I remember a philosopher somewhere saying that a compliment can be the most disarming thing; that it doesn’t always lead to a sense of power, but often powerlessness. Perhaps the same can occasionally be said of a gift received, though maybe it isn’t always the gift giver who does the disarming. At least that is what I now think in the wake of receiving a particular gift not so many months ago.
Marion’s gift arrived through a mutual friend who had been down in London for an Arcade Fire concert that she and Marion had gone to together. It was a black velvet jacket similar to the burgundy coloured one Marion had bought herself a few months before, and that when I first saw her wearing it I said I wouldn’t mind one like that myself – but I’d probably buy one in black. So as the friend, Karen, popped over to the flat and handed over the bag, I looked inside it and saw exactly that: a black, velvet jacket. It was a present from Marion, she said. I asked her in and as she stayed for a tea, I enquired about the concert, and how Marion was coping. She said she seemed fine, that she appeared to know her way around the city already, and was really enjoying her course. Karen had met a couple of her new friends – who came along to the concert.
Marion and I had been together for close to three years when not so long ago she moved to London for a job. Maybe I would join her, but first we would see if she could settle into the job and into the city. She was working as a campaign manager for a charity, after working for a couple of years with Shelter here in Edinburgh. I was working as a freelance journalist, so a move to London would have probably been beneficial, and yet I liked Edinburgh, liked the fact that my parents lived nearby in Cramond, and that I could live in a comfortable flat near the town centre with views out onto Arthur’s Seat. Sure, I needed to share our roomy two bed-roomed flat after Marion moved south, but it was a friend who had taken the spare room. Marion was sharing with five others in a not especially large flat in Wood Green. I had gone down with her that first weekend, stayed for a couple of days and then returned north. I hadn’t been down since; though she had visited me four times. The last time she had come up she suggested that we should see each other every other week, with her coming up one weekend a fortnight, and that I should go down once a month. The only problem was my work was sporadic, train fares expensive unless I booked in advance; and though my excuses may have been valid, they were still excuses. If my work was so important to me, she proposed, then why didn’t I move down to London with her where there were obviously far more journalistic opportunities available? All she felt she had been hearing from me over recent weeks were excuses, and I believed there was something in this gesture of the black velvet jacket that required an unequivocal response. Yet when I tried it on, while it fitted around the waist the arms were clearly too short. However, when she phoned me later that evening she asked whether I liked the jacket, and I said that I liked it very much, and when she asked if it fitted me I replied it fitted me perfectly.
It was the first time that I had lied to Marion, and I would usually avoid lying less because of her feelings, I would sometimes think, than because of my own code of honesty, a code that I sometimes thought had less to do with other people and more to do with my perhaps elevated attitude to my own work. As might have been surmised, I don’t make a lot of money from journalism, but where I know people who earn several times the amount I do, they’ve also taken risks I wouldn’t have taken, and also occasionally been caught. One journalist I knew wrote a review of a concert in Glasgow, with the review appearing the following day even though the concert had been cancelled the previous night. Another editor had phoned her and asked her to preview a new TV show and he needed the copy quickly. She couldn’t have gone to the concert and watched the programme, so chose to do the latter but earn money off both assignments. This wasn’t especially unusual; it just so happened she was caught out. Yet when I heard about it I was horrified, and felt her shame maybe more than she did herself. As I wondered about how awful she must feel, when we met up several days later, she took a puff of her cigarette and laughed, saying she had talked to a few other journalists who had on numerous occasions written up reviews to events they hadn’t attended. She said she knew of one critic who sent his son along to early morning film screenings.
Possibly my ‘sincere’ position was easier than most: I wrote exclusively on books, and supplemented my earnings by teaching English as a foreign language. I never really had the frenetic life of the freelancer, and so was unlikely to get into situations where I would be expected to be in two places at once. I sometimes wondered whether this was partly why I was reluctant to move down to London; that the pace of life might affect the pace of the work; might demand not only that I start skip-reading books that I would be reviewing because I’d been given too many, but that I would also end up covering areas other than literature to make enough money.
This is to say that whatever ethical code I possessed seemed more an issue of work than life, and that if I happened to be perceived as an honest person then this appeared to come not from an ongoing interaction with people, but a slightly removed sense of my own persona. Yet nevertheless this small lie still perturbed me.
A couple of weekends later I went down to London and over the three days I was there Marion and I walked almost everywhere, no matter that London is hardly one of the great walking cities. It was mid-October and the weather was still mild and the clocks hadn’t yet been changed and I felt that melancholy I would often feel as summer waned. Indeed so fine was the weather, Marion asked why I hadn’t taken my velvet jacket with me. I replied that it wasn’t quite so warm in Scotland, and I couldn’t imagine it being that much warmer in London. As I said this to her as we were walking into the city centre from Wood Green, a walk that took us through Highgate, over Hampstead Heath, into Hampstead and all the way down onto Finchley High Road, I knew it was the most enjoyable afternoon we had spent together in a long time, but knew also that my small lie was a wedge between us that every time we kissed or held hands as we walked along the London streets, the hand felt slightly foreign, the kiss somehow contrived. When we passed the vintage store where she said she had bought the jacket, I felt my heart lurch slightly.
Now obviously by any normal standards my small lie would be inconsequential, and perhaps that ought to be the very definition of a white lie – that it lacks consequence. But I was sure my white lie was beginning to have consequences, for a couple of days after I’d told Marion that the jacket fitted me fine, a female friend of mine had popped round to the flat and I showed her the jacket Marion had bought me, tried it on and wondered if I could really get away with wearing it. She laughed as I stood there in front of the mirror, and she said it would fit my arms perfectly if I were willing to cut off my hands. I suggested Angela try it on, and it fitted her so much better than it obviously fitted me that I impetuously said that she should keep it: I had decided I would spend a few days in Edinburgh charity shops and the vintage stores searching out another one. She asked if I were sure that I should give it to her, but in such a way that I suspected she was gleefully pleased not so much that I had given her a present, but that I had subtly betrayed Marion.
Why did I suspect this? I knew that Angela had never really liked Marion – that she was too sweet, too ingenuous for Angela’s liking – and that maybe something might have happened between Angela and I several years before if I hadn’t gone off and visited an ex-girlfriend in Spain that summer, and if she hadn’t met someone while I was away, someone with whom she’d recently split up; around the same time that Marion had moved to London. I sometimes suspect that she was waiting for me to finish with Marion, not necessarily because she wanted to start something serious with me, but now that she was single we could perhaps at least finish, however briefly, what we had almost started.
It was chiefly for two reasons, from my perspective, that Angela and I never got together: I always supposed it was a clash of values, or rather that we had very different ways of interacting with people, and also the detail that she always wore perfume, and my sense of smell was such that almost all perfumes made me feel nauseous. One of the reasons why I was attracted to Marion after believing I was attracted to Angela was that I was certain Marion’s values were somehow much sounder than Angela’s. On the couple of occasions when I had gone on ‘dates’ with Angela I felt there was this constant sense of manoeuvring, as though she wanted less to fall for me than make me fall for her, and then decide whether from a position of power she would want to get close to me.
I say this not only with a sense of projection, but also now with a sense of certitude. A few months ago Angela and I had that very conversation where she admitted she saw love as an act of power; where, as I explained, I had always seen it as an issue of potentiality. She suspected that I was somehow too honest for seduction; that you had to be willing to lie a little to offer a sort of romantic force-field. Truth has its place she proposed – but not in seduction. However, what she added was that after that initial stage hopefully the power struggle would resolve itself and her and her partner would move towards fulfilling one another’s potential. For a couple of years I suppose she believed her boyfriend was allowing that potential to be fulfilled, but not any longer. She was quickly becoming a successful academic, and had secured tenureship over the last year. He was a novelist who was still waiting to get his first book published. When they split up she said they had drifted apart – but I mused to myself whether that meant that she had drifted away from his failure.
Now as I said, concerning the jacket, my gesture was impetuous – if I had thought it through I obviously would have given it to a charity shop, and it was with that thought in mind that a few days later that I phoned Angela and said if anybody asked where she got the jacket from, could she simply say she had picked it up in a second hand store. She agreed, but that still left me with the problem of finding a jacket identical but slightly bigger for myself.
So that weekend in London I still hadn’t found the jacket I was looking for, until we popped into a charity shop in the centre of London and while Marion was looking through the women’s items, I looked at the jackets for men and found what was almost certainly what I was seeking out: a medium sized men’s black velvet jacket. I couldn’t buy it obviously with Marion around, and I couldn’t buy it the following day either because it was Sunday and the shop would be closed, and I couldn’t buy it on the Monday because my train was at eight O’clock in the morning. It wouldn’t even have been easy to miss the train and get a later one – not only due to the prohibitive cost, but also because Marion wanted to see me off at the station before starting work at nine. All these thoughts went through my mind very quickly while Marion was in the changing room trying on a few items. I took the jacket off the rail, quickly tried it on and found it fitted almost perfectly. I went up to the counter and asked them if I could pay for the jacket now and pick it up at a later date: perhaps at the end of the week. They agreed, but added that I shouldn’t leave it too long; the shop was small and they couldn’t keep items behind the counter indefinitely. As she put it into a plastic bag and below the counter, Marion came out and asked if I’d seen anything I liked. I offered a complicit smile to the shop assistant, and said no not really.
On the train back up I wondered how I was going to pick up the item: was I really going to buy another train ticket and go all the way back down to London simply to get another black velvet jacket? Also, when would I have the time to do it; Marion was coming up that weekend? That afternoon I met up with Angela for a cup of coffee in a café near to the university, and told her what happened, and recalled her saying that she had a day conference in London coming up. She said that she might be able to save me a train fare: she had a conference in London that very week: and actually suggested not only would she pick the jacket up for me from the London charity shop, but she would also lend me the jacket Marion had bought just in case she asked about it. I had mentioned that Marion wondered why I hadn’t taken it to London with me, and I think Angela was looking for a reason to give the jacket back: the frisson had passed, and she could see perhaps now only the possible hassles.
So Angela went down to London on the Wednesday, intending to be back in Edinburgh for Thursday night, where she would drop off the jacket before Angela arrived on the Friday. But shortly after six that Thursday evening I got a call from Angela saying that she had missed the train – that the conference had run on later than intended. She said she wouldn’t be up till the next afternoon, and she asked what train Marion was getting. They would be on the same one. She proposed that she would keep a look out for Marion and get on the train afterwards and avoid her carriage. As soon as she arrived in Edinburgh she would jump off the train, and quickly give me the jacket. I said I would be wearing the other one so that we could swap on arrival. After all, how was I going to justify having the jacket in my bag, if she just handed it to me. I would have to wear the damned thing.
On the Friday, in the early evening, I stood near the station platform on a slightly chilly early November night, wearing just a T-shirt and the cramped velvet jacket, looking furtive and probably plain silly standing in a too-small jacket wearing too few clothes on an evening that demanded warmer clothing. As the train pulled in I stood behind the pillar Angela had recommended and waited, my heart strangely in my mouth for the first time since I’d tried on the jacket in the vintage shop while Marion was trying something on in the changing room. I heard Angela breathlessly approach and as she quickly handed me over the jacket, she also helped me remove the one I was wearing. But it proved so tight that it took a few seconds to remove it, and so Marion passed the pillar and saw the two of us fumbling with the item of clothing. Never had Angela’s perfume smelt so strong at that moment, and I could feel nauseousness rising in me.
As we all looked at each other I saw Marion’s face look pained and bewildered, Angela’s vaguely triumphant and my own face I’m sure looked like it was wondering if I had been caught in a trap of Angela’s making.
Angela promptly left, shrugging her shoulders as she walked away, and Marion looked at me with tears of confusion, as if still unsure exactly what she should be crying over. As I followed her as she walked in the direction of the taxi rank, I thought about trying to explain what had happened. I knew though that whatever story I offered her it would still make her look betrayed, and so as she trundled her suitcase along the pavement and then stood by the taxi, all I could think of doing was holding the door open, letting her in, and then putting the suitcase in next to her and closing the door.
I haven’t seen Marion since, and that was several months ago. I’ve also avoided Angela, though she has phoned several times and left messages. I suppose I haven’t been in touch because the only honest answer I could have given Marion that day would have been that in some very subtle way I had allowed Angela to seduce me; that I was excited by the game we had set up and that it was undeniably at Marion’s expense. Perhaps the first white lie about the jacket fitting perfectly was well-meant, but afterwards there was I feel ill-meaning to my deceit, and what is worse pleasure from that deceitfulness. I cannot get out of my mind that I was so much more looking forward to seeing Angela for those couple of seconds as she got off the train than spending the whole weekend with Marion. Even if Marion still wonders what I was doing struggling out of the velvet jacket with Angela helping, she knew it was an act of complicity of which she was clearly excluded.
What I most admire however is Marion’s ability to take from the situation only what she needs to protect her own well-being. I recently talked to Karen and wondered whether Marion extrapolated the full truth from the situation, and Karen said that, no, she didn’t think so. All Marion saw was a boyfriend who in many ways seemed not to love her, and the scene at the station appeared to justify that feeling, make it certain. Angela on the other hand I suspect has played games with numerous men, and part of her charm resides in her capacity not to search out the truth, whatever that might mean – though I think Marion practised it – than to search out signs that can suggest seduction without requiring very deep feeling. It is part of her lightness, her charm, and though many people find her beautiful, I suspect that beauty less resides than emanates: it is a protean energy that many find attractive, but that I thought I had managed to avoid.
Now this isn’t to say Angela engineered the whole situation – there were too many contingencies for that – but simply that she exploited it for her own strange ends. And where do I stand in all this? As neither quite the truth seeker Marion seemed to be, nor the skilful seducer Angela appeared to be busy perfecting, all I am left with is pondering my supposed ethical values. The journalist who got caught might have felt a degree of shame, but she caused no personal harm, while whenever I think of the look on Marion’s face that Friday evening, I can’t help but wonder if the image sits inside me as something deeper, as a strangely evolving sense of guilt that makes my supposed work ethic, my ethics of work, feel very hollow indeed.