It was one evening in the pub and after a couple of his friends left, he asked if he could join our table. He was drunk but so were we, and someone observing might have thought that if company in a bar ought to be based on the level of inebriation rather than on earlier familiarity, better that he was in our company than theirs. I had noticed the couple with him earlier in the evening and noticed too that they drank slowly, even fussily, as though they were at any moment on their way home, while he drank like a man who didn't expect to be going anywhere before last orders were called and the pub closed. He said that was very kind of us, when we said he could join our table, and he insisted the first thing he should do was buy everyone a drink. There were six of us and I insisted that he should get himself another and we would get our own but when he returned from the bar he was carrying several whiskies and returned to get the remaining ones before going for a third time to pick up his whisky and a half pint, a combination I'd noticed him drinking all evening. He said the malt of the moment was a good one and we should all try it. I don't recall the name but it was smooth and he said it was from Speyside, like himself though maybe he wasn't so smooth he smiled, cooly.
He was probably about fifty and we were all no more than twenty-five and while the others continued as though he wasn't there, except to thank him for a whisky a couple in the group left untouched, I, and the friend, James, who I'd been talking to before he joined us, insisted he join our conversation. James and I were discussing haphazardly the merits of the bible as a series of stories rather than as an insistent set of moral principles. We both agreed that while we were children we didn't care for the ten commandments, we did find fascinating the stories of Moses, Job, Jonah and Noah, and as adults, we still remembered the stories and were still a little oppressed by the commandments. Thou shalt not kill we agreed was an easy one to follow. But sometimes honouring our mothers and fathers wasn't so easy, and if those occasions when we stole magazines and sweets while in our early teens condemned us to eternal damnation, then better to be swallowed by a whale. We asked Jacob what he thought (for that was the name he said he went by) and he said that maybe we arrive at principles; we don't start with them. Commandments, dictates, laws and rules are often ignored but our own lives become the stories that reveal to us why these commandments and rules have value.
We asked him to tell us more, but before doing so he wanted to ask us a question. We told him to go ahead and he said that was what he liked about youth; that they believed a question needn't be an intrusion because it was unlikely to require a revelation. I asked what he meant and he said later perhaps he would tell us, but for the moment he wanted to ask us that question. Did we think somebody could wrong us without doing wrong? We looked puzzled and he added, did we believe that being wronged, like love, is in the eye of the beholder; that wrongness is often not just a matter of perspective, but even a matter of erroneous perspective? We were no closer to understanding what he meant but I might now think that he offered such an obscure formulation all the better to invite us into the story he was about to tell, a story he may have told many times, or at least more than once. As he started to speak, I took another sip of the whisky and it intermingled with the flames of the fire, the warmth of which heated my legs as the malt's taste lingered in my throat. I never found out what the name of the whisky happened to be, though I have tried many single malts since, and I would have assumed all the ones from Speyside. If I find it I suspect the story would become more vivid in the recall. This is the best I can do without the taste, but I can at least offer a flavour. Perhaps that is what fiction is, a flavour of something, yet always distinct from a command.
Jacob said that fifteen years earlier he joined a hiking group. He was single at the time, wanted to meet people and over the previous couple of years had been walking, hiking, and even climbing a few Munros. It was a solitary activity and yet he wondered what it would be like to meet others who perhaps saw it as an activity for one as well. How would they interact with each other? Those who joined a walking club were hoping to escape their solitude he supposed, but would solitariness cling to them as he suspected it would be clinging to him?
On his first walk, he found people shy rather than wary, hesitant rather than suspicious, and one sensed even though some in the group knew each other quite well, or at least had been on many walks with them, they had in their demeanour the awkwardness of first meetings. He noticed it as someone arrived and said hello to a person he had clearly known for some time but there was in the exchange the body language of strangers initially getting acquainted. Everyone was gathering in the Meadows and the day's walk was to be out to Portobello. That day they left the park, went past the Commonwealth pool before turning left in the direction of Meadowbank, went up round the back of Arthur's Seat and came out by Duddingston, and then took the least busy route out to Portobello. They stopped for lunch at a pub cafe that looked out onto the sea, and three or four people before lunch went for a five to ten-minute swim. It was March, and the weather was around 5 degrees but these were wild swimmers someone said, with a hint of awe. Jacob watched them from the window, the swimmers a distance away as the beach had a large expanse of sand. As he saw them exit the sea they quickly wrapped themselves in blankets, dried off as soon as they were dressed and supped from what he guessed were flasks of hot tea. Five of them had swum and only one of them was a woman. As they entered the cafe he expected they would sit together but while the men went to the bar and ordered a drink, she sat alone in an alcove as the waiter came over and she ordered some lunch. For the next forty minutes, she seemed to sit alone, while the men had their lunch seated at the bar. Jacob sensed she didn't notice anybody else but wasn't sure whether this was obliviousness, indifference or timidity.
He hadn't noticed her on the way out to Portobello (there were maybe thirty walkers), but did notice on the way back that she walked alone, the only person to do so. He was walking with a couple of others, women who had known each other for over a year and had often walked together just themselves since joining the club. They told him of some of their walks, and discussed a planned trip walking the Camino de Santiago, arguing over whether they should go the French Way or the Portuguese Way. He was more intrigued by the woman up ahead of him who he realised he hadn't really seen at all. She was a small figure in the distance in the sea, had entered the cafe wearing a woolly hat and a scarf that half covered her mouth, and then sat in the alcove where he could only see her feet.
The next walk was a fortnight later and this time the group hired a couple of mini-buses for a more strenuous effort that included a couple of steep hills, somewhere out near Callander. When they left the city, the sun was out and the wind a light breeze. By the time they arrived the weather had turned and light snow was falling, whipping around them due to a strengthening wind. There were suggestions that they should cancel the walk but what else was there to do except take in a few shops and sit in the pub until they went home? Everybody looked dressed for the cold and he had taken a balaclava after the two women the previous week had said that it was the most sensible item they had purchased since they started walking. Sometimes, when the wind slaps away at your face you could swear at it. They swore by their balaclavas and he bought one the following week. He looked around and many people were wearing them, and he wasn't sure if the woman from the previous walk was on this one. She didn't seem to have been in his minibus and now how could he tell if she was there at all when most people's heads were swathed in fleece and wool?
They walked for three hours and while the weather didn't get much worse, at no stage did it get any better. Everyone was much closer together than in the previous walk, and during it he supposed he must have conversations with around half a dozen people, including the two women from before, who he would probably have recognised anyway but who gave themselves away by saying they were glad he had taken their advice and bought himself a balaclava. They talked for no more than ten or fifteen minutes before everyone stopped for lunch about two-thirds of the way through the walk. It was a narrow space between two hills, perhaps no more than four feet wide, and it offered protection from the wind as the rain continued to fall gently but without the whirling sensation that one or two had admitted made them feel dizzy. They sat on any available rock that could pass for a seat, and he found himself without deliberation sitting next to the woman he assumed he had observed before. While he and many others were wearing balaclavas with a space around the eyes that they stretched down so they could eat, hers had three holes, two small spaces for the eyes, and a third at the mouth, which was a narrow slit which allowed her to drink and eat directly from it. While he had bought a sandwich and a cereal bar from a cafe before getting on the bus, and needed the maximum amount of mouth space to eat the items, she had fruit juice and soup in a narrow flask that she drank out of and so she remained the most covered of the walkers. This added to his fascination, as he had no clear idea whether she was the same person from the earlier walk, but after they finished lunch, he walked next to her for much of the rest of the trip and found her open if not inquisitive.
He asked her why she had joined the walking club and she said it was only her fourth time; that she had arrived in Edinburgh a couple of months earlier from Perpignan, that she was looking to leave France and wished to live in a city that was both hilly and near enough to mountains. She chose Edinburgh, and was working in a delicatessen and renting a room in a house-share with five others. Probably by thirty, she said, she should have a career and be moving towards a place of her own, but she thought she needed lightness not weight. She told me about her family, what she studied, where else she had lived, and why she had never moved to Paris. She said that a city without access to proper walking hills was an empty place no matter the activities available in them. At university, she had studied Christian existentialism, and she recalled reading an essay by one of them who discussed the amusements of large cities, how they allowed us to divert attention away from ourselves. She thought hills didn't do that even if when she walked and climbed she forgot herself. But somehow this forgetting was ok because she was aware of her body in the process of the expedition. She added though that she might not stay in the walking club for long. She liked her own company and even more so when it came to going up hills. She didn't mind meeting people, she said, but it rarely ended well.
During the walk, she told me much about Perpignan and a story about a great uncle who had moved to Paris for work and returned after twenty years back to the town. He said in all those years he would have walked thousands and thousands of miles. He worked as a night porter in a hospital after following to the city a woman he loved. The woman rejected him but he was persistent in his hopes if not in his actions. He told himself that he wouldn't leave the city until he was married or she was. He lived in Belleville and worked on the other side of Paris in the 13th arrondissement. The woman, Emily, lived in Montparnasse and he would walk to work and back every day for years, even though he never once came across her in the street, even though he would pass her parents' apartment as part of his journey. He occasionally had news of her, and around three years after he had started living in Paris, he heard that she was engaged, and heard too, a year or two after that, her fiance had died fighting in the Algerian war. Living in Belleville, he knew of people who had refused to fight and others who were Algerian and thought France should be expelled from the country.
He didn't know what to think of the war but his ambivalence stopped him from volunteering to join the army, and he was not called up. He wondered if the fiance had volunteered or had been an experienced soldier, and conjured up in his mind various scenarios which made him feel inferior to this man who had been chosen by her. Perhaps he heroically, or stupidly, went to fight, or maybe the fiance had been called up and felt obliged to go. But what he did know is that he had died and her great uncle saw in this the possibilities of fate: that he was meant to marry Emily. But if it were fate he must be faithful to this belief and assume that soon enough a situation would arise where they would meet again. In those twenty years, he never saw her once and heard about her only through others. She never married. After two decades he accepted defeat and decided that if fate had killed Emily's fiance, fate also decided that they couldn't be together either, and he returned to Perpignan.
He was still a young man no more than forty-five or at least one who had kept himself young, as he had walked so many thousands of miles. The distance between his studio apartment and his place of work was 10km, and though of course he occasionally took the metro or the bus, nevertheless almost every night and every morning he walked there and back. Back in Perpignan, with the money he had easily saved in Paris, he bought a small plot of land, renovated the compact farmhouse that was on it, and kept sheep, pigs and chickens. He managed the farm alone, and after a few months, once he had finished the renovations, and when he was out in the fields, he found that while he always thought that in Paris he was missing Emily, on his return he found that what he missed still more had been the hills. He supposed there was a certain moment in the capital where he was no longer yearning for Emily's presence but wished to return home, but a misguided sense of fate kept him there far longer than he should have. Yet at the same time, it gave him a reason to stay in Paris while accumulating the means he needed to buy the farm in Perpignan. He told this story to her when she was twenty-one, on one of the many walks through the fields they had taken since she was a child, where she would help him with the animals. He was in his late sixties when he told her and he said he said it so that she would neither stay in the town nor assume she would never return.
Jacob said he still didn't know her name and yet he knew the name of the uncle's unrequited love. He said this to her as a way of asking for it and she said Emily was her name too. While he believed the story she told he wasn't sure if he believed her name was Emily; that she said it to avoid intrusions when what she was interested in were revelations. He sensed a need to talk but that didn't mean he was entitled to ask questions, and throughout that walk, she told him other things about her life but parried enquiries. At no stage did she ask him any questions, which in most circumstances would have seemed rude but that day seemed oddly appropriate.
Jacob expected to see her on the next walk and at the beginning of it wasn't sure if she was present or absent. About twenty-five people met in the Meadows and started to walk out by the canal, intending to end up at the reservoirs by the early afternoon. The clocks had changed and they had more light, and anyway, the last part of the walk would be back in the city so that, even if the light fell, the street lights would be on. As the group leader explained this, Jacob scanned the faces trying to find Emily, but he had little to go on since her face last time was covered, and the first time he didn't really see her face at all. But by the time everyone started walking he could see she wasn't there; nobody who was, shared the body language that he recalled she possessed: a firm, upright stride that he supposed she picked up from the many walks she would do as a child with her great uncle.
She didn't turn up to any of the next three or four walks either, and he stopped going. He was around thirty at the time and started his own business, which was an exaggerated term: he bought a van, and helped with removals. Helped was the operative word since he worked alone and informed anybody who needed his services they would also have to contribute to the workload, especially with heavier and cumbersome items. Usually, he found people more than willing to lug their stuff up and down stairs, if on occasion for no better reason than they felt it was the best way to protect chairs, tables, couches and beds from damage. Over the next few years, he enjoyed the work even if there were days he was doing it when he knew he shouldn't; that a mild injury that would have only taken two or three days to heal sometimes took weeks as he aggravated a torn muscle in the palm of his hand, or an ankle that he had ever so slightly twisted. In time, he settled for a three-day week, which usually gave time for his body to recover, and he often took baths in the evening to ease off the aches. He longer felt the need for long walks as going up often three or four flights of stairs was exercise enough.
It was probably around eighteen months after he started the business that he was helping a couple move from one rented apartment over in Stockbridge to another halfway along and off Leith walk. They were both in their early thirties, worked in the literature department at the University of Edinburgh, and warned him they had a lot of books. He well knew there was the awkward and the back-breaking and always preferred the latter, perhaps because he knew that one reason he started the business was that he wanted a job which could also pass for exercise; the second, that often the injuries he sustained came from items that weren't always so heavy but often were tricky. When he turned on his ankle it was carrying with the owner a wardrobe down a winding, narrow staircase. When he damaged the palm of his hand, it was when an item pressed heavily upon it as he couldn't find another way to carry his end of a four-poster bed that the owner insisted he didn't want to be taken apart. Books were fine, he said, and so as the owners weren't of much use (even if they tried to help as much as they could) he carried what must have been three thousand books up four flights of stairs.
The books were packed up according to author or theme and, as he sat drinking tea with the owners at the end of the move, discussing some of the boxes' contents, they said that he must come to their flat-warming, which was in a fortnight's time assuming they could get everything organised by then. It was the first time in two years of working as a removal man that anybody had invited him to anything, and he had sometimes wondered while moving stuff in, what the place might look like when the boxes had been emptied, the furniture placed, the walls painted. He liked the idea of seeing order made out of chaos and wondered after this invite if it might be a useful form of etiquette if those involved in the move were to see the consequences of their labour. But of course, that would be so with friends who helped someone move they could see what had happened as a consequence of their efforts. Sometimes he felt like someone who contributed to the preparation of the meal but didn't get the opportunity to see it on the plate or to taste the contents. As he lugged rugs up the stairs, manoeuvred with the help of the owners a couch around awkward bannisters, and a wooden armchair that looked as though it went back several generations, he was intrigued what the flat might look in its finished state. Now, for the first time, he would have the chance to see what his efforts added up to in more than a profuse thank you and a sum of money, usually cash in hand.
A fortnight passed and the owners hadn't been in contact. Jacob supposed it was an effusive promise that seemed to them a little daft when they thought about it afterwards; or hadn't thought about it all they simply forgot that they had invited him. But during the following week, they sent him a text message saying the party was to be on Saturday evening from 9, and gave him once again the address in case he had forgotten it. He thought if he would go, as if the assumption that he hadn't been invited meant the moment had passed and to accept it now seemed too late. An odd thought, perhaps, but exacerbated by the sparsity of social interaction he had engaged in over the previous few years. If it weren't for the removal job he might have gone weeks without talking to anyone except for the briefest of exchanges in a shop. He had no brothers and sisters, and while he would visit his father in the care home every couple of weeks, he wouldn't say there was much communication. His father was usually lost in reverie and talked to his son as though he didn't know the man in front of him but only the child he used to be. His father never asked him questions about his life but then that might have been for the best as there was so little to tell. He was sometimes relieved that his father's condition left him free of his judgement. The sort of conversation he would like to have with someone, about whether or not to attend the party, whether he had been invited out of mere politeness and if his presence would have seemed socially awkward, he had to forego: there was nobody with whom he could consult. Whatever loneliness might be he didn't doubt this was an aspect of it.
What allowed him to accept the invitation was recalling the conversation with the couple over the cup of tea. They said a move was probably good for them even if they had only relocated to another part of the city. They had their friends at university and people they knew in Stockbridge but hoped that by moving to Leith they would meet people who weren't all at the university or working in law and finance. Someone else might have seen this as a reason not to go the party but he didn't view it that way.
Jacob arrived at 9.30 and felt light taking the three flights of stairs with nothing in his hand except a bottle of wine and a bar of exotic chocolate in a wine-bottle gift bag. They both seemed very pleased that he came and as he handed over the bag, his eyes glanced around the hall and looked into the sitting room. He saw in the hall the painting he had carried up and against the back wall many of the books he would have carried too. Entering the sitting room he saw the lamp in the corner he had taken up with the painting, and of course, he had taken the bookcases as well. People were complimenting the hosts on the flat, saying it was homely and in some ways nicer than their previous place. And my goodness what a move it must have been with all those books. The hosts insisted on saying that this was thanks enormously to him that they couldn't have done it without his help.
He felt both proud and awkward. It was great to see the fruits of his labour in the nicely decorated flat but he also knew that in this flat no doubt full of lecturers, lawyers and financiers, his status may have seemed lowly. He didn't feel inferior, he insisted to us, as he knew that some things he valued, like fitness, strength and agility all qualities he needed for the job he did might not have much value for them, and some he sensed were trying to hide this. They were trying to speak to him as if he were their equal, aware, surely, that even if they did believe he was, societally he was not. He found it was the best he could hope for when moving the items of the middle and upper middle classes. So he felt awkward rather than inferior and ironically less awkward when he was supposed to feel inferior when those he was helping move spoke to him with condescension, irritation or frustration. There was a couple he helped move and the husband said to him that he might not know how valuable some of these items were but he must handle them with the utmost care. Jacob replied that he handled every item with care, no matter who they belonged to or how much value they possessed. He asked the husband if he expected he should take less care of other people's things so that he could take more care of his? The moment was no longer awkward; it was tense and Jacob was happy with this tension, and well knew that the husband was unlikely to replace him with someone in the middle of a move, and didn't care if he did. There were a few situations like this over the years but the one he happened to be in that evening, in the flat of people he had helped move, surrounded by people whose social status was higher than his, was new, and no matter how nice he found people, awkward.
He was offered a glass of wine out of a glass he probably carried, and nibbles from a plate he would have taken up all those stairs alongside numerous other items of crockery. It was an odd feeling but he hadn't thought much before about the specifics of labour and became aware that of course while he had been responsible for carrying the boxes who was responsible for making the plate and the glasses? The whole flat became for him, within the leisure everyone was enjoying, a space of hidden labour. In some things he sensed craft and love, in the rug on the sitting room floor he marvelled at the intricacy of its design, and in several of the paintings in the flat, he wondered how long it took the artist to paint them. He looked at the floorboards and was sure they had been revarnished since the couple had moved in. Had they done this themselves? He saw a world of work in a moment of leisure and started to ask people what they did shortly after he fell into conversation with them. They took it to be a standard question, it seemed, that demanded only the briefest of answers, but Jacob would ask other questions about their work that revealed to him exactly what they did. Several people he talked to over the next hour were surprised at his interest, and others joined the discussion. He no longer felt awkward and believed that nobody else did either. It was as though they had gone beyond the social expectation of work and were discussing the basis of labour.
It was during this discussion that he noticed a new arrival. She appeared to have come on her own, and he overheard the hosts introducing her to a couple of people as their neighbour from upstairs. He thought he might have recognised the face but he was sure he recognised the voice. It was the woman from the walk. About thirty minutes after she arrived, she was in the kitchen, speaking to the hostess, and he entered, hoping to grab a glass of water but hoping too to find Emily to ask her if she remembered him. They were standing by the sink and as he came towards them saying he was just going to grab some, the hostess said he must join them; she was saying to Emily only a few minutes earlier that she should meet the man who made the party possible, since they would still probably be getting organised now if it weren't for his help. He said he was only doing his job (while thinking she and her partner were the ones who acted with more than professional obligation in offering the party invite), but admitted to both of them it was a nice opportunity to see what a place looks like after helping people move in: he rarely found out.
As he talked he looked to see if Emily recognised him, his face or his voice. She seemed to have no memory of him at all. He stayed and chatted, sipping on his water, and after about ten minutes of listening mainly to the two women speak, he said, as if to get Emily's attention, that he could sort of read minds. Both women looked surprised and the hostess intrigued. Emily's face hardened a little, her brow tightening and her lips pursing as she said it wasn't that she didn't believe in such possibilities; she just reckoned most people who claimed to have such gifts were looking to manipulate others for some easy gain.
He mumbled for a moment before saying that he was exaggerating. He meant he could sometimes sense in people's faces, or their voices, a past that he could guess, with perhaps less evidence than most. That wasn't a lie and people had commented on it before. But this insight would usually have been based on someone's immediate past; tears that had recently dried, or an argument from an hour before that left their voice still tight and irritated. Here he was about to tell Emily about a past that she had divulged several years ago about her grandfather's life. At first, when he said he could read minds he wished to offer it as a light remark as he planned slowly to remind Emily that they had met before and wished to reveal this fact teasingly. But now, with her face severe and her demand categorical as she asked him to tell her something he knew about her, he felt tense in the telling and wished he hadn't said anything at all. The hostess, though, was expectant and Emily demanding, and so he said that he believed Emily was once very close to her great uncle, that when she was very young and up until he died, she shared an affinity with a man without quite understanding why except that she sensed in him a freedom that she also knew she would go on to seek. This freedom was an odd one, however, he said. This great uncle had originally come from the south of France and moved to Paris when a young woman who had visited the village, and whom he had no more than talked to on several occasions by the fountain, had said that he should move to the capital and perhaps they could meet up there. She must have said it with the coquettish confidence of someone who knew men would follow her to the end of the street but didn't expect a man to follow her all the way to the capital. But he did so, one day standing outside the apartment that he knew only by description and not by the address, which she had never disclosed. All he knew was that her family's apartment was in Montparnasse and below a cafe that was well-known for the writers who frequented it. She would sometimes look out the second-floor window and down at these people on the terrace whom she didn't really recognise but had heard that some of them were famous. When he stood outside the cafe, he supposed that there were people in the cafe assuming he was hoping to catch a glimpse of one famous person or another, but all he wanted was to see this young woman he now loved exit the building. He went every day for two weeks and didn't see her leave or go into the building at all, even though he stayed there for eight hours a day, often sitting on a bench a few metres from the flat, or drank a coffee from across the street. He was running out of savings because he didn't want to take a job before he saw her but on the third week he managed to secure a position as a night porter in a hospital on the same side of the city where she lived. He found the job before he found a home, having not enough money to pay any rent up front, and aware that since it was the summer he could sleep during the day in parks. Yet he slept hardly at all during those first couple of months in Paris, not until he saw her exit the apartment and he stood up and waved at her as she entered the street. At first she didn't seem to recognise him, then for the briefest of moments looked like she didn't wish to, before she came over, shook his hand formally, and asked what brought him to Paris and, indeed to sitting outside her house.
He said he loved her and wished to see her, and, as he said it, for the first time its absurdity struck him. He was little more than a peasant from the south and she came from a family well enough off to live in this expensive part of Paris, and yet he felt an affinity between them and she didn't deny it. Those occasions they talked by the fountain, on a bench where he told her about the history of the region, and about the nature all around them, she recalled very fondly. But she said to him that it was just silly that he move to Paris to see her. She would soon enough be engaged to marry and it could not be to a man like himself. She wasn't cruel in her comments nor brusque in her manner, and for a young man of such hopes as her great uncle, he took her remarks as encouragement, even if he also said that he would no longer stand outside her door ever again, and if they were to meet it would be on the streets of Paris as chance demanded. It was, he later thought to himself, that he could only hope to defeat social expectation with chance, and yet he never did see Emily again, even if he did, years later, sometimes walk down the street on which she lived; though he kept his promise that he would never stop and sit again on the bench.
For many years, he lived in Paris, remained single, continued working in the hospital and heard that Emily's fiance was killed in action, one of only just over three thousand who died while fighting. The Algerians lost well over half a million. The French deaths were exceptional enough for his demise to be a short piece in the newspaper. In it, the piece said he left a fiancee carrying Emily's name. If he could have taken this as fate it would be a cruel one, and when he finally left Paris having never seen Emily again, he assumed chance had taken its course and denied him a further meeting. Yet he didn't feel he had wasted his life, as though believing in providence was better than believing in patriotism. Emily's fiance was an officer and died proudly defending his country, the article insisted. Her own great uncle had not died, and after twenty years, with money saved, he returned to the south of France and bought a farmhouse and a small piece of land, realising he loved the region as much as he had loved Emily.
While telling the story he didn't look up once, neither at Emily nor at the hostess, but as he finished, he looked first at the hostess, who said it was a beautiful story, and then at Emily, who was allowing tears to fall down her cheeks. She may still have been angry but for the moment she was moved, and as the hostess hugged her, he looked on, feeling that to console her as well would have been too presumptuous. He experienced at that moment what he suspected her great uncle had felt when he saw the woman he loved outside her front door and knew that he had not the right to show the affection he wished to convey. But that moment many years ago was one separated by class even if this was post-WWII France; Emily's great uncle could not cross that divide, whether it was a metre, the length of the city, or the country. But what was separating them now, as he couldn't quite believe it was again class, even if he was the removal man and most of the people at the party were academics, financiers and lawyers? Was she still working in the delicatessen; perhaps not and there was no suggestion that she was still living in a flat with five others unless it was a very cramped arrangement. The flats in the building were all one or two bedroom places, with three on each floor one larger one and two smaller ones. He assumed she was now living alone in one of the smaller flats on the floor below.
Yet though he could tell her a story about her past he didn't feel he could yet ask her a question about her life, and he wondered too if he was beginning to yearn for her as her great uncle had yearned for his Emily, that something in her story as he repeated it, and her tears after she heard it, created a space of tenderness he had never felt before.
Jacob finished, and perhaps in sitting telling us this story, with no Emily in sight, alone in a pub on a late Friday evening, as drunk as we were, he had no need to tell us what happened between he and Emily; it seemed as likely that Jacob and Emily lived as happily ever after as her great uncle and his great love. Yet he returned to the point he initially offered. He said that some stories have value; that we can learn from them as we cannot learn from others, and that some stories are important to us but needn't be of significance to other people. The biblical stories are supposed to be of universal import, and who would compare the story he happened to tell with these stories that have been around for many centuries and in their initial brevity take on a strange length? Yet for a few weeks afterwards I still sometimes brought to mind what Jacob had told us, and wondered why the others had no interest in its telling. We were all drunk but only James and I were listening to what Jacob had to say, and was it because we were discussing the morals of biblical stories and wondered what Jacob had to offer to the storytelling tradition as he told us his?
I am not sure, and when I asked James about it a couple of weeks later, he said he was only half-listening, that he thought the story didn't have much of a point and the guy simply wanted to talk. I disagreed but couldn't quite say why, though retrospectively believed that there was so much about the story that I didn't know. I knew nothing about Jacob's past before the story and nothing about Jacob either after he finished telling Emily about her great uncle. I even found myself wondering after that night if the couple he had been drinking with before coming over to our table had been the host and hostess from the party, and that he had only recently broken up with Emily, who was still their neighbour, while he remained their friend. Was that why he was so drunk that night? When thinking of Jonah, Noah, Job and Moses, I have no need for such speculation and not only because they are fictional characters from the past as opposed to a person I met in the present, but because they demand a moral learned rather than a story speculated over. Clearly, many thinkers have offered such speculation over the bible, but I suppose this is closer to interpretation than speculation. Yet Jacob's story left me wondering about various details what was Emily's job that she could afford a flat alone in Leith after sharing with five others, if alone she was? What was Jacob doing in Edinburgh and why did he decide to join a walking club? Did he remain friends with the couple he helped move, and did he and Emily ever meet again, becoming friends or lovers? While the story he told remained full of speculative space, I had no sense of that in the story Emily told him and that he then offered back to Emily, even if the two stories didn't seem to me quite the same. Was Emily moved by his telling partly because he had elaborated upon it, made the story that he remembered also his own?
And why does the story still impact upon me, even several years later? Perhaps for no better reason than that I saw Jacob a few weeks ago. I was in a cafe working on a proposal for the theatre company I now co-direct and sitting a couple of tables away from me was Jacob. I had never really taken in his appearance in the pub, and the impression wasn't that he had much changed. He still had cropped hair and a beard of a similar length. I supposed there was more grey in both but my memory was of a grey-haired man anyway. He was scribbling in a notebook and occasionally looking up, either to think about the words he was putting down on the page, or perhaps to write down details that he was looking at; a table, a chair, a person. I may have been that person as he looked several times in my direction but showed no sign of recognition in doing so. I supposed then that the story he told me had been offered often, and to so many different people that it would be unlikely he would remember those he had told it to. Maybe he was writing down another story, and one that he would tell to people in a pub late at night when everyone was drunk and one or two susceptible. But all I could think of at that moment was how Jacob and I were having that chance encounter, that chance encounter the young Emily and Jacob had too, and that Emily's great uncle and his one love never had. Yet I wondered also if perhaps they had passed each other on the streets many years after that meeting outside her apartment, and one, or both of them, failed to recognise the other as I didn't fail to recognise Jacob.
© Tony McKibbin