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Offences


Not so long ago the police raided a friend’s Glasgow flat. They arrived at the front door after an ominous crunching on gravel, rang the bell, and explained they would like to look in Jack’s loft. Half an hour later they left, taking with them a box of tapes that included anything from Hollywood films to some seventies European erotica: Jean Rollin, Borowczyk, Robbe-Grillet. What they were actually looking for, they explained, was kiddie porn – they’d received a tip off indicating they would find numerous examples in my friend’s loft. They would have to take the box away and examine its contents.

Jack wasn’t the only friend whose house the police had raided in search of profoundly illegal material. Some years before, in Inverness, Bill had a tape posted from Dublin intercepted by the Liverpool customs; and the following morning found himself awoken by three police officers who wandered around his bedroom putting his thousand or so films into black bin liners. His mum, Bill explained, stood at the bedroom door, looking at her son with a face vacillating between distress and indignation.

So here we have two similar incidents that may ostensibly have little to do with me, but if we take them together, and take into account incidents that took place around them, I could be seen as a figure of importance in this tale.

Or was I not just of importance, but in some way actively responsible, at least in relation to the raid at Jack’s? About a week before the raid on Jack’s place I had been staying over for a couple of days. I was down from Aberdeen, where I was in the third year of my PhD, to attend a number of films showing in Glasgow that were relevant to my thesis. Jack, who was in IT, was commuting between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and so most of the time he left me to treat his semi-detached home as my own: he wasn’t always around to offer hospitality. And so treat it as my own I did, from making tea and toast, to having a bath, to watching a video that he had left sitting next to the recorder. The film I stuck on was a seventies piece of horror/erotica, and starred probably the most attractive erotic actress of the era. Anyway, I knew that Jack had other films of hers on tape, and there was a scene in this one that I was sure was almost identical to one in another film – a moment quite distinctive in the genre. I decided to check out the other tape.

I looked in a couple of cupboards downstairs; then recalled him saying something about the loft. Would it be snooping around to go up there, I wondered? Maybe in most circumstances it would, but as Jack was a sort of libertarian of interior space, a guy who when visiting me up in Aberdeen would think nothing of flicking through my course notebooks when I wasn’t around, or helping himself to whatever he fancied in the kitchen, so I didn’t think he’d mind me checking out his film collection.

So up I went, taking down a box of tapes. I found the film I was looking for, and placed it in the VCR. Sure enough, flicking through the film, there was the almost identical scene. Later on, I put the box back up in the loft just as I heard Jack’s car pulling up on the gravel. I didn’t have time to put the lid back on properly.

A little over a week after I’d returned to Aberdeen, Jack phoned. He asked me if I had been up in the loft. I admitted it immediately, before asking why he asked. He said for no particular reason, except that I’d failed to replace the hatch. I sensed in his voice, though, something more troublesome, troublesome enough for me to phone him back an hour later and ask whether there was something else that was bothering him. He insisted there wasn’t.

Of course what might have been bothering him was simply that somebody had been up in his loft; yet for a man not afraid of intrusiveness this seemed unlikely. I also asked, when I phoned him back, when he noticed the loft hatch hadn’t been replaced properly. He said a few days before. Why hadn’t he phoned me then, I mused?

It was a couple of weeks after that awkward call he explained to me that the police had raided his flat of tapes (raided them the day before our uncomfortable phone call), and had earlier that day returned them. They were happy that he had no child pornography on any of the videos. I asked whether he didn’t tell me earlier because he thought I might have been the one who tipped off the police, even planted videos in his loft? He admitted that the coincidence was strong – my being up in his loft; the police shortly afterwards raiding it – but now, with the tapes back and no charges forthcoming, he accepted that it was simply that: a coincidence.

And yet for more than a week I was presumably in Jack’s mind the most likely person to have reported him, and for someone who had been one of his two closest friends for fifteen years, that must have created questions beyond the immediate worry. For if he had strongly suspected I was the one who told the police, did that judgment work in isolation, or did it work its way into our friendship as he recalled any moment over the last decade and a half where I might have betrayed him or treated him at all badly?

The situation had set in motion, I believed, isolated paranoia; rather different from the apparently similar situation concerning the raid on Bill’s place: the formation, if you like, of social paranoia. For of course where Jack simply didn’t trust somebody – whoever that somebody might be – Bill, I suppose, felt that nobody could trust him: that society had labeled him as a pervert after that dawn raid; a feeling vindicated by a couple of short columns in the local newspapers afterwards stating an unnamed pervert had had his tape collection taken away. And, as Bill readily admitted, the tape they intercepted was a nasty piece of sexual horror clearly illegal in this country.

Jack had no reason it seemed for the equivalent social shame, but he might have chosen to amplify his distrust of someone into the distrust of everyone. For, as he had said to me on the phone, he may now be able to trust me, but who couldn’t he now trust? And though I might have become about the only person he did trust, this trust had come out of more than a week of deep mistrust. Would it have been easier for him if I had been culpable; that all he would have lost was a specific friend rather than a general sense of security?

I could have put these ideas aside as mere suppositions were it not for an event a few weeks ago: a friend’s stag night in Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. Eight of us had hired one of the wooden, Scandinavian style chalets around the back of Dalfaber, about a mile and a half from the town centre. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, half of us coming from Inverness; the other half from the south – Glasgow and Edinburgh – and laid out a light lunch and some wine and some beer on the garden table. All of us were now in our late twenties or early thirties, half of us in steady relationships, and most could no longer manage the all day drinking sessions of ten years before. As a fly perched on a slab of brie, as the sharp sun began to retreat behind a cloud, I watched as Bill sipped at wine, Jack slowly drank his beer, as some of the others seemed more interested in chomping on bread or taking the odd toke.

I hoped that this relaxed, slow-burn move towards inebriation would continue throughout the evening. I worried that if it didn’t, if Jack got really drunk, he might start accusing someone of the whole tape fiasco. And I thought this for a specific reason, for sitting at the table was Bill’s school friend, Michael, a police officer who entered the force on a fast track programme after university: long after the raid on Bill’s place but long before the raid on Jack’s. Would Jack believe Michael had something to do with the raid on his flat?

I was aware, then, that Bill and Jack had conceivable reasons for disliking each other; and thought maybe Bill had persuaded Michael to raid Jack’s place as curious, belated revenge, and that I was part of that revenge. Bill never much liked Jack after that dawn raid. Of all of us it was Jack who was most dismissive of the seriousness of the incident, and the one who suggested Bill’s sudden need for valium a weakness of character. Jack thought Bill should have been stronger than that. This wasn’t said judgmentally; Jack just thought Bill should have relied on his friends over the soporific of a drug. But what did I ever do against Bill?

We went on to the bar, where the music was so loud, and the bar so busy, that drinking slowly and chatting quietly proved impossible. Instead all of us got cheerfully or morosely wrecked. Bill, cheerfully, and Jack morosely; I, somewhere in between – warily perhaps.

It wasn’t until we got back to the chalet that the argument started. Jack began by accusing Bill of being responsible for the raid at his place, and followed by implying that his mate Michael was at the centre of the operation. Bill replied that it was interesting Jack now thought he’d become the main suspect. Didn’t Jack think at one stage it was his own best friend, pointing at me?

Jack looked at me, maybe expecting a chastisement, but instead I looked at Bill, aware, suddenly, of how the chain of events had probably developed. I suggested nothing more needed to be said, went over not to Jack but to Bill, and half threw a punch that made him flinch. Jack maybe expected me to threaten him as well, and stood up, but instead I walked out of the chalet and kept on walking.

And what did I do during that walk? I thought. I worked through the situation to understand how culpable I was, and why maybe having two friends one likes isn’t much use if the two friends don’t like each other. For what I believed happened was this, as I mingled recollection with supposition. The weekend after I had been down to Glasgow, I had mentioned casually to Bill that I had been staying over at Jack’s, and that I could perhaps understand just ever so slightly what happened that morning Bill’s place was raided. It was, I explained to Bill, similar and yet not the same. Even though Jack was hardly authority, for the first time I guess he was as I almost found myself caught in his loft. It was, I said, the only occasion since my childhood I had felt that way. That day he’d mused over whether Jack had ever felt like that: if he’d ever felt reduced to anxiety and fear. He said it with bitterness, presumably recalling Jack’s response to his own feelings of anxiety and fear after his place was raided.

The question left to me was not whether Bill had then deliberately set Jack up, but whether Bill set me up also. Did he falsely tip off the police to give Jack a scare only, or did he tip off the police so that Jack wouldn’t be able to trust his best friend, namely me, who had been up in his loft, and then left the loft cover half in place? I don’t think it was about Bill getting one over on me, though I think my instinct to threaten Bill was the right one. Bill I believed had given much thought to why Jack was always scornful of Bill’s fear of society, and that lay in Jack’s respect for the individual. Jack always maintained that what mattered was less social preconception than personal accumulation – the way people could build relationships around mutual trust. The notion of policemen coming to his flat and looking for kiddie porn when he had no interest in such a thing would have disturbed him far less than the notion that his closest friend might have planted it there for an obscure reason that would trouble him no matter how absurd the proposition was. If Bill wanted to get at me, it was only to more clearly get at Jack.

So maybe I was right to have threatened Bill, but was his final culpability not less significant than mine? It was me who chatted casually to Bill about being in Jack’s loft, and thus it was me who on some level betrayed Jack and trusted Bill and set the situation in motion. But then, of course, there was that line of Bill’s: didn’t Jack think at one stage I was the culprit? Had Jack not phoned Bill some time after the raid – in a moment of weakness and as he finally recognized Bill’s feelings concerning the incident years before – but before he felt he could trust me again? This combination of hypothesis and recall may make Bill out to be a sociopath, but I should never have underestimated Bill’s feelings of wretchedness after the raid and the loathing he must have developed for Jack. Nor should I have overestimated even so resolute a character as Jack: that even he possessed feelings of indecisiveness and insecurity. The greater pity, though, is that, finally understanding Jack’s position on life, Bill chose not to learn from it but to exploit it. And maybe only now do I fully understand the significance of Jack’s ‘philosophy’ and the way that many of us settle for a more general social alternative. Where Jack worked piecemeal to build up trust with maybe a dozen people he cared about (including several ex-girlfriends he claimed to still deeply love, though with whom he couldn’t live), and who could know anything about him, many of us work off degrees of secrecy and mistrust to protect ourselves from shame and humiliation. Life seems less complicated that way, even if our relationships with each other aren’t taken as seriously than those we have with wider abstract society. This was a wider abstract society that perhaps captured Bill, a vulnerable person at a vulnerable age, who became not just scared of authority but also learnt how to play with its possibilities. I wonder now whether on the one hand there have been others Bill has, over the years, also subtly undermined, and whether on the other this will prove just a blip in Jack’s overall faith in human beings. If it is true Bill has played with others as he played with Jack and me, and if it is the case that Jack will now lack the faith in people he has so often practiced, I might wonder whether something in my own confidence in life will subtly collapse. I exaggerate, of course, and yet I wonder if this story is the examination of two areas of trust – the personal and the social – showing signs of erosion.

 

©Tony McKibbin