When I was offered a job in Berlin teaching a film course in English I didn't know whether to take the post, or more specifically, perhaps, didn't know what my motive would be in taking it. For ten years I had worked as a film critic for a regional or national newspaper (depending on whether you see the place in which I was living as a country or a region) and for a couple of years had been writing a book that a publisher commissioned on British cinema. I didn't have too many ambitions but when someone had enquired if I wanted to write at length on British film I saw an opportunity to make grander claims than I could usually make in a column or even occasionally at greater length in a journal. I asked if there was going to be any freedom in the proposal: I wished to examine why British film had long been deemed uncinematic, to rescue it from some of its harshest critics, to defend the films I thought so obviously were filmic, and to be ruthless on numerous films that were not. I wrote the book in less than nine months, with far fewer footnotes than might usually be deemed appropriate, but backed my arguments up with numerous examples from the films themselves, and with the aid of a handful of critics that I admired and respected. The book was a brief success and a scandal, and it was during this critical kerfuffle that someone in Berlin contacted me and said that they were starting a new film department, one of the areas that they would be covering would be British post-Kitchen Sink Realist cinema and would I be interested. As it so happened I had a PhD, but that was only because I hadn't known what to do with myself after graduating from uni fifteen years earlier and, when funding became available to write a doctorate on a subject that was useful to the English department in which I had done my undergraduate, I produced a piece of work that ran to almost a hundred thousands words, most of them superfluous and few of them, I suspect, will ever be reread. My feeling, writing it, was that a professor in the department wanted more or less an assistant to work on their area without doing a lot of the very boring stuff that I found myself focusing on and, sure enough, several years afterwards, he published a book that seemed to take full advantage of my own laborious research. He thanked me in the acknowledgements but quoted me not at all in the text, which didn't bother me in the least. I was pleased it had served some sort of purpose and forgot all about it.
But when the job offer came and they asked me if I had a PhD I couldn't believe I had at last found a use for it myself, and replied that indeed I did - and felt like adding that it had far more footnotes than the book I had written. They invited me over for an interview, which was more like an informal discussion with a couple of professors at the university, said that the job was mine if I wanted it, said it would be nice if I could pick up some basic German if possible, but that it wasn't a requirement and all my students would be fluent in English. They told me how much I would earn and that evening I looked online and viewed various apartments around the city, saw that I could rent a one-bedroom place for a third of my salary and that my standard of living in Berlin would be a lot higher than in my home city - where for over five years I had shared with a flatmate in the other bedroom and would sometimes rent out the box-room to pay for essential bills.
But this brings me to the crux of the story, the dilemma behind taking the job that had nothing to do with the employment. Five years earlier, and for five years, I had been going out with Sonia, someone who was working on her PhD when we met, and who told me after those five years that she wanted to move to Germany, to pursue post-doc research and master the language: her doctorate was on a well known German novelist of the early 20th century, and though she was born in Paris she was brought up in Strasbourg, speaking French but also German. She wanted to live in the country, she said, and asked if I would consider going with her. What would I do there, I asked, my lack of imagination showing a lack of interest in her, she believed. I could make corporate videos for a while, she suggested, knowing that I had made some shorts with friends, and enjoyed mucking around with a video camera. She reckoned there would be plenty of companies looking for English language speakers who could target their work internationally. After this, perhaps when she had a job in the department, she could find a way of getting me a post in the department too, perhaps - I had after all a PhD and had published loads of articles in papers, magazines and a few journals. I am sure that would lead to a very questionable ethical stance I said, though it sounded more like an excuse than an ethical position of my own. As she said she supposed so, her voice trailed off as if my lack of imagination was being met by her false optimism. If you loved me, she concluded, you would show more ambition. A couple of months later she was gone, a flatmate ensconced, and I found myself for a long time really believing that had I loved her more I would have been more ambitious. For the next five years, I didn't see anyone at all, as though such a remark hadn't so much wounded my pride as damaged my libido. I just couldn't see women showing interest in me and thought I would save myself the trouble of showing interest in them. I am sure Sonia's comment came out of irritation and frustration, but it felt like a truth I needed to absorb, and so that is what I did for the next five years as I focused on watching films at an even more furious rate than before, and then worked on the book.
As far as I knew Sonia was still living in Berlin when I considered taking the job, and I considered too contacting her to say that I would be in the city for a couple of days, and might soon be moving there. But we had contacted each other only half a dozen times in the intervening years, and in each instance it was over practical matters. Would this, too, be a practical matter, or would I be announcing that I wanted her back since I was finally moving to the city that she lived in, or gloating by going to the city years later on my own? I had no idea if she was with someone else, though I supposed she was, and I assumed this man was much more ambitious than me. But what I had last heard, more than a year ago, through a friend of hers and an acquaintance of mine who was still living in the same city as me, was that she had not found a professional post in Germany, and was thinking of the US, a country she had always professed to have no interest in. "I am a European" she would often say. I could now reply to her that I was a European too, and with a proper job that she had so insistently wished I would get while we were still together.
I'd been to Berlin only once before, ten years earlier, though I'd been promising to visit a couple of friends who had moved there in the previous five years, and wondered whether I hadn't do so because it would have meant contacting Sonia or ignoring her. I suppose if I knew she had visited my home city in the years since we had broken up and said nothing about it I would have been mildly offended as well, but equally telling her that I would be in Berlin, and telling her I would be coming, might be construed as a gesture on my part I didn't really want to offer. Going to Berlin for a job interview seemed to me to justify the silence: I would have no time for anyone except the friend I was staying with and focusing on the interview. But as I thought about all these things I had to acknowledge a simple fact. Whether or not Sonia still had a place in my heart, she definitely had a place in my head.
I flew out on Friday and was met by a cab driver who was looking from left to right while holding a sign up with my name on it. I walked very slowly towards him to see if he might infer that I was the person he was looking for as if he were the person interviewing me for the job and could see in my demeanour that I would obviously be the chosen candidate, but he was still looking left to right as I stood a foot in front of him and said I was indeed the person whose name was on the piece of paper he was holding up. I spoke in English and he replied in English too. I'd decided before arriving that since I had no German at all, there was no point fumbling with a few words, I would assume everyone understood English unless informed otherwise. His English was more than good enough as he took me to my hotel. Though the journey was not a long one he managed to tell me a few things about himself after asking me what had taken me to Berlin. He said he too would have liked to get into Academia: he did a PhD in philosophy, looking at the development of the word aesthetics from the Ancient to the present day, focusing especially on someone called Baumgarten. I'd never heard of him but said his PhD sounded interesting, even important. He said it was important indeed - the professor who advised him stole a few of the ideas himself and this so disillusioned him, along with the numbers applying for so few posts, that he decided to become a cab driver instead. He gave me his card as he dropped me off.
The hotel they had put me in was near the university and after dumping my bags, checking the hardness of the bed, the water pressure in the shower and the strength of the wifi, I went for a wander, imagining that is was where my flat would be and this would be the area in which I would spend most of my time. I deliberately tried to see myself as a local and not as a tourist, aware there are places we enjoy visiting but lack the amenities to live simply and well. I found two or three cafes that served pots of tea and one, an Arabic cafe that served tea with fresh mint. There was a supermarket where I could get many of the regular foods I would find in Edinburgh but also, just closing, an open market. It was around 2 o'clock and the stalls were being taken down, the fruit and vegetables packed away, but with numerous peaches, grapes and plums squished on the street, and some spoiled boxes left to the side for anyone who would wish to take them. I then walked further afield to see how close was the nearest cinema and found one about four blocks away from the hotel. It was a cinema showing an international range of films and I knew I would be able to keep up with American independent cinema, and knew of course that most other national cinemas would be beyond my reach unless I picked up passable German. Thinking this unlikely, and knowing I wouldn't learn it quickly, I thought that if I were to be given the job I would start a cinema club specifically with English sub-titles, showing two or three films a week as I started imagining the programme I would put together.
Indeed, I even stopped off at the cafe serving mint tea and sat for forty-five minutes proposing a three-month programme of films I would show, and could see myself also sitting there in a few months' time working through the readings I would have assigned for various courses. And yet I quite suddenly felt a wave of anxiety coming over me as I realized I was beginning to insert once again Sonia into the narrative of my life. I could imagine her coming in while I was working, kissing me on the lips, ordering a coffee for herself while I would finish off the essay, and we would walk home together as I allowed a thought to pass through my mind that had passed through it numerous times in the past. But while then it felt like wish fulfilment based more on the possibility of getting Sonia back, but on the impossibility of getting the sort of job that would win her back, imagining for ourselves a future that she would be happy with, now here I was with the job the possibility but Sonia a person who might be married, might have children, might be anywhere in the world, or, who knows not in the world any longer at all. With this latter thought, I felt a loss of far greater magnitude than ought to be justified when idly thinking about the various permutations for a life of a loved one lived in one's absence, as I couldn't easily deny that I was in Germany hoping to get a job that would lead me back to Sonia. It was as if the job offer was so undreamed of, so unlikely, that if they gave it to me why couldn't I dream equally of a reunion with Sonia in the country in which she so wished to live and that I might soon be living in as well?
The idea of the job had initially been a curiosity, a happy opportunity to make a proper living and get out of Scotland for a while. But for the rest of that day, I couldn't help but insert Sonia into this Berlin future. Maybe I should rent a larger flat and take a tenant for a while in case Sonia and I were to get back together again, I found myself thinking. I would pass restaurants and wonder if Sonia might like it, remembering her comments on anything from restaurant lighting to the level at which music should be played. I have never thought getting over someone consists of not thinking about them. That is fine. What constitutes a failure to recover rests on thinking about them in the context of the decisions you are making when they are no longer in your life. I thought I'd stopped making those decisions a long time ago, but there I was was walking along the streets of Berlin thinking once again for two.
Obviously, Sonia would have found this ironic, complaining often enough that I would usually think for one. And it was true that during the time we were together I almost never thought about what she wanted to do, thinking naively, perhaps more than selfishly, that she would do that for herself. But at the end she told me how often she had thought about my needs but didn't think I was attending to hers, and yet in trying to win her back (albeit mainly in my head), I would think a great deal about her needs. It was a sign of recovery a couple of years ago when I realised I was no longer doing so, and here I was, offered the job of a lifetime, reentering a trauma in the process of perhaps taking it.
I should say the job wasn't guaranteed, though they said there were no other candidates for the post. If they didn't feel I was right I suppose they would seek out another critic who knew a bit about British film, and that morning, as I ate breakfast, I thought of a few ways in which I might be able to sabotage the interview. If the day before was likely to become my daily state in Berlin, then while I would be living my ideal job I'd also be living it within the context that Sonia would have found it ideal too - but was no longer part of my life. I reckoned to take the job would be to risk returning to the loss, to wander around Berlin as I had wandered around Edinburgh for more than a year after we broke up. If then I would think about what might have been if I had only relocated geographically, now I would be traipsing around Berlin wishing I could push back time. I thought about how I might explain this to the interview panel as I would tell them that the job wasn't for me: that I couldn't come to Berlin because I should have come years before, and my unwillingness to do so then was the reason for my inability to do so now. It was an absurd line of reasoning, but sometimes there is nothing better than to imagine our thoughts expressed out loud in the company of others to see how untenable they happen to be.
I knew then that I wouldn't try and sabotage the interview but could accept easily enough the idea that I wouldn't get the job, and so I went in with no sign of nerves, as if the desire, on the one hand, to get appointed, and the wish, on the other, that I wouldn't, cancelled each other out and I was as relaxed as I might initially have hoped.
So they gave me the job. I started four months later, at the beginning of the Autumn term. During the summer I got myself organized in Berlin, renting a flat about twenty minutes walking distance from the university. It was a modern apartment block and the flat was on the second floor with a small kitchen that opened onto a sitting room that easily accommodated a few hundred books, and space for more furniture than my place in Edinburgh. The bedroom had room for a double bed, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe and a desk. I put some shelves above the desk, and put all the essential books I would need for work there. I was surprised at how quickly it felt like home, and I often sat in cafes and heard a mixture of English and German being spoken. Ordering, I always offered please and thank you in German, but would the rest of the time speak English. Most people seemed happy with that; it saved them the time of having to make sense of a word jumble while acknowledging the person in front of them had at least been polite.
My days consisted mainly of working on my courses for the next term in the mornings and wandering around the city in the afternoon. In the evening I rewatched films I intended to screen for the students, or would go and see an English language film in the Babylon Kreuzberg or Hackesche Hfe Kino. I even found a cinema, IL Kino that showed a few international films with English language subtitles. I didn't know whether it was feeling cocooned in a foreign language and yet still at home in my own, or whether it was that I had a proper and secure job for the first time in my life, but I felt tranquil, and the summer days and nights were warm without leaving me soaked in sweat, the weather consistent without the meteorological mood swings that were typical of Edinburgh. Berlin may in many ways be an ugly city but it had what I'd call an energized attractiveness quite at odds with the beautiful inertia of Edinburgh. There were always things happening in Berlin, with people starting pop-up cinemas and cafes, there were numerous street markets and stalls and, above all, always something to look at. I would often take a book with me to a cafe but only read half the pages I intended to get through because I would just look at people, listen to buskers or observe somebody nearby working on a mural. It wasn't that none of this was possible in Edinburgh, but I sensed that in the Scottish capital the city was run by those who tolerated such behaviour but didn't encourage it. In Berlin, it was as though the city ran itself. Into the ground some might say, since it was a city in the early 2000s so well known for having been bankrupt. It seemed to me have nothing of Edinburgh's historical frugality, nor what I believed was its recent greed. The tourist industry in the city, and the obsession with overseas students, meant foreigners were money to be made rather than people to meet.
I don't think I would have had such thoughts about my home city if it weren't for the move to Berlin, and no doubt I was exaggerating the pleasures of my new home and the failings of Edinburgh, but as I began to think of all that was wrong with my home city, I found myself thinking too of what Sonia had often said about it and why she hadn't wanted to stay. I never ignored what she said, but I didn't really listen to her either. I would sometimes say she no doubt had a point but I couldn't really argue with her and she would say that was the point. I lacked the necessary comparison. Moving somewhere else would give me that. Here I was making the comparisons five years after Sonia wished me to do so, and while I was relieved that thinking of her didn't make me feel the ache of need that was present during the year after she left, I couldn't pretend that my wanderings through the streets of Berlin, walking down numerous avenues that would be shaded by trees that Edinburgh streets usually lacked, contained the hope of seeing her.
But what would have lain in that hope: a desire to get back with her or at her: to say how wrong I had been as I realized that I needed to get out of Edinburgh, or how right I had been, biding my time until a job that suited me arose? All I knew was that I wasn't afraid to meet her again. I didn't feel that my need would any longer be evident and that my failure needed to be judged. I had become a success on my own terms, and I knew if Sonia had become successful it would have been on other people's. As she would often say, I should learn to compromise. The book I'd written really was my own, and there is surely something much more pleasurable and meaningful attaining minor success with one's own will intact, than, say, far greater fame based on the insistent claims of others.
By the time September came, I was well-prepared and happy to start. I'd posted various articles that I'd been reading through the summer onto the university website that the students could access, arranged two screenings a week, all on British cinema, and started using the small office that I had been given the keys to a week before the start of term. It was during this week I met a few of my colleagues, and apart from one, they seemed pleased to have a new member of staff from Scotland. But the one who wasn't pleased appeared even hostile. At our first humanities meeting (and we had three during that week) he let it be known he did not approve of courses being taught in English, that it was part of a move to push other languages off curriculums around the world. He would not expect to go to the UK and teach a course entirely in German. The head of the department, who may have been defending me, but was certainly defending her decision, said that of course if he were teaching German he might feel entitled to teach it in German. He might not have the students capable of keeping up (as she found when she taught in a UK university a few years earlier and had to allow students to write their essays in English while insisting they speak German in the class), but it would be very understandable if he expected to do so. A few of the courses are now taught in English, Miriam said, since the university was lucky enough to have several people from the UK here to teach them. It would be a great shame if they did not feel welcome, she said. I looked around the room of twenty people and wondered which others in the Literature and Film department were teaching classes in English, and if anybody there happened to have as little German as I did. I sensed that Miriam had said this to protect me; that I was the only person her disgruntled colleague was referring to.
In the following two meetings before the start of the term, the colleague didn't say anything out loud, but he would sometimes look at me as if I were an interloper and possibly a usurper, and I would find out soon enough why he might have believed me to be both. It gave to the end of my calm summer a modicum of anxiety but it also reassured me that others in the department and especially those who interviewed me were on my side. I could see it not just in Miriam's occasional glances (where I might have seen irritation and anger); I saw it also in the looks between several colleagues when Hans would speak. They might not have liked me much, heck they didn't yet know me, but anyone inclined to get on the wrong side of Hans was on the right side of them. I promised to find out more about Hans and some of the other colleagues when I had a moment but the first couple of weeks were hectic indeed. There were the classes I was teaching, the screenings I had organised and that I would introduce, meetings with colleagues and meetings too with students, mainly one on one consultations, but also a couple of social events where I would get to know everyone in an informal environment. Throughout this busy fortnight the one source of tension would be Hans. Whenever I would see him, turning up at the various meetings, one of the screenings I put on, at a social event with the students, I felt that here was a man who could make a person's life hell. Yet whenever he would see me he would nod politely, and he had never directly criticised me. That he had come to one of the screenings I could have read as a sign of respect; instead, that he didn't turn up to the other three I had shown in the first fortnight I took to be proof that he wanted only to check up on me.
After a couple of weeks, and with the social events over, I had a little more time and looked to get to know Hans a bit better. Obviously, I didn't knock on his office door and introduce myself properly; I went online and found out all I could surreptitiously. He was in his early fifties which was no surprise, and had taught at the university for more than fifteen years, which didn't surprise me either. What did was the list of his publications. He had published around eight books, edited a couple of anthologies, and was also a regular on what seemed like a well-respected Radio show. He was clearly a name, and no doubt one to be reckoned with - or one who wished to reckon with me. I even found a few articles he had written in English on New German cinema, and all of them were good. They suggested he knew the subject very well, but more importantly he managed to find what seemed to me original things to say about the filmmakers, blending personal details with political points, formal observations with thematic preoccupations.
I looked then at the work of some of my other colleagues and found none of them had written as extensively or as well as Hans. Most had written the occasional piece in English, and they all wrote with a timidity that seemed about much more than their grasp of the language. At the meetings, Hans's skill with English was less apparent than two or three others, but on the page Hans appeared much more fluent. He was I supposed just a better writer, as though English, German, French or whatever other language was merely the means with which expression comes through. It wasn't expression itself. Obviously, a passable standard was necessary but maybe beyond that what mattered far more was the sensibility of the person writing. I might not have liked what I saw of Hans but I liked a lot what he had written. But the more important question was whether Hans liked me, and he clearly didn't seem to, or perhaps he didn't dislike me - he hardly knew me - but didn't like my writing.
I found myself imagining his perspective on events. That there he was, easily the best writer in film, perhaps in the humanities department, and was neither liked nor even perhaps respected. Miriam wasn't much of a writer and nor were several of Hans' other colleagues, and then they go and employ somebody from abroad who couldn't write very well either. Wouldn't it be fair that he be infuriated, and from this point of view hadn't he been if anything almost polite?
Over the next week in between teaching commitments and screening demands I reread my book on British cinema and found with a sense of relief that whether the book was good or bad, it did seem the sort of tome that Hans wouldn't have disliked. While some of the others in the department would offer quotation after quotation, with many an outlandish statement justified by the status of the given theorist quoted, both Hans and I used theory lightly, without at all I think dismissing it, focusing chiefly on the works themselves and the nuances that could be brought out of them. We both I believe gave the impression that we watched films and didn't just read books about them. I concluded that he probably hadn't read my book at all, and if he had, the gripe lay elsewhere.
It was around a month into the new term when I went for a drink with one of the people, Jan, who had interviewed me for the job. I'd read some of his work too when looking at my colleagues' publications. Jan had gone down the self-effacing route: relying mainly on translating French and British criticism into German. His PhD had been on Hegel and Nietzsche and their impact on French intellectual thought. But many of these thoughts became part of his personal belief; he didn't care to pursue them professionally and thus took to translating. Two or three critics that I'd used quite extensively in my book would have been unavailable in German had it not been for Jan. I said this to him after a screening I'd put on that he had come along to, and he suggested that we get a drink. As we talked for an hour about various things, and mainly about films we liked, Jan apologised for Hans' behaviour that day during my first departmental meeting. Jan said he didn't really like gossiping about colleagues but, in this instance, he felt he owed me an explanation for Hans' behaviour: that though it was an attack on me when he talked about English speakers teaching courses in German universities, it was Hans expressing his frustration that I had got the job instead of his girlfriend, a PhD student who had recently finished her doctorate on British film. Hans had hoped that she would get the post and they would stay together. She didn't and now she has a job somewhere in the US Mid-West. They were no longer together and Hans believed they would be if she had got the post. He said this, he reassured me, not so that I would feel any guilt towards Hans' predicament, but to understand why Hans might occasionally seem off with me. It had nothing to do with my abilities.
There was nothing to suggest Jan was a gossip as we started going for a drink most weekends. He was around my age, had a girlfriend who was doing post-doc work in Paris, and I never heard him speak personally again about Hans or any of our other colleagues. But about three weeks later I asked him a few more questions about Hans. I aksed not long after a class on an early sixties British film with an actor in it whose work Hans seemed to know well, and better than I did. After the film, there was a discussion with around thirty people, and Hans, who was at the screening, stayed, asking several questions that were very precise and not always easy to answer. It was hard to know whether he wished to catch me out or that he just happened to do so but it made for a tense time as I answered the questions as well as I could without feigning knowledge I didn't have but might have felt obliged to know. It was then I noticed the depth to Hans' voice, that he could speak from the back of the room and let it carry as if he were on a stage. He was not a tall man, even perhaps a smallish one, but if he gave the impression of height it came through his voice. I suspected he kept his distance from people partly so he could register his authority in the manner in which his voice carried rather than how he carried his slightly diminutive self. After the discussion I aimed to introduce myself again, perhaps to try and get to know him a little better, perhaps to make him seem small next to my six feet after he had made me very small indeed with his questions. But when I wrapped up, I looked around and couldn't see him in the room.
And so I asked Jan a few questions about him, and Jan admitted he had only told me enough gossip to indicate that I shouldn't take Hans' attitude too personally. But while Jan said he was in no doubt I was much better qualified than Hans' girlfriend for the job - that nobody doubted the post should have been mine - there might have been an ulterior motive for Miriam rejecting her. Miriam and Hans had been lovers for a couple of years before Hans started seeing the other woman, and while nobody knew for sure whether he left Miriam for Sandra, it still felt no doubt for Miriam like she had been usurped. He admitted that it made things easier for him that I was so much better qualified than the main rival for my position, but he knew that if it had been reversed, that if Sandra had been better qualified than me, he would have had to give her the job and risk falling out with Miriam. He liked Miriam he insisted, but not enough to give someone who didn't deserve it a job all the better to protect her feelings. He thanked me for being good at what I did and saving him the grief of a useless conflict of interest. I thanked him for the most convoluted compliment I was ever likely to receive. He said he was telling me all this only to make clear that the one person who might wish to question my competence had a very vested interest in doing so.
However, at the next few staff meetings, I noticed a more manipulative and resentful side to Miriam than I had seen hitherto, and saw in Hans a sense of pain that looked familiar: the sort of anguish one feels in the months immediately after another has left us. I knew that feeling well, and well enough for me to offer an emotional sympathy for Hans. I started to see a vaguely vindictive side to Miriam. She was indeed a woman scorned, but it was if whatever emotional pain she had felt in the past had now hardened into a positional superiority. She would sometimes cut Hans off in the middle of a sentence, insist that he should conclude his point, or wonder if it was at all relevant. I suppose I missed this initially because at that first meeting I thought he was picking on me, which of course I suppose he was. Jan had made very clear that Hans was very unhappy that I had been given the job when he reckoned this was based on keeping his girlfriend from getting it. Hans' emotional pain was not without targets close to hand, while the assuager of that pain was thousands of miles away.
Over the next three months, I noticed during meetings that Miriam was increasingly mocking and superior; Hans more and more irritated with me. He had no power over Miriam but it was as if he sensed that he had a little bit of power elsewhere. This wasn't at all institutional; he had no hierarchical control over me at all, but what he couldn't have known was that he had my emotional sympathy, or perhaps more specifically my empathy. In his pain, I saw my own past misery and so when I would see him walk disconsolately along the corridor I remembered myself wandering around the streets of Edinburgh thinking of Sonia. I had nobody to blame but myself for the sadness I felt, but if I had others to blame I am not sure if I would have been able to resist doing so. Hans had Miriam who seemed deliberately to make his life miserable, and me, who had accidentally helped Miriam in creating it. I sometimes wondered if I had known that I would make another teacher so unhappy would I have taken the job? When couched like that it seems like a uselessly compassionate question, leaving one walking constantly on ethical eggshells.
So no, that wouldn't have been useful. I seemed to be more qualified than Hans' girlfriend, more capable of doing the job generally, Jan seemed to believe (though perhaps to assuage any insecurities on my part). The students appeared happy to have someone from Britain teaching them about a cinema that was as familiar to me as German film would have been to Hans and others. But perhaps I would have thought again had I known that my job was partly offered within the context of a vendetta, that I wouldn't have wished to be involved in another person's game. I could see that what Miriam had done was professional but not ethical. It was professional that I'd been chosen as the person best qualified to do the job, but it was not ethical the way that she managed to make another person unhappy in the process - and that the unhappiness looked like it was part of the process. I never did talk to Miriam about this and saw no way to do so, but each time we were in a meeting and she would treat Hans with disrespect, would undermine a figure whose work I had read and admired far more than the person belittling him, so I wanted to intervene, to say that even if this man disliked me, I both respected and empathised with him, that I admired his work and could imagine myself in his position. And all the while if Hans caught my eye at all it would be with a disdain still greater than Miriam's for him.
Returning after the Christmas break, I noticed that the area around Miriam's office had been closed off, with two police officer's standing outside the room. I then walked along to the end of the corridor where Jan's office was, across from mine on the fifth floor, and tapped on the door. He answered it looking very pale and asked me to come in. He asked me to take a seat in the first moment of authoritarianism he had offered since the day of the interview when he had asked me to do likewise when we waited for Miriam and another colleague to join us. This time there would be no Miriam - she was in hospital, recovering from an attack. The previous evening, around 630, Hans had gone to her office and beaten her and tried to strangle her. The building was almost empty; the porter would have been on the ground floor. But luckily someone else was working late out and out of term time and could hear, from their office a floor below, a ruckus, and came to find a man with his throat around the neck of a woman. His arrival was enough to scare the man off, who ran out the door but made no attempt to flee from anything more than the immediate scene of the crime. The police had arrested him late the previous evening. Jan reckoned courses would be cancelled over the next week anyway. Somebody would have to replace Hans, and maybe Miriam would be in no hurry to come back. Hans and Miriam, he said, were masters who were also slaves.
As Jan told me what happened I saw in his role the passive observer who had arrived at work and been told what had happened. But I didn't feel so passive, feeling that if I hadn't been employed the attack would have never taken place and that I could quite easily have been the person physically abused. During that week I thought a lot about resigning and also quite a lot about Sonia. Over the last three months, I had, of course, found out that she was still in Berlin and teaching at a university on the other side of the city. I hoped I suppose to see her in cafe, or a bar, on the street or in the underground. It was as though I needed her to see me accidentally so as to gauge how surprised, even happy, she would be to see me. I felt I couldn't email her; that it wouldn't be contingent enough and it might seem that I had taken the job just to be closer to her. There would have been enough truth in that for me to be embarrassed by it if the thought had crossed her mind, a thought I somehow believed wouldn't cross it if she had seen me by chance. But how would she know it was by chance and not by some engineering on my part? I supposed I would have known it was accidental and thus not felt that shame when we met.
But now I reckoned I could get in contact with a story that would both justify my gesture and also echo our own parting. I emailed her the day after hearing of the incident and said that for the last six months I'd been living in Berlin and for a semester I'd been teaching film courses at Humboldt University. If she fancied meeting up I would like that very much. I didn't hear from her for a week and assumed she was no longer using the same email account, or had no interest in replying, when she sent an apologetic email back saying she was at a conference, then returned and wasn't quite sure what to say, and there she was now replying to say that it would be crazy since we were in the same city to remain out of touch. She said she could find some time that coming weekend. I didn't know whether to read into her remarks that she thought we should meet since it would be absurd to bump into each other on the street, whether she was being polite and reckoned it would be easier meeting up than creating excuses why we shouldn't, or whether she still had feelings for me and now we were at last in the same city, and on the continent, perhaps we could reunite romantically. Of course, I could have hypothesised a few other possible scenarios, no doubt, but the most pertinent were those of indifference, rejection and love. These were the three imaginings my body seemed to allow myself as I would at one moment feel ecstatic that we would be seeing each other soon, despondent when I thought she was being polite, and mildly angry when I thought of her possible indifference.
During that week before meeting Sonia, I was back at work. Miriam was still off with stress, and probably wouldn't return before the end of the month, possibly before the end of the term. Jan took over the department and said he could find some PhD students to cover Miriam's classes until she came back, but if she happened to be off long term we would need to find somebody to replace her. He would be surprised if she returned this year; he would understand if she didn't want to come back to the university at all. For Hans, coming back wasn't an option, though a prison term Jan thought was unlikely. He had no history of assault it seemed, and he would probably only get a suspended sentence, though he would struggle to get another job in a German university. The department had been quite suddenly and shockingly depleted, and would need new staff soon enough. Jan never seemed to me an ambitious man and here he was with responsibilities aplenty without the desire for the power that went with them. The ambitious people were now elsewhere.
I had arranged to meet Sonia at a cinema with a cafe less than a mile from the university, and it wasn't only enthusiasm or that I Iived much closer to the place that made me arrive for the assignation half an hour early. It was also that I wanted to see her before she would see me. I wanted to understand how I would feel before the necessity of introductions. There were no images of her online and people can change a lot in five years, or not at all. I recall an acquaintance in his early twenties who at university worked out at the gym, had long black hair that looked almost blue in a certain light, and eyes that in their liveliness charmed without a word coming out of his mouth. I saw him on Princes street five years after he graduated. At first, I didn't recognise him as he looked at me as we walked towards each other and he called my name just as we were about to pass each other by. He said it was Paul, Paul from the gym as he listed several courses we did together. I mentally put the hair back on his head, the liveliness back into his eyes and the confidence back into his body. Yes, Paul, I said, and then looked again at what five years had done to him. We talked for a few minutes but no explanation was forthcoming, and to this day I have no idea what those five years entailed. What had they done to Sonia? Indeed, what had they done to me, as I fretted that she might not recognise me instantly, and in that failure whatever confidence I had taken into the situation would dissipate.
Sonia hadn't changed at all I thought as I saw her hurriedly coming towards the cafe entrance even if she wasn't yet late; if anything she had regressed from the assertive woman who had left Edinburgh to the hesitant woman who had arrived in it. She still hadn't noticed me as I noticed in her a vulnerability where when I had first met her I had seen an ingenuousness which had touched me, and it was as if the same feeling was being activated again but with the passage of time containing the nuance of that shift from the ingenuousness to the vulnerable. Things had hurt her or disappointed her I sensed. Obviously, such thoughts were not fully rounded and coherent in those few seconds as she came towards me, but Iater during our conversation Sonia would mention a remark by a writer she was presently working on, Doris Lessing, saying that "what we often think is intellectual". I didn't quite know what she meant but it was then that I formulated briefly what I had sensed as I first saw her again. By that time we had been talking for more than an hour, and she had told me what she'd been doing over the last five years; that she had worked mainly in part-time jobs, in cafes and bars as she mentioned another comment Lessing made: "I worked in a cafe for few weeks, and I've never been able to understand how anybody can stand it, standing all day and night." She didn't say if there were affairs during this time but I sensed there were, and as exhausting and futile as the jobs she would take. "Men", she would say, but she could have been talking of bosses, colleagues, lovers. She said that I could never give her what she believed she needed, but I never took much either. Most people would leave her drained; I just left her frustrated. So many people she had met in the last few years, she said, wanted so much from others and to give so little of themselves. She recalled that when she left, she was disappointed by my lack of ambition; then when she would think about it she reckoned it might have been my best quality.
We then talked about our respective jobs as she said she was on a temporary contract teaching English literature while a lecturer was on maternity leave. It had taken her five years of bits and pieces of teaching in between working part-times jobs even to get that. We discussed for a little while the senior staff who would get her marking a hundred essays for a minimal fee, ask her to cover a tutorial with little notice, and she mentioned how she had lost one cafe job because somebody had asked her on the morning of a tutorial to cover him and insinuated that, if she didn't, no more work would be forthcoming. As she said all this there was no bitterness in Sonia's tone, no anger in her words, nor irateness in her face. But there was a look of futility, one that seemed to say that no matter how much effort you put into things, it is not effort but manipulation and intrigue, greed and exploitation, that seems to work. Since she said this without a caustic tone, nor with the idea that she too would promptly manipulate and exploit, I wondered where this despair might lead, and what hope I could give her that good can happen with the aid of chance. I told her that I was reading a book on Nietzsche by Georges Bataille (that Jan had recommended), and in it he says that he thought "if God is what they say, he would be chance, since he's everything...for those who grasp what chance is, the idea of God seems insipid and suspicious, like being crippled." I tried to explain that her resignation somehow reminded me of many who believe in God - that they don't exploit and manipulate, but they surrender themselves not to chance but to fate. As if they are weak next to God's will and become resigned. But a notion of chance that might be God, such a perspective can give us back hope without becoming like many of the people who must see everything in calculative terms. I didn't deny that chance was up against class, power and entrenched wealth, I didn't doubt that many people have found themselves without much effort in positions that they worked very little to get, and wouldn't have believed they had taken advantage of anyone in the process of getting that position. But look behind the BBC producer, the newspaper editor and the Harley street doctor and we will often see that chance is very weak next to privilege. It is in the face of the former, exploitation, manipulation etc, that many find God, and in the latter, in the face of privilege, that many discover politics. I didn't want to deny the validity of either; more to find a first principle for them both. Chance might be it.
Sonia looked at me with a bemused look on her face that indicated she was very happy to hear what I had to say but wouldn't pretend she understood it. I wasn't sure if I understood it myself. I just knew that out of my own thoughts, my recent experiences and in trying to assuage this woman in front of me who I knew I still loved, that I felt the need to formulate a belief that I could convey to her. I said to her I was being too abstract and instead decided to be very concrete indeed as I told her about the job and what had happened to two of my colleagues over the last few months. As I related to her a past affair between the head of the department Miriam, and her colleague Hans, about Hans' relationship with a post-graduate student who Miriam wouldn't employ as she employed me instead, I could see on Sonia's face an interest that was much greater than a story told. It seemed to have for her a purpose I didn't intend. I wanted only to explain what I had been doing and also to say how it might be pertinent to what I was trying to describe. Yet when I finished she had received it as though a fable and one directly meant for her. She said that a few years earlier she would have been Hans, perhaps without quite ringing anyone's neck, and indeed hadn't she suggested that she would get a teaching a job in Berlin and when she had a bit of power and influence to find a way of employing me too? I said I remembered it well, but that it came from a very understandable care and also frustration. She said that it came from a naivety that didn't realise that such a wish can easily become covetous, cynical and mean. Isn't that what happened to Hans, so determined to keep his girlfriend close that he would treat others contemptibly, eventually violently, when his expectations weren't met? She thought I'd been much wiser than her five years ago, that I sensed there was no point in going to Berlin on the basis of another's whim and there I was five years later here with a clear purpose, a purpose, it seemed, much clearer than her own.
I didn't know whether purpose had much to do with it. What I did say was that I had always assumed that any motivation on my part was weak against various, complicated forces that work upon us and that many of these forces can prove malign if we insist our will happens to be stronger than them. As we talked I noticed that we were like familiar strangers, that we were talking as though we had only just met but with the feeling that we had met before. And of course, we had, but it was if the other person that we had known did not know themselves, that we had been two strangers who gained familiarity by sharing our lives for several years but never quite sharing our thoughts. Here we were doing exactly that having not shared our lives for a long time, and yet I wondered how often Sonia had given me a moment of thought as I had given her many. As we parted (I had a screening to put on) I said I hoped we would meet very soon, and it was only then that I understood that there was someone that evening to whom she would return, and whatever would happen between them she was wise enough not to leave him for me. And I knew as I thought about the jobs that were now available in my department, and that Sonia would be as qualified as many to occupy one of them, that I would not suggest that I could find work for her there. I walked the fifteen minutes back to the university feeling surprisingly happy within a receding sadness, not sure what the future would bring and not at all believing that I had any need to dictate it. I wondered what the students would make of the film I was screening, and also what they would make of the text I had a couple of months ago put online, a useful reading of the film: one of those texts Hans had written on British cinema.
© Tony McKibbin