Dear Old Stockholm–part 1

A novella in six parts

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

I’m the kind of person whose thoughts come in words, not in images. I often say I don’t have much in the way of a visual imagination, but I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that, while I’m fairly well read, and knowledgable about literature, I know next to nothing about the visual arts. I like cinema, but I tend to treat the pictures as secondary to the dialogue and other verbal elements. As merely illustrative, if you like. I don’t notice how a shot is framed, or whether a Steadicam is being used, unless it’s obvious. And that’s why it surprises me that, when I think of Lucie, what comes to mind is an image. She’s sitting up in bed, with the sheet thrown off, on a sticky August London morning, wearing a pair of blue-green checked boxer shorts, smoking. In my memory, her black hair forms a Louise Brooks bob, though I know in fact she wore it longer at the time. I didn’t — don’t — own an ashtray and I have given her her coffee in a mug without a saucer, so she taps her cigarette into an empty matchbox. The boxer shorts are ones she bought for me. She bought six pairs, three with small checks, like the ones she was wearing, and three with stripes, the week after she moved in. If moving in is the right term. She kept her room in a shared house in Winchmore Hill but rarely stayed there, so a lot of her clothes, makeup, several small French paperbacks, a favourite frying pan and other things I don’t remember came to rest in my flat in Finsbury Park.

I liked the boxers, was grateful for so intimate a gift, but found them uncomfortable to wear under clothes. They were too loose, too liable to twist and bunch. So, I took to wearing them in bed. After a couple of weeks, she noticed that I’d worn only the striped ones, so she appropriated the checks for herself. In fact, there was one pair, a red and navy check, that I particularly liked, and that I’d been kind of saving up, but I didn’t object. There was no doubt that I’d rather see them on her than wear them myself.

I’m not so oblivious to my own preoccupations and proclivities as to fail to acknowledge that the reason that it is this particular image of Lucie that has stuck with me is that in it her breasts are bare. Lucie’s breasts were, after the first few uncomplicated weeks, the objects of some ambivalence on my part. When I met her, at Nice airport in 1996, the third thing I noticed about her was that she wasn’t wearing a bra. The very first thing I noticed was the colour of her hair, which was truly black. I was on my way back to London, having covered the Cannes film festival for a culture-meets-new-tech magazine that was then new and struggling and is now long forgotten. The cofounder and editor, a friend from college, had offered me the gig. Payment was adequate, but accommodation wasn’t covered. Instead, Timmy arranged for me to stay with a friend of his family’s, a fiftyish Englishwoman named Dee, who’d lived there since the mid-80s and who seemed to have reasons of a legal nature for not wanting to go back to Britain.

Lucie came from further west in France, near St Gaudens, and would normally have been flying back to London from Toulouse, but had just spent a week in La Gaude with an old schoolfriend and her family. She told me this when I asked her if she’d been in Cannes for the festival, plainly intimating that I myself had been. I’ve never been so obvious but I was feeling unusually cocky. Here I was, finally a real journalist, coming back from a glamorous assignment. Was she really so far out of my league as she appeared? Certainly less so than she would have been a few weeks earlier. But it wasn’t just that I felt unusually optimistic. There was something about Lucie, the way she looked, the way she was, that convinced me that if I didn’t make at least some half-assed attempt to get her, I’d regret it forever. She didn’t seem put off by my approach, so I attempted to chat, thankful that at least there was a chance that my evident lack of proficiency in French would mask the lameness of my chat-up routine. Unfortunately, my floundering in French was too evident. Lucie switched easily to English, to my mixed relief and panic.

It wasn’t one of those flights where you get to pick your own seats. At first I was glad of this, since it saved me the embarrassment of having pointedly to choose the seat beside her. But by the time we got to board, we were chatting so easily that I found the separation — her seat was seven or eight rows in front of mine — a real annoyance. I caught up with her again in the baggage reclaim at Gatwick. I persuaded her that the Gatwick Express was a pointless extravagance and that the regular train to Clapham Junction or Victoria was almost as quick, a lot cheaper and that one was due a good eight minutes before the next Express. On the train, she asked me what I’d thought of the festival. I opined that the Coen brothers seemed to be starting to lose it and Cronenberg was finally striking the right balance between boredom and revulsion. I hadn’t managed to see Breaking the Waves; the buzz was favourable but I was inclined to be a sceptic. I avoided mentioning Mike Leigh. It’s my view that the French tend to overvalue him, like they do Ken Loach, and I didn’t want to get into an argument at this point in our acquaintance.

I suggested continuing the conversation over a drink. Finsbury Park doesn’t suffer from a shortage of pubs but most of them aren’t congenial environments for a quiet drink and a chat. We settled on the Wetherspoon’s on Stroud Green Road. I’ve noticed that, whenever one ends up in a Wetherspoon’s pub, it’s nearly always a compromise, the result of some kind of negotiation. Each party would rather have gone somewhere else, but a different somewhere else. I suppose that’s why they do so well, or seem to.

It was about 11.30 by the time we left the pub. We were both conscious of the fact that it would have been possible, though not convenient, for her to get back to Winchmore Hill by public transport, and that taking a taxi would mean a wait.

“Come home with me,” I invited. She studied me, openly appraising. I could see, or imagined I could, that she considered me a possibility, but one that she could quite easily pass up.

“I promise I won’t be a pest, I won’t try to move in with you and, if I fall in love with you, I’ll keep the fact to myself.” I was by no means confident that I could fulfil this promise, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that.

She laughed. ’Is that the kind of line that English girls respond to?’

I thought about that. “Probably. Maybe I’ll try it some day. But I prefer to improvise. I haven’t quite got the trick of making a rehearsed line sound sincere.” Or a spontaneous one, apparently, since she’d immediately identified it as a line.

“So, you’re inviting me to a one night stand?”

“Oh no. In my frankly limited experience, a one night stand means the sex wasn’t any good. If it had been, both parties would want to come back for more. I’m looking for a relationship that lasts at least a week, ideally three or four.”

She laughed again and took my hand. It was a twenty minute walk to the flat. We stopped to kiss. It felt to me as if she was into it, but at the same time she remained a little detached. Once inside the flat, I offered coffee but she said she never drank it this late. Although Lucie had agreed to spend the night with me, and although we had specifically talked about sex, my innate self-doubt was insisting that it was still not a done deal; there were further difficulties to be negotiated. I was very conscious that I could still make a real mess of this. We were both adults, we both understood the potential ambiguity of the situation. I should simply ask her directly if she wanted to have sex. That would be to offer her the opportunity to say no, but there was no help for that. Before I could articulate the words, she had pulled off her olive green t-shirt, was pressing those breasts into my pullover, and her muscular tongue was aggressively probing my mouth.

I slept fitfully, intermittently aware of the unaccustomed presence in the bed beside me, yet I woke feeling relaxed and rested. I had the bed to myself. I hoped I’d had the presence of mind to take her phone number. Maybe she’d have left it without prompting from me, but I wasn’t hopeful. Oh well. It was almost a minute before I noticed that her backpack was still propped against the armchair, and that there were noises from the kitchen. Lucie came in, carrying two mugs of coffee.

“How do you take it?” She gave me a big grin.

She was wearing the green t-shirt, which ended a good inch and a half above the black triangle at the top of her legs. I must have been staring, because she redundantly explained, “After 8 days on holiday, I don’t have left any clean culotte. Panties?”

“‘Panties’ is a horribly infantile word. English girls tend to say ‘knickers’”.

“‘Knickers’ is better?”

“I prefer it.”

That led us into a discussion, which I’m too embarrassed to try to reconstruct, about our preferred terms for certain garments and, by extension, for the body parts they were designed to contain. We sounded, I’m sorry to say, like a couple of naughty, giggling kids in the school playground. Lucie didn’t approve of my preferred word for breasts — which was, in fact, “breasts”.

She made a face. “No. That word makes me think of meat. And not even interesting meat.” She laughed again, finding an opportunity to further my education. “The French word is nearly a homophone with ‘saint’. That used to make Mass a bit more entertaining, when I was younger.”

“And the same word in German means ‘being’. The same spelling, not the pronunciation.”

“Are you sure? We do look at things very differently from the Germans.”

“And also from the English, of course. Think of the English pronunciation and meaning of the French word for bread.”

“Stop, you’ll make me hungry.” She had finished her coffee. “I will take a shower, if you don’t mind.”

When it comes to phoning a woman after your first night together, a man simply has to take it as a given that whatever he does is liable to seem wrong. If he phones the next day, he’ll escape overt criticism but will have to work very hard to counteract the impression that he is needy or possessive, and therefore undesirable. This effect takes, by my estimate, three days to dissipate. But if he waits four days or more, he is likely to attract complaints: that he is not paying enough attention to her, taking her for granted, making her wait in. In my (again, admittedly limited) experience, it is better to wait, knowing that those complaints are on the way, and take them on the chin. We’d come back from France on Tuesday; on Wednesday morning, Lucie had gone back to Winchmore Hill, leaving her phone number and an invitation to call her “soon”. I had determined that Saturday morning was the optimal time to get in touch. I managed to hold out till Friday evening.

I was slightly surprised to find her home. “Oh, hi. I knew you’d call, but I wasn’t expecting to hear from you so soon.” She’d gone for a drink with colleagues after work and wasn’t feeling up to going out again that night, so we agreed to meet for lunch on Sunday in Camden. We’d intended to take a look around the market, but ended up getting so lost in conversation that we spent the whole afternoon in the pub. It’s not even as if we were drinking a lot. We were sufficiently at ease with each other not to need to.

Lucie was working in the trust department of one of the major banks. It was not a position of particular responsibility and was correspondingly remunerated. She could live comfortably in London, but wasn’t getting rich. Her aim was to study fine art, in London if possible. I mentioned my own lack of a visual imagination.

“A limitation in a film critic, surely?”

“Every critic has some limitation. Mine isn’t necessarily fatal.”

“Fatal to the possibility of being a great critic, I think.”

I’d never thought about the possibility of being a great critic. My current job was an accident, not a vocation.

“Perhaps you could teach me? I can’t guarantee that I’d be a promising student, but I’d work hard. For you, I would.”

“We’ll have to see.”

She came back to my flat again that night and left at 5.30 in the morning to go home and change for work. For once in my life, I was happy to be awake at that hour. We spoke on the phone at lunchtime. She asked if she could leave some things at my flat so that she wouldn’t have to leave so early next time. I agreed at once. We were becoming a couple.

During the first five or six weeks we were together, she never wore a bra. I don’t believe she owned one. One day, she read an article in, as far as I remember, Marie Claire — which she bought only occasionally — warning of the terrible dangers waiting in the future for those women who refused to restrain their breasts. The effects of gravity were unavoidable, but they could be slowed down by constantly wearing a professionally fitted bra. As I surmised, the author of the article made her living in the manufacture and fitting of bras. Her ruthless laying bare of the causal link between present bralessness and future sagging was merely her own self-interested opinion. I tried with increasing desperation to persuade Lucie of this but she had been afforded a glimpse into her own future and it had chilled her. They were her breasts, she would take what precautions she deemed necessary where their welfare was concerned. From that day on, she went nowhere except to bed without a bra.

I experienced this change in Lucie’s wardrobe as a small, persistent, irritant that I soon came to resent. No doubt that seems an absurdly disproportional response to a trivial change. I suppose that for me the change came to encapsulate the myriad ways, small and less so, in which the actual, complex individual I was sharing my life with differed from the conception of her — unconventional, liberated, contemptuous of constraints — that I had formed on first seeing her at Nice airport, and that had been refined over the next couple of weeks. The conception that I had, in some sense, fallen in love with.

I made a vehement but entirely unsuccessful effort to persuade Lucie to ignore, or better still forget, the article in Marie Claire. It was our first argument. Lucie thought, or at any rate said, that my preoccupation with superficial details of dress meant that I was relating to her as an object. She had been under the impression that I was interested in her essential self, not merely her tits, and felt betrayed to discover that this was not the case. In the end, I recognized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere and dropped the subject rather than do further damage to the relationship.

Perhaps that episode stands out in my mind because we didn’t have very many real arguments. We were, for the most part, happy. The only other quarrel that I particularly recall happened a couple of years later, when I asked her to read the a film review that I’d just written for Timmy’s magazine. We’d gone to see the film together, which was unusual for us. Mainly this was because I had to see, for my work, many films that held no interest for her, but also because I was distracted by her presence beside me when I was supposed to be working. Anyway, when it comes to films or theatre, I’m rather too susceptible to being influenced by the opinions of anybody in whose company I watch the performance. I wanted my reviews to be based on my own responses.

This particular film was one that Lucie had been particularly keen to see. There is a moment near the end, where a fact is revealed that shows that the protagonist has completely misunderstood his relationship with the other main characters. A “twist”, in the parlance that I tried to avoid in my reviews. I admit that it was ingenious, and that it made me gasp. I’d come out of the cinema feeling pretty good about the film, but after a day or two it started to fall to pieces in my memory. I’d become suspicious of twists, anyway. Since Bryan Singer’s Usual Suspects, it seemed that what every formulaic piece of filmmaking needed was a sudden reversal, or the disappearance of the ground beneath the hero’s feet. Enough already, I wanted to say.

Lucie wanted to talk about the film; I wanted to save what I had to say for the review, and avoid talking it out before I got it down in writing. So, I promised to show her the review when it was done. She started to read it eagerly, but as she got near the end, a puzzled frown settled on her face.

“You don’t think it deserves more than this?”

I shrugged. If I’d thought it deserved more, I’d have written more.

“I’d advise you not to publish this.”

I mimed incredulity.

“You’ve got it wrong. It won’t do your reputation any good. If anybody actually reads it.”

“I haven’t got it wrong.” I was about to add “you can’t say that an opinion about a work of art is ‘wrong’”, but I cut myself short. That might not be a position I wished to commit myself to in the long term.

She read. “‘Because of the reversed time-line, the plot has to be simple and formulaic to avoid losing the audience. As a result, the film risks giving the appearance of playing games with chronology in order to disguise a humdrum story.’ That might be persuasive, but for the fact that the plot is neither simple nor formulaic. It’s ingenious and, as far as I can see, entirely original.”

“I’ll admit that I enjoyed the twist. You probably noticed that I gave a little involuntary gasp. It was admiration as well as surprise. But, when you think about it afterwards, it doesn’t hold up. The whole structure starts to crumble. I mean, how does Leonard know he’s got his ‘condition’? By definition, it ought to be something he can’t remember, right?”

“He doesn’t remember. He sees what’s tattooed on the back of his hand and works it out again, as if for the first time, at intervals that he thinks are about fifteen minutes but must actually be longer. And — this is almost the whole point — what he works out is wrong. The ‘condition’ doesn’t work the way he thinks it does, because the information he has about it is based on somebody who didn’t actually have it, but was faking.”

I told her she was reading a lot into a simple plot hole. Ignoring her well meant warnings, I sent in the review. Fortunately, as I now think, because subsequent viewings of the film have persuaded me that she was right for the most part, my review didn’t make it into print: the magazine had gone quietly out of business in the meantime and I was looking for a new job.

It wasn’t the best time to be looking. In September, Lucie had given up her job at the bank and started a degree course in Art at Queen Mary in Mile End. It was something she had been hoping to do since she had arrived in London four years earlier. She had a grant, a small student loan and some savings (the amount of which remained tantalizingly unspecified). The question of my supporting her had never come up, but the drop in our joint income was felt by both of us.

I certainly wasn’t wedded to the idea of continuing my career in arts journalism. A sideways shunt into politics, say, or environmental matters would have been welcome. I scoured the internet, looking for possibilities. A phenomenon known, preposterously and surely temporarily, as “blogging” wasn’t yet setting the internet on fire but was starting to be noticed. I was ambivalent about it. Most of the readable blogs I found seemed to be about blogging itself: how it offered unlimited possibilities, made everybody a publisher, amounted to a revolution comparable to Gutenberg, and would end up boiling a lot of frogs; this was endlessly, and apparently compulsively, repeated with minor variations. One could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that blogging was a phenomenon that existed in order to promote itself.

Of course, not all blogs took themselves as their main topic. Very many were, as far as one could tell, about some kind of external reality: economics, one variety or another of science, graphic design or “writing code”. Very old television series and bicycle maintenance. Travel. As far as I could tell, such blogs were written by people for whom the English language was a general purpose, badly adapted, poorly maintained tool. People who disdained to learn the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, and who either believed that the expression ‘baited breath’ made sense, or didn’t care whether it did or not. Such blogs were, for the most part, unreadable without the kind of concentrated effort that one is unwilling to invest in something as ephemeral as an internet diary.

And, of course, there was an apparently large category of diaries, pure and simple. Thousands, maybe millions, of people chronicling the largely unvarying texture of their very ordinary lives. Did anybody read this? Perhaps the notion of an abstract, and all but imaginary, audience was what attracted these authors. One had the impression of large numbers of people practising their writing skills in public. In public but yet, in practical terms, invisible. It was this self-contradictory quality of public invisibility that accounted for my ambivalence. I, too, could hone my journalistic skills in public, starting, of course, from the more favourable position of being in possession of skills that had already to some degree been proven.

The second part (of six) is here.