Sometimes the apparently simplest of romantic gestures can lead to the most hopelessly convoluted of situations. It was around three months ago when I happened to be passing my girlfriend's bike near the Stockbridge where she worked, and I thought it would be a nice gesture if I were to pop across the road and pick up a bunch of flowers, and place them anonymously into her pannier bag. So that is exactly what I did, buying a bunch of tulips that I was sure would please her, especially after Kara had made a comment a week or so before where she wondered whether we had lost our sense of romance.
This was an especially distressing comment, perhaps, given the romantic context in which we met a couple of years ago. We were both lying on a beach in Goa, she, after months travelling around the South of the India, me, having arrived several days before after taking three weeks off from working in a travel agency in Edinburgh. This was late season for the area, and as we sat on a half empty beach in the late morning, we asked each other how we had ended up in Palolem. By the end of the afternoon I was rubbing sun oil into her skin, admiring the softness of skin that that could have belonged to a woman ten years younger, and commenting also on its firmness. She would run for a couple of miles most mornings, she said, when I commented on her leanness, and also regularly did Yoga. I wasn't surprised; what I noticed first about her was the brilliance of her blue eyes, the clarity and energy of someone in touch with both herself and the world.
After the beach we went for dinner, I felt the huge alleviation of loneliness that comes from speaking to someone who is a complete stranger and an immediate friend. I knew I didn't feel especially lonely in the few days that I had been on my own in the town, but I also knew my being alone was symptomatic of a deeper loneliness that meant I had taken the trip without company in the first place. My wife and I had divorced a couple of years before, and though we married young - I was twenty two; she twenty one - we did so out of convenience. She was from Brazil, and I wanted her to stay in this country. Seven years later she said she knew she would want children; and I knew that I didn't and so, within a year of this discussion, we parted, a year later got divorced, and a year after that I was holidaying alone in Goa.
None of this was offered to Kara when we talked that day, and stayed together that evening, and what was so meaningful about our night together wasn't only that we didn't have sex, but that we didn't even talk to each other about our respective pasts. If loneliness was alleviated; it wasn't because pasts were divulged, but rather our inner selves explored. We stayed up all night and watched the sun rise, frequently talking, sometimes not.
Often I've suspected many people believe that detailing our past and expressing our inner self are one and the same: that our inner self is basically the past we haven't yet offered to others. But I've always thought our past self is no more than the accumulation of outer existence; and that we should offer it contextually and otherwise leave it where it is in the past. Our inner self however is much more a-temporal; it has no chronology and looks for meaningful encounters to express itself. In such encounters stray thoughts, lines from books, images from films, street observations and vague sensations become significant, though we may never have assumed their significance before the encounter with the person whom we were sharing them with. On the other hand biographical material usually has its appropriate place in our past, and so when we access it conversationally we do so without the same sense of revelation. One reason I believe that people write is to alleviate the loneliness of the former; anybody who writes simply to detail the latter are, for me, self-plagiarists.
Yet here I am writing about how we met, and so obviously I hope out of the recollections I offer self-expression can be revealed. I suppose the romantic element I mentioned lay in the rising sun and the sexual abstinence; and though of course over the next few days as we were continually in each other's company we did make love, I'm not so sure if for both of us the most significant memory was of that first evening, not the others where we had sex.
Kara was from London, but after she returned to Britain a month or so after I did, stayed to her parents' place on the city's outskirts, and applied for jobs in Edinburgh, whilst I helped her find a room in a flat. She moved up a couple of weeks after her return, after visiting me and the city the first weekend she got back, and loved the place, wondering how come though she had travelled the world she had never visited Edinburgh. She got a job in a travel agency on the other side of town, and that was where she took a room. We would sleep together about three nights a week, and we both looked forward to each other's visits with the mild anticipation that living together or seeing each other most days would have obliterated.
But while it is true that by allowing ourselves a life away from each other several days a week, such anticipation can on occasion turn to worry and fret. Sometimes Kara would phone me late at night and say that she was sorry for disturbing me but that she really wanted to hear my voice, and added, only half-jokingly, to find out if I had someone else in my bed. Over the first year that we were together, I think we could offer such half-jokes. It was as though our capacity to share our thoughts, to think through our feelings ever since we met in Goa, meant that keeping something from each other would have been a betrayal more of ourselves than of the other person. However, more recently, it was as though we no longer quite expressed our feelings so clearly.
The flowers were an attempt to put back into our relationship some of that expression. Yet over the next few days there was no mention of the flowers at all. When she stayed over at my flat the following night I offered what I thought were a couple of hints towards the subject but she said nothing about them, and so for the rest of the evening, while watching a film, instead of trying to ask her about the flowers, I found myself musing over why she hadn't said anything. Two reasons came to mind. The first was that the flowers weren't there when she finished work; that someone had taken them from the pannier. Were the flowers that I left sticking out of the pannier promptly plucked by a passing stranger from the bag? I wondered if at the very moment Kara and I were sitting watching the film if there was another couple somewhere in the city cosying up after what a woman thought was her boyfriend or husband's romantic gesture, but that originated from a cheapskate theft.
The other possibility was that Kara believed the flowers were from someone else; perhaps she had an admirer at work, or in a coffee shop she would pop into, or a lunchtime caf that she would frequent. Maybe she didn't say anything because she believed she knew exactly who they were from, and that person wasn't me. Did she take the flowers home and put them lovingly in a vase and think of this admirer, or did she promptly put them in the bin as soon as she got in? Did she perhaps put them in a vase and decide to keep them there until I visited, or did she immediately allow them to dry out so that she could keep them for much longer, and without my ever noticing them?
For the first few days after putting the flowers in the pannier I neither said nor did anything, as I vacillated between the two options. I could quiz her and work at her internal logic, and trip her up on any possible contradictions, or I could go the empirical method and devote my free time to watching her going for lunch, walking home from work and generally monitoring her actions when she wasn't in my company. Unlike Kara I worked part time, usually using the extra hours writing a novel that I suspect I won't ever finish, but that justifies working less hours than perhaps I should. I often think I'm a daydreamer more than a writer, or rather a writer who rarely gets round to putting his thoughts down on paper. Sometimes I would sit in a caf with my laptop, and conjure up from the faces around me a brief story that I would then not find the time to write down. Tomorrow, I would often tell myself; that'll be when the work will get done. But it rarely did get done, and so at thirty five I suppose I needed to acknowledge that I didn't much like work and writing was, in the last instance, exactly that. Yet. as I've said, I did like to allow my imagination freedom, and Kara's silence over the flowers gave me exactly that opportunity.
Over the next fortnight every day I finished work at one and went over to the other side of town. During the first week, I sat in cafes that I thought Kara was likely to visit, but each lunchtime I was waiting always in the wrong place, or she was going not to a caf for lunch at all - maybe, I mused, her lunchtimes were spent in bed with another man, and so in the second week I stood outside her work and waited for her to come out. Yet she didn't come out at all, and so at the beginning of the third week I went back to my usual caf on the side of town on which I worked, and decided that the empirical approach had been a a failure. Should I not now confront her, and work away at any contradictions in her argument?
If I was loath to do so it may have been for two reasons. While I couldn't claim spying on Kara was exactly a nice thing to do; it at the same time left her untouched, for the eye can observe while the voice usually demands a response from the other. Thus far she had remained oblivious to my furtive gaze, but a verbal confrontation would leave her unequivocally involved in my increasingly jealous state. And wasn't it through a beautiful conversation that we met, and central to the discussion how even more important than revealing our pasts was revealing ourselves? We had also talked about conversations that never went anywhere because they were accusatory - trying to blame another or find out what someone else is thinking. To ask somebody what they are thinking is a way of creating in them more evasion than revelation. This was the second reason I didn't want to confront her directly.
What I decided to do instead was to speak to a mutual friend, a female friend of mine who became a good friend of Kara's. Gillian was a friend who could perhaps have become a lover, someone I met about five years ago but she was in a relationship and I was not yet quite coming out of my marriage. There was a frisson between us as we would sit and talk about philosophy, which she taught, but by the time she had split with her partner, and I had separated from my wife, the habits of friendship had imposed themselves on the possibilities of a liaison. She was seeing someone now, and I was of course with Kara. As I met her from work and we went for a drink at a pub with a beer garden near where she was employed, I mentioned to her the story of the flowers, and that I was curious why Kara hadn't mentioned she'd received them. Maybe they had been stolen, I mused, but thought it was unlikely - on numerous occasions Kara would leave things in her pannier and never before had anything been taken.
Gillian, who was shapely and liked her food enough for gym visits three times a week to no more than keep off the fat rather than allow for the development of tone, said she was hungry and ordered a dish that when it arrived I occasionally dipped into. What attracted to me to her originally is what I no longer found attractive, a hunger for life that bordered on greed. She would talk about the lovers she had and her own past as if she had swallowed them whole, all the while drinking and eating. She was a woman of appetites, and I knew she was not the best person to talk to about the subtleties of subjectivity, but she was the only mutual friend Kara and I had.
Nevertheless she explained that yes Kara had talked a few weeks ago to her; however not about receiving flowers, but about receiving a couple of messages left sell-o-taped to the handlebars of her bike from someone who left no name. The first time she found it mildly touching and hoped that the message was from me, but believed it wasn't the sort of gesture that I would make, and I had never mentioned it to her afterwards. The second time she found a note, she realised someone was spying on her, and wondered if the person was watching her at lunchtime, perhaps even following her home. Thereafter she would take her lunch to work with her and eat it at her desk. After work she left through a side entrance and walked a different way home from usual. I hadn't mentioned to Gillian that I myself had spied on Kara after she said nothing about the flowers, and after we parted I wondered who this other man might be, and whether he had watched me watching her.
I saw Kara the following evening after talking to Gillian, on the Friday, and though we were together for most of the weekend, I didn't mention that I had met with Gillian, didn't say that it was me who left flowers on the pannier, and said nothing about waiting in cafes and outside her work. Indeed for much of the following week I returned to the cafes and tried to work out who her admirer might be. I had even suggested to her that evening she should move her bike somewhere more public, that leaving it along the side street next to where she worked increased the risk of its theft: I proposed opposite a popular caf. She concurred, but I suspect not because she reckoned it would be stolen, more that it would prevent someone leaving anything on her bike. I was of course hoping that whoever her admirer happened to be would still leave tokens of his affection, and I would be able to find out who he was.
Each afternoon of this following week I went down and sat outside the caf reading a book and watching so see if someone would approach the bike. I also looked around, generally, to see if I could work out who this admirer was. I observed the faces of people who regularly came into the caf, and hypothesised who the person could have been and what may have made them so interested in Kara. Obviously I found her beautiful, and I believed many other people would find her equally so, but if I were to say why we fell in love with each other, to talk about her looks wouldn't pass for an answer. We became close through conversation, and, specifically, as I've proposed, through talking not about ourselves autobiographically but by finding ways to express feelings. I knew Kara had this capacity to explore feeling without personal revelation, for I saw it often at parties where she would start talking to someone and they would be animated by Kara's capacity to ask questions that revealed what they felt without having to reveal who they were. Is this what had happened to her admirer; was he one of those people she would have talked to at some party we had attended over the last few months?
I was no longer scanning the caf, or looking across at the bike, but looking back on all the occasions where I watched as Kara was locked in conversations with various men and women. As I sat there I became on couple of occasions restrospectively jealous, recalling the slightest gesture that could be read as a sign of flirtation on Kara's part, of projection on the part of the person talking to her. At the same time as I felt one of these moments of jealousy, I noticed a man around my own age, approaching the bike. He slowed down as he came towards it and looked back at it as he passed, and I tried to match his face with my own memories that I was moments before sifting through. I couldn't recall his face, and I assumed the bike may have resembled his girlfriend's, or a friend's, and he was looking at it to make sure it wasn't theirs.
During that week I worked myself up into a state of strange agitation as I tried hard to remember all the people Kara had talked to at various social events; at the same time monitored closely the people in the caf, and anybody passing her bike. Yet while I was no doubt in a state of anguish, I also believed that I felt once again alive to Kara's existence. If initially on that beach in Goa it came chiefly from conversation, was it not this time coming from observation? Several weeks ago when I put the flowers into her pannier I tried to put some energy into our love life, but my ongoing insistence to avoid the romantic clich led instead to emotional confusion that still at least invigorated any fading feelings for Kara. When we met it was a meeting of minds; here I was waiting for the chance to observe her actions, as well as those of people who might have had the slightest connection to her.
A few days later I met up again with Gillian, and asked her if she had talked at all with Kara. She hadn't, and wondered if she had any idea who it could have been who left the messages on Kara's bike. She said she had no idea at all. We then talked for a while about our own attraction towards each other several years previously, and she wondered if we could have idly day-dreamed about our own long term lovers as much as we seemed to have mused over the possibility of being with each other, whether we would have slit up with our respective partners. She thought maybe the relationships weren't dead: simply the imagination surrounding them. With her new man the relationship was meaningful, but so was the amount of time she would think about him in his absence. Does the couple not fail when the loved one no longer has an abstract presence in the other's mind?
With such a comment I wondered whether Gillian somehow knew more about my behaviour than she was revealing. It briefly went through my mind, the next afternoon as I was sitting in the usual caf, whether not only Kara's admirer had been observing me, but maybe even Gillian herself.
Now on almost every evening when we were together since I left her flowers on the bike, I had noticed Kara and I were more flirtatious with each other than we had been for months. I seemed to watch more closely than ever before how she would cross the room, would clear the plates, would lie on the couch reading. I noticed that she also seemed more attentive to my movements, and a few times when I looked round I saw her looking at me, and she would either look away slightly embarrassed, or smile complicitly. We made love more often than usual, and it was deeper, lasted longer and sometimes would include long post-coital chats. In the months before we seemed to be having sex with our tired bodies, our minds appeared, if not quite elsewhere, then never really there in an anticipatory way. We would have sex, but I suspect we rarely looked forward to it, rarely created an idea in our minds and a stirring in our bodies that would be properly awakened when we gave ourselves the opportunity to make love later that day or that evening. In my mind, and it appeared in Kara's also, we had once again created a sexual space, far beyond our bodies.
I might even say that the last few weeks also made me attentive to other things and other people also. Sitting in and outside cafes I found myself watching how the waitress delivered drinks, and mused over what gracefulness is and wondered whether waiting, like dancing, like certain sports, demanded an attentive sense of grace. I wondered also whether a successful love was no less graceful as I also started watching couples walking together, eating together, talking together, and though mine was of course no more than a series of behavioural observations, I thought people were in love by the grace they possessed in each other's company and the attentiveness they showed towards each other. Just as Gillian believed we needed a strong imagination to remain in love, so do we also require a day to day awareness of grace not especially in the religious sense, though that is perhaps relevant also, but in the simple way we exist with another?
I ordered a second pot of tea and returned to my thoughts, and when the waitress came back with the tea a minute or two later, I believed there was something in her way of laying it on the table, and quickly noticing the attentions of someone trying to order at a table nearby, that made me believe she loved her job, if grace and attention were what constituted love: this sense of being aware of others and at the same time as absent or present as the situations demands. It was at this moment someone put the palm of her hands over my eyes and I heard Kara's cooing voice saying, "I've been watching you." As she did so I wondered if there might have been her admirer looking on, and who would have accepted in this loving gesture on her part, and the kiss I gave her moments later, that their feelings would inevitably remain unrequited.
© Tony McKibbin