumptions I had made about his presence a couple of years earlier. I was indeed intellectually impressed.

5

Over the next few months Jean-Paul and I met up a few times, and on a couple of them we talked of other things, including a serious break-up he had the previous year. I didn’t tell him that I had seen him with his ex in the cafe, didn’t say I had seen her a couple of times on her own and wondered who she might be and what she might doing in the city. I found out during one of these conversations that she had come to the city for him; that he had secured a tenured position at the university in the French department, and she transferred her PhD on 18th century gardens in France and Britain to Edinburgh. They joked that her PhD was a little like being a bisexual: it gave her more options. It was maybe more than a metaphor: one of the things I remember thinking was that she looked fluidly sexual, someone whose charms weren’t contained by seducing the opposite sex, but her own also.  Once a waitress wiped the table as she sat down and I was sure the waitress blushed when she said something to her. Jean-Paul’s charisma I noticed seemed limited but deep; whenever he was in conversation with anyone, with me, with Marta, with a couple of colleagues I saw him talking to once when they were in the same cafe I happened to be in, I could see he was captivating through thought and speech. His ex, whose name was Melinda, captivated more casually, even indirectly: hadn’t I been a little seduced from a distance of about five tables away?

I asked him why they split up, and he said that she finished her PhD, didn’t believe the city could offer her the work or pleasure she sought, and said she would leave if a job became available. She applied to universities in France, Spain and Italy (she was fluent in all three languages and wanted to stay in Europe), and intended to do post-graduate work looking into the history of gardens in other European countries. At first he accepted the break-up: it felt mutual, pragmatic and necessary. But over the few weeks following her departure, the small flat they initially rented in the town centre off the Royal Mile seemed so full of her presence that he would constantly feel her absence. Yet over the next couple of months, the smell of her perfume on the cushions became indistinct, he stopped finding hairs on the couch or on the rugs, and at one moment when he came home he knew that all trace of her had gone. That evening his feeling of regret manifested itself in a panic attack, and though they agreed not to speak or contact each other for at least six months, he phoned her mobile and it rang a few times before going on to the answering machine. He didn’t leave a message, but phoned another couple of times later that evening. On both occasions the answering machine message came on straight away. Both times he declined to leave a response, and the next day felt calmer and more resolved: he would not try and call her again before the end of the six months.

However, that evening Melinda phoned and he answered. She told him that she thought it was best to be as direct as possible: she was seeing someone else. He said thank you and hung up. A few months later she phoned him again. He didn’t answer, and didn’t answer when her number came up every night over the next week. After that he received an email he deleted before reading it, and a few days later received another that he also deleted. During this period he would go out with a couple of friends, to pubs and sometimes to clubs, and find women who didn’t take much convincing to go back to his nearby flat. Twice he even picked girls up from taxi ranks: as if sleeping with him was slightly less dispiriting than waiting an hour in a taxi queue.

The contempt he must have felt for them was matched by the self-loathing as he talked, but he also acknowledged that while as a consequence he didn’t like himself any more, he felt it allowed him to love his ex a little less. Several months ago, believing he was strong enough to accept that the relationship was over, but that a friendship was not impossible, he e-mailed her saying that he was sorry he hadn’t replied to her calls or her emails; that it would have been painful to hear from her. He still loved Melinda but knew that he wanted to stay in Edinburgh. Unless by some very unlikely chance that she were to get a job here, then they could not be together again even if they wished to be. As Jean-Paul concluded, several things passed through my mind. One was that the more he spoke to me about Melinda, the more I felt I should have acknowledged that I had seen them together. Another was that he still wished to be with her, and he rationalised this romance as impossible so that he could once again function. Perhaps there would have been no need to concern myself too much with my own mild dishonesty as I withheld that I had seen them as a couple but for two things: one was that Jean-Paul hoped to have a friendship with Melinda and was thinking of inviting her over; the other was that I suspected Jean-Paul and I could become close friends

6

It was over this question of friendship that Jean-Paul and I had our first argument, and did so while out for a meal with Mark and Martha. It was an argument over what constitutes friendship, and whether friendships are based on some absolute notion or are more empirically based. He thought that obviously friendships are reliant on the evidential, but he also insisted that one of the principles of friendship for him was that you should never go out with a friend’s ex-girlfriend. I disagreed, and said surely it would depend on how the relationship ended, how much time had passed and so on. He said all this didn’t matter. What counted was that the two people were once friends and this loyalty was fundamental. As we disagreed without giving any examples, perhaps on Jean-Paul’s part because he didn’t want to get autobiographical in front of both a friend of mine and a friend of his, and I didn’t want to try and win an argument based on my own experiences, so it was that Mark and Martha gave examples instead.

Mark explained there was someone he knew who, not so long ago, was with a woman whom he believed he didn’t any longer love, but he curiously cared for, and no woman he had ever known drew more tenderness out of him. There were other women who could make his heart beat faster, arouse him easily, and whose minds fascinated him, but nobody quite like this woman whom he knew he could spend the rest of his life with, knew would be a great mother to his children, and someone that his parents both liked, even admired. She was a doctor who had travelled the world earning very little money helping people from distressed countries, and yet nothing in her body language, her conversation and her attitude, suggested the sanctimonious. She was not, Mark admitted, beautiful, but nobody he knew looked more attractive in repose. Often there were women who were stunning when they were active, but when their face was not in motion it too often took on a deflated, sunken demeanour. Her face though looked at peace as she would listen to people talk, would look at a horizon, or watch people at play. He always assumed she didn’t have a mean bone in her body because he never once saw a mean look on her face. But he could not at all feel the excitement for her that he had with others before, and knew also that he had to feel there would be others after her. Whenever she said that she knew she would like to have his children, would like to grow old with him, he could only say that they would have to wait and see. She never became angry or resentful with his non-commital replies, and he hoped that he would find within him the love that she had. But it never quite came as he thought it should, and he told her after a year and a half that he could not be with her anymore. She had been working in Edinburgh since meeting him, but managed not long after they parted to get a job abroad again, and, when she returned after six months, she gave him a call. By now he was already seeing someone else, and told her so when she asked. She apologised for disturbing him, and said she had better hang up.

Now this friend, Mark said, had a friend who always liked his ex, who was also like her a doctor. This doctor had also expressed interest in working abroad, and also, like her, for Medicines sans frontiere. The friend gave his friend his ex’s number, and hoped that a relationship might develop. This friend of the friend and his ex were now married, both working abroad and, from what he had heard, happy and clearly well-suited. Imagine, Mark said, if this friend had churlishly insisted that nobody he knew ought to go out with an ex of his, would he not have denied two people happiness?

7

Jean-Paul smiled a little sceptically and wondered if Mark had made the story up, saying he thought one of the best ways to win an argument was to give the impression that you were not arguing at all but merely stating a few facts, and an anecdote is often the best ‘fact’ of all. Martha, who knew that the story Mark had just told was based on my experience, since we had once talked about past break-ups in a moment that might have turned intimate but instead deepened our acquaintanceship, wondered however if Jean-Paul would be happy for her to come up with a counter example, equally pertinent. He said both would be argumentatively irrelevant but interesting nevertheless. His argument after all was based on a fundamental principle – evidence could not sway him.

Back when Martha was living in Paris, one of her closest friends was seeing a man and she wasn’t in love, but it wasn’t until she met a friend of his that this was made clear to her. As the three of them met in a cafe a few months after she first started seeing her boyfriend, so she knew that she found the friend much more attractive, interesting and even desirable. What she could have done was end the affair with her boyfriend, but she kept going out with him for a while longer, all the time getting closer to the friend.  After six months she announced that she didn’t want to see the boyfriend any longer, and within weeks started seeing the other man.

During the months that Martha’s friend was with her boyfriend, she would speak to Martha about her infatuation with this man, and Martha would say that she should break up with her partner. She agreed, but said that she didn’t want to hurt him, and enjoyed his company, liked that he treated her well and often treated her. She felt like a princess, but admitted she saw the friend as the prince.

During those last few months with her boyfriend Martha saw little of her, partly because she was busy preparing a show, visiting the three artists whose work she was drawing together, one from New York, another from Berlin and another from Istanbul. But it was also because she did not want to feel implicated in her friend’s behaviour, and did not want again to be in the company of her friend and the boyfriend her friend clearly didn’t love.

When she next saw the friend she was now seeing her prince, but she didn’t seem happy. Martha asked what was wrong, and she said while she was in love with her prince, she didn’t feel at all in love with herself. She had been told her ex was not well. It wasn’t only that he had lost a girlfriend but a friend also. He was clearly in pain over her absence, but exacerbating this was his feeling of betrayal. Martha’s friend wondered whether she could love this man she was now with, or would he eventually become someone she despised through her own developing self-hatred. As Martha said, concluding her anecdote and wondering if it would win her the argument: it is one thing to have a broken heart; another to have your world broken apart too. For what it is worth, she added, the prince and princess split up a couple of years later: she liked herself less and liked him less and less too because he didn’t seem to care enough that he had betrayed his friend. They had moved to another country hoping to escape from her feelings of guilt and his feelings of frustration – with what he saw as her overreaction. But despite the change of country it was as if she fell out of love not because she started to have feelings for her ex, but as if her ex’s obvious feelings for her, and obvious decency (he never once after they broke up got in touch to insult her, never once said anything negative about her to common friends) drained the love from her prince. Martha believed the prince did actually understand, did accept that he was guilty and that he shouldn’t have betrayed his friend, but his love for the princess was so strong that he thought it would have been a failure of feeling not to act upon it when it was clearly mutual. Yet, she added, the story did not have a happy ending. Should the principle of not going out with a friend’s ex have held?

8

Just as I knew Mark’s story was about my own past though he didn’t mention any names, so I wondered if Martha’s story was indeed a rather different version of Jean-Paul’s and his ex’s relationship than I had heard. When Mark detailed mine with Beatrice he did so knowing that while he had never had a potentially painful love affair, he knew that an ex of mine had and nevertheless recovered well from it. After Mark had finished telling his story I had given him a complicit look and searched on Martha or Jean-Paul’s faces for a similar one after she had finished hers, but could see nothing that indicated Martha had defended Jean-Paul’s perspective with an anecdote about his life as Mark had defended me with an anecdote about mine.

Each story had been told over dessert, and as we ordered coffee Jean-Paul said that he felt maybe we need to live by certain principles rather than wait for life to teach us what we already ought to have known. It was at that moment I asked if we were not confusing absolute reasoning with empirical reasoning, and he said that might be so if we wanted to be pedantic about it, but surely many people don’t easily recover from experiences that a firmer moral principle would have allowed them to avoid. Was he now hinting that Martha’s story was about him?

9

Jean-Paul and I would still meet up, still talk about literature, philosophy, art and other subjects, but we didn’t again speak of anything personal. I still hadn’t mentioned that I remembered his ex from a couple of years earlier, and he didn’t say that the story Martha told was actually about him and Melinda. It was as if the friendship Jean-Paul sought based on principles rather than experiences meant that any attempt at closeness concerning our own lives was curtailed. Sometimes we would talk of an artist in a manner that might have benefited from commenting on our own life experiences, but neither of us did so. During this period I had one brief affair, and Martha had told me that Jean-Paul had a few one night stands, but we never talked about these things. However, about six months after the discussion in the restaurant, Jean-Paul said, when once again Martha and Mark, Jean-Paul and I were in another restaurant, his ex was going to visit him over the festive period. He looked pointedly at me and asked if I would like to meet her. I looked back and said a little facetiously that I would need to think about it.

I offered the comment humorously but I really did want to think about it, because I believed that I could not meet his ex without first of all telling him that I recalled her from the past – not least because she might realize she recognized me. But it was I think more that whatever my own ethical system, it seemed to accept that pretending not to know someone contained within it a needless deceit. Why hadn’t I said on one of those first few occasions when Jean-Paul and I met that I remembered him, and was Jean-Paul’s instinct correct in assuming a potential duplicity on my part, but that he had simply got his tenses wrong: the deceit had taken place in the past, however minor, rather than in the future, where it would have been of far greater magnitude?

1 0

I didn’t see very much more of Jean-Paul that summer. He went away to France for a few weeks, and by the time he returned I had left for a working holiday in Barcelona. I saw very little of Mark and Martha either. They were now going out together, and this was the first time Mark had developed a relationship with someone who was initially a friend. On the couple of occasions we arranged to meet up, he cancelled and suggested another meeting, and cancelled again, and then I was away.  When I got back Mark was in touch and said that he was free that weekend if I was available. We met in the cafe where we first saw Melinda, and he said he was sorry that he cancelled twice before I went away, and said that he did so because he didn’t want to meet up without being able to disclose if Martha was talking about Jean-Paul if I’d have asked. Martha said that there was no reason to tell me; yet he insisted to her that the type of friendship that we had over the years meant we didn’t keep secrets from each other. It caused mild tension between the two of them, he admitted, but since he had told her the story he related was about me, he should be able to tell me that the story she related was about Jean-Paul.

I asked him whether Melinda visited, and whether he had met her – yes, they had, he said. What was interesting, though, was where before when he had seen her that day with me he saw a beautiful seductress, this time he saw someone who was self-loathingly seductive, capable of charming anyone with whom she came into contact, but doing so as if contemptible of both herself and others during the process. That Jean-Paul still loved her made him equally worthy of her contempt, and watching him fuss around her was like witnessing a servant pretending that he knew none of the master’s secrets, but the master knowing that the servant did. It was a very precise image Mark provided, and I had to admit that for all Mark’s formulaic advances on women in the past, that never stopped him from possessing the capacity to see a situation clearly. Also, the development of his relationship with Martha seemed to have nothing to do with his usual advancements: this was someone he seemed to have developed a love for, rather than someone for whom he felt an instant physical attraction. I had always known he was capable of great empathy (it was there in the story he told about Beatrice), but was this the first time that he had met a woman he could love?

I asked him whether despite Melinda’s self-loathing, Jean-Paul was happy around her, and he said he was excited rather than happy. It was as if he weren’t quite himself, like a master who had in this situation become a servant. I recalled the first time I had met Jean-Paul, recognized quickly that I was in the company of a fine and subtle thinker, and the term master seemed appropriate. It was as if for all the love they had for each other, Jean-Paul and Melinda had become a servant in the former instance and a contemptible master in the latter. Maybe Jean-Paul had good reason to believe in the importance of the a priori since the empirical had done little for love and much to damage his ego and ethical well-being.

11

As Mark and I talked that afternoon, so I felt the depth and texture of our friendship: the sense that if Mark had asked the question Jean-Paul offered I would not have answered in quite the same way: that really I answered as I had less because I was attracted to Melinda, than that I did not yet know what exactly the friendship with Jean-Paul happened to be. I found him interesting, engaging and someone I was very glad to have met in a city that is not always as intellectually inclined as it could be, but he was somehow not yet quite more than a good acquaintance. I sometimes now wonder whether he asked less because he was worried whether I might try and seduce his ex-girlfriend given the chance, than because he wanted to know if I liked and respected him as a friend. If Martha’s story showed that Jean-Paul’s friend had lost both his girlfriend and a friend, what had Jean-Paul lost? He was no longer with Melinda, who seemed to treat him with the loathing she felt also towards herself, and his capacity for friendship perhaps so fragile that he sought some underpinning principle in which to try to salvage a notion of it.

As Mark left the cafe to meet Martha, and I sat trying to concentrate on a book on an architect from Sri Lanka who insisted on being involved in the architectural process from initiation to final handover, so I thought instead about my own relationships with Virginie, Beatrice and Lillian. Mark’s description of my time with Beatrice was accurate, I believed, and the break-up as he described it, but what he never knew was that throughout the time I was with Beatrice I was still in contact with Virginie, and I knew that I was attracted to Lillian. When Virginie and I split up about eight years ago, we did so because, like Melinda years later, she wanted to return to France. Yet we decided to stay in contact, and agreed that this contact would be a secret. We haven’t met since that day, but over the years there have been many emails, a few texts, the occasional postcard and card. Beatrice never knew of this contact, just as she didn’t know that weeks before we met I was at a lecture given by a well-known British architect that Lillian attended also: it was her profession. We talked, went for a drink afterwards, and though I expressed interest, she said she was in a relationship, and I half-laughed and asked her to tell me when she got out of it. Despite my remark, we didn’t exchange phone numbers or emails.

She did however break it off with her boyfriend a month or so before I split up with Beatrice. I saw her at another talk given by another well-known British architect, and again we talked, went for a drink and she said this time that she was now single. I half laughed again, and said that unfortunately I wasn’t. She gave me her number anyway, and I waited until after I parted from Beatrice before I sent her an email, and we started an affair that remained unannounced to anyone for about eight weeks. Her ex was in a mess over the split; Beatrice, I said, likewise.

When Mark told Martha, Jean-Paul and I the anecdote as an example of how apparently troublesome situations can resolve themselves, I felt uneasy because Mark was arguing from a position of only partial knowledge. But my unease grew that afternoon in the cafe after he left and I tried to concentrate on the book. It grew because there were details behind the story he told to which he was never privy, about Lillian and myself, so the story he told Jean-Paul seemed cleaner and neater than the full tale. I felt more than vaguely deceitful, especially when thinking of how uncomfortable he felt not being able to tell me about Jean-Paul and Melinda. I was touched very deeply by this, knowing that there were secrets that I had withheld from Mark over the years, and none more so than my continued contact with Virginie, and the details behind my break-up with Beatrice. During this moment I think I understood Jean-Paul’s need for some a priori reasoning, some absolute value that would go beyond the empirical details of our lives and the ethical mess we  get ourselves into. Equally, I thought of Mark, and wondered whether Martha would get bored or take for granted such directness of character. I hoped not.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Loyalties

1

Perhaps these thoughts have no place in a short story but, since they were notions helping me crystallize some thoughts around a recent situation, maybe it would be useful to say a few words about them first. In philosophy at least since the time of Leibniz, thinkers have generally distinguished between a priori reasoning and empirical thought, between statements that can categorically be made because they are self-contained, like in mathematics and pure logic, and others that are based on evidence, as in science. For a long time, in certain areas of philosophy, anything that fell outside these remits of thinking were seen as too woolly and metaphysical, but there was still the problem of ethics. This is a story I think about the subtle interaction between the three elements: the a priori, the empirical and the ethical. But also, and most importantly, this story concerns a fallout between a casual friend and I that no amount of philosophising could quite clarify, and which forced upon me an awareness of my own suspect ethos.

Several years ago in the city in which I still live, in a cafe where I would regularly drink coffee, sometimes meet friends, and frequently read books, one of the friends I was sitting with asked if I noticed a woman probably a few years younger than either of us (we were in our early thirties), whom he thought was beautiful. I admitted I hadn't noticed her, engaged in a long, convoluted point with one of the others at the round table the five of us were sitting on, but a couple of days later I saw her again when I was sitting at the same table, roughly at the same distance from her once more (about ten metres), and observed her attentively. She was very attractive but the word beautiful seemed to suit her less than exotic: she was olive skinned and had dark, brunette hair that in a certain light might pass for black, and eyes that were almond-shaped and probably a shade of green: a guess I was making based on the bottle green slip she was wearing that would have matched her skin but even more so matched her eyes if they were the colour I was assuming. The friend I suppose hadn't observed her so much as judged her: decided she was a beautiful young woman worthy of a remark, and hadn't said much more than that. This was Mark's usual way of seeing women, and if he was attracted enough, or the situation offered the justifiable opportunity for an approach to be made, the remark would be father to an action. 'I was just telling my friend how beautiful you happened to be', he might say, or 'I was looking at you from the other side of the room and I thought you were beautiful. Seeing you in close-up I was too hasty. Actually you are stunning.' They were lines of course, but not as unsuccessful as they should have been, but since they were offered within the context of flirtatious possibility, it is as if he wanted to use language that wouldn't expose him but create a situation: that his interest was not in a discussion but in a liaison.

I was never very good at separating the two, and usually hoped that any liaison with a woman would come out of the discussion; that we would seek what was original about both of us, rather than immediately fall into the ready discourse of seduction. Mark may have been someone who did his PhD on semiotics, on sign systems, but he practised it in the college in which he worked, and the way in which he lived, in what I would call a conservative manner. He didn't teach his students to question the sign system; more to learn how to manipulate it: he taught in the marketing department. He sometime said that with women or with work it was the same thing: your purpose was to get what you wanted. He would look at me sometimes and shake his head as if talking to a recalcitrant child or an incorrigible romantic: I was somebody who would never learn he would insist, when I told him I had discussed, casually, with other designers a design project I was working on, or when I might tell him that I didn't go to bed with someone because after the dinner date I reckoned we had nothing more to say.

2

Someone listening to such exchanges nevertheless might have found them ironic. Mark had never been in a relationship that had lasted more than several months, and each time the women had left him, they left because they were bored, irritated, frustrated. He never knew this but a couple of them had even talked to me about it in the very cafe where we saw the beautiful young woman. On both occasions they came over, asked if they could sit for a moment, and announced that they had liked Mark very much but couldn't ever talk to him. They could talk to me, they said, and sat for twenty to thirty minutes doing exactly that, before noticing I had a book I clearly wanted to read and went back over to their own table. I don't think I tried to extricate myself from them because of loyalty to Mark; more that they were women I was never attracted to initially. It was as if anyone who wanted to go to bed with Mark was the antithesis of a woman I would want to get very close to, and my loyalty as a friend need never be questioned. Yet over the twelve years I had known him I had been in three relationships, each lasting two to three years, and each ending, partly, because my girlfriend decided to live elsewhere: Virginie wanted to move back to France, Beatrice to work again in Africa, and Lillian moved to London after getting a job there.

I also suspected Mark hadn't been with someone he could very much love because his approach to friendship was more nuanced, perhaps contained more loyalty also, than his approach to going out with someone. I suppose the reason the women got bored with Mark was because he was somehow bored with them also. He relied on energy and enthusiasm more than seeking understanding and comprehension, and once they had been seduced, with flattery, flowers, meals and travel trips, he ran out of things to say and do, and the realization that Mark was a random man and they for him a random woman, led to break-ups that were inevitable but apparently quite painless. If mine were painful for me, but also I think for Virginie, especially Beatrice, and also Lillian, then did this pain not lie in seeking meaningfully personal encounters initially, rather than like Mark playing well within the contours of social convention? And yet the ex most relevant here was Beatrice, as I'll later explain, someone for whom the pain was more evident for her than for me, but who nevertheless I think recovered quite well from any distress I might have caused.

3

I saw the young woman Mark commented upon two or three times more in the cafe the next week, and on each occasion she was reading a book and taking notes in the margins with a pencil, and notes with a pen in a notebook. I never worked out what she was reading, and once a trip to the bathroom that I hoped would yield information was curiously unenlightening when just as I stood up, she popped her things into her bag and went to get herself another coffee. When she returned, and after I was back in my seat, she was walking ahead of someone who happened to be carrying the tray and who was, I could see, her boyfriend. I noticed, in the manner in which they talked to each other, in the subtlety of their gestures of affection, and in a moment where he took a book out of his bag and she flicked through it to find a reference she wanted to comment on, that it reminded me of my own relationships, and I didn't doubt that here was a couple 'made' by the needs of the individual over the demands of the social. If they were to split-up, I found myself thinking, it would not be like Mark and his partners, but more like my own partings: complex, convoluted and probably painful. These thoughts didn't so much pass through my mind as reverberate through my body as I returned to the book but couldn't quite concentrate on the page.

4

It would have been a couple of years later when I met the boyfriend of this exotic woman through a close acquaintance of mine, Martha, who happened to be a good friend of his. They had known each other in Paris. He was in the department at the art college and this acquaintance was designing a poster for an upcoming art exhibition that he was curating. He focused mainly on painting, and the exhibition was on a local painter he wanted to promote whom he also happened to know. The artist worked in a realist mode and he thought the painter was one of the most interesting in Scotland whose work was being neglected because it wasn't abstract enough. Martha, whom I'd met years earlier at a conference, told me this one afternoon after she had accepted the commission, and I said that he sounded interesting; it would be nice to meet him. I also had problems with much abstract art, but usually said nothing about it because I was ignorant of the area and felt anything I had to say would be based on populist prejudice rather than enlightened thought. But I was interested to hear what an educated angle might sound like. The sort of people who shared my perspective usually offered no more than a lazy opinion: people like Brian Sewell, Roger Scruton and Julian Spalding. There always seemed to be a newspaper column available for such opinion, but who was working with the problems of abstraction if it was a problem at all? I wondered if this friend of Martha's was one of these people.

The three of us met in the cafe I would usually frequent, and where I had seen him a couple of years earlier. Jean-Paul was neither beautiful nor exotic, but when I first saw him with his partner in the cafe I remember thinking he looked like a figure as out of place as his partner in the city, but for different reasons. If she gave colour to the place, he seemed to give it immediate intellectual credence. He wore bold glasses with black frames, and had a head of thick black hair on top of a thin face and a slight body, a figure I felt I had seen in films, a shape that lent itself well to the comedian as intellectual. He was indeed, when the three of us talked, funny, but when at one moment he got up to order the coffees, I noticed the body moved with despondency, as if all the comic energy came out through verbal language, but could not quite convert itself into body language. My memory from before though was of someone who moved much more lightly and enthusiastically through space. At that moment it occurred to me he was no longer with his partner.

When he returned, Martha said that I had wanted to meet him, wanted to talk about some of the problems he had with conceptual art, since I as a designer had problems with it too. He started talking about something a writer he much admired had said. The writer was John Berger, whose work I also knew well, and he said Berger said somewhere that art must be a work of resistance, perhaps political, certainly formal. The artist must shape the work out of various forces that yield to his or her will - the work of art is a work of will. Much conceptual work Jean-Paul reckoned lacked this will to art, and suspected often because it also lacked a political will also. When he would often go into a gallery and see contemporary work, he felt the flaccidity of the artist's will, or, at the other extreme, the labour of people other than the artist. This might take the form of someone working in the gallery for eight hours and standing around making sure no one touched an object that in other circumstances could be found in a dustbin. It could equally take the form of a large-scale object where it was obvious the artist worked with a team of assistants - all doing piece work for an autocratic mind. Jean-Paul said he didn't at all want to be reactionary, believing that the conservatism was not his but the art establishment's. He also said something about Tolstoy, who, in a book called What is Art?, which I'd never read, believed many of the problems of art stem from 18th century notions of beauty and sensuality, and the notion that it is either a disinterested form as it was for Kant, or a medium in which our senses are aroused (as it was for Baumgarten). As Jean-Paul talked, he did so with the intellectual acumen entirely in keeping with the assumptions I had made about his presence a couple of years earlier. I was indeed intellectually impressed.

5

Over the next few months Jean-Paul and I met up a few times, and on a couple of them we talked of other things, including a serious break-up he had the previous year. I didn't tell him that I had seen him with his ex in the cafe, didn't say I had seen her a couple of times on her own and wondered who she might be and what she might doing in the city. I found out during one of these conversations that she had come to the city for him; that he had secured a tenured position at the university in the French department, and she transferred her PhD on 18th century gardens in France and Britain to Edinburgh. They joked that her PhD was a little like being a bisexual: it gave her more options. It was maybe more than a metaphor: one of the things I remember thinking was that she looked fluidly sexual, someone whose charms weren't contained by seducing the opposite sex, but her own also. Once a waitress wiped the table as she sat down and I was sure the waitress blushed when she said something to her. Jean-Paul's charisma I noticed seemed limited but deep; whenever he was in conversation with anyone, with me, with Marta, with a couple of colleagues I saw him talking to once when they were in the same cafe I happened to be in, I could see he was captivating through thought and speech. His ex, whose name was Melinda, captivated more casually, even indirectly: hadn't I been a little seduced from a distance of about five tables away?

I asked him why they split up, and he said that she finished her PhD, didn't believe the city could offer her the work or pleasure she sought, and said she would leave if a job became available. She applied to universities in France, Spain and Italy (she was fluent in all three languages and wanted to stay in Europe), and intended to do post-graduate work looking into the history of gardens in other European countries. At first he accepted the break-up: it felt mutual, pragmatic and necessary. But over the few weeks following her departure, the small flat they initially rented in the town centre off the Royal Mile seemed so full of her presence that he would constantly feel her absence. Yet over the next couple of months, the smell of her perfume on the cushions became indistinct, he stopped finding hairs on the couch or on the rugs, and at one moment when he came home he knew that all trace of her had gone. That evening his feeling of regret manifested itself in a panic attack, and though they agreed not to speak or contact each other for at least six months, he phoned her mobile and it rang a few times before going on to the answering machine. He didn't leave a message, but phoned another couple of times later that evening. On both occasions the answering machine message came on straight away. Both times he declined to leave a response, and the next day felt calmer and more resolved: he would not try and call her again before the end of the six months.

However, that evening Melinda phoned and he answered. She told him that she thought it was best to be as direct as possible: she was seeing someone else. He said thank you and hung up. A few months later she phoned him again. He didn't answer, and didn't answer when her number came up every night over the next week. After that he received an email he deleted before reading it, and a few days later received another that he also deleted. During this period he would go out with a couple of friends, to pubs and sometimes to clubs, and find women who didn't take much convincing to go back to his nearby flat. Twice he even picked girls up from taxi ranks: as if sleeping with him was slightly less dispiriting than waiting an hour in a taxi queue.

The contempt he must have felt for them was matched by the self-loathing as he talked, but he also acknowledged that while as a consequence he didn't like himself any more, he felt it allowed him to love his ex a little less. Several months ago, believing he was strong enough to accept that the relationship was over, but that a friendship was not impossible, he e-mailed her saying that he was sorry he hadn't replied to her calls or her emails; that it would have been painful to hear from her. He still loved Melinda but knew that he wanted to stay in Edinburgh. Unless by some very unlikely chance that she were to get a job here, then they could not be together again even if they wished to be. As Jean-Paul concluded, several things passed through my mind. One was that the more he spoke to me about Melinda, the more I felt I should have acknowledged that I had seen them together. Another was that he still wished to be with her, and he rationalised this romance as impossible so that he could once again function. Perhaps there would have been no need to concern myself too much with my own mild dishonesty as I withheld that I had seen them as a couple but for two things: one was that Jean-Paul hoped to have a friendship with Melinda and was thinking of inviting her over; the other was that I suspected Jean-Paul and I could become close friends

6

It was over this question of friendship that Jean-Paul and I had our first argument, and did so while out for a meal with Mark and Martha. It was an argument over what constitutes friendship, and whether friendships are based on some absolute notion or are more empirically based. He thought that obviously friendships are reliant on the evidential, but he also insisted that one of the principles of friendship for him was that you should never go out with a friend's ex-girlfriend. I disagreed, and said surely it would depend on how the relationship ended, how much time had passed and so on. He said all this didn't matter. What counted was that the two people were once friends and this loyalty was fundamental. As we disagreed without giving any examples, perhaps on Jean-Paul's part because he didn't want to get autobiographical in front of both a friend of mine and a friend of his, and I didn't want to try and win an argument based on my own experiences, so it was that Mark and Martha gave examples instead.

Mark explained there was someone he knew who, not so long ago, was with a woman whom he believed he didn't any longer love, but he curiously cared for, and no woman he had ever known drew more tenderness out of him. There were other women who could make his heart beat faster, arouse him easily, and whose minds fascinated him, but nobody quite like this woman whom he knew he could spend the rest of his life with, knew would be a great mother to his children, and someone that his parents both liked, even admired. She was a doctor who had travelled the world earning very little money helping people from distressed countries, and yet nothing in her body language, her conversation and her attitude, suggested the sanctimonious. She was not, Mark admitted, beautiful, but nobody he knew looked more attractive in repose. Often there were women who were stunning when they were active, but when their face was not in motion it too often took on a deflated, sunken demeanour. Her face though looked at peace as she would listen to people talk, would look at a horizon, or watch people at play. He always assumed she didn't have a mean bone in her body because he never once saw a mean look on her face. But he could not at all feel the excitement for her that he had with others before, and knew also that he had to feel there would be others after her. Whenever she said that she knew she would like to have his children, would like to grow old with him, he could only say that they would have to wait and see. She never became angry or resentful with his non-commital replies, and he hoped that he would find within him the love that she had. But it never quite came as he thought it should, and he told her after a year and a half that he could not be with her anymore. She had been working in Edinburgh since meeting him, but managed not long after they parted to get a job abroad again, and, when she returned after six months, she gave him a call. By now he was already seeing someone else, and told her so when she asked. She apologised for disturbing him, and said she had better hang up.

Now this friend, Mark said, had a friend who always liked his ex, who was also like her a doctor. This doctor had also expressed interest in working abroad, and also, like her, for Medicines sans frontiere. The friend gave his friend his ex's number, and hoped that a relationship might develop. This friend of the friend and his ex were now married, both working abroad and, from what he had heard, happy and clearly well-suited. Imagine, Mark said, if this friend had churlishly insisted that nobody he knew ought to go out with an ex of his, would he not have denied two people happiness?

7

Jean-Paul smiled a little sceptically and wondered if Mark had made the story up, saying he thought one of the best ways to win an argument was to give the impression that you were not arguing at all but merely stating a few facts, and an anecdote is often the best 'fact' of all. Martha, who knew that the story Mark had just told was based on my experience, since we had once talked about past break-ups in a moment that might have turned intimate but instead deepened our acquaintanceship, wondered however if Jean-Paul would be happy for her to come up with a counter example, equally pertinent. He said both would be argumentatively irrelevant but interesting nevertheless. His argument after all was based on a fundamental principle - evidence could not sway him.

Back when Martha was living in Paris, one of her closest friends was seeing a man and she wasn't in love, but it wasn't until she met a friend of his that this was made clear to her. As the three of them met in a cafe a few months after she first started seeing her boyfriend, so she knew that she found the friend much more attractive, interesting and even desirable. What she could have done was end the affair with her boyfriend, but she kept going out with him for a while longer, all the time getting closer to the friend. After six months she announced that she didn't want to see the boyfriend any longer, and within weeks started seeing the other man.

During the months that Martha's friend was with her boyfriend, she would speak to Martha about her infatuation with this man, and Martha would say that she should break up with her partner. She agreed, but said that she didn't want to hurt him, and enjoyed his company, liked that he treated her well and often treated her. She felt like a princess, but admitted she saw the friend as the prince.

During those last few months with her boyfriend Martha saw little of her, partly because she was busy preparing a show, visiting the three artists whose work she was drawing together, one from New York, another from Berlin and another from Istanbul. But it was also because she did not want to feel implicated in her friend's behaviour, and did not want again to be in the company of her friend and the boyfriend her friend clearly didn't love.

When she next saw the friend she was now seeing her prince, but she didn't seem happy. Martha asked what was wrong, and she said while she was in love with her prince, she didn't feel at all in love with herself. She had been told her ex was not well. It wasn't only that he had lost a girlfriend but a friend also. He was clearly in pain over her absence, but exacerbating this was his feeling of betrayal. Martha's friend wondered whether she could love this man she was now with, or would he eventually become someone she despised through her own developing self-hatred. As Martha said, concluding her anecdote and wondering if it would win her the argument: it is one thing to have a broken heart; another to have your world broken apart too. For what it is worth, she added, the prince and princess split up a couple of years later: she liked herself less and liked him less and less too because he didn't seem to care enough that he had betrayed his friend. They had moved to another country hoping to escape from her feelings of guilt and his feelings of frustration - with what he saw as her overreaction. But despite the change of country it was as if she fell out of love not because she started to have feelings for her ex, but as if her ex's obvious feelings for her, and obvious decency (he never once after they broke up got in touch to insult her, never once said anything negative about her to common friends) drained the love from her prince. Martha believed the prince did actually understand, did accept that he was guilty and that he shouldn't have betrayed his friend, but his love for the princess was so strong that he thought it would have been a failure of feeling not to act upon it when it was clearly mutual. Yet, she added, the story did not have a happy ending. Should the principle of not going out with a friend's ex have held?

8

Just as I knew Mark's story was about my own past though he didn't mention any names, so I wondered if Martha's story was indeed a rather different version of Jean-Paul's and his ex's relationship than I had heard. When Mark detailed mine with Beatrice he did so knowing that while he had never had a potentially painful love affair, he knew that an ex of mine had and nevertheless recovered well from it. After Mark had finished telling his story I had given him a complicit look and searched on Martha or Jean-Paul's faces for a similar one after she had finished hers, but could see nothing that indicated Martha had defended Jean-Paul's perspective with an anecdote about his life as Mark had defended me with an anecdote about mine.

Each story had been told over dessert, and as we ordered coffee Jean-Paul said that he felt maybe we need to live by certain principles rather than wait for life to teach us what we already ought to have known. It was at that moment I asked if we were not confusing absolute reasoning with empirical reasoning, and he said that might be so if we wanted to be pedantic about it, but surely many people don't easily recover from experiences that a firmer moral principle would have allowed them to avoid. Was he now hinting that Martha's story was about him?

9

Jean-Paul and I would still meet up, still talk about literature, philosophy, art and other subjects, but we didn't again speak of anything personal. I still hadn't mentioned that I remembered his ex from a couple of years earlier, and he didn't say that the story Martha told was actually about him and Melinda. It was as if the friendship Jean-Paul sought based on principles rather than experiences meant that any attempt at closeness concerning our own lives was curtailed. Sometimes we would talk of an artist in a manner that might have benefited from commenting on our own life experiences, but neither of us did so. During this period I had one brief affair, and Martha had told me that Jean-Paul had a few one night stands, but we never talked about these things. However, about six months after the discussion in the restaurant, Jean-Paul said, when once again Martha and Mark, Jean-Paul and I were in another restaurant, his ex was going to visit him over the festive period. He looked pointedly at me and asked if I would like to meet her. I looked back and said a little facetiously that I would need to think about it.

I offered the comment humorously but I really did want to think about it, because I believed that I could not meet his ex without first of all telling him that I recalled her from the past - not least because she might realize she recognized me. But it was I think more that whatever my own ethical system, it seemed to accept that pretending not to know someone contained within it a needless deceit. Why hadn't I said on one of those first few occasions when Jean-Paul and I met that I remembered him, and was Jean-Paul's instinct correct in assuming a potential duplicity on my part, but that he had simply got his tenses wrong: the deceit had taken place in the past, however minor, rather than in the future, where it would have been of far greater magnitude?

1 0

I didn't see very much more of Jean-Paul that summer. He went away to France for a few weeks, and by the time he returned I had left for a working holiday in Barcelona. I saw very little of Mark and Martha either. They were now going out together, and this was the first time Mark had developed a relationship with someone who was initially a friend. On the couple of occasions we arranged to meet up, he cancelled and suggested another meeting, and cancelled again, and then I was away. When I got back Mark was in touch and said that he was free that weekend if I was available. We met in the cafe where we first saw Melinda, and he said he was sorry that he cancelled twice before I went away, and said that he did so because he didn't want to meet up without being able to disclose if Martha was talking about Jean-Paul if I'd have asked. Martha said that there was no reason to tell me; yet he insisted to her that the type of friendship that we had over the years meant we didn't keep secrets from each other. It caused mild tension between the two of them, he admitted, but since he had told her the story he related was about me, he should be able to tell me that the story she related was about Jean-Paul.

I asked him whether Melinda visited, and whether he had met her - yes, they had, he said. What was interesting, though, was where before when he had seen her that day with me he saw a beautiful seductress, this time he saw someone who was self-loathingly seductive, capable of charming anyone with whom she came into contact, but doing so as if contemptible of both herself and others during the process. That Jean-Paul still loved her made him equally worthy of her contempt, and watching him fuss around her was like witnessing a servant pretending that he knew none of the master's secrets, but the master knowing that the servant did. It was a very precise image Mark provided, and I had to admit that for all Mark's formulaic advances on women in the past, that never stopped him from possessing the capacity to see a situation clearly. Also, the development of his relationship with Martha seemed to have nothing to do with his usual advancements: this was someone he seemed to have developed a love for, rather than someone for whom he felt an instant physical attraction. I had always known he was capable of great empathy (it was there in the story he told about Beatrice), but was this the first time that he had met a woman he could love?

I asked him whether despite Melinda's self-loathing, Jean-Paul was happy around her, and he said he was excited rather than happy. It was as if he weren't quite himself, like a master who had in this situation become a servant. I recalled the first time I had met Jean-Paul, recognized quickly that I was in the company of a fine and subtle thinker, and the term master seemed appropriate. It was as if for all the love they had for each other, Jean-Paul and Melinda had become a servant in the former instance and a contemptible master in the latter. Maybe Jean-Paul had good reason to believe in the importance of the a priori since the empirical had done little for love and much to damage his ego and ethical well-being.

11

As Mark and I talked that afternoon, so I felt the depth and texture of our friendship: the sense that if Mark had asked the question Jean-Paul offered I would not have answered in quite the same way: that really I answered as I had less because I was attracted to Melinda, than that I did not yet know what exactly the friendship with Jean-Paul happened to be. I found him interesting, engaging and someone I was very glad to have met in a city that is not always as intellectually inclined as it could be, but he was somehow not yet quite more than a good acquaintance. I sometimes now wonder whether he asked less because he was worried whether I might try and seduce his ex-girlfriend given the chance, than because he wanted to know if I liked and respected him as a friend. If Martha's story showed that Jean-Paul's friend had lost both his girlfriend and a friend, what had Jean-Paul lost? He was no longer with Melinda, who seemed to treat him with the loathing she felt also towards herself, and his capacity for friendship perhaps so fragile that he sought some underpinning principle in which to try to salvage a notion of it.

As Mark left the cafe to meet Martha, and I sat trying to concentrate on a book on an architect from Sri Lanka who insisted on being involved in the architectural process from initiation to final handover, so I thought instead about my own relationships with Virginie, Beatrice and Lillian. Mark's description of my time with Beatrice was accurate, I believed, and the break-up as he described it, but what he never knew was that throughout the time I was with Beatrice I was still in contact with Virginie, and I knew that I was attracted to Lillian. When Virginie and I split up about eight years ago, we did so because, like Melinda years later, she wanted to return to France. Yet we decided to stay in contact, and agreed that this contact would be a secret. We haven't met since that day, but over the years there have been many emails, a few texts, the occasional postcard and card. Beatrice never knew of this contact, just as she didn't know that weeks before we met I was at a lecture given by a well-known British architect that Lillian attended also: it was her profession. We talked, went for a drink afterwards, and though I expressed interest, she said she was in a relationship, and I half-laughed and asked her to tell me when she got out of it. Despite my remark, we didn't exchange phone numbers or emails.

She did however break it off with her boyfriend a month or so before I split up with Beatrice. I saw her at another talk given by another well-known British architect, and again we talked, went for a drink and she said this time that she was now single. I half laughed again, and said that unfortunately I wasn't. She gave me her number anyway, and I waited until after I parted from Beatrice before I sent her an email, and we started an affair that remained unannounced to anyone for about eight weeks. Her ex was in a mess over the split; Beatrice, I said, likewise.

When Mark told Martha, Jean-Paul and I the anecdote as an example of how apparently troublesome situations can resolve themselves, I felt uneasy because Mark was arguing from a position of only partial knowledge. But my unease grew that afternoon in the cafe after he left and I tried to concentrate on the book. It grew because there were details behind the story he told to which he was never privy, about Lillian and myself, so the story he told Jean-Paul seemed cleaner and neater than the full tale. I felt more than vaguely deceitful, especially when thinking of how uncomfortable he felt not being able to tell me about Jean-Paul and Melinda. I was touched very deeply by this, knowing that there were secrets that I had withheld from Mark over the years, and none more so than my continued contact with Virginie, and the details behind my break-up with Beatrice. During this moment I think I understood Jean-Paul's need for some a priori reasoning, some absolute value that would go beyond the empirical details of our lives and the ethical mess we get ourselves into. Equally, I thought of Mark, and wondered whether Martha would get bored or take for granted such directness of character. I hoped not.


© Tony McKibbin