‘Maia would have liked this place,’ I say to John. We talk about our wives. He’s married to a college lecturer who is the first person from the community to have received a PhD in microbiology. I ask him what he’s been up to all these years.
He ignores the question and says, ‘I’m so glad, sir, that I’m getting this chance to apologize to you. The hand of God — that you turned up.’
I clear my throat. It’s such a difficult pleasure — talking. Since I arrived here ten days ago, I’ve said little more than ‘good morning’ to the chaps at the hotel desk.
‘When I saw you the other day, I wasn’t sure you remembered. I mean, I don’t know if it still matters to you.’
‘It does,’ says John. ‘It does. I haven’t forgiven myself. I look at my kids and I think — what if they did the same thing to one of their teachers? I’d be ashamed for life.’
‘So you’re still thinking about him?’ I say, smiling.
‘The categorical imperative. Immanuel Kant.’
John takes a sip of his whisky and looks out of the window at the lights on the hill.
‘Act only on that maxim through which you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law,’ I say and raise my glass.
John looks into the depths of his, then lifts it. The clink is drowned in the sudden laughter of the girls from the adjoining table. I glance at them and they are absorbed in each other; they have the same look as the boys in the salon — the sated, happy look of self-love.
I am ready to talk philosophy but John is still in the past.
‘So much happened in those years, as you know. So much bitterness. A lot of people left town but you didn’t deserve to go.’
‘I couldn’t have stayed.’
‘I was drunk and angry. I didn’t plan to frighten you away. I just wanted to make a point.’
‘John,’ I say, sitting up in my chair. ‘You didn’t frighten me away! I was here on a temporary post. We’d have left anyway. Much as we loved it here, both Maia and I knew we were going to leave at the end of those two years.’
‘I thought you felt insulted and decided to . . .’
‘No, no! That’s not what I meant when I asked you if you remembered. I meant the lectures, our conversations, the books you used to read . . . Philosophy, for God’s sake! That’s why I felt let down. Because threatening someone who’s only being fair is not a maxim which you can will to be a universal law. You knew that.’
John looks confused. So it’s just his own pride he’s been worried about all these years, I think bitterly. First the pride in imagining he’d got me to leave, and then the loss of pride in realizing it wasn’t such a great thing to have done.
I take a big gulp of my drink. It’s like I thought when I met John near the university. We have nothing to say to each other.
I try to recall if Plato, who said something about almost everything, had anything to share on the subject of disappointment.