A friend I hadn't seen for over a year, who I saw sitting outside a cafe here in Edinburgh, and who insisted I join her if I had time, told me she had recently returned from what had been the most decadent holiday of her life. I had just asked her where she had managed to get such a lovely hue and, as my coffee arrived, she said Turkey, before adding the comment about the holiday's decadence. I expected a tale of late nights and drunken stupors no matter if I had never seen in Emily much of an interest in partying. Had she changed, was she so keen I sit down and join her so that this new Emily could be revealed? Not at all it seemed, though the holiday was, I suppose, indeed self-indulgent. It was not everyone who could afford to take a month-long vacation to Barcelona, and then in the middle of it, take a two-week package trip to a holiday resort on the Izmir coast.
I'd known Emily for ten years, and we had both worked as volunteers in an alternative cafe not far from where we were both sitting. I had been seeing someone who was more involved in the cafe and its wider social functions than I was; and for me, it was always a place I'd pop into rather than a style of life I wished to adopt. I helped out when necessary, when Cassandra said they were stuck. Emily was no more immersed in the ethos than I was: she had newly arrived in the city and wanted to meet people and if she could have secured a paid job in a cafe or bar as quickly I am sure she would have been as happy there as she was in the Foliage. Indeed, she didn't stay long, or rather when she managed to get work in a cafe that paid minimum wage she took it, and worked very occasionally in The Foliage when they needed a bit of help.
In time, she went back to university (her undergraduate degree was in linguistics), finished a Master's in social work and immediately afterwards found a job that paid a lot more than the minimum wage without at all making her rich. I supposed our salaries were about the same; I worked as a history teacher. During the decade I've known Emily we would meet up a few times a year and during this period I knew of no partners but was aware that she had plenty of friends. She travelled as often as she could; sometimes with others and sometimes on her own. When we met for a coffee, or occasionally for a beer in a less boisterous bar, she told me of these trips, and now that I think of it many of our conversations have been based on where she had been, and usually the more interesting stories were around travel trips she had taken on her own.
However, the one to Barcelona was not such a trip: she had taken it with a boyfriend I knew nothing about and she said it as though mention of a partner needn't have been much of a surprise. She presented it as if there had always been men in her life and perhaps there had been; that she hadn't talked about any before made me assume not only were they absent from it as sexual partners, but that it may also have been a problem. Yet as she talked no such problem appeared apparent, or at least not the problem I assumed as she mentioned in passing about another lover she broke up with so that she could go away with Victor. I had to accept that the reason men hadn't been mentioned before was that they never made any impact on her life; that there had been no great love affair, no great loss, no great pain.
Yet as we sat across from each other, both moving slightly to catch the sun without allowing its rays into our eyes, both feeling perhaps that to put on our sunglasses would be to ruin the effect of an incipient revelation, she said that any deep curiosity she had about life never found itself engaged in a man. They always seemed to her predictable, she said, and put her hand over mine unable to withdraw the remark but determined to register what she was sure would be my smarting pride. I supposed I was as unsurprising as the next man and she said that was what she liked about me, what other women she assumed had liked about me as well, including the girlfriends who I'd broken up with. I'd probably even been proud that I never disappointed any of them even if after talking to Emily that day I might assume that few men ever did. It was only the exceptional who could disappoint, who could create an expectation that couldn't be met.
The man Emily went to Barcelona with was Spanish and he had friends in the city who wanted to stay in Scotland for a few weeks, make Edinburgh their base and travel to other parts of the country. He was living in a four-room apartment with others; she had bought her own place a year after she started social work. It was thus her place they swapped. The first few days staying in a second-floor apartment in the Gothic quarter was wonderful, she said. The flat had two bedrooms, an open plan kitchen and sitting room, and a balcony with space enough for a small table too small for eating dinner off but a perfect size to take their morning coffee or a glass of wine after dinner. Yet after four days, workers arrived at the flat next door and it was clear after a day or two that this was not going to be a brief job. Over the next few days, they would hear for hours the sound of a circular saw and if that wasn't enough then they noticed the toilet started to smell. The plan had been a trip to access the senses and there they were with their ears plugged and their noses held every time they entered the bathroom. With the toilet door closed the odour wasn't intolerable but it started to permeate not only the flat but also the city as they became more aware of the smell of sewage when walking past cafes and restaurants that otherwise they might be tempted to eat or drink in. They contacted the owners who were of course now in Emily's flat, and the couple taking it were very apologetic and assumed that the problem had arisen because of the work next door that Emily had mentioned in the same call. The couple knew that work was going to be done on the neighbouring flat but didn't realise it was so soon, and said if they had known they would, of course, have left the apartment empty. The least they could do, they said, was find a plumber to sort out the toilet.
A day later, the owners phoned back saying it was very difficult to find a plumber, many were on holiday and it seemed that others were involved in putting in new plumbing into apartments while their owners were away: exactly what was happening to the flat next door. Emily thought that the owners must have known work was likely if this was the time of year when many people renovated their flats, presumably off at their holiday homes for the duration, but accepted that the plumbing problem was a contingency.
And so it was that Emily and Victor took their parenthetical holiday, a trip where they would fly for two weeks to a resort in Turkey, return to Barcelona for an evening, and fly back to Edinburgh from there. I wondered if much of what Emily had told me was irrelevant to the story but I suspected out of these details there was a strong sense of self-justification, as though she was telling me about the audial and olfactory hassles to account for so decadent an experience. After all, we did originally meet in a cafe that prided itself on minimising its omissions and countering where possible waste: her flying all over Europe and beyond demanded a rationale.
She said that though the package holiday they took was very impulsive, the place itself was almost entirely predictable. The food seemed at first varied but after a few days it somehow tasted all the same, with flavours coming up again and again, with thyme, cumin and bay leaves used in dishes that would otherwise appear quite different. But she suspected it was that it wasn't the lack of variety in the cuisine but the subtle sense of incarceration where even the daytrips offered felt like they were part of the imprisonment. One they took after a couple of days there was to a famous ancient site about forty miles from the resort. They were squeezed into a minibus and were at the site for around two hours before being packed back into the bus, returning to the holiday compound before six. Emily had seen photographs of this site and remembered seeing pictures of it even as a child when she would gaze at books showing her the various wonders of the world. But that afternoon what she saw was weak next to how she felt: she had burnt slightly the previous day and the strap of her bikini and the strap of her dress were irritating, the couple behind them on the bus were speaking loudly in a language she ought not to name but that always seemed to her aggressive, and the bus driver seemed to see them as luggage rather than bodies, taking corners more sharply than he should if the well-being of his passengers were more of a priority than the determination to reach their destination on time. When they arrived he said they all had two hours to look around and return to the van: it wouldn't wait for any stragglers. I assumed this was her word but she said he did say stragglers, picking it up she suspected working in the UK, perhaps employed in a sector where he was compelled to attend to various obnoxious Brits in their home country, and could take it back out on them and other nations now he was safely ensconced in Turkey. It wasn't that he was actively unpleasant; more that he knew that he had some power over them that he wouldn't have had as an employee back in Britain. She admitted this was a projection, perhaps owing more to her sunburn irritation than the man's attitude but she knew that one of the dreams of her childhood had become a nightmare of social proximity. There were far too many tourists and she could hardly hate them all when she was contributing to their number and, so, briefly hated herself and especially the bus driver She knew too that though Victor was considerate and even compliant (it was her idea to go to Turkey just as it was her idea to go to the site), so she was becoming annoyed by his passivity and predictability. Everything about the holiday had become obvious and there she was amongst one of the wonders of the world with no sense of wonderment at all.
By the end of the first week at the resort, she mused over how she would survive the second and became aware that she couldn't, and knew too that she didn't wish to spend it with Victor either. But how could she leave him; almost everyone at the hotel was part of a couple or with a family and it would be doubly humiliating for him to remain there as a single person and where a girlfriend people would have seen him with had suddenly disappeared. She knew that people had a choice of a week at the resort or a fortnight and that there were flights back to Spain the following day. She went to one of the package team at the resort and wondered if it was possible to curtail the trip halfway through and fly back a week early. She said that her partner had urgent business back in Spain and that she might stay on but he would need to return. They supposed that would be possible: they wouldn't be able to refund him for the rest of the holiday but neither would they charge him for the early flight back if there were seats available.
That evening she told Victor that she wanted to break up, that they hadn't been close at all in Turkey and had hardly been close in Barcelona. It was probably a bad idea that they had chosen to holiday together when they had known each other for such a short period, and what with the flat in Barcelona and the sense of enclosure here, she felt it was best if one of them went back, and that it made more sense for it to be him. He could perhaps visit family during the week he would be in Spain, maybe the apartment next door was now finished, or maybe they would be taking a break. It made no sense for them both to return, she said, since half the problem was that she needed time on her own, and she believed that since she had holidayed often without others, and he had said he could never have felt comfortable doing so, surely it made more sense for her to stay and for him to go. She told him that she had already talked to someone about the possibility and they would tell her later that evening if there was space on the plane for one of them to fly back. She didn't quite know how he would react and this was for no other reason than that she hardly knew him at all. They met one night in a beer garden and his group of friends and hers were sharing a long bench and started chatting. She got into conversation with Victor who announced he was thinking of flat-swapping with friends in Barcelona and Emily said if he was looking for a travelling partner she would be happy to oblige. She wasn't sure if she offered as a joke or a proposition but by the end of the evening they were kissing in a lane not far from the pub as he walked her home, and he asked if she was serious about Barcelona. She told him she was and added that there were a couple of minor details she would need to sort out. One was arranging time off work; the other extricating herself from a relationship. The former was more complicated than the latter: it seemed her partner had the same night been in bed with an acquaintance of theirs.
Emily presented this information before telling me what was said that night in the hotel in Turkey, aware that the story she was telling made her look mean and selfish but that the need to tell it contained, within the disclosure, behaviour she may have wished to have kept to herself but knew that the telling wouldn't allow it: the best she could do was mitigate the effect. She said Victor reacted well from one perspective but it was terrible from another. He immediately agreed to go but also broke down in front of her, saying this wasn't the first time a girlfriend had left him in the middle of a holiday and that he knew it must be his fault, that he wasn't a considerate enough person, that he should have been more obliging, given Emily the time she needed to be alone. She felt immense pity for him that evening but as she wondered if she should change her mind, for some reason the thought of another week in Victor's company seemed impossible. If she believed he would have been happier staying at the resort than she would have been, obviously she would have got on the plane the next day but she was sure that would have left Victor feeling even more isolated; that the best solution was the one that she initially sought.
For much of that last evening, after the call came through that there was a place available on the plane, she hugged Victor as they slept together, and she left the air conditioning on for half the night so that she could accept his clinginess without suffering from the clamminess of the heat, one exacerbated by two bodies so close together. On the previous evening they turned the air conditioning off by eleven and as the heat began again to accumulate in the room she found her naked body moving further and further away from Victor's and by the morning she was almost falling out of the bed. But that night, with the air conditioning on, she wanted to hug him, to save his soul or hers she didn't know, aware that it was doing nothing to save the planet.
Victor left the next morning and as she sat alone at lunchtime she felt his absence but as a mixture of regret and relief and was sure that the latter would soon be much greater than the former. She also wondered how many other people were holidaying alone as she had noticed during the first week three or four people who were not with a partner nor with their family. Were they still here and would there be more this afternoon as the new arrivals flew in? She hadn't thought much about the people who were alone and couldn't see any of them in the restaurant but she assumed they had gone ahead with a booked holiday after breaking up with a partner or thought that a solitary holiday was easier when surrounded by a couple of hundred people rather than going from place to place. She reckoned that seemed unlikely though: when she had often travelled alone it was usually by staying in hostels and many of the people she met were likewise solitary travellers. It was true that most of the people were in their twenties and thirties, and that perhaps older people reckoned it was easier to spend a week or two alone in a resort than to find oneself surrounded by people close to half your age in a hostel, but she still believed the mythology of solo adventure could be sustained in a hostel even if you were in your fifties while the purpose of package trips was to play up the couple and the family. Look at images of package trips versus hostels, she said, and see the perceptions that are created. I didn't deny her point but I did at that moment wonder where she was taking it.
Emily said she found it amusing that she may have been the only person that coming week who was there without company and, in this sense of amusement, she saw what she supposed had always been her solitary strength. It was then I said it was always how I had seen her, as someone who travelled alone, never became attached to anyone in particular and didn't seem to need others. Emily said that I was right and for a long time wondered why she seemed so often to like her own company. It wasn't until this trip that she found some sort of answer. She added that during the afternoon and the evening she increasingly felt relief at Victor's absence, only the occasional feeling of remorse as she imagined his arrival at the Barcelona flat, and hoped at least that the toilet didn't smell. During the week that Victor was staying with her at the hotel they never once ate out on the terrace: the night they arrived they tried to do so but though the temperature was around 30 degrees even as the sun fell, the wind was strong enough to blow the paper napkin off the table and to make them fret over their glasses of wine. The following days they stayed inside and when Victor did suggest they try once again to eat on the terrace there was no trace of romance in the affair and it would have been a mockery to pretend there was. Yet here she happened to be on the first night alone eating on the terrace, the wind mild but present, allowing the paper napkin to flutter but with no likelihood of its disappearance over the balcony. The sun had just set and the light was soft and gave to the couples sitting all around her an allure they may not have possessed but, as she looked through the glass, to the interior dining hall, she saw sitting at various tables newcomers, and amongst them were three people sitting alone. Out of those three only one drew her attention for more than a moment, even if a more sympathetic soul might, she supposed, have given more time to the others who looked forlorn and confused, fretful of their solitude but frightened more by having no holiday to talk about when they returned home. Emily's remark was parenthetical but didn't seem irrelevant and I mused for a moment why she ignored them at the time but seemed to be giving them some attention now as she talked.
It was the third solitary figure who interested her the most, and while she ate she found herself glancing into the dining hall on several occasions and with each look across she added to it a morsel of speculation. Initially, she assumed this man she noticed who looked in his mid-forties had arrived at the dining hall first and was waiting for his partner or his wife to come down from their room, possibly an entire family. He didn't look like he was alone but she couldn't say why she thought this except that she assumed others were to join him. But over the next hour, nobody did. He had salt and pepper hair and a light beard turning equally grey, and a skin tone suggesting he may well have been Turkish or almost certainly Mediterranean. He was wearing a puff blue polo T-shirt and navy blue shorts with brown leather sandals. He was reading a book that was flopped open in front of him and this made her think he might have been French, adding that she noticed French paperbacks were much more often likely to lie open on their own. After finishing his main course, she watched him get up and return to the buffet, taking back with him to the table a coffee and a couple of small cookies. He was medium height but he walked like a man who would have felt uncomfortable had he been much taller and was perhaps from a family of people who would have been his height or smaller. She thought this when thinking of Victor, whose brothers, Victor said, were both several inches taller than he was and said he never got over his feeling of smallness despite being of average height for a Spaniard. She sensed no such feeling in this man, and thought too that though she never really knew Victor, just as she had never really known her other lovers over the years, what she sensed in him was that he always sought the smallness within him, the self that could never become large.
I noticed that something in the way she was talking now had taken a different tone, style even; that she was trying to explain something inexplicable, even if she was doing no more than discussing a man I assumed she was soon to sleep with in the telling; that she had already slept with as we talked. It was as if the chronology of her tale was collapsing and I noticed it first in the attention she gave to the other solitary diners who seemed to have no importance at the moment of being observed but took on a significance in retrospect. We had been talking for an hour and the sun retreated behind a building and wasn't likely to come back as it lost the sun, and I suggested since she was I reckoned only halfway through the story that we could go inside, or sit outside at the back of the cafe where the sun was now residing. I'd notice goosebumps on her arms and wasn't sure if this was the thought of the man she was describing or the drop in temperature with the sun now absent. She said that would be lovely, insisted that she buy me another coffee, which I, in turn, insisted be decaf, and she said that she ought to take the same she hadn't been sleeping much lately. We ordered inside and continued out the rear door and found the one remaining table as others had probably been thinking ahead and moved from the front to the rear before us. Unlike at the front which had a number of trees amongst the concrete and faced out onto a path that led into one of the city's main parks, and where on a sunny day hundreds of people would venture along it, the back had no trees and few people passing except those living in the surrounding flats or going to the nearby gym. Yet it was here that a friend of Emily's passed, wearing lycra and trainers, on her way to use the treadmill. She stopped for just a moment saying she didn't want to disturb us and put a hand gently on Emily's shoulder and asked if she was okay. Emily nodded and the friend said she would phone later, and smiled at me as she continued walking. As Emily turned back to me her eyes were watery and it was like a moment of prolepsis, an anticipation in the tale she was telling. 9
Another reason why she knew she couldn't have stayed with Victor, why he was irritating her on the trip, was that she found him slothful. While in Barcelona each morning she had gone for a run before he woke up, and each morning while she was at the resort she swam for half an hour, Victor lay in bed. It was at 730 that morning when she saw the man from the night before, already swimming when she arrived. He got out of the pool shortly before she did and dried himself off next to a sun-lounger, before disappearing into the toilets next to the pool. He came out wearing the shorts from the previous day and a different coloured polo shirt. He was a man comfortable in his body without looking like he attended to it with undue preoccupation. If she wasn't sure if she was attracted to him the previous evening, she knew she was by the time she saw him again at the breakfast buffet and he smiled in an acknowledgement that was both clear and ambiguous. Was he recognising both his and her solitary status she wondered (though she couldn't imagine him smiling at the other solitary people she saw the night before), was it the smile of the athletically complicit, or was there desire in that moment of familiarity?
There was no reason why it couldn't be all three and that night, as they dined together, when he put his hand over hers and she saw no reason to remove it, she knew that this was a man she couldn't control because she couldn't in his company control her own feelings. It may seem unusual that there she was, a thirty-four-year-old, emotionally beginning to act like a teenager, when she had never acted like one when she was seventeen because she had never had such feelings. But there she was. That night they slept together in his hotel room and the next morning at breakfast their body language showed a newfound couple who couldn't keep their hands off each other. It is a common enough phrase she said, but it had before then been no more than something she'd heard people say. But there she was finding an excuse to touch him, to brush some crumbs off his polo shirt, or to caress his ankle with her foot after removing her flip-flops. Often she would swallow a mouthful of his fruit salad and plant a kiss on his lips, tasting off them the smell of strawberry or mango. She hardly wondered what others made of her behaviour but some of the guests who were in their second week looked across disapprovingly, her lover thought, and noticed too an odd look on one or two of the waiting staff. She told him then that she hadn't arrived alone over a week ago but with a man she was seeing, who she didn't love, implying that here was one she did. He asked what happened and Emily said he went back to Barcelona but didn't add that he would be there holidaying alone while he waited for her return before they would both go back to Edinburgh. Her lover looked unhappy when she said this, said that it explained the looks they were getting, and wondered what they should do. Fearing that he might say that one night of passion would be all they would share, she proposed that they leave the resort and go somewhere else. It was now Friday, she would be leaving on Tuesday they could go to another town for the weekend where nobody would know them. She knew this must have sounded odd there they were strangers to each other in a resort where hardly anybody knew their names and she was proposing they disappear as if they were creating a scandal in a village where they had lived their entire lives. He smiled ambivalently, saying that was a good idea.
They travelled to the seaside town of Cesme, hiring a moped from the hotel that would usually be rented for excursions around the area. They said they didn't know when they would be back and paid for four days, and the person looked at them with a surprise matched by those in the dining hall who had seen Emily with her lover days after seeing her with Victor. They signed some papers, paid some money, and literally no questions were asked but Emily did wonder if the person behind the desk had heard rumours of their assignation a moment of paranoia, perhaps, but probably more reflective of the importance she was giving to the affair. The distance from the hotel to Cesme was around eighty kilometres and though it hadn't been her idea to go by moped she was pleased that for the entire journey she could hug her lover throughout, and was pleased she had resisted Victor's suggestion they hire one the day they went to the ancient site. She may have been frustrated sitting in a dolmus with a group of others but to have hugged Victor for an hour each way, when she could no longer touch him without feeling indifferent, would have been far worse. She would have held on to him only for grim life; here she was doing so, too, for firm love.
It was perhaps at this stage in the telling I realised that she didn't seem too interested in how I perceived her; that, as she came across as less and less likeable and more and more infatuated, so there was a pressing point behind the story that she wanted to excavate. I supposed there had been, and would be, others she would be trying to unearth it with as well. Yet none of us I sensed would have offered meaningful eyes upon her; that the only eyes that mattered were those of her lover. Yet while she seemed aware that the tale she was telling might show her in a poor light, she was aware also that there was version of magic hour in how her lover would look at her. It was a clumsy image but came to my mind as she talked about arriving in the coastal town as the sun was disappearing over the horizon It gave their arrival a romantic aspect that she thought they were more than capable of providing on their own, even as she momentarily compared it to the harsh sunlight at the ancient site which had so irritated her.
There wasn't very much to see or do in Cesme but they found pension off the main street, a cafe they breakfasted in, and where they sat for most of the morning, reading a book or chatting, before going back to the hotel room for a couple of hours, then around 2 in the afternoon going to the beach. They would return at five and get a drink in the bar before returning to the pension and showering and changing for dinner. On their last evening, they took the moped and rode to the nearby village of Alicati, where they dined in a restaurant that they found accidentally when wandering up a side street and discovered a beautifully lit courtyard, a mixture of candles and old, soft-lit oil lamps. They asked if they had a table free. They had a cancellation only twenty minutes earlier the waiter said. Emily announced they were in luck and the waiter looked at her with a smile that seemed forced and, for a moment, she wondered if talk from the resort had travelled to this tiny village. It was an absurd thought and one rectified a few minutes later when they heard at the table next to them a couple asking the waiter if what they'd heard was true; that earlier that day there had been an accident. The waiter, whose English was careful and precise, said there had been, and it was the most unfortunate cancellation they had ever had to make. There Emily was with her lover sitting in a courtyard having a candlit dinner over what sounded like somebody else's dead body. Her lover was quieter than usual, though she had noticed that it appeared an aspect of his character; a sudden retreat into silence that seemed to be much more than just going quiet. It was as though he had retreated into a tunnel, very narrow and dark and with room only for one. After a few minutes, she asked if he was okay and he admitted he wasn't; that he probably wouldn't be for a very long time, if at all.
He said it was interesting how one person's luck was another person's misfortune, saying it with an odd combination of indifference and devastating import that lost its oddness as he told her that, three years earlier, he had been to the resort they were staying in with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. A couple of months after that trip, back in France, they were driving out of Paris on the way to visiting his wife's mother in Brittany. They got caught behind a timber lorry when a log, twice the length of a snooker table and the diameter of a small dining one, came loose and looked like it was about to spear the windscreen. He pulled sharply to the left to avoid it and just missed on an oncoming car by steering firmly again and careening off the road, where the car fell a couple of feet down an incline. He was merely shaken, a cut and a bruise on his forehead, a sprained wrist, but his wife and child were unconscious. His daughter was dead by the time she arrived at the hospital; his wife died a few hours afterwards. Emily had sensed over the previous few days that her lover was a man with complications but assumed they were material and actual; that his business may have been struggling (he owned a cafe in Paris), that he was keeping secret a wife and possibly children, or that he had ageing parents he was concerned over. Would he have told her about his wife and child's death at all if it weren't for another's misfortune leading to their piece of minor good luck? She had no sense over the days she was with him that he was a dishonest man but he was a secretive one, and perhaps had she been more attuned to that distinction she might have guessed that a tragedy lay behind his frequent silences. A merely dishonest man would have kept to himself his marital status, enjoyed a fling with a woman at a holiday resort but even then she might have wondered why was he there in the first place. Yet after hearing what happened to his wife and child it was still inexplicable why he would return to a resort on his own after having been there three years earlier with his living family. She didn't quite know how to ask him this, and the sort of intimacy the restaurant invited wasn't of the type which entertained the wrenching of the heart; the lighting, the chatter, the soft music, no more than a murmur, was designed for the assuagement of it. The evening wasn't a disaster but it had become an anomaly while they sat through a meal that was in every sense meant for another couple.
They returned back to Cesme directly afterwards, the short moped ride an opportunity for Emily to hug her lover again while wondering if she was quite hugging the same man. With an adulterous husband, it may have been wrong but it could still have been exciting and wouldn't it have seemed that in cheating on his wife he was in turn choosing her? Back in their pension he asked if she thought it unusual he would return to the place where he had been before with his wife and children. Emily said it was one of the many questions she intended to ask. He told her that for six months after their deaths he could hardly leave his bed and rarely left the apartment. The cafe was more or less run for a year by the staff, doing it out of a duty that understood the magnitude of his grief while he couldn't at all attend to the magnitude of their sacrifice. He didn't care he would have sold it if he could have found the wherewithal to arrange the sale. He didn't care much about the staff either: what did they mean to him next to his wife and child? Yet run it they did, four regulars who still work for him and with whom he now shares the profits. He didn't return to working in the cafe until fourteen months after the accident, and while he'd like to think he offered to share the cafe's profits with the others because of their goodwill towards him, it might also have been that he wasn't sure if he could have run it again, with himself solely in charge. But he added that this is what he found after the accident; that no motive seemed pure anymore, no action without consequences, and no person was trustworthy even though he knew this had nothing to do with individuals but more to do with chance: that we are all so flimsily subject to contingency and at the same time responsible for the smallest of our deeds. What would have happened if they had left Paris five minutes later, if when he saw the truck up front he had pulled into a lay-by and waited for a few minutes? This combination of chance on the one hand and an awareness of responsibility on the other was one of the many things that made his world very fragile for a long time after their deaths, and still made his world fragile now, he said But in answer to her question, or the question he proposed she would have wanted answered first, he returned to the resort as he had returned to many things in his life: to the cafe, to restaurants in Paris his wife and he had eaten in, and various trips on the outskirts of the capital they had taken on weekends. He even went back to the place where they had taken their first proper holiday together: visiting once again a village near the Verdon Gorges. Yet he couldn't get in a car; hadn't driven since the day of the accident. The nearest train station was many miles from Barjols, and he didn't want to get on a bus. He had always biked around Paris but had never cycled enormous distances nor attempted any hill more difficult than the ones that would take him up to parks at Belleville or Buttes Chaumont. He knew he would need to work up his stamina to make the trip or accept he needed to find another means than his own legs to do it. He did over the next couple of months cycle far more than usual as he prepared for the excursion but he also bought an electric bike, which he trialed up those steep Paris streets and was confident that a combination of his physical powers and the battery could take him back to Barjols. It was perhaps the moment where he felt he was once again somebody resembling himself and he arrived at the village one late afternoon so exhausted that it was as if his body wouldn't allow the grief that was sitting inside him to take precedence over the hunger, tiredness and thirst that his body needed to satisfy. Over the next two or three days, he found the feelings of loss were enormous but not incapacitating. That was last summer, he said, and here he was this summer trying to see if going back to the place where he had his last holiday with his wife would help him recover, just as his trip the previous year to the first place in which they had been, seemed to do so.
She listened to him speak, and perhaps for the first time in her life was so utterly absorbed in another person, who nevertheless as he spoke had no especial interest in her, that she found the passivity of her ego exhilarating. Here, not for the first time, I am putting words into her mouth, just as she no doubt put many words into his as she told me the lover's story, but I don't think Emily would be troubled by my phrasing. She said to him she supposed them coming to Cesme by moped was part of the process and not simply a casual choice. He said probably a few years ago he would have hired a car but he told her that this moment seemed still a long way off. Perhaps he would never drive again, and felt as though he had a mild disability that nobody else need notice. But he supposed had they decided to have gone further away, tried to access the Turquoise coast, his insistence on the means of travel might have seemed more pronounced. After all, Turkey wasn't the best country in which to travel by train, and there wasn't a single station anywhere near the southern coast. He said he supposed he had mastered his pain the way someone masters a mild speech impediment, a problem he was constantly aware of but which if he was careful nobody else need notice. Instead of avoiding certain words; he avoided certain means of transport.
They talked for much of the night and into the morning, and while the previous evenings were passionate, she was surprised how little desire there was to make love, while aware too that this willingness to forego passion had nothing to do with the indifference she felt towards Victor a week earlier. She might have assumed during the previous days that her lover could well have been cheating on his wife and, now she knew that he wasn't, it seemed even more impossible for sex to answer a need. It wasn't that she no longer felt desire for her lover but it seemed too selfish a feeling for a sorrow that she sensed before but now that he had divulged. There appeared to her more honesty in his touch and she thought this was more important than the vibrations she had earlier felt.
And so they returned to the holiday resort the next day, and flew out the following morning to their respective destinations: the lover to Paris; Emily to Barcelona. Victor arranged not to meet her at the airport but was waiting for her when she arrived at the apartment. There was no distinct smell and no banging from the flat next door, and the flat looked as neat and tidy as the moment they had first arrived. As he made coffee and asked her if she was tired, she felt a tenderness towards him that seemed like an extension of the compassion she experienced towards her lover, but not at all replicable. She saw in Victor a boy even if he was in his early thirties, and saw too that her attraction to him had always been negligible. But, as with the other men she had slept with over the years, there was nothing she could compare it too that would have made it appear inconsequential. Had she seemed of little consequence to her lover, she wondered later that evening, as she shared the bed with Victor, whom she was happy to hold when he asked her to do so. He was a weak man she would have thought a week earlier, and there she was instead seeing weakness as though it belonged to nobody in particular and everyone in general. She saw instead, in Victor, dignity, that he had absorbed what others might see as humiliation as a detail in the flux of life. That evening over dinner he had said he knew that he should never have gone with her in the first place, that it was silly of him to take the trip to Barcelona and dafter still to carry on to Turkey. But he said it with no resentment and said he found himself wondering about the person she had left behind to go with him. He said he must have been cruel to lovers in the past just as she had been cruel to him, and so it would continue, but it seems that people need to be hurt before they see the pain of others in their own suffering. What might break the chain he wondered? Lying awake next to Victor she thought about this and reckoned if anything it must be chance. That her lover's pain was not due to any cruelty on his part but on the contingencies of the world that he fell victim to but survived. His wife and child did not, and there he was with the pain he couldn't quite be held responsible over but, left with a life that they no longer had, and was left to suffer within that misfortune.
By the time she had finished talking the other tables had been taken inside and I noticed the cafe should have closed thirty minutes earlier. I didn't know why the cafe staff hadn't asked us to leave but it appeared to be a gesture consistent with the decency that found such a sustained form in those who looked after the lover's cafe in Paris, Victor's response to Emily's inability to love him, and the sense I had of Emily acknowledging a feeling that for whatever reason had never before visited itself upon her. Love is best as a verb she said; we just keep trying to turn it into a noun that has a proper name. It sounded like a parenthetical remark but it seemed to me much more than that.
© Tony McKibbin