Complicity is a dangerous thing. I had been seeing Martha for about nine months, though she lived in Barcelona, where we first became acquainted, and I lived in London. We met near the Gallery cafe she was working in, a cafe owned by the American boyfriend that she was still a little in love with when we met, and whom maybe she is even in love with now. It was a cafe she had worked in for over a year between finishing her degree and taking a job in a small publishing firm in the city: a job she started not long after we got together. So ours was a long distance relationship possessing a geographical correlative for the emotional aloofness contained within it. We were affectionate with each other but not quite loving, and while she would fly to London every other month, and I would fly out to Barcelona, we did so more with enthusiasm than desperation. I didn't quite feel merely like someone who helped Martha keep her thoughts off her ex, but I did suspect, if she hadn't met me, the ex would still be at the forefront of that busy mind.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, a week before I was due to fly out and see her, Martha said she had a favour to ask. She told me that there was an American friend of hers in Barcelona who had recently split up with a boyfriend, and had written about the experience, and wanted Martha to read the story that she had composed. It wasn't the first time Maria had asked Martha to read a story she had written, but the last one was, Maria admitted, partly about Martha's ex, and Martha chose not to read it. She didn't tell Maria this was the reason, but that was chiefly why she chose not to do so. This time she didn't want to read it because she knew it was Maria that was on this occasion feeling fragile, and, if the story wasn't good, she would either have to lie to her about its quality, and Martha didn't feel she was a very good liar, or be blunt, and Maria was not in a place to be told that, as well as feeling a failure in love, she was a failure in literature too. Yet she wanted to read the story, she acknowledged as we talked on the phone, and so she would ask Maria to send the story on to me, and then I could email it back to Martha. After all didn't I write the occasional story and article, and wasn't I a native speaker: wouldn't I seem a better reader, from Maria perspective's, than she would be? As we talked, Martha let out a small chuckle, saying that with her little scheme she felt a bit like a writer herself.
Maria was around ten years older than Martha (around the same age as her ex and also me), would often speak to Martha about a rolling stone gathering no moss, and that she was fed up of being put on the shelf to gather dust. Maria would often speak in idioms, and this was partly why Martha suspected the writing wouldn't be very good: that Maria seemed to think in blocks of thought, ready-made phrases that didn't allow for much singularity of expression. I couldn't judge; I hadn't yet met her.
I agreed that Maria could send the story to me, and so she gave Maria my email address, telling her that since I published the occasional piece myself I would be in a better position to judge its quality than she would be. A couple of days later the attachment arrived, with a brief, pleasant email. I printed out the story, reading it that afternoon in a cafe, with the intention of sending it on to Martha later that evening. The story was neither good nor bad. Maria had a strong sense of narrative but a weak grasp of characterisation, and the language didn't so much let her down as fail to lift the characters up: they were stock characters offered in stock phrasing. Yet even out of this cumbersome characterising I could tell that one of them was based on Martha's ex, and, though I had never met him, Martha had told me more than enough about him for it to seem unequivocally based on this charming figure that would seduce the girls and make them cry. What the story implied was that one of these girls was none other than the first person narrator, and that the very reason she had moved to Barcelona initially had been to be with this man. There were only a few comments about him, since most of the story concentrated on a recent break-up, but enough for me to feel that if Martha were to read it she would start to reassess not only her friendship with Maria, but also her relationship with Bill.
Now there are some people for whom the past is in the past: Martha was no longer seeing Bill in any capacity as far as I knew, and she no longer relied on the cafe to pay the bills since she had got the job in publishing. For some nine months after they had split up she had worked, maybe masochistically, maybe practically, alongside her boss who was also her ex, all the while knowing that he didn't want her back, and also watching his own back as Martha was, by her own admission, capable of immense jealousy;and also ready speculation.
I decided then that I ought not to send the story on to Martha, and instead sent a brief email saying that the attachment didn't work, and I would ask Maria to send it to me again. I then sent Maria an email saying that I enjoyed the story and would it be possible to send me some others too, so I could better judge the work in context. The idea was that I would find one I could then send on to Martha, claiming it was the one that had been sent to me. Maria sent me five more, and the first three I read were all of around the same quality as the one she had first sent, and, since she would clearly write a great deal about relationship break-ups, it was easy finding one that resembled the story Maria had told Martha she was writing, and yet one that had nothing to do with Martha. Of course while reading the initial story I wondered why Maria wanted Martha to read it: wouldn't it have caused problems for their friendship, and at a time when Maria needed Martha as a friend: the best friend she had in Barcelona, Maria had said to her only a couple of days before suggesting she read the story? Perhaps Maria wanted to try to deepen that friendship even if it risked destroying it, by making Martha see that they had more in common than Martha realized. Should I have allowed that wish to have been made manifest? Yet that wouldn't have been so simple. Martha wanted to read a story that she assumed was about Maria's recent break-up, not a story that would have included details about her ex-boyfriend. Didn't I have an obligation to protect Martha from the feelings she had protected herself from when Maria had last offered her a story about her ex?
After sending Martha the story that seemed similar enough to the one Martha had expected to read, I read the final two Maria sent me, and one of them was surely the story that Maria had originally intended to show to Martha, the one that Martha refused to look at, and here I was some months later reading it. The story was about a man in his mid-thirties who owned a cafe in Barcelona after working for five years in finance in New York. He would earn around two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year and was still living at home with his parents in New Jersey. He would commute in each day, and the intention was to save as much money as he could so that he and the girlfriend he had met at university (they studied finance and Spanish) could by the time they were thirty move to Spain, and open up their own cafe and art gallery space. But over those five years while they were both working in Manhattan, she wanted to enjoy some of the money she was earning, and moved out of her parents' place, also in New Jersey, and moved in with a couple of university pals in the city. The friends suggested there were ways of making far more money without any great risk, and so she decided to work as hard as she had begun to play. Soon she was making far more than her boyfriend, and when he would ask her how she was doing this, and why she was drinking so much, she would laugh and tell him that he was still a boy: that he hadn't quite grown-up. He left her in the lobby of a hotel in which she was about to do a business deal, and a year and a half later he was in Barcelona opening the cafe on his own.
It was there over the next couple of years that he became popular with customers (the cafe was always busy), with artists (who wanted to display their work there), buyers (who saw it as a place to purchase young artists' work), and women. At university and working in New York he was seen as handsome but dull, a dependable figure, presumably in bed and certainly in the office, and after he split up with his girlfriend he did not go out with anyone again until he moved to Europe: most of his energy went into working and saving for what had become a solitary dream. But in Barcelona, though he changed his image little, the image of a man who had left his life in New York and in finance, for a cafe and gallery in Barcelona, intrigued people. They would want to know more about him, and often this curiosity would lead to his bed. He was not egotistical enough to define his personality around these encounters, but he did gain pleasure from feeling that he was autonomous, even if this autonomy was a temporary condition, and that he wanted once again to feel he could dream for two. After a couple of years a student came to work in the cafe, and for the next couple of years they were together. He had no other assignations; and then his ex-girlfriend one day came into the gallery space.
Obviously as I was reading I happened to wonder how much of this was based on fact and how much of it on wilful fiction, and concluded, by the end of the story where the central character gets back with her ex, that this was a fictional piece. Yet there were certain details in the story that reminded me of things that Martha had said about her ex, and I wondered how Maria knew about them. Had she been told about them by Martha, or had she intimately experienced them with Bill? I recalled Martha telling me that she never understood how women could discuss intimate details of their sex lives with other women, and so it would seem unlikely that she would have talked to Maria about them. I only knew about these sexual intimacies through our own discussions, through talking about what we liked and disliked in bed.
What I couldn't deny, reading through the stories, was that Maria seemed a more intriguing person than Martha had described her as being, and I couldn't pretend that I didn't want to meet her when I would fly to Barcelona in a few days' time. But I felt a sense of illicit complicity with Maria when I thought about it. On the previous couple of occasions I had been over, I had wondered whether I would meet Maria, but the first time she was away, and the second time she was preoccupied with the man she had recently parted from, and my curiosity was idle. Now it was far less innocent, and I was looking forward not only to meeting Martha, of course, but Maria also, and yet knew that in meeting her I would be sharing a certain complicity with her.
On arriving in Barcelona, I felt more tender towards Martha than I had on the previous occasions we had met up, and it was as if through the fiction not only did I want to meet Maria, I also felt I consequently knew more about Martha. The first couple of days there were the most intimate we had shared, and it was as though the little details that may or may not have been about Martha, that I had read in Maria's stories, nevertheless contributed to my feelings for her.
It was on the third day that she got a call from Maria, asking if we would like to meet up. Maria said that we could meet in none other than the cafe that Martha used to work in, since she had heard that Bill was in the States for a couple of weeks. When Martha smiled and asked me if I wanted to see her ex's cafe gallery, I smiled back and said that I would love to. Martha seemed to take this as ironic, but as I insisted I was happy to meet Maria there, she agreed, unaware that my response was less ironic than very curious: the opportunity for words on the page to be given visible form. All that would be missing was Bill.
The cafe gallery was expansive, with downstairs big enough for around fifteen tables, and with a mezzanine upstairs with five. As Martha said, the work was always by two painters. The main exhibition was downstairs, the other upstairs, and the work would hang for a month, before being replaced by the work of other artists. I could see the space in the Gothica area of the city was a cafe that had a great cultural pull, and any artist who exhibited there would be likely to sell at least a few of their paintings. Her ex had used his ill-gotten gains well, I remarked, knowing that Martha might have wondered why I hadn't used my father's ill gotten gains so adventurously - my father had worked in finance also, which was why I could afford to live in a flat in the centre of London, and get by writing journalistic pieces and some short fiction. I might never have got my hands dirty in big business, but I had benefited from it. I wasn't likely to judge Bill, and Martha on this occasion was correct in sensing admiration.
But I am not quite sure what she sensed when Maria walked in and could easily have been taken for the cafe's owner. While Martha was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and looked like she could have been working behind the counter, Maria appeared as if the occasionally visiting boss. As she sat down at our table and said it was lovely to meet me in person, I felt unusually embarrassed. It wasn't only that I felt the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time, but that I was meeting for the first time someone with whom I had created complicity to the detriment of the other person sitting there, a person I increasingly cared about. Yet I also sensed that Maria could indeed have been Bill's ex-girlfriend from the States, and wondered why Martha had never suspected it. Was I doing so because I'd been privy to information Martha refused to possess, or was it a detail that Martha would not have wanted to acknowledge? When I had asked Martha how Maria got by, she said that she had made money back in the States when she was younger, and now felt free to spend it. Had it not occurred to Martha, I wondered to myself, that she had earned the money as Bill had, and maybe for the same purpose?
These were of course suppositions; yet that evening in bed I hugged Martha more firmly as we slept together, worried that for a couple of years she had gone out with a man that hadn't cheated on her, but may well have been duplicitous, and hugged her still more firmly as I thought about my own low-key complicity with Maria. At one moment during the cafe meeting, Martha had gone to the bathroom and Maria and I had discussed briefly our email exchange and her stories.
The next morning Martha went off to work, and I went off to the gallery cafe, and tried to start a new story, but mainly read news articles on the internet and checked my emails. Around lunchtime a new email arrived from Maria, and with it a few words about how lovely it was to meet up, and another couple of stories. Reading through the first one was an innocuous enough experience, but the second one seemed designed to play with my equilibrium. In it, the narrator, who seemed again to have been based on Maria, had a close friend who for a couple of years had been seeing a wealthy ex-pat American in a large, unnamed city in Spain, and who had set up his own publishing firm, translating Spanish writers into English. The friend got a position in the company after leaving university, and stayed on in the job after the relationship. How could she leave, she said to the narrator, knowing that jobs were few, and the recession deep? The narrator concurred, but also wondered if the friend wasn't only holding on to her job, but also trying to hold on to her ex.
A few months afterwards, though, she started seeing someone from England, and no longer talked so often about her ex-boyfriend, and more about this new figure who she liked even if she suspected not as much as her ex, and felt that the long distance nature of the affair suited her. She thought it would stop her getting too close, and she didn't want to get too involved months after breaking up with her boss, even though she admitted missing regular affection. Indeed, it was missing this regular affection that led to the friend one night ending up in her ex's bed. The encounter was based on a little drink and much reminiscence, and she woke up guilty and conflicted. Her English lover had already booked the cheap, advanced plane tickets to come and visit, and luckily her ex had, at around the same time the Englishman had been due to arrive, booked to go to the States. The story concluded on a meeting not unlike the one the three of us had had the previous day: the narrator, the boss's ex-girlfriend and the English lover meeting in a cafe.
What could I say after reading it, and to whom? Should I arrange to meet up with Maria and discuss it with her, creating even more complicity, or talk to Martha about the stories that Maria had sent me, and discuss my suspicion that Martha had slept with her ex before I arrived? I instead worked through the afternoon on a short story that incorporated many of the elements here, and later that evening showed the three and a half thousand word piece to Martha. As I sat in her bedroom on the chair while she read through the story on my laptop with her legs crossed on the bed, so I tried to read in her expression the truths that she may have been hiding. As she finished the story she came over to me and said that she really didn't know what to make of it, but felt she needed to conclude her friendship with Maria, and perhaps look for another job in another city.
That evening we became much more intimate than we had before, as if the story had released thought and feeling previously half-expressed or denied. As we talked we both agreed that Maria probably had slept with Bill, though she wasn't his ex-girlfriend from the US, and probably did so some time after Martha and Bill had broken-up and not during their relationship. I accepted that Martha hadn't slept with Bill since she had started seeing me. She also concluded that while the story I had written wasn't that good, it was a lot better than anything Maria had probably written, and a lot better than the Maria story Martha had read. I asked her to say more, and Martha replied that she felt some people write to find small truths; others write to generate big lies. Sometimes these big lies take the form of vast fictional vistas that create a world and generate a masterpiece; on other occasions these big lies seem to serve little more than revenge, as if the writer were trying to drain the spleen from their system. I asked whether the story I had written could have been part of the mischievousness she suspected was in Maria's work. No, she said, she didn't think so, but admitted that she couldn't quite have explained why.
© Tony McKibbin