When do we know a long-term relationship is over? Is it when one of the partners has an affair, when they argue publicly in front of friends, when they take separate holidays? For me, I think, I knew my fifteen years with Hanna had ended when a particularly seductive guest left.
Obviously we'd had many guests visiting us over the years in what had become our settled home, a two-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of Edinburgh in Cramond. The cottage was in the small, sloping village which wound its way down to the Firth of Forth, and over the years it was a picturesque spot and a source of retreat for many of our visitors. When they left, Hanna and I usually sensed far greater disappointment in them than we felt on their departure, and perhaps were even relieved on many occasions when we once again had the place to ourselves.
So what was so special about this particular guest? Let us say, for the moment, her life was seductive. Like Hanna, Famke was from Germany, they had both studied at Humboldt University in Berlin, but while Hanna came to Edinburgh to do her post-graduate work, Famke went first to Amsterdam, then to Barcelona, and then to Paris, where she half-settled. Both had studied English literature, but where Hanna chose after her PhD to settle in Scotland and to teach and write, Famke moved from city to city, working in bookshops, teaching English and German literature, and accumulated numerous literary friends through the bookshops she worked in and the courses she taught, where she would often invite the authors along to talk about their work. So when she opened her own bookshop in Paris, she'd built up a formidable list of well-known names that would come and do readings from their newly published novels. Hanna and I visited Famke a couple of times in Paris, and had been impressed if a little fatigued by the hectic nature of her life. We returned to our comfortable cottage in Cramond pleased, I assumed, that we lived a retiring existence. When Famke visited, then, there seemed little reason to assume that, for Hanna, Famke represented the forking path, the road not travelled.
Hanna was at work when Famke flew into Edinburgh, and as I picked her up at the airport I noticed immediately an energy level I hadn't really observed before in Paris. Even as she moved towards me while I was waiting at arrivals I felt inert next to her approaching exuberance, and while this relative lack of energy on my part may have been present when I was in Paris, I believed that had more to do with the tiring rhythm of the city on a stranger to it, than with me specifically. Was that moment, with the pair of us meeting at the airport, the first of many self-realisations, self-realisations not just for me, but, soon enough, for Hanna also?
That first day of her visit was bright, cold and clear - an early March morning where late winter had encroached onto early spring and the weather was in the minuses. When we got back to the cottage, and after a pot of steaming tea and a light breakfast, Famke suggested we take a walk. I had a book review to write, on a collection of loosely inter-linked stories by one of Germany's most distinguished writers. I should put it to one side, she insisted - after all, she'd met the author on a number of occasions and could perhaps provide me with a more personal context for the work while we walked. She wrapped herself up warm in a deep purple coat and a fuchsia coloured scarf that brought out her tastefully dyed blonde hair.
We walked maybe a dozen miles that day, walking all the way along the Cramond esplanade, through the dubious looking industrial district along by Newhaven Harbour, came out onto the Port of Leith, and had a light lunch at one of the newly opened restaurants near to the port. Along the way we talked intermittently, as she offered insights and observations on the writer I was writing about. She described the way he dressed, the way he occupied space, the way he managed to get what he wanted without overt manipulation, and how he did so by almost second guessing what the other person desired but had never quite realised they wanted. At the time I only half understood what she was saying, but now it of course strikes me with far greater clarity.
Later in the evening, with Hanna back from work, and the three of us preparing dinner and sipping on a bottle of organic red wine from the Languedoc region that she'd brought over from France, Hanna asked what we did with our day. I said we'd walked to Leith along by the coast, and then walked back through Leith, up along the New Town and stopped off at a few charity shops in Stockbridge. I said I'd even managed to pick up a book I didn't have by the very author I was writing the book review on. I looked a little bashful, then, and promised Hanna I would finish the review the next morning. Hanna said it would be her turn to keep Famke company - she didn't have any classes till Thursday; she would work on her paper after Famke left.
Over dinner we discussed our particular work; mine as a journalist, Hanna as an academic, and Famke as a bookshop owner. What I think was most telling about this conversation was that though Famke almost never wrote anything, she seemed to find more self-expression through her work than Hanna and I did through ours. When she described an author's oeuvre, or their physical presence, she permeated her comments with a sense of immense subjectivity - as if anybody else couldn't possibly see the writer's work in the same manner, or his physical presence the way Famke described it.
The next morning, as I sat writing up the review, I felt the prose was predictable. Was I not merely describing the book's exterior and offering a few opinions to suggest I was producing more than a publicity blurb? I put the finished review to one side and tried starting again, tried to find some subjective position that would force from me a perspective that somehow wasn't my own, or at least that wasn't consistent with the mainly impersonal reviewing I'd been doing for years.
But it wasn't until the early evening, when Hanna and Famke came back from a trip into town, and where they had visited a couple of galleries, that I began to understand a texture that was missing in my writing because it was missing in Hanna's conversation. When she talked about the exhibitions there was an impersonality suggesting she hadn't seen the exhibition at first-hand but at one remove. Everything Hanna said was comprehensible but curiously irrelevant. When Famke talked about the exhibitions, however, even when she said something that seemed only semi-comprehensible, it suggested a link between her feelings and the work of art. For example she described Duane Hanson's sculptures and said she wasn't sure whether they were lifelike or lifeless, or that maybe their lifelessness was what made them so realistic. I'd seen the exhibition a couple of weeks earlier, and sensed what she meant and wanted her to explain further, but in a manner that would be explicating my own instincts as readily as her own thoughts. When she said that most of the models' hair lacked energy, she wondered whether this was an aesthetic failure on Hanson's part, or part of the frazzled existence of his figures. Was it not in this apparent failure to achieve realism that he managed to allow space for us to think about the specifics of hair, of energy, of life's purpose?
This discussion took place I remember while I made dinner, and continued over the starter and through the main course. After the meal, as Hanna started doing the dishes, I asked Famke if she would look at a draft of my book review - it was only a thousand words long. Afterwards I asked her what she thought, and she said perhaps I lacked an interior reason for writing it. She believed it possessed a form carrying me from one place to the next, but there seemed no apparent purpose behind why I was doing it. I said that was a reasonable definition of hack work, which was what the piece was. She asked if there wasn't within every commission nevertheless an interiority waiting to be expressed but that so often goes unexpressed.
When Hanna returned from the kitchen, saying she'd leave the drying to me, she asked us what we were talking about. I recall saying that Famke thought I was a hack. Then I rephrased it saying that wasn't fair. She thought I was true to the nature of the commission, and that I possessed an undeniable sense of professional integrity, but that the article wasn't my own.
Was this really how the conversations went - does it even matter? It is not so much a question of false memories that count here, but 'true' insights, the thoughts that make the past present. And with neither Hanna nor Famke around to validate them as I write this, I must be satisfied with my own account of events.
But I am sure it was the following day when the three of us drove into the town centre, parked the car, and went for a very long walk out of town, past the canal and into the Pentland hills, that I realized I was being seduced by Famke's presence. Hanna and I had done the same walk on numerous occasions, sometimes with friends, sometimes just the two of us, but that walk with Famke was the first time it felt different. Famke animated the walk not with constant conversation, more with casual observation or with an intriguing question. For example as we approached a turn off for the Pentlands she asked about the pile of detritus along the road, and the various buildings in advanced stages of decay. Friends had commented on this curious violation of the natural with the detrital, but they usually did so with an assertive disdain. Famke instead wondered whether we'd seen Tarkovsky's Stalker: didn't this combination lend nature a melancholy it might otherwise not possess, she mused?
I wouldn't want to suggest that Famke's comments were especially profound or complex, but they seemed to have the effect of shaking us out of our tired existence instead of Famke simply fitting neatly into our lives. When friends usually commented on that Pentlands walk, they seemed to reaffirm our beliefs. It would be too strong, or perhaps not strong enough, to say Famke contradicted them. She definitely subtly tampered with them.
The night before Famke left to return to Paris, we had arranged a party at the flat with a group of friends. Present were a mixture of schoolteachers, academics, several of Hanna's students, fellow journalists, and a couple we knew who owned a second-hand bookshop in the town centre. Was that occasion the first time I'd recognized how timid and conservative many of them were? Of course not; and yet as they launched into discussions on the Middle-East or the merits of a film or book, I felt as if I'd already had the conversation before. At every opportunity I'd drag myself away from yet another tired perspective and go looking for Famke. On finding her, and talking to her on her own in the kitchen as she was making herself a cup of herbal tea, I'd ask her what she thought about one or another of the guests.
I didn't ask because I wanted her to judge them, but instead so that she could help reveal an aspect of their being or persona that I'd also recognized but never articulated. Famke described one friend, who had spent ten years living in France before returning to settle once again in Scotland, as somehow bored with his own company, and wondered whether that air of lethargy had been there before. I said that before his air of boredom was a posture - the way he moved and talked showed that he was often actually engaged - but that now he carried with it a feeling of fatigue. She asked if this lethargy was true of me also.
I replied it was half true. I recall that we then talked about how I could eradicate this half-truth, I said there were a few possibilities. I could leave Scotland, leave Hanna or leave my work: perhaps even all three. She said it was interesting that I was thinking always in terms of subtraction rather than addition. I didn't seem to be thinking of going somewhere, doing something, or being with somebody else.
The following morning Hanna was working so I took Famke to the airport myself. Just before Famke left to go to the departures lounge, she said I should be thinking more about addition rather than subtraction. But I'd never wanted children, and Hanna claimed she didn't want them either. I gave some thought to moving abroad, but even that didn't feel radical enough, and I didn't want to do anything that would seem like an impulsive escape from my life; rather I preferred an instinctive move towards further meaning.
Over the following six months, though, things happened without my instigation. The newspaper was bought over and I lost my job, and Hanna decided to leave both me and Scotland. She said she wanted once again to live in Germany, and wanted to escape the academic world. I quickly found another job in the city, working for another newspaper, but Hanna, who perhaps hoped I would view the redundancy as an opportunity to do something else with my life, once I got the new job made plans to leave.
Now when I look back on Famke's trip five years ago, I suppose I should have noticed that Hanna was more seduced by Famke's presence than even I happened to be. Though over the following couple of years I would often visit Paris, stay with Famke, sometimes share her bed, and even occasionally admit to her feelings of love, I also felt I could easily locate whatever attraction I was feeling for her. Undoubtedly Famke revealed to both Hanna and I certain areas of emptiness, but where Hanna, in a letter shortly after leaving, admitted that Famke showed her a life she could have had but hadn't chosen; for me, I simply had very strong feelings for Famke that could be, and eventually were, turned into physical desire. Maybe Hanna also sexually desired Famke, but I think it was more intangible than that; more about some pressing, fundamental identity crisis brought on by somebody whom she almost wanted to be.
I had noticed after Famke's visit that Hanna's dress sense began to change, her thoughts became more subjective, her attitude more coquettish. I think it wasn't only that Famke had visited and shown up our lives as slightly empty, but also that Hanna, on feeling this emptiness in her, tried to compensate by adopting the mannerisms and gestures of somebody else. It was this curious behaviour that maybe ruined the relationship as much as any hole that Famke's absence had left. It would be too much to blame Famke for what I can only call Hanna's breakdown - the breakdown she had a couple of years ago in Berlin - because it would be blaming Famke for feelings that Famke may have initiated but for which she couldn't be held responsible. Perhaps if Hanna had had gay tendencies she would have deeply yet uncomplicatedly fallen in love with Famke, but was Hanna's breakdown not partially about not knowing what her feelings at that time were?
These were questions I put to Hanna when I visited her about six months ago in her apartment near Tiergarten, where she was living close to the city's huge park. It was the first time I'd seen her since she'd left Scotland. When friends had told me of Hanna's breakdown I of course wanted to visit, but they insisted that she didn't want to see me. I respected those wishes, but perhaps finally less respected them than was relieved that I was expected to abide by them.
However, as soon as I walked into the flat, through the hall and into the sitting room area, and where the view looked out on to the river, just as our view had looked out onto the Forth, I sensed a health not just in her complexion, and in her dark, shiny hair, but also in the way her apartment gave off a feeling of singular well-being. As she walked into the kitchen asking if I would like a cup of tea or coffee, I watched a confidence in her body, a confidence that had neither anything to do with the way Famke moved nor with the more cumbersome movements Hanna used to possess in those last years in Scotland. She seemed to occupy a self that perhaps for the first time in a very long time she could call her own.
We spent the weekend together, taking walks through the park, seeing various films and visiting various galleries. Maybe we were once again falling in love, or maybe we just felt like two people freed from the weight of each other's obligations. It is possible that at certain times in our lives we all need to be seduced by strangers, so that we can find in ourselves some of the possibilities too deeply embedded, it would seem, to feel free, open and engaged. When friends used to visit us in Scotland they would add to our feelings of security in the way they hinted at the stress of their own lives and in their inverted homesickness - as they would often get the last possible train back down south. But in the process they managed to make Hanna and my life look more complete than it actually was.
Recently Hanna said that she wanted to visit Scotland. As I will wait for her at the airport lounge, on a late March day that may well be as bright and clear as it was the day I met Famke off the plane a few years ago, I wonder whether she will seduce me away from the country I have lived in throughout my life, or whether she will return permanently as we live once again a reasonably contented existence but without the earlier assumptions of contained and continued happiness, even if the happiness was far from always there. I sometimes think maturity can only come from an immaturity, a nave, sensitised questioning of these assumptions that ostensibly make us happy but can result, as Hanna showed, in an interior collapse. Yet if I feel an air of anticipatory dread, it could be because I might be wondering whether I'm still awaiting the shattering that could lead to that very maturity on my part, and not just on Hanna's.
© Tony McKibbin