She never knew his name. But she remembered the rest, vividly.
Her obsession with the man who, as she would conclude decades later, had been the most enduring presence of her life, was such that, one night, walking past his office door and suddenly overwhelmed by tenderness and despair, she pressed her lips against the brass name plate. How her colleagues, even-headed and sensible as they all seemed, would despise such a display of neurotic excess.
He was worth the excess, though. Talent – real talent, the gift of nature, rather than a set of skills – always drew her to the point that she readily forgave all other flaws. She had met him on the first day of her first job – at one of those consulting firms in London’s City where people with first-class university degrees do shallow things and either learn to believe that these things have meaning, or eventually get crushed by life’s banality – by the photocopier. A man with receding dark hair, heavy on the hips and stomach, suddenly pushed in.
“Let me go, please, I waited for a long time”.
His face was red with impatience, his shirt tails were hanging out, his shoe laces untied, but he still managed to give out the aura of groomed exclusivity. Perhaps it was the pale blue Hermès tie, or his suit which – although it had a hole – was perfectly cut, but mostly it was his face: intelligent, intense, with traces of deep thought and suffering.
Earlier that morning, her boss had dismissed her in a meeting. He had no time for contrarian views, he said, he knew what he was doing, there was a process to this job, she needed to learn to follow it. This was the first time that someone was not interested in her ideas: at university, people clambered to listen to her speak. And then how can a process be better than ideas: powerful, challenging, provocative ideas, the ones that show a brilliant mind at work? And is there an experience more satisfying than bouncing those ideas off an equally powerful mind?
But then perhaps she was not brilliant after all. She had the natural elegance of expression, a gift for an impeccable turn of the phrase. And then it was her charisma: it was enough for her to enter the room, and everyone paused to listen. She had this effect since she was three or four – her mother showed her some childhood videos – and it amused her when introverted people thought they could become gregarious by reading self-help books: they remained just as awkward, but spoke louder. But she lacked that final leap of the mind that makes one talented, not just clever. At school, at university, she was always at the top, but never the first: some boy – somehow, it was always a boy – would be sharper, quicker, more original, throwing her into furious bouts of jealousy.
Once at school, in the sixth grade, she was the first in her class to solve a maths problem. Her brain somehow completed a small miracle, she found the right path quickly and the numbers elegantly added up. She leaned back in her seat, warmth spread from her head through her body, she almost felt the web of her nervous system: the sensation she only felt again many years later, when the man whose office door she had once kissed pressed her against this same door and said that he had only ever loved her. That was a lie of course, but she felt happy just the same. In the sixth grade, there was also a man. She slipped the answer to the maths problem to a boy in front, partly to show off, partly to help him. He was loud and popular, everyone’s favourite, he wore his dark curly hair long, and she dreamt about being his girlfriend. The boy quickly raised his hand, the teacher’s admiring glance, the problem was college level, it took a talented student to solve it. She watched in disbelief, noise built up in her ears, sense of betrayal, desire for revenge. After class, she hurled insults at the boy, hit him with her school bag. He punched her in the pit of her stomach, full swing, twice, she crouched, gasped for breath. The teacher took the boy’s side, her mother took the teacher’s. How easily people betray: some take longer to get there than others, but most people’s loyalty would evaporate the moment their interests are threatened. And she was no exception.
The man from the office also betrayed her. He was Swiss, he was called Anatole, and this strange name suited well his chaotic personality. Worn down, unfit and looking much older than his 38 years, he had the mind of the power and intensity that no amount of learning could ever emulate. He had no friends, as no one could stand his arrogance and dismissive manner. Although he was never without a woman on his arm, he lived on his own, and so his thoughts, already brilliant, were nourished, magnified by his solitude, his observations were whole and not wasted on shallow conversations. When they first met, Anatole recognised, in her, himself in his youth, saw in her the promise of a badly troubled life ahead. When she first saw him by the photocopier, Anatole repulsed her: she liked young men, handsome men, men with long hair. But then in her new life of mediocrity, he was a fellow soul, he reminded her of those brilliant kids she used to know at university.
She tried to compete with him, but failed. He routinely corrected her calculations of companies’ revenues and profits, the mundane stuff that she was now applying herself to. It annoyed her how effortless he was with numbers, but she could live with it: her real talent was writing, she had a way with words, here she would beat him hands down. Six months into her new job, she suddenly got a dream assignment. Would she be able to write a chairman’s statement for an annual report? The regular speechwriter has taken ill. Her spirit rejoiced, she would get to write again, plunge into the magical world of words, enter the formidable war with their enormity, their sheer number, try to win this war by creating sentences, paragraphs, chapters, potent, expressive, memorable. She wrote the whole night, in delirium, the next morning she edited, she liked the result, it was not quite an essay on Thomas Mann, but in her new circumstances, it would do. She showed the statement to Anatole, triumphant, expecting his praise, but also, somewhere, wanting to see him humbled by her gift. He smiled, he said it was a good first draft. Then he took a pen, applied it to the text, her text, he crossed out entire paragraphs, moved sentences, wrote on the margins. Her paper now looked like a school essay of an F-student annihilated by the teacher’s contemptuous red marks. She thanked him, trying to look indifferent, then went to her desk, read the new text. It was better. He was better. At everything. Where she worked, persevered, improved slowly but steadily, showed formidable determination, he had a light touch, ideas came effortlessly to him, he almost did not have to try. She was clever, he was brilliant; she had ability, he had genius.
Anatole was a fortunate creation, the product of lucky genes. No matter how hard she tried, she would never have his mind: agile, quick, searching. When she did not long for him, she detested him, wished him to fail. After he took apart her writing, the only hope left to her, she wished him to die. He rode a bike around London, she hoped he would crash.
The day Anatole threw her out of the photocopying room, on her first day at work, they went home together. For the next three months, they never spent a night apart. Then he married the office intern, a teenager, on a whim. A month later, late at night, when there were just two of them in the office and she was staring at her screen, still deep in grief and barely able to read the words, he quietly appeared by her desk, grabbed her hand, pushed her against the wall with force. She was delirious. They began an affair. Anatole shipped his young wife off to Zurich to live with his parents and “study German”. From time to time, he went to Zurich to visit her. During those days, she howled on the floor in rage, imagining the two of them in a large bedroom overlooking the lake, Anatole slowly taking his wife’s clothes off, kissing her body, entering her. He denied that they had sex, but she knew this was not true. Once, when he returned from Switzerland looking surprisingly young and in high spirits, she could no longer control herself: she became violent, smashed his phone against the wall. He left. She knew it meant months, possibly years, of no contact. She lined up two bottles of sleeping pills on her bed, looked at the photograph of her grandmother – then decided to take two pills only and fell asleep. She was too afraid of pain. And she still had hope. Two years later, the day finally arrived: Anatole appeared on her doorstep a free man. This chosen creature, this powerful mind was finally hers, his talent was hers to control, mould, manipulate. At that moment, she lost all interest in him.
They stayed together for another two years. She enjoyed seeing their roles reverse: previously detached, ironic, slightly disdainful in his complete confidence in her devotion, he turned into a sullen, insecure, easily offended middle-aged man. It amused her to watch him storm out of restaurants, shout her name in despair, stand at the end of her cul-de-sac in Notting Hill for hours, trying to catch her on her way from work. The behaviour that he used to despise in her, calling it the domain of hysterical old broads, he now displayed in abundance. She had no pity. For a year, she moved to Rio for work, and Anatole flew in from London to see her every weekend. Sometimes she would want sex and be almost affectionate; at others, she would refuse to meet him, and he would go back on a 16-hour flight to London swearing never to see her again. He would come back the next week. She saw other men, younger men, fitter men. Sometimes she told Anatole about them, she could not resist the sadistic delights of seeing how he started to lose concentration, drink heavily at night. Why is she punishing him, he would ask: he left his wife, he is now free, they can get married, he is even willing, at 45, to become a father.
But she was not punishing Anatole, he had long become irrelevant. To settle down with him, have a little family: how small-minded and philistine he had become. No, her revenge was aimed higher, it was on gods and nature, or whoever else it was who deprived her of a brilliant mind, and instead so generously bestowed it on him. But now it was in her power to destroy this mind, bend it to her will. To his Mozart, she was a lowly Salieri, but her Salieri triumphed in the end.
From time to time they would tire of intensity and do ordinary things: watch Fraser on TV, for example, or travel. One weekend in February 2001, they attended a party in Stockholm. So different from London in its symmetry, austere and cheerful at the same time, its vast open spaces, fresh air coming from the lakes, the forests, the Baltic, this city never failed to raise her spirits. If she spoke the language, this is where she would live, she thought when she had first visited Stockholm as a student. She never bothered to learn the language, as she never bothered with so many other things. The party was in a large warehouse on the outskirts of the city. Enjoying the company of cool – the word must have been invented for the Swedes – people, she danced, played the roulette, shouted out some encouragements to the DJ. Anatole, who could now be fairly described as fat, sulked by her side, visibly older than everyone else and out of place.
Suddenly she saw a boy. Her age, perhaps a few years younger. In this pool of genetically blessed material, amid long limbs, luminous skin, high cheek bones, perfectly fitting clothes and hair the shade of blonde that even the best hairdresser could never fake, he stood out: not quite a Northern god, but close, with just enough small flaws to look human. Taller than average, with thick dark blonde hair which fell to his neck, a dimple on his chin and eyes which were blue, or perhaps green, she could not tell, but she saw how they widened and focused every time he turned to talk to someone. He wore black jeans and a black shirt, top button undone, with the simple elegance that Scandinavian men know how to pull off – and which their Italian cousins, in their constant quest to dazzle, stand a lot to learn from. What a strange choice of colour, she thought at first, his skin is so fair, but then the decided that the contrast made him even more striking.
He was popular, one after another people came to greet him, men patted him on the back, shouted something in his ear, girls became animated, laughed loudly, tilted their heads back with affectation. He cruised around the room merrily, his movements were light, graceful, he seemed completely unself-conscious. He did not try to impress, or compete for attention, but he had that rare glow of a man who lives in his own world, a very rich world: this world may well coincide with ours sometimes, and he enjoys those moments, but he is happy without them just the same. She saw him talk to a girl, there was glimmer in his eyes, innuendo in his smile, he stood close to her, leaning forward. To her surprise, she felt a pang of jealousy. This must be his girlfriend, but how can it be, she is so bland. A moment later, she saw him among a group of men, talking in the same way, as if trying to seduce. He does not even realise how sexual his presence is, she decided. He moved to the dance floor and now she was watching him openly, no longer concerned that he would notice: he had great rhythm, his body was pulled together in dance, like an animal before a jump, every bit of him moved to music. Who is he? A writer? A painter? A free spirit?
It’s 1 am, and the music is only getting better, more people arrive, they go straight to the dance floor, form a whirlpool of classy moves, colourful clothes, good breeding, laughter, happiness. She wanted to dance, but Anatole was sulking again, he came in a suit, he was hot, his shirt was undone and his tie pulled his heavy neck. She was afraid he would make a scene, so they sat down. My god, could this ridiculous, permanently irritated creature be the superior, confident, slightly aloof man that she had once admired? How low he fell. He got her a cocktail. They sat in silence, looked ahead of themselves. By now she despised Anatole, but felt comfortable around him: his mind, still brilliant, was able to dissect her every emotion, every trigger. She would be with many other men, but no one would understand her like that again, and for that she was grateful. Suddenly she felt a presence on the other side. Someone must have sat in the spare chair. She turned her head slightly. It was him.
“Come with me”.
There was no arrogance in his tone, no forced cockiness, no embarrassment. He spoke with comfortable ease: approaching her was not a bold move, it was a certainty. He remained standing, not because of Anatole, his head edging forward on the other side of her, his face contrived with astonishment, but because he knew that the matter would not take long. She looked into his face: up-close, his eyes were grey, but not the pale grey of his Baltic neighbours, but a kaleidoscope of little sparkling dots – blue, green, amber, violet – blending into the deep, luminous shade of Pacific waves on a stormy day. His beauty now seemed almost frightening, for a second she struggled not to look away, his eyes were fixed on hers, his body hovered over her seat, he was strong, with the graceful, supple strength of a dancer. He was much younger than she thought: 24, no more. Her decision was easy.
She went with him. She put her drink down. She got up in silence. She never looked at Anatole: not out of embarrassment, but because she forgot he existed. They collected their coats, he said something about the taxi. He was quiet, but his every gesture exuded control: not the forced, exaggerated control of a newly made internet millionaire, but the control of a man who had glided easily through life, had not seen disappointment, had many dreams and satisfied them all: a man every woman hopes to meet, and most never will. The taxi stopped outside Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. For a second, she felt grateful for her office job: meaningless as it was, it allowed her many comforts. She remembered how, the previous year, in the middle of the summer, she also stayed at Grand Hotel, and she was startled in her sleep early in the morning by a deep, hurling sound of a horn. She jumped out of bed, she looked from the window at the marina: a gigantic white ship was gleaming in the sun, the blue and yellow flag flying full mast. The vessel was sailing away and joyously announcing its departure to the world. From her top floor, she looked at the ship, the glittering water, the city, with its classic, monumental architecture, solid stone, cheerful colours, basking in the blinding light of the Scandinavian summer. This is the realm of wonder, she thought.
They did not go inside. Instead, they walked along the marina, breathing in the cold salty air of the northern sea, then turned into the narrow cobbled streets of the old city. No one knew where they were, and at that dark winter hour, Stockholm was theirs. He took her hand, lead her, guided her, and, for the first time in her life, she was happy to follow, unquestioning, surrendering fully, knowing that the world he would take her to was far better than hers. He was a pilot, he flew large planes to New York, Hong Kong, Sydney. He also had an Evektor, he took it out every week, he glided over the forests and lakes of his stunning country, fearless, free, alive. In front of an old church he kissed her, and she felt like she had been in love with him for a very long time: it was a serene kiss, there was nothing cautious, awkward, or forced in the way their lips touched for the first time. Then he held her, she felt the touch of soft cashmere on her face, his coat was also black, she felt his stubble, he probably had not shaved that day. She was consumed, time stopped, memory went blank, houses, lamp posts, boats blurred, merging with the black sky, stretching space indefinitely to make room for the two of them.
That same day, she would fly back to London, go to her office in the City, stare at the computer screen, watch Tom and Sam vie for her attention, hoping to be promoted. Tom and Sam, what dull, unimaginative creatures: they can’t be any more than 25, but had they ever been young, had they ever envisaged their lives to be anything more than a repetition of daily chores? The idea of soon returning to her normal life was unbearable. Whoever dispenses good fortune to us, whether it is gods or nature, would show us, perhaps once in our lifetime, a moment of perfect happiness – only to take it away soon after. Leaning heavily against him, euphoric, she wished she was a simple being, content with what life had offered her, feeling “positive”, as an irritating boss she had once had in New York used to say. But that night she entered the realms of magic, and if gods and nature were fair and kind, this moment would never stop. In fact, she would sell her soul for this moment not to stop, to last forever – until she died and was punished for eternity, that is – but this seemed no worse than life at her desk in the City in the company of Tom and Sam. Debating Goethe’s Faustus at university, she used to condemn him, but now she understood that the hapless doctor had no choice: if the benign forces guiding us could be so cruel, if they could show us a glimpse of perfect life only to throw us back into the day-to-day banality, she would pray to the devil instead.
She never knew his name. And she never saw him again. In the years to come, most people – their faces, their voices, the mundane things they said and did – merged into a distant, indistinguishable noise, but she would never forget him, or that night in Stockholm.
They returned to Grand Hotel.
“You are perfect”, was all he said.
She opened the door of her room. It was five in the morning, her flight for London left at seven: how convenient, she would not have to deal with Anatole, just pack a bag and go to the airport. Anatole was sitting in a chair, fully dressed, shirt buttoned up, solemn, his face pale, almost like a corpse. He did not make a scene, thank god. She quickly packed, they took separate taxis, separate seats on the plane. She never spoke to Anatole again. Sometimes she thought, lazily, that she had hurt him badly, that, sitting in his lavish north London house, he was agonising, interchanging between bouts of rage and the desire to win her back. She did not call him, she hardly thought of him, it never occurred to her to apologise. How naturally cruelty comes to us when we no longer care.
Years later, she saw Anatole on a London street. He was even heavier, his complexion pasty, he had almost no hair, and his face bore deep traces of unsatisfied passions and a life unlived. But the colour of his blue eyes had not faded, they still betrayed a brilliant mind, a spirit deep and impassioned. That same year, she went to Stockholm again. Sitting on the terrace of Grand Hotel on a bright spring day, she looked absent-mindedly at the boats rocking on the marina, regretting, as usual, that she would have to waste her time in this city on a work meeting. On the next table, someone left a copy of Dagens Nyheter. She reached for it, she thought she would look at the pictures. On the front page, she saw a large photo of a young man. His hair falling softly on his neck, a dimple on the chin, large grey eyes, a happy, open smile. He wore a pilot uniform. In the inset, there was a picture of a small one-man plane. It looked split in half, thick fume stretching far out over the field. The young man looked straight at her, his eyes full of life, she heard him whisper: “you are perfect”.
Had he lived, he could have flown his Evektor for many more years, rejoicing at the site of his land from far above – or he could have tired of it. He could have found true love – or, like most, he could have failed. His children could have made him proud – or disappointed. His spirit could have stayed free – or, as odds have it, it would have been tamed by circumstance and necessity. With years, his beautiful face would have faded, become void of expression, grace and lightness would have left his body. But he died carrying his happy world with him, never knowing how tiring and predictable the habit of living could become.
She left the terrace of Grand Hotel, walked ahead of her, in the same old cobbled streets where his hand had guided her many years ago. People looked at her, concerned, she was sobbing, stumbling, swaying from side to side. She saw a church, simple red bricks, white portico: it was here that he had kissed her, it was here that, in 2001, time had stopped, it was here that she was ready to make a pact with the devil. What did he think in those last minutes, this skilled pilot, when he realised all hope was gone? Did he long for a miracle, did he want his charmed life to go on? Or did he perhaps know of the inevitable decline that would come, and soon, the dreariness of days, months and years ahead of him, when little surprises you, and even less delights? Perhaps this decline had already begun? Perhaps, the fearless soul, he did not wish it to continue?
For the rest of her life, she would take refuge in the image of this boy, a figment of beauty, freedom and daring, a memory more splendid than her reality would ever be again. But then maybe, just maybe, this is what she also was for him? A figment of the unknown and the elusive, of his desire to believe that somewhere, there existed a perfect woman, a symbol that nurtured and inspired him in his short life. And maybe, just maybe, gods or nature, or whoever guides us through this life, have a plan for us after all. She looked at the white portico of the gothic church which seemed to welcome her, urge her to repent, urge her to believe – and entered.
Elena Shalneva is a London-based journalist and literary critic. Elena writes a regular column on management and office politics for City AM and literary reviews for Standpoint Magazine. Elena was born in Moscow and grew up in the US. She has a Ph.D. in Germanic philology from Moscow State University.
Read Elena’s previously published short story below:
The Guincho Beach