A Friendly Encounter
She said she had gone to meet her ex-lover in his flat. In the days when they saw each other regularly, they had the use of a pied-a-terre, lent to them by a friend who lived outside London. Out of courtesy or perhaps because her ex-lover thought she would not know the way to his place, he picked her up from the station.
She had been abroad and they had not seen each other for more than five years. He said she looked well and, without having a real opinion about his looks – had the years ravaged him or not? – she returned the compliment. It wasn’t difficult to be friendly and try to make her ex-lover feel at ease. He said they would have to take a detour as he wanted to pick up a newspaper on the way. She didn’t mind. It gave her the chance to see the area.
He also said that when they arrived at his place, he had a small job to do, that is, a small job before they embarked on the possibility of restarting their physical relationship. They had spoken regularly on the phone for several weeks prior to this – what she called in a text message to him – ‘a friendly encounter’. They seemed to have reached an understanding that since neither of them had a lover, and both were missing sex, they might, they had agreed, ‘be nice to each other’. Or did they talk about ‘helping each other out’? She couldn’t remember the exact words they had used.
On the way to the flat, her ex-lover talked a lot. She noted that he was more self-contained, and much less interested in her, than she had remembered. In the context of a friendly encounter, of helping each other out, that was not only fine, but it was welcome. It was the right thing to be. Or, he could have been nervous. She was nervous a tad too. More than a tad. But what was there to be nervous about? He wasn’t Monsieur Landru. No, there was no question of danger from this man she had known for years. Could she have been nervous that he might find her boring? And perhaps he did. Perhaps that’s why he talked so much. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t ask for her views on what he talked about; he simply presented his.
What did he talk about? He expanded his views on a philosophical concept, one of those she remembered as being his pet interest. He also referred to several relationships he had had since the two of them had split. One of them, which lasted longer than others, with a woman ‘who although not a writer or an artist’, had said something ‘very perceptive about her and me.’ It struck her that his interjection of the words ‘who although not a writer or an artist’ was meant to imply that the woman was somehow disqualified from or not expected to say anything worth noting. And then he quoted that ‘memorable phrase’ from the woman and asked her, his ex-lover, to whom he was talking now, for her opinion. ‘Yes, it’s an interesting phrase,’ she said and she did mean it but afterwards she could not remember the phrase. Later on, after they had both made references to their affairs with other people, he would say that it was bad manners talking about past relationships to a possible new one (or even not the one so new). She agreed with that but this time it didn’t feel rude as neither of them had any hopes or wishes, let alone desires, for more than ‘a helping hand’ between them and therefore felt no jealousy at all. In fact, she found hearing about his women interesting. Who knew when she could use it in a story? After all, sooner or later, everything comes in handy to a writer.
When they reached the house, he got on with his small job. He had already explained to her what he needed to do: ring the mairie in a small village in the south of France on behalf of a friend of his who did not speak French. That friend had been concerned about a couple who lived in the area, who were both in their mid-eighties and from whom he had not heard for three weeks despite calling them – he could hear the phone ringing at the other end and that increased his concern – and sending them emails. Her ex-lover had already spoken to the mairie earlier in the morning and they had agreed to send someone to check on the couple and now her ex-lover was on the phone and calling back the mairie, as he had been asked to. A woman at the mairie needed to be reminded by the ex-lover that he had already called and what he was calling about. Eventually, the woman said that the man to whom the ex-lover had spoken earlier, was not around as he had already left. But when the ex-lover repeated that he had been asked to ring back in an hour, she asked him to wait. After a minute or two, the phone at the other end was picked up by the man to whom the ex-lover wanted to speak. (She, the ex-lover’s ex-lover, wondered why the man at the mairie could not have come to the phone in the first place and whether the woman who had answered the phone was lying when she originally claimed that the man had already left.) The man told the ex-lover that he had been to see the couple and that they were in and well. There was no problem. He had informed them that an English friend of theirs was trying to get in touch with them and was concerned that something was not right. (That friend, just as the ex-lover, maybe even the man from the mairie, and certainly her, now listening to the telephone conversation between the ex-lover and the man in the mairie, all of them had already visualised the bodies of the old couple, decomposing for weeks in their house.) But why had they not been in touch? ‘Well,’ the man from the mairie said, ‘the couple’s phone and their internet had been out of action for the past three weeks.’
She laughed loudly. Her ex-lover, still on the phone, looked up.
‘Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing,’ she said to her ex-lover.
‘A happy ending,’ he said once he had rung off.
‘Yes, quite a story,’ she said.
After that, her ex-lover rang the friend on whose behalf he had contacted the mairie, that is the friend of the couple, the friend who had been concerned about them, and the friend who did not speak French and therefore could not ring the mairie himself, and the ex-lover told him the good news, and then, the small job could be put ad acta and the two of them, she and the ex-lover, could go to his bedroom and start their ‘friendly encounter’.
But they didn’t. Her ex-lover remained seated and carried on talking about the small job he had just accomplished. He appeared fascinated by the conclusion to his small job. She could see that he was completely preoccupied with the story. He talked about it animatedly. When she looked back on the time after the telephone conversation, she realized that at no point did the thought of retiring to his bedroom cross her mind either. Why was that? After all, she was in that flat with this man who used to be her ex-lover so that he could become her lover, her present lover, her contingent lover. Had she forgotten that? She couldn’t tell. Instead, both she and her ex-lover carried on talking about the elderly couple in France and their worried friend somewhere in England. The happy ending was a relief for the friend and a good thing for the couple but as a closure to their own story, that of her and her ex-lover, it was a let-down.
‘Or could it be,’ she said, ‘that the story provided a substance, content – or should I call it an event? – for our friendly encounter. A few days later,’ she carried on, ‘I began to wonder whether the couple whose phone and internet were not working and who had a friend who did not speak French and who was concerned about their wellbeing, I began to wonder whether any of them existed or whether my ex-lover, of course in silent, but nevertheless, full complicity with me, had enacted the two telephone conversations.’
Vesna Main studied comparative literature before obtaining a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England. She was a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK and has worked at the BBC and as a college teacher. She has written for numerous journals and has had two novels published: A Woman with No Clothes On (Delancey Press 2008) and The Reader the Writer (Mirador, 2015). Most recently, her work has appeared in Persimmon Tree (Dec 2015) and Winamop(Sept 2016).