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Messiness

 

1

He would have successfully committed suicide if it hadn’t been for the accident, and yet Andy had known him for a year and assumed Sam was one of the happiest, most contented of people, so Andy was surprised when Sam told him that around three years earlier he had tried to take his own life. But as he told Andy the reasons behind trying to die, and how he shaped his life thereafter, it seemed to Andy that most lives, lives where life is never called into question, appeared much stranger, perhaps including his own.

He had met Sam in a bar near to the hostel in Aviemore, on a quiet week night in late Autumn, and was sitting reading the newspaper when he noticed at a nearby table someone that he could only have described as the most self-contained person he had ever seen. It was a summary judgement but one he had no reason to reassess until Sam’s pronouncement recently. As Sam sat with a notebook in front of him, a book in his hands, a glass of wine on the table, and a concentrated frown, so Andy became all the more aware of the loose end he happened to be at. Andy’s father had lived most of his life in the village and recently passed away, and Andy was up to decide what to do about the house. Did he want to leave central Scotland and return to the place where both his parents were buried, and turn their large cottage into a small bed and breakfast, or should he keep living in Glasgow, where he had quite recently moved, and where his folk music career could continue hesitantly with regular if minor gigs and where he could tutor people in the fiddle, violin and the accordion? He came to no decision on that visit, earning a few pounds playing twice a week in the bar he was sitting in, and instead stayed for a couple of months before planning to rent the cottage out, but meeting Sam was somehow monumental, and made his loose end seem like a purposeful thread.

He didn’t talk to Sam that first afternoon, but the next day, in the early evening, Sam was in the bar again, and this time they nodded at each other and said hi as Andy took a seat a few tables away. He seemed to be around Andy’s own age, in his early forties, and Andy wondered if he had a failed marriage in his past, and a child from another earlier, impetuous affair that should never have been more than a fling between strangers.  Yet as he looked across again, seeing a man who looked like he was exactly where he should have been, Andy thought it absurd to project his own biography onto someone whose body language indicated a contentment surely lacking in Andy’s. As Andy went out for a cigarette, and then ordered another pint, it was as though Andy needed to assuage his nervous system twice over: he wanted to dull it with alcohol and tobacco, and went to the bar and outside so as to do something rather than nothing. During the couple of hours Andy saw Sam there Sam moved once: to go to the bathroom and order a glass of very good house red. He had chosen the right place in the village to drink: It was not only a bar but also a restaurant and hotel, and was known to be the best place around in which to drink wines of good quality. It was the hotel where Gill and Andy had had their wedding reception.

Andy didn’t see him again for a couple of days, and assumed he had left the village until Andy saw him buying some shopping in the local supermarket. As he wandered around the shop Andy half-followed him to see what he was purchasing: Muesli, milk, wholemeal bread, wholegrain pasta, cheese, a pesto sauce, some yogurt, tea. Where on the previous occasion he was dressed in jeans and a shirt, this time Sam was wearing walking trousers and a fleece: Andy supposed he had rented a cottage in the area for the purposes of hill-walking.

The next time Andy saw him was again in the pub, and on this occasion he had a rucksack, and looked as though he were about to leave – the train station was across the road. As he came up to the bar where Andy was ordering a half-pint and where Sam ordered a tea, Andy asked him what he made of Aviemore. He replied that it was a place he had been meaning to see for a while. Andy assumed he meant in the general tourist sense: that the Highlands was a good place for hill-walking, hiking, and mountaineering, and said Aviemore was one of the best spots in Scotland. Sam asked him whether he lived in the village; he was here temporarily but indefinitely, Andy said. Andy didn’t divulge any further information that afternoon, and didn’t realise that Sam had been equally cryptic when he said he had wanted to see the village for a long time: they were both offering apparently pragmatic reasons, but contained within them were more personal concerns.

As they kept talking Sam ended up drinking his tea at the bar, and after a while he asked if Andy knew anybody with a place he might rent if he wanted to come up here again. The cottage he had rented for a fortnight was damp and the facilities unreliable.  Andy said that he might – as he wondered at that moment whether he would settle for short term lets rather than a long-term tenant or a sale – and gave Sam his email address. Shortly afterwards he looked up at the clock, grabbed his rucksack, and said that his train was due shortly.

2

About three months later Andy received an email asking if the cottage was free, and Sam wondered if it was possible to take it for a month. Andy intended to go back down to Glasgow, since he was still paying rent on the flat he’d started renting there at the beginning of the year, and needed to earn some money: renting the cottage and picking up some tutoring hours would make him a little less anxious about his immediate finances. So Andy replied that this would be fine; Sam emailed back promptly, and Andy booked a train for the early evening on the day Sam was due to arrive: he said he would get in by twelve. Andy said he would meet him at the bar and drive him out to the cottage.

Andy showed him round and Sam enthusiastically proposed it was about as private a spot as he could have hoped to find. It was a cottage near what was called the Lily Loch, and the house was surrounded by trees, and about a mile and a half off the main road from Aviemore to Coylum Bridge. Andy’s bags were packed, and he was ready to leave, but he still had several hours before his train, and he asked if last time Sam had walked around Loch en Eilean. Was it close, he asked; not far Andy said. Andy couldn’t have explained why at the time he felt an affinity with this man, though Sam would have been able to explain easily enough why he had an affinity with Andy.  It was perhaps, Andy would have then thought, because when they had talked before everything they said seemed to have far more that was not said sitting behind it. With some people this unspoken element manifests itself as no more than sub-text, with a series of social assumptions sitting inside the comments made. These assumptions would concern schooling, job status, family and so on. But there are occasionally people you meet where the conversation doesn’t so much seem sub-textual as possible, full of potential areas of exploration. Andy had this with maybe only one woman in his life and married her, and on five or six occasions with men who became, if only temporarily, very close friends. Andy wondered if Sam would be another close friend as they walked along the track next to the loch and discussed their interests but didn’t talk at all about their emotions.

Andy asked Sam what he did that would allow him to take a month off in the Highlands, and he said he was a trained carpenter, and was between jobs. He also added that he had money: his father had left him a large sum on his twenty first birthday, and he didn’t know whether he had barely spent any of it because he was naturally inclined to thrift, or didn’t like the idea of being yet another trust fund kid in a country which had too many of them already. Trustafarians they’re called, kids with dreadlocks and high ideals with the emphasis on getting high, and Andy knew a cafe in Edinburgh was commonly populated by them. Sam didn’t dress or look like one, he said, and Sam believed this was because he had never taken the money for granted – indeed had often been wary of it, thinking that the singular life he wanted to lead was hardly singular if he relied so completely on another person’s wealth to live it. But he couldn’t pretend that he needed to worry about money, and Andy replied that his father’s recent death and the house he had left him could turn him into a trustafarian also. Sam said he thought not: to receive money in your early forties is not the same as getting it at twenty one. The former can make life easier; the latter can make life easy. The point with money he supposed is that it shouldn’t make life easy; just full of choice.  But then there are always choices, he added, that are not our own to make.

After returning to the cottage they shared a pot of tea and Andy asked Sam to email him if there were any problems, saying also that he would come up in a month’s time, just as Sam was vacating the house. Maybe they could chat again then. Sam said that would be great. It was as though they had only started a conversation not finished a three hour one, and Andy knew he wanted to talk more with Sam.

3

Though Andy wasn’t at all financially responsible for the son he had when he was twenty one, now Liam was at university in the city they would meet up. Liam’s mother, who’d been living in a village north of Glasgow for years, had told him he was better off having nothing to do with Andy, since Andy had made no contact throughout his childhood. But when Liam was eighteen he decided to get in touch, and then a year later he came to study in Glasgow and Liam asked if they could meet. Andy liked him when he first met him, and liked him even more on the subsequent occasions where they would go for a drink or a meal, and suspected that Liam’s step-father was a good man; a man Andy felt who knew how to support a family both financially and emotionally. Sally and Andy were incapable of supporting themselves when Liam was conceived: they smoked weed almost every night, and would share a bottle of wine over dinner, followed by a couple of pints in the pub afterwards. They were living in Glasgow, and both making their way in the folk scene, perhaps with more interest in the scene than in the music. Neither of them was very good at fidelity, and there were too many occasions where they found themselves lying next to someone rather than each other for a child to be a good idea. When Sally became pregnant Andy wondered whether it was his, and she replied he shouldn’t worry about that, since she had no interest in sharing her life any longer with a man who she knew wouldn’t give her child the stability they would need.

Andy never found out biologically if Liam was his son. He left the country for a few months, developing an interest in bluegrass in the States, and when he got back he was told by someone else on the folk scene that Sally had given birth to a baby boy. Andy asked the man if he thought she would want him to see her and the baby. He smiled and said probably not. He had possibly been one of those she had gone off with one night after they were too drunk to remember who their partner was, or too angry after an argument to want to go back to the flat with each other.

A few months later though Andy saw her in a cafe, looked into the pram and witnessed a face that could have been his own when he was a baby. He guessed it was his, he said. “I am afraid it looks like it”, she replied. She then softened and asked him to take a seat, and they talked for an hour, and during their chat she said that she hadn’t smoked a joint since she found out she was pregnant; and didn’t smoke or drink throughout the pregnancy. She said that he had been a help, and Andy thought she meant Liam, but Sally was referring to someone whom she had met shortly after Andy went Stateside. He asked if she was in love. She said simply that she loved him, and though Andy never met her partner, he knew he was the man who helped turn Liam into a much warmer, sensitive and intelligent young man than Andy had been at his age.

During the time he would spend with Liam Andy felt a mixture of relief and regret: relieved that Liam had a secure upbringing, and regret that he hadn’t been the one to provide it. Andy sometimes asked him about his stepfather; Liam described a man who couldn’t have been more removed from Andy in attitude and lifestyle. Where Andy drank most nights, had smoked since his teens and would rarely go a day without a joint, Liam said his stepfather would drink a glass of wine on major occasions, never smoked and had been running marathons for the last twenty years. He said this to Andy without accusation, and seemed happy that he had a father who lived a little recklessly, and a stepfather who did not. When they met it was usually in a pub and they would drink a couple of pints. Afterwards Liam went off with some friends, and Andy sometimes played a gig. He said to Liam he should come and watch him play sometime, but that Andy preferred if he just turned up. At least once he must have done so, because he said he thought Andy was a good musician.

It wasn’t long after Andy got back from Aviemore when he met up with Liam and asked him whether he wasn’t ever angry with him when he was younger – angry that his biological father was never around. He said he didn’t think so. When he was a child he didn’t think about it, and when in his early teens, and started to do so, he wanted for nothing – his stepfather Andy knew was a wealthy man, one of Scotland’s best barristers, Liam said. When Liam was in his later teens, and he wanted to get in contact, Andy was happy to meet him. No, Liam didn’t think he was resentful.  After mentioning it, Andy wondered why he had asked, as if he wanted Liam to loathe him a little so he could loathe himself a little less. The absence was not in his perception of Liam’s childhood, it appeared, but in Andy’s perception of parenting. As Liam and Andy parted, he wondered again whether Sam had any kids. Nothing suggested that he did, but then there was much that Andy didn’t yet know about Sam.

Andy had been back in Glasgow for close to a month, made some money tutoring privately, did a couple of gigs with the two bands he played with and who had been less annoyed by his absence than they should have been, and emailed Sam saying that he wanted to come up for a long weekend, said there would be space enough in the cottage for both of them, and that he could stay indefinitely. Andy had various commitments in Glasgow that he wanted to honour and would only be there for a few days. Sam replied saying that was great news; he wanted to stay for a few months if that was possible. Andy said that was fine; it meant he didn’t have to sell the cottage just yet, rent it long-term or decide to move there permanently.

4

When Andy arrived at the cottage Sam wasn’t around, but his presence was manifest in the cupboards: where he would often rely on ready-meals and stock the shelves with beer and a few tins of soup and beans, and a loaf of bread, now the cupboards were full of ingredients that indicated a man who liked to cook and to eat well. Andy had never managed to look after myself, he supposed, and that might have been why he had decided to get married.

Andy had loved Gill very much, but he also felt as if she would know how to look after him, know how to take care of a man who always saw himself as a boy. It was the way she caressed his forehead, the manner in which she whispered into his ear that she wanted to look after him, the way she would insist he lie down as she administered Reiki or gave him a back or head massage.

She was a hippy, but where usually Andy saw the alternative lifestyle as exactly that – with people adopting it for no very good reason that he had ever heard – Gill seemed someone who not so much followed the ethos as embodied it. He understood, watching her, what it might originally have meant. He loved her deeply, and the word was entirely appropriate. Sally he had loved youthfully, tempestuously, absurdly and often superficially. They would never be more passionate with each other than after an infidelity, distaste meeting lust, and mutual loathing the consequence alongside an invigorating orgasm. Gill’s love, though, he sank into, like a much needed sleep. There was none of the emotional tossing and turning he had felt with everyone else, none of the doubts with which he had with Sally and later girlfriends. He knew that Gill was the love he had sought even if he could never have articulated it, and, several months after they had been seeing each other, Andy asked if she had ever loved anybody before him. She admitted that she had a few lovers, but he said she knew that wasn’t what he meant. Though they had agreed after meeting that their past emotional lives were exactly where they should be – in the past – he believed he was getting closer to her than to anybody he had known, and he wanted to get closer still. She asked if this would really make them closer and he insisted it would. Okay, she said, we’ll talk about it this once and then we won’t talk about it again. It wasn’t at all because she wanted to keep secrets from him; more that she wanted to live as intensely the life they were building together. Imagine, she said, a story one tells that constantly flashes back into the past. Wouldn’t its disjointedness ruin the pleasure of the tale? Andy said that would depend on the type of story told: some of his favourite books and films had a very weak present tense. Were they happy stories, she asked. Generally not, he agreed.

So that evening in her flat, in Edinburgh, a flat she could afford to buy after getting a tenured position in the Italian department at the university (she was a hippy by ethos more than by action), and a flat that they would live in after they got married, she told Andy that she had once before loved someone very much, but that his identity didn’t quite allow him to love her back. He would not say to her as Andy had said to her that he was looking for the love that she could provide. He insisted that he was looking for as autonomous an existence as possible. Other lovers had given him that; they seemed to know he wanted them to augment his life not share it with him. Gill said that she could have claimed this man was psychologically unavailable and that this unavailability lay in some traumatised past. But she didn’t think this was fair: he was loving and caring, but he wouldn’t commit to any future with her and their love lacked…she paused for a moment, and then said…momentum. Andy laughed, and thought if delving into the past is damaging, so also is staying too firmly in the present and refusing to think about the future at all. Exactly, she smiled back, stroking his hair. Andy was lying on the couch with his head in her lap, turning his head towards her occasionally to see the expression on her face as she talked. Her ex was not a disturbed person escaping from love; he was a man who wanted to live a particular style of life and that didn’t include the love she could offer. Andy said she sounded like she still loved him a little, and she replied that she still loved him a lot, but it caused her no pain and she had no regrets. She said she would have regretted it if she had tried to change him. Andy asked questions about him, asked to see pictures. I have no pictures, she insisted, and believed a name would have added nothing to his understanding. She said this quietly and firmly, and Andy felt no jealousy. She quoted him a line from Italo Calvino about past lovers being like dead branches.

After dropping off his bags and unpacking a few things on arriving in Aviemore, Andy went for a walk on a warm, late spring afternoon in the direction of the town centre and stopped off at an inn on the way. He intended to have a half-pint, ordered a full one, and then ordered another two after that. He got back to the cottage as night began to fall: there were no lights on the road out to the cottage. Sam was already there, cooking up a dinner for one, he said, since that was what he was used to doing, but could put on some more pasta and turn it easily into a meal for two. Andy was ready to put a big slab of cheese between two slices of bread and call it dinner, but the smell of fried onions, mushrooms and peppers created a desire for a decent meal and he said that would be lovely.

Over the next three days Sam cooked and Andy washed up, and some actions that would have seemed to Andy to be major tasks were done without any fuss or incompetence. One reason why he ate ready-meals, sandwiches and tinned food was that whenever he would try and eat more adventurously he always forgot key ingredients that meant he would give up or eat a meal that was usually without much flavour.  Even though Sam had only been in the cottage for a month, he had stocked up on spices, condiments and even had a few herb pots growing abundantly after buying them from the local supermarket.

5

Andy returned to Glasgow, determined that he would try and live a little more like Sam, insisting to himself he would only drink at weekends, and avoid all takeaway food, cooking instead a couple of the more basic pasta dishes Sam had made. However, he didn’t find this easy, and after playing a gig during the following week he drank a little during the gig and quite a lot afterwards, and was so hungry after all the alcohol, that he ate a shish kebab on the way home. He seemed to need a constant presence over him if he was to live well, and that was what Gill had tried to provide during their year and a half together before getting married, and the two years of marriage, but even she could not help him to become the person he thought he wanted to be.

Perhaps it was a marriage that could have lasted, but it would have needed two things. It would have needed Andy to spend more time sober than he managed, and less time coming home so late that it was understandable Gill assumed he had been with another woman. He was never unfaithful to her, but this might have been due less to moral rectitude than to physical incapacity: sometimes he was so drunk he couldn’t stand up, let alone get an erection, and he wondered if he would have been so faithful if he still possessed that youthful vigour and capacity for large quantities of booze he had in his early twenties.

Gill never once threatened to break-up, but she did often say she was unhappy, and admitted maybe she was like many a woman, someone who wanted finally to change her man, but only if she thought the man wanted to change. Didn’t he want to change? Didn’t he often say that he was unhappy with how he was living, was feeling fifteen years older than he was, and wanted to live as if he were ten years younger. Yes, he insisted and changed nothing. So eventually she asked him to go, giving no reason and insisting, as he packed to leave, all the while begging her to let him stay, that she wanted a divorce and that he wasn’t to contact her directly.

6

If the love of a good woman couldn’t change him, what chance was there that he could be transformed under the influence of an acquaintance? Yet he was drawn to Sam’s company, and in it he found it easier to follow a healthy lifestyle than he had managed when in the company of Gill. About three months after Andy’s last visit, and after a few emails back and forth, he asked if it would be okay if he came up for a long weekend again. Sam said it was his place – of course. Andy knew he was renting it to Sam for a reasonable price; yet so completely had Sam made it his home, it felt like Andy was staying in his place rather than that he was staying in Andy’s.

During the few days he was there during that early spring, Sam and Andy hadn’t talked that much. Andy met up a couple of times with people he still knew in the area, and nevertheless he drank very little, returning to the cottage by foot early in the evening rather than much later by taxi as he usually would. Sam was often reading by the fading light, and he would go upstairs to the room that he used to sleep in as a child, and watch TV or listen to music. He couldn’t help but be reminded of those years with his father after his mother died, when he was in his early teens, sharing the house but where they would live lives separated by unattended grief.

7

After returning south he didn’t see Sam again until September. Sam had remained in the cottage throughout the summer, and said he had been working on a travel book about the Highlands, but one based not on things to do but how one might feel spending time there. Andy knew from their conversations Sam had occasionally written for travel guides and newspapers, but thought he did so as a way to get free flight tickets, accommodation and so on. He did it as pragmatically as the carpentry work he said he would sometimes get in the places he stopped off at. But in the email it sounded like the book was more personal. When Andy visited in September, he asked him about it when they took a walk around the Loch. He asked him what he thought the Highlands possessed that motivated him to write a book where everywhere else demanded no more than an article. He supposed it was mixture of place and timing. Maybe ten years earlier he could have arrived there and had no need to do more than fix up a house and send off a couple of pieces. Now he wanted to write a book and build a house from nothing. Maybe he wanted to settle in the area.

Andy wondered what had changed, and he said that several years ago the woman he loved had married someone else, a woman he didn’t so much leave as refuse to allow as completely into his life as she wished. She eventually left him, and he didn’t know anything about where she went until a couple of years later a friend said that he had heard she was getting married. Her leaving shocked him but it didn’t destroy him. He accepted it as he accepted much in his life, as a pragmatic need to continue his existence on his own terms and without relying on anybody else. He missed her, of course, but his belief in his solitude appeared stronger than his need for her company. He was still living in London (where they had met while she was doing post-doctoral work) and in the months after hearing of her marriage in the Highlands and that she was living and working in Edinburgh, he masochistically started going to all the places where they would, walk, eat, and drink. He rewatched films they had watched, read books that she had recommended that he hadn’t read while they were together, and felt an unusual jealousy towards the man she married.

It was the most abstract of jealousies, he said, since he knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about this man. He was nothing more and nothing less than a person who could it seems accept unconditionally the love that Sam’s own personality wouldn’t. He wished during those months that he could have been such a man, and he dissolved as if into all the possibilities that he was not. His nervous system, which was usually so calm, so focused and purposeful, if intense, tore itself in numerous directions at once. He would start walking in one direction and feel he could equally walk in another. The only thing that kept him integrated was thinking of his ex, and so many of his actions were based on replicating his experiences with her. This gave him purpose within the most fragile of identities. It meant that while he didn’t quite physically fall apart, that he wasn’t unable to go out, unable to talk to people he knew, unable to eat for anything but sustenance, he knew he was endangering any psychic well-being with this obsession.

As he talked, Andy listened without interrupting, but nevertheless he was thinking his own thoughts whilst also listening to Sam’s. He felt there was nothing accidental about their meeting that day in the pub in Aviemore, nothing accidental in that he was living in his father’s house, and his instinct was justified when he admitted that meeting Andy was not as contingent as it might seem – though equally it wasn’t exactly planned.

8

He hadn’t at all intended to meet him in a pub in Aviemore, Sam insisted, had no idea that he would be living here, though he had heard a few months before arriving this is where Andy was from. He came, he said, to understand a little bit more about Gill, to visit the place in which she’d got married, just as he had spent time in Edinburgh also. He wanted to make clear to Andy it was not at all out of obsession that he ended up in the village; that self-destructive fascination with Gill ended the day that he aimed to drive his car into a wall and, instead, skidded on black ice; the rear of the vehicle slamming into the wall at a much slower pace than the bonnet which was meant to hit it. It was a ridiculous moment, and as he got out of the car he couldn’t stop laughing. He thought surely there could be nothing more absurd than being saved from suicide by an accident. That was three years ago, he said, and since then, over time, he has tried to live simply and efficiently, but without his prior need to live so self-sufficiently: the way he insisted upon before he had heard about Gill’s marriage, or hopelessly full of self-pity as he had done before the crash.

Andy had numerous questions to ask him once he had finished speaking, but the first was to say it seemed to him too much of a coincidence that they would meet in a pub in the village, and Sam admitted perhaps it was too much to say it was chance, but it wasn’t quite deliberate either. He knew that Andy was a folk singer from the Highlands, knew from a close friend of Gill’s whom he had met with in Edinburgh that the marriage had broken up and that her ex’s father had recently passed away, and so when he saw the poster with Andy’s face on it, advertising that he was playing a couple of gigs a week in the pub, he assumed it was Gill’s ex-husband. Andy wondered why he would come to the Highlands after hearing the woman he had loved was no longer married; why not search her out instead? He said he already had – that he stayed in Edinburgh for a couple of months before moving up to the Highlands, and saw her several times. He did so not hoping to start going out with her again, but to find out a little bit more about his earlier self: why he couldn’t accept her love when she offered it.

9

Initially Sam might have supposed she would not wish to see him. He hadn’t contacted her since she had left, and, though it might have appeared odd that he never once tried to contact her for all his obsessiveness, this happened to be the case. When he finally did, when he came to the city early the previous year, she replied quickly and simply, saying that if he happened to be in Edinburgh then it would be nice to meet him. He felt no excitement before meeting her, but waited in the cafe with some trepidation. When she arrived, he saw that she was still dressed similarly, in a flowing light green skirt (she never wore jeans), a bottle green singlet and a light green cardigan and sandals. It wasn’t a chilly January, but it wasn’t warm either, but Gill rarely felt the cold. Andy thought it was odd listening to him offer a description of someone he had no need to describe since Andy knew her as well as he did, but Andy noticed before that Sam was a person given to visualising things, as if to recall a situation he had to picture it first, and this Andy supposed had made him a clear, precise travel writer.

Gill and Sam had talked for a couple of hours, and Sam asked Gill whether he was a difficult person to be around: did he really reject her affection so often? Did he insist so frequently on being alone? He was relieved to hear that he had exaggerated in his own mind how terrible he had been; how un-giving and unloving, and she said it was not his fault: there was always a tension in him he wouldn’t allow to be resolved by another, by another’s feeling. He would go off and walk twenty five miles, but he wouldn’t accept a simple massage, share a bath, or lie for hours before the fire together. Sam asked her if her husband accepted all these things, and she said he was a very different man, that was all she wanted to say about him. Andy recalled that when he asked Gill about her ex, namely now of course Sam, she refused to tell him anything about him, and here again, on this occasion concerning him, she insisted on saying very little.

10

By this time they were back at the cottage, and Sam said maybe they could continue talking over dinner. He looked like he didn’t want to talk at all, but knew that he owed Andy an explanation, however long it would take him to offer it. What must have been making it so exhausting, he suspected, was that it was both an explanation and also a confession. It is the sort of story someone might tell another, but not usually feel obligated to do so. That Andy was part of the tale meant he was entitled to insist on its divulgence.

Over a salad Sam hastily put together, he said he wanted to know who this person happened to be, this person who managed to accept all the affection he could not, and knew from the friend of Gill’s, who also happened to be a closer friend of his, where Andy was from, where they had got married. Sam didn’t of course expect to meet him; he simply wanted to visit the place, get a feel for the area. He wanted to put the finishing touches to a solitude that seemed no longer, as before the accident, to demand aloneness, but instead wanted self-possession however it was to manifest itself. After all, he knew that seeking solitude led to his near death; how could he seek it again? No, he needed to accept being alone but not demand it, and this was presumably why, Andy supposed, he seemed to be so self-possessed on those occasions he saw him in the bar.

Andy told him this and he shrugged saying it was true, but had Andy known him shortly before he had tried to kill himself, he would have seen the very opposite, and years before that, while Sam was protecting his solitude, Andy would have sensed at the very least a tension in his body. Now the despair and the tension weren’t there, and what Andy saw was someone who lived not only a life he attempted to fill with meaning, but also with hope. Before, it was as if the meaningful countered the hopeful: he wanted to live purposefully for himself, and had been far more fearful of change than wishing for it.

Now he wished for it whilst still reading, writing, thinking. When he met Andy and saw that he was Gill’s ex-husband it was as if the very contingencies he would have before wished to avoid, he was now willing to accept, even search out. Hadn’t he come to Aviemore maybe to find Andy, even if the chance of it happening would have been so slim?

Andy asked him at what point did he know that he was Gill’s ex-husband, and he admitted he more or less knew the moment he walked into the bar and saw the posters with Andy’s face on them announcing the nights on which he was playing. The common friend had even given Sam Andy’s first name.

Andy didn’t know whether to feel flattered or vaguely frightened, as he sat opposite the table from a man who had insinuated his way into Andy’s home, and yet when he looked back over the last year most of the suggestions for contact between them had come from Andy and not from Sam. Andy seemed to want Sam’s friendship far more than Sam wanted his, and so instead of responding angrily Andy asked what he managed to observe in him over the last year; what was it that Gill would have found so intriguing that she couldn’t find in Sam? He smiled, saying what he was about to offer might sound like an insult but should be taken as a compliment. He thought Andy looked like someone who needed to be taken care of; needed someone who would help him to live. He said maybe Andy was difficult to live with because he wouldn’t always look after himself; he had been difficult to live with because he thought he knew exactly how to do so. He was generally right to think this, but then when he heard Gill had married someone else, it was if all his well-being, all that accumulated and healthy solitude, turned against him, and turned into extreme alienation.

This was why to counter it he would think obsessively about Gill, generate immense but of course abstract tenderness towards this person who was no longer in his life but very much in somebody else’s. He had read a writer once claiming that he could only feel people close to them when they left. He suspected Andy did not have that problem; that he could live immediately, even if sometimes haphazardly.

11

He was right of course, Andy said, but that did not stop Gill and Andy from splitting up any more than it stopped her from leaving him. Sam said he was interested to know what happened, but thought it perfectly understandable if Andy didn’t want to say. Hadn’t he intruded enough in his life? As he asked Andy realised he hadn’t talked to anybody about the reasons why, and not least because nobody had enquired in such a way that they looked like they wanted a detailed answer. Nobody wanted this answer more, he could see, than Sam.

He said he had always been faithful to Gill, maybe the first person he had gone out with whom he’d managed fidelity. But what he hadn’t managed was reliability, often coming home a couple of hours after a gig very drunk. This was still happening after they got married, and that was when after two years she asked him to leave, saying she wanted a divorce. Sam asked if the divorce had come through. Andy said he would have to go through to Edinburgh at the beginning of the year to finalise the papers. Sam wondered if Andy had tried to win her back. Numerous times, Andy said, but when she decided it was over it had already been after many apologies from him. They had become hollow, and so when she made that final decision Andy had nothing left to fight with. Andy said that maybe Sam should have tried harder: hadn’t Sam said he never once contacted her after they split up? Perhaps he would have done so if the transformation had come sooner, he reckoned, but he was worried that even during his crisis this had nothing to do with his love for Gill; trying to get her back for no more than his own mental well-being would have been emotionally cowardly.

Andy replied that he had probably spent much of his life as an emotional coward, that he wasn’t designed for heroic acts of feeling. As he cleared the plates and made some tea, Sam asked him why Andy thought that. Andy asked him if he had ever lied to a woman. He said he thought not. Andy said he had done so many times. It might be no more than saying he knew a band he hadn’t heard of, claimed to like a film they loved, told them he had seen them somewhere before when he clearly hadn’t. Numerous small lies he would tell, because he was attracted to them, wanted to talk to them, kiss them, sleep with them.

Andy had never seen Sam’s face scowl before, but it did so as he asked if Andy had ever lied to Gill. Andy said that he hadn’t, which was true, but since Sam know knew that he found it easy to lie he was not so sure if Sam believed him. Andy added, though, that Gill was not an easy person to lie to, and he saw that Sam was similar: neither of them lived life facetiously. Andy asked him if he still loved her. He said he supposed he did but there was now no pain in his yearning. Sam wondered if Andy still loved her, and he shrugged, as if to say it was not a question that he needed to address. He knew he had lost her respect and that Sam hadn’t. The reciprocation of Andy’s tenderness rested with his son, he insisted, as Andy talked about him with Sam for the first time. That is the question Sam said, after a lengthy silence: where do we put our tenderness?

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A month later, he got an email from Sam saying that he would move out of the cottage whenever it suited Andy , but he was hoping to be gone by Christmas. Andy replied that would be fine: he intended to put the house on the market at the beginning of the year, and that he would buy a place in Glasgow. He asked where Sam was moving to, and he said he was going to try Edinburgh for a while: he would finish the book there. Andy’s first thought was that he was going there for Gill, and his second was more of a feeling than a thought: a jealous sense of regret and an awareness that Sam was the person she would have chosen to be with if he had allowed her to love him. Now he could finally love her back, and the question was whether she could allow him emotionally to re-enter her life. But what underpinned these thoughts and feelings were those he had for Liam. Andy had never been much of a father to him, but hadn’t he more recently been a good friend, and hadn’t he been a good friend to Sam also? Andy knew he had never thought about his life as Sam had, never lived it one way, attempted to end it and then lived it differently. He wasn’t someone who had the will for that. He was always going to live a muddier existence, but, perhaps because of this muddiness, if he saw Sam walking down the street with Gill he was sure that he would not feel more than mildly hurt; he would feel a readily recoverable pain. Andy was also sure that after the divorce papers came through he would not respond as Sam did when he heard that Gill had gotten married as Andy strangely thought that his untidy life might save him from such feelings, and that he would be saved also, perhaps, by the love he had for his son that came out of this messiness. Andy thought of this divorce in several months’ time, and wondered whether, while Gill and Andy were signing the papers, Sam might be waiting in a pub round the corner. Perhaps he would be waiting there to give her a comforting hug that might contain within it the very feeling he had withheld during their years together.

 

©Tony McKibbin