I had always been someone who retreated from feeling ever since, as a nine year old boy, determining, along with a friend, to seduce a girl our own age. I suppose seduce seems a grand term for a pathetic aim: we wanted to see her naked and wondered how we would persuade the girl to display her body to us. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in the class, we agreed, but she was bonnie enough, and more likely to go with our plan than some of the others. Arriving from the mainland the previous year we knew that she had only one or two friends, and no close ones. Harry insisted we would invite her over to the castle grounds, a tree rich area across the bay from the town centre on an island with very few trees at all. We had decided at school one day that we would say to her that a few of us were going on a nature walk and we’d all meet her on the bridge over to the grounds. When she would arrive she would see that it was only the three of us. Perhaps she would back out, but by then it would require on her part a gesture of assertiveness; if we were to ask her at school saying it would only be the three of us she could easily say she was busy with other things.
Our plan worked. It was a summer afternoon, around one o’clock, and the weather was very warm for an Island day. We were all dressed lightly: Harry and I in shorts and a T-shirt; Faye in a short skirt and a vest. I am not sure whether I could say we were aroused by the sight of her walking alongside us, since I have no memory now of how my desire manifested itself as a physical response. I do recall however feeling excited, rather as I would a couple of years later when I first shoplifted and put a chocolate bar in my jacket pocket. It was as though in each instance – in seeing Faye take off her clothes, or stealing a slender chocolate bar – I had no interest in the pleasures of the senses; more in the desire for transgression.
We walked along past Gallows Hill and by the Creed river and, with no one around, we found a patch of grass semi-surrounded by trees and Harry suggested we stop off for tea and a sandwich. As Harry brought out the flask, he put it to one side and snapped a branch off from a tree and looked over at Faye whose expression suggested that she thought he was going to tickle us with it. Instead he moved towards her and pushing the end of it under her chin said that if she didn’t immediately start taking her clothes off he was going to whip her with it. She immediately started to sob, saying that she thought we liked her, that we wanted to be her friends, and Harry, acting like a villain he would have seen in films, said of course we liked her. We wouldn’t just ask anyone to strip in the middle of the Castle Grounds.
As she started do so I said that it wasn’t fair, we couldn’t make her do this. Harry looked at me with the contempt that said I could be as cowardly and irresolute as I liked, but not when it played havoc with a careful plan. If I had wanted to see Faye strip less because I wanted to see her naked than that I wanted to be doing something transgressive, for Harry it appeared as if he didn’t care to see Faye naked either: he wanted simply to know that he could engineer a situation and execute it. There we were a few hundred yards from Gallows Hill and I was ruining the plan.
He turned from me to Faye and said that she should go: we had had our fun. She ran along the narrow road and presumably back home. After she was out of sight Harry attacked me with the stick and I turned on him, broke it in two, pushed him to the ground and pinned his arms to the grass with my knees. I was much stronger than he was, but I knew in some way I was much weaker too; that I lacked the courage to have an idea in my mind and follow through on it in my life. Over the years, as a teenager and even into my twenties, I would occasionally get into fights, but while even if I won most of them I gained nothing from the encounter. Over the years I saw that Harry did: win or lose, who knew how to score broader victories
I didn’t see Harry or Faye for the remaining couple of weeks of the summer holidays, but when I got back to school, as we entered primary five, I saw them constantly together. Whatever a couple is at the age of ten, then that is what they were. I of course puzzled over this often. There I was the boy who tried to protect Faye’s honour and her feelings, and there she was going out with the boy who set out to humiliate her. But then hadn’t I been part of that plan, too? The difference between Harry and I was only really one of resolve. We both showed ourselves to be manipulative; Harry alone illustrated his capacity for determination.
They were together all year. During this time Harry and I never spoke, and had no reason to do so: we were never in the same class and it was easy to avoid each other in the playground. The following year though I noticed Harry appeared no longer to be with Faye, and when I asked someone whether they were still seeing each other, they said that she had left the school and gone back to the mainland. That year Harry formed a gang, and over the next five years, and into secondary school, they become the people anyone with any sense would avoid or a gang they would try and join.
I avoided them. At secondary school in the second year pupils were separated into single language classes or double language classes. Harry and most of the gang members were in single language classes; I chose to do both Latin and French. Perhaps I did so less because of any love of languages, than my fear that I would get bullied or press-ganged into joining Harry’s crew. But it was as though there was a discreet class assumption, with its punning possibilities, in belonging to a class that was learning two languages rather than one: a sense that Harry was going to prey quite literally on his own class, and draw his recruits from it too. It wasn’t so much that Harry would have thought we were superior to him and his cohorts; more that we occupied a place that needn’t concern him: that we weren’t at all a threat. There was another gang in another single language class (there were three single language classes; three double language classes) and the tensions usually took place between them. I think if Harry had tried to bully or compel anyone from our class to join the gang it wouldn’t have felt like much of a victory, but to do so with someone from another single language class was like a declaration of war. During most of secondary school there would be fights every week or so, but almost all of them were between Harry’s class and the other one, and frequently over stealing people or bullying people from that third single language group.
Yet most in the school knew that Harry was terrifying. I would hear stories from other pupils in my class sometimes about witnessing Harry fighting in the town centre outside the amusement arcade; setting fire to trees in the Castle Grounds, seeing him and a dozen others rolling tyres down Matheson Road, stealing them from a garage for bonfire night. By fourth year, he was well over six foot and the teacher’s didn’t so much tolerate him as negotiate with him: they knew that if they could work a deal out with Harry, they would have a quiet class.
From what I would hear Harry was an able and engaged student: his interest never seemed to be rebellion; more power, and he was clever enough to know that school could help his long term plans. Though he left that year instead of staying on to do Highers, he left with six ‘O’ Grades, someone said. While I was doing my Highers, he went off to the college in the Castle Grounds, presumably no longer as interested in burning them down. He was studying to be a plant mechanic, a job I knew his father had and a job that had killed him. Out in the council depot, near Marybank, his dad was working underneath a heavy goods vehicle and was crushed when the system collapsed. Harry was around seven and it was before we became friends. He never talked about it, but I remember looking at the story in the local paper: Harry’s mother sued the council and won a substantial settlement.
After my sixth year, I worked in my father’s law firm helping out around the office, before going off to university in Glasgow that September. I started studying French and literature, and I noticed in one of the lectures someone who looked a lot like Faye. With her fair ash brown hair and light green eyes, she looked like the woman my child imagination would have wished her into: she was slenderly built and though not tall a shortish trunk on long legs made her appear taller than she was. I wasn’t sure if afterwards I didn’t introduce myself because I thought it couldn’t be her, or because I was too embarrassed to say hello since her abiding memory, if she had any memory at all, would probably be of someone who many years earlier had asked to see her body. I might at university have been an eighteen year old who had a girlfriend throughout my fifth year, another in sixth year, a summer fling and two one night stands in my first few weeks at uni, but in her eyes I would have been a young boy scheming to get her clothes off.
But it would have been after another lecture, a couple of weeks later, that she came up to me and said that I looked familiar; I replied that we would have known each other many years earlier. My accent and the invoking of the distant past led to a recognition on her face. Instead of scowling and recalling my pestering presence, she smiled, saying that of course I was the boy who allowed her to keep her clothes on. I wondered if she would have said this had I remained the fidgety, nervous predator in my body language that I happened to be then, or whether she was reacting to the late teenager I had become who was happy in the company of women, and confident that in certain cases I could get them to undress without the aid of a stick.
Over the next few months I undressed Faye quite often as we became regular lovers without quite establishing a relationship. She hadn’t broken up with a boyfriend back home in Bristol; I occasionally occupied the beds of others. However on returning to university after the Christmas period, Faye said that, when she went to bed with her boyfriend, she felt he wasn’t there at all. It wasn’t even as though she believed she had betrayed him: they had agreed since both going off to uni (he was at Sussex) that they wouldn’t break up; but they would have an open relationship, and they had both acknowledged sleeping with others. But it was if when they were in bed together, and he seemed to be capable of sleeping with her again as if he hadn’t other assignations, shocked and frightened her; as if she would have been happier with him acknowledging the difficulty of re-establishing intimacy so that this very confession could perhaps have made them close again. He couldn’t understand what the problem was: hadn’t they agreed to have fun with others; it didn’t mean they couldn’t still have a meaningful time with each other.
It was his incomprehension that she couldn’t countenance, and this had nothing at all to do with morality. After all, what moral high ground could she survey the situation from; hadn’t she and I been lovers for several months? Yet at the same time she realised that perhaps fidelity was important to her; that though she thought she was in an open relationship with her boyfriend and I, actually that wasn’t so at all. She had been in a relationship with him; and was in one with me. When that fidelity was tested, she knew who she wanted to be with.
Faye presented this to me that first evening back in my flat in Hillhead, not far from the university. She was staying in halls; I was staying in the flat my father had bought ten years earlier and where my three brothers had also stayed after all graduating from Glasgow. Both my flatmates hadn’t yet returned from their holidays, and I’d taken the opportunity to cook a meal, lay out candles, make the kitchen much more intimate than it would usually be. The strip lighting was off, and apart from the candles I’d also taken a couple of lamps through from the sitting room. Had my lighting created the space for Faye’s revelations? If Faye was announcing that she wanted a relationship with me, had I created the spatial circumstances in which such a claim could be made? I knew that I didn’t have any problem separating the two or three other girls I had slept with from my affection for Faye: when I had been in bed with them I hadn’t thought of Faye at all; and when I was with Faye no one else came to my mind. Faye didn’t know of these other assignations. I hadn’t felt any obligation to tell her, and that evening I said to Faye I would be happy if we started seeing each other as a couple.
Why did I say this? At the time I probably wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but now, several years later, I would say my commitment came paradoxically out of the very aloofness that Faye as a young girl had activated: that retreat from feeling my nine year old self insisted upon as I couldn’t ask Faye to remove her clothes, and would then see her with the very person who had no qualms about asking her to do so. That night as she slept next to me I awoke half aroused as I lay next to her and she felt my excitement against her body; for the first time she initiated the action and said afterwards, for the first time, that she loved me. I replied that I liked her very much and she didn’t seem disappointed that I didn’t say that I loved her back. I suppose she assumed I would say it when I felt like it just as she had done. But I never did say it to her; and she never said it again.
Yet over the next few months we were a couple, seen by all our friends at university as a pair and always invited to places together. When one of us went alone, others would ask where the other person happened to be. I didn’t find this irksome, but I didn’t quite feel that I could be myself at these parties that Faye would be too busy to attend. Her degree was in Biology; mine in Sociology. She would spend far more hours in the lab than I would devote to reading in the library. It was as though if I were to talk at length to another girl, I would be disrespectful to Faye in the gaze of others: to her friends and mine.
At one of these parties while Faye was still working I started discussing Durkheim’s ideas on anomic suicide with a philosophy student a year above me. She was from Italy, she said, but her parents had arrived in Glasgow around ten years ago after her father got a job at Strathclyde University. She was around the same height as Faye, but with surprising grey eyes and pale skin, yet with very dark brown hair that contrasted strongly with her skin tone and made her look faintly Goth-like yet with no hint that it was an image she was cultivating. She wore no make-up, and while her clothing was dark, it didn’t indicate the insistence of an image. I noticed these aspects of her after we had been talking for an hour and she said she needed to go to the bathroom and get herself another drink. My wine glass was still three quarters full and had been almost full when we started to talk. As she didn’t ask if I wanted anything as she went off, and so often at parties people use the bathroom as an excuse to excise themselves from company, I suspected she might not return to her seat. But back she came a few minutes later, with a bottle of wine less than half empty, suggesting she would be more than happy for us to continue talking for as long as it would take us to finish the bottle. At the slow rate we were drinking, that could take most of the night I suggested.
Perhaps had we drunk much more quickly we would have claimed we didn’t quite know what we were doing, and ended up sleeping together, but maybe what we did was much worse, much more problematic for my relationship with Faye. We talked through till five in the morning, when the party ended, and I walked her back to her flat about ten minutes away from the Botanic Gardens, and about twenty minutes away from both the flat we had been in, and my own place. Throughout the evening we hadn’t discussed whether we were seeing anyone, so as we walked I told her that I had a girlfriend. Yet I think I said it less out of respect for Faye, than for fear of disrespecting Elena when we reached her door: I wanted her to know that I wasn’t making a pass not because I didn’t find her beautiful, but because I couldn’t lie to her and didn’t want her to be under a false impression. She said she suspected I was with someone; and she couldn’t deny she wasn’t seeing anyone either. We seemed caught in a world of double negatives, spoken and unspoken, but as we reached the front step of her flat she asked if I wanted to come in anyway. I wasn’t sure whether she meant I should come in and talk even though we were both seeing someone; or whether the idea of us going out with others need necessarily stop us from sleeping with each other.
I stayed for a couple of hours, and left just before it was becoming light. Nothing happened, I suppose, and yet that didn’t seem quite right: something had happened.
Over the next couple of weeks I didn’t see Elena at all: we hadn’t swapped phone numbers or email addresses, and I missed her quietly: both happily enjoying Faye’s company, but not at all oblivious to the possibility of seeing Elena again. It was as if I had sacrificed morality to contingency: if I were to see Elena once more it would be chance that would be bringing us together; not preconception. And so chance would be to blame; not me. I made no effort to turn up at any of her lectures, didn’t wander around the area in which she lived, or frequent the couple of cafes she had mentioned liking when we had talked. Was such a willingness to rely on chance evidence of a certain type of cowardice, or was I trying to claim for my potential infidelity a paradoxical higher calling – that a chance meeting would really be an act of predestination?
Over the following weeks after that party, I strangely felt more attached to Faye than at any other time we were together. I had not cheated on her and therefore felt no guilt, and perhaps because the relationship had been predicated on the sexually open, I didn’t even feel terrible about thinking a lot about Elena when I would look up from Weber discussing the protestant work ethic. I remember during that period Faye and I would often go to the cinema, eat at my place afterwards, make love tenderly, and she would leave after an early breakfast or if it were the weekend I would go out and buy croissants and a baguette from Patisserie Francoise on Byres road. We would lie in bed trying not to get the flaky bits of the croissant and the breadcrumbs on the sheets, and initially the punishment was severe for the person who failed: they would have to go out next time and pick up the items from the bakery. I was usually the perpetrator and faced my punishment with fortitude. Wrapping yourself up warmly to walk a few hundred yards to a decent bakery might not seem like much of a forfeit, but when the choice is between staying wrapped warmly between a sheet and a duvet while witnessing sleet from your bedroom window, and going out into the slushy streets because your partner was better than you at keeping a crumb free zone, then it can be a reason for dismay and self-pity. I would offer this as a joke while coming through the door into the warm flat and smelling the coffee brewing.
It became a weekend ritual, and whether crumbs were to be found or not I would go out into the winter and then the spring morning and pick them up. As the weather improved I would say that Faye could have an extra half hour in bed; I would go for a walk through Kelvingrove park after I had bought them, and work up a bit of an appetite. The first time I proposed this she said I was being unfair: wouldn’t I be less guiltily scoffing on my croissant if I had worked off the additional calories in advance. I said I would promise to buy an all butter one for myself and a plain one for her. She cried that I would have more pleasure and less guilt.
Yet it was on one of these trips, in late March, that I had more pleasure and more guilt. As I entered I saw Elena sitting by the window, reading a book and drinking an espresso. She had clearly seen me as I crossed the street, and started to stand up as I came through the door, giving me a warm hug as I smiled and came towards her table. She asked me if I would join her and if it had been a couple of months earlier, when I would quickly rush down to the cafe and back up to the flat, I of course couldn’t have easily said yes, but I had a half hour window that meant I wasn’t at all inconveniencing Faye. Even guilt I suppose has its variables, its degrees of culpability. I was doing nothing wrong because this was my time, and with Faye unlikely to ask me whether I’d enjoyed my walk I wouldn’t be lying to her either. Yet during that half hour as Elena and I admitted we hoped we would meet again, and how much I had enjoyed our evening’s discussion, I felt the presence of time in the judgement of Faye: of every minute I was spending with Elena likely to make it harder for me to crawl back into bed with Faye – the cuddles I knew I would soon receive feeling like a debt I couldn’t quite pay back, yet there I would be pocketing the cash anyway, doing so less because I needed the money; more that I had pretended I had been skint. Sitting there with Elena it was as though everything was free; that I could take anything without paying for it and perhaps that is what falling in love happens to be. If a long-term relationship is like an emotional bartering system where one person pays the rent while the other pays the bills and buys the shopping; where one person has particular sexual preferences which the other occasionally concedes to accept, and where the beach holiday is a concession by the one who doesn’t easily tan, a new one is like Supermarket sweep but with an unconscious deadline: the moment we fall out of love or feel its weakening, demands are made.
Obviously while sitting there with Elena these metaphors weren’t coming to mind, though I don’t want to credit them with some elaborate literary quality either: they came to me quickly and suddenly while writing this, while trying to make sense of feelings and thoughts not easily disentangled. Anyway, after about twenty five minutes, a friend of Elena’s arrived and I said I would leave them to talk. Elena said I should join them, but I managed to convince her I would be intruding on their catch-up rather than rushing away.
When I got back to the flat I was a few minutes later than usual, but Faye was in the kitchen apologising, saying the coffee would be ready in a minute: she had struggled to get out of bed for some reason. I said she had nothing to apologise for and she came over and hugged me saying she found me so sweet, while I couldn’t help a feeling of sourness work through my body. The coffee tasted more bitter than usual, and even the sweetness of the almond croissant I’d bought for myself couldn’t quite eradicate it.
Often on Saturday afternoons Faye and I would go to a gallery, get a tea in a favourite cafe near Ortega Street, and go for a walk before picking up some shopping. We did all these things that day too, but I was someone for whom these rituals had become gestures, devoid of their content but neither quite without value. As we walked I felt that if I left Faye for Elena I wouldn’t easily forget these moments even if at that time I couldn’t enjoy them either. Could I replicate them with Elena and thus retain the rituals but avoid the feeling of vacancy that was permeating me? Yet I had never been happier with Faye than when Elena had been a possibility. There were a couple of months there when I had an immense tenderness for Faye and a quiet hope for Elena. Seeing her again, exchanging phone numbers with her, telling her we should meet up properly, turned me from someone thinking of an idle hope, to someone duplicitous. If before Christmas Faye and I were a couple with other commitments and liaisons, in the new year I was someone committed in deed but not in thought, but as long is it remained a thought I could enjoy Faye’s company as though she were the only one. But every moment that I was resisting getting in contact with Elena was in danger of generating another gesture of resentment towards Faye.
I had said to Elena after we exchanged details that I was very busy over the next couple of weeks but I would contact her as soon as the two essays I had to write would be completed. This wasn’t a lie, but it did contain within it an alibi: it meant I could try to work out my feelings for Faye without making an instant decision, and meant that putting the decision off needn’t indicate to Elena that I wasn’t interested.
I completed the essays and the day after handing them in I texted Elena saying that I would be free that weekend. Of course I didn’t tell her why I was so available: it wasn’t only that the essays had been handed in, it was also that Faye was going away to Bristol for a few days. She hadn’t seen her parents and her younger brother since Christmas. I also wondered whether she might have been in contact with her ex, that he might also be going back up to Bristol too. Over the previous couple of weeks Faye and I had seen each other very little and when we did I seemed, as she said, only half there. The other half was thinking of the essays I joked, or lied, or both. Where was my mind? It was thinking of Elena, wondering what we would do when I phoned her, but also thinking of being with Elena and at the same time feeling bad about Faye, knowing that I wouldn’t be enjoying my time with Elena partly because I would have Faye in my mind aware that she would be hurting if she knew I was with another woman.
Yet the mind can play tricks on us when we wish to pursue the maximum amount of happiness for ourselves. What I managed to do when Faye said she was visiting Bristol was convince myself that she must have possessed an ulterior motive in doing so, and this motive resided in the ex coming up from Sussex. When I say convince myself, this is of course a stock phrase for a convoluted feeling: it was more that I imagined a scenario to allow myself an unequivocal experience. I managed when I contacted Elena to have in my mind Faye doing exactly the same thing with her ex. This created in me not a sense of jealousy, but a feeling of righteousness: if Faye could cheat then why shouldn’t I? Did I have any evidence for this infidelity on my part? None at all. But I wasn’t looking for evidence, I was looking for an excuse.
Elena said she was free Saturday afternoon and proposed we meet in Patisserie Francoise, but when I arrived the sun was shining and the outdoor tables occupied, so she suggested we should walk and find somewhere along the way. I proposed we walk up through Kelvingrove Park, around by Circus Place and down in the direction of the city centre. Spring was evident in the burgeoning shrubs but it was still cold enough for a coat and a scarf. Elena wore a burgundy coat that passed well below the knee and the scarf was royal blue. The coat’s style gave her walk an assertiveness that without it would have appeared merely as confidence, and the colours drew the attention of passersby as if Elena’s beauty was registered at a distance: an assumption of beauty that a close-up would have confirmed. Perhaps Elena’s very attractiveness generated in me a mild feeling of guilt; that on the faces of those who passed us there was a look of envy on the visages of a number of women and something like desire on that of the face of a number of men.
I didn’t doubt that I wanted to sleep with Elena, what I didn’t expect was to see on the faces of people we walked past that they too would assume I wanted to do so. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if one day while I was walking with Faye we came across Elena and it was clear that we knew each other but that I hadn’t said anything to Faye about her at all. Wouldn’t she assume an inevitable desire on my part all the more pronounced in never having mentioned Elena’s name? But I was jumping far ahead of myself that afternoon, and though Elena and I were in each other’s company till late into the evening, not even a kiss was offered or accepted. After walking for an hour and a half we went to the Lighthouse, off Buchanan Street, where we looked at a series of Charles Rennie Mackintosh architectural designs that were never commissioned, afterwards to the Mackintosh tea room on Sauchiehall street. As we sat down we looked across at the various tourists, pensioners, kids with their parents and decided this wasn’t quite the place for us. A certain snobbery, perhaps, but maybe both of us realised that the cafe couldn’t quite match the romance we were trying to generate. We both used the bathroom and then left. Indeed one of the main reasons we chose the cafe was that we both needed to use the toilet, and we laughed about the idea that cafes are paradoxical places: how often do people stop off for a drink because they need to pee, and in the process drink even more liquid that will mean they will need the bathroom again an hour later. Perhaps, I proposed, there should be a voucher system: if you’ve shown evidence of using a cafe in the city sometime earlier that day, another cafe should allow you to use their bathroom.
Anyway, after leaving the cafe we kept walking up along Sauchiehall Street and decided on a quick look around The CCA, which was housing a couple of exhibitions. Afterwards we got a coffee in the cafe bar which seemed much more appropriate for the sexual tension we would both later admit that we had been generating. Where in the Mackintosh tea rooms the management seemed to assume a spring day much warmer than the one that had materialised and left the heating off, the CCA was warm, despite the hugeness of the building, and that the cafe was on the ground floor and what would basically pass for an enormous foyer. We took off our jackets and our jumpers, and were two people in their early to mid-twenties with bodies we felt under no obligation to hide. Elena was wearing a vest underneath a chiffon blouse. Her shoulders, bare under the diaphanous material, suggested those of a swimmer without at all indicating a robust breadth; more a sinewy flexibility. Perhaps it was yoga or pilates that had given them a look of the well-exercised. I was wearing a bottle green T-shirt that I wore perhaps because it was my favourite; perhaps my favourite because Faye had said the colour matched my eyes.
We talked for several hours, discussing mainly Mackintosh’s work, but also one of the CCA exhibitions. I don’t recall the name of the photographer now, but the work consisted of photography from three cities: one an advanced western one (Paris), one caught between the first and second world (Istanbul) and the third Mumbai. But of course the photographer showed that each world contained within it other worlds: that some of the images of homelessness in Paris were as harrowing as those in Mumbai. There was immense luxury in the hotels in the Indian city, and both luxury and poverty in Istanbul. The point behind the exhibition appeared to be that the terms first, second and third world were of little use in a global climate that was based less on national prosperity than individual wealth.
Elena then started talking about Scotland and specifically Glasgow. Before arriving she said that she had believed the country to have been somehow backward but comfortable. Perhaps it was all those images of castles and talk of clans, but she expected to find a place that was a combination of pre-industrial wealth and post-industrial comfort: that somehow it survived off the oil industry and cashing on its heritage with a thriving tourist trade. Instead when she arrived in Glasgow she saw so many devastated visages, ravaged and riddled by what looked to her not even an individual’s poverty but an entire family’s, going back generations. The people didn’t look like they had descended from proud clans, but were born out of cramped conditions, products of mine shafts and welding torches, of poor light in steelworks, and damp conditions in their houses.
This wouldn’t be quite how Elena phrased it, but it captures something of the confused passion of someone who showed no sign to me of political radicalism; simply someone who saw the people she saw as a perceptual affront, a shock to her expectations. Why if Britain was so rich a country did it have so many poor people; what she saw as a contradiction I was more inclined to see as a product of such a statement rather than a paradox. What was interesting is that during the months I was seeing Faye she never once mentioned the poor she saw around her, and the couple of occasions we did discuss politics she said that her father always said politics became beside the point when Thatcher came to power: she sorted out the unions, benefited the working classes that wanted to work, and left only the bitter and lazy unhappy. She didn’t of course say she agreed with her father’s sentiments, but she made no effort to contradict them either. Talking with Elena about how she saw Scotland and specifically Glasgow was really an eye-opener: in opening her eyes to injustice without any political inclinations, it made me all the more aware of how political were the decisions made about the country.
I offer the above not as a ventriloquial political rant, handily putting my own thoughts in the shocked mind of an Italian quite new to the city, but to say that out of this discussion I felt both much closer to Elena than to Faye, and for the first time that day I possessed no feelings of guilt over our meeting.
While at the CCA Elena received a text from a friend. It was another friend’s birthday and the friend who texted was reminding Elena that she said that she would come along. At first I wondered if this was Elena trying to extricate herself from our situation politely, but she insisted that the gathering was in a pub in Ashton lane, and that I was welcome to join her.
I was relieved she wasn’t trying to get rid of me, but for a moment the sense of disloyalty towards Faye returned and it was exacerbated by the feeling that would I not be betraying Elena too by going along? Would I implicitly be presented as the boyfriend-to-be? Equally, to say that I wouldn’t come along felt as if I would be rejecting Elena, and it was at that moment I recognised that for the time being I wished not to be in the best of all possible worlds, but have the best of both worlds. As long as I was sitting alone with Elena, as long as nobody saw us and nothing had actually happened, I would remain faithful to Faye while retaining the possibility of an assignation with Elena. Yet meeting up with her friends felt compromising.
Nevertheless I went along anyway. We wandered up by the cobbled street and arrived at the pub that shared the name with the cinema next door. I knew the cinemas well, having seen some half a dozen films there with Faye, but I had been to the pub only once. We went up the outside staircase and entered a large, open space with a long bar while Elena looked around for familiar faces. Around eight people were seated by a large square wooden table in the far corner, and as Elena waved I said I would get the drinks and join her afterwards. As I ordered a pint of Guinness for myself and a half pint of cider for her, I had a sudden temptation to flee. Was it fidelity to Faye that created this urge, a lie I thought I would be telling if I wandered over and appeared as if in the role of the new boyfriend? Perhaps it was no more, and no less, than the belief we occasionally have that we are not quite being ourselves; as though any infidelity was not about someone else but our relationship with our sense of self. It was as if at that moment I didn’t want to escape from Elena and into the arms of Faye; more that I wanted to escape into my own solitude: to create the space inside myself to find the amplitude I needed to make a decision and not allow circumstances to dictate my behaviour. Yet there I was a couple of minutes later joining the birthday party of a stranger with a couple of drinks in my hand.
Apart from one man, the table was made up of women, and I recognised several of the people from the party when I first met Elena. I said to one of them that I’d met her before, and I talked with her for the first half hour as Elena was chatting to the friend whose birthday it happened to be – the friend she met that day in the deli. Thus only half the people there were strangers to me, and I began to more relaxed as I sipped at my pint and asked the girl I was talking to a few questions.
It wasn’t until a pint later, and while talking to one of the people whom I hadn’t met before, that I discovered Elena had a boyfriend. Or rather that she might have one. I had asked how she met Elena, and Francoise (who was working on a film Masters) said they had met at the cinema next door. Francoise had been with her boyfriend, and Elena was with hers. They had chatted in the queue before the film, arranging afterwards to go for a drink to discuss it. There was no sense as she said this that Elena and her boyfriend had split up; no guarantee however that they hadn’t. She used the past tense, but was that just for the event, or for the boyfriend also? I of course had no right to be umbraged by Elena’s possible deceit; I had told her about Faye that night I walked Elena home, but hadn’t mentioned her since. And yet neither of us had acted deceitfully really since nobody had hidden anything from the other; we had simply not revealed very much about our so-called status.
So there I was sitting in the bar, looking around at the various faces, and wondering what exactly they thought I was doing in it. I had arrived fretting over whether I would be taken as Elena’s new boyfriend, and now I had the chance to worry all over again wondering whether I might be seen as her casual lover or someone hanging in there hoping for an assignation whilst oblivious to the fact that she had a boyfriend already. What I found myself doing was saying to Francoise that I too had seen the film with my girlfriend several months ago, and asking her what she thought of it. As Francoise and I discussed the merits of this film, one that demanded conversation after seeing it, so ambiguous was its conclusion, I became immersed in a discussion that was I had to conclude so much more interesting than the one I had with Faye just after we had seen it. Faye thought the film ambiguous to a fault, and couldn’t quite see the point of us discussing in detail a film that wouldn’t have needed discussing at all if the director had made it properly. After all, if someone tells a story they surely have control over the material and have no reason to conclude it without coming to a satisfying end. To fail to do so is abdicating personal responsibility; it would be a bit like in the lab leaving an experiment unfinished and asking others to work it all out.
As I explained this to Francoise, I realised that what Faye said wasn’t uninteresting but it was as hopelessly conclusive as she found the film inconclusive. Yet it was central to the intriguing discussion Francoise and I were having, which we might not have had if it weren’t for that earlier dispute with Faye. If my conversation earlier that day with Elena had made me aware how distant I felt towards Faye, talking with Francoise both alleviated and exacerbated that feeling. The discussion between Faye and I had been a proper argument; we both had very different positions not just on the film, but on the world and how we are entitled to perceive it. There was no such disagreement between Francoise and I, but without the premise Faye generated we might just have talked about the film’s qualities: its acting, its direction, its aesthetic subtlety.
I enjoyed Francoise’s company but it neither challenged my values nor questioned my sense of self. With Faye I knew that how she thought in the world was very different to how I engaged with it, and with Elena her beauty, and her assertive yet sinuous intelligence captivated me; I was caught by Elena and yet still held by Faye. It was as though I felt safe with Faye as I believed her scientific values extended far beyond her field and incorporated the moral too; and I knew that if I assumed that she was sleeping with her ex-boyfriend in Bristol it was only because I wanted to sleep with Elena and wished to do so without guilt. If I had been alone in my flat, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that Faye would have at that moment been in bed with her ex.
From Elena I didn’t seem to expect a value system so much as a quality: that I could not quite have asked her if she had a boyfriend in Italy, if she would like a relationship with me, if she wanted to be exclusive to each other. To imagine such a conversation with Elena seemed absurd. Her presence was sensual, political and passionate; with any ethos relying on an integrity to the moment. In Elena’s presence I realised that I felt less tentative than temporary: that anything could change at any moment. With Faye I felt permanent. As Francoise and I continued to talk, I found myself saying one thing and thinking another. This wasn’t to dilute the conversation but instead to silently augment it. While we discussed the difference between ambiguous films and categorical movies, the difference between films that left us with an idea in our minds over a story in our hearts, I couldn’t help but think of Elena and Faye. Faye hadn’t only been attacking a film she didn’t like, but a way of existing in the world that she couldn’t countenance. Later that night, as Elena and I said goodbye to the others, and I walked her to the Hillhead subway station, she said we should meet again, and kissed me on the cheeks, then again on the lips. Then she put her hands on my cheeks, and kissed me fervently. She then suddenly pulled away and, saying she couldn’t miss the last metro, rushed off.
Walking back to the flat I sent her a text thanking her for a lovely day and that I wanted to see her again very soon. I received a reply half an hour later saying that she would see what she could do. I was sure that she had a boyfriend, but suspected that he was living not in Glasgow but perhaps in a university town nearby: in Edinburgh, possibly Stirling or Dundee. That she would see what she could do indicated to me that there was no flight involved; that she would have to defer him from taking a train or a bus. But what about Faye I wondered, who would be arriving back in a couple of days and would be expecting to be with me the following weekend? I didn’t want to break up with Faye, however; and it wasn’t only because I was not yet sure a relationship would start with Elena. It was more that I wanted the best of both worlds. This was an idiom I had heard often enough, but it is interesting how rarely these truisms are true to our own lives. We want our cake and to eat it too; we want bread buttered on both sides. Yet I have found them relevant to my life only on this one occasion, and somehow such phrases full of judgement thought they often happen to be, feel not quite condemnatory enough.
When Faye came back she was affectionate but agitated, saying that it was great to see her family but that she didn’t get any work done. There were several papers she was meant to have read, and she only managed to read half of one of them on the way back up on the train. She would work in the library over the next couple of days she said, and spend most of the weekend in the lab. Perhaps I should have wondered why she couldn’t find time to work when she was at home, but I was too gladdened by the idea that my weekend had been freed up. Faye looked at me guiltily and I looked back at her fondly, yet the indulgent look on my face reflected far more my own good fortune more than the expression I supposed she would have taken it to mean: that I was sad that she would have been so busy, but aware she had much work she needed to do. I asked if she would stay the night on Friday or Saturday and she indicated it would be best if she didn’t, and again I smiled, thinking that I could pursue Elena without worrying about a sudden moment of necessary retreat.
I sent Elena a text later the next morning, and we arranged to meet on Saturday afternoon on the other side of town at a cafe called Mono, near Gallowgate. When we met she immediately kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me, and offered a peck on the lips too, before apologizing for dragging me so far away from my home, but she had heard there were some very good records and CDs as well as lovely veggie burgers. Her long hair was in a pony tail and her cheeks were flushed as she said that she had been walking around the city for the last couple of hours. She seemed excitable and enthusiastic, wandering amongst the CDs and records, picking up several and saying she really wanted to buy them. Finally with about a dozen CDs and records in her hands she chose two. I asked her why these, and she replied that one had been recommended, and the other she recalled. A nice balance.
We ordered some food and she said that she had something to tell me. She liked me, she insisted, but she had a boyfriend. He was in London, from Trieste, like herself, and studying economics. They had planned to study in the same city, but she couldn’t get into SOAS and was accepted in Glasgow. So she came here. They had agreed that long distance meant low commitment, but she still loved him and didn’t want to leave him. Did the boyfriend know that she might be unfaithful? Elena replied that she knew already that he hadn’t been. Why didn’t I then tell her that I was still seeing someone else also? Perhaps out of a strange notion of fidelity: that where Elena and her boyfriend agreed to an open relationship; Faye and I had decided to be faithful to each other. It might have seemed overly perverse to embark on an affair with Elena without telling her about Faye, but where Elena’s boyfriend had discussed with her that they were willing to see others, Faye assumed I would be faithful to her. That evening I went back to Elena’s place, stayed the night and still didn’t tell her I was seeing someone else. Strangely, she never asked, and I think I didn’t tell her because I needed to keep something from Elena as if by doing so I was remaining partly faithful to Faye. To talk about Faye with Elena would have been to double the betrayal, not dilute it.
Elena had decided to spend her third year abroad on an Erasmus programme, in the States, and was first going to go home in mid-July. We both agreed that would be the moment we must conclude the affair, and since she had no plans to return to Glasgow until her final year, and no intention of leaving her boyfriend, that is how it ended. She would still come to the UK, she insisted, but only to spend time in London. I had adjusted to Elena’s leaving by making plans with Faye: she hadn’t been to the island where I’d been brought up and where she had briefly lived, since a girl, and she found the prospect of visiting again exciting. We never did talk about that afternoon where Harry and I had asked to strip, and I was a little worried that visiting the island again might bring up memories less than pleasant. Still, I supposed, better memories buried than secrets disclosed: my main concern over the previous couple of months was that she would discover the affair with Elena.
Of course, as I proposed at the very beginning of this story, I have for many years and perhaps ever since that day in the Castle Grounds, been capable of distancing myself from my feelings. I never quite fell in love with Elena though I desired her constantly, couldn’t wait to enter her flat and take her on the bed, in the shower, or on the couch. Was it the duplicity that made the affair so desirous? Perhaps, but despite this intensity, I never did anything that would compromise her situation or mine. I once passed Elena and her boyfriend on Byres Road and kept walking. On another occasion I saw her flirting with another man after I had ordered drinks in a pub. I didn’t react. I knew what degree of possession I could command with Elena, and knew when it wouldn’t be reasonable to overstep this boundary.
I wouldn’t quite know what word would suit the feeling I had in my body when I saw Elena into a taxi to the airport, but pragmatic loss appeared the most accurate. I would probably see her again in a year’s time, but I felt relief that the entire affair had been conducted without Faye ever noticing anything. Throughout this time I had managed to be affectionate with Faye, surprisingly emotionally present, and the only time I would see Elena was when it was clear Faye had other things she needed to do. That Faye had been extremely busy during those months of course made it easier, and easier still when she apologised for making herself so often unavailable.
Anyway, a few days after Elena left, Faye and I got the train to Kyle of Lochalsh, and a bus through Skye to Uig, and then a ferry over to the island. I hadn’t been back since the previous summer: my parents had come down for Christmas and we all had dinner at my oldest brother’s place in Edinburgh with his family. I didn’t know whether I found the place so desolate and depopulated, so resistant to change and suspicious of visitors, because I had been in Glasgow for a year, or whether I was seeing the island through Faye’es eyes, or even through Elena’s (what would she have made of this barren isle?). As we came into Stornoway on the bus, Faye said she started remembering certain places, and I of course wondered whether she was recalling the moment two boys had taken her over to the Castle Grounds with the intention of getting her to strip. Throughout our year together she had never mentioned it once, and yet, as we passed the bridge as we entered the town centre, I remembered it clearly, but credited it to my pre-teen self, only for my post-teen self to see that my actions of the last few months hadn’t been very honourable either.
The feeling of guilt manifested itself mainly as emotional aloofness. The ten days that we stayed at my parents’ five-bedroom detached house on the corner of Goathill Road and Goathill Crescent, with my parents fussing over Faye as if she were the daughter-in-law to be, exacerbated this distance. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Faye; I just didn’t like the person I was who was supposed to like her. I’ve often read that after an affair it is important that the person falls in love again with the person they have cheated on, but that isn’t easy when you’re not even sure if you like yourself. And yet while we were on the island, something happened that obliterated my guilt in a stroke, but also took me at least a year or two to recover from this obliteration.
It would have been the weekend before we were due to return to the mainland and we went out for a meal at the Royal hotel, and afterwards for drinks in a pub a few doors away. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Harry sitting by the bar: the town’s population was around 6,000. He of course recognised me instantly – I would have seen him a little over a year earlier, but it was only after I’d introduced Faye, saying that he might well remember her, that he moved from preparing to give her a handshake or a nod, to giving her a hug. Something in this gesture immediately generated a minor trauma in my nervous system: he very quickly moved from someone respectful to a stranger to someone entitled to occupy Faye’s space as readily as I could. She showed no sign of retreat as he hugged her, and instead, for a moment, I appeared like the third party as he insisted we join him while he complicitly talked with Faye, as if I were merely the postman bringing the news and Faye the letter he was reading. Was that what had happened years earlier as well? Had my respect for Faye, my insistence that she needn’t strip in front of us, meant that she could later take her clothes off exclusively for Harry?
As we took the one remaining table in the bar, Harry might have been the same age as I was, but he could have passed for a decade older. This had nothing do with the thickness of hair, the wrinkles on a face, the tiredness of the eyes. No, he still looked like a man in his early twenties. His maturity resided in an assertiveness which made it clear that of course we would join him at his table, that of course we wouldn’t just have a glass of wine; that he would order a bottle. He was the small town businessman doing very well indeed, and doing it before the age of twenty five. As he asked us about our degrees it was as though he were talking to a couple of people who hadn’t yet left school, and in Harry’s eyes we probably hadn’t. He said since I’d last seen him he had been expanding his business interests, announced that he owned the very bar we were drinking in, and he was looking at buying a couple of places on the mainland too – in Inverness. Who knows, he added, maybe he would buy somewhere in Glasgow as well. As he talked the world seemed to be his oyster and I clammed up. It was a thought that came to me: a brief flourish with language in the presence of my silence. Faye looked like she didn’t need to talk; she wanted to listen; the silence was mine alone.
Later that night after we returned to my parents’ place, I wanted to talk to Faye about that incident in our childhood, and talk even more to her about my affair with Elena, saying to her that somehow I felt they were connected. But I’m not sure if I could have formulated why, and we were both so very drunk that we flopped into bed and snored loudly enough for my mother to remark on it the next morning. She said it lightly, with no sense of serious admonishment involved, but it captured well the obliviousness of sleep masking thoughts not easily expressed.
We left the island a couple of days later, and while there would have been no time for Faye to have arranged an assignation with Harry, the rest of our stay appeared to me to be full of his presence. Our silences were much more extended than usual, or there was a feeling that they divided us rather than suggested complicity. What I did feel over the next few weeks back in Glasgow, and into the following academic year, was that Faye was no longer in love with me, and I was more clearly becoming more and more in love with her. I couldn’t easily have explained why, but I knew there was an aspect of my personality that was unavoidably timid, and something in Faye’s that shared Harry’s assuredness. It might have seemed that I had been the one with the active life as I would see Elena behind Faye’s back, but this was of course time Faye had devoted to her studies, to pursuing a passion that left me a bystander to her ambitions. This ambition became even more pronounced that next year as she would leave me soon enough, I would think, and leave me she eventually did. I would have liked to think she did so based on my affair the previous year, that she had found out somehow and saw in me someone who couldn’t quite be trusted, a young man given to philandering and fun. But I am sure it was much more to do with many years earlier and that evening spent in the company of Harry where Harry could do all the spending. I now recall that episode in the Castle Grounds when we were nine, and believe that while I saved Faye from taking her clothes off, I exposed as a consequence an aspect of my own personality. In protecting her from removing her clothes, I instead revealed myself as someone incapable of following anything through. It was if as Faye and Harry knew even at that young age they were both people capable of doing exactly that. Is that why they became so close after the incident; and was that what she saw again years later sitting in the Royal hotel? Now, thirteen years after Faye and I broke up, twenty six years since Faye, Harry and I ventured into the Castle Grounds, Faye is a well known biologist, doing important cell research, while Harry does indeed own a couple of bars in Glasgow, as well as numerous business interests elsewhere. The last I heard he was thinking of running for parliament. I would be surprised if they give more than a moment’s thought to me, while I give many moments of thought to them. Perhaps in an idle hour or two they may come across this story and feel that I have revealed myself all over again, and perhaps also found a way of revealing an aspect of them too.