What was he looking for he wondered after the first couple of meetings with a psychoanalyst, someone recommended to him by a friend who had rather more money to spend on engaging with their own psyche than he did? Maybe he was hoping for nothing other than being asked the right question. He was now forty and was someone who had never been in a relationship for more than several months, and when he looked over the last twenty years of his emotional life he had to accept that his experiences had been made up of flings, nothing so grand as a relationship. Yet with a number of these flings he had talked to them of matters immensely personal, as if seeking out the space where the question might be answered. A number of them said they had moments where they considered suicide, a number of others that there were times when they felt as though their lives were utterly without meaning, and others who insisted they never wanted children because they didn't want a reason to stay in this world that might feel more like an obligation than a desire. These affairs may have been flings but they were not meaningless.
What he perhaps wanted the analyst to disentangle were his subtle feelings from his practical reality. He wanted, he believed, for the psychoanalyst to help him work out whether had had avoided commitment through emotional devastation or financial limitation, or perhaps a combination of both that had made his feelings inaccessible. How could he make them accessible, communicable? This, the analyst said on their first session of six sessions, was what they hoped together to be able to do.
However for the first few sessions Tom mainly seemed to tell anecdotes that the analyst believed took him further away from his feelings rather than towards them. When Tom offered an emotional formulation for why he felt lonely as a child, the analyst said that Tom wasn't returning to the experience, and finding the child-language inside, but offering an adult explanation. Tom disagreed, and told the story of a friend's child. One day he and his wife and two children were walking along the road and the oldest, who was thirteen, bumped into a girl several years older than he was, and she turned and apologized. His friend's wife turned to her older son and said it looked like the girl was giving him an admiring look, while the younger son, who was nine, said that she should stop projecting her infatuation with her own son on to other people. Tom offered it as an example of young people offering adult formulations, and wondered whether he had done exactly this when as a child his father had left.
His father, a sociologist at the local university in the part of London in which they lived, had left one Sunday afternoon, saying he was going for a walk, and he didn't come back. Tom was nine, and over the next few weeks he saw his mother regularly bursting into tears wondering what had happened to her husband, and Tom perhaps envied her the expression of those tears as people would console her, while he sat looking at everyone as if they had forgotten he was part of this emotional equation as well. Yet he didn't recall doing anything to demand that sympathy, as if his purpose, since he was an only child living with his mother, was to make her feel not too completely the absence of her husband; no matter if he was also Tom's father.
Tom could see the analyst was more interested in the detail of emotional isolation than the anecdote about youthful articulation, and yet Tom thought the two were importantly interlinked. As he elaborated on those first few weeks alone with his mother in the house, he also believed he was playing the role of the absent father, and in this role he insisted he was having thoughts and feelings that were much more grown-up than those of only a few weeks before. He recalled saying to his mother that he wished he could now support the pair of them, that he wanted to become the breadwinner. It was a word he had heard his father using in a conversation with his mother while they were arguing a few weeks before he left. He knew the conversation was over money, and when he dwelt upon the conversation after his father's disappearance, he would go over what was said, rescuing words from the rubble of memory and trying to reassemble them into a meaningful argument. Where before he would sometimes listen to his parents' rows with the words meaning rather less than the argumentative tone, he wanted, after his father left, to remember the very words, and one of those words was breadwinner, and the word that he offered to his mother, saying that he wished he could get a job.
He related this to the analyst, who looked a little restless in his seat, as if Tom had gone in a direction that wouldn't be useful, yet Tom could feel its usefulness far beyond what he believed the analyst could see or comprehend, and said that a couple of days after the breadwinner comment he went into his father's study, and found a couple of books that might help him find out what an average wage happened to be in the mid-seventies. He worked his way through the books and understood much about social classes, work difficulties and so on through reading the books; books he would never have looked at if his father hadn't disappeared.
However, as he explained this to the analyst, Tom thought he could see that the analyst wanted to know more about his feelings as a child, while Tom was trying to explain how he so quickly thought he became an adult. The analyst asked how he felt when he said to his mother that he wished to be a breadwinner, and Tom said he couldn't remember, and the analyst said that is perhaps what is most important: to try and recapture that emotional memory.
As he left the analyst's office one of these afternoons, he felt the analyst was half right and half wrong. Tom knew that he was still not accessing emotions - and was that not chiefly the reason he was there? - but he also believed that to do so required trying to recall certain causes and effects that were no longer easily accessible. Indeed it was only because a couple of years earlier Tom and his mother were in discussion about his own relative inability to earn a living that she reminded him of what he had said as a child, a memory completely forgotten, even though he remembered reading pages from the books in his father's office after his father left. He was reading them saying he would too like to be a psychologist like his father and pay his way. He had for years the memory of effect but no memory of the cause, and it was only his mother's casual comment that brought the cause back to the effect. He remembered reading the books, but not why he had done so. He also wondered whether there was a certain quiet irony in this: that it was perhaps his very interest in books, books, books, that had over the years got in the way of him becoming a breadwinner. As he would write short stories and book reviews for small magazines and journals, so the remuneration was so meagre that he could not expect to make a living at it, and only survived at all because of some private tutoring work he would do for an agency. He had taken on a couple of extra hours a week to pay for his psychoanalytic sessions.
Throughout the sessions his father's name would come up, but rarely because Tom wanted to talk about him, but instead because the analyst would keep asking him how he felt about his father's absence, an absence that had now stretched to over thirty years: did he feel angry, sad, tearful, in the years after he had left, was he hopeful that his father would return, or perhaps strangely happy that his mother would have been alone with him now, and there would be no more arguments? Tom would reply that he couldn't really remember, but in the fifth session he told the analyst that if he had one wish over the years it wasn't that his father would return, but instead that he would search out his father. The analyst said this was very interesting, said that it was a proactive response rather than a passive one, and asked if this was because he could somehow avenge his father by finding him, rather than feeling that he might have passively accepted him back into the family if he had returned. Tom said he didn't know, but after he left the penultimate session he knew that he wanted to find his father.
Now strangely this was much easier than one might have thought, since though he hadn't seen his father in over thirty years, this didn't mean he wasn't aware of his father's movements. The difficulties were not those of geography and ignorance; more emotional nuance: his mother had long since remarried (after he left to go to university at nineteen) and his loyalty towards her feelings meant that he had perhaps consistently denied his own. Now, after exploring some of these feelings with the analyst, he wanted to explore further and meet up once again with his father.
Would his father want to see him? A year after his father had left, he sent a letter to Tom's mother saying that, as she could see from the postmark, he was now living in France and trying to assemble for himself a new life. He explained in the letter that to have stayed would have been suicidal; and he insisted he was not using the word lightly, or as an alibi: he thought if he had stayed in the job, in his marriage, in their house in Kilburn, he would not have been around to write the letter he was then composing. If Tom ever wanted to see him this of course would be fine, but he did not want to upset the boy's life after choosing to change his own. Tom's mother gave him the letter on his eighteenth birthday, saying she never knew whether it was for the best, but that was what she had decided. Tom reacted not angrily, but instead with equanimity as he supposed his mother did so to protect his feelings rather than protecting her own. He did not suspect, as he might have, and as the analyst proposed, that she may have wanted much more to protect her own feelings. While she may have given him the letter on his eighteenth birthday, didn't she also, the analyst noted, by that time have another boyfriend, someone whom she would marry a year later?
During the next twenty years Tom was aware that his father was always waiting to see him but not expecting it, and Tom did not meet him for at least three reasons, all of which he offered to the analyst. Firstly he thought it would be unfair to his mother, who had not only looked after him emotionally in the years since his father left, but also financially: as far as he knew his father had never paid maintenance, and Tom's mother had never asked him to; as if she preferred that the absence of his presence to be complete, and the financial contribution would have been detrimental to her own emotional recovery. Yet did Tom not sometimes have to go without, relying on only his mother's income, the analyst wondered, on her salary as a staff nurse? Tom admitted he did, and that friends would have more fashionable clothes, have guitar lessons, go on trips abroad. But he respected his mother's decision not to be in contact at all with her ex-husband, and Tom accepted it by refusing even as a grown-man to contact his father either. Secondly, he didn't know how he would feel seeing his father again, didn't know whether he needed to risk an emotion that he couldn't find a good enough reason to access. Thirdly, though he was forty, he had never travelled outside of Britain, and a trip to another country felt like a mystery he wasn't sure he wanted to embark upon.
Yet it was as if he felt his father had become less a source of emotional loss that he needed to reacquaint himself with, and more a question he wanted to pursue. If it had been the emotional element that was most important, Tom may have felt he had left it too late: how could this man whom he hadn't seen in thirty years be anything than a stranger to him? However, if the purpose lay in understanding this man, how he had lived, and why he had walked out on his wife and child at an age that Tom happened to be now, then perhaps the time was exactly right.
During their final session, Tom said to the analyst he wanted to visit his father, and the analyst seemed strangely and briefly perturbed by Tom's announcement. It was as though the analyst had created a dynamic where the mother was actual and the father virtual, and here Tom was deciding to turn the symbolic father into a manifest presence. Are you ready for it, the analyst asked, and Tom said that he needed to conquer something within himself that might have less to do with his father and more to do with the world. Would going abroad be action enough, the analyst wondered? Even if he couldn't find his father, Tom reckoned, he had at least embarked on a journey, both physical and psychological. As Tom said this he laughed and reckoned that he was beginning to use the very language the analyst would offer, and wondered if meeting his real dad would allow him to escape this burgeoning vocabulary.
What he didn't say to the psychoanalyst was that he wondered if he were beginning to view the person who would talk to him for an hour every week as the father he could barely remember. Tom's father was of course a psychologist, and it was as if he needed to search him out less with the hope of finding him than with the need to escape the analyst who was taking over that role, a space that had lain empty for almost thirty years, occasionally filled by his mother's lovers and her second husband, but so reluctantly on their part, and where he was so unwilling to play his role in return, that his father's shoes were like a pair he had found in the cupboard and one day hoped would be able to fill himself. That he felt emotionally as if they were the right fit for the person whom he would visit each week made him feel restlessly uncomfortable: as if he were paying for the privilege of having a father-figure in his life.
He had never told his mother of these visits, and the only person who knew of them was the very friend who had recommended he should see someone, a friend wealthy enough not only to have attended analysis regularly for years, but also someone Tom knew would be able to lend him the money he needed for the trip he was about to take. As Tom said when he asked his friend for the cash: was it not his friend who thought he should see a psychoanalyst, and didn't Tom now feel he ought to seek out his father after these sessions? And shouldn't the friend lend him the money that Tom no longer had because he had spent his extra cash on the therapy sessions that now demanded he needed more money to go abroad? Tom joked that he didn't want to ask for the loan; he wanted to offer an argument for it that sounded irrefutable.
After the friend loaned him a thousand pounds, Tom thought that this was not the first time where he would get what he wanted less through beseeching than by argumentation. Most people he assumed would try to get what they wanted with more emotional persuasion, by pleading, crying and begging - with various forms of emotional manipulation. But even in those brief affairs he would have, he would always argue his case, never plead for it, and he knew that on a couple of occasions when people left him, he might have been expected to implore them to stay. Instead he would look at the reasons why they thought they should leave, and felt he could not offer a counter-argument better than the one they offered him. I think I want to live with someone, one said. Another believed that she wanted to be with a man who at least thought he would desire children. He could see their point, he would say, and leave the situation with a strange feeling of righteousness, a belief that he had done the right thing, but at the same time as if blocking his own emotions. He then created inside his head arguments not unlike the one he offered to the friend who lent him the thousand pounds, arguments that were well put, but somehow shouldn't have been arguments at all. It was as if he would catch himself, with these lovers, and his few friends, in the wrong emotional register: arguing through thought when he should have been expressing through feeling.
He thought about this after the friend lent him the money, and realised he felt as he did when he would part from a lover: as if he would be alone with the feeling instead of sharing it. He never said to the friend that he needed the money because he felt bereft without a father, and had felt like this for many years, never said that he could ask his friend because he knew that he was one of the closest people in his life, and that he knew how the friend would understand his need to see his father because Tom remembered how his friend was in tears as they talked about the friend's own father's death a few years earlier. No, Tom would not position himself within the context of an emotion when he could argue for his wants and needs, even if it left numerous other wants and needs unattended.
Now every year his father had sent him a birthday card (though his mother withheld the ones before his eighteenth birthday) and Tom never replied perhaps for the reasons outlined above. It wouldn't have felt right, Tom believed, to send his father a quick thank you: he would need, if he replied at all, to engage in a lengthy exchange, to justify his own existence and expect his father to justify his. Yet he had every card going back to his 10th birthday, and in the card every year would be his father's address in case he ever wanted to be in touch. Over the last twenty years the address had changed three times, and those addresses were well known to Tom, as he would sometimes look at a map of Paris, and see where his father lived, and would take out films set in Paris wondering if they would show his father's arrondissement. The address on the cards in recent years had been for a street called Rue de Fauburg du Temple. The bottom of the street was near the Canal St Martin, which he had sometimes seen in films, and often in pictures, and it was in a hostel a few hundred yards from the canal, off Fauburg du Temple, where Tom decided to stay.
He had booked into the hostel for a fortnight, and he didn't so much want to show up at his father's door as somehow search him out, try and guess who amongst all the local people he would see on the streets his father might be. He didn't have the code for the address, and in Paris all the buildings had a security code that meant you couldn't turn up on somebody's doorstep anyway: all he had was his father's landline, and flat number.
For the first couple of days he stayed mainly in the neighbourhood, reading in a couple of cafes by the canal, and wondered if either of them might have been his father's regular. He looked at the faces and body movements of men who would have been about his father's age, and thought that men in their sixties and early seventies seemed somehow more purposeful than they did in London, that if they were sitting in cafes they were not killing time but finding a purpose in the book they were reading; and when they walked idly along the street they didn't seem to be lost, either emotionally or geographically, but casually purposeful: as if painters without their paintbox and canvases, or writers without their notebook: people who were looking at the world without a prosaic purpose or no purpose at all, but instead a poetic one.
Of course Tom would also see people who were utterly dispossessed, and he saw numerous homeless people who were mad with loneliness, talking to themselves and hectoring people who would pass. They didn't seem to possess the casual social networks of many London homeless, whom Tom would often see drinking outside King's Cross, near where he lived. The Paris homeless could have been those very artists or poets he imagined, but who hadn't quite got the commission, published the book or got a few teaching hours in an institute.
Indeed that was exactly what happened to Julia's father, though to describe him as destitute would have hardly been a fair term it seemed. Tom met her in one of the cafes along the by the canal, and she helped him as he clumsily tried to order lunch in French from a waiter who spoke no English. As the waiter turned frustrated and went to try and get the attention of the other waiter who was taking an order, Julia, who was sitting at the table next to Tom's, said in French that she would help. Tom ordered in English; she translated it into French, and after thanking her she asked what he was doing in Paris, and where in Britain he might have been inclined to hide the real reason for a more practical one, here he felt as if not only was he in a country with a different language, but also with a different means of communication altogether. Tom disclosed that he was looking for his father, and half an hour later she phoned to cancel a meeting with her friend, who was running late and didn't know whether she could make the appointment anyway, and they sat all afternoon in the cafe as the rain which had started shortly after Tom entered the cafe, continued till the early evening.
It was during this discussion that Julia told him about her own father, saying that he was living somewhere in the south of France, was of no fixed abode, and lived in and out of homeless hostels during the winter, and lived in a tent in the French countryside the rest of the year. She said he hadn't so much lost his mind as his ego: he lived as if all the accoutrements of social status didn't matter to him. Tom asked if she ever visited him in the south. She said that once a year, during the summer, she would take a train down south, taking a tent and a sleeping bag, and would camp with him near a beach for a week. Sometimes they would get moved on, sometimes they wouldn't. Tom asked how they kept in touch. Julia said her father had a mobile, and they both laughed, as if this seemed such an egotistical item of technology it surely countered his escape from the world of the ego. She said that once when she asked her father about this he insisted it was the perfect technological item of the vagabond: a means by which someone can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Many homeless people said they felt safer owning one, and all he needed was an occasional plug, which he would usually find in a cafe, by which to charge it.
Tom announced that he had left his mobile at home, reckoning it wouldn't have worked abroad, and somehow liked the idea of not so much homelessness as communicative disconnection. She said that perhaps without hers, however, they wouldn't still be sitting there having this conversation: didn't she use her mobile to phone her friend? He wanted to kiss her as she said this, and though there was something in the way that she offered the comment that was an invitation to intimacy, he felt somehow it was a provisional rather than a categorical invite and instead asked if she would have dinner with him. She said she couldn't do so that evening, but if he happened to be free the following night that would suit her perfectly.
That evening he ate alone, but for the first time since arriving in Paris he did so with the feeling of ambient aloneness rather than shrunken loneliness. What was the difference he thought, as he ate in an inexpensive restaurant known for its healthy cuisine, in Oberkampf, not too far from the hostel. He had eaten there once before, on the second night in the city, and he recalled looking across at the busy pub/restaurant on the other side of the square, and saw numerous people who seemed to know each other, and knew each other as comfortably off, successful young people often do. They appeared, he thought, to greet each other superficially, superficial in the sense that they seemed not so much to meet the person as the clothes the person was wearing, the moped they were riding, the new bag they had bought, the haircut they had just paid for. He had thought they were not real to each other and felt despondent, believed that they were performing an identity rather than possessing one. Yet this evening, again he saw people introducing themselves to each other without any discernible difference, yet his response was much more quizzical, as he thought of them as stage performers who had written their own parts and chosen their own wardrobe, somehow improvising a performance with others who had also chosen their own part and costume. That the parts were nevertheless puppeteered by that year's fashion made him find the performance ridiculous but hardly despairing, and he enjoyed the ambient loneliness that such a position gave him as he observed this social play nearby. This was not the shrunken loneliness of the other day, where he was looking for some essence to the people he was watching as he felt lost in his own, but the ambient aloneness of observing people he could see may have an essence of their own but that didn't mean they needed readily to share it. After all, tonight he would have no need to share his, having tentatively done so earlier that day with Julia, and where he would do so again the following evening.
After dinner he went to a cafe at the top of Oberkampf at Belleville, had some mint tea, read a book, and then walked along Menilmontant and back down to the flat. As he read, and after, as he walked home, he looked at the faces of various people who would have been his father's age, wanting to guess who his father happened to be rather than find out by phoning and arranging to meet him. It gave looking at the numerous faces a frisson as he tried to spot in the shape of the jaw, in the eyes, in the skin tone, in the nose, something of his own features. As he sat in the cafe terrace and watched people walking past, he thought of three people who might possibly have been his father, and all of them were dressed perhaps in an older man's version of the young people he had seen earlier across from the restaurant, in a style consistent with their age and class. They were all dressed in smart clothing but in clothes that were not new: suits that had been well worn, and crumpled at the back from sitting while still wearing the jacket. They were all aware of their appearance but seemed to have relaxed into their style a few years before. It was a style but hardly a fashion, and he imagined it possessed none of the anxiety of the younger people whom he believed were constantly aware of what was fashionable and what was not, and knew their street credibility depended on this shift. What he saw in the three men whom he though might resemble his father was instead something closer to study rather than street credibility, a certain look he saw in professors, writers and older artists where they wore clothes that signalled their status without demanding they follow fashion. He believed his father would be such a man, someone who possessed a low-key vanity that insisted he be seen as a well-educated figure, but not a narcissistic one.
It was, then, whilst drinking his tea, he thought about his own appearance, and wondered what it said about his own status. Usually he wore jeans, sometimes cords, but never suit trousers, and while he would often wear jackets, they were usually cord or light cotton, and indicated he supposed neither quite bohemian youthfulness, nor sober maturity. He might have assumed that he was wearing clothes that were aptly caught between youthful trendiness and the maturely intellectual, but he had been wearing the same style since university, and briefly saw himself as the over-age student he may well have appeared. As he thought about what Julia was wearing, and how she might have perceived what he was wearing, so he also mused over whether there is a style that hints at essences rather than hiding them. It was as if the younger people he had seen earlier that evening, and the three older men who had passed that may have resembled, and one of whom may even have been, his father, were all of a temporal piece: all aptly contained within their age. He realised that partly what he liked about Julia, whose age he did not know, but whom he guessed was around thirty, was that she didn't seem of a particular age but instead a general one. Was it in the general where one's essence lay?
The next morning he woke early and walked into the centre through the 4tharrondissement, the Jewish district and also the area in Paris in which gays had made their home. Nobody was likely to confuse the gay community with the Jewish one, Tom thought, extending his musings from the previous evening to include not only people of a certain age but also of a certain type, as many of the gay men in their late forties and fifties dressed similarly to the men of twenty one. Maybe they were a bit wider round the waist, but seemed to make up for it by bulking up their biceps.
He recalled then a memory he had half-forgotten: that in the last couple of years before leaving, his father had taken up running. He would get in from work and would put on his shorts, t-shirt and trainers. Tom remembered that on a couple of occasions his mother said to his father that it wasn't going to make him any younger, and his father replying, in a low voice that Tom overheard but that his mother may have missed, since she was in the kitchen and Tom was in the sitting room next to the front door, that it was better than growing old listening to her. Tom had started swimming only a couple of years earlier, to augment the cycling he did and the walking he always enjoyed, after one day looking in the mirror and thinking the upper half of his body was beginning to sag. Indeed before meeting Julia the previous afternoon he had promised himself he would go for a swim in a pool in the 5th arrondissement the following day, at a pool off Boulevard St Germain where they had arranged to meet.
Throughout the day his mind moved between observation, reflection and supposition. Even as he swam he would look at other bodies, and would sometimes think of what his father's now seventy year old body would look like, as he looked at the few older men swimming in the pool, and also thought of Julia's, as he would watch women presumably around her age getting into the pool: some already showing the loose flesh of their impending middle-years; others firm, but perhaps beginning to show a tautness around the face.
Over dinner later that evening, Tom was surprised that he could talk to Julia about so much of his day, since it was so idle, so speculative and without incident. One reason he had never been with anyone for very long was because this area of himself, these thoughts that were sitting in the back of the mind and would occasionally creep into the front of it, could rarely leave his mouth and find expression in company. Tom could tell people what he did as a series of facts, and again, sometimes, could talk about his past, but again as a series of facts. What he couldn't easily do was talk about what was on his mind. It was in this, not in what he had done in the distant past or more recently, that interested him: it was the intimacy of the apparently irrelevant disclosed. He had it occasionally with one or two friends, including the friend who recommended the analyst, but never with a woman, except, and very rarely, with his mother. He always wondered whether he could have had this with his father.
But he was also worried as he talked that Julia was not able in her turn to disclose what was on her mind. Hadn't women occasionally said to him that he was a good listener, while at the same time he knew that though he was listening, he believed he wouldn't have been able to talk as they were talking to him? Was this a reverse situation? Yet as he expressed exactly this thought to Julia, so she insisted that is exactly what she thought she had done the day before in the cafe. She hadn't told anybody about her father for a very long time, though he would often be in her thoughts, and sometimes, she would say, when walking through the streets of Paris, she would look at men of her father's age and decide to herself whether they were happier than her father, or less contented.
By this stage they had finished dinner, and Tom asked her if she would like to walk, and as they did so, she asked him if he was scared to meet his father again. She asked, it seemed, as if to ask herself a question at the same time. Tom said he didn't know, but asked what was the longest period that she had gone without seeing her father. She said two years. Was she nervous about meeting him after such a gap? She nodded, and he said he supposed somehow his fears were amplified fifteen times as much. He laughed, and she smiled, a smile that looked as if it were wondering whether Tom would contact his father at all.
After walking around the 5th arrondissement, up the steep streets and around by the Pantheon, so they walked back down again, and across the Seine, through the 4th and out by Place de la Republique. He asked where she was staying, and she said he was welcome to find out. She offered it not with a hint of seduction, but instead with a matter of factness that she would have offered to a friend, and he replied that he would love to see where she lived.
Her apartment reminded him of his own flat: a large attic room with a kitchenette off it, and a bathroom next to the front door. It was full of what he could only call solitary fullness, a phrase that could have described his own living space but that wouldn't have come to his mind had he not seen Julia's. She made some tea, and as he took a seat on the chair that was opposite the bed, so she sat across from him, using the pillow as a cushion, with her back against the wall and her legs tucked under her as if she were practising a yoga position.
For several hours they talked, and during this conversation Julia asked, after he explained that he had only been in short relationships, what would love mean to him. He answered, with some pauses, wrong turnings, and too hasty formulations, with the idea it was threefold. It was the moment where you didn't want to be anywhere else, but which also contained within it an infinity of future moments where you believed that you wanted to be with nobody but that person. It wasn't about building a future, he thought, but about creating in the present moment a sense that there was no one else you could conceive of a future with. It was also about an affinity of perspective which wasn't the same as having things in common. If it were, why weren't the dating agencies always successful? The final element concerned a life path that wasn't transformed by the other person, but coincided with it. Each person's life wouldn't be a compromise; at that moment love would be gone, and the paths should diverge. The eternal moment was, paradoxically, over. He then asked her the same question, and she said she was happy with his answer: it seemed to chime with her ideas too. He provocatively wondered aloud whether that made for an affinity of perspective or merely that they had things in common. Good question she said, as she moved off the bed and towards him, and he moved towards her.
Had Julia asked him the very question that he had gone to the psychoanalyst hoping to be asked, a question he couldn't have known in advance that he would want to be questioned over? But Tom knew also that if at forty he may have found someone he wanted to be with into the distant future, what had his father escaped from or moved towards?
The next day as Julia and Tom lay for a few hours in the park at Place de Vosges, so she told him again about her father, and how one day he filled a rucksack and told her mother that he was leaving home. She immediately assumed it was for another woman, and he supposedly succinctly replied that he was leaving her for another man: the man that he wanted to become. Her mother didn't need the money that he earned as a freelance writer - she was a lawyer - and he knew that Julia would be fine. She was seventeen when he left. For the first year he would sleep in various parks throughout the city, including the very one they were lying in. He would swim and shower most days at one of the pools, and, with a combination of savings and money that he would make drawing caricatures of tourists, had enough money to eat well, and occasionally to stay in a hostel or hotel if it was a particularly cold night.
Wasn't Julia worried that her father had gone mad, Tom wondered, and she said not especially, since she could see how much more relaxed and even wise that he had become since leaving her mother. This didn't make her mother a bad person, not at all: only bad for him. Their eternal moment had passed, she said laughing.
Over the following week Tom booked out of the hostel and stayed over at Julia's, and with the money he was saving each night they would go out for a meal, though for much of that week during the day Julia was busy, and he would walk around the city. He kept putting off phoning his father, and it wasn't until a couple of days before he was due to return to London that he eventually made the call. It rang half a dozen times and he left a message, saying that it was Tom, that he was in Paris, that he didn't have a mobile phone, and he would phone again later. That was in the morning, and he phoned again at around six. A woman answered, and Tom asked if he could speak to his father, and the woman said that unfortunately his father wasn't in the country, that he would be in China for another few days: he was at a conference. But, please, she insisted, do visit anyway.
As they talked briefly on the phone, she said that she was his father's partner, and that his father would talk about the son he hadn't seen for many years: she had looked at numerous pictures of him when he was a boy. Please come, she said, as if there were a sense of yearning in her voice that would make a refusal an insult.
Tom arranged to see her the following morning, while Julia was working in the national Library. Julia said she would be finished around two and so she could show him a few things in Paris before he was to leave the next day. His father's partner, whose name was Marie-Anne, had given him the code while they talked on the phone, and Tom keyed it in and walked up the five flights of stairs until he got to the front door with his father's name on it. He buzzed, and Marie-Anne answered the door and welcomed him in. She was clearly much younger than Tom's mother, but not so very different: she moved delicately through space and had long hair, streaked with silver. Many woman her age would have dyed it or cut it, and Tom remembered it was not until five years or so ago that his mother finally had done so: at around sixty. Tom also noticed that the clothes she wore added to the impression of delicacy: she was wearing a skirt that willowed out from the waist, and a vest that played up her slimness. Looking at Marie-Anne it was as if Tom recognized something in her, but it was not his mother a few years earlier, but Julia some time into the future.
As Marie-Anne insisted Tom sit down she asked if he wanted tea or coffee. He replied that he would love some tea, and as she went into the kitchen to boil some water in a pan, so he looked around the flat she shared with his father. It wasn't a large apartment, but it was spacious enough, it seemed, with a kitchen cosy for two to sit and have dinner, and a sitting room that had three windows, all of which opened out into a small balcony where Tom noticed one could see the canal. On the many book shelves were some of the books his father no doubt shipped over from Britain, and Tom asked, when Marie-Anne came through, when his father had moved into the flat. She said it was probably a year or two after he moved here; close to thirty years ago. He got a job teaching English and made enough money to get a mortgage on the apartment, she said.
He found it easy to talk with Marie-Anne, and he started asking her various questions about his father that Tom suspected he couldn't have asked his mother even if she had known the answers. She explained that for many years his father had worked in a language school, making enough money to pursue other interests, but to remain anonymous enough to feel he was entitled to live an individual life. Tom asked her to explain; he didn't quite understand. Even the conference his father was attending she said was merely a favour to the school: they wanted someone to go and explain certain English language teaching techniques to the Chinese. Anyway, she believed, he stopped being ambitious after he left Britain. He was becoming a well-known psychologist with a family; it was as if his future were no longer his own, but already dictated by the obligations placed upon him. Tom looked noticeably irritated and Marie-Anne insisted that Tom was not part of those obligations: if he could have taken him to France as well he would have done so. He wanted to escape his marriage and his career; he did not want to ignore his son, and she said he was waiting many years for the day when he would be reunited with him. She spoke as beseechingly as she had when asking him to come and visit, and Tom felt that he didn't want her any more to justify his father's life; merely to explain it.
She added that for years his father had lived alone in this flat, apart from the occasional assignation, and that he accepted the loneliness he would often feel was the price paid for the obligations he managed to release himself from. He had not been a good father, of course, and not a very good husband either. But he would have been a far worse one if he had stayed. Tom asked Marie-Anne where and when they had met. She said about five years earlier, she put an advert up in a nearby cafe, saying she was looking to improve her English. His father replied, and she knew when they met that he had done so not because his French wasn't very good but because his loneliness was encompassing: that he did it for the chance to talk, in whatever language. It was if Marie-Anne wanted to impress upon Tom that his father had sought solitude but arrived for many years with an equal amount of loneliness. But Tom also wondered whether somehow she was talking as much about herself as his father. Her English was almost perfect; did she speak it well before meeting his father, or did she become fluent under his tutelage? Somehow he suspected it to be the former; and that her advert spoke of her own loneliness.
As he left, Tom said he would be in touch again, and that Marie-Anne should tell his father he was so pleased to see if not him then at least his apartment and his partner. He said it with a smile, and she smiled back, as if, somehow, that was the last she expected she would see of him. Tom hadn't mentioned Julia at all in their conversation, hadn't once said that he might have more than one reason to return to Paris, and that his father might no longer be the paramount one.
As he walked for the best part of an hour from Canal St Martin through the 4th arrondissement and across the Seine, past Jardin du Plante, and along to the national library, so he felt a feeling of love for Julia he might not have been able to articulate had he not met his father's lover. He had always wanted to be asked the right question, he assumed, but even the analyst could not do that. Yet there was something in Marie-Anne's account of his father's existence, her capacity to feel his thoughts and feelings, the decisions he had made and the loneliness he must have endured, that made her love for his father manifest. He did not know whether Julia was capable of such feeling, or whether he would be equally capable in return, but he suspected that his own mother never had such feelings for his father, and that was no doubt partly why he left. Of course over the years as he heard his mother talk about his father she did so with the bitterness of a woman who had been deserted, but he recalled the arguments they would have when they were still together, and knew that they should have parted. They didn't, he supposed, ever understand each other, even though he was sure they had been in love, and had sometimes looked at pictures of the two of them where they appeared happily besotted. But Tom was sure she never understood at all why his father left, and yet he believed Marie-Anne might have, even though of course it was easier to be at the right end of his father's decision rather than the wrong one. However, there were certain people who understood radical decisions better than others, and in Tom's mind he had linked Julia's mother with his in their incomprehension concerning their husband's departures, while Marie-Anne and Julia understood ruptures, perhaps having had a few of their own.
However, as he moved towards the library Tom also thought of his mother, and how she might take her son's decision to come and live in the same city as his father, to leave her doubly abandoned, no matter if Tom happened to be a forty year old man, and his mother a woman at the point of retirement, and still married to her second husband. As he saw Julia waiting outside the entrance where they agreed to meet, Tom knew he would later that evening tell her how he felt, explain what had happened that morning, and how he knew he would revise various perspectives that he had about his parents. Yet he also hoped that in the places where he would get stuck, where he wouldn't quite find the words he was looking for, she would ask the questions that would help him find them, and he hoped, he, in turn, could be capable of doing the same. Spaces take many forms, he supposed, and the actual spaces of Paris had proven much more useful to him than the visit to the analyst. But maybe those spaces wouldn't have been explored without the mental journey the analyst happened to instigate. He felt, walking towards the library as if in some beautiful, inexplicable way, time and space had collapsed, but that Tom himself had never felt stronger.
© Tony McKibbin