At some point back in 2009 I had persuaded a reluctant Renata to open a Facebook account. We had set up the laptop in the kitchen of my Newington apartment, and I had led her through the preliminary stages. She had been gloomy and then slightly interested. She had vetoed every photograph that I had suggested for her profile picture, convinced that each was more unflattering than the last. By the time that we had shut down the computer, however, she had already received one Friend request.
To this day I remember both Renata’s user email and her password. Indeed, the password is my own name: ZbigniewTycienski.
I sign on to her account every morning to inspect the personal messages. It has come to number amongst the day’s chores: I firstly read my emails; I secondly look at the stats on Tychy; immediately afterwards, to cheer myself up, I will seek out some interesting articles on the Daily Mail website or Telegraph blogs; next the Edinburgh Evening News, and finally, before I begin writing, I will glance over Renata’s Facebook activity.
I always make sure to do this while she is at work. I imagine that if we both ever signed on to her account at the same time, it would be frozen by Facebook and there would have to be an investigation. At the cafeteria where Renata presently works, everybody’s phones are collected before they clock in, and so I know that her phone will be shut in the office safe with the till floats by ten.
Renata had made Friends with Leo last year. He is one of those Facebook users who consciously view themselves as being like a company and use Facebook to project an unduly professional and inoffensive public image. Over the years his profile photographs have shown him posing in a smart jumper and blazer in front of a succession of country houses. Nobody had ever captured and posted any images of him in moments of abandon. He appears to have accumulated a number of distant Friends, mostly from university, with whom he exchanges stiff pleasantries. “Great to hear from you Catherine. Glad to see you’re doing so well.” He always sounds delighted by the news that they are still alive, but in a way which signifies that he would be equally delighted to learn that any creature was still alive.
There was little actual trace of Leo on the network aside from this apparition of a middle-aged man. He had evidently taken it into his head to create a Facebook profile, perhaps just to acquaint himself with the technology. The personal messages between Leo and Renata were concerned purely with fixing dates, but in three of Renata’s longer messages, two to her sister and one to a friend, I encountered something of Leo for the first time. He emerged as a figure of almost elephantine gentleness, not necessarily an adventurous or even a remarkable lover, but possessing an instinctive mastery of tact and consideration.
When Leo and Renata had recently met at a bar on George Street, he had presented her with a gift, a piece of jewellery, which was simply perfect. He had sought out and found something which she would love at first sight. The jewellery, he had explained, was massively expensive, but he had procured it from a foreign seller at a huge discount. He conducted Renata through the convoluted story of how he had tracked down the jewellery, and Renata was profoundly moved. She had distinguished a fellow warrior in life’s never-ending battle for bargains, and one with a flair and resourcefulness which seemed thrillingly authentic. Leo draped the jewellery across Renata’s palm and she was reduced to bliss, rather as one with the correct mild voice and magical fingers can transform a disagreeable cat into a little body writhing in ecstasy.
Back at my apartment, where Renata had been living since my wife had gone to university, she would engage me over the dinner table with a brisk, forced cheerfulness whilst I eyed her coldly. We should eat out some evening. We should go to the cinema as well. She sounded like a mother who is trying to rally the spirits of a despondent toddler, and there was a definite note of authority in her attitude to me which had never been there previously. We seemed to be constantly missing each other these days, she continued, with me leaving whenever she arrived. And, sure enough, wasn’t I going away next weekend, to help out at that garden party?
Next weekend. Something was going to happen next weekend.
The following morning, once Renata had clocked in, I accessed her Facebook account and checked her messages. She had received three from Leo the previous evening. The first contained a photograph which I sat and gazed at, spellbound. It was only through a tremendous mental effort that I could get my mind going again. Leo was lying back on white sheets, naked except for a blue bib around his neck and a cloth diaper fixed with an old-fashioned safety-pin across his loins. There was a dummy on a blue ring in his mouth and he was smiling at Renata with an expression of pure happiness. Yes, I know that it is customary to be repulsed by the sight of a middle-aged man in a nappy, and yet Leo somehow looked virtually as innocent as a real baby.
I would have expected Renata to reply with affectionate mockery, but her reaction came altogether out of the blue. “Oh Leo, you make me cry. You are so beautiful.” For the first time in many years, I was startled by the realisation that Renata’s mind was not completely known to me. There was something devious, some fund of private intelligence and emotion, which had been kept back like the world of darkness behind the moon’s face.
In the subsequent messages, Leo was anxious to meet with Renata immediately. She nominated the following afternoon and a pub on the Causewayside.
It was one of those pubs with a seating booth at each window, where the patrons can retreat to sit in natural light. Leo and Renata were so engrossed in each other that I could transfer myself to the next cubicle along without being noticed. They were leaning into each other, pawing endlessly at each other’s arms. Leo was much smaller than Facebook had given me to believe. He was a squat, compact man, who seemed to huddle energetically within his own body like a vole.
I settled myself in the next cubicle with an espresso, tuning in from behind a raised newspaper with a luxurious sense of mischief. Leo and Renata were conferring urgently and I gradually picked up pieces of their story. Leo lived in a cottage at Juniper Green with his elderly mother but she had been bedridden for several weeks. Last week she had finally consented to be moved to a care home. Leo had discovered that he was suddenly intimidated by the newfound silence within his cottage; he could not bear to remain in the property when there was no other breathing thing present. For several days he had lived in a youth hostel… and I gathered that the sum of his feelings about the youth hostel was conveyed with a grimace.
Renata must have changed beyond recognition if she could really fall for such a story.
Leo was pitching the cottage to Renata – it was spacious and clean, with lots of privacy and stunning views over the Pentlands. Renata admitted that she would very much like to move in, but that the difficulty was coordinating the move. This wretched old guy who she lived with, who was abusive to her and did not value her feelings, might react aggressively if Leo turned up with a van to collect her stuff.
I was gloating from behind my newspaper. Could Renata be this transparent?
Luckily, Renata continued, this miserable old devil always went out on the town on a Saturday night, probably to a sauna, knowing him. If Leo screeched up to the door once he had gone, they could bundle everything into the van and screech off again.
My espresso was cold. All of a sudden I wanted to be out in the open air, walking in aimless circuits and enjoying the peace of the late afternoon streets. Yet I was obliged to wait behind my newspaper until Leo and Renata had gone over every detail of their plan again and complimented each other on its thoroughness. After sufficient time had elapsed for whole civilisations to rise and fall on faraway planets, Leo suggested another drink and Renata replied that it might be getting late and then, mercifully, they had disappeared with an abrupt slither of coats. I was left stupefied, still listening keenly to the rolling silence.
I lowered my newspaper and put it aside with distaste. I swallowed the cold espresso and savoured its grainy buzz.
I was up early on Saturday morning to catch a train to the west coast. The garden party was contained within the grounds of a castle and from the moment that I had arrived and collected my uniform, I was rattled away like a twig slipped into the current of a racing river. The work was light and often mindless, but it was unrelenting. Resurfacing on Sunday afternoon, when I found myself alone with my thoughts for the first time, I reflected that Renata must have left my apartment by now. I wondered how spectacular the pillaging would be – would she carry off the coffee-maker, the toaster, and half of the furniture? Would she leave any money for bills? I imagined getting home and stepping with amazement into a completely unfurnished, uncarpeted shell. Yet when evening came the apartment looked its normal self. Only when I ventured into Renata’s bedroom did I encounter the sense of a place that had been stripped bare and shed from somebody’s life.
Renata had left a post-it note on the fridge, explaining that she had gone away for a while and that she wished to be left in privacy.
Her Facebook account remains unchanged. I signed in and scrutinised it daily for several weeks but no messages of any significance were ever sent or received. One night Leo uploaded a photograph of Renata sitting at the bedside of a frail silver-haired lady. Both were playing Hungry Hippos and the lady was leaning rather too enthusiastically out of bed, with a greedy look on her face and her elbows aflap. Renata was regarding her with amused consternation. Leo had added the caption, “On the mend and making a full recovery.”
I cursed them all. From the bottom of my heart. For their infernal impudence.