I was a little tired of all this, a little dejected. I had occasionally thought of throwing in the towel, this search appearing at times futile and possibly hopeless. I put my tea down on the table by me and took in the peaceful orangery I was sitting in, the warm colours, the small couch furnished with multicoloured cushions covered with old Japanese fabric; the large paintings on the walls and the small Art Deco side tables; the enveloping cream-coloured armchair I was in by the window and the long cherry wood table I could write at: some files were piled up on one side, a golden lamp stood on the other, and if I put a thick cushion on the chair in front of it I was then able to work as well as properly own this space, the birds and the squirrels, all this belonged to me… By the right foot of my chair, near the secateurs and my somewhat muddy garden shoes, was a bag of seeds I kept there for the birds, and raisins for my familiar blackbirds: everything was relationship.
I would like to tell him, THE MAN, whoever he may be, that I went to the cinema yesterday to see an Australian film, and since the afternoon was devoted to pleasure, bought one hundred grams of jelly beans, loose, from the sweet counter, to be savoured with the relish of guilt during the performance; they were in fact devoured by the end of too many trailers… Then I nearly fell asleep a quarter of the way through but startled myself into alertness to rejoice as the film finally bloomed… I had an unusual glass of wine on my return, being normally sober in deed if not in thought, and lost myself in contemplation of the outlandish purple gladioli on the mantelpiece: could I tell him how I had changed my mind about gladioli? I had judged them pompous and arrogant in the past, so sure did they seem of their nobility. Supercilious, they looked down on you -a lower class of being- ever aspiring to sublime height and style, as if human fingers should remain low on the stem, never to soil the aristocratic silk …until one day my friend Marianne painted their portrait and I understood the other subtler features, the natural grace, the spiritual elegance, the individual striving of each single bloom to join in the slowly developing climax …so there they were, in my living-room, understood and appreciated. Five stems for ninety-nine pence at Morrison’s.
I could tell him the cat had to have five teeth removed the other day and looked poorly and sorry for forty-eight hours, until he found his appetite again and finally enough lust for life to bring in a garden mouse that he played with all night, keeping me awake. I didn’t mind, I thought it funny, I was happy for him if not for the mouse which I managed to catch in the morning, right from under his nose, and release in the middle of the garden, under the ivy…
Would he be interested to know that I was planning a trip to Edinburgh now the festival was over, by myself for once, which I am normally loath to do – to see an exhibition of sculpture by Ron Mueck? I was in awe of Mueck’s work which I had seen previously in London two years before, the way that, not quite a plagiarist, he presented the human body on either a vast or minute scale but intimately, provoking a stunned contemplation of ourselves. I would go by train, with a good book, find myself a reasonable hotel, and take the two days as they came. It would be my first visit to the city in forty years, since my ex-husband Paul’s first exhibition at the Traverse Gallery, which allowed us to spend a long week-end there. We were just married and so called it a honeymoon, although there was no sex, but that is another story. It was freezing and we had to keep putting money in the meter slot in our hotel room to stay warm. There was no slot for Paul.
Could I tell him I’d visited my G.P. recently because of having felt dizzy on a few occasions? I had known my doctor for well over twenty years and had stuck with him in spite of moving areas because we liked each other and I respected him in spite of his grumpy moods. I had been concerned that my dizziness was age- related or a symptom of something dire, but he reassured me, mentioning my inner ear. Would I dare say that, as he examined one ear, his other hand gently and deliberately cupped my other cheek, which I noted was unnecessary but tender, and so I welcomed it, almost closing my eyes?
I might tell him I had looked again at my book on Magritte’s, to be entertained at first, but led to wonder if his work, as the other Surrealists’, hadn’t been the by-product of the First World War, a time when familiar reality had been so shattered, its centre of gravity exploded, as to be judged incoherent and represented as such. Peoples who haven’t lived through such disintegration never need step into the absurd, do they? What did he think? He. Him. Who didn’t sit at my table or hold my hand, who didn’t talk to me. Whose place was empty in my bed. Whose absence left me cold all over…
Imagining, if not anticipating, being in love again filled me, simultaneously, with a nervous anxiety similar to fear of flying, a balloon released to unknown winds… I knew that I could again lay myself open to exploitation and betrayal because I was (we are?) when I loved, childlike: love is childlike, child’s play, all that appears is a given, and then… A large sticker across my heart warned: FRAGILE.
It was the same with friendship, allegiance: there had been the visit to my flat once- at my invitation- of Tina, the psychotherapist who had been my supervisor during my training as a counsellor. I had great regard for her subtle judgement and insight and she praised my work at the time, which made me feel valued. I had gone to her for help, three years previously, at a time when I had felt at my lowest and needed to pour my heart out to a witness who not only knew me but understood what I was going through. Her subsequent visit a year later had been my opportunity to show her how well and full of energy I now was, and the healing comfort I drew from living in a wonderful place full of light and views on beautiful trees. We had tea, chatted amicably, I was keen to show her that I was now better equipped for happiness or at least contentment, that I felt I had a future at last. When she got up to leave and I opened the front door for her, she stopped on the doorstep for a moment, looked at the steps that separated my flat from the pavement above and said: -These will be difficult, soon. Still, you won’t need to go out every day…
* * *
The next message I listened to on my voicemail belonged to Mick, six foot three, green eyes and fit, a retired graphic designer who for thirty years had his own consultancy and now worked from home, as he pleased. He was divorced with two girls of twenty-two and twenty-seven. He enjoyed the good things in life, eating, cooking, travelling, and now did a bit of painting and visited galleries. He also liked films. He used to play rugby but had now converted to golf. He took occasional holidays. What he wanted was someone to share all these things with: his voice, on my voice mail, had risen to capital letters, “to SHARE these experiences”; his loneliness reached me, echoing mine.
So I was sitting again at the terrace of “Bruises” that September Wednesday morning, when I saw Mick crossing the road at the pedestrian crossing exactly opposite me. He had exclaimed, when we spoke on the telephone and decided to meet:
– I know! I shall wear my striped t-shirt, very colourful, vertical stripes of blue, red and cream, you can’t miss me in that!
If it sounded like a flag, I was pleased at the thought of an older man in a t-shirt, better than a three-piece suit any day, this wasn’t a gentleman’s club occasion; I welcomed the fact that he was six foot three, I like tall men, and I didn’t mind ‘follically challenged’; slim with green eyes and fit-looking would do fine.
We smiled as we shook hands, and I swallowed hard in astonishment: I had before me a younger version -he hadn’t mentioned his age but I suspected we were contemporaries -of my daughter’s father, David, who was thirteen years older than me, which made him eighty now. I no longer talked about him and would hate him more if I despised him less, for his shallowness and cruelty, his total lack of a moral code and complete indifference to the consequences of his actions. I had for many years forbidden him access to my home since, a long time before, having to save myself from him and my unhealthy passion. Only my daughter sees him, seldom, reluctantly and dutifully.
David’s eyes; his mouth nearly, the way it shaped almost into a beak on pronouncing certain sounds; his colouring and height; his bald head and side hair… The nonchalant manner he had as he walked, crossing the street, which belonged to tall men at ease with their bodies; the way he sat, wrists resting on his knees, rocking slightly as he spoke. There was a man called Mick underneath all that… I had to find out about Mick, I had to be reassured.
Trying to be objective I thought he looked nice, unassuming, relaxed. I was wary of finding him pleasant, I sensed danger, in myself if not in him. I wondered: who was this man? I knew about his work, his daughters and their jobs and studies, his tastes in music (‘very catholic’), his English friends who live in France near the region where I was brought up; that he paints a little (‘oil, my flat reeks of oil and turps, I quite like it actually’); the disappointing fact that he doesn’t read many books. (‘Jeremy Clarkson recently, but it takes me all week to read the Sunday Times!’); when he told me he went food-shopping in France regularly – did he say every two weeks or every two months? – I nearly swooned and begged: ‘Ooh! Can I come with you?’ ; he loved the ferry and making an overnight trip out of it; I imagined his kitchen cupboards full of luxurious French food, and Rose wine, he added, so wonderful and cheap!
– Have you had lots of replies, Hélène? he queried, alluding to my ad.
– It seems the love business goes very flat in August, I quipped, you were the only one this week. I explained about the ad being free to advertisers, who only pay to retrieve their messages.
And then, spontaneously, I dared take a shortcut, thinking it would take me further, quicker (if he was clear-sighted, sincere, unafraid):
– If you were to put an ad in a newspaper, how would you describe yourself?
He looked blank, his eyes, wide open, stared ahead. There was a long silence.
– I have no idea…
– No, I couldn’t say…
I was amused at first, then wondered if it was funny:
– WHO are you, then? Tell me who you are… I tried to joke: remember you only get twenty-five words for free!
There was another silence.
– I don’t know, I really don’t know…
I found that extraordinary: how was this possible, a man in his sixties? How could one properly BE without knowing oneself? Surely, he was intelligent, educated, had been married and had children, got divorced, and the latter usually taught you a lot more than you wished to know? Wasn’t it like living blindfolded, at the mercy of others and events? I had felt moved on hearing David Blunkett speak with heart-breaking honesty about his disastrous love affair: “I misread the signs…” You don’t need to be blind, although it evidently helps.
I couldn’t quiz Mick any further at this stage, but my head was full of questions. This would be for another time if there was to be one. We had already sat talking for an hour over our respective teas and had got on very well. He hadn’t asked me any personal questions although I made it clear I was retired, but he had volunteered that his daughters had remained with his wife after their divorce “so they had a pretty good idea of what I had to put up with ” (was he saying that he had left his wife?)
He knew this area of North London well, living not very far away, and had once lunched at the Tapas Bar along the road. September had slipped in gently and it was still warm enough to sit outside. An old woman having coffee at a nearby table had brought her Siamese cat with her and the animal was sitting contentedly on the next chair, creating a diversion: when she went to pay, holding the cat in her arms and walked past our table, I showed interest, smiling and as I raised my arms to stroke it, she obliged and we chatted briefly. I thought her probably lonely, using her cat to attract some attention to herself.
As I was getting hungry but didn’t wish to leave Mick, I volunteered cheerfully:
– I don’t know about you, but I get very mean when I’m hungry, would you like to share some tapas?
Mick smiled and made to get up:
– Well, of course – wait, I’ll get this, and I’ll get the other thing as well…
Did we want some wine? the young Spanish waitress wanted to know.
– Well, I don’t normally drink at lunchtime, but it would be nice…
– Yes, he confirmed, we’ll have wine.
– Rojo? I attempted.
– No, senora: tinto! El vino es tinto, y questa -she pointed to her top – Tshirt es roja !
– You’re a good teacher, senorita!
Mick and I took turns choosing tapas from the menu. A large glass of Rioja came with them, adding to the festive mood.
– I love the Spanish language, I commented.
A while ago, I thought of reviving my Spanish – I had done some in secondary school – and started attending a class at the local U.T.A., you know, the University of the Third Age… We had a terrific teacher, a Spanish woman full of enthusiasm, she was brilliant… It’s silly but I couldn’t bear to stay: all these old people, it reminded me of the Home where I used to visit my mother -terrifying- and it was as if someone had pushed me in there, saying: there you are, it’s your turn now, I felt like running away screaming…
– I suppose you could have gone to a College of Further Education…
– Yes but the nearest one is much further away and you can’t park there at the time of the classes… It was silly of me really, I should have been more broad-minded – and less afraid…
Rioja helping, was I revealing myself a little too much?
We moved on to politics via the opening and subsequent closing of new hospitals because of their financial problems:
– You know, they would run much better without any patients! Mick remarked with irony.
I burst out laughing:
– That’s what I was thinking, but you know, they have already started, they try to throw you out almost as soon as you get in!
I had always situated myself on the left, I confided, but moved over to the Lib. Dems recently. A neighbour had been elected a councillor and I had helped them with office work. That’s where he found himself too nowadays, he concurred, a long journey from the Socialist Workers Party of his youth!
If I was right in thinking that political choice usually stems from a disposition of the heart, then I knew this man had a heart: journeying that far along the political landscape couldn’t have taken place without heartache and self-questioning.
I was conscious of finding myself drawn to Mick who didn’t seem indifferent to me, and felt vaguely excited by what I considered possibly the beginning of an event, so rare was it – and was terrified that the same chemistry was operating that had drawn me to David in the past, an irresistible force that had torn me and my life apart, after which I had spent ten years on repairing the damage, in therapy, celibacy and loneliness.
I had to call time, stressing that I should already have been hard at work in the library. I was glad to have a genuine occupation that I could hide behind so as not to appear too available, too ready to prolong the good humour -best that he was disappointed than that I appeared in a hurry to start a relationship, needy, and possibly sexually tempted… True to say that neither of us had used any of the usual tools of seduction at this stage, and I couldn’t presume that his friendliness was anything other than it appeared. However, the meeting couldn’t be called casual for the very fact that we were openly two people looking for a mate and this put us on notice not to behave rashly: we were no longer young and couldn’t use the flimsy excuse of thoughtlessness, we were supposed to show judgement and maturity; we were duty-bound, in our quest, to be conscientious, so that any development would be meaningful. I wouldn’t say that my cheerful disposition during our encounter was devoid of a desire to charm: making him laugh, disarming him, was necessarily flirtatious, but it could just as well have been an effect of my happiness, encouraged by the large glass of Rioja.
He had signalled earlier that our lunch was on him but I wished to make a point of my independence, easier since I felt grateful for his intention. So when we called for the bill I made it clear that I intended to pay my share, adding, fishing subtly -I hoped- for information, saying:
– This would become expensive if you invited many ladies…
– No, not at all, this is the only time…
– But you must have scanned the ‘Encounters’ page?
– No, the words ‘Conversation Wanted’ caught my eye, that’s what did it…
That was good, and I felt gratified at his words. When we got up to leave, he accompanied me home, a short walk away from the underground station. We soon stopped by the black railings outside my flat. I had enjoyed walking with this tall and easy man, and said, as a manner of goodbye, mockingly modest, knowingly provocative:
– Well, Mick, you MAY call me…
– Except I don’t have your phone number…!
– Oh, right, let me find a piece of paper… Here…
– Ter-rific! he said with a smile, putting it in his pocket.
– That good, eh? I quipped, chuckling, and scolding myself immediately for being so brash.
He laughed and bent down to kiss my cheek.
Once indoors, I quickly poured myself a large glass of cold water to quieten the growing euphoria.
* * *
Would he ring? When would he ring? Tonight would be too soon, we were supposed to behave sensibly, perhaps tomorrow, a Thursday. There was time, I should allow him to take the initiative, be a Man, albeit an Englishman… His generation of men could sometimes still be shy, or at least awkward. In the past, David had been initially stilted and self-conscious, before giving in to passion… But David didn’t truly like women, or only as long as they resisted him, and had declared to me more than once: ‘I hate sharing!”. At least Mick had made it clear that he needed and wanted to share his life, a huge difference.
But who was Mick? I was, as is my way, intellectually outraged by his incapacity to describe himself. I was sure my daughter would know how to reply: Adam, her boyfriend, obviously knew, who told her recently she should have three initials after her name: G, L, B: Generous, Loving, and Busy! This should be a dinner-party game, I thought. I felt I knew who I was, my only problem had been to restrict my own description in my ad to a few words so as to leave room to describe my desired partner. The limit of twenty-five words rather concentrated your mind!
All evening and the following day, I scolded Mick in my thoughts: if you don’t know who you are, are you then defining yourself merely as a set of actions and reactions? Have you never wondered -indeed, been told- what other people thought of you? “Michael is a bright student, unfortunately casual with his studies…”; “Young Mick is making some progress, but seems more inclined to watch the birds than concentrate on his essays…” (Did this describe a future bird-watcher or a womaniser?) “My son is a dilettante and a good-for-nothing!” – “No, dear, don’t be harsh, he is only young, he is muddled now but you know he is a gifted child!” “What makes you so sure of yourself, Mick? Do you think you are a gift to women? Let me tell you you’re useless!”; “Darling Mick, I am so lucky to have found you, so strong and kind, so caring, I never dreamt to find someone as wonderful as you – and so sexy!”
What did your wife -your women- say about you, that you thought was right, or wrong and you then protested, corrected them with indignation. What do your daughters think of you, that they told you in anger, or gratitude? What do your clients say of you and your work?
The very first Philosophy title I was given in the Upper-Sixth form had been: “Who are you?”, it hadn’t seemed difficult at all… I immediately poured myself into it: “I am a passionate person without any passions… ” describing the disarray I was in but nevertheless knowing my place in it. Having been brought up a Catholic had certainly provided me with many an occasion to ponder, search and at times agonise, as we were at all times prompted to ‘examine our consciences’: looking for sins seemed to be a favourite activity.
– “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…”
– “Yes, my child, I am listening… ”
There was no escape, they had you cornered, for if you hadn’t sinned in thought, words, or deed, you must have sinned by omission… And I used to rack my brains to find a sin that I might have committed – I was well-behaved and didn’t dare to swear. So as to satisfy the priest half-hidden by the wooden screen that my kneeling dutifully at the time allocated wasn’t a pointless exercise, I hid behind greediness: pastries only came once a week on Sundays but the rest of the week provided enough occasions to sin with chocolates or multi-coloured sweets that melted in your mouth: not waiting for them to dissolve but biting into them to rush the tongue into the sudden creaminess was surely a sin: so at least I knew I was greedy. So, who are you, Mick? You mentioned French Rose wine on the telephone and I definitely heard your relish: you would be forgiven for that.
It had, I suspected, been easier for me than for most to reflect on my supposed existence as mother always seemed to put it into doubt, brushing my tentative thoughts or remarks aside when they suited neither time, place, or her vision of my unessential role in her life, since she only attributed to me and my sister as much existence and usefulness as was required by her needs: we were accessories. By no means unusual in those post-war days, we were children of unthinking and selfish parents who were absorbed and affected by the many traumas of the war, the need to survive and salvage what appeared like order. No wonder Existentialism flourished at the time: it was easy then to feel that existence was accidental, aimless, therefore perhaps unnecessary. With so many hidden enemies to avoid or fight, no wonder I strived to make a small place for myself to start with, as a writer-in-waiting. (I had to wait to have things to say) who would initially wait on a artist of talent, my husband Paul, until I decided that a life of subservience didn’t appeal and left. Still not knowing what to do with myself I threw myself headlong into a passionate and destructive affair with the above-mentioned David who casually provided me with a much-desired daughter as well as many reasons to discover the whys and wherefores of my life…
Friday came without a call from Mick and I debated whether I should call him first; I was fretting: would I seem too forward? Would he be put off if he preferred to take the initiative? There had been, the night before, a call that my answer phone recorded but which I hadn’t been able to retrieve: was it him?
I dialled his number but had to leave a message in his absence.
– Hello Mick, it’s Hélène here, it’s Friday afternoon, the sky is grey, and I think I’ll go and see a film. I wondered if you’d like to come with me? But you’re not in so I’ll go just the same. Bye.
Was it a mistake? It was only a casual invitation…
Saturday followed and I wondered about my programme for what are usually two long days, however I decided to go to the library after lunch, work is always a balm at moments of crisis or indecision. When the telephone rang on the Sunday morning and I heard Mick’s voice – pleasant, apologising for missing my call, but there had been a serious rugby match that day! I laughed:
– Ha! I can see you are still addicted!
– What was your film like?
– Not that great, so it’s just as well you weren’t free, you mightn’t have liked it either, quite well made and acted but just not that interesting…
- What are you doing this week-end? he asked.
– Working, pottering, gardening, do you like gardens?
– Not terribly, I prefer nature left to its own devices…
– But don’t you think that wherever we go, apart from some far-away and hostile places, we always interfere with nature, always try to manage it somehow… It may be a shame but this is what we do…
– Are you free next week?
– Some of it yes, but I’m planning to go to Edinburgh on Monday morning, to see an exhibition, I should be back on Wednesday…
– Are you free on Thursday then?
– Yes, Thursday is fine
– Anything you want to do?
– Well, if the weather is nice, I’d love a walk on the Heath -and why not have lunch at Kenwood?
– That sounds lovely. I’ll tell you what, let’s ring each other on Thursday morning to see what the weather is like, and we can decide…
I should have been cheerful and keener to go to Edinburgh now that I felt a little wanted, but despondency suddenly overwhelmed me: I didn’t want to go on my own, I didn’t want to have to do that. Fine to take the train, I loved trains, loved looking out of the window, relishing the ever-changing landscape; arriving would be great fun and finding a hotel probably easy; then walking to the Royal Scottish Academy, spending unlimited time watching the exhibits, good. Having lunch would be fine too, almost anywhere would do, I would need a rest anyway and it would be an opportunity to observe the crowds, the different rhythms. Then the Traverse Gallery, more shows, the old town, a break for tea. After that a certain lassitude would set in, the lack of a person to talk to and exchange with would start to weigh on me, I knew, and there would still be hours before a necessarily short dinner on my own, and too long before bedtime unless I wanted to go to sleep at nine o’clock… That’s what I couldn’t stand.
At times like these I could easily put myself up for adoption…
I cancelled the trip. Almost immediately, the telephone rang and opportunities appeared out of nowhere, lunch with a friend, dinner with my daughter, and an opportune visit by a neighbour to whom I was only too happy to do a favour: I told him about my aborted trip and he exclaimed:
– But I have a few friends in Edinburgh who would have been delighted to have dinner with you!
So, maybe another time? I quite liked the idea of meeting strangers.
– Arthur, if I ask you the question: ‘who are you?’, how would you describe yourself? Eight to ten words…
– Ah, well… I don’t know… Sarcastic, helpful, nice, sincere, slimmish, good cook, er…
– Right! That’s not bad! – Not bad for a man of thirty-five!
My daughter, later, on the telephone, obliged fluently as I took notes:
– Loyal, gregarious, demanding, happy, loving, chatty, thoughtful, conscientious, adaptable, busy-thinker… Of course some of that I’ve been told, school reports, that sort of thing… Why?
I explained about Mick and she sounded outraged:
– Mu-um! You’ve only just met him and you give him a philosophy essay title! You’re so demanding!
Philosophy should be on the curriculum, as a life skill, I insist, and ‘Who are you?’ should be the first homework: any child would be happy and intrigued to find out: I am an ogre! I am mummy’s little husband… an astronaut! I am the Queen of Sheba! I am nice… I am sad…
And I wondered to myself: how come someone so demanding found herself such lousy men? Was I setting myself up for disappointment? And could I now avoid what used to be the inevitable? I still felt strongly about the necessity of self-awareness: wasn’t knowing oneself an affirmation of who one was?
* * *