I’ve often wondered about the problem of how we get over our long-term love affairs, how we manage to move on, and I’ve also thought a lot about people who never do: who go mad or die, lost in the absence of the other person. But I also wonder whether it is only the other’s absence, or also the lack of firm ground in that most basic sense – of a home – that also contributes to one’s failure to recover. Not so many months ago an example in my own life, and another in a friend’s, helped me make sense of maybe why we usually recover, as I believed we apparently had, and why occasionally we do not, which is basically what happened to another friend of mine some years ago.
This latter friend, Ally, and I were both working in a filling station one spring and summer in Inverness, both nineteen, and both sleeping with as many girls as we possibly could. He was always more successful than I, capable of both the charm required for seduction, and the ruthlessness to see a one night stand as nothing more meaningful than an exchange of fluids and an expansion of the ego. He was tall, fair and with blue eyes, and yet with skin that tanned easily, as easily as his way with women I would sometimes think as my own skin would peel and my chat un-impress.
We both had enough money from the filling station that paid minimum wage but also had its perks: we both sold cigarettes half price to friends and acquaintances, and kept the money ourselves. The stock checks were infrequent, and the owner half senile. Cigarettes might have been bad for our friends but they were good to us, and we in turn could be good to the girls as we would buy the drinks and try to get them into bed. I offer this in the tone in which we were at the time living our own lives: smoothly, unquestioningly and I suppose quite happily. I may have lost the odd hour of sleep musing over why a person I had been chatting too for a couple of hours, and whose drinks I had bought, still preferred to go home alone than with me, but I certainly don’t remember a moment of guilt over stripping the filling station of its not quite so vital assets.
I was living at the time with my older brother, in a council flat in the centre of town, a couple of hundred yards from the river Ness on the north side, near the dole office which, after leaving school, I had known so well, and about two miles from the filling station. Our mother had remarried a couple of years before and transferred the flat into our name, and so with a small rent to pay, the money I earned from the job, and selling cigarettes, it meant I always had enough money for my needs, and I even put a bit aside with the idea of travelling around Europe for the whole of September. If Ally envied me anything, and owed me anything, it was the flat, as I would often let him take girls back there and use my brother’s bedroom as my brother increasingly stayed over at his girlfriend’s place. Sometimes I would hear Ally and the girl laughing and giggling, and it was sometimes this that would have me quietly slipping out of the flat and going for one more drink at the pub on the corner. Hearing Ally and his conquest having sex I could abide, but the post-coital laughter I felt was both too private for my ears and too mocking of my own often failed attempts at getting a woman into bed. Yet sometimes he would stay even when he hadn’t taken a girl back, as though he had no home of his own to go to; that he didn’t want to return to his parents’ place.
After that summer Ally went off to university and I got a job writing for the regional newspaper. I never did take that trip in September; the job was offered to me days before I was ready to go, and so I cancelled my flight and promised myself I would do the trip the following year when I had time off. Ally and I didn’t really keep in touch: the friendship was situational, a couple of blokes working in and ripping off a petrol station one summer. But I was the one who, about nine months after he left for university, put together the story in the local newspaper that he had taken an overdose while at Glasgow, and that he hadn’t survived. I wasn’t given the full story then and probably don’t even have it now, but over the years I came to know more about this period in Ally’s life that also ended it.
Ally chose to do chemical engineering, of which I knew and still know nothing, and I suspect he did so as a challenge more than out of great passion. He once said to me he was incredibly ambitious but had no desire. I took it at the time to be one his many tossed off comments, showing his flair for paradox. I took it be not a reflection of inner agitation; more outer flamboyance – a statement in keeping with his style. This would have been the late eighties, and while a baggier look was coming in, slightly grungy and anonymous, Ally would wear clothes that made him look like the sixties Dandy I assumed he wanted to be. He would wear often tight, almost drainpipe trousers, usually black or cream, slightly short on the leg, and shoes or boots that made his feet look big to match the mop of hair on top of his head, as though all the weight was at the top and bottom of his body, and creating a curious symmetry. He often wore a burgundy or black velvet jacket, and shirts that were white, pink, even yellow on occasion. I don’t ever remember him wearing a T-shirt, and his appearance indicated a practised leanness, as though everything he wore made you aware of the dandy on the outside and the yogi on the inside. His comment on ambition and desire I thought came out of this general lifestyle.
So off he went to do chemical engineering, with great grades from school he could probably have gone to any university he chose, but Glasgow suited him, he said, utterly bored as he was with the Inverness night-life. Though we made no effort to keep in contact, I did see him when he was home that Christmas, and also talked to his brother a few times when we would come across each other in a pub. I always asked how Ally was doing, and while on the occasions I saw him before Christmas he always said okay, on the couple of times I chatted with him into the new year he seemed less sure. Indeed when I saw Ally himself around Christmas I thought something had changed. About five of us went out for drinks and that night the paradoxes were still offered, but they no longer were delivered in the same tone. The clothes were more or less the same, but they were worn with less confidence. When he said that he now had desire but no ambition, I reminded him of what he said to me few months earlier. He said as if to himself that when you have ambition but no desire you can conquer the world; desire with no ambition and you can hardly leave your flat. I asked him to elaborate, but all he said was that desire was about people; ambition about things. He offered it as though it were so self-evident that to ask him to explain further would be like asking someone to repeat themselves for the third time. I suppose I’ve repeated it in my own mind innumerably, in the last two months or so. If he had desired a thing, or possessed a thing, like his own flat, would he be alive now?
When the editor asked me one morning whether I’d mind going off and asking people some questions, that someone in the area had killed themselves, I of course didn’t immediately think it was Ally. I assumed it was someone still living in the Highlands. My first response was that I had been offered a good story; my second, on hearing who it was, that I owed it to a friend. I was only given a few hundred words, but I managed to talk to several people, including his brother, his grandfather and his sister. The parents said they were too distraught to talk, yet the others seemed to talk through the absences: as if talking through the parents’ feelings and of course Ally’s. I met them all in the family council house, not much bigger than the one I shared with my brother, but there were six of them living there. What ended up in the paper was respectful enough: Ally failed a couple of his exams and he was emotionally attached to a fellow student whom he had been seeing, but that they split up round six weeks before. Over the years I’ve looked again at that piece, a story that took up much of page two of the paper, and that a number of people at the time commented upon, and that was probably responsible for the job I’m doing and have been doing for a number of years: writing obituary columns for national newspapers. Everybody said I had struck the right balance between trying to get at the root of the suicide and also entirely respecting the family’s feelings. I suspect even then I believed these were generally and mutually contradictory, and certainly feel it very strongly now: would Ally have simply returned home from university if he knew there was the space, in various senses of the term?
I stayed in Inverness for another couple of years, but after the first twelve months I started sending pieces to national papers as well. If anyone famous was in the area, or someone well known in the region died, I would write the semi-gossip piece or the obituary column and send them off. Of course often in the latter instance the paper had an obit column lined up, but after a while, especially with one Edinburgh based paper, I was the person they would ask to write the piece if there was an imminent death, especially in the north of Scotland. It was surprising how many well-known people had decided to spend their retirement years in the Highlands, and so their retreat was in turn my way of living further south. When I managed to get enough work off various large papers I moved to Glasgow. My brother and I sub-let the flat, and a couple of years afterwards we bought it, and later sold it, sharing a large profit.
Moving to the city where of course Ally had killed himself didn’t mean much to me then: I slip in the of course only because it will be fresh in the reader’s mind, not that it was especially fresh in mine. There were many deaths that I had written about since then, from worthy locals dying in their sleep, to teenagers dying of drug overdoses and in car crashes. Ally’s death may have been enigmatic, but then I found that to be the case with numerous deaths I would either report on (since I also occasionally worked as a part-time reporter for a Glasgow-based tabloid) or write up obituaries of. Ally hanged himself; but so had numerous other people, and some in more mysterious circumstances than Ally – who at least seemed to have motivating reasons. Others I could only assume were examples of auto-asphyxiation: people who for erotic reasons or to get a high would hang themselves to the point of ecstasy and sometimes fail to survive. Some reckon that many deaths passed off as suicides are indeed merely games gone wrong, and so I often wondered whether these apparently enigmatic deaths where no motive could be found, were examples of this auto-asphyxiation. Obviously in reporting on suicides, or writing up obituaries, I was never given the space to enquire further into the subject, and yet of the many people whose deaths I commented on, and whose lives, however briefly, I had explored, it was true that nobody’s seemed quite so troublesome to me as Ally’s. I may not have given it much thought for years after it happened, but perhaps the combination of twenty years of writing on death, in one way or another, and recent experiences in my life and in a friend’s, found me giving it far more thought than ever before.
Ross was a fellow reporter, who worked full time for a once well-respected broadsheet, and for some nine months had been going out with a young academic who would occasionally contribute to the paper. He was forty two; she was twenty seven. He was balding and had been a little fleshy around the waist, his belt on its last notch, and when he started seeing Amy he lost the excess weight, shaved his head, and started going to the gym. He didn’t look any younger, but he seemed to find himself through finding her: he suddenly appeared more commanding, assured. Often when people change their image and adopt a more modish look, we notice even more the fragility of their personality – as if they are assuming a role rather than finding themselves. In Ross this wasn’t the case, and I realized, after knowing him for four or five years, that probably when he was in his twenties, no doubt slim and with hair, he may have been as successful with women as Ally had been.
One evening, after work, we were in a bar waiting for Amy to turn up and I asked him about the change in style. He explained, with an openness I’m not quite so sure he would have possessed before meeting Amy, that he started seriously losing his hair about ten years before, and he found that he was losing confidence with each lost strand. During the period he was going out with someone who was herself putting on weight and there they were a couple entering their thirties not so much deeply in love with each other, but assuming nobody else would be attracted to them: the relationship was pathetically secure. Then one New Year she made a resolution to lose weight, did it within three months, started swimming regularly, and by the summer she was off – she fell in love rather predictably with her swimming instructor, and they went on holiday that summer, and were still presumably together. Ross offered this more with amusement than bitterness, though I wondered whether the tone would have been more the reverse several years before, if he had been willing to say anything at all.
Amy arrived that evening with an academic friend, a few years older than she was, I later found out, but someone who seemed no older than Amy. It wasn’t that she looked so young – her pores were more open, crow’s feet were beginning to appear around the eyes, and she looked at people with a weighted expression that indicated she knew a little about life and love, and wanted people to know that she knew without giving anything away. Yet Sarah wasn’t at all cynical, and after Ross and Amy went off at ten thirty, we went on to a late night pub and talked till the pub closed at three, and arranged to meet the next day for lunch.
That would have been around six months ago, and during the next three Amy and Ross and Sarah and I would often meet as couples, dining together, seeing films, even occasionally going for walks. That all ended three months ago, when both Ross and I were told that they wanted to split up: they had met someone else they both said. Was this a coincidence we wondered, and no it wasn’t. An ex-boyfriend of Sarah’s was visiting Glasgow for the first time in years; he asked to meet up and she said why not. He was over from New York for a conference on the Demotic in speech, and Sarah went along and took Amy too. Perhaps she did so to make it clear to this ex that she was with someone else, and at the same time didn’t want to take me along to make that quite so obvious. Anyway, both Sarah and Amy were involved in language (Sarah worked in translation; Amy in feminist linguistics) and Sarah realized she still had much in common with this ex from five years before, who I remembered she had said ended their affair cruelly, while Amy fell in love with an older PhD student studying in Edinburgh. Ross and I were told at more or less the same time, and so swapped stories with a sense of mutual grievance and an often sardonic sense of humour.
I don’t want to underestimate how I felt, especially in those first few weeks, but I’ve probably had a dozen relationships, all lasting between three months and a year. I suppose I’ve got used to sell-by dates. I had noticed that in the last month with Sarah we would try and meet up with Ross and Amy more often, and they with us, as though the couple didn’t have enough energy in it for simply being together as a pair. Ross seemed strangely to recover even more quickly than I; at least that is what he implied. He believed Amy was a catalyst, someone who made him feel attractive and gave him the impetus to lose weight and get fit. On a couple of occasions since, we have gone out together and he’s managed to pick up someone for the night.
Over the following weeks, though I hadn’t felt much pain when thinking about Sarah, I did feel a strange, more abstract pain when thinking about Ally. By what grace of God had Ross and I emerged so unscathed, I wondered, while Ally, with so many women already behind him, and a long future ahead of him, took his own life? I returned to the draft of the article I had written all those years ago, and also to all the notes I had taken of the interviews with the family. I knew also that Ally had kept a diary, but at the time I didn’t ask if I could see it: I was young and without the confidence, tenacity and impertinence of a seasoned professional, and felt even that asking questions about Ally was intrusive enough. However, after I split up with Sarah, perhaps to fill time that was now vacant, I increasingly thought of writing a book on youthful suicide, on people in their late teens and early twenties who would take their own life. Occasionally I had written obituaries on well-known actors, singers or dancers who had committed suicide, and frequently written up reports on young people who killed themselves. Could I write a book based first and foremost on Ally’s demise?
This thought passed through my mind half-heartedly over those first couple of months. I would even remember some of the clubs that Ally went to, and I recalled his aunt saying that Ally and his girlfriend would often walk for miles all around the West End, stopping off at all the bookshops and second-hand stores on Byres Road and Great Western Road, and going to various galleries. For some reason it was a part of the town where I would rarely go, having never had much interest in galleries, and I would buy most of my books off Amazon; and living on the other side of the city, on the South Side, not far from Hampden stadium, I didn’t have much call to go the West End for any other reason. But during those weeks I wandered around there frequently. I went into a bookshop that he must have frequented down Otago lane, and a music shop next door. There was also a bohemian café that may or not have been there when Ally was alive. The three places were, I read in a leaflet I found in the café, all under threat due to a new development.
This was in September. It was an Indian summer like that first term when Ally went off to university. I remember well that around the time he went down to Glasgow in the middle of the month, having rented a shared flat rather than staying in halls, a couple of friends and I would go swimming in a lake near Aviemore, surprised the water was still warm. What did he do during those first few weeks, I wondered, or rather wandered, following what I believed were his footsteps. How many girls did he sleep with before meeting his girlfriend, how much time did he spend alone? As the weather held for most of the rest of the month, I would work in the mornings and take a train from where I was living into Partick and walk around Kelvingrove Park, visit some museums and always stop somewhere for a coffee and to read a book. I would often sit outside the Czech café, with the simple wooden tables and chairs so different from the new ones that I sat in, drank and ate off several months before with Ross and our girlfriends. I felt barely any feeling whatsoever, however, for those moments months before, yet a deep and indeterminate one for Ally’s life all those years earlier. As I would sit and put my book down to look around me, I often thought of Ally on the cusp of a feeling so immediate, dense and inexplicable that it would take his life a few months later. Why didn’t I remotely feel the same at the time of his death; why did his death seem no more than tragic?
On a couple of occasions in the café I talked with people, and one of them was a student from the Highlands who had arrived in Glasgow and was about to start university himself. He would often come to the bookshop and browse for hours. Ostensibly he should have been looking for course books, but had mainly bought books for his own pleasure. He would then come into the Czech café and sit for several hours reading, promising that the next time he would buy the appropriate tomes. I asked him what he was reading. It was a collection of Borges stories. He said he liked ideas in fiction, and I gave him a list of other writers who I thought were interested in using fiction to think through a few ideas. I told him I never used to be that much of a reader: throughout my twenties I seemed mainly to read facts or read fiction; somehow I suspected real readers were interested in work that was in between. That seemed to be what I had been reading more recently, anyway. It was the sort of underdeveloped thought I would often say to myself, but here I was saying it to some eighteen year old that seemed to know exactly what I meant. Maybe he knew it better than I did: I certainly wasn’t reading Borges at his age, and it was only in the last five that I’d started reading Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Proust; more recent writers like Kundera, Berger and Coetzee. Some of these names I realized were talismanic justifications of an intellectual’s self worth, but they were talismanic with good reason: somehow the writing wasn’t at the service of descriptions and stories, characters and places. They seemed to be working from a space in between. Again these were thoughts spoken out loud.
I started to ask him questions; why Glasgow, why study at all – why not travel? He laughed and said coming to Glasgow was travelling. It was his way of escaping a small town; maybe he would escape more ambitiously next time. I looked at his face and wondered whether like Ally’s it was a face women could love. Sometimes I see superficially good-looking men and I look around to see how women are responding to them and see no interest. Other men who seem apparently, to me, less attractive, I would see women seeking out, finding excuses to dawdle and chat. I would notice they often laughed without the man saying anything very funny. I was obviously never one of these men, but neither was I the sort who even superficially women would find attractive. If it has partly changed in recent years it is that I’ve grown into my face, as they say, and perhaps into the job – I’m reasonably well-known and well-respected for the work I do. And maybe, also, they can tell I am not much of an obsessive; that I don’t linger over the aftermath of a relationship – I prepare myself for the next one.
For some reason the face of the teenager imposed itself upon the face of Ally. I didn’t have any pictures of Ally (men who would hang around together were hardly likely to take pictures of their adventures before the mobile phone camera), and nor did I have any copies of the paper where the article appeared when he died. But it was as though a picture of Ally wouldn’t have been as effective as this boy at capturing the youthfulness I wanted to comprehend. As the boy looked at his mobile and said he had to go, I watched as he got up to leave with what seemed like a strong desire; to meet a woman, to see a film, to go to a concert. He didn’t say, but he appeared to posses a passion that Ally insisted was absent when he had been in Inverness, but that perhaps he’d found when he was in Glasgow. As I saw the boy walking away I noticed that he dressed similarly to Ally: the large shoes, the tight jeans, the narrow velvet jacket, the bushy hair. The style was in again. After he left I walked back down along Great Western Road, and onto Sauchiehall Street. It was about six in the evening and I kept going until I realised I was close to the art cinema nearby, and I looked at what was on. I rarely saw films, at least not in the cinema, and even more occasionally old ones. Yet they were showing a few Paul Newman films, in memory of his recent death, films that I recalled watching on a TV set in my room when I was young. The one about to start was Slap Shot, and Newman would have been, I later found out, just over fifty in it. His hair had turned grey, but his eyes were still that brilliant blue, and his body compact and energised.
As I sat there watching the film, ten years younger than Newman, but creeping up to the age he happened to be then, I wondered till what age we can hold on to all these different types of energy: the emotional, the sexual, the physical, the intellectual, the social, the political. All these sources of energy that we can allow to die, or that inevitably die within us as we ourselves leave the world.
When I think back to Ally in Inverness, he may have believed he had great ambition but no desire, but what I believe now is that he had concentrated the energy into a certain narcissistic style that didn’t allow for much passion. That women came to him meant that he didn’t have time to desire them even if he wished to do so. Had that changed with the young woman he met in the city?
Over the next few weeks I increasingly realized I needed to write a book on that friend who was never really more than an acquaintance. It felt as though he had only become close to me in recent months; as if the accumulation of all the obituaries I had written, and my own move towards middle-age, had opened up the space for a friendship that of course could never be. How could I justify a book, however, on what grounds would a publisher be interested in a work by a relatively unknown author on the subject of a teenager who committed suicide years before?
There were a couple of books that I had in mind: The Savage God, and The Missing. The first opened with an account of the writer’s own suicide attempt and his friendship with Sylvia Plath; the latter on some of the people who had gone missing in post-war Britain. Basically I wanted to write a book on the art and limitations of obituary writing, opening with a lengthy chapter on the friend who had committed suicide, whose death also lead to one of the first obituary pieces I had written.
The next time I was in Inverness visiting my family, I phoned Ally’s parents. The mother answered the phone, sounding frail and half deaf, and I reminded her who I was, saying I would like to write a book that also touched on her son’s death. I asked if she wanted to meet up and talk about it. Before phoning I had asked around, and been told by people who knew the family that the mum and dad still visited Ally’s grave almost every day, and that they often talked of their son to other members of the family and to friends. They would have wanted me to write on their son at length.
I arranged to meet them the following lunchtime. I arrived at twelve and didn’t leave until five in the afternoon. They gave me numerous pictures of their son, and also a number of contacts. They had no idea if these contacts were still living at the same addresses, but I could try. Of all the numbers and addresses they gave me, the one I most wanted to pursue was the ex-girlfriend. His mother said that she hadn’t attended the funeral, hadn’t got in touch with them until a few months after Ally’s death. Initially she contacted them through the post, sending a long letter that the mother gave me, a five page attempt to explain why she felt partly responsible for Ally’s demise, but at the same time saying that she believed Ally had for some reason become very fragile in Glasgow, a fragility she thought was not entirely due to their splitting up. That was the only letter his parents had received, but every couple of months thereafter, for around three years, probably until she finished her degree and moved out of the city, she would phone them and ask how they were. The calls usually lasted ten or fifteen minutes, and the father, or mother, whoever it was who answered the phone, said they asked her what she was doing, feeling almost as though they were asking Ally.
When I returned to Glasgow I phoned the number they had given me for the ex-girlfriend, and talked to a student who said she had moved in only a few months before: none of her flatmates went by the name I was looking for. The voice sounded strangely familiar, and I thought for a moment it may have been the very boy I had talked to in the Czech café a couple of weeks before. The address I had for Ally’s ex was on the edge of Glasgow, a couple of miles further out than where I was living, in Rutherglen. I hoped it was the address of her parents and that they still might be living there. I looked up the phone book and noticed that the name for that address was the same as on the letter, and made the assumption it was her parents. I opened the letter with Dear Mr and Mrs, and explained that I was writing a book about amongst other things a boyfriend of their daughter’s who had killed himself years before.
I got a reply a couple of weeks later. They said indeed they were the parents of Alice, but that they would not be able to help. Alice had ended her own life many years before, not long after finishing her degree, after moving back in with them. Maybe they said she felt guilty over Ally’s suicide, perhaps she was confused about what she would do next. They had of course created all sorts of possible scenarios for her demise, just as when she was growing up they had created all sorts of hypotheses for her future. Much of the pain they said resided in looking back and yet not knowing, and the inability to look forward and hope. The letter wasn’t only well-written; it also seemed to have been written out of a healthy resignation: their daughter’s death absorbed and explicable at least to themselves, to their own feelings towards the event. I wrote another letter saying that if I pressed ahead with the book would they consider being interviewed. They didn’t reply
At the same time I started reading numerous biographies. I read books on film stars, rock musicians, politicians, writers and adventurers. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but probably the high points in a life emotionally, existentially, creatively. So many young deaths, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison in music, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger in film, Albert Camus, Sylvia Plath and Anne Stevenson in literature. Not all of them suicides, of course, and not all of them especially young, but surely deaths curtailed. Yet maybe not; the lives might have had their own areas of intensity that many a person’s entire long lifetime never comes close to reaching. When thinking about Hendrix on stage at Monterey, or Dean’s last moments driving at a hundred in a Porsche Spyder 550, had they already lived a full life where everything else would seem surplus?
I think I was trying to understand Ally’s life and death from a perspective that I hadn’t thought about at all years before. When he died it was simply a tragedy, a life curtailed. But as I started to follow his past movements, think of his near future at that time, wonder about the intensity of his encounter with Alice, I didn’t see his life as a tragedy, but maybe more my own. When I followed his movements, sat in perhaps the same café, browsed through books in the same bookshop and records in the same record store, I wasn’t mourning his death: I was mourning my own life. I mourned my own lack of intensity, yet a lack that at the same time I found myself filling with the memory of others. I mused for hours over Ally and Alice’s initial moments together, of Ally feeling for the first time what it was really like to be inside a woman after all those earlier conquests. I wondered if when they walked together they felt like not two people, but one – love as a three-legged race they didn’t care to win but that they won effortlessly, their bodies so aligned. Why did it end – did Alice get scared, did she know that Ally had slept with numerous women before her, did he sleep with many others before her at university? Did he even sleep with others while they were together, a bad but insignificant habit he couldn’t quite kick?
What troubled me most was that I didn’t seem to have strong memories of my own to counter this flood of feeling about a young man long since dead – someone whom I had known so casually that we didn’t even keep in touch after he went off to university – and a woman whom I knew not at all. Over the years I have had encounters, affairs and relationships, yet I have never uttered the word love. When I was with Sarah it didn’t occur to me at all; as she talked about how in love she once was with her ex, I recall feeling deflated not because she wasn’t in love with me; more that I couldn’t even exchange a feeling equivalent to it from my own past. Maybe that is what started me thinking of Ally, and why I began going to the places he would have hung out.
Around this time, a period of about three months since I had split up with Sarah and Ross with Amy, I saw very little of Ross. Where before when I had an idle afternoon I sometimes went over to the office, and often had a coffee with Ross or another of the reporters there, in these months I seemed to need to wander alone. Just as my friendship all those years ago with Ally was based on circumstance – we worked in the same petrol station, lived in the same town – was the same true with Ross, with everybody?
It would have been several weeks after receiving the letter from Alice’s parents that I started working on the book. I had no publishing contract; I thought I would see if the book worked first, see if the opening chapter based on a tenuous friendship from years before could shape itself into the beginnings of a longer tome. It was one afternoon while typing away on the first chapter that I received a call from work telling me that Ross had been found in his flat – he had taken an overdose, and left a note. The assistant editor said that they knew I was well-acquainted with him; would I still be willing to write a short obituary. I asked when it had happened. He said the previous day. I asked if the note was addressed to anyone. He said to someone called Amy.
I looked through my mobile directory and saw that I had Amy’s number. I phoned and got the answering machine. I hung up, thought about what I would say, and phoned again, saying that Ross had taken his own life, and would she please ring me back. She phoned me a few hours later, in the early evening, and I proposed we meet in the very café I had been making my regular, the one in Otago Lane. She was working late in her office at the university, and said that the location, only a ten minute walk from where she worked, was perfect. When she arrived it looked like she had been crying, and when she sat down she said she was shocked by Ross’s death, but that she wasn’t surprised. They had talked on the phone quite often over the last three months, and met up twice, and he tried to persuade her that they should get back together. She explained to me that she hadn’t fallen in love with this other person she met, but the fling they had was enough to make clear to her that she was not in love with Ross. I said I didn’t even realize he was in love with her, and she said that perhaps the four of us – Ross, Sarah, herself and I – lacked passion as a group but that didn’t mean Ross didn’t possess it himself. She said he had loved once before and felt that she was the only other person he had met whom he could love again.
She was of course quite a few years younger than Ross, and I had always noticed that where Ross moved like a man unsure in which direction he should be going, much of Amy’s confidence resided in her stride. She walked into and out of rooms with the confidence of one who always knew where she was headed. Most of her hesitancy was reserved for her speech – where she would happily get lost in a complicated thought process that she would say needed to be resolved in an essay, and apologise for bringing it into a conversation. I sensed that Ross admired her, believed that her thoughts were so much more complex than his own, but I didn’t at all realize that he was in love, and a love so painfully removed that he had removed himself from life as readily as Ally all those years earlier.
She said of course she felt guilty, and I added that I was surely guilty also. Wasn’t I supposed to be his friend? She said that I shouldn’t feel too bad, saying, as diplomatically as she could, that Ross could never really talk to me. He’d told her that only once had the pair of us talked, and I knew it was the evening I’ve already mentioned. She said that being in love isn’t only a communion of two people, it is also, when it is removed, like a secret pain that we share with others of a similar disposition. She admitted that Sarah had told her once about a conversation Sarah and I had, where Sarah believed she couldn’t love me, not because she had loved someone else years before; but that I hadn’t. Nothing Amy said especially surprised me, but my awareness of feeling wasn’t quite the same thing as possessing it.
My upbringing had been happy, my parents never argued, are still friends despite divorcing, and my brother happily married. There is no crisis to account for my modest capacity for love, and yet as Amy talked I had a sudden sense of having lived my entire life at too tepid a temperature.
Amy said she didn’t want to be alone that night – could we got to dinner, and afterwards would I stay with her, sleeping on her couch. We ate at a place called The Bay Tree Café, and at around half ten went back to her flat in the West End, near the university and indeed not far from Otago Lane. Usually she would stay over at Ross’s when they were seeing each other, but after they split up he said he missed her flat more than anything even though they rarely slept over there. I could see why. I’d never been to Ross’s place, though he lived on the same side of town as I did, but hers was a ground floor garden flat, a book-filled, plant-filled, rug-covered space, one-bed-roomed and compact, but multiplied several times by the inner life between the book-covers, and the breadth of space indicated in the various trinkets obviously picked up on her various travel trips. She made some tea, we drank it in the sitting room, and we talked until around midnight, and then she went to get me some bedding from the room next door.
As I lay awake for an hour. It wasn’t that I was restlessly unable to sleep; more that I felt comfortable in a space so apt for contemplation. I thought back to the conversation Ross and I had that Amy mentioned, and the sardonic tone he offered in telling me about the ex who went off with her swimming instructor. There he was cuckolded all over again by Amy, but could he have offered the same aloof tone a second time, and so soon after it was finished?
The next morning I awoke before Amy, and brilliant light streamed in through the sitting room window, and I noticed traces of dust on some of the books. They looked like they had been lying around for weeks, yet also exactly where they should be. I heard Amy in the shower, and quickly dressed. When she came through ten minutes later, herself dressed, she said she didn’t need to be at work for another hour – did I want some breakfast? She had some fresh wholemeal bread she had bought the previous lunchtime from the local whole-food shop, homemade jam, and a German muesli she said was worth the cost. We ate well that morning, both of us I believe thinking a lot about Ross, but strangely cancelling out each other’s culpability: the friend who wasn’t there for him; the lover who didn’t want to be with him. As I sat there I knew I wasn’t attracted to Amy, but I knew I had something to learn from this woman who also, she had said, never believed she had been in love. There was love in every inch of the flat I thought, as though she knew her emotional limitations towards people, and yet her capacity for imbuing objects with tempered but permeating feeling was enormous.
The next day I went over to Ross’s flat with a police officer, and though the officer claimed nothing had been touched since Ross’s death, it was as though nothing had been touched during Ross’s life either. The flat was immaculate, but not so much clean as empty: it was a newly built apartment he had rented several years before, completely furnished – included in the price were reproductions of various Impressionists on the wall. When I went back to the station with the officer I asked if I could see the suicide note, maybe it would be relevant to the obituary I needed to write by that evening. It was only a few lines long, and the piece said that we never know when a feeling will take us by surprise; perhaps only especially after the person has gone. Amy had left but the feeling had remained: that is absence, it said, that is love.
Yet when I thought of Ross’s flat I could see that there was more than Amy missing, and as I went back to my own flat I didn’t immediately set to work on the article; I looked around it and wondered how close to Amy I happened to be in filling the space with feeling, and how close to Ross in leaving it so absent of atmosphere that it was as if Ross’s flat had contained a loss before, during and after Amy. Was he waiting for a woman to create a proper home for him? I also found myself thinking of Ally, in those first couple of months at Glasgow, still no doubt distinctively dressed, buying new music and new books, yet doing a degree that he increasingly was failing at, embarking on a relationship that would soon kill him, it seemed, and several years later take the life of his girlfriend. I knew all I had to say about Ross could obviously not fit into a short obituary piece, where years before I had nothing more to say about Ally than half a page in a local paper. Over the years certain feelings had obviously grown in me, but if they were not those of love as many usually define it, does that mean they are not valid at all? I suppose the book that I had started writing wouldn’t only be concerned with those whose feeling are so deeply attached that someone’s absence can kill them, but also about others whose attachment is weaker, maybe healthier; perhaps not. I looked around the flat again as I got up and made a tea, a flat I had bought with the money made on the council house my brother and I sold. I wouldn’t say it had love in every inch of it, but it did have a personality, a sense that it was lived in if never loved in. I had all my books along one wall, many of them used for work, many others for the work I hoped to do in the future. I wondered at that moment if Ally had had, years ago, at least a room he could call his own, if Ross had a flat he may have decorated himself, and if Alice had somewhere to stay other than back at her parents after her degree, whether they might be alive today. An idle thought, I suppose, or rather a shallow one, but perhaps we all need a home of our own, in bricks and mortar or bone and flesh.