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Jean-Lucs Letter

It takes me by surprise. I am standing on the platform of Waterloo Underground station reading a book. I am waiting on a train heading south. Suddenly I notice them beside me. He smiles quickly and I look at her. She is standing as if somehow eclipsed by him, is leaning around and looking at me with a curious expression. I want to ask if there is something wrong, as her eyes seem to be intensely focused. They seem to jump out at me. Her long, black coat is belted around the middle. It accentuates her slender figure. Her thick, shiny hair appears darker. Chapped and full, her soft lips stand out in a pale and luminous face. He grins in an affable sort of way. I go to say something but he is already speaking. Veave found a way. Excuse me, I answer. Ve'ave naw found a way. Veer goink to Canada. My eyes move to her. Oh, I say, so that is good news. Since I last saw her she has become thinner. And you are happy with that? I ask. Yes, my friend. Veer very happy. Well, I say, you will get to start a new life across the Atlantic. It is what you have dreamed of. Am I not right? Yes, he replies, ve have always waunted to go there. The train whistles down through the tunnel. The air rushes ahead of it, pushing out and through the station. I smile absently for a moment, wondering what else to say: his face beams. Are you going my way? I ask. No, he says, Ve'er goink other direction. And you Katarina, are you pleased? For an instant her eyes flash fierily and then she too smiles. I will be glad of change. Yes. Well, I say, then I must say goodbye. When are you going? He looks proudly at me. Ve'er goink next week. I put out my hand. Good luck then. Sank you. The doors of the train open with a hiss. I want to lean over and kiss her on both cheeks. Her eyes look searchingly into mine and I cannot understand why. I cannot shake the feeling she wants to say something. Has there ever been anything special between us? Just as I am about to reach out and touch her hand he turns, takes her firmly by the arm and starts to walk. Looking back over her shoulder, her 1

hair falling loosely to the side, the bones of her cheeks prominent and fine, she lifts one hand and waves. I step into the train. I stand to the side and remain in the walkway. The doors close with a crunch. I am watching them walk away and as they turn around and under an archway the platform begins to move away past me. My eyes fall on her back, her black coat, as it disappears into the crowd. Then there is only the heel of her shoe, her stockinged ankle left. It was only last month when I received a letter from Jean-Luc that I remembered that incident. I had forgotten it. I had not thought of them in a long time. Jean-Luc wrote to tell me of some other news and mentioned he had been in Lyon and run into Aleksander. That was surprising. Immediately I was puzzled. Did they never make it to Canada? Had they ended up in France? As I was busy at the time I did not give it much attention. I let the matter fall for a day or two. Then curiosity overcame me. I wrote back. Letter writing is not one of my strong points. Yet when I do get down to it I write quickly and concisely. It was about Katarina I asked. I wanted to know if Jean-Luc had also met her. If not had Aleksander mentioned her. I told Jean-Luc about the last time I had seen them, added I had felt something to be unfinished then, I had felt concerned. He would understand this I knew. He would not jump to hasty conclusions. Above all I was curious to know what had happened, curious to know how their new life had gone. Why I really felt I had to know, or what I expected to find out, or if I expected that when he did reply he would be able to tell me anything of interest, I am not sure. But I was puzzled. I felt almost a little compelled. It was around that period of my life I knew Julie. In fact it was Julie who introduced me to them. One night while walking in Soho Julie began to talk about this couple she had met. She said they were an interesting pair. They came from Eastern Europe. With a funny sort of half-smile she asked if I would perhaps like to meet them. I did not reply. Julie was often coming across strange people where she worked. Generally they were foreigners. Like her they were people without legal right to employment but who worked anyhow. They waited on tables, fetched and carried, helped behind the scenes in tiny, cramped kitchens, received less than average cash payments never written into books. They kept the wheels of the free-market well oiled. Julie herself survived doing this. She maintained her small studio, paid for the canvas and brushes, paid for the paints.

At the time I lived on the Lillie Road in Fulham: a quiet, out of the way spot. In fact it was rather dull There was a small Baptist church across the road from the flat. It had its name written in thin, neon light over a plain, wooden door. Above that was a type of day-glo cross. On spring evenings whenever the sun was going down this cross would gleam. I found it irritating. There was something nearly, but not quite, sad about it. I liked to spend time with Julie. She was rather contradictory. She could be excitable and daring, then withdrawn and brooding. Looking back I see she had her problems. She was a perplexing mix of the self-centred and the vulnerable. It is hard to convey the speed with which she could swing from one thing to the other, how the one aspect antagonised the other, how she herself never seemed quite sure where she was. There was a constant game going on about keeping attention, about keeping everyone guessing. I do not think she did this out of simple, selfish motives. It was more a question of a way of being. It was as if no one had ever told her that she could step back, could look at herself with some detachment. No one had ever told her she did not have to let her feelings overwhelm her at every turn. And while I often complained to myself about this, I think I secretly enjoyed it. It gave me a kind of surrogate power. She had a rich accent. At times she would say something so broad that I could almost hear the whole of her history running backwards. I liked to get her to say Kalgoorlie, or Coolgardie. It brought the heat of the outback, the dry, copper earth right to the front of my mind. She said it in such a way it sounded like a stream of pure, fresh water running through that same parched outback. It used to make me smile. She had spoken about them before. I remembered. Katarina was very attractive she said. I did not really listen to her at first. It went past me. Often she talked about this person or that. It was something I had grown used to it. Yet this night she would not let it go. They come from Belgrade, she continued. Aleksanders father is a high-ranking officer in the Yugoslav army. I was puzzled and asked what he was doing in London then. She did not know, was vague, said something about him simply wanting to come and live in the west. He is interested in theosophy and mysticism. He is a vegetarian, she exclaimed. He told me he feels life here to be open, to be free. I raised my eyebrows. Thats quite a drastic step to take just because you are vegetarian. Dont be facetious, she snorted. You know quite well what I mean. But, I argued, it is not simply a matter of giving it a try and if it does not work then going back. And they are surely not legal here. She thought not.

Julie lived in a two-roomed flat behind Earls Court station. She had converted one of the rooms into a studio. It was a large, old house that had seen better times. Sometimes I tried to imagine it, as it once must have looked. The polished door handle, the bright and impassive facade, the figures like tiny, stiff dolls moving on the street. Now the white paint was peeling away, the window frames splintered and rotting. There was an older woman living on the ground floor. She kept her eye on things. You would sometimes see her as you went through the hallway. She had grey, permed hair and always wore a tracksuit and slippers. From the street there was only the flimsiest of curtains over her front window. Often, even early in the day, I could make out the dull, shifting image of a TV screen. Once accidentally I rang her bell and she came to the door. She stood on the steps, her face wrinkled, in one hand a half-smoked cigarette. Pieces of ash blew up into the spring evening and the tip glowed in the breeze. As she asked me what I wanted, I noticed the badly fitting false teeth, the over-washed sweater with its bally edges, the cheap locket around her neck in which she had placed a picture of the queen. Julies two rooms looked out onto some sort of garden. It was tangled and overgrown. There was a rusty fountain among the long, uncut grass. Some of the flats in the building were used by Social Security for people without homes. Julie told me that once, in the middle of the night, the police had come. She was woken by shouting and the sounds of a struggle. Opening her door quietly, she saw black uniforms drag someone down the stairs: blue lights flashed across the bare hallway. Next day there was just silence. There were no signs of anything unusual. It was a strange place: a sort of pocket within a pocket. I frequently felt there was something lost about it. It signified some other type of decline. Sometimes I would think it had always been there, only I had never seen it before. It was a sort of timeless niche that only mutated but never went away. When I read Jean-Luc's letter I remembered Katarina. I have not often thought of her, have not often thought of them. So much of that time is tied up with Julie. It was Julie I was sleeping with. Now I think Katarina ran somewhere in the space between the two of us. When eventually I met her, I must admit to being impressed by her beauty. There was something touching and proud about her. She had long, chestnut hair and dark, brown eyes. Her cheeks had a flush, a sort of 4

autumn red. When she moved, she moved as if always on the edge of action, but not quite. Sitting calmly in her chair, she would cross her legs, hold her thin, willowy hands in front of her. Once I walked with her in the park. It was a showery, spring evening. The shadows from the trees brushed over us and in the fluctuations of light, her face seemed all the more poignant. We followed a pathway around a recreation ground. The drops from the splayed leaves above us fell on our heads. As she talked I listened. Her voice flitted about the words. It paused and delayed. Sometimes it seemed to catch, to be still looking for a way to move forward. I was drawn in by her accent. I heard with pleasure the way she replaced familiar sounds with others. We walked across an open space: out from under the trees. The grass was wet and spongy. We found a pathway leading to a bridge. There were not many people about. The clouds were torn. They were piled up in greys and whites. I felt the air damp and fresh around us. I felt my steps slowing, my usual nervous pace being muted. Resting my umbrella underneath my arm, I let myself fall into step alongside her. We crossed the bridge and stopped to look up the river at the city. Its lights were already beginning to show, their flickering plotting the thrust of office buildings into the spring sky. Leaning her shoulder against mine, she sighed. She did not say anything, just stood there as if the silence were enough. As if the silence and the buildings and the rain and the sun and the damp leafs and the pathway and the railings of the bridge and the river, were all that needed to be said. I put my hand to my face, looked down into the water. It flowed slowly, its careless rippling hiding its power. Then she asked if we could go. It was not that she was always on my mind. I was almost uncaring. I felt no desire to pursue her. In a strange way I felt she would reveal herself to me, if and when she wanted to reveal herself to me. She was stronger than she seemed. She was not as fragile, not as closed within herself as others thought. She knew and saw more than she was prepared to say. Seeing her with Aleksander was confusing. Once he attempted to explain his beliefs to me. I felt embarrassed. I was not sure I wished to know. He was so convinced, so fervent that I thought him maybe a little fanatical. It was in their flat and I was sitting next to an open window. There was a cherry blossom in late bloom. While he talked, I heard the sound of birds singing. I was watching the flying about of sparrows, of finches. Stopping him for a moment, I asked if I could have a glass of water. He looked to her, seemingly annoyed at being interrupted in full flow. She immediately went to get one. It was Julie who showed the most interest, Julie who tried to explain her to me. Perhaps, she said, Katarina is afraid of Aleksander. Maybe she regrets having left her country. 5

Once she even speculated Aleksander was not what he seemed to be. He was something else. There was some sinister side to him. Momentarily intrigued, I asked what she meant. Do you think he is involved in espionage? Or that he works for the underworld? But she answered, no. Its just that there is something strange about him. Katarina is different. She has a passionate, erotic quality she does not let everyone see. Then she looked at me slyly. Are you maybe a little in love with her? she asked. I did not reply to that. I thought it was better to leave things as they were. On one occasion we almost came to blows over her. I did not want to see it. I had no wish to be shown the painting of Katarina Julie was working on. For weeks I had been listening to her talk about it. That evening I felt unsettled. Standing in her studio I asked impatiently if we could go and eat as arranged. My nerves were taut and I had no stomach for the cold room, for the propped up canvases, for the draught that came through the warped, wooden window frame. The smell of Julies clove cigarettes lay too heavy in the air. Waiting as she changed behind a screen I sipped at a lukewarm cup of tea. She was angry. I could see that. When she came out, girlishly pulling her skirt down over her dark green stockings, she accused me of playing games with her. You are trying to set me and Katarina off each other, she accused. It was something I had no wish to discuss and told her so. I glanced at my watch in order to hurry her up. Turning and glaring at me then, she lifted her arm and slapped me full in the side of the face. She threw herself at me and we struggled, falling against an old chair. We sat there, stunned, on the dusty floor. Then she started crying. She cried in long, deep sobs. Cried like I had never heard anyone cry before. All I could do was sit and listen to the protracted, empty sounds of her weeping. We ate in a small restaurant on the Kings Road. Pushing her food around her plate, her eyes still red and puffy, I sensed something alter between us, something different enter our relationship. Julie was changing right before my eyes. There was something she was not telling me. That night as I lay trying to sleep I wondered if perhaps she was jealous: and if so, of whom? It made me angry she should have suggested there was something between Katarina and me. Maybe she was upset because she felt she was not getting enough attention. Yet that sort of melodrama went beyond the rules of the game. I told myself I would rather she say openly what the problem was. Our relationship always had this edge to it. She once teased me about an affair she previously had. She kept it up for weeks. It was not the first time I experienced her insecurity. Already I had suspected her more than once of seeing someone else. When eventually I asked her to stop she just shrugged. 6

If you find my past difficult to accept thats your problem, she said. I do, I answered. Well theres nothing I can do about, was her tart reply. For two whole weeks I did not call to see her. Purposefully, I avoided her. When we met again, by accident on the street, the affair was not mentioned. I too let it go and was content to forget. Looking back I think there was more to it than I understood then. There was more to it than just Julies need to be the centre of attention. Or perhaps this need was motivated by something deeper. In some way the need to avoid her emptiness caused her to grasp onto what she thought she had to have. Perhaps the games she played with me were related to the degree I was prepared to try and solve the questions she posed: or the degree to which her demands were met by my lack of interest. I have never really worked it out. It seems now Katarina was there, running like a stream through the whole time. It was her silence that kept it so subtle, her strength that kept her from stepping into the limelight. If there were other things within her that held her in check, that held her in some enigmatic world of her own, I know nothing of them. Jean-Lucs letter reminded me of these things. These were things I had put somewhere to the back of my mind. I had not so much forgotten, as in some way not remembered. How curious a thing memory is. It can be undependable, is prone to manipulation, to selected recall. Yet there are things, personal or emotional for example, that by their intensity, their force, seem to implant themselves so deeply they can be revoked, sometimes years later, almost intact in detail. Is there any way of knowing for certain that what I remember is really what occurred? How do my memories of a shared experience compare to those of someone else? Maybe memory is just another creation of my mind. My existence, my living is just my mind, or everything my mind makes of where I am. Even as I store details, even as I live an experience, my mind is involved in selection, in forming a pattern it finds to correspond to a pattern it is already creating. There is no world and no mind. They are aspects of one and the same thing. Perhaps this is what I mean by coincidence, chance. It is the sudden shortening of the distance between life and intelligence, between creation and selection. Jean-Lucs letter brought the whole period back for me. I realised Katarinas presence was in some part involved in the ending of my relationship with Julie. Why I had almost completely forgotten the incident I do not know. Now that I have not seen Julie in years, now that I have tried

to understand what we meant to each other, it seems strange I should have overlooked it. The incident occurred one evening in the December of that year. I had been in Antwerp on business. Arriving back in London I went straight home and slept for a couple of hours. When I woke it was already dark. The streets were lit and cold, the remnants of daylight just a far off glow in the west. Hungry and a little disoriented, I went out with the intention of eating alone. Then I changed my mind. I telephoned Julie but got no reply. I decided to take the underground to Earls Court. As I sat on the train I felt restless. In the dark I could see the stars hanging in the sky. As we moved along, I watched. As we snaked past buildings, I felt the strange aloneness the thin lights lent to the night. The station at Earls Court was busy. It always seemed somewhat desperate: a strange mixture of sleaze, of commuters and travellers. I crossed the street and cut along Barkston Gardens. On the air was something vaguely Italian and again I felt hungry. Turning, I came to the small square and looked for the familiar facade. I paused for a moment. The woman, who looked after the premises, obviously having seen me, came listlessly to the window. Opening it, she poked her head out and told me the door was open, said, as she took a long pull on her cigarette, shes in love. You should go through. Something about the way she smiled should have made me uneasy. There was something small about it, something sly and mediocre. I pushed against the shabby frame and stepped quietly into the empty hallway. I saw the familiar threadbare carpet, the dull, undecorated walls. Going a little way in, I stopped. I could hear the sound of voices raised in laughter. A tight angle of light shot across the floor. For a moment I had a strange sense of apprehension, a sort of foreshadowing. The door was not completely closed. It was off its catch. I stepped up to it and putting my head cautiously around, knocked. As the light struck my eyes I was surprised to see both Julie and Katarina standing there. My breath caught in my throat as I watched Julie lean forward and kiss Katarina fully on the mouth. And I watched Katarina respond. Then they smiled at each other and Julie said something about it being all right and leaned forward again. My first impulse was to leave swiftly and silently. Instead I gave a light cough and looked at them. It was Julie who saw me first. Her face flushed slightly and then she carelessly, almost a little too archly, laughed. I stood and waited. She said nothing. Katarina looked away. Then I turned and walked back down the hallway.

All day I have been thinking. Jean-Lucs reply arrived this morning. I was surprised. I thought it would take him longer to write back. Opening the envelope hesitantly, I wondered what would be inside. Suddenly I felt uncertain. For a moment I was tempted to put it aside, to leave it unopened. Now I sit on the platform at Waterloo. Coming here in some way rounds off the whole affair. I have read and reread what he wrote. I have not been surprised or saddened, just made to feel a little confused. Sometimes it is difficult to understand why things turn out as they do. Now I remember clearly the evening I last saw them. I remember the book I was reading, even the weather. I remember the grime of the station, the push of the crowds. I remember the light, woollen jacket I wore. I was on my way home from work. I had just moved to live in Peckham. Each evening I would leave the Underground at Elephant and Castle. I would walk around to the front of an incongruous, grey shopping centre, then wait to complete my journey by bus. That last evening I did just that. I picked up the threads of the story in my book as under the spring light I leaned against the bus stop. And I remember not only that evening, but all the evenings I would sit on the red double-decker bus and look out on the Old Kent Road. Sometimes it was obscured in rain, sometimes harsh in sunshine. In front of the green of the Rye the gate would creak, as I would walk up the driveway. Then I would turn the key in the lock and there would be a sudden void as I stood on the steps to the side entrance. As I looked at the pale, blue paint of the doorframe, saw the shadows from the meagre garden. A couple of years later while still living there I received a call in the middle of the night from one of Julies friends. Sleepily lifting the telephone, I heard she had been found in the bathroom of her studio with her wrists cut. She was in hospital and asked if I could come and see her. I sat by her bed and tried to talk but was only able to see the bright, red blood running over white enamel, the light bulb burning in all its nakedness, see her body sliding to the floor. I left and only once saw her again. Sometimes I think of her walking on a street, or back home. I imagine a sweater or a coat pulled down to cover the scars on her wrists. Then I feel guilty, feel I should have done more. I was too hard on her. Perhaps I could have been more sensitive. Sometimes I feel only a dull stupidity, a callow sense of smallness grip me. Mostly I tell myself I did the right thing. Jean-Luc writes they never made it to Canada. Aleksander is headwaiter in the restaurant of a large Zurich hotel. He was only in Lyon on a short holiday. They are no longer together. Katarina has moved to Berlin. From what he understands she has their two children, lives with her new lover and has taken up acting. Tactfully, Jean-Luc offers to put me in touch with her. Yet I have already decided it is better left alone. As the trains whistle in I think of that last time I saw her. As I watch the 9

commuters step in and out, the doors open and close, I see her stockinged ankle, her heel disappearing into the crowd under the archway. If she ran between Julie and me she also ran deftly around us. It is easy to assume she has stepped away. Easy to assume she has stepped into an absence. Then I wonder in what way I can explain that. It is more likely she has changed position, has altered bearing and has found a new pattern. She has retained the power to create and recreate her own way of living. When I think of her in her new life I imagine she is different and in some way still the same. And Aleksander? Did he ever glimpse those hidden depths? Did he ever see her silent strength, the impossibility, or the undesirability of ever trying to define her? In his mind was she ever anything other than a satellite circling his centre? On the platform of Waterloo I remember her in their flat as he so eagerly explained himself to me. I remember the birds outside in the trees and how she went and got me the glass of water. I think of the time we walked in the park. I think of the damp, showery evening, her silence, her leaning against me and the run of the river. I feel not only sure for her, but sure, as she knew then, as I am only discovering, some moments speak simply for themselves.

Copyright Peter Millington. March 1996.

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