He started his walk around the perimeter of the ancient city he lived in every evening at precisely 6pm., after 7pm in the heat of summer. He knew his walk would take him 56 minutes from the moment he left his small, tidy stone house until he returned and re-entered his bright blue front door. He knew his walk included stepping up 188 steps and stepping down 157 steps during the circuit.
He did it for reasons of health, vanity and remorse.
To stop his small paunch developing into a big one. And so he could enjoy his nightly pint of beer without guilt. He kept a close eye on his weight and weighed himself while naked twice a day, just before he took his morning shower and just before his evening one. Every day. He knew the exact weight, right down to the half-kilo, when his belly would first appear to push out from under his tee-shirt while he stood in a normal stance. From time to time he grew heavier to reach that weight. By slow increments. When that point was reached, he compensated by eating less. Maybe an apple for lunch and nothing more. And skip his beer for a couple of evenings until he returned to the tee-shirt comfort zone. This would result in great satisfaction, especially when he wore tee-shirts. He did not feel as though he was obsessive, just very observant. And self-disciplined. He also liked to be on top of things. In control. Sometimes that combination did not work well.
“What do you think about while you walk?” she asked. Her eyes were smiling and she was genuinely interested.
“Oh, lots of things”, he replied. “What happened that day, what I did yesterday, what I will do tomorrow…back home…something…nothing. Something I see might remind me of a place or someone in the past. An idea for a short story. Sometimes I think about you. Or me. Often, I look at people and speculate about them. I look at couples and analyse them. See that couple there, holding hands? She is happy in the relationship but he isn’t sure.”
“Oh, come on. How do you know that?”
“Well, she is looking straight ahead and her eyes are smiling slightly, while he is looking down at the ground. Dead giveaway. See that other couple over there? They appear happy but it won’t last.
“Okay, I’ll play along. And how do you work that out?”
“They are both engaging with each other in a playful way but it’s frivolous and superficial. And neither know what to expect from the other, next. There are thoughtful pauses, downtime, before they act up again. They are still feeling each other out and hesitant at being honest. If they carry on like that too long, it will become their paradigm and it will be too late to connect in a meaningful way. Can’t last.”
“You think you can tell all that by just looking at them?”
“Yep. It’s just a matter of close observation and paying attention to small details. And interpreting it all through the prism of experience. And you know what the best experience is?”
“Failure. Everyone knows you learn a lot more from failure than anything else. I’ve learnt a lot over the years.”
“Alright Sigmund Freud, what’s happening with those two?”
“Oh, they seem okay. Of course, you can tell their best is behind them. But they have a comfortable ease about them. Bit bland, not so much happy as contented.”
“You make it sound horrible.”
“No. Not at all. It’s the best a long-term relationship could wish for, really.”
“And you think they can’t be contented and happy?”
“Well, I suppose so. But only for short periods, it’s much more likely to be one or the other. You see, happiness requires intensity and intensity is incompatible with contentedness.”
“You don’t have to be intensely happy in a relationship every minute of every day, you know”.
“I know. You can’t. No one can.”
“So, what’s your solution?”
“That’s just it. There isn’t one.” His face tilted downwards towards the ground.
There was a minute’s silence.
“I suppose it’s over, then.”