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Blue

"How do you like your tea, weak or strong?" Sam asked Helen, slightly surprised that he didn't already know the answer to this question.

"Weak, please." Helen glanced at him. Her clear blue eyes shone in the bright sunlight. Then she looked back at the Promenade des Anglais.

"Well, you pour as soon as you like, then, " said Sam. "I'll let mine stew a bit."

"All right."

Sam studied Helen's profile for a moment. Her nose, he decided, was a bit too long. But nevertheless she was very pretty. She was in fact undoubtedly the most attractive woman he'd ever been out with. And so it was a shame and a complication that he was starting to dislike her.

He looked out through the open door of the cafe. It was hard to believe it was November. A brilliant sun glittered off the water. A passenger plane wheeled through the sky, very low, droning quietly towards Nice airport. A seagull landed on top of a flagpole and folded its wings. Policemen wearing baseball caps gave directions to tourists on bicycles. It was an attractive scene, but Sam was already bored with it. He thought of the book in his jacket pocket. It was A. J. Ayer's "The Central Questions of Philosophy", which he'd found in a book shop on the Rue de France the day before for only ten francs. He felt like reading the book now, but he knew that Helen would be offended. She'd already been offended the night before, when she'd come out of the bathroom dressed in a tee-shirt and knickers to find him reading in bed. He'd continued to read as she moved around the room, hanging up clothes and looking at the things she'd bought during the day. Eventually she'd said, "You must find me really boring, if you prefer that book."

Sam had put the book down. "Sorry," he said. "I was just skimming through the first chapter while you were in the shower, and I got bogged down in Zeno's paradoxes."

"What?"

He told her about Achilles and the tortoise having a race. If Achilles gave the tortoise a head start he'd never be able to catch it, because no matter how close he got, the tortoise would always be able to move a tiny bit further in the time it took Achilles to close the intervening distance.

"But that's just stupid," said Helen. "He'd just overtake it. He wouldn't stop."

"Well, yes, of course, we know that something going fast can overtake something going slowly. Or we think we know, because we can observe it and it seems intuitively correct. Zeno was just pointing out that it's illogical, if you try to think about it mathematically. If you can go on dividing time and distance indefinitely, then in theory nothing could ever move at all, because no matter what point you move to when you start off you can imagine another point which is even closer."

Helen was frowning. "Well, it can't be true, so it's just playing with words."

"Maybe so, but then words are what we think with, so it's interesting to analyse them and see what assumptions we make."

"I don't see the point in talking about things that aren't real."

"What's real, though? If words aren't real, what is?"

Helen shrugged. "I don't know. This bed, for example."

"You mean physical objects, then. But concepts exist just as much as physical objects exist. In some ways they're more real, because we create them ourselves, or at least we seem to be able to hold them in our minds, while we can only know about the physical world through our senses. And we know that our senses are sometimes wrong, like when we get drunk or smoke dope or something."

Helen got into bed but didn't reply. Sam threw Alfred Ayer to the floor and gave Helen's physical presence his undivided attention for several minutes. When he eventually moved on top of her he made a joke. "Perhaps we can disprove Zeno's paradox now," he said.

"Hm?"

"I can move half the distance from one point to another..."

"Mm..."

"Then half the remaining distance... then half again... and half again... and... oops. How about that? I can't go any further."

Sam thought that this was quite funny, but Helen just looked at him and said, "Sometimes you're strange."

*

"I forgot to pour mine out," said Helen.

"Shall I ask for more hot water?" said Sam, looking around for a waiter.

"No, this'll be okay. I'll put more milk in. Is this strong enough for you?"

"Yes, that's fine."

Sam watched her pouring, and wondered about her silences. He wondered if she was more talkative with other people; with her friends. But then wasn't he a friend?

"What do you think of Nice, then?" he asked. "Now you've seen it, a bit?"

"It's nice."

Sam lowered his head and looked at her from under his eyebrows. "I don't think you can say that."

"Say what?"

"Say that Nice is nice. It sounds funny in English. How nice Nice is."

"How would you say it in French, then?" Helen said with an undertone of irritation.

Sam shrugged. He hadn't meant to insult her; or perhaps he had. "I'm not sure the French can be quite so uncommitted when they want to praise something. Do you mean it's pretty?"

"I suppose."

"Then you'd say Nice est jolie."

"Nice est jolie."

"Yes. And I suppose it is. But there are hundreds of other places in France that would knock spots off it."

"But we're in Nice now," Helen said quietly. "Don't you like it?"

Sam looked around. The pillars and most of the walls in the Cafe Promenade were faced with mirrors. It was difficult to tell how big the place was, or what was real and what was a reflection. He saw himself sipping tea. He saw Helen's profile nearby and the back of her head some distance away. He listened to the background Europop for a moment and noticed that one of the waiters was singing along. He wanted to say that Nice struck him, in November, as being a well-kept compound for rich invalids. He'd never seen such a density of chemist's shops in a town centre. Nice was artificial, contrived, clean, controlled, and dull. But Helen had wanted to come here; and he'd agreed. So he said, "It's all right. The weather's certainly good. Better than sitting around in England watching the rain and waiting for your house to flood."

There was a silence. They both looked out through the open door at the Promenade des Anglais. A flatbed truck had arrived and workmen were unloading traffic barriers. Policemen in baseball hats waved at cars to slow them down. One workman walked towards the back of the truck as it drove slowly forward. For a moment they were moving at exactly the same speed in opposite directions; the man seemed to be walking but standing still, gliding his feet expertly along the distant horizon of the glittering blue sea.

A plane droned slowly overhead. The gold stars on the blue background of the EU flag fluttered intermittently on a flagpole. Half of the promenaders on the sea front seemed to be wearing rollerblades. It was a calm, idyllic scene, but Sam was bored with it. He became aware of the weight of the book in his jacket pocket. It was a 1948 edition of "My Life and Loves" by Frank Harris, published in Paris, presumably because it had been considered obscene in England. Sam had found it in a bargain bin on the Rue de France for only ten francs. He'd started reading it in bed the night before while Helen was having a shower, and went on reading when she came out in a tee-shirt and knickers and moved around the bedroom, tidying up.

"God, you must think I'm really boring if you find that old book more interesting than me," she'd said after a while.

"No, sorry, I just picked it up to look at it then I got involved." He turned back a few pages. "Listen to this. 'If a novelist were to develop his characters evenly the three hundred pages novel might extend to five hundred. The additional two hundred pages would offer pictures of the sex side of the characters and would compel them to become alive.' What do you think of that?"

"What do you mean, what do I think of it?"

"Do you think it's true, that most people spend two fifths of their time thinking about sex?"

"No. Well I don't, anyway. Do you?"

Sam considered. "I think about it quite a lot," he said. "More than I admit even to myself, really. I mean, take today for example, I kept looking at you, and I kept thinking how amazing it was that when we're alone I can see you naked and touch you. When we're in public places that just seems fantastic to me."

Sam was surprised to see Helen blush.

"I'm sure you can't mean you think about having sex with me two-fifths of the time," she said.

"Well I do. I do at the moment, anyway. Perhaps I won't when we've been together for twenty years. Or two years. Or even two months."

Helen picked up a pillow and threw it at him, knocking Frank Harris to the floor. Sam threw a pillow back at her. Three minutes later he had her knickers off, but not her tee-shirt. He stopped as he was about to penetrate her.

"We should talk more about sex," he said. "You should tell me what you like. I just have to guess, otherwise."

"Okay," Helen agreed. "And you tell me."

*

"Do you prefer Orange Pekoe or English Breakfast?" Sam said, inspecting the basket of teabags that the waiter had left with them. "I don't mind between those two, but I'm not having the Earl Grey. I hate that stuff, what is it, bergamot or something. It tastes like mothballs."

"They should've brought us two smaller pots," said Helen. "Then we each could've chosen."

"That's true. But we've got one big pot, so we'll have to agree somehow. That's the way it is, being in a couple. You have to compromise, so you can share."

"Well, I've already compromised by not being on the beach sunbathing at this very moment."

"You can't sunbathe in November, no matter how hot it is. It's just not British."

Helen laughed, and Sam gazed into her deep blue eyes for an appreciative moment. He realised that he'd seen that same blue, a few hours earlier, in the Matisse museum. Blue nude blue.

They both looked out through the open door of the cafe at the Promenade des Anglais. Children on tricycles drove in circles around old ladies with sticks. Small dogs greeted each other, bouncing on the ends of their leads while their owners watched indulgently. Small scuds of white cloud punctuated the mild blue of the sky over a glittering sea. A passenger airplane droned slowly across the Baie des Anges, sneaking up on the airport. Sam felt slightly sleepy. He remembered the book he'd started reading back in the hotel room, a battered copy of "The Nature of Existence" by J. E. McTaggart that he'd found in a used book bin in the Rue de France for only ten francs. Helen had jumped on to the bed next to him after her shower and had looked over his shoulder while she dried her hair.

"What on earth are you reading?" she'd asked after a while.

"It's a book by a philosopher called McTaggart. I'd heard about him but I've never actually read anything he wrote. He's famous for proving that time doesn't exist."

"Oh yes. How does he do that?"

"Well, he says that an event can be described as past, present or future, depending on our viewpoint. For example, having sex with you tonight is a future event for me now..."

"If you're lucky."

"If I'm lucky. But it's a present event while it's happening..."

"If it lasts long enough for us to notice."

"...and a past event when it's over."

"All too soon, in my experience. And how does that prove that time doesn't exist, professor?"

"Because in reality we can only place this event in time in terms of its relationship to other events. For example, I first have to take this hairdryer away from you and switch it off."

"But my hair's still wet."

"Then I have to take your tee-shirt off."

"Well you don't actually have to but I suppose it's more fun if you do."

"And then I have to take your knickers off."

"Definitely more fun."

"But this is where the philosophical problem comes in, you see. While each of the events in this series is first future, then present, then past, its relationship with the other events in the sequence doesn't change. So, the order of events is absolutely fixed..."

"Only because you're a creature of habit and no imagination."

"And if the order is fixed, the sequence in itself can tell us nothing about the passage of time. Time could be frozen and the sequence would be the same. So we can dismiss the sequence as irrelevant. So we're only left with the qualities of an event being past, present and future. But as we said, these qualities depend entirely on the point of view of the observer, and what's more they're mutually exclusive. An event can't intrinsically contain the quality of being future at one moment and then past the next. So in the end we have to admit that the quality of time has nothing to do with the event. Time is purely subjective, and this of course could be an illusion. We can't find any evidence at all to confirm our impression that time passes."

"Sam?"

"Yes?"

"Has anyone ever told you that you talk too much? And that if you weren't talking you could use your mouth to do other things?"

"Mm?"

"That's better."

*

"Shall we get another pot? This one was a bit miserly."

"They'll make us pay double."

"That's okay, we're on holiday."

They waved to the waiter, who came over to them singing along with the background Europop. Sam ordered another pot of tea and then looked at Helen, who glanced back at him with her extraordinary violet eyes, a colour that was very close to Yves Klein international blue, Sam thought. She'd caught the sun a little on her nose and her cheekbones and she looked healthy, rested, and very pretty. She was in fact so beautiful, Sam thought, that he would never be able to leave her.

They both looked out of the open door of the cafe across to the Promenade des Anglais. A passenger plane rumbled through the deep blue of the warm November sky and a late afternoon sun glittered off the silent sea.