It was while holidaying in the south of France that he said Amanda came across sound therapy. They were in Montpellier and, after lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, they were passing through a side street when they came across a sign offering therapy through the use of sound bowls. Amanda paused as Peter kept walking, and she called after him saying she had heard about this but didn't know of anywhere in Scotland that did it. He said he would take a coffee at a cafe a couple of doors down and wait for her. He was in Montpellier for a three-day conference, had asked Amanda to join him, and they intended to stay on for another week. It was the last day of the conference, he decided to skip the first two afternoon talks, and intended to turn up for the last two, and certainly for the last, which was obligatory since he was the speaker. She came out after five minutes and said she managed to book an appointment in twenty-five minutes' time. It meant she would miss his talk but he said that would be fine; he invited her to come with him so they could enjoy the city; not so that she could hear him talk yet again about cyber-capital, neo-feudalism and other fashionable but perhaps not entirely useless terms he would be using in his lecture. He also knew that Amanda came to escape the fret of a familial crisis, a recurrent melancholy exacerbated by that death, and the subsequent fallouts as family members squabbled over the inheritance. Amanda was more concerned by the inheritance she saw as genetic; that her father had passed on to her his capacity for despair, while her brother and sister had escaped this cranial misery and were capable of making the most of the modest fortune he had left them. He may have divided his kingdom evenly amongst his three offspring but there was still the house the son was living in, and the antiques inside. The arguments between the brother and sister were over this, and Amanda chose to say nothing.
Peter didn't doubt that if Amanda could have given up the financial inheritance and foregone the genetic one she would have done so (she earned enough money in events management). But the least she could do she supposed was to use whatever money there was to try to find contentment that had thus far eluded her. The trip was the first expenditure, and she insisted that since Peter's university funding would cover the first three days, she would cover the rest. He accepted but insisted that if she were paying for the hotel, he was responsible for meals out. She agreed but sadly, he noticed, and once again he managed to make her feel that their life wasn't quite intermingled as she may have wished.
After that first session of sound therapy, he noticed that she was less jittery, that the sound of a siren, albeit quieter than the ones in the UK, or the barking of a dog, didn't make her jump, and she could talk of her brother and sister's arguments, and of her father's death, without crying. She was still clearly concerned and mournful but it was as though the worry and the grief didn't pass so deeply through her nervous system. It was as if everything now grazed the surface of the skin but didn't cut the flesh. He couldn't deny he was amazed by the transformation no more than one sound session had made. She went to another couple of sessions before they returned to Edinburgh and it was the most relaxed trip they had embarked upon during their two and half years together. He recalled a visit to Venice that seemed as watery as the canals the Gondolas passed through, with Amanda's tears frequent and often inexplicable, and another to Granada, where he knew that as they looked across as the majesty of the Alhambra, Amanda was looking in at her own unhappiness. He tried to get her to see the majesty of this building they were to visit the following day but she could not see it, and he would have cancelled the occasion if she hadn't said to him the next morning that, if she might not be able to admire its full beauty, she would ever so slightly be taken outside of her head by its magnificence. After their trips, she would recall them fondly, capable of viewing the experience with a retrospective joy that was often inaccessible at the time. But Peter sometimes wondered if it were more the reverse for him: that the pleasure he took in the experience was afterwards tempered by an awareness of Amanda's inability to enjoy it on the day. Yet for the rest of that trip in Montpellier, and during a couple of day excursions, one to Nimes, where they saw the Colosseum and the nearby viaduct, and another to the Mediterranean sea, there were no tears, even if he expected this to be most lachrymose trip of all.
Peter told me all this not long after he returned from Montpellier. We would usually meet up once a month for a curry evening with a couple of other academic friends, and often they would go home after the meal, while we would continue for pints at a pub. He said he knew he couldn't expect Amanda's contentment to continue unless she found a sound therapist in Edinburgh but she had thus far been unsuccessful in finding anyone. Amanda supposed there must be people who offered it informally, privately and so determinedly scouted social media in hope.
The next time we all met for a curry, and afterwards when Peter and I continued to the pub, I asked how Amanda was, and he admitted not so well. The dispute between her brother and sister had escalated, and there was talk of hiring lawyers. The sister wanted the brother out of the house; the brother said he had nowhere to live. The sister said that he should have thought of that years ago; he said that he was there looking after their father. Amanda would probably have sided with her brother but she wished above all else to avoid the arguments. She knew that of the three of them, it was the brother who did the most for their father as he moved in after their mother died, after he returned from five years working and living in Ireland. Amanda would visit often and do the shopping but Peter knew that her sister did almost nothing and had the best excuse she was living in Brighton and was married with two children. Peter supposed the sister was annoyed that since she was the only one with kids, the father hadn't provided extra provision, giving her a greater share of the inheritance, and it was the childless brother who now had the house. This was all very exhausting even to hear about, so I would imagine anyone with delicate nerves might find the sort of information vital to a legal proceeding like a cacophony.
If only there was someone who could offer her an alternative noise, Peter mused and still hoped there was someone in Edinburgh, or relatively nearby, that could help. Peter knew that my circles were more alternative than his, that a few years involved in a hippy cafe in the city, in the solstice festivals and a music event down by the Borders, meant if either of us was going to know about a sound therapist it would be me. I promised to enquire and get back to him.
A week before our next curry evening, I sent Peter a message, saying I might have found someone who could offer Amanda sound assuagement. I didn't know the person myself, but a friend well aware of what was going on in alternative therapies in the city said they knew of someone who knew someone who was a burgeoning practitioner. Peter asked me to give him more details next month if not before.
For some reason, partners never became part of our Indian meals out. Perhaps because when we started none of us were in long-term relationships and now that three were it might have seemed unfair to turn it into a couples' evening when not all of us were coupled up. Also, it was a chance to talk about our work in a way that didn't require constant explanation, and that night, the evening when after it I offered Peter a person Amanda could contact, we were discussing the importance of belief, that we were all finding belief had become an aspect of resistance in the context of what we were teaching. Alan taught economics, Peter contemporary philosophy, Sam, human geography and geopolitics, and I taught literature and philosophy. They all taught in the city's main university; I taught at what was formerly a college. It was getting increasingly difficult we found to teach without students questioning the presuppositions of the subject itself. Potentially this could have been fascinating, with students asking us to justify first principles rather than assuming the facts were self-evident, but all of us agreed that in different ways it was often exasperating. Sam said that when he was trying to explain the decline of Constantinople he increasingly found that people weren't interested in the geopolitical nature of the collapse but wanted to impose upon it a socio-historic, even racially specific reading, one that said the city had become far less significant in the modern era because we were less interested in the East than in the West. He would tell them to look at a map and note how difficult it was to get from Afghanistan and India to Western Europe as opposed to going from Bahia to Portugal. The distance from Bahia to Lisbon was less than 6500; from Goa to Lisbon over 8,000. The route from Bahia to Lisbon was direct by sea; from Goa to Lisbon the choices were crossing a great deal of land or going all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope and back up the West coast of Africa. One could see why for many centuries Constantinople was an important trading city. Imagine, he would tell his students, if you were taking goods through the Black Sea, how easy would it be to get them into the Mediterranean without passing through the Bosporus strait, into the sea of Marmaris and then through the Dardanelles strait?
Sam said he would often get his students to think as specifically as he could about the geography of conflict, the importance of climate, the value of seaports. But he increasingly found a number of the students didn't want to do this they wanted to impose a given racial inflection on the details he offered. When he discussed the building of the Suez and Panama canals he didn't want to ignore the numerous deaths (150,000 for the Suez; 25,000 while building the Panama canal) but he did want the students to understand why they were built. Some of the students couldn't get past the dead, the racial hierarchies involved in the building, and even proposed that they were deliberately aimed at killing locals rather than building trade. He wasn't sure if the person was exaggerating for effect, but what he did know was that some students didn't want to engage in motivational analysis that would have left them thinking through the motives of powerful white men, working with the contingencies of geography, the advantages of history, the expectations of climate and so on. He tried to explain this was how they had to understand the workings of civilization, and it didn't at all make the suffering of millions unimportant. But to understand that suffering without comprehending the motivations of the powerful was to turn the latter into sadists and the history of the world into a torture chamber. Maybe it is, one of the students said. Maybe they were partly right, Sam said to us, but can we understand the world only through the victims of it?
As we worked our way through a selection of Pakora, and then on to a series of main dishes including a Rogan Josh, Korma and Dansak, accompanied of course by obligatory beers, so each of us explained our conflicts with students and with their expectations. I said a few words about students demanding different texts; that they thought too many were from the established canon and this was out of date. Alan said some students saw economics as a white man's subject, created by empire builders for the purposes of colonisation, and Peter believed that a number of his students couldn't take philosophy seriously because it was usually produced by a few men in a few countries over many centuries. Remove the Greeks, the French, the Germans and the British and what have you left, they would say.
We were all the sort of people the tabloids would have plenty of reason to mock, academics fiddling with ideas, but none of us doubted that were we to go to the press with some of the comments our students offered, we would quickly become ripe for interview and exposure, adored by those determined to take on the politically correct. Yet we knew our students had a point; what worried us all was that they were increasingly reluctant to see ours to see that thought had been built up over thousands of years, not by people who had a particular agenda but who had usually the money and means to pursue abstract enquiry; others, to run countries and empires based on various privileges too. We wanted them to see the combination of the pragmatic and the dogmatic; some of the students could only see dogma. They so wanted the world to be a better place they weren't willing to discuss the intricacies of the world that had been made. We wondered if anybody was listening to our conversation. It was a quiet Wednesday night, with only three other tables occupied. The music was low and no doubt at moments our voices weren't.
As always, Peter and I went to the pub and would usually choose one near the Indian restaurant we had dined in. There were it seemed dozens of curry houses in the city and over the years we must have tried them all, but we now had four we all liked and rotated them. We offered the usual invite to Alan and Sam as we turned off on Drummond Street but off home they went. They both had young children, and late nights were occasional treats and midweek ones an impossibility. Peter and I continued the conversation over our students and this segued into a discussion about Amanda and the person I knew who seemed to know someone offering sound therapy. It was always the case that I was more sympathetic to alternative ideas than Peter, and though we had been friends since university, he never came along to any event organised by the hippies I knew and still know. I asked him about this, and said that was his acceptance of sound therapy and a willingness at last to absorb one alternative idea? He smiled at me and said he didn't have to see it that way all he needed to do was accept that Amanda believed in it, and if she did, and it seemed to work, his opinion didn't matter. I asked him if it didn't matter or would he just refrain from expressing reservations to Amanda? After all, if he reckoned the therapy was merely a placebo, then that still demanded he shouldn't undermine its effect on her.
Over the years, I knew Peter had been dismissive of reiki, acupuncture, Homeopathy; even meditation and yoga. So it surprised me he was seeking help from the very community, in looking for a sound therapist, he had always refused to take seriously. He said he was a pragmatist; if something seemed to work, obviously he wasn't going to question its success; only its failure. He knew that in Montpellier, Amanda was calmer and less tearful than she had been since her father died, maybe since they'd been together, and if he had to give the impression he believed in sound therapy then so he would. As he said this I wondered how aware he was of the sound in the pub. It was busier than the restaurant and less echoey, but I noticed the music was too loud given the number of punters, and only one of the conversations within earshot wished to compete with the decibel level. I suspected Peter was a pragmatist of sound as well; if it didn't interfere with his work or with a conversation, it was no more than background noise.
He asked me what I knew of this person who was offering sound therapy and I said nothing at all; I didn't even have a name. I said that a friend, Gillian, embedded in the alternative community, knew of someone and she said if my friend contacted her, she would pass on the details. It seemed this sound practitioner was doing it part-time; that she had a main job and was developing her business on the side. I gave Peter my friend's details and he said he would give it to Amanda in the morning; she would be very pleased.
I didn't see Peter for around six weeks. Sam was away at a conference and we pushed back the curry night. As usual, after it, Peter and I went to the pub, and I asked him if Amanda had started sound therapy yet. He said she started within days of contacting the sound therapist, and it seemed to be working out very well except for one thing. It seemed that the therapist was Peter's ex-girlfriend. He said he wasn't sure but various details matched: her name was Maria, she was from Spain, and her day job was in pharmaceuticals. This was information gleaned over the last five weeks and the most recent couple of details, offered only a few days before our meeting, seemed to seal it: she came to Scotland after falling for a Scotsman in Paris. She was there on a language course; he was there as part of his PhD. He was studying philosophy, she said. I asked if Amanda had worked out if this was clearly him, and he said it seemed not, or she hadn't expressed this suspicion. All Amanda knew was that in the past he had gone out with a Spanish woman; she didn't know where they had met or even her name. The more Amanda and Maria talked, the more likely it would be that Amanda would work out it was him but he didn't feel obliged to tell Amanda that her sound therapist was also his ex-girlfriend.
I asked him if he was refusing to do so out of decency or its opposite. I asked it with a smile but he met it with a scowl. He believed it was unfair to tell her, with the therapy apparently working so well, but I also saw in that scowl a look I hadn't seen for some years, perhaps ever since he broke up with Maria. And I suspected Amanda knew very little about his parting with Maria because nobody did; that it was a pain he kept to himself the one relationship I wondered if he ever got over because it was the one he would almost never talk about. And there he was, forced to talk about it now as Maria had been talking a little about it to his present partner. And there I was talking to him about it, aware that however indirectly I was responsible for bringing Maria and Amanda together.
Peter didn't know that Maria and I were in contact about a year after they parted. It was around then she started showing an interest in alternative therapies that had clearly continued, and she became friends with a couple I knew from that community, Gillian and Ben and, one night at a party they hosted, we talked for some time. She told me a lot about Peter that evening and explained why she had to leave him but in a way that seemed wary of specifics, as though she wished to defend herself but didn't wish to expose Peter. She said that he wasn't commandeering, demanding, overbearing, wasn't unkind, selfish or exploitative. Yet out of all these negatives, it was still somehow hard to find a positive, and she supposed it lay in a desire Peter had to be alone, that his default state wasn't companionship but solitude. It took her two years to understand that, two years where every time they went shopping the bill was split, in restaurants too, and on holidays as well. Though she moved into his flat after a year, she felt like a tenant, he often slept in the spare bedroom where he also had his desk and that doubled up as his office. She said he couldn't understand why she left, and maybe if he had understood she might have returned but instead he protected himself still further, refusing any contact and insisting that she pick up her various items at a time when he was out, and to put the keys through the letterbox afterwards.
I never mentioned this conversation to Peter, and only saw Maria once or twice after that, and always in company. I became less close to Gillian and Ben and supposed that Maria had returned to Spain as we chatted that night, she said she was considering it. When I contacted my friends, asking if they knew anyone who might know of a sound therapist, I did so partly as a way to justify making contact with Ben and Gillian for the first time in quite some time. I hardly expected it would lead to Peter's ex and present partner meeting.
Peter supposed that if they kept talking, then eventually Amanda would realise that Maria's ex was the same person as Amanda's boyfriend but what he hoped was that the therapy proved successful enough, quickly enough, that Amanda would feel much better and contact between them would cease. She had signed up for eight classes. There were another three classes to go and he admitted that after each one when Amanda returned he was beginning to feel as tense as she had become relaxed. While it was usually Amanda who would ask questions, probe where he'd been or with whom he'd met, now he was feeling like the more needy party, as if aware that this return to health for Amanda was robbing him just a little of his. Of course, he was chiefly afraid that Amanda would find out that Maria was his ex-girlfriend, and he knew he had treated Maria less than well, and while having treated Amanda better, knew too that some of the problems he was having with Amanda were also more evidently there with Maria. I knew that he knew this even if he didn't much express it. I could see it when I occasionally went around for dinner and saw that Peter's flat was still his and not quite their's, and that while it would be unfair to say he bossed Amanda about, I couldn't help but feel I was witnessing a demanding director with a slightly hesitant actress.
I wouldn't wish to exaggerate this, as Peter always would help in the kitchen whenever Amanda called him in, insisted on clearing the plates and putting them into the dishwasher, and was well aware that since she was cooking, he was the servant to her mastery. But when she would make a couple of music suggestions, he cajoled her into accepting his taste. Peter's inclination was to control environments, which I suspect worked very well in the classroom, and worked very well at the lectures of his that I attended, but it was as though in this sense he couldn't quite separate his private from his professional life.
Peter never found out whether Amanda discovered that the sound therapist was his ex-girlfriend, and after all even Peter didn't know for sure it was Maria. But she did continue doing sound therapy for several more months and it was near the end of this time that she told Peter she was leaving him. From the little Peter offered, she couched it in a way that said this had nothing to do with him but that she knew, what with her father's death, her brother and sister's dispute, and the healing process that she found in the acoustical, that she wanted to live by herself for a while. The inheritance had finally been sorted out and she could now easily afford a flat of her own. Was it the sound therapy that had led her to this realisation; or had she realised his ex was her sound therapist and they had discussed the limitations of this man? Peter didn't offer such speculation to me but I couldn't help but wonder about it nevertheless.
Over the next six months, Peter continued coming to the curry nights but he no longer wanted to go for drinks afterwards. Perhaps he was wary of just the two of us together and the threat of discussing more personal things; perhaps he blamed me for putting Amanda in contact with what was surely his ex.
But what I do remember is on one of these nights out, everyone was discussing once again the difficulties they were having with students refusing to accept various premises involved in the subject they were studying. Peter said that he increasingly found it difficult for students to understand first principles. As far as some of them were concerned there was no such thing; that what mattered was the perspective. He was happy to acknowledge that there were various philosophers for whom coming from an angle was important. But he also said that arguing well isn't enough. He tried to explain to them the importance of the Socratic method; the significance of Hegel's dialectic, Wittgenstein's interrogation of language. He said to them that one reason why a debating society had little philosophical validity was that it usually consisted of one side trying to best the other side with better arguments, more evidence, stronger facts. In a debate, both ideas can be wrong but there will still be a winner because it isn't first principles that will be sought but a victory achieved. Indeed, part of the error might rest in the assumption there are only two sides to the subject they are discussing when there may be many. He gave as an example a debate based on pro-immigration versus anti-immigration, and where one would argue its merit; the other side its negative impact. This would not be a philosophical argument he proposed and was about to say what might be when the students turned on each other. Most were pro-immigration and three or four were against it, but it quickly became a heated account of a few facts and a little bit of data. The philosophical promptly retreated. He said he was thinking of resigning; he already felt resigned to a world that didn't know how to think.
I had the feeling that Peter's pessimism was greater than his students' inability to think well and even wondered if he had exaggerated his case all the better to reflect a deeper personal despair. When the others offered their jeremiad against academia it contained a bit of bleakness but the tone was jovial. It was what people did they moaned about their jobs. Peter was bemoaning something more. I asked him as we walked a couple of blocks in the same direction if he would join me for a drink and he said he wasn't in the mood; thanked me for asking and took off before I had the chance to persuade him again. I stood on the pavement and looked along the road at this figure dwindling into the distance and thought it was more than just an optical issue that he was getting smaller.
I tried leaving a message a few times but I would only get a cursory response or nothing at all. We all went for an Indian meal on another three or four occasions, but the gap between each one extended, and after that ceased altogether. I started to spend more time with Gillian and Ben, and once again found myself in the city's alternative scene, going to music events, poetry readings, and, after recovering from a back injury, started doing yoga. After attending for several months, the teacher said she was hosting a party and invited her students. Invite others, she said, it is a big house. I mentioned it to Gillian and Ben, told them where it was and they said they knew of the house; they had been there before but didn't know who owned it. Now they knew and yes, of course they would come.
It was a detached house on Spylaw Rd, not far from the Steiner school. We arrived at 930 and the party was already busy, with numerous people in the front garden, drinking beers and a couple of people poking away at a barbecue though there was no smell of meat. It looked like halloumi and I supposed vegan burgers and sausages too. We continued into the house and there were rooms to the left and to the right, beyond into the kitchen, also on the stair landing, and no doubt a few more upstairs as well. If the party suggested the indiscriminatory in number it was demographically quite precise. It was made up of the various people who over the years had been involved in what I supposed was the alternative community of the city: the herbal specialists, the yoga teachers, the street sellers who would make jewellery, sell hand-creams and crystals, or scarves bought in India. There were no doubt people there from the Steiner school, and also the Montessori schools and nurseries. It was a community I never knew well but various faces were familiar, and it was among these faces that I saw Maria. I offered a nodded hello amidst the hubbub. I didn't expect more than an acknowledgement; I was Peter's friend and she was his ex. And yet was I still his friend, I wondered, as I hadn't seen him for so long.
Yet by the end of the evening, I felt as though I knew him better than ever before, as if the few things Maria said, even more than those she had offered to me after they broke up, contextualised aspects of his personality that I accepted or never really acknowledged.
It was likely Peter would come up in the conversation as he was the reason we knew each other at all, but I hadn't spoken to her at length since that one occasion a year after they parted. When I returned from the upstairs bathroom I saw her sitting on the stairs and asked if I could join her. The stairs were wide and even with the two of us sitting there, people had room enough to move up and down them. She said this was the quietest spot she could find short of taking a lie down in one of the bedrooms. I realised I was about to say that I supposed sound really mattered to her; a potentially odd statement for me to make even if it was one of almost certain fact. How could she know that I knew she had taken up sound therapy? For a while, we talked about other things, including the people we knew at the party, a book she was reading, after she asked if I was still teaching literature, and how difficult she found music played as background noise. It was then she told me she was offering sound therapy, and I said I knew someone who I think had been one of her clients. She asked me who this was, and I said it may well have been her ex-boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. She nodded and said she knew this client was Peter's ex but of course not straightaway and, by the time she realised, it was several sessions in and she knew too that the person really felt the need for this therapy, and there was nobody else in Edinburgh or nearby who offered it.
Maria trained in sound therapy for several months back in Spain, after taking six months off work, and hoped to at least recoup the price of these expensive bowls by offering classes. She was surprised how popular they were and said she was thinking of giving up her day job even if she knew it very unlikely she could make as much from the sound therapy as she could in pharmaceuticals. Maybe she could become a sound guru and make millions, she joked. But earning even half the money from healing so directly, rather than through a corporation, was reward in itself. Though she couldn't deny that healing Amanda, if that is what she did, may not have only been down to the sound bowls.
Over the dozen sessions it became increasingly clear, Maria said, that Peter was her client's partner, as the client mentioned a man who taught philosophy, was living on a particular street, and tended to be very protective over his space as if they were his feelings. Maria listened but never asked any questions that would lead her to have more knowledge of Peter than her client chose to divulge, and would only offer advice as it was solicited. These discussions would come after the sound therapy, and Maria was in the habit of spending time afterwards with her clients, usually discussing how they were feeling, what they seemed to get out of the session. It wasn't unusual for people to talk about problems in their life: relationships and work, family and friends, the most common. On a couple of occasions, these chats extended to an hour or more when Maria had no further appointments, and she couldn't pretend that, while she liked this woman's company, she was also interested in hearing about Peter from another's perspective.
She had after all ended the relationship and felt guilty about it for some months afterwards, and would have done so of course even without Peter's accusatory texts and emails after they broke up. Here she was feeling justified all over again in her decision as she heard from another woman who too had tried to dissolve herself into the life of a human being only for the other person to become still more themselves. Peter didn't believe in boundaries, she said, he insisted on hard borders, with each person in need of a passport to visit. The image might have been clumsy she admitted, especially to a literary man like myself, but she said that it was as if everything were an act of permission and jurisdiction.
Maria said she decided to leave over two incidents; one instant and the other accumulative. It was when she proposed a long weekend away and realised as she was doing so that it wasn't an exciting proposition she felt she was offering him but an onerous task she was hoping he might fulfil. He looked at his calendar as if seeing if he could fit in an appointment and she was tense awaiting the outcome. It took him a minute and he said that looked very doable. She laughed as she said this to me but she hadn't laughed when he offered it. A long weekend away was no different for him than a work conference and it was their last trip anywhere.
I remembered it too, from a conversation with Peter after they broke up and he would speak of this wonderful trip they had taken to Aviemore, staying in a wooden chalet next to the Spey River, taking walks around a couple of the area's lochs, and climbing up past the ski lift on the Cairngorms. He remembered them eating at the hotel across from the station, and a single malt that Maria sipped from after he insisted nobody could dislike a whisky that was so smooth on the tongue and only sharp in the throat if gulped too quickly. As I told Maria this I saw her hide a sob that seemed to come from her chest, and she said that in some ways that was the most beautiful trip they took but it was as if Peter had become tenderised by an awareness that they were soon to part. His mind wouldn't have known it, she supposed, but his body seemed more pliant and oddly obedient on that occasion. He seemed to want to touch and hug more often.
The other realisation, which couldn't be wished away by their stay in Aviemore, was that one afternoon a few days before going to the Highlands, she tapped on his study door and knew that it wasn't that she was knocking which was the problem; it was that whenever she knocked it was always with momentary hesitancy, even nervousness, as she did so. Peter was never an aggressive or violent man, but he so often appeared close to irritation, and she knew that much of their relationship had been about alleviating his frustrated state. She knew then that she would leave and suspected Peter knew too during that trip north and she supposed his affection was a sign of his contrite acceptance things were over.
I said that wasn't how he reacted once it was over and she said she well knew; that he was very angry, very hurt and very accusatory. She said it with sadness and I wondered if she regretted parting. She paused for so long, I thought she wasn't going to answer at all. But she then said there were numerous moments where she had regretful feelings, though she reckoned these were based on the assumption that he would have changed. She would then think about all the difficult occasions and noted that many of them were predicated on sound. Not only did she often feel that she had to remain quiet, but she also feared those moments when Peter was looking for a quote he couldn't find and would curse quietly, get up from his desk and wander around the flat and scan the various bookshelves looking for a book he hadn't put back in its rightful place. She would now think that her interest in sound therapy may have its roots there: in looking for sounds that would assuage.
She supposed too this was what Amanda sought, and while Maria reckoned that the therapy may have worked, she also worried that it worked less because she was a good sound therapist; more that she was also an ex. And yet it was maybe worse than that. While Amanda might have been convinced through their meetings to leave Peter, Maria was convinced as well that she was right to leave him years earlier. As Maria talked without harshness, without bitterness, with a sense of compassion that was constantly present in her voice, I started to see Peter not as the confident figure he had always appeared to be, nor the bully that Maria's comments couldn't hide, but someone who needed a friend who wouldn't talk behind his back.
I remember him saying once to me that he could accept what people said to his face but he wouldn't tolerate what was said about him in his absence. I said to him how did he know what people were saying behind his back? He replied: Precisely. He said no more that day but on another, after the break-up with Maria, he told me what was so painful wasn't anything Maria said, but what he supposed she was saying to her friends; how he had treated her badly and acted selfishly. He would prefer if she had said how awful she found him and somehow knew that the very worst thing had been direct, and anything then offered to anyone else would seem weak next to that harsh judgement.
I recall at the time thinking what he said was perverse: that better to hear the worst than suspect it. When she said to me she was perhaps too harsh with Peter as they broke up, said one or two things she would have preferred to have left unuttered, I said she was maybe not harsh enough. But you are his friend, she said, and I replied, I know, and added why she should have been more direct still would be too complicated to explain. And maybe, I concluded, there is nothing so brutal as contingency. That, she insisted, must be explained, though I reckoned this might have been easy enough for her to work out
At that moment, Maria's friends came over and said they were going home, and Maria said that yes, she should be going as well. I said I would try and explain next time why Peter had been the victim of chance, but I suspect I wouldn't need to do so. She gave me a hug and said it was good to see me, and if I ever wanted to alleviate the voices in my head, the noises out there in the world, then I must contact her. I said I just might do that.
I left shortly afterwards, saying goodbye to Gillian and Ben, and thanking the hosts. On the way home, crossing Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows, walking down Causewayside and turning off towards my flat near Dalkeith Road, I thought about the brutality of chance. I recall reading once a theorist saying that God was chance, but I wondered why couldn't it have been the devil? It surely depended less on who was responsible for the contingent event than the individual on the receiving end of it. The person who loses fifty pounds may see the devil at work; the person finding it might believe it to be God's will. But then I supposed a perspective beyond the fortunate and the unfortunate would insist that it isn't enough that one person's good fortune is another's misfortune and that the degree to which the act was devilish or Godly rested on how much the person needed the fifty pounds. If a wealthy man drops the money on the street and a poor man picks it up, is it closer to God's work while if the reverse is the case it happens to be the devil's? And if this so, then how in a world where it is very easy for a rich man to become ever richer with investments and interest, while the poor man must labour often to do no more than survive, can we not deny that the world is evil? Is this what the students finally wanted to propose: that Peter was looking at the world as neutral and concentrating too much nf the rich and their good fortune and not enough on the poor and their misfortunes?
I am not sure what Maria would have made of my musings, but maybe if I had couched the notion within the context of sound she might have been more comprehending: whether sounds are inevitable or are they as well products of chance? Perhaps if I had talked about what rules the world, cacophony or harmony, as if the industrial revolution were the devil's work acoustically, that the devil had so often the best tunes when it comes to material progress, she might have concurred. Maria would have understood too, perhaps, that Amanda may have felt the therapy she received was all about sound from a bowl but it may also have been the sound of her own voice as she expressed doubts about Peter. And maybe Maria was therapeutically helped by Amanda's reservations speaking about her own ex-partner. But my thoughts by the time I had turned off the Meadows and down Causewayside were no longer with Maria; they were with Peter, as I remembered an anecdote he told me about the first time he and Amanda met and not long after they started seeing each other.
Amanda had been hired by the university to organise a three-day philosophy conference and had liaised with Peter online, who was one of the three lecturers involved in the organising. It was a large conference with talks going on in several different rooms simultaneously and Amanda with a team of others had to make sure the technology was working, the snacks and drinks were always available after certain events, and she was also in charge of additional entertainments: including a jazz night and restaurant visits. It was on the third day of the conference and though Peter heard from the other lecturers involved in the planning that Amanda had done a wonderful job, he still hadn't met her in person. He was by the third day exhilarated though tired after the jazz night, and woke up later than he intended on this morning where he was to give his presentation. While in the week or so before the conference he had written a draft, he couldn't find the time during those three days to tidy it up and there he was with forty-five minutes before people were going to come through the door still trying to make sure it made sense. The talk was twenty minutes long. It was deliberately simple but he knew that he could sometimes believe what was clear to him was only so because of the premises he had already absorbed.
The conference may have been made up of those interested in philosophy, but the point of it was to make it very broad in its interests, and thus academics were expected to make their subject accessible to non-specialists. As he began to rework it, a woman tapped on the door and as he asked her to come in he felt a strong and surprising sense of calm. As she asked if everything was ok instead of saying as he usually would that yes, everything was fine, he explained briefly that he needed to knock a loose draft into a tight draft, explaining how accessible it ought to be. She said that what he could do was read it out to her and anything that wasn't clear she would tell him, as honestly and brutally as necessary. She said this with such a gentle voice, with such calm in her delivery, that he knew it would be fine. He read it out and there were four places where she wasn't sure what he was saying and he corrected them and continued the paper.
By the end of it, the first people were coming through the door and Amanda smiled and said everything would be well. Peter said there was something in her voice that seemed to transcend all the argument and logic that had been taking place over the previous three days, and he knew he didn't possess this type of calm and wondered if this was why he pursued reason and insisted on controlling his environment. He hoped in Amanda he had found someone who could allow him to relax and said he perhaps understood for the first time the importance of the acoustic, its potential softness.
I found myself thinking of this story and also of Amanda's own anxieties, despite that gentleness she showed that day and which I had seen too on a few occasions. It was an anxiety no doubt exacerbated still further after her father died - and yet it seemed Amanda and Maria understood an aspect of the world, and its potential tranquillity that Peter couldn't, no matter his wish to do so. It may have been cruel that a man who lived for the principles of reason, who knew that he wasn't happy unless controlling his immediate environment, would be left alone after one partner became close to another, leaving him close to neither, and all due to contingency. They didn't gang up on him, of course, but that might be how Peter felt, and as I walked home that night I wondered if he might discover that I had been in a long conversation with Maria, where we had discussed her relationship with Peter, and also Peter's relationship with Amanda that she had comprehended through Maria's therapy. What I couldn't work out was whether this was a benign or malign chance; that Peter was unlucky enough to find his partner's therapist was also his ex, or whether Amanda has been lucky enough to meet Maria who had helped convince her to leave this controlling man, if that is what he was. I felt on this occasion chance was on the side of the Angels, and they were Amanda and Maria. It was perhaps the harshest thing I could have ever said to Peter and was relieved that as he no longer sought my company, I needn't be obliged to offer such a thought to him. I was thinking the worst behind his back and wondered if I could even look him in the eye if I were soon to bump into him. As I walked I could hear almost nothing, except a few blocks away a couple of cars swooshing down one of the busier streets. I was as so often alone with my thoughts, and it made a pleasant change to know that I didn't wish to share them.
© Tony McKibbin