My sister would sometimes talk about Betty with exasperation or irritation, but occasionally with pity or consideration too. Betty's husband had left her and taken the kids, left to live with someone else. Betty accepted the betrayal, and accepted also that she had lost her children, and while my sister said that as far as she knew Betty hadn't turned to drink or tranquillizers, I could see on the half dozen occasions I saw her, during the couple of years after her husband left, that she had turned in on herself.
She lived across from my sister near the town centre in Inverness. It was one of the more desirable areas in which to live in a town which I have always found not very desirable at all. My sister had moved up from London with her husband when he got a job in an IT firm a few years ago, and they settled in with their two kids at the local primary. I would usually visit a couple of times a year. Initially it was with Marie, whom I will say more about in time, but then on my own after we broke up and she moved back to France to work in the French equivalent of Shelter. I would visit as much to climb a few high hills as to visit my sister and her family, and it was while there I couldn't help finding Betty an interesting case whenever I would see her in her front garden, walking along the street, or even, once, sitting in a cafe reading a thick, probably 19th century novel.
Betty always seemed eccentric, but where before it was manifest in self-confidence and a deliberately out-moded dress sense, in confident over-familiarity and vintage clothing, after her family were gone the clothes seemed merely old and unfashionable, and her greetings furtive. She would look at you as if looking absent-mindedly at an object and say hello as if to herself. Mad Betty tripped off many a tongue, and my sister once or twice had to ask her children to hold theirs when the designation came out of their mouths.
My sister's kids are now in secondary school, and will soon enough leave Inverness for universities further south. But Betty left some years ago, left the town around two years after her husband and kids left her, and nobody knew exactly where she had gone. About nine months ago, though, I was in a bar here in Edinburgh with a couple of friends after a poetry reading, and a couple of others who had read their work also, and Betty walked in to join us. She was the partner of one of the other poets who had given a reading. She didn't recognize me straightaway, and perhaps I didn't quite want her to do so: I wanted to observe the woman as a stranger, not as a figure from a past and whose recognition of me might have shamed her into aspects of her previous persona. As she gave her partner a kiss, said a familiar hi to his friend, and then nodded and said her name was Betty to the two poet friends and me, I had I supposed several minutes observing her as the woman she had become rather than the woman she was. After a while, however, I could see that she had recognized me, or rather if not worked out that I was the brother of the woman who lived across the road, then that I was certainly someone from the period in her life where people looked at her as if she were mad. I suppose my expression was registering the surprise of someone looking at the no longer ill, and she must have known this look well. Would she not have seen it on the faces of members of her family, of good friends, on the faces of her own children?
I didn't think too much more about Betty (didn't even tell my sister that I had seen her), and didn't see her again until a couple of week ago. I happened to be in a cafe that had recently opened near the Grassmarket, and there she was sitting reading another fat book as she had years before, and wearing clothes not unlike her former attire but closer to the deliberately vintage rather than the haphazardly old-fashioned. The only seating available was at a large round table where she was sitting, along with a few others, all of whom were reading or working, and I asked if I could join them. Betty looked up, recognized me and said hi, but seemed more interested in turning the page of her book than engaging in a conversation with me. We hadn't talked at all that night in the pub, and she left with her partner after one drink.
However, as the cafe numbers thinned out and we were the only two people still at the round table, so she asked if I happened to be Sally's brother. I said she had a good memory, and she smiled and said she wished other people did not. It might have been a reference to the look I gave her in the pub, but could have been about her identity in the eyes of others more generally. My own life was normal if not conventional: I was in my mid-thirties, unmarried, childless, but with a job in education and an occasional love life that satisfied my need for company without demanding from me the expectations of a more permanent attachment. People were unlikely to look at me askance. But what happens if you were seen as unstable in the past; would you want to eradicate aspects of not only your own memory but other people's also?
For the next couple of hours Betty and I talked, and what I found so interesting as we did so was that where before I suspected Betty's open attitude, that my sister sometimes talked of, was due to loneliness, here the direct honesty appeared to be based on the needs of salient feeling. When I said that yes I was Sally's brother, and that I remembered her from Inverness, she asked me whether I was still doing the same job, and I asked her how she came to be in Edinburgh. Detailing my life took only a few minutes; explaining hers took until the cafe closed, more than two hours later.
I said I knew from Sally that she had left the Highlands, but my sister didn't know where she had gone, and Betty said that she moved to France. She had studied French and Spanish at university, and had lived in both countries for a while before marrying. I knew a little about her husband, knew that his father owned farming land out the Nairn road, and some more near Elgin, but didn't know how she had met him, and Betty said that she worked as a farm hand in France and Spain, and that was the job she was doing when she met her husband in the Highlands. It was not long after they had gotten married that they had moved into the house across from my sister's. As she told me things I already half knew, I didn't at all find the details she offered uninteresting: they filled out her life in intriguing ways, and it was as though she was offering her life story to me as a carefully constructed argument. To leave out certain pieces of information would have been to indicate carelessness in her life's cause and effect. Maybe so scattered had her thoughts been after her husband and children abandoned her that now she allowed no space at all for the incoherent.
After her husband and children left she had no reason to remain in the Highlands, but she somehow also couldn't quite leave. There she was far from home (she was from Dorset), and unable to escape from an environment that was making her feel worse every day. I wondered as she said this whether my own manner of looking at her on the few occasions I saw her contributed to this feeling, and suspected that I had certainly done nothing to counter it. It is one thing to feel fellow-feeling, maybe another thing to express it. How often do we fall into a look that is overly sympathetic, or one that contains our own fears and anxieties when confronted with someone whose well-being deteriorates? She felt that either the accumulated looks and glances she received in the Highlands were going to make her collapse still further, or she would have to create from her insularity a fantastic inner life that would eventually be given outer form. What she did after sitting in a cafe that last autumn there, noticing people looking at her as if she were a figure of fun or an object of pity, was practice her French, buy maps and guides about Paris, and set herself a date: she would move to Paris the following spring. By March her French was as good as it would have been when she studied it, and the house her husband, his new partner and the children could move into if they so wished, as she bought a ticket for the beginning of April. The date was April Fool's Day - which she thought apt.
I asked her if she had seen her children at all during that period after her husband left and she moved to Paris: a period of around eighteen months. She said only once: a couple of months after her husband walked out he came round with the children, and her kids, twins who were then four, looked at her with a gaze as appalled as that of anybody in the town, and she didn't want to see them again until they could look at her not as a mad woman but as their mother. It was as though my question was a non sequitur, and she continued telling me about what happened when she arrived in Paris.
She came to the city with around three thousand pounds in her bank account, a sleeping bag, a rucksack and a small tent, and her aim was to live through the spring and summer off the streets, or rather by the Seine. Each morning and each evening she would walk from and to her spot out past the Bibliotheque nationale and though weighed down by the rucksack, tent and sleeping bag that she would take everywhere with her, she had never felt lighter, maybe even freer than she had when travelling round Europe taking the odd jobs that would eventually lead her to the Highlands, her marriage and her children. She would spend frugally: bread, cheese, inexpensive fruit at markets, tinned pulses: chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans that she would eat cold out of the tin. The diet met her needs and she could eat for around three or four Euros a day, and once a day, usually in the afternoon, she would sit in a cafe terrace and take an espresso, read the newspapers or a book. In the mornings she would sit on a bench or lie in the park. People would still sometimes look at her unusually, and sometimes with disdain, but where before in the Highlands when they looked she received it like a stab, in Paris she received it with equanimity. She had chosen this life; she hadn't succumbed to it.
Equally, though, she knew that her mind was still fragile, and her body contained within it the hurt of the last couple of years, and she could not pretend that she was not often lonely. Parisian homelessness is not like it is in Scotland, she said. In Edinburgh you often see homeless people in packs, gathered around park benches on the Meadows, drinking in Bristo square. In Paris many of the homeless people were isolated, and so while she didn't get the pitying looks she would get in the Highlands that told her they knew who she was and how sad they felt, she also began to miss the look that at least showed a certain form of recognition.
It would have been in September that she noticed walking back from the city centre to her spot on the Seine that it looked as if someone, who had made their home under one of the bridges, had moved on. She never saw the person who lived there, but each day she would pass the spot and it gave her a feeling of security that somebody had made for themselves a home out of the space, and she wished for a similar arrangement. Now there were no clothes on the clothesline, no curtain that passed for a door in the hut-like structure embedded in the walls of the bridge, no books on the shelves in the outside area that was protected from rain and snow by the bridge itself. It seemed as though the person had left. Over the next week Betty would look to see if the person had returned, and decided, since they hadn't, she would take over the dwelling. The space, which was big enough for a mattress, a table, a chair and room to move between them, was nevertheless empty, and over the next month Betty bought or found for herself these items. What it also had, astonishingly, was electricity. The hut must have been used years before as a workman's dwelling for those working along the Seine, perhaps repairing the bridges. She had feared the cold of the coming winter and now, with a fan heater she had bought, she needn't worry. She also purchased a bike with a rack on the back, and panniers where she could put water, food and other items. During those few weeks she had never felt happier nor more independent, and she thought back to the time when her and her husband had moved into the house in Inverness, and how the whole house was furnished with a series of card transactions by her husband as they went around shops picking and choosing what they needed, and more especially what they wanted.
I asked her if there wasn't still the problem of washing, and she said it was a problem she resolved through exercise: twice a week she would go to the swimming pool. Of course not being able to wash at home was inconvenient; of course the hut was grim: it had no windows, was sometimes noisy with cars trundling overhead, and not very safe. Behind the curtain there was a crate for a door, and while this helped protect her from the outside elements, it wouldn't have been very effective in protecting her from an intruder. Yet for several months she did feel content and her main fear was of running out of money. By Christmas, she had spent around twelve hundred pounds, and she wondered how she might earn enough (around forty pounds a week) for food, the swimming pool, the odd cup of coffee, even the occasional treat like a visit to the cinema.
Since she didn't have a postal address she would apply for jobs directly, going into cafes, bars and shops asking if they were looking for workers, but after a couple of weeks and with nobody offering her employment, she decided she would try busking, though admitted to herself it was much more a form of begging, and believed that begging was more honest than busking if your musical talent was debatable but your poverty undeniable. She had played the violin when she was a teenager, and while talented enough she gave her time over to languages instead. She knew when she sat on the pavement and started to play there would be many people much better at playing the instrument than her, and passersby perhaps deserved someone with more ability than she could offer. She at least did it knowing that she was not a musician but someone poor, and she wondered how many people gave her money for the latter reason rather than the former.
She would play in various spots around the city, sometimes in the Metro, and maybe played for around twenty hours a week and could see over the winter that she was improving, and by the following spring she was receiving money maybe more for the competence of her playing than the pity she evoked. However, it was near the end of that spring when, sitting on a bench on a bridge across the Seine, she saw coming towards her someone from Inverness, in fact a whole family: a family who lived in the same street as Betty, and thus as my sister, and someone with whom Betty had stood outside the nursery gates with the other mothers waiting for the kids to come out. As she could feel shame rising inside her, so the family walked past, presumably not recognizing who she was. Later that day, cycling back to the hut, she cycled furiously, no longer ashamed but angry - annoyed that she could allow people from her past whom she hardly knew to shame her in the present.
As she explained this an unusual feeling came over me as the story she told had an echo of another told by Marie, a story she told me during a lengthy telephone conversation some years after we parted. As Betty continued it was as though the story she was telling me had already been told, but not in the first person but by a third party, and while I didn't interrupt her I had the feeling of dj vu without at all the mismatch where the action that is taking place now echoes another that cannot quite be located. This past action I had heard all about, and felt I could have finished Betty's own story for her, or perhaps could have done so if Marie and I had stayed in contact.
About three years ago, we were talking on the phone and Marie told me about an English woman she knew who came to her office one afternoon saying she had been evicted from her place. She wasn't specific about where she had been staying, but simply said building work had put a stop to her living in her home, and would there be any possibility of helping her find a new one. The woman spoke quite good French, but she was in a nervous state and couldn't quite express what she was thinking and feeling, and Marie suspected that she had not talked at length with anyone for many months. The woman said she had been busking for a while and making a few pounds, but not at all enough to pay for even a room. Could Marie help her find something, anything, as long as it gave her privacy and a feeling of safety? Marie said she could see what would come up, but the woman said it wasn't as though she was looking for a council flat; even a place under a bridge if she knew it was safe would satisfy her. Marie asked her to come in again at the end of the week: in four days' time.
Over the next few days Marie would look out for such places. She was always someone who would walk everywhere, and over those four days her walks had a particular purpose as she looked for a quiet corner this woman could call her own. Often when she would walk, Marie would think of the places in which she could house people, but these places were apartments and flats, and here she was looking for no more than a space under a bridge. She worried that this might be the future of her job: that she would no longer be trying to find people permanent accommodation, but temporary housing that wasn't housing at all. At that moment she determined she must find the woman a flat or accept that she could not help her. Was she being cruel or kind? She wasn't sure. When the woman next came in, Marie said she couldn't help immediately, but Marie would try very hard to find her a flat over the next few months. She added there were homeless shelters (admittedly perhaps not very safe), or the street. Maybe the woman could find a spot like the last one she had, but it was not for Marie to help her in being homeless, only in helping her to escape homelessness.
Maybe there were other people more in need of accommodation than this woman, others who had higher priority, and usually Marie was she believed a conscientious worker who wouldn't unfairly prioritise. But occasionally somebody touched her, and perhaps it was for these people that she stayed in the job at all. A little bit of favouritism gave her the impetus to work so hard in the job she did. But maybe what convinced Marie to help her was seeing the woman one February morning shivering not far from Marie's flat off Place de la Republique. She stopped and talked to the woman for a few minutes and heard how she had her goods stolen one evening a couple of weeks earlier: the tent had gone; also her rucksack and her bike. All that she had left was her sleeping bag and the clothes she was wearing.
Marie explained that she saw that the woman was very vulnerable, and saw it not only in the homeless state she was in, but in the emotional fractures she believed she saw in the eyes, and in the muscles in her face under the skin. It was a detail her job as well as her life had taught her. She knew of people who were living in a squat, people whom she also intended to find a permanent flat, and asked one of them if they had space for another body. Marie said half-jokingly that maybe she could fast-track the squatter into a council flat if she took this woman in immediately. The squatter half-joked back that she might take it as a promise. As Marie had told me about this woman's life, this woman who must have been Betty, and was confirmed in everything Betty was saying as she continued with her story, so I wondered why she would have concealed from Marie that she had lived in the Highlands, and where I might have subsequently known, during Marie's telling, exactly who she was. As Marie would tell me, over the next few months after the woman moved into the squat, how the underlying tension in the woman's face disappeared, so she also told me how the woman returned to busking (buying another cheap violin at the same fleamarket she bought the first), but also became what was called a book scout: someone who would buy books at flea markets and sell them on to booksellers. Often the markets were, at the various ports that marked the end of the city, and the beginning of the suburbs, at places like Clignancourt and Porte d'Orleans, and it was at one of them she also found a bike which she would use to take her from the squat in the 20th and the markets, and into the town centre where she would sell the books before busking. I recall asking Marie why she was so keen to tell me about this woman, and the reason that would have been obvious - that here was someone who lived across the road from my sister years before - was never divulged. Did Marie know - surely Betty would have eventually told her?
As Betty offered to me in more detail what Marie had sketched, so she said if before when she was first staying in Paris she had never felt more free; here she was some months later never having felt more purposeful. People in the squat liked her being there, and often she would bring items back from the market and use them to decorate the flat, no matter how temporary the accommodation happened to be, and everybody agreed that the items she picked-up gave the squat a feeling of permanence. It resembled how she ought to have felt years before with her husband and her kids, but didn't. It gave her the idea that when she would leave Paris and return to Britain, she would open a second-hand shop. That is exactly what she had been running now for more than a year, and she said maybe one day I should go in and buy something.
It would have been around three years ago, around the time I was talking regularly with Marie, that I visited Paris, staying with a friend whom Marie and I had happened to know when we were together. I didn't go to Paris to visit Marie, but did see her a couple of times while I was there. I went wondering whether I would live abroad for a while, in France, Spain or maybe Italy. I had been working as a supply teacher for years, and in the past taught English as a foreign language in Edinburgh and wondered whether I would do it again but this time use it as a travel pass. We met at a cafe she liked in the fifth, and, as with many cafes and restaurants in Paris, the limited space could easily give the impression of intimacy. After an awkward initial hug that we both tried to release ourselves from as quickly as possible, we sat and talked for the first time about the break-up years before, and also, afterwards, as if to change the subject, about the woman she had told me about on the phone. The break up with Marie was not as duplicitous as Betty's with her husband. I never cheated on her and ran off with someone else, but I kept promising that we would move in together, but, every time she found a flat she thought we would like, I said I was not ready, and Marie believed that she was beginning to feel as if she were homeless. She had when we were going out together a flat sharing with two others, but so temporary did the arrangement seem, so provisional did her room feel, that she was at least psychologically beginning to resemble many of her clients. "Give me some sense of permanence", she demanded, and as I nodded and said "soon, some time soon", she cried as if I had told her it was over. It was probably Marie telling herself it was, and three months later she got work in Paris and moved. As she knew that there I was more than five years later still living alone in a studio flat in Edinburgh, she was unlikely to have regretted her decision, and it was as if with this thought on her mind that she mentioned again the homeless woman.
Marie said that all she knew about her personal life was that she had travelled around Britain and Europe when she was younger, sort of settled down somewhere in Scotland, and then unsettled herself when she came to Paris. Marie said the woman would be openly autobiographical at one moment, then say nothing else, and access to her personality was impregnable, as if there was a door that was all exit and no entrance. Any question Marie wanted to ask seemed inappropriate, yet the woman's willingness to offer personal details was at the same time surprising. She might announce that she had never known a man to give her a decent orgasm, never wanted kids and managed to have two. Of course Marie thought she was a little unbalanced, but one's inability even to find out where she had been living in Scotland, while the woman would casually announce the most personal of details, was unnerving. As we talked about this woman whose name she didn't even know (sometimes she would say to call her Lizzie, on another occasion, Beth) so Marie and I felt, I thought, much closer than we had when discussing our own past. At the end of the evening (three hours later and with a bottle of wine drank between us) we parted with a hug that neither of us quickly pulled away from, and agreed to meet up once more before I returned to Scotland.
A few days later, we met at Gare du Nord, where I was getting the train back to London, and then onto Edinburgh. She expressed regret that she hadn't been able to meet sooner, but work had been hectic and her partner (a figure I might now think she had conjured up) was complaining that in recent weeks he had seen too little of her, and prioritising me over him would have been remiss. She said it with what I thought was a hint of complicity, as if seeing me now was vaguely adulterous. We talked for an hour, hugged for longer than we had when leaving the cafe despite our sobriety on this occasion, and said maybe we would keep in contact. The maybe seemed to me the opposite of indifference, and that for Marie it would have involved thinking through the ethical implications of remaining in contact with an ex-boyfriend when she hardly had time for the present one, if a present one there happened to be. I emailed her a few weeks later and got the briefest of replies, and we haven't talked since. I never did leave Edinburgh to teach elsewhere, and if for the purposes of no more than this story, it was lucky I didn't; otherwise I wouldn't have met Betty.
Betty continued telling me about her life, and there was nothing in the telling that indicated she was anybody other than the woman Marie had described, so I thought again about what Marie had said about Betty: that she was someone who seemed impossible to question. I wondered now whether Marie meant that it was impossible to ask Betty anything about her own life; or about anything more generally. I asked Betty if she met many people she had felt close to in Paris, and she absorbed the question without any discernible adverse reaction and said several, and I asked her to say more about them; since I found her whole story fascinating. She initially talked about a man she shared the squat with, another man with whom she briefly had an affair, and then mentioned Marie. There was a woman who helped her more than anyone else, and a woman she never quite understood, since her generosity seemed so without self-interest; she was so willing to help others without looking for the advantages it would give to her. Betty said she had known friends from university who had gone into charity work, and while they insisted they wanted to help the poor, the fragile, the marginal, they also wanted to help themselves: they wanted a career. Betty had once asked one of them whether they happened to be in Cassandra employment: that the job was predicated on the continuing presence of the poor and weak: the person she was talking to worked for an organization offering food supplies to countries in Africa.
The friend replied that there would always be poor people; her job was safe, and it reminded Betty of another friend who was working for a TV production company. It was a very small firm with only six employees, and they made documentaries on political hot spots. The company had made a modest fortune a couple of years before her friend joined by making a documentary about a war that had broken out in one of the very countries her other friend was bringing aid to. What the owner of the company had done was take a gamble. He remortgaged his house, invested the money in sending his entire staff over to this country, and hoped that a war would start. If it didn't he would lose his home and maybe even his wife and kids: his wife said what he was doing was irresponsible, and threatened to leave if they lost everything; in other words if the war didn't start. Luckily it did, many people were killed, and the company owner saved his marriage and could go on to make other 'ethical' documentaries about war-torn countries. His livelihood was of more importance than people's lives - and like many involved in the so-called caring and ethical professions, he survived, even thrived on the misery of others.
As Betty said this she added she was in no position to be sanctimonious. She had married quite pragmatically: she liked the man she married but liked also his family wealth and the home he provided her with. Yet she also wondered whether it made her weak: that she became ill after he left not because he left but because she weakened herself in the very marrying of him. Of course there were the children; but if she had been a stronger woman wouldn't she have been able to keep them? I thought again about what Marie had said - that she was a difficult woman to question - and tested it by asking about her kids: did she ever see them? They would sometimes visit, she replied, as if that were the concession she would allow me. It wasn't that she seemed not to want to talk about her children; more that she wanted to continue the discussion that my initial question had provoked, a question that seemed to interest her more than the one about her own offspring - perhaps, if I were to see her again, that might be instead the subject she would wish to talk about.
The Marie Betty described was someone who worked in the caring professions as if she wished not for her career to continue, and ascend, but for it to be irrelevant next to the consequences of social justice. Once Betty asked her what she would do if the homeless problem were solved in Paris, and she replied that she would go somewhere else and try and solve it there. It was as though, Betty said, the woman felt homelessness in her soul, where Betty said she never felt it any further than in her own bones. There were nights when she was so cold that her teeth would chatter and she would angrily try and control the involuntary movements of her mouth; others when the slightest knock against her bones would make her wince. She remembered once she was trying to zip up her jacket and the zip knocked against her fingers and she felt pain from this mildest of knocks. But when she was warm again there was no trauma to these memories, where she could see in Marie that she would not feel content until everybody had a home; maybe she wouldn't even be content then. Maybe she lived for her work, Betty said, because she had died in her personal life.
As Betty started to describe what she knew of Marie, I was once again listening to a story that I already knew but from a different viewpoint. This time, though, I was rather more implicated, and as she talked I could not easily hide that I was moved by what she said, and didn't know whether a quiet laugh would have been more appropriate than a quelled tear when she said I seemed an empathic person too, and maybe this British woman in Paris and I would have been good together. As she talked about the man Marie had been with in Scotland, how he never quite wanted to share his life with her and how he had given reasons she could understand but couldn't accept, I wondered whether in the period of time between the last conversation between Marie and I, and Betty leaving Paris, if Marie and Betty had talked more openly about their pasts: that Betty had revealed she had lived in Inverness, and Marie would have known the street Betty would have lived on, and the neighbours across the way, namely my sister's family. As Betty poured into the story all the feelings she wouldn't quite allow to be revealed in the telling of her own, so she informed me that this young woman loved everybody she would help as if she couldn't quite find a way of making a home with the man she adored. This woman, she said, would apply all her will (and how little will has to do with love unfortunately), to make sure that while she couldn't persuade any man to share a home with a woman, or vice versa, she could at least arrange for many people without homes eventually to have one.
As Betty finished talking, we were the only people left in the cafe. It was after seven at night, and I looked across at the two members of staff, wiping the tables, putting the rubbish out, cashing up. It was as if they weren't only finishing their shift but fussily torn between listening to what Betty had been saying and closing the cafe. Even the main lights that they switched off seemed a gesture of decency as Betty and I probably looked like we were about to cry, and I could not tell her that the person she would be crying for would be the very person whose pain I was implicated in creating. I am sure Betty talked to many people in cafes, and told many people the stories she had told me, but on this occasion she had picked her target well, and as I said to her I really needed to go, she smiled and thanked me for listening. As I left I smiled at one of the waitresses, but she didn't smile back. Oddly, it was a look that reminded me of my sister's when I told her that Marie and I had split up, and, as I looked back to Betty, hers wasn't dissimilar to Marie's when we parted in Paris. I felt at that moment as if Betty knew how well she had picked her target that day, but the look that resembled Marie's gave way to a gaze more enigmatic, as if she had momentarily slipped back into her earlier madness.
© Tony McKibbin