‘Were you ever diagnosed as having any kind of autistic tendencies – Asperger’s syndrome, er...?’ says Vincent just as I enter.
‘Good day to you too’ I say, laughing a little. I’m getting used to this now.
‘Good day’ he says, not looking up. I sit down. I wait.
‘Hmm?’ he says, looking up at last. I pretend not to have heard, just to piss him off – make him repeat the question.
‘Were you ever diagnosed as having autistic tendencies such as Asperger’s syndrome at all Gabriel?’ he says again.
‘I looked into it, you know, out of curiosity, did a questionnaire...’
I shrug. ‘I don’t know. Some things... My mum said because I couldn’t relate to people and spent all my time in my room. But I thought, because people with Asperger’s aren’t supposed to be very good with emotions and imagination, and my whole life was all emotions and imagination, probably too much... I thought she was probably wrong. What about you?’
I expect him to be irritated with my impertinence but instead he says ‘It was my father’s opinion yes. I never really fitted in with his idea of what a boy should be – always reading, sitting alone, always thinking about things, seeing things differently.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I became a civil engineer actually. To be honest it always seemed to me that “autism” is just the technical term for being a misfit.’ I tell him I worked with autistic teenagers at one point, and about some of their “challenging” behaviour.
‘It’s a spectrum of behaviours’ he says. ‘I looked into it too. At one end you have some very difficult people, or you have Rainman of course. But then, at the other, you simply have people who are merely somehow, er... inconvenient.’
He stops then, lost in thought. I watch him, observing the emotions flickering across his face, unreadable.
‘Are you angry at your father?’ I ask at last. He shakes his head, not to say ‘no’, but to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Anyway’ he says, ‘enough about that. I think we are coming perhaps to the end of your story. We’ve talked a little about your marriage and the post graduate project, and the period leading up to your time at college...’
‘There’s something else.’
‘You wanted to know about friends. I wasn’t sure what to say. I had another friend, at the end.’
‘I think so. I met her when my relationship with Mar was really... I didn’t know what to do. The atmosphere at home was terrible. That last trip to Spain was a bit... I don’t know...’
‘Hopeless? Did she know this too?’
‘I don’t know. She just kept on trying to get me to change, to be more “business-like” as she put it – more of a man. I just didn’t know what to do. It was like the video project all over again. And then, one day, it was just too much and I just went out – I just had to get out and I was going to go up to Devil’s Dyke, up on the Downs near Brighton. It was a beautiful sunny day I remember, around midsummer I suppose, and I was going to get in the car and go, but instead I just started walking and I ended up down on the sea front and I was just walking along, I mean I was this close to tears. I knew it was over but I didn’t know what to do about it. It just felt like the end – not just of us, of everything, everything I ever dreamed of. I just wanted a way out. The fact is I was terrified of her – of what she’d say when I told her I wanted to move out.’
‘What were you afraid of, precisely?’
‘I’ve been thinking about this, since... and I don’t know – her fury? Her judgement? Her contempt? It doesn’t seem enough somehow.’
I look at him. I look away. The memory is so close. I can feel it, just beside me. If I let it in...
‘So anyway, I’m just near the Palace Pier there, near the entrance and I see this woman there with a little girl and I’m sure I know her from somewhere and somehow I know her name is Sophie and I can’t help looking at her. She’s by the doughnut stand, and her little girl is getting into a mess with her doughnut so she’s crouching down in front of her, trying to clean her up, and suddenly she looks around and sees me there. Later she told me I looked like I’d just been hit in the front of the head with a bat.’
‘You spoke to her?’
‘I probably wouldn’t have except she was looking at me and I looked back at her and smiled and... Actually I’ve got Mar to thank for that.’
‘While I was with her, the first couple of years, when I was still in love and I honestly never seriously thought I’d ever be with anyone else, I slowly realised that women were looking at me, and I could tell they were actually interested, and I’d never really realised that before. I used to think that expression meant “Get away from me you freak.” Actually, have you noticed, if you look at photos of models for example, or pop stars, trying to look sexy, the expression is almost indistinguishable from apprehension or contempt? I wonder why we find those expressions erotic.’
‘I can’t say as I have noticed to be honest’ he says.
‘Oh, you know, that wide eyed sideways glance, or the heavily lidded eyes and flared nostrils thing.’ I give him a little demo, which makes him laugh.
‘Anyhow, it took me a long time to spot the difference. I always thought attracting women was a really hard job that involved pretending to be someone other than myself. But no, suddenly there I was, getting attention.’
‘Because you were relaxed and confident now.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t go that far. I just think I didn’t look desperate any more. I told Mar about it – she couldn’t believe I hadn’t realised this before. She thought it was funny.’
‘So how did this help, with this new woman?’
‘Well it was just that I’d got used to seeing women looking at me and having the confidence, I guess, to look back. It was all totally new to me.’
‘But you never intended to be unfaithful.’
‘No way. Right up until the end I really thought we’d be together, Mar and I. Even then I wasn’t looking for anybody else. I wasn’t looking for it at all.’
‘And your eyes met...’
‘They did. I’ll always remember she had this full, bottle green hippy skirt on and flip-flops and one of those thin strappy tops and no bra. She had very cute breasts...’ Lost in the memory I suddenly realise who I’m telling this to and try to look more serious. He’s grinning at me, steepling his fingers.
‘Go on’ he says.
‘Oh well, to cut a long story short...’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. What happened next? Did you ask her out?’
‘We went for a coffee. Well, she had Emily with her so we went down on the beach, got an ice cream. It was like I’d known her forever. It was amazing. We just chatted for ages.’
‘You told her your situation.’
‘Everything. I even cried on her. It was weird.’
‘What did she say?’
‘I don’t know. Nothing specific.’
‘She didn’t advise you to leave your wife?’
‘No. She was just really... comforting?’ And now I can feel the tears are close – it won’t be long. ‘She just listened, and she understood. I told her everything, about how crap I was with money, and how difficult I was to be with and I never...’ That’s it. I’m in floods of tears and I can’t do anything about it. Vincent offers me tissues, crouches beside me, puts his hand on my back.
Slowly I pull myself together. I can’t believe I’ll never see her again. What crap luck. I think of her wondering what happened to me, why I never called her. She only ever had my mobile number. Nobody even knew she existed to tell her about my death. Probably she was really pissed off I never called... I pull myself together a bit. I picture her in that little house she rented, in her bed with her book or sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee, watching the birds and I know that’s not how it would have been. She wouldn’t have been pissed off at all. She’d have been worried and sad, but she’d have assumed there’d be a good reason for me not coming back and she’d have been happy for me. I know this. That’s what she was like. My tears ease up but still come, steadily filling my eyes.
‘You never...?’ he prompts
‘You were going to say you never something.’
I think about it. What was I going to say? Oh yes.
‘I never felt she judged me and I never felt she was there just because she thought she ought to be. She always thought the best of me – explained what I’d done as if I’d had good reasons, rather than because I was lazy and difficult, which was what I usually felt. I’d never felt that before, except in my dreams and then I never really felt I deserved it.’
‘Like the optical illusion.’
‘With her, different things about the picture came to the fore. You saw yourself differently.’
‘And perhaps given time you might have lost the ability to see the old, negative picture.’
‘Maybe. I could hardly believe anybody could see me like that, could know me like that.’
‘Maybe in a previous life.’
‘You think so?’
‘You can’t think where you knew her from?’
‘Ok. Did you see her again?’
‘Yes. Several times – as often as I could really. I was always out anyway, even before. Mar never knew when I’d be in normally, and frankly I don’t think she cared, so it wasn’t a big problem.’
‘What did you do together?’
‘Well, at first we went out to the cinema or to the woods, but I was paranoid about us being seen together so she took me round to her place. Mar had her spies everywhere.’
‘She had a lot of friends, so...’
‘But you enjoyed your time together.’
‘Oh it was wonderful. We didn’t do much, just ate and walked in the country and watched videos, did things with Emily, and we just did silly things and laughed. I’d never laughed so much before. She lived out in the middle of nowhere just the other side of the Downs, in an old council house with views across the fields and a garden and rabbits and ducks, and Tilley, her dog. It was all so peaceful. It was just like heaven really.’
‘Did she work?’
‘Mostly from home – she did proof reading, translating, some reviews, stuff like that.’
‘What language did she speak?
‘Spanish and Italian fluently.’
‘And she didn’t mind living alone like that, working from home.’
‘She said she was used to it. She used to joke that she must have been a nun in a previous life.’
‘Was she religious then?’
‘Nah, hardly. She was a bit into witchcraft actually. Her house was full of weird pagan stuff, herbs and crystals and so on.’ Images of the house come fresh to mind – a rich chaos of fabrics, incense, books and fruit, plants, crayons, fluffy toys and plastic farm animals like an intricately crafted nest. She took me in and immediately made me a place where what I was, was loveable, and what I’d done suddenly made perfect sense.
‘And you made love.’
I have to smile at the memory ‘We tried not to... honestly.’
He smiles and nods. ‘And it was good?’
‘It was so easy. So natural.’ I can’t say any more. I assume Vincent doesn’t want the gory details. ‘It was like coming home’ I say at last, by way of summing up.
Vincent takes a little time to think. Then the question I’ve been dreading comes ‘How long did you have before that trip to Spain?’
I look at him. This is it. The worst. The expression on his face tells me he understands.
‘About six weeks. I was going to tell Mar when we got back. I should have told her before, I know I should. I was so stupid. I couldn’t tell Mar I wasn’t going with her, and I convinced myself it was ok because I wanted to see Riqui and Carmen and I loved Spain and so on... I was such a coward – a stupid coward. I can’t believe it.’ And I feel myself overflowing again – bitter lost tears giving no release. Wasted feelings, lost love, utterly lost, useless, pointless. Oh Sophie...
‘Can I give you some hope Gabriel?’ I hear him say after some time. I look up slowly. I can hardly bring myself to move but I peer at him sideways, through my brows, still snivelling into a sodden tissue.
‘It seems possible to me you recognised her from before, although I cannot be sure. Therefore it is entirely possible that you will see her again, if you go back.’
‘Do you know anything about what happened before?’
‘I don’t, nothing specific, but there are indications. Tell me, did Sophie say what made her go to the pier that afternoon?’
‘Yes, that was funny. She said she hadn’t been into Brighton for months, and she was supposed to be working, but somehow she just thought it would be a nice thing to do. Do you think she knew?’
‘I can’t say. The indications are often subtle and ambiguous but they mark turning points.’
‘I recognised that evening of the party...’ and he consults his notes briskly, almost impatiently ‘...with Gill?’ he says. I nod. ‘When you were eighteen. That was another pivotal moment. I suspect all your moments tend to involve a special woman. You must meditate on those moments, now and during the coming journey.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then you may be better equipped to deal with the next life. These moments are a kind of a doorway, or a spy hole perhaps. I know you have come a long way and made many changes already. You should not waste the opportunity.’
‘Could I be an old soul do you think?’
‘Perhaps but we need to talk about this at greater length. Next time?’
I nod. I feel I should shake his hand or something. I feel like we’re on a mission now.