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Fascinations

 

1

Over the years I would hear from a friend about an acquaintance of his who happened to be from the same small Scottish island as my own family. He thought that one day we should meet; he found it amusing that two of his friends were from this tiny locale and yet didn’t know each other, and thought perhaps we should. Yet the friend never did get Magnus and me to meet, a man who was three years older than I was, and who remained, until the day of his death, fit, active and healthy, regularly running around the hills near the house he had bought and semi-built.

My friend, Andy, lived in Pitlochry, and had been working as a self-employed electrician for the last two decades. This was how he met Magnus. Magnus knew the manager of a hotel Andy would often work for, and had asked if he knew of anybody, honest, reliable and good company to have around the house for a few days: he wanted someone to help him wire-up the home he had recently finished rebuilding. The manager without hesitation recommended Andy; that Andy really was a bright spark. Andy and Magnus would laugh about this, knowing that while the manager was a nice man he was someone you wouldn’t want around your house for a few days. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t have a sense of humour; rather that he had no sense of language, and would frequently offer statements unaware of the staleness of the wording and incontinence of the punning. The idea of Andy as a bright spark was accidental word-play. One of the reasons Andy thought Magnus and I should meet was that we both liked to play with words, perhaps even, he added, people’s feelings.

Andy saw us both as womanizers, if of rather different kinds. Magnus had probably slept with hundreds of women; some of them one night stands, others casual flings, still others paid for, as well as a few regular girlfriends to whom he felt under no obligation to be faithful. I suppose I was more of an emotional chronophage: with, in recent years, a series of relationships that ended probably more out of frustration than indifference, with each girlfriend giving up when it looked like I wouldn’t change very many aspects of my life and didn’t look inclined to get a job that would bring in the bacon. As a vegetarian I wasn’t given to pig rashers I would say, irritated at the lazy use of language, while this particular ex was a lot more irritated by what she saw as my lazy lifestyle. I was always hurt at their leaving, if eventually relieved by their departure, and Andy would say to me that he didn’t know if I had managed a lucky escape or the luck had once again escaped me. That here was someone important to me whom I had let go.

That was after all how he had felt for many years. He had been engaged at twenty-three, ready to marry the young woman with whom he had lived throughout university when he decided that no he wouldn’t get married; no he wouldn’t try and find work as a chemical engineer. Instead, he broke off the engagement and retrained as an electrician. It was crisis in his life he supposed; an attempt to find out who he was and what he wanted. He never regretted the latter choice, but after about two years started to regret the former one. By the time he realized how much he loved Fiona she was already engaged to someone else; he could not go and tell her that he had made the wrong decision and that now he thought she was doing so as well. He had liked since, he would sometimes say to me, but never loved, and I knew that he had never again been with someone except in the most casual of assignations.

I would see Andy around every two months: sometimes I visited Pitlochry where my brother and his family lived; sometimes he would be in Glasgow working for the chain that owned the Pitlochry hotel I have already mentioned. His capacity for observation and his ability to coax out of people aspects of their life meant it was a rare meeting where he didn’t have a new story to tell about someone he knew or someone he met. He would never offer the information as gossip; he would never tease me with details saying that I would never guess what he had recently heard about Magnus or anybody else. No, it would be closer to a question, an attempt to explore an aspect of someone’s life as if subjunctively exploring his own. I have noticed that many people who offer idle talk do so emphasising the gap between themselves and the person they are talking about. I notice it sometimes on television, overhearing people on the underground, or with colleagues at work. It can give the person a feeling of empowerment as they have information on another, and it can allow them to protect themselves by keeping quiet about their own lives. I’ve often believed gossip is a place of odd and miserable solitude: that two people talk about a third party instead of exploring an aspect of their own thoughts and feelings. Yet Andy could speak of others while alluding to his own life and would be happy whenever I would ask if he thought a story he was telling related to his own existence. Magnus seemed to hold a special fascination for him and perhaps now holds a special fascination for me.

2

Magnus would have been forty when Andy first met him: medium height with a few flecks of grey in his black hair, compact without being stocky, skin easily and lightly tanned, eyes that were a bright and humorous blue, and a mobility of movement that made it instantly clear that he looked after his body through exercise and cared for it no less as he moved through space smoothly. He was aware of looking after it and aware also of people looking at it, yet this did not indicate a vain man; more a subtly self-conscious one. I offer the above not as Andy offered it in one description, but based on various remarks he made over a number of years about Magnus’s appearance, and I offer the same concerning the house. It was about nine miles from Pitlochry and was an isolated and dilapidated farmhouse when Magnus first bought it. He kept the stone built basic structure but the inside was almost completely rebuilt except for the old fireplaces, which were retained. The ground floor was one large kitchen and dining area, which seated a dozen, and at each end, there was an ensuite bedroom, and in the middle of the downstairs area a winding staircase to the top floor which had three further bedrooms and a bathroom. There was also a large garage he had built for up to four cars, and a small one-bedroom wooden chalet he bought and had put together himself with a friend. He would with the help of a gardener cultivate the land around the house, growing some of his own herbs and vegetables over time.

Magnus worked offshore around fifty percent of the year, would spend about another fifteen percent of it travelling, and the rest of the time he would stay at the house. At least ten percent of this time was devoted to entertaining guests, and that left twenty-five percent to himself and any girlfriend he was then seeing. Andy thought about this a lot after Magnus’s death, believing that though Magnus would talk a great deal about solitude, that this was one of the reasons why he had chosen the location, he was rarely alone. Most weekends even when he was single he would bring friends together, friends who would often drive up from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Indeed he was perhaps especially sociable when he wasn’t in a relationship, with the break-ups never apparently an excuse for self-reflection but instead for more what he would call action. Occasionally Andy would be over on a Friday afternoon getting a quiet cup of tea, when people would start arriving. Usually, it would be a couple of carloads of male friends, but sometimes Andy had gone across to the house on Saturday, there would also be at least a couple of women. He never asked Magnus about this, but what he surmised was that they would get drunk in the house and then get a mini-bus to Perth, even up to Aviemore, and persuade women to come back and party with them. On occasion, he wondered if they were prostitutes who would be called at ten or eleven o’clock at night like a takeaway, four of five girls jumping into a car in Glasgow or Edinburgh and servicing these horny Highlanders. It was an image he couldn’t quite envisage, and for some reason, he never asked Magnus where the women would come from as he realised he rarely asked Magnus questions. The conversation mainly consisted of Magnus talking and Andy listening, yet Andy rarely felt that he was being talked at, and I would sometimes ask him why, if the conversation appeared so one-sided.

It wasn’t so much that; more that Magnus always had anecdotes to tell and stories that Andy was keen to listen to. It wasn’t as if Andy didn’t ask questions at all; it was more the questions he would ask seemed to take place inside the anecdotes Magnus would offer; as if prompted by Magnus. He recalled one tale: Magnus had taken a ten-day holiday in Mexico after a month offshore and wasn’t in the mood to go back to Scotland. He hired a car in Mexico City and travelled down to the Oaxaca coast, staying in the hippy enclave of Mazunte. He found a cabin at a price he could easily afford, and women who were relaxed about spending time in his company when he was more than happy to do the spending. One woman was twenty-one, said she was looking for experience, and that he looked like he had quite a lot of it. He wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted, but when she moved her hand up his leg, drunk on the tequila and beer he had been buying for the last three hours, he took it to be neither insult or flattery: it was an encounter, the sort of experience of which he had had many, and which added to his sense of being experienced. Andy asked him how important these experiences happened to be for him, and Magnus said he wasn’t sure if they were important at all; that might have been the point. During that trip, he slept with three women and wondered if they would have done so had he not shown he was far from poor and if he hadn’t bought all the drinks. That is the thing with many experiences, he believed, they don’t really belong to us, we somehow belong to them. He shrugged and continued telling Andy about these encounters but as if all the time trying to find in the story a point that would be meaningful to another, aware that it wasn’t meaningful to him. Yet Andy said that Magnus had told others of this trip to Mazunte, and no doubt about other similar experiences too, and maybe in telling them didn’t feel in regaling them to others that he had to find within them anything more than what he was telling. Yet Andy thought he wanted from him a different kind of conversation – as if in Andy’s lack of ‘experience’ he could explore what a proper encounter might be.

As Andy would tell me about Magnus I thought that I had very different kinds of experiences even if in Andy’s eyes we were both emotionally uncommitted. I had the feeling that Magnus had never been committed to anything; that the work he did was not of great importance to him except for the purposes of money and status: he seemed obviously good at what he did and was well remunerated for it. I, on the other hand, had neither status nor money. I belonged to a group of poets that allowed us a certain confidence as we all fell under the same rubric yet published our poetry collections ourselves. Anybody who became at all well-known left the group and found a publisher, and also a teaching job that allowed them to escape from their poverty. The rest of us remained; for many, we would have seemed failures, but I never saw myself this way; perhaps because I had always sought the opposite of success. I worked up to twenty hours a week as a note taker at the university, taking down pertinent points made by the tutors for students who had various learning difficulties. I enjoyed the work, believing it was one of the few jobs around that seemed to possess more purpose than status, and needn’t cause me the type of anxiety I would sometimes see on the lecturers’ faces as they tried to hammer home points while hitting the nail on the head rather than hammering their thumb, trying to cover all the salient arguments and at the same time making lucid forays of their own. The students were often anxious too, determined to pick up what they needed for the essay, hoping that they could pass the exams and get the degree they required for the competitive job market they knew they were to enter. Aside from the occasional lecturer who would teach with a passion for the subject over the anxious needs of the students, I always felt the calmest person in the room. I had a one-bedroom council flat in Leith, and I could live comfortably on my pay as long as I didn’t eat out too often, drink too much, or waste money on takeaway coffees. It was a good job I would sometimes think, recalling the arduous milk round I would do on the island when I was going into my teens.

As he would talk to me about Magnus over the years, I sensed that Magnus was a success as long as he was viewed from one angle, and could find the necessary emotional support from another. What did I mean by this Andy asked me one day, about two years before Magnus’s death. I said he was well-paid, had bought his dream house and always had money to spend, that he had numerous lovers and a number of girlfriends who appeared to love him even when he didn’t love them, or perhaps even love himself, and with whom he would end relationships in a manner that protected his feelings even if he damaged their sense of trust. I insisted I was offering these comments diagnostically rather than judgementally, to try and understand an aspect of his personality quite distinct from Andy’s, or my own. Some people have never had their heart broken, Andy supposed, or maybe, I added, had it broken so young, that they never understand the pain or how best to recover from it. There was a comment Andy had once made about Magnus that I had dwelt upon sometimes, including a major loss when he was very young. What did that pocket of muscle memory and emotional misery think?

3

I suppose I had thought on more than a few occasions about this detail Andy had offered because it reminded me of a girlfriend from a decade earlier who was sexually confident, emotionally assertive and on her way to becoming a successful academic. We were together for nine months, and she left with the insouciance of one who had many more encounters to look forward to, but who contained within her a vulnerability that she underestimated in at least two ways. Firstly, she couldn’t see that one reason why men fell in love with her resided in this fragility; secondly she failed to see until years later that this fragile aspect might eventually overtake her. When I was going out with Melanie she was surrounded by love and attention: people often told her she looked beautiful, her tutors didn’t just award her top grades, they also suggested she give talks at conferences even though she was an undergraduate, and got her funding to help finance the trips. She had numerous friends and several admirers, and during the nine months we were together she never quite had time for me. We would sleep together twice or thrice a week, would sometimes eat together and see a film, but the moments always seemed snatched from some other priority that had briefly been left in abeyance. I broke up with her in exasperation: she failed to arrive at the student flat I was sharing with a couple of others one evening and I felt a humiliation all the more pronounced because the others could see I was waiting. On previous occasions I had managed to hide her unreliability, even insensitivity, but this time my flatmates could see on my face such a sense of dismay, and offered in return such a look of pity, that I phoned her flat and left an answering machine message saying that was it – I was declaring it over. It felt as if I were doing it less to tell her that I was breaking up, than to convince my flatmates that I had the dignity to do so. Their look of pity evaporated and became the countenance of admiration. Some might see this as a shallow reason to end a relationship and, of course, it wasn’t only because of this need to see in their eyes a look other than commiseration that made me do it. But this gesture that led to that look in their faces contained within it the need to see myself as others could see me and not only see myself through Melanie’s eyes.

One reason I suppose why Melanie never seemed to possess strong feelings for me was that she had numerous people to whom she subdivided her need for affection, and yet as I got to know her, to understand her family history, I believed there was little underpinning this undeniably much loved young woman. Most of this love, however, was in the present and conditional, based on her intelligence and her beauty, her capacity to think quickly on her feet while sweeping others off theirs. As she told me of parental indifference as she grew up a single child in a household that often saw her parents working long hours and left her luxuriously fending for herself with a full-fridge and nannies that would come and go, so she admitted that she coped by taking from people what she needed for her ego but probably not quite what she needed for her well-being. This was one evening when we were getting tenderly drunk in a bar after a film that seemed to bring out a buried feeling in her, a burgeoning one in me, and a meal at a restaurant where the distribution of light appeared to contribute to the revelations we began to offer. Yet that was the only time she talked about her upbringing, and I would frequently yearn for that evening as if it itself happened to be the relationship – that all the other moments were no more than emotional tapas even if as far as I knew, and had no reason to suspect, that Melanie wasn’t snacking elsewhere.

I met her again about seven years later. She had finished her PhD and managed to secure a position at a university in the south of England. She had already published two books and numerous articles and, as we drank in the same bar (my suggestion) where we had talked so openly before, so she said she had never felt so anxious about everything, no matter how lucky she was to have got the post, how successful everyone would tell her she was with books published before she was thirty. As before, people around us would look at her: who wouldn’t notice skin that absorbed no light, eyes that attracted it as they flicked from side to side, and a smile that suggested she could seduce the reluctant. Yet before she had appeared oblivious to the admiring glances because she seemed engrossed in the evening; that night she appeared engrossed worryingly in herself. She felt no amount of success could turn her into someone she would like, with whom she could be happy. Before it was possible: she thought success would give it to her, but there she was having made it and the anxieties grew and grew. I hugged her for a long time that evening before we parted, and she clung to me as she had never done before: a need that suggested if we had gone home together she might never have wished to leave my flat at all; where I would remember the times when we would part as though the farewell was a necessary gesture before freedom. She had told me that night she wasn’t seeing anyone, and when I’d heard a year later that she was married I wasn’t surprised but would have been surprised if she was happy.

4

For some reason, the way Andy described Magnus reminded me of how I would perceive Melanie. As long as they could keep the energy centrifugal they would remain happy and purposeful, feel that their lives were replete with opportunities, friendships, love affairs. Yet if that energy became at all centripetal they would collapse in on themselves, as if all the love they received from others, all the success they perceived in their lives, was a voracious attempt at refusing to acknowledge a feeling of well-being absent from their early years. Perhaps this sounds too psychoanalytic, but I’d prefer to see it as half-inevitable: that the events which shape our personalities are often inclined to be those that we experience in a state of confusion and semi-awareness, experiences that become part of our mind without our consciousness realising how embedded such events happen to be. If it is acknowledged that we have the capacity to learn so quickly and well at an early age while later various acts of resistance hinder our learning capacity, then whether it happens to be learning to ride a bike, to read and write, to walk and swim, or learning to adjust to lack of affection or the reception of abuse, we cannot pretend that these experiences don’t become part of the automatic nature of our being. Imagine if we had to unlearn riding a bike or how to read; this can give us some idea of the difficulties involved in changing attitudes and perceptions learnt very young.

As I offered this argument to Andy, he admitted he was amused: I was neither an analyst nor had I yet met this fragile friend, and there I was offering a hint of a diagnosis and it nevertheless seemed a perceptive enough one that allowed him to see in Magnus a vulnerability he might not otherwise have noticed.

It would have been a few months after this that Magnus started seeing a Ukrainian woman and before Andy had met her he thought that this relationship was different from any of Magnus’s previous affairs. Magnus had described her as in her early thirties, living in Paris and with a job in a large bank that had dealings with the oil company Magnus worked in. They met at a reception in London, he was instantly attracted, she more slowly responded, but within two months she had left her boyfriend and started seeing Magnus. Magnus had described his ability to ease her out of the arms of her boyfriend and into his as a victory, Andy reported, but over the next year he would notice on the three occasions that he saw him that he was tense, less given to humour and more inclined to sigh as they talked, He had never heard Magnus sigh before; usually at the end of a remark his eyes would glint and his face open into a smile that would say he was living in the best of all possible worlds. Not during that year. On that third occasion he saw Magnus he asked him whether he was still seeing the woman he had met in London, and he ruefully said seeing might not be the word. On their two previous encounters, they had talked about other things, about Magnus’s increased interest in a couple of Ancient philosophers who seemed to achieve a solitary well-being. Magnus had always been interested in ideas, Andy would say, which was partly what made him good company, but before he could discuss them lightly – as if they were interesting available insights into the world. During that year they seemed pressing notions about how one should live.

Magnus on this third occasion mentioned some of these ideas again, but as Andy asked him personal questions too, so he discussed his affair with Katerina, saying that they had broken up twice as she vacillated between feelings for him and feelings for her ex. He felt now that the joy of wooing her away from another man had become the pain of loss that manifested itself as a certain type of guilt. He loved her but without pleasure, only need, and Andy saw in Magnus someone whose life was flashing before him as a parade of pleasurable moments that now contained within them the regret of frivolously treating others. As he talked he didn’t only mention Katerina, but a couple of other girlfriends Andy had met and who was as fond of Magnus as he was cool towards their feelings. He was probably exaggerating his guilt to better understand his present emotions, but Andy worried that Magnus’s early life had entangled itself with his numerous encounters and found a wound through Katerina that had exposed previously benign nerve tissue.

It would have been a couple of months into the next year, sometime in February, that he got a call from Magnus. The heating had gone off in the house; would Andy have time to come along and look at it. It was a Saturday morning, and the roads were icy and the gritters had only sanded the A9, not the smaller roads that led to Magnus’s abode. Andy drove slowly, wary of the black ice beneath the tyres, and on a couple of occasions almost lost control of the car despite driving no more than thirty miles an hour. Would he have been willing to travel for anyone other than Magnus, to risk his life to protect someone from the cold? He knew Magnus had a couple of open fires, plenty logs behind the house, and a gas bottle for the cooker in the outhouse too. Andy was doing it because he wanted to see Magnus, now looking back he was glad he went because it was the only time he saw Katerina.

Magnus came out as Andy pulled his jeep into the driveway, wearing a hat and gloves he had clearly been wearing in the house as well, and thanked Andy for coming out on a Saturday morning. He offered it with a formality unfamiliar from any previous conversation, and Andy wondered why, until he entered the house and looking to the right over by the fireplace he saw a woman seated on the mat in front of the fire. Magnus said he had just gone out before Andy had arrived and taken in some more wood, and Andy sensed instantly that this was a woman for whom Magnus was willing to do everything. It seemed clear that she hadn’t left the fireplace all morning, that Magnus had been busy finding the wood, making up some muesli and boiling hot water on a camper stove for tea. Of course Andy hadn’t seen any of these actions, but it is as though certain events retain their aftermath as Andy said that was one of the reasons he supposed he liked detective fiction, especially old-fashioned ones that started on a murder, as the story had very little action going on in the present but would be a series of deductions. He fixed the heating within half an hour and Magnus said that now it was done he was going to make up a decent lunch after their inadequate breakfast and he must join them. He couldn’t gauge from Katerina’s reaction whether she would have wished him to stay or to leave, and perhaps Andy agreed to lunch not because he finally decided she wished for the former, but because he wanted to find out whether she was inclined to reveal very much about her wishes and desires at all. When he announced the heating was working she went and immediately took a shower, coming down the stairs about twenty-five minutes later while Magnus was preparing freshly caught salmon, grilled, with home-made, and home produced, potato salad, and baby leaf lettuce he admitted unavoidably buying from the supermarket. As she came into the kitchen area Andy saw a woman who looked both fragile and resolute, someone who carried herself with complete composure but at the same time offered a couple of nervous gestures suggesting a woman hurt in an indistinct past. Over the next couple of hours he was there, Andy couldn’t work out whether she was aloof out of arrogance or out of fear. This would he believed have had nothing to do with what is commonly called insecurity; more a fracture that never quite healed and where the person would seem to approach situations with gingerish gestures. What he did sense was that every gesture on her part was echoed and accommodated by Magnus. When she said that perhaps Andy would like more tea, Magnus was immediately on his feet and moving towards the kettle; when she looked at the pepper pot he would reach out and hand it to her. Her wish was his command in a manner Andy couldn’t recall seeing before; almost telepathic.

Yet Andy said it would be unfair to call it manipulative: it was as though she was seeing in Magnus’s gestures a weakness that she could do nothing about, and appeared almost sad that he was so unable to assert his personality at all. Once or twice in such moments, she would say to Magnus that she would get something, but as she said it she appeared to realise that, rather than it indicating an act of care on her part, it looked more like another act of authority over him. Andy tried to work out where her power came from, believing that it didn’t rest entirely on her beauty, but in a sorrow within her that probably made those who would develop feelings for her feel they could never make her happy. It was he supposed a ravenous hunger that no amount of loving calories could satisfy; that she would always remain emotionally undernourished yet would create an impossible appetite in others. He didn’t doubt that her beauty drew men to her but he said there was no point describing it to me because that would tell me nothing about Magnus’s desire. He had seen others around the house not much less attractive, and Magnus had shown Andy photos of past girlfriends that were women he could have married if their personalities had lived up to the photograph. He had laughed then and added that his own personality was probably more the problem.

After lunch. Katerina suggested they should all go for a walk. It was dry and frosty, and the light would hold for a couple more hours. Andy looked at Magnus trying to see whether his expression indicated he would rather be alone with Katerina, but he was looking intently at her and looked happy that Andy and Katerina were getting along. Throughout the walk, Andy couldn’t work out whether he himself had become fascinated by her or whether he was intrigued by Magnus’s fascination. He watched as they walked ahead of him at one stage and tried to see in their body language the nature of their love. He recalled doing this once with his mother and his stepfather, seeing in his mother’s movements both a desire for her new partner and what he believed was a dismay that she was no longer with his father. It would have been about a year after his parents had parted, and there he was at eighteen, returning home from his first term at university and the new man ensconced in the home that both he and his father had left. He didn’t feel anger or resentment towards his mother, just bemused at the rapidity of change and that the circumstances often move much faster than the muscle memory as he saw in his mother’s gestures an ambivalent but undeniable affection. He thought he could see it again in Katerina’s too, but there was still love for another that couldn’t be obviated.

5

It would have been around six months later that he saw Magnus again. Magnus had been working away and taken a couple of trips when he wasn’t. They had exchanged a few emails, but it was driving up to the house and seeing Magnus standing waiting for him at the door that he knew a lot had happened during those months. Magnus had lost weight, but also some aspect of self that reminds us that the body is more than the matter it is made of. He made some tea and as he did so Andy looked at his shoulders and thought of the ready-made phrases we have to describe their metaphorical purpose. A young head on old shoulders, rubbing shoulders with someone, a shoulder to cry on, head and shoulders above, carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders and so on. What were Magnus’s shoulders telling him? Andy thought they registered an aspect of Magnus’s sorrow that no words could convey and only an action not that long afterwards could explain. They talked for several hours that afternoon as Magnus told him he hadn’t seen Katerina since her visit to Scotland when Andy had met her. She had told him at the end of that trip that she could not eradicate feelings for her ex and would return to him. She said it with a resignation that Magnus couldn’t quite understand at the time but perhaps managed to do so as he talked to Andy, believing that she returned with very little desire but an immense need. He understood because he supposed now he was feeling the same. He needed Katerina for his nerve tissue, to still those vibrations under his skin and this had nothing to do with hope or desire. He wished he could have these feelings for someone else, wished he had his former enthusiasm to go and do what he would sometime do in the past: book into a hotel, go out with a couple of friends in the city, pick up a woman from a nightclub in Glasgow, and then invite her to stay for a couple of days at the house for fun and fornication. The gap between the alliterative words and the man mouthing them indicated how far away from his former frivolity Magnus happened to be, and Andy sat there in the kitchen, with so much more than a pot of tea between them, as he felt Magnus was listening to him for the first time.

It wasn’t as though Magnus never asked Andy questions, as Andy had previously told me; more that for Andy the personal anecdote was never his chosen form, and Magnus had always so many more experiences to talk about than Andy anyway. Magnus usually had the urge to talk rather than listen, and was a very good talker and yet not at all a bad listener, but this time Magnus was all ears: as if certain stories we tell require more than just a pair. Andy said to him that over the years he had remained single, no flings, no affairs, no relationships: only very occasional and drunken one night stands. Why? He supposed it resided in a love that had never gone away as he told Magnus about Fiona some years earlier. Magnus would have known a little of this, but sometimes we tell a story about our love to someone and the other person shows human interest and registers the requisite social concern, but the story is not for them. And then you tell the same story at another time, and you realise less how incurious they happened to be on the previous occasion but of how often stories don’t need to be told at all; they are just the means by which to keep a conversation going, to shoot that breeze.

As Andy reiterated a few of the main details, he saw that he had offered no more than a preliminary sketch to Magnus before, and thus, as Magnus would keep asking further questions, so he found himself remembering details that were not part of the story as he himself would generally recall it. Andy told Magnus things I already knew: that Andy had just after leaving university a crisis in his life he couldn’t quite name. He believed his life wasn’t quite his own as he found himself getting engaged and applying for engineering jobs that he didn’t really wish to take. It was a degree he took to satisfy his parents, his teachers and what he supposed would be his future material needs, but he felt relief when the first set of applications he sent off were rejected, sat down one evening with Fiona and said that he didn’t want to apply for any more engineering jobs, and also that they should probably part. He wanted to work more casually, thought he wouldn’t have the earning capacity she was looking for, and that if she wanted a house and kids, he probably wasn’t the man she should stay with. She looked initially bemused, and then when she saw how serious he happened to be, how his mind had been made up by no doubt numerous internal conversations which had excluded her, she became furious. She asked him to go (they weren’t sharing a flat) and he was somehow relieved by her anger and convinced himself that she had ended their relationship.

Over the next two years he went back to college and did an HND in electrical engineering, a doddle he admitted after his much more arduous degree, and during it enjoyed the social life too, having a number of sexual liaisons with women who were looking for no further commitment. He would think of Fiona sometimes, but usually with a sense of relief that they had broken up. He would sometimes hear about her through friends, but she never contacted him, and he never contacted her. But not long after he had finished the course and started working, he discovered himself thinking about her a lot and asked friends if they had any news. One told her that as far as he knew she had recently got engaged, and Andy’s response was dismay. He realised his sub-conscious had never split with Fiona; that he had instead seen it as a temporary estrangement. Another friend admitted that she knew Fiona had waited for him to contact her for more than a year, hoping that he would apologise and wish to try again. But she had also heard that he was seeing other women, and knew that it was time for her to start seeing other men. That is when she met Alistair and they were soon engaged. Over the next couple of months, Andy wrote her numerous letters asking for her forgiveness, asking her to come back, but he didn’t send any of them, accepting that to do so would be to intrude on someone else’s engagement: the engagement that had previously been his.

As he talked to Magnus about this he could see in this other man a world of comfort and ease that had only recently collapsed. There they were sitting in a house Magnus had built to specification and for much of his existence had built his life too according to his own needs and demands. He had learnt much later than Andy what it was to lose a great love, but he had also suffered an early loss that perhaps made him build a solitary life and insist in numerous encounters. Andy had no childhood tragedy to protect himself from, and only a sad and ridiculous retreat from a woman who had loved him. Yet he had ever since lived that solitude in sympathy with others, I knew, as he would be one of the most considerate, sensitive and attentive people anyone would care to meet. I am sure that is what Magnus had seen that day as they talked about Andy’s past and Magnus’s present, and I would be surprised if there had been anyone whom Magnus knew during that period to whom he could have talked to so vulnerably. I asked Andy what he revealed that was a surprise to him.

Andy said he had never before thought about the nature of his retreat from affection after he had heard of Fiona’s engagement. Of course, he had affairs after her, but never after he realised that he still loved her, as if it produced in him a tenderness that the break-up itself couldn’t have generated on its own. He could manage nothing more than those one-night stands thereafter. As he related to Magnus numerous moments with Fiona that he had forgotten, the casual affairs he had enjoyed after they parted, and the sense of purposelessness for several years after he had heard of her engagement, then her marriage, and the birth of her first child, so he saw in Magnus’s face that his story he had waited this long to tell had finally found its listener as he had never before offered it in such detail. He knew then that he was right never to have sent any of those letters to Fiona, that he was correct over the years listening to numerous other people speak, while never quite speaking himself. Magnus received his revelations like they were revelations to him too, and there they were speaking about a past pain pertinent to Andy, and a present one he wasn’t sure he could help Magnus work his way out from under. What he did believe, however, was that Magnus had a human encounter less than a week before he died.

6

Over the next few days Andy texted Magnus a couple of times and on both occasions received replies. He needed to be alone, Magnus said, but was very grateful for Andy’s concern and would be in proper contact soon. It would have been a week later that he was in the hotel when the receptionist asked him if he had heard the news about Magnus: that he had been found dead a couple of days before. He had been found by his house cleaner, a woman who also worked part-time at the hotel. Andy was shocked but somehow not surprised, as if he knew in the state Magnus was in, taking one’s own life was better than trying to live it. Yet the receptionist suggested it wasn’t suicide when Andy indicated that Magnus wasn’t in a good state of mind. She said people believed that he had been poisoned. That morning he had gone for a run around the hill behind the house but had been reputedly drinking a great deal the night before. After he got back he had taken some fresh mint from the garden and made some tea, collapsing shortly afterwards. It was surmised that Magnus might have been gardening the previous day, intoxicated, and put down more weed killer than necessary, and some might have found itself on the mint.

This was speculation and whether it was factually possible it sounded emotionally plausible. Andy said he could easily have seen Magnus drinking constantly that last week of his life, and at the same time refusing just to sit in the house, hence the run and probably the gardening. But he also wondered whether he planned his suicide to seem like an accident: that he would have spread some weed killer around and drank mint tea that would have had some trace of the poison. But would it have been enough to kill him? If it was paraquat weed killer only a couple of spoonfuls would be needed to kill you, but there surely couldn’t have been that much on the mint? Yet Andy added that perhaps he didn’t really want or need to know the details; Magnus was dead, and the last time he saw him there was so little life in him compared to a couple of years before.

7

So I never did get to meet Magnus, though a few months later I was in Stornoway visiting my parents and while in a pub on the high street I got into a conversation with the barman, who I worked out was several years older than me and probably about the same age as Magnus would have been. As we talked I asked him if he had ever known someone called Magnus Matheson. He said he was at school with him, but never knew him well. I asked him what he remembered. He said that he was very intelligent and very good at sport – was a Prefect in the sixth year. His mum had died when he was young (a detail Andy had offered too) and he lived in a council house out by Plasterfield with his dad, who would barely go a day without a drink. At that moment I realised I would have met Magnus on a few occasions when I worked on the milk round, as I recalled first a man who would often stumble to the door giving me whatever money he had in his pocket, which usually came to almost twice as much as the milk cost. I would protest saying he was giving me far too much, yet he would insist I keep it all, though in a manner suggesting not that he had been the most generous tipper of the day but that my presence was a nuisance and another word from me was too much to hear. Occasionally though his son would answer, and I remember him saying that he knew his father would tip me well, but I would have to settle for twenty pence this time. The son was polite and seemed to want to give me the time of day that the father wished to deny – as if day itself was a problem for his dad. The characteristics in Magnus Andy described would have been evident even if in that cramped house outside Stornoway that no doubt was kept neat and tidy by this boy of around seventeen who had no mother and a father who appeared to have dealt with that loss rather less well than the son.

The next afternoon I went for a walk from my parents’ place on Goathill Crescent and up along Springfield Road, turning off onto Anderson Road, then took a right along to Springfield. The area around Plasterfield was still made up of fields, making the housing estate seem more out of town than it happened to be. The houses were one-floor abodes but many now had converted lofts. I couldn’t remember which one would have belonged to Magnus and his dad, but the visit was enough for the presence of Magnus to become manifest in his absolute absence. I thought about the next time I would see Andy, that I would tell him I had indeed met Magnus many years before; and, like Andy, would occasionally show up on a doorstep rather less impressive than the one he would arrive at. Yet the gap between the two spaces materially seemed a sliver when it came to the emotions. It occurred to me that there weren’t many people I could tell this story too, yet one would, of course, be Andy as I had the feeling at that moment that it was Magnus’s anecdotal approach to the stories in his life that might have killed him, as if it had taken him too long for a certain space within him to open up and speak from the pain that had been within him for many years. We all have stories to tell, I suppose, but how many do we need to tell as I wonder why I have the need to tell this one.

©Tony McKibbin