This page as PDF



A few weeks ago a friend returned to Edinburgh for the first time since he had moved down to a university town in the south of England. He wasn’t working for the university, but for a publishing firm in the same place, and yet though he was employed in an office in the town centre, it was of course the university that permeated the place and made him, he believed, curiously and often horribly lonely. I sensed this when he told me couple of anecdotes over the phone several weeks earlier, saying that he believed certain people were invisible or functional, somehow at the service of others whose lives were deemed, in everything they said and did, more significant. I recall we had talked years before of a phrase from Jeremy Seabrook where he mentioned the cadences of command, and also a comment by Tom Nairn where he discussed the nasal cawing of certain accents from the south of England.  Maybe I would have had such an accent myself if I had stayed in the place where I was born, in Amersham on the outskirts of London, but maybe twenty years in Scotland have softened my hard consonants and allowed for subtler inflections on the vowels.

The anecdotes were trivial but meaningful, perhaps all the more meaningful for being trivial. Michael was going into a supermarket when he saw a student asking a couple of young women around his own age if they would look after his dog. Overhearing the girls’ accent as they agreed, he presumed they were Polish, and overhearing the young man’s voice he was certain that he was a publicly school educated Englishman. He possessed the cadences of command, but also the charm of someone who would prefer to use his charisma to get what he wanted, and not for power. Though they are perhaps almost the same thing, Michael mused. I asked whether the young man was in the shop for very long; around ten minutes. Michael and the young man were in the same queue. When Michael came out of the shop a minute or two after him, he saw the young man was standing talking to the two girls. They were laughing at something he had said, and he seemed to be tapping their numbers into his mobile. I asked what the young women looked like. Attractive, fashionable, hair perhaps dyed; slim. And the man I wondered? Conventionally good looking, quite tall, casually wearing clothes that probably cost a lot of money, where he supposed with the Polish girls it was the other way round.

I asked whether he saw any of them again. He said he hadn’t; and I knew that if he had Michael would have recognized them; he would often observe faces, bodies and social situations. He would have made a good writer I always thought: someone on whom nothing is lost.

The other situation he said was quite similar. He was in the same supermarket a few days later, and a young man who seemed to be from a similar background as the one a few days before, was queuing at the check-out when he looked as if he had forgotten something. He smiled and asked one of the shop assistants if he could quickly pick up for him a packet of fags, which would usually be bought separately at another counter. Off the assistant went, returning with the cigarettes and saving the young man the time it would take to queue again for them. Michael was also a smoker, and yet he always bought his shopping and then went over and queued again to buy his twenty Marlboro Light. Never had the idea of Marlboro felt quite so heavy, he joked to me, as when he walked out of the shop.

These were of course very minor events in anybody’s life, and I might have mused just how lonely Michael must have been to have noticed such incidents; maybe what could more appropriately be called incidentals, as though without the heft of actual events. But as I’ve said, Michael was a good observer, and he rarely saw things idly, but with acuity.

I wondered how someone could write about such things, after he half-jokingly said there are a couple of colonial stories for you. Wasn’t the history of colonialism and power about the largeness of events? Around the same time Michael told me these stories, I was reading a book called The Open Veins of Latin America. I had been to Argentina the winter before, and I was doing a course in the Office of Lifelong Learning on Latin American Art and Politics. Several passages of the book gave me nightmares, especially ones dealing with the slave trade. The writer Eduardo Galeano described how many Africans didn’t survive the Atlantic crossing. On the voyage many died of malnutrition; others refused to eat and starved to death; still others threw themselves into the shark heavy seas. How could one even talk of power structures in a supermarket when there had been and still were numerous imprisonings, tortures and killings all around the world? Seabrook’s cadences of command colonially may have been one thing, but the commands didn’t seem so relevant today in Britain surely.

Michael was a Scot, born in Glasgow and who had lived his first thirty four years in his homeland, before this job took him south. He had travelled a great deal, had girlfriends from other countries, but always knew he didn’t want to leave home. Home for him was the entire country, and he had worked in Inverness, Stirling and Edinburgh. He wasn’t especially naïve about it either: he knew that Scotland had a colonial past of its own as part of the British Empire, and, I recall, when he was living in Stirling, sitting eating with him and a couple of others in an Indian restaurant called the East India Company. It was a basement restaurant that resembled the galley of a ship, and on the walls were paintings of numerous figures from the very company that was a powerful organization in the development of colonialism. Michael named some of the people on the wall, and said that the restaurant had the best food in the town but the most suspect décor: some of the pictures were of Scots involved in dirty deeds in the colonial expansion.

So there Michael was capable of sitting eating in a restaurant with pictures on the wall of numerous worthless worthies, but struggling to cope with going in and out of a supermarket where hints of the colonial could, he believed, still be noticed. I found myself wondering about traces left that are concrete and abstract; verbal and visual. I wondered if my nightmares would have been even worse if I didn’t only have the images Galeano invokes, but also the sounds of those who were refusing food and water, of those jumping into the sea. I also mused over why it would be easier for Michael to go into a restaurant that had traces of the colonial past on the walls and in the names, but couldn’t countenance the casual colonialism he believed he witnessed inside and outside a shop.

Michael arrived that weekend after the phone call and stayed at his ex-partner’s on the first night, having asked if me if he could spend the next one at mine. His ex was seeing someone else, and she would be staying over at the lover’s place on the Friday night so he could be alone with his eight year old son all evening and for most of the following day. When he came over that Saturday evening to my compact, colonies flat, with its small downstairs and even smaller attic upstairs, his mood was melancholic and initially his mind somewhere else: he admitted later that for the first half hour of our chat as I prepared dinner his mind was as elsewhere as mine no doubt had been whilst cooking up the food. He had said goodbye to Sam shortly before arriving, and wondered how he might be able to see him again briefly in the morning before he left. His partner’s place was on the city’s outskirts and it would be unlikely he would make it before catching his train at ten thirty early the next day.

As we started to eat, he apologised for his lack of concentration, said briefly why this was so, and then added that there was another thing that he would tell me about later, perhaps after we had caught up with each other’s news. I asked him whether it was private; Laura, my partner, might come round and join us later. No, he insisted, there was nothing especially private about what he had to say, or at least not apparently.

A while later, Laura phoned saying she probably wouldn’t come, that she was enjoying herself at tango, and a few of them were going to continue onto a Salsa Club afterwards. I was relieved: I knew Mike and Laura didn’t especially dislike each other, but the tension of misaligned personalities was palpable. After she called, I asked him to tell me the story.  He said he wasn’t sure if it was really a story, but that it was definitely more than incidental.

He reminded me again that his flat was a self-contained apartment within the house of a woman who was often away, who seemed herself estranged from her husband, and appeared to have no children. He had the basement, and she lived on the two floors above. One evening she invited him up for dinner, and he accepted, feeling strange at the time for no other reason than that he was eating at somebody else’s house yet that house was part of the one in which he was living. He pressed the buzzer, he was ushered in, and as he followed her into the kitchen he handed her a bottle of wine, and within five minutes the food was on the table that had already been prepared by the time he arrived. It was a simple Pasta dish, with salad, and followed by an apple pie that seemed home-made. The conversation was as simple and straight-forward as the food, with the discussion ranging over his work and hers, with their areas of interest engaging enough for the topics to take up most of the evening. Mike was working on a year-long project, one of the editors on a new collected works of a famous Anglo-Scottish writer, while she was a part-time lecturer at the university in linguistics. But over dessert he noticed for the first time a picture of a girl around seventeen, and asked if it happened to be her daughter. She said Sarah died several years ago in an accident, and then she asked him about his son, whom he had mentioned when he came to see the flat, after asking if it would be alright if his son could occasionally visit.

That evening he didn’t ask her any further questions, but later, back in the flat, he turned on the computer and put the daughter’s name into a Google search. The story concerned an incident in the centre of France, where Sarah was swimming in a river. The current pulled her downstream, and a young man jumped in to try and save her. He also struggled with the pace of the river, and his father waded in to save his son and Sarah. They all perished. As Michael told me this, he said he remembered reading about the story in the paper, and I said that I also remembered it as well. We both recalled being shocked and moved, and couldn’t quite work out one feeling from the other. I said I thought I had read it as a Short Cuts news story in the Guardian Weekly, and he said perhaps that is where he had read it also. He recalled that the story was brief; but that he found himself thinking much about it beyond the story, many of whose details he didn’t know because it was so short. He said he remembered thinking of the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

Over the following days he would have nightmares thinking of the incident, thinking of his landlady receiving the news, thinking how difficult it must be for her to sleep at night now. Once he woke up, made some tea, and as he sat in the basement kitchen he listened alertly for any noise from above: was she unable herself to sleep? He of course couldn’t stop thinking of Sam, who was so far from him, and during the night he had wanted to phone him, to make sure nothing had happened. Even now, he said, while he was sitting having dinner with me, he wanted to rush over to the house and make sure he was okay.

I didn’t have children, but I wondered how close it was to feeling the absence of a lover. He said he remembered when he was with his partner, Sam’s mum, during the first few months, he was frequently jealous, often wanted to follow her when they were not together, and yet believed it was a totally different feeling than the one that possessed him now. He said he found that sometimes when he was thinking of the landlady’s loss, he didn’t always think of his son; sometimes he thought about her daughter as well. He remembered the picture in her dining room, and wondered what accent this seventeen year old girl would have had: her mother was Swiss and her father Chinese, but she was clearly a girl who had been brought up in an academic environment. He asked if I recalled the little anecdote he told about the two Polish girls and the young man who asked them to look after his dog. I nodded, and he said for some reason he felt that the girl who had died was as if both the girls and the young man, and that the class difference had somehow dissolved.

I can’t claim to have quite understood what he meant, but I think it was as though so class-conscious a person as Michael wanted to acknowledge the irrelevance of class next to a certain type of pain, but knew of course that much pain came out of class-consciousness. His landlady was wealthy enough to own a large house in one of the most expensive parts of the country, and I know when we talked on the phone that he commented on its size and that his rent wasn’t so cheap rent. I think that evening he was more confused than I had ever seen him before, and while he expressed it chiefly as a feeling of empathy towards the mother, and tenderness towards his son, I wondered if there was also some feeling of vulnerability towards people he would ideally have liked to dismiss whilst living out his time in England.

Now Michael and I first got to know each other about five years before, after he split up with his partner and was looking for a place to stay. I was renting a box-room with a skylight, and was charging only a couple of hundred pounds in rent. He got his own place after about nine months, when he took the job in Stirling, but the glum affinity we shared (a partner had left me months before he moved in) became a fine friendship, and he joked that I was the first Englishman he could call a friend. So I was a little surprised that he agreed to take a job in a country he often disparaged, and even more so when he took a job in a place that was so well known as a seat of English learning.

But the pay was good; his previous contract had come to an end, and he realized he was still emotionally reliant on his son, which was understandable, and his ex-partner, which was not. Anyway, a couple of weeks after he had gone back down after the visit I’ve just described, I got a call asking what I was up to, and I said not much, but that Laura and I were wondering what to do with the Easter break that was approaching. She wanted to go to Paris, I said, and so maybe we could drive down to visit him, and then get the Eurostar over to France. He said he was going to be in Edinburgh from Easter Friday through till Monday, and I said we could see him on the way back – we were going to be away for a week. I said I would leave my keys with a mutual friend and he could stay in the flat while I was gone. I asked him if he had any more stories to tell, and he said perhaps, but they could wait until we next met.

While we were in Paris I got a text from Michael asking if it would be alright if the three of us dined with his landlady the evening we got back. I said that would be fine, though I did wonder about what he wanted to tell me, and whether he would consequently have the opportunity. We were arriving at around six, booking into our bed and breakfast, having dinner and then leaving the next morning. I mentioned the meal to Laura, and I think she was mildly relieved. It was as though the trip to Paris was her decision, but the visit to Michael’s very much mine. It wasn’t that she disliked him; more that she never quite knew what motivated him, and for Laura this was almost a human failing, where for me it had always been a sign of individuality: that interesting people were much more complexly coded than others and part of the pleasure in their company lay in understanding something of their behaviour and attitude.

Laura was not really sympathetic to individuality, perhaps because her father died an alcoholic and a failed painter at fifty (though I liked his work and believe his life had been from a creative point of view a success), and that his moods when she was a child scared her. It was perhaps, she once mused shortly after we started seeing each other, why she had never had kids of her own: she had never gone out with a man she believed was consistent enough to trust as the father of her children. Very understandably she desired consistency from people and Michael would often react strongly to Laura’s common places, his tone frequently indicating that all she offered was an unacknowledged cliché, thus leaving Laura feeling vaguely intimidated. But in the two years I had known her she had never lost her temper with me, never said an unfair word about anyone else and never even once criticized Michael, and so much of what I have offered comes from questioning and supposition on my part, making sense of her doubts and worries, for she never uttered digs and comments. Maybe her job put certain things into perspective that Michael and I could never really understand. She was a child psychologist whose first post before had been working with the traumatised children from what was called the Dunblane massacre, where someone went into a school in a small town and blasted away, killing children and teachers.

When we arrived at Michael’s he said that the three of us could go along to the pub at the end of the road and catch up whilst his landlady prepared dinner. Laura sensed though that Michael wanted to talk to me alone, and so while I have suggested it is typical of Laura not to enquire into people’s motives, she is nevertheless extremely good at sensing people’s needs, and she insisted that she wanted to go for a walk and buy a couple of things from the shops.

As soon as we sat down with our drinks I asked Michael what it was he wanted to tell me. He said that the weekend before last he had again gone to his landlady’s for dinner, and she was asking him a few questions about Sam and whether he always enjoyed seeing him. He found it a slightly odd question, and insisted that of course he did. She asked him if he was ever short with him, ever brusque and irritated. He admitted he sometimes was, and she said that her and her ex-husband could sometimes be like that with Sarah. They were always busy, she said, and sometimes now, when she would think about it, there must have been a number of occasions where Sarah would have gone to her room, perhaps cried, perhaps felt utterly alone. After her death her mother had heard that at school, over the years, she was sometimes bullied, and she would occasionally wonder, thinking of that bullying, and her and her husband’s occasional indifference, whether her daughter’s death was suicide. Everybody she expressed this idea to said that it was obviously nonsense, and a mother’s way of dealing with the guilt by blaming herself. But who knows? The water was fast moving when Sarah went into it, nobody else was swimming in the river, and it promptly took the two lives that followed her in. The landlady said she sometimes believed that she was guilty for their deaths as well.

After the dinner Michael left, not staying for the tea or coffee she offered. He didn’t know whether he refused because he thought she wanted to be alone or that he wanted to escape. That night he had no need to look anything up on the internet, but he did think about his own relationship with Sam, and wondered how often he had treated him with an abrupt, annoyed air. As he did so he heard the landlady upstairs, obviously herself unable to sleep.

Laura came back shortly after Michael’s disclosure, and after we had shared a rare semi-awkward silence, Laura’s return was a welcome interruption. She had with her a bottle of wine that she knew Michael had always liked, and the three of us walked along the road and back to the house.

The dinner was polite, the conversation civil and un-illuminating, and the landlady showed no signs of the pain she had expressed to Michael that earlier evening. Yet as I scouted around the room during the starter I saw no sign of the photo that Michael had mentioned and that first provoked the conversation about the daughter. Michael seemed to notice as well, and there was a complicit understanding between us that something had led to the picture being removed.

Michael and I didn’t have the chance to talk about it after the meal; Laura and I went straight to our bed and breakfast. But a couple of days later he phoned and asked if I had noticed that the photo was missing. He said he had been thinking a lot about insensitivity and wondered why he could be so appalled by the examples of it he recounted to me when we talked on the phone a few weeks before, and perhaps oblivious to it in his own life. That evening when he thought about the numerous times he had treated Sam without much feeling, because of his own mood, and yet could get so irate over a couple of people being asked to look after a privileged person’s dog, or see a shop assistant treated as an inferior, he couldn’t sleep. He admitted though that what was so troubling him wasn’t that he felt that guilty over Sam: he didn’t want to claim he was staying awake that night for similar reasons to his landlady: this would have been pathetically exaggerated. It was instead that he knew he had for many years gotten a great deal of socio-political mileage out of noticing moments of injustice in daily life.

As I’ve said, I sensed Laura’s problem with Michael more than that she expressed it to me, and it may have been because I also noticed some of these aspects in Michael and so also saw how Laura would deflect them, contain them or avoid them. If Michael was one of life’s observers and its commentators, Laura seemed to me to be someone who was closer to one of its listeners. Yet I also felt my perspective was probably closer to Michael’s than to Laura’s, and close enough for Michael to tell me about those two very minor incidents in the supermarket, incidents he may well have told no one else not because they were great secrets, of course, but that someone would have seen the immediate insignificance, rather than the broader socio-political issues Michael believed lay behind them, and that I reckoned lay there also.

I said to Michael that I think I understood what he was saying, and that losing a little sleep over how we’re sometimes more sensitive to the political than the personal isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we all need to lose some sleep over that question, in one direction or the other. I knew I sometimes wished Laura were more political, but I also admired her for that capacity to see the problem for what it was from an empathic, personal perspective.

After the phone call I went up to the bedroom and saw Laura, who was staying over at mine, was already sleeping. I wasn’t yet tired, and indeed over the next couple of hours I sat on the sitting room couch musing over the idea that there I was unable to sleep downstairs with Laura silent above me, while somewhere in the south of England Michael was below his landlady, perhaps both of them wide awake as she thought about her dead daughter, and Michael about his estranged son. I also thought for a while whether I was the man that Laura trusted enough to have children with. At that moment I felt a mixture of tenderness and sorrow, and yet could also feel a very strong sense of well-being that the person I loved was asleep above me.


©Tony McKibbin