Mira

04/05/2015

1

In the three years we were together, most of the arguments we had were over my previous relationships. There were two ex-girlfriends she couldn’t quite accept were lovers from the past and not women I was still sleeping with, and I always assumed that we parted because she never believed that when I visited one of them a couple of times on my own in Berlin, and the other one three times in London, that I hadn’t gone to bed with them. They were ex-girlfriends I insisted, adding that for me desire always died with the relationship. I had never been interested in sleeping once again with an ex.

In each instance when I saw Martha and Bea these were business trips, and not seeing them would have seemed to me more of a slight to either of them than seeing them ought to have happened to be to Mira. These were people with whom I had been very close, women with whom I could talk, women with whom, If I’d have ever wanted a child, I would have wanted one with them, and the occasional email contact would always be augmented by their visits here in Glasgow (Mira always refused to meet them), or my odd trip to London or Berlin. Mira knew she was being possessive, she admitted, but also could not know that I wouldn’t share their bed if I happened to get drunk, if after a particularly intimate conversation it would appear more natural to join them in their bed than to go home to my hotel room. I said I had never cheated on a woman in my life: to sleep with either of them would be tantamount to betraying myself, let alone betraying her. If she couldn’t trust me on this point, I insisted, then she couldn’t trust me on any.

Yet I couldn’t deny that while my code was always kept; the broader sense of trust that Mira expected might not have been. While I talked on these visits of my love for Mira, I also said things to both Martha and Bea that I wouldn’t have liked Mira to have overheard. I never told them about the childhood and early adulthood that she had experienced and that claimed I alone knew about, but I did tell them about our life together, how Mira would often burst into tears when I came home from work as though I had been gone for months, would wake up in the middle of the night and wonder where I was, even if I had done no more than stay up late to work on the company’s accounts. I part-owned a small publishing company, selling high-end stock with thin margins, getting translators to work on fine foreign writers who had yet to be published in English. The translators sometimes won awards, but it wasn’t like an award a writer would win, and so we rarely had a great seller. We never really expected it. With a couple of grants we received, and the money we made from sales, we managed to pay the author, the translator, myself and my business partner, a secretary, and some freelance proof editors. It was through the work that I met Mira, a Serbian writer in her late twenties who had published two books that were personally written yet generally reflective of her milieu.

2

The books had been written in Serb-Croat and had made almost no money in the Balkan countries in which they were published, but they were well-reviewed in several newspapers, and for a small number the books possessed the anthemic: they were books speaking to a few thousand people in their mid-to-late twenties who were born not long before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Mira’s books were mainly autobiographical, but one of the distinct differences between Mira’s work and her own personality, was that the books were hard, humorous and capable of easy distance from the most terrible of events, while Mira was usually tender, slow to humour and given to exaggeration of small details. It was as though she had produced literature out of tone rather than imagination, as if creating a slightly different persona than her own to produce the work.

A friend from Belgrade, Danilo, had told me about Mira’s books, and when I visited him there he insisted I should meet her. It was 2004 and the three of us met in mid-afternoon in an ad hoc outdoor cafe that looked like it could have been established a couple of weeks earlier and might well disappear in a couple of weeks’ time. There was no indoor space, and the bar and some of the seating was canopied. Mira had chosen the place and said this for her was Serbia, a place accepting its provisional status. She talked firmly and with emphasis, as if possessing a clear ideology in her statements, and then inflecting her remarks with a question suggesting she was open to contrary views.

Danilo was a close friend of her older brother: they had both been in a band together, but Danilo became a publishing editor; the brother a ghoulish tour guide showing people round the city, pointing up bombed out buildings as readily as national landmarks.  He had two children to support and a partner who had left the country: Mira understood he needed to take any job at all. That is how Mira described him, and said her third book would be based partly on his experiences. I couldn’t speak Serb-Croat and said if we were to publish her books, then she would have to tell me all about them and persuade me why they might appeal to an English-language readership. She replied that she had no interest in persuasion: it was a debased form of communication, but if I had time she would be happy to talk to me about them.

I was in Belgrade for a week, and my purpose was to seek out writers under forty from the former Yugoslavia. I stayed the first couple of nights at Danilo’s place, and then booked into a hotel after a late night knock on the door led to his lover staying the night, and looking like she wanted to stay a few more. Danilo had told me that she was married, in her late thirties with two children in their mid-to-late teens and that he knew her husband but that seemed to add to the pleasure of the affair rather than detract from it. It was the best sex of his life he said, and a woman released from the captivity of a stale marriage was a wild animal indeed. I didn’t want to be asleep on the couch listening to adulterous copulating next door and insisted I would find a room.

Perhaps I also wanted to feel under no obligation to spend time with Danilo when I could take up Mira’s invitation, finding out more about her work and also that of others. I had been attracted to Mira instantly. She had the attributes of beauty without the likelihood of being credited with it: she had high cheekbones, a small, well-shaped nose with no abrupt bump or sharpness, and large eyes, wide apart. Her skin, though was a little mottled, as though too much sun when she was younger had modestly damaged it, and her hair was a little lifeless, a result of too many occasions as a teenager where she had dyed it. These were observations that I had quickly made that were later confirmed, but if I felt I knew her straight away maybe it resided in these details that suggested a past without Mira quite revealing it to me. The hair and the skin made her seem vulnerable, and as she talked the vulnerability became more evident without making her at all unattractive. I remember Danilo saying before I was introduced to her that ten years earlier she had been a great beauty, and I looked surprised as though he was talking of a woman of sixty whom he had known thirty years earlier. Yet his assessment had some validity, and in Mira’s body language, though she was then still only twenty eight, she carried herself with a disconsolate air of a woman who had fallen apart.

I exaggerate of course, but during that week as she talked in fluent English about her books and why she started writing at twenty five, she gave me a sense of a life already lived, and one she felt she was partly recovering from or trying to make sense of. Before she started writing fiction she had kept a notebook for ten years, writing for the pleasure of the words the way she lived daily for the pleasures of her life. Words were pleasurable, she said, but when she lost some of the pleasure for life she lost it also for words, and that is when she knew she had become a writer. The novels were written in quick succession, in around fourteen months, and were published promptly. When I had asked her what they were about, she said she would tell me as we explored the city: whenever we would meet, and we met most days, we went to locations where she had set scenes from the books. Several of them had taken place in that cafe where we had first met, and a couple more in a mezzanine Latin American cafe off the city’s main street. We went to Kalmegdan park and she said three or four scenes were set there, and when we walked back down into the centre, crossed over one of the bridges and walked back up along to the contemporary art museum, she said several scenes were set there too. One moment we passed a hospital and she announced, swiftly, brutally, that was where she had her first abortion. With the exception of that last locale, at each location I asked her to describe the scenes as we visited them, and I knew by the end of the week that I wanted to publish her books and see her again.

By the time both books were published in English she had moved over to Glasgow. My flat was on a road called  Ortega Street, above the office of our small publishing house. Mira initially found work in a tea shop round the corner, and then the following Academic year worked in a part-time post teaching creative writing at the university: a job she held during the rest of the time she lived in the city, and in which she was always conscientious, always finding more time for her university work than her own writing. During this period she was fitfully working on a third novel, but she never showed it to me, and during all the time we were together she published only a couple of short stories in Serb-Croat, and one that she wrote in English. She would often say she didn’t like writing very much and didn’t see herself as a writer: she had made almost no money from writing, and didn’t know how to make things up. Weren’t her books more or less autobiographical? I would sometimes contradict her, saying that many novelists happened to write autobiographically; wasn’t it often a sign of great art rather than a lack of imagination? Would she prefer to read about wizards or about personal crises? Wasn’t much of the writing she admired autobiographical, and better still writing that in its autobiographical sense of enquiry, forced upon readers an enquiry into their own existence?

It was as though however during this period she set her imagination to work on her emotional anxieties, creating in her mind what she couldn’t quite put on the page. After three years we parted. The university hadn’t renewed her short-term contract, Mira hadn’t finished another novel, and my continuing friendship with the two ex-girlfriends she never quite accepted, and I thought to sacrifice my two ex-lovers to Mira’s irrationalities would have been be side with madness over sanity. She replied that it would be to accept feeling was more important than principle, and a few weeks later she left, returning to Belgrade. Not long afterwards she sent me a letter saying that perhaps I had never been unfaithful to her, but had been all too faithful to a moral sense of fidelity that somehow excluded her, and that I perhaps lacked understanding: that I thought moral principle was enough.

3

Around four years later, about a year ago, I was back in Belgrade. We were publishing another three books by Serbian writers, two first novels, and also Mira’s third. I had arranged to meet the two debut novelists, but assumed that Mira would not want to meet me. I was surprised when Danilo said, after she had heard I was coming to Belgrade, that she would like to see me if I could find the time. In the afternoon, before our meeting, I walked around the city for the first time on my own, and saw that many buildings were still in a bombed out state. I walked past offices and flats near the state radio and TV station and saw blocks of concrete that looked half finished as half destroyed. They seemed to possess an aesthetic finish: as if an inverse folly, but whose: the west that bombed them, or the Serbians who wanted to keep the former Yugoslavia together? One building was tapered, with each floor slightly more indented than the floor above it. The facades of the upper floors were intact, but the further down you looked, the more crumbly seemed the edifice. It looked dangerous, but presumably was left in the condition it was in as evidence of western might that wasn’t simply right.

We met in a cafe bar attached to a cinema, and it was seven thirty in the evening and my stomach was beginning to hint at hunger: would she suggest we eat together? She arrived a few minutes after me, and her hair looked stronger than I recalled, and her skin that of a woman in her mid-thirties who had looked after it but who could not entirely conceal the signs of age. When she smiled as we greeted each other, there were lines on her forehead and creases around the eyes. She was beautiful enough for people to look as she came in, and confident enough to meet the glances she received. I told her how well she looked, and she said I looked much as I always had. I never possessed the sort of attractiveness that could ebb and flow: the appearance that Mira had which meant that tiredness and stress could impact upon it. I was robustly ordinary, a forty year old man with greying hair, a few wrinkles and luckily a quick metabolism that meant I didn’t easily gain weight.

After we had a glass of local red wine that was sharp to the tongue, I asked Mira if she had eaten anything. She said she hadn’t, wasn’t especially famished, but would eat a little something if I happened to be hungry. She suggested we stay in the bar: they served light meals. We talked until one in the morning when the bar closed, and continued at her apartment nearby. Among the many things we talked about was her jealousy towards Martha and Bea, casually, almost jokily, and my insistence that, while I still had never cheated on anyone, I might have almost done worse a couple of years before on a trip to Newcastle. She recalled I had friends in the city; but had never met them, though I had talked to her about Adam and Freda more than once. They were a local couple who had gone to Newcastle university, moved to London where they became fringe members of Brit art, and moved north again a few years later when he got a job teaching at the university, and Freda in a gallery. I had once published a book that had interviews with the pair of them in it. Freda had had an exhibition in Glasgow six years ago, a couple of years before I met Mira, and they had stayed for a few nights at my place.

Anyway, in the few months prior to visiting them, I’d had a lot of email exchanges with Adam, and a number of Skype calls. He was in crisis: he had started an affair with a young musician in the city, and wanted to talk about its undulating nature and his oscillating feelings towards staying with his partner or leaving. The woman didn’t want a relationship; simply a fling for however long it needed to last, but where the lover accepted it was a casual affair that needn’t impact much on her life, it was for Adam, as he said, catalytic to avoid the cataclysmic: he needed to use it for his own ends rather than to allow it to destroy his life. I thought he was exaggerating, since he didn’t have children, but Adam insisted that he really had believed he and Frida would be together for the rest of their lives, and now it looked as though they might not be. How could he see his life differently, he proposed: how could he see it catalytically and not cataclysmically?

At this point I paused as I saw Mira look at me as if this friend had found the very words she might have used for leaving me. It was the moment in the telling where I could see she was no longer listening dutifully, waiting for the point, but saw that here was a life beginning to resemble her own. Yet this wasn’t why I was telling her it.

After a couple of months of emails and skype talks, Adam invited me down, saying I’d never stayed at their place in Newcastle, that it wasn’t so far from Glasgow and I could see the situation for myself: perhaps help him make a decision. There was a festival on there he said: a festival based on sensation in the arts. The evening I arrived Adam met me at the train station and suggested we go for a drink before getting back. I’d said I had eaten on the train when he asked if I was hungry, and  he replied that he hadn’t eaten properly for weeks. New feelings and old anxieties kill the appetite he said, and when we reached the pub he had already started talking about the lover he had been seeing for several months, and the vertigo of getting out of a relationship of more than ten years. Every time he thought about leaving Frida he was momentarily happy, and then he felt an unusual sense of loss that he couldn’t quite claim as his own: he would imagine Frida alone in the house, his absence everywhere, and perhaps also feeling the absence of the kids that they had never had, and that she was all but too late to have now. Thank God she never wanted them he said  – the idea of robbing Frida of the children she would have wished to have would have left him feeling even guiltier than sneaking around with another woman. Would he be more inclined to leave her if he knew she had had other lovers, I asked? He said he believed he would.

I asked him about his lover. Kate was in a band and he met her when the group had asked him if he would like to design their debut album cover. He met first with the band, and then a couple of times with her alone, and after that they met for assignations in her apartment that she shared with friends who were still at university. The flat never gave them as much privacy as he liked, but did give him a feeling of youth that he had previously forgotten. Yet about three weekends ago Frida was in London, and he took Kate back to the house and while liberated from the presence of people passing through the corridor and into the kitchen, he was haunted by the duplicity of his deed. After Kate left, and a few hours before Frida returned, he put the sheets in the wash and then dried them in the tumble dryer. He was sure he could smell Kate’s presence in the house even after she had gone, and awaited Frida’s return with an olfactory dread. Yet Frida noticed nothing.

It was after midnight when we got back to the house, and Frida was asleep. She was out of the place by the time I awoke the next morning at around eight thirty, and so it wasn’t till early that evening at a bar with Adam that I got to say hello and thank her for the hospitality of putting me up. Adam and Frida were different from me in various aspects, but two lay in their dress sense and their aesthetic taste. They were part of a post-punk ethos, given more to confrontation than meditation, and where my dress sense was informally inconspicuous, theirs was even now conspicuously colourful. Frida’s hair was corn blonde, with honeyed roots that made it look like a two tone dye job but where it was just the natural colour coming through. One side was shaved to the temple, with the hair flopping over it. On this side one noticed a tattoo of a dove, and along the arm on the same side of her body was a creeping tattoo from the wrist to the shoulder. The nose was subtly pierced with a stud, while the make-up had become less pronounced over the years. When I first met her the make-up around her eyes resembled a mask at a ball, and now the mascara spread only as far as the crow’s feet. Sitting next to her Adam was her visual male counterpoint: his hair was dyed black, but shaved to the temple on both sides, while long enough on top to be gathered in a ponytail. Wearing a black T-shirt the arms showed a series of tattoos. As I watched them as we talked, I couldn’t quite match this pair with the crisis Adam offered to me: they looked so radical and indifferent to moral sensibility that surely affairs would have been the norm.

Yet Adam had told me soon after we first met that Frida was the love of his life partly because when they met they weren’t sure if they were going to end it. They had both thought about suicide in their teens, and when they met each other, in their early twenties, they wondered whether they would do it together or suggest another form of a pact. Theirs was to devote their lives to each other. Adam had laughed about this when he told me, saying that the least conservative couple of at university created the most committed of relationships, and it was with memories like this in mind I worried about the pair of them.

That evening we got an Indian takeaway, some beers and a bottle of wine, and the three of us talked through till midnight. When Frida went to bed, Adam and I kept talking for another couple of hours. After she had gone upstairs he said the following night might be difficult. There was an art opening and Kate would be there: her partner was an artist exhibiting. I asked if it was such a good idea going, and he said Frida would demand a very good excuse for their absence: they knew several of the people showing art there, and it would seem a snub not to turn up at all. He asked me a favour: would I look after Frida that night. Adam added that Kate’s partner would be busy with possible clients and dealers, and he would spend as much time with her as he could. He hadn’t seen her in more than a week. Her partner would be distracted; could I distract Frida too? I was drunk and agreed, and though I had always found Frida’s look unappealing despite the attractiveness that was contained within the image, for the first time, perhaps because the makeup had become less pronounced, and her vulnerability now more so, the thought of being alone with Frida for a few hours no longer seemed so daunting.

Mira looked across at me at this moment as if to say did I not realize that I was telling her a story in which she was one of the last people to whom I should be telling it. Wasn’t she the ex-lover who had shown jealousy towards ex-girlfriends, and here I now was talking about a possible assignation with a woman I would have known throughout that period and who was a friend’s long-term girlfriend? She told me to go on, and I said she had to bear with me, there was a reason I was telling her all of this, and it had nothing to do with making her jealous, but if possible finding a way in which to make clear she needn’t ever have been worried.

So the next night we all attended the exhibition and early on Kate came over and said hello to Frida and Adam, introduced herself to me, and called over to her partner to come and say hello too. There was nothing in her behaviour that indicated she was holding a secret, hiding her feelings or playing a game, and even her appearance indicated someone closer to the inconspicuous than the sartorially overt. If this was the scarlet woman, she had chosen to dress down: attired as she was in a bottle green dress that was perfectly cut and indicating no lack of expense, but that she wore with no hint of the price label. Her accent was like Frida’s and Adam’s, a regional tone mingling with a standard register. Her partner was similarly unostentatious. After about twenty minutes of chat, Kate’s partner said he had to go – he ought really to entertain the artists. After the partner left, Adam went on to a pub with Kate and a group of others, while Frida and I looked at the rest of the exhibition.

When Frida tried to phone him an hour later, it went straight to the answering machine. She would always tell him to charge it, she said, and he’d always forget. She then took a gulp of wine, and wondered what we should do now. Frida said that some of the people presenting work at the show were staying in a hotel a few blocks away. Maybe they would find Adam there, she surmized, but as though she would prefer he was somewhere else. In the hotel bar we saw a few of the artists of the show, and a number of people Frida knew but oddly not Kate’s partner. Within an hour Frida was drunk and yet becoming more lucid, initially in her response to the art, where she asked tough questions to the artists about the point and purpose of their work, and later, back at the house, when we were alone. Adam hadn’t returned, and Frida said this wasn’t the first time. Had he a lover, or several, she didn’t know. Did she care? Even that she didn’t know. She plonked herself next to me on the couch and said that she knew she was never really my type, and that I had never been hers. Adam had always been her type; they were each other’s type – that was the point. They had moulded themselves into each other, and now they needed to mould their way back out. She moved towards me, looked straight into my eyes, and asked me if I would go to bed with her. I recalled Adam’s remark about looking after Frida, and it was as though my refusal to sleep with his long-term partner would be a betrayal twice over: how could I reject the woman he had loved for twenty years, and how could I not give him the opportunity for mutual recrimination? I looked at Mira and asked where could such loyalties lie, adding that I pulled away from Frida and said I wasn’t the lover she needed.

I left the next morning and said to Mira that I hadn’t seen Adam since, though in an email exchange he said that he had left Frida and was still seeing Kate, though Kate was still with her partner. He was in a mess he admitted. I was at a launch several months later in Glasgow, however, and saw Frida. Her hair was now her natural dark blonde, her make-up was all but unnoticeable, and she was wearing a pair of tight jeans, a blue blouse, and canvas trainers. It was a warm summer evening and a publisher had a launch in a pub on Ashton Lane that had spilled out into the street, and in the soft summer light Frida appeared years younger. She looked across at me and nodded. She seemed happy, and sipped on her wine as if now capable of tasting its pleasures and not demanding it dull a pain. Was I trying to claim credit for this transformation? Of course not, but I’m not so sure if Frida and I had slept together whether she would have been happy in herself and happy to see me.

Mira looked across with an irritated, yet amused expression, and said she assumed she was meant to extract some sort of moral out of my tale. Was she supposed to assume that because I hadn’t slept with a friend’s girlfriend that proved the point that I hadn’t slept with my ex-girlfriends either; and that by staying chaste I had improved all these women’s lives? We were walking back to her apartment when I started the story, and now, inside it with Mira making some tea, I felt a little like I did that night back at Frida’s. Yet as far as I knew Mira had no boyfriend; I had no girlfriend – what would be so wrong if we slept together? Yet as we continued talking till three in the morning, I wondered whether I was getting caught in a trap of Mira’s making. As she sat on the chair while I sat on the couch, with a lamp backlighting her and soft light distributed kindly around the room, I could feel rising in me desire for Mira. There had been several lovers since, and one three month relationship, but my body was telling me that unlike with Martha and Bea, desire was still there. Yet hadn’t I said to Mira numerous times that an ex was exactly that: I had no yearning to go back because there was no desire evident?

As she asked me if I would like to stay, I insisted I ought to be going, and I offered my remark with the hint of a slight to her present self in an attempt to respect more completely the past we had together. I knew she was unlikely to take this as a comment on her lack of attractiveness: earlier in the evening I had said twice that she looked beautiful, more so than five years earlier. I put on my jacket and moved to the door that she was now holding open for me, and as I kissed her on both cheeks, she hugged me for some seconds before saying: I believe you, I think I always believed you. I looked at her as if I didn’t quite know what she meant, and perhaps I didn’t, but she gave me a look indicating that she thought I knew exactly what she was getting at.

4

After that, apart from a couple of formal exchanges concerning the new book, Mira and I weren’t in contact. I started seeing someone  working for me as a poorly paid intern who had finished her PhD in Edinburgh not long before, and I am not so sure if it wasn’t the gratitude she felt in being paid at all that extended to feelings of affection a few weeks later. I joked that people aren’t bought anymore; they are merely paid and that is enough to win their souls. She gave me a mock slap and insisted that she could earn more in an evening hiking up her skirt over at Leith docks than she could in a month working for me, and said I would just have to accept that she actually liked me.  Though nothing more, she insisted, as she all but said I was a rebound affair while she worked through her feelings for her long-term Edinburgh ex.

Around this time we had translated Mira’s third book, and I had awaited its appearance with a greater sense of anticipation than her previous volumes.  Since she’d talked me through the first two books back in Belgrade,  I knew what to expect and knew that I had no place within them. This third, if it was still autobiographical, would probably have a character resembling me in it, and there I suppose I was, a book critic based in London, the boyfriend of the narrator who had come to the city to be with him, but who still saw ex-girlfriends when it pleased him, and saw in it a principle far more important than his lover’s anxieties. The narrator,  in this chapter called Principles, suggests that the boyfriend’s high moral stand was understandable, but her feelings were too. Yet he sacrificed her feelings to his principles, and he could never understand why this so hurt her.

As I read the chapter discussing this, I saw that Mira offered nuance and sensitivity: any monstrousness evident was only so because of the vulnerability of the narrator’s own feelings. I was moved as I read it, but it was the next  chapter, headed Sacrifices, that left me in tears. She opened it by discussing how the narrator first got to know the book critic when he was visiting Serbia, writing an article on Serbian fiction in the 20th century. As they walked around the city she discussed with him what her thus far untranslated books were about. They walked through Kilmagden park, ventured into the modern art museum, crossed Branko bridge and during the walk she briefly mentioned an abortion she’d had at a hospital they passed. He didn’t say anything, but she knew, not long after she moved to London to be with him, that he had never wanted children, and so when she became pregnant a couple of years later, she went home and had her third abortion, and her second in the hospital she had pointed out to him. She never told him about this, and never said that she was risking with each abortion her chances of having a child in the future: she was damaging her womb and she was now ten years older than when she first had a foetus removed from her body. She sometimes now imagined herself as a mother with three children, and then felt the anxiety of being a woman in her mid-thirties with none at all.

She had returned to London but could not stay with this man, Patrick, who had obliviously removed another child from her life with another of his damned principles. So she left him a few months later, unsure of what she had done to her body and what had happened in her life. and still he believed, as she left, that it was about jealousy, about the exes he would merely see as friends. Yes it was about the exes, she had thought, but as much about the absence of children in her and Patrick’s life as the presence of the two exes in his. When she went back to Belgrade she rented an apartment near her brother and his family. This final chapter, Commitment, would have been the initial stages of the book she was describing to me when we first met, the book that would have her brother in the central role. He had become much more peripheral, it seemed, but also perhaps no less important. Mira becomes ever closer to these children, in the absence of their mother, and the absence of children of her own. The narrator speaks with her brother in the last pages of the book for the first time about his partner’s desertion: she had left him for a man she had met one evening in Sarajevo, a Frenchman working for Nato. But she had also left him with two children, he added, and for that he must be grateful. Many people after a break-up are left with nothing at all. That evening, in the last few pages of the book, they discuss in his flat his hurt and hers, and then she hears a noise: it is one of the kids saying they can’t sleep. Would someone read her a story. The narrator nods to her brother and says it is probably best if he goes: she had never been very good at making things up.

I finished the book in an evening, and felt in the apartment that I was living in, a certain species of loneliness that I can only describe as haunting. It was as though I didn’t only feel the absence of Mira but also of others who could have existed and whose absence I felt ridiculously responsible for. I also wondered about Adam and Frida, and whether they would be figures in Mira’s next book, with a version of me playing an ever more absurd role: a self-vindicating moralist hollowing out the lives of others. I was reminded of my remark to Mira about autobiographical writing that creates an examination of one’s own existence on the reading of it. Mira’s book in this instance had certainly managed to do that, and yet I had no regrets at all about publishing it.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Mira

1

In the three years we were together, most of the arguments we had were over my previous relationships. There were two ex-girlfriends she couldn't quite accept were lovers from the past and not women I was still sleeping with, and I always assumed that we parted because she never believed that when I visited one of them a couple of times on my own in Berlin, and the other one three times in London, that I hadn't gone to bed with them. They were ex-girlfriends I insisted, adding that for me desire always died with the relationship. I had never been interested in sleeping once again with an ex.

In each instance when I saw Martha and Bea these were business trips, and not seeing them would have seemed to me more of a slight to either of them than seeing them ought to have happened to be to Mira. These were people with whom I had been very close, women with whom I could talk, women with whom, If I'd have ever wanted a child, I would have wanted one with them, and the occasional email contact would always be augmented by their visits here in Glasgow (Mira always refused to meet them), or my odd trip to London or Berlin. Mira knew she was being possessive, she admitted, but also could not know that I wouldn't share their bed if I happened to get drunk, if after a particularly intimate conversation it would appear more natural to join them in their bed than to go home to my hotel room. I said I had never cheated on a woman in my life: to sleep with either of them would be tantamount to betraying myself, let alone betraying her. If she couldn't trust me on this point, I insisted, then she couldn't trust me on any.

Yet I couldn't deny that while my code was always kept; the broader sense of trust that Mira expected might not have been. While I talked on these visits of my love for Mira, I also said things to both Martha and Bea that I wouldn't have liked Mira to have overheard. I never told them about the childhood and early adulthood that she had experienced and that claimed I alone knew about, but I did tell them about our life together, how Mira would often burst into tears when I came home from work as though I had been gone for months, would wake up in the middle of the night and wonder where I was, even if I had done no more than stay up late to work on the company's accounts. I part-owned a small publishing company, selling high-end stock with thin margins, getting translators to work on fine foreign writers who had yet to be published in English. The translators sometimes won awards, but it wasn't like an award a writer would win, and so we rarely had a great seller. We never really expected it. With a couple of grants we received, and the money we made from sales, we managed to pay the author, the translator, myself and my business partner, a secretary, and some freelance proof editors. It was through the work that I met Mira, a Serbian writer in her late twenties who had published two books that were personally written yet generally reflective of her milieu.

2

The books had been written in Serb-Croat and had made almost no money in the Balkan countries in which they were published, but they were well-reviewed in several newspapers, and for a small number the books possessed the anthemic: they were books speaking to a few thousand people in their mid-to-late twenties who were born not long before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. Mira's books were mainly autobiographical, but one of the distinct differences between Mira's work and her own personality, was that the books were hard, humorous and capable of easy distance from the most terrible of events, while Mira was usually tender, slow to humour and given to exaggeration of small details. It was as though she had produced literature out of tone rather than imagination, as if creating a slightly different persona than her own to produce the work.

A friend from Belgrade, Danilo, had told me about Mira's books, and when I visited him there he insisted I should meet her. It was 2004 and the three of us met in mid-afternoon in an ad hoc outdoor cafe that looked like it could have been established a couple of weeks earlier and might well disappear in a couple of weeks' time. There was no indoor space, and the bar and some of the seating was canopied. Mira had chosen the place and said this for her was Serbia, a place accepting its provisional status. She talked firmly and with emphasis, as if possessing a clear ideology in her statements, and then inflecting her remarks with a question suggesting she was open to contrary views.

Danilo was a close friend of her older brother: they had both been in a band together, but Danilo became a publishing editor; the brother a ghoulish tour guide showing people round the city, pointing up bombed out buildings as readily as national landmarks. He had two children to support and a partner who had left the country: Mira understood he needed to take any job at all. That is how Mira described him, and said her third book would be based partly on his experiences. I couldn't speak Serb-Croat and said if we were to publish her books, then she would have to tell me all about them and persuade me why they might appeal to an English-language readership. She replied that she had no interest in persuasion: it was a debased form of communication, but if I had time she would be happy to talk to me about them.

I was in Belgrade for a week, and my purpose was to seek out writers under forty from the former Yugoslavia. I stayed the first couple of nights at Danilo's place, and then booked into a hotel after a late night knock on the door led to his lover staying the night, and looking like she wanted to stay a few more. Danilo had told me that she was married, in her late thirties with two children in their mid-to-late teens and that he knew her husband but that seemed to add to the pleasure of the affair rather than detract from it. It was the best sex of his life he said, and a woman released from the captivity of a stale marriage was a wild animal indeed. I didn't want to be asleep on the couch listening to adulterous copulating next door and insisted I would find a room.

Perhaps I also wanted to feel under no obligation to spend time with Danilo when I could take up Mira's invitation, finding out more about her work and also that of others. I had been attracted to Mira instantly. She had the attributes of beauty without the likelihood of being credited with it: she had high cheekbones, a small, well-shaped nose with no abrupt bump or sharpness, and large eyes, wide apart. Her skin, though was a little mottled, as though too much sun when she was younger had modestly damaged it, and her hair was a little lifeless, a result of too many occasions as a teenager where she had dyed it. These were observations that I had quickly made that were later confirmed, but if I felt I knew her straight away maybe it resided in these details that suggested a past without Mira quite revealing it to me. The hair and the skin made her seem vulnerable, and as she talked the vulnerability became more evident without making her at all unattractive. I remember Danilo saying before I was introduced to her that ten years earlier she had been a great beauty, and I looked surprised as though he was talking of a woman of sixty whom he had known thirty years earlier. Yet his assessment had some validity, and in Mira's body language, though she was then still only twenty eight, she carried herself with a disconsolate air of a woman who had fallen apart.

I exaggerate of course, but during that week as she talked in fluent English about her books and why she started writing at twenty five, she gave me a sense of a life already lived, and one she felt she was partly recovering from or trying to make sense of. Before she started writing fiction she had kept a notebook for ten years, writing for the pleasure of the words the way she lived daily for the pleasures of her life. Words were pleasurable, she said, but when she lost some of the pleasure for life she lost it also for words, and that is when she knew she had become a writer. The novels were written in quick succession, in around fourteen months, and were published promptly. When I had asked her what they were about, she said she would tell me as we explored the city: whenever we would meet, and we met most days, we went to locations where she had set scenes from the books. Several of them had taken place in that cafe where we had first met, and a couple more in a mezzanine Latin American cafe off the city's main street. We went to Kalmegdan park and she said three or four scenes were set there, and when we walked back down into the centre, crossed over one of the bridges and walked back up along to the contemporary art museum, she said several scenes were set there too. One moment we passed a hospital and she announced, swiftly, brutally, that was where she had her first abortion. With the exception of that last locale, at each location I asked her to describe the scenes as we visited them, and I knew by the end of the week that I wanted to publish her books and see her again.

By the time both books were published in English she had moved over to Glasgow. My flat was on a road called Ortega Street, above the office of our small publishing house. Mira initially found work in a tea shop round the corner, and then the following Academic year worked in a part-time post teaching creative writing at the university: a job she held during the rest of the time she lived in the city, and in which she was always conscientious, always finding more time for her university work than her own writing. During this period she was fitfully working on a third novel, but she never showed it to me, and during all the time we were together she published only a couple of short stories in Serb-Croat, and one that she wrote in English. She would often say she didn't like writing very much and didn't see herself as a writer: she had made almost no money from writing, and didn't know how to make things up. Weren't her books more or less autobiographical? I would sometimes contradict her, saying that many novelists happened to write autobiographically; wasn't it often a sign of great art rather than a lack of imagination? Would she prefer to read about wizards or about personal crises? Wasn't much of the writing she admired autobiographical, and better still writing that in its autobiographical sense of enquiry, forced upon readers an enquiry into their own existence?

It was as though however during this period she set her imagination to work on her emotional anxieties, creating in her mind what she couldn't quite put on the page. After three years we parted. The university hadn't renewed her short-term contract, Mira hadn't finished another novel, and my continuing friendship with the two ex-girlfriends she never quite accepted, and I thought to sacrifice my two ex-lovers to Mira's irrationalities would have been be side with madness over sanity. She replied that it would be to accept feeling was more important than principle, and a few weeks later she left, returning to Belgrade. Not long afterwards she sent me a letter saying that perhaps I had never been unfaithful to her, but had been all too faithful to a moral sense of fidelity that somehow excluded her, and that I perhaps lacked understanding: that I thought moral principle was enough.

3

Around four years later, about a year ago, I was back in Belgrade. We were publishing another three books by Serbian writers, two first novels, and also Mira's third. I had arranged to meet the two debut novelists, but assumed that Mira would not want to meet me. I was surprised when Danilo said, after she had heard I was coming to Belgrade, that she would like to see me if I could find the time. In the afternoon, before our meeting, I walked around the city for the first time on my own, and saw that many buildings were still in a bombed out state. I walked past offices and flats near the state radio and TV station and saw blocks of concrete that looked half finished as half destroyed. They seemed to possess an aesthetic finish: as if an inverse folly, but whose: the west that bombed them, or the Serbians who wanted to keep the former Yugoslavia together? One building was tapered, with each floor slightly more indented than the floor above it. The facades of the upper floors were intact, but the further down you looked, the more crumbly seemed the edifice. It looked dangerous, but presumably was left in the condition it was in as evidence of western might that wasn't simply right.

We met in a cafe bar attached to a cinema, and it was seven thirty in the evening and my stomach was beginning to hint at hunger: would she suggest we eat together? She arrived a few minutes after me, and her hair looked stronger than I recalled, and her skin that of a woman in her mid-thirties who had looked after it but who could not entirely conceal the signs of age. When she smiled as we greeted each other, there were lines on her forehead and creases around the eyes. She was beautiful enough for people to look as she came in, and confident enough to meet the glances she received. I told her how well she looked, and she said I looked much as I always had. I never possessed the sort of attractiveness that could ebb and flow: the appearance that Mira had which meant that tiredness and stress could impact upon it. I was robustly ordinary, a forty year old man with greying hair, a few wrinkles and luckily a quick metabolism that meant I didn't easily gain weight.

After we had a glass of local red wine that was sharp to the tongue, I asked Mira if she had eaten anything. She said she hadn't, wasn't especially famished, but would eat a little something if I happened to be hungry. She suggested we stay in the bar: they served light meals. We talked until one in the morning when the bar closed, and continued at her apartment nearby. Among the many things we talked about was her jealousy towards Martha and Bea, casually, almost jokily, and my insistence that, while I still had never cheated on anyone, I might have almost done worse a couple of years before on a trip to Newcastle. She recalled I had friends in the city; but had never met them, though I had talked to her about Adam and Freda more than once. They were a local couple who had gone to Newcastle university, moved to London where they became fringe members of Brit art, and moved north again a few years later when he got a job teaching at the university, and Freda in a gallery. I had once published a book that had interviews with the pair of them in it. Freda had had an exhibition in Glasgow six years ago, a couple of years before I met Mira, and they had stayed for a few nights at my place.

Anyway, in the few months prior to visiting them, I'd had a lot of email exchanges with Adam, and a number of Skype calls. He was in crisis: he had started an affair with a young musician in the city, and wanted to talk about its undulating nature and his oscillating feelings towards staying with his partner or leaving. The woman didn't want a relationship; simply a fling for however long it needed to last, but where the lover accepted it was a casual affair that needn't impact much on her life, it was for Adam, as he said, catalytic to avoid the cataclysmic: he needed to use it for his own ends rather than to allow it to destroy his life. I thought he was exaggerating, since he didn't have children, but Adam insisted that he really had believed he and Frida would be together for the rest of their lives, and now it looked as though they might not be. How could he see his life differently, he proposed: how could he see it catalytically and not cataclysmically?

At this point I paused as I saw Mira look at me as if this friend had found the very words she might have used for leaving me. It was the moment in the telling where I could see she was no longer listening dutifully, waiting for the point, but saw that here was a life beginning to resemble her own. Yet this wasn't why I was telling her it.

After a couple of months of emails and skype talks, Adam invited me down, saying I'd never stayed at their place in Newcastle, that it wasn't so far from Glasgow and I could see the situation for myself: perhaps help him make a decision. There was a festival on there he said: a festival based on sensation in the arts. The evening I arrived Adam met me at the train station and suggested we go for a drink before getting back. I'd said I had eaten on the train when he asked if I was hungry, and he replied that he hadn't eaten properly for weeks. New feelings and old anxieties kill the appetite he said, and when we reached the pub he had already started talking about the lover he had been seeing for several months, and the vertigo of getting out of a relationship of more than ten years. Every time he thought about leaving Frida he was momentarily happy, and then he felt an unusual sense of loss that he couldn't quite claim as his own: he would imagine Frida alone in the house, his absence everywhere, and perhaps also feeling the absence of the kids that they had never had, and that she was all but too late to have now. Thank God she never wanted them he said - the idea of robbing Frida of the children she would have wished to have would have left him feeling even guiltier than sneaking around with another woman. Would he be more inclined to leave her if he knew she had had other lovers, I asked? He said he believed he would.

I asked him about his lover. Kate was in a band and he met her when the group had asked him if he would like to design their debut album cover. He met first with the band, and then a couple of times with her alone, and after that they met for assignations in her apartment that she shared with friends who were still at university. The flat never gave them as much privacy as he liked, but did give him a feeling of youth that he had previously forgotten. Yet about three weekends ago Frida was in London, and he took Kate back to the house and while liberated from the presence of people passing through the corridor and into the kitchen, he was haunted by the duplicity of his deed. After Kate left, and a few hours before Frida returned, he put the sheets in the wash and then dried them in the tumble dryer. He was sure he could smell Kate's presence in the house even after she had gone, and awaited Frida's return with an olfactory dread. Yet Frida noticed nothing.

It was after midnight when we got back to the house, and Frida was asleep. She was out of the place by the time I awoke the next morning at around eight thirty, and so it wasn't till early that evening at a bar with Adam that I got to say hello and thank her for the hospitality of putting me up. Adam and Frida were different from me in various aspects, but two lay in their dress sense and their aesthetic taste. They were part of a post-punk ethos, given more to confrontation than meditation, and where my dress sense was informally inconspicuous, theirs was even now conspicuously colourful. Frida's hair was corn blonde, with honeyed roots that made it look like a two tone dye job but where it was just the natural colour coming through. One side was shaved to the temple, with the hair flopping over it. On this side one noticed a tattoo of a dove, and along the arm on the same side of her body was a creeping tattoo from the wrist to the shoulder. The nose was subtly pierced with a stud, while the make-up had become less pronounced over the years. When I first met her the make-up around her eyes resembled a mask at a ball, and now the mascara spread only as far as the crow's feet. Sitting next to her Adam was her visual male counterpoint: his hair was dyed black, but shaved to the temple on both sides, while long enough on top to be gathered in a ponytail. Wearing a black T-shirt the arms showed a series of tattoos. As I watched them as we talked, I couldn't quite match this pair with the crisis Adam offered to me: they looked so radical and indifferent to moral sensibility that surely affairs would have been the norm.

Yet Adam had told me soon after we first met that Frida was the love of his life partly because when they met they weren't sure if they were going to end it. They had both thought about suicide in their teens, and when they met each other, in their early twenties, they wondered whether they would do it together or suggest another form of a pact. Theirs was to devote their lives to each other. Adam had laughed about this when he told me, saying that the least conservative couple of at university created the most committed of relationships, and it was with memories like this in mind I worried about the pair of them.

That evening we got an Indian takeaway, some beers and a bottle of wine, and the three of us talked through till midnight. When Frida went to bed, Adam and I kept talking for another couple of hours. After she had gone upstairs he said the following night might be difficult. There was an art opening and Kate would be there: her partner was an artist exhibiting. I asked if it was such a good idea going, and he said Frida would demand a very good excuse for their absence: they knew several of the people showing art there, and it would seem a snub not to turn up at all. He asked me a favour: would I look after Frida that night. Adam added that Kate's partner would be busy with possible clients and dealers, and he would spend as much time with her as he could. He hadn't seen her in more than a week. Her partner would be distracted; could I distract Frida too? I was drunk and agreed, and though I had always found Frida's look unappealing despite the attractiveness that was contained within the image, for the first time, perhaps because the makeup had become less pronounced, and her vulnerability now more so, the thought of being alone with Frida for a few hours no longer seemed so daunting.

Mira looked across at me at this moment as if to say did I not realize that I was telling her a story in which she was one of the last people to whom I should be telling it. Wasn't she the ex-lover who had shown jealousy towards ex-girlfriends, and here I now was talking about a possible assignation with a woman I would have known throughout that period and who was a friend's long-term girlfriend? She told me to go on, and I said she had to bear with me, there was a reason I was telling her all of this, and it had nothing to do with making her jealous, but if possible finding a way in which to make clear she needn't ever have been worried.

So the next night we all attended the exhibition and early on Kate came over and said hello to Frida and Adam, introduced herself to me, and called over to her partner to come and say hello too. There was nothing in her behaviour that indicated she was holding a secret, hiding her feelings or playing a game, and even her appearance indicated someone closer to the inconspicuous than the sartorially overt. If this was the scarlet woman, she had chosen to dress down: attired as she was in a bottle green dress that was perfectly cut and indicating no lack of expense, but that she wore with no hint of the price label. Her accent was like Frida's and Adam's, a regional tone mingling with a standard register. Her partner was similarly unostentatious. After about twenty minutes of chat, Kate's partner said he had to go - he ought really to entertain the artists. After the partner left, Adam went on to a pub with Kate and a group of others, while Frida and I looked at the rest of the exhibition.

When Frida tried to phone him an hour later, it went straight to the answering machine. She would always tell him to charge it, she said, and he'd always forget. She then took a gulp of wine, and wondered what we should do now. Frida said that some of the people presenting work at the show were staying in a hotel a few blocks away. Maybe they would find Adam there, she surmized, but as though she would prefer he was somewhere else. In the hotel bar we saw a few of the artists of the show, and a number of people Frida knew but oddly not Kate's partner. Within an hour Frida was drunk and yet becoming more lucid, initially in her response to the art, where she asked tough questions to the artists about the point and purpose of their work, and later, back at the house, when we were alone. Adam hadn't returned, and Frida said this wasn't the first time. Had he a lover, or several, she didn't know. Did she care? Even that she didn't know. She plonked herself next to me on the couch and said that she knew she was never really my type, and that I had never been hers. Adam had always been her type; they were each other's type - that was the point. They had moulded themselves into each other, and now they needed to mould their way back out. She moved towards me, looked straight into my eyes, and asked me if I would go to bed with her. I recalled Adam's remark about looking after Frida, and it was as though my refusal to sleep with his long-term partner would be a betrayal twice over: how could I reject the woman he had loved for twenty years, and how could I not give him the opportunity for mutual recrimination? I looked at Mira and asked where could such loyalties lie, adding that I pulled away from Frida and said I wasn't the lover she needed.

I left the next morning and said to Mira that I hadn't seen Adam since, though in an email exchange he said that he had left Frida and was still seeing Kate, though Kate was still with her partner. He was in a mess he admitted. I was at a launch several months later in Glasgow, however, and saw Frida. Her hair was now her natural dark blonde, her make-up was all but unnoticeable, and she was wearing a pair of tight jeans, a blue blouse, and canvas trainers. It was a warm summer evening and a publisher had a launch in a pub on Ashton Lane that had spilled out into the street, and in the soft summer light Frida appeared years younger. She looked across at me and nodded. She seemed happy, and sipped on her wine as if now capable of tasting its pleasures and not demanding it dull a pain. Was I trying to claim credit for this transformation? Of course not, but I'm not so sure if Frida and I had slept together whether she would have been happy in herself and happy to see me.

Mira looked across with an irritated, yet amused expression, and said she assumed she was meant to extract some sort of moral out of my tale. Was she supposed to assume that because I hadn't slept with a friend's girlfriend that proved the point that I hadn't slept with my ex-girlfriends either; and that by staying chaste I had improved all these women's lives? We were walking back to her apartment when I started the story, and now, inside it with Mira making some tea, I felt a little like I did that night back at Frida's. Yet as far as I knew Mira had no boyfriend; I had no girlfriend - what would be so wrong if we slept together? Yet as we continued talking till three in the morning, I wondered whether I was getting caught in a trap of Mira's making. As she sat on the chair while I sat on the couch, with a lamp backlighting her and soft light distributed kindly around the room, I could feel rising in me desire for Mira. There had been several lovers since, and one three month relationship, but my body was telling me that unlike with Martha and Bea, desire was still there. Yet hadn't I said to Mira numerous times that an ex was exactly that: I had no yearning to go back because there was no desire evident?

As she asked me if I would like to stay, I insisted I ought to be going, and I offered my remark with the hint of a slight to her present self in an attempt to respect more completely the past we had together. I knew she was unlikely to take this as a comment on her lack of attractiveness: earlier in the evening I had said twice that she looked beautiful, more so than five years earlier. I put on my jacket and moved to the door that she was now holding open for me, and as I kissed her on both cheeks, she hugged me for some seconds before saying: I believe you, I think I always believed you. I looked at her as if I didn't quite know what she meant, and perhaps I didn't, but she gave me a look indicating that she thought I knew exactly what she was getting at.

4

After that, apart from a couple of formal exchanges concerning the new book, Mira and I weren't in contact. I started seeing someone working for me as a poorly paid intern who had finished her PhD in Edinburgh not long before, and I am not so sure if it wasn't the gratitude she felt in being paid at all that extended to feelings of affection a few weeks later. I joked that people aren't bought anymore; they are merely paid and that is enough to win their souls. She gave me a mock slap and insisted that she could earn more in an evening hiking up her skirt over at Leith docks than she could in a month working for me, and said I would just have to accept that she actually liked me. Though nothing more, she insisted, as she all but said I was a rebound affair while she worked through her feelings for her long-term Edinburgh ex.

Around this time we had translated Mira's third book, and I had awaited its appearance with a greater sense of anticipation than her previous volumes. Since she'd talked me through the first two books back in Belgrade, I knew what to expect and knew that I had no place within them. This third, if it was still autobiographical, would probably have a character resembling me in it, and there I suppose I was, a book critic based in London, the boyfriend of the narrator who had come to the city to be with him, but who still saw ex-girlfriends when it pleased him, and saw in it a principle far more important than his lover's anxieties. The narrator, in this chapter called Principles, suggests that the boyfriend's high moral stand was understandable, but her feelings were too. Yet he sacrificed her feelings to his principles, and he could never understand why this so hurt her.

As I read the chapter discussing this, I saw that Mira offered nuance and sensitivity: any monstrousness evident was only so because of the vulnerability of the narrator's own feelings. I was moved as I read it, but it was the next chapter, headed Sacrifices, that left me in tears. She opened it by discussing how the narrator first got to know the book critic when he was visiting Serbia, writing an article on Serbian fiction in the 20th century. As they walked around the city she discussed with him what her thus far untranslated books were about. They walked through Kilmagden park, ventured into the modern art museum, crossed Branko bridge and during the walk she briefly mentioned an abortion she'd had at a hospital they passed. He didn't say anything, but she knew, not long after she moved to London to be with him, that he had never wanted children, and so when she became pregnant a couple of years later, she went home and had her third abortion, and her second in the hospital she had pointed out to him. She never told him about this, and never said that she was risking with each abortion her chances of having a child in the future: she was damaging her womb and she was now ten years older than when she first had a foetus removed from her body. She sometimes now imagined herself as a mother with three children, and then felt the anxiety of being a woman in her mid-thirties with none at all.

She had returned to London but could not stay with this man, Patrick, who had obliviously removed another child from her life with another of his damned principles. So she left him a few months later, unsure of what she had done to her body and what had happened in her life. and still he believed, as she left, that it was about jealousy, about the exes he would merely see as friends. Yes it was about the exes, she had thought, but as much about the absence of children in her and Patrick's life as the presence of the two exes in his. When she went back to Belgrade she rented an apartment near her brother and his family. This final chapter, Commitment, would have been the initial stages of the book she was describing to me when we first met, the book that would have her brother in the central role. He had become much more peripheral, it seemed, but also perhaps no less important. Mira becomes ever closer to these children, in the absence of their mother, and the absence of children of her own. The narrator speaks with her brother in the last pages of the book for the first time about his partner's desertion: she had left him for a man she had met one evening in Sarajevo, a Frenchman working for Nato. But she had also left him with two children, he added, and for that he must be grateful. Many people after a break-up are left with nothing at all. That evening, in the last few pages of the book, they discuss in his flat his hurt and hers, and then she hears a noise: it is one of the kids saying they can't sleep. Would someone read her a story. The narrator nods to her brother and says it is probably best if he goes: she had never been very good at making things up.

I finished the book in an evening, and felt in the apartment that I was living in, a certain species of loneliness that I can only describe as haunting. It was as though I didn't only feel the absence of Mira but also of others who could have existed and whose absence I felt ridiculously responsible for. I also wondered about Adam and Frida, and whether they would be figures in Mira's next book, with a version of me playing an ever more absurd role: a self-vindicating moralist hollowing out the lives of others. I was reminded of my remark to Mira about autobiographical writing that creates an examination of one's own existence on the reading of it. Mira's book in this instance had certainly managed to do that, and yet I had no regrets at all about publishing it.


© Tony McKibbin