Sometimes we can have similar feelings over two very different events only for us to realise they have the same source. Yet I think the example I will give can pass for the exceptional, and the tragic.
A year ago I was travelling from my home in Edinburgh, visiting my parents up in Aviemore. It was my mother’s 80th birthday, and relatives from all over the UK had been invited up. There were about forty family members, and many of them had never been to the Highlands before. Some were making a holiday out of it, staying for a few days and taking in the surrounding area. Others had arrived on earlier trains that day. I was the only one travelling on the 1633, hoping to get in before 1930. The restaurant on the town’s outskirts had been booked for eight o’clock: my brother was going to pick me up from the station and drive me out there. I couldn’t have got there any sooner: it was a Friday and I had been teaching a class until 4. I had flagged down the first taxi I could find out on Clerk Street near the university, and managed to arrive at the station in plenty of time. The previous night I’d woken from a dream where I had missed the train, and I remembered that within the dream I arrived at the restaurant just as everybody was finishing their puddings. My apologetic look was met by a disappointed looking mother and a stern looking dad. I am sorry, I had said, cutting no muster as they had long since cut the birthday cake. In my dream, I had offered the line that it wouldn’t happen again, but of course, it wouldn’t: a mother has only one eightieth birthday.
You, reader, might be wondering why I didn’t book a taxi in advance; you will have to accept that some of us perversely flirt with disaster while at the same time logistically playing safe. I knew that it wouldn’t have taken me more than twenty minutes walking from George Square to the station and that I would start walking the moment I left the university, knowing if I didn’t find a cab along the way I would arrive with a few minutes to spare. I thought the dream had anticipated the worst, but reality was to indicate otherwise.
It was about twenty-five minutes into the journey when a message came over the Tannoy: there was a problem with the track and they would update us when they had more information. Twenty minutes passed. I supposed it wouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get to the restaurant from Aviemore, and I hoped the next message would be soon, and that we would be on our way. Ten more minutes passed before another announcement. A body had been hit by a train a few miles ahead of us. The police were investigating and they thought it unlikely we would be moving for at least another hour, perhaps two. I texted my brother explaining what I had heard, and would keep him updated. Another Tannoy message said we would be unlikely to be moving before seven thirty: I wouldn’t be in before ten. They announced free teas and coffees were available, and in the queue, a woman in her sixties looked preoccupied and shocked. I wasn’t sure if it was over the lateness, the horror of a man taking his own life, or a personal crisis that happened to be none of my business. I smiled sympathetically at her and she said that it was terrible, absolutely terrible. Why would someone take their own life, she said. Why? I felt she was asking as if she half knew the answer, possibly had known someone in her past who had done exactly that. I said it was terrible indeed, terrible.
As I went back to my seat I thought it was awful, but couldn’t pretend that it had shocked me as it seemed to have shocked her, and after a minute I was back with own preoccupations. Perhaps I should have cancelled that second class, and just taught the earlier one. The morning class had finished at midday, and there had been a train around 1330. Even an incident like this wouldn’t have led me missing my mother’s eightieth. And yet did I want to please my parents by risking disappointing them all the more. I perhaps liked the idea of arriving last minute to give the impression that I was a man with commitments alongside making a mother’s eightieth.
For a number of years, I didn’t have a very good relationship with my parents. While my brother and sister had conformed to their wishes, or rather, in fairness, coincided with them, I had resisted them. My brother studied law and my sister was a vet. I studied philosophy and did post-graduate work in aesthetics. It wasn’t until five years ago that I could make a living when I was given a part-time permanent contract, and it was around then that they realised what I was doing wasn’t a waste of my time and their money. Anticipating that they would be helping me for many years to come, they had bought a small flat in Inverness for me which they rented out, and for the last decade it had offered a small and steady income they insisted I would have. Even when I got the job I am now doing they said I could keep the money. My brother was a very well paid lawyer; my sister a vet with a GP husband. I still needed the money more than they did, and they didn’t seem to mind. I was the little brother who had struggled for years; they didn’t want to see me struggle any more than I needed to, and perhaps they would reassess the situation, they said, if the university offered me full-time work.
My brother, who had a small law firm in Inverness but was based in Aviemore, and my sister who worked in nearby Grantown-on-Spey and also lived in Aviemore, had never criticised me for the choices I have made. There were years when I would be in dispute with my parents and I would see them as the only family I felt close to. Jim was nine years old than me, and June seven years my senior. Though I never asked them for money they would insist that if I needed any help all I had to do was ask. On my birthday and at Chistmas they would buy me a small gift and give me an envelope full of cash. I remember once going for a long walk around Coylumbridge and out by the Lily Loch, walking through crisp, thick snow that the sun’s rays bounced off, and my brother insisting, when I thanked him for the money, this had nothing to do with future expectations. I had just told him that I hoped I could make something of my life, that he and my sister would be justified in their generosity. He said I could do whatever I liked with my life as long as I was enjoying living it. He made good money doing what he wanted to do; I made very little cash doing what I wanted to do. He didn’t see the money as an investment, but as justifiable redistribution. Society rewards some and not others, but who is to say who works harder and what work is more valuable when looked at from a different viewpoint?
I would have wished for a similar discussion with my parents, but they believed that we should work hard at a job society will reward us for, and so they opened an outdoor clothing shop fifty years ago, and by the time they had retired they owned seven of them throughout the Highlands. Yet they would never acknowledge that the reason they opened the first was because they were both hillwalkers themselves, and the pleasure they had in selling was partly in offering their expertise to discerning customers. Yet there was in my interest in philosophy and aesthetics (a word they always said sounded made up), a self-indulgence that was quite different than what they might call a passion. In their eyes, and in the conversations that would often become arguments, they believed that to share a passion was to work in a job that made money; otherwise, it was no more than a hobby. And a hobby was a weekend pursuit at best, and selfish at worst. I would try and explain that what they were talking about was turning a passion into a business; I was talking about turning my interest into a vocation. To turn your interest into a business was, of course, to insist that money would be made; but a vocation wouldn’t have that same emphasis. Perhaps my brother and sister understood my position better because they would have seen their careers as vocations; that the money was a secondary concern over their interest in the law and in animals, where my parents wondered how could they turn their hobby into a viable business. Money wasn’t a secondary issue but a central concern: a going concern. I offer the argument here indirectly because there were many of them over a couple of decades, many more in my own head, trying to justify my position against theirs. I knew that as I would arrive at the end of the meal, I could expect in their looks of disapproval and disappointment a silent acknowledgement of all their irritation and frustration towards me over the years.
I arrived at the station at ten, walked out to the front, got into a taxi and awaited my parents’ glares. Yet when I arrived, my mother came over and, showing only mild annoyance, accepted that the train had been delayed through no fault of my own, saying they had waited for me to cut the cake, and she had some news for me that could wait until we all got home. The chef then came through from the kitchen with the cake, with eight tiny candles on it, thinner than any I had seen on a cake before, and my mother said that as she would puff at them I would need to help her to do so, and between us we managed to put them all out after two tries. I felt a surprising amount of well-being sitting there chatting with relatives who asked me what had happened and introduced myself to family members I had never met before. The evening went on till midnight, and it wasn’t until my brother drove my parents and me back to my parents’ that they said a few words about what had happened, but they would tell me in detail the next day. The flat had been half-destroyed several days earlier, and the tenant hadn’t paid the rent for the last couple of months. The tenant I knew had only been in the apartment for half a year, and they had taken him on the recommendation of the previous tenant who had been reliably ensconced for more than five years, but who had left to get married. I know my parents had one or two reservations about this new tenant. He was an artist in his thirties who made his living by painting and decorating and had admitted when they showed him the apartment that he didn’t have a regular income. I was, of course, worried about the rent not being paid, and now horrified by what he had done to the flat, but I had also found the combination of painting and decorating while working on his own art interesting; even perhaps thought I would write an essay on it at some point. I had asked for his name, looked him up on the internet, and viewed a couple of dozen paintings, thinking how the difference between painting and decorating rested in internal and external commission, and to some degree internal and external composition. Painting and decorating demanded no sense of self in the doing but was an expectation of simplicity on the part of the commissioner. Was it relaxing or frustrating painting people’s walls, I wondered, seeing in the paintings a force that perhaps had its echo in the controlled simplicity of painting walls, skirting and doors. The canvases were clearly large and the paint looked like it had been initially thrown on the wall and then shaped into swirls of colour that indicated creativity coming out of anger. It gave the work an interesting tension, as if someone had offered an outburst and then a coherent explanation for it. I would sometimes wonder what was the difference between painting and decorating and being a painter, and once proposed jokingly to my girlfriend, who was also a painter, that it lay in the variety of the paint on their overalls. Painters and decorators usually just had one or two colours; an artist was a painterly Joseph.
I asked my mother what they had done to remove him from the flat, and she said she would talk in more detail about it in the morning. I looked at her as she turned to go up the stairs and watched as her hands shakily held on to the bannister while she took the steps as if half at a time. The stairs curled round and I saw at the top of them my father, waiting to grab her hand when she got close enough to him. There they were somehow mountaineering again, negotiating the stairs of their own house. Good night I said to the pair of them, saying I would get a cup of tea and soon go to be bed myself. Then I looked up the tenant again online and viewed his work, and even found a couple of photos of the artist himself. He was around my age, with young, thick hair and a prematurely wizened face. In one he was smiling and his face was a collapse of creases; in the other he looked serious and focused and his body was lean and springy. He wasn’t a beautiful man, but he was an attractive one.
The next morning my mother said to me that she believed the whole incident was probably set off by a break up with his girlfriend. It was through her that she knew of the damage to the flat in the first instance. Even though the police had been involved, even though the neighbours were going to press charges, since no one had reported the damage to our flat, since it seemed our tenant had left the scene of the crime immediately after committing, it, they had no idea who the owners happened to be. Two evenings after it had taken place, my mother received a text saying that Jamie had broken the kitchen window, punched and kicked holes in the walls, and destroyed a mirrored door on the wardrobe. His girlfriend ended the text saying that they had broken up. She didn’t say when this had happened; was it on the night of the damage, or just before she had sent the text? It would have seemed odd that she had waited two days to tell my mother (it would have been more understandable if she hadn’t written anything at all), or waited two days to leave him, she thought. She supposed that he had left the Highlands and gone back down south – he had an ex-wife and a couple of kids in a town not far from Stirling. As we talked I observed how quick my mother’s mind was in relation to how slow her movements happened to be. There had never been anything hesitant in her thinking and she had always been one of life’s quick, practical thinkers. I knew she would never understand the way I thought, and no reason why she should have. When she stopped judging me, I no longer had any problems with how her mind worked, and she seemed no longer to have much of a problem with how much I worked.
That morning we discussed what had been done and what should be done. She had written a couple of harshly worded texts saying that she would like him to leave the flat as soon as he could, that he should report to the police, and pay as quickly as possible for the damage. She hadn’t heard back from him until the previous afternoon, probably around the time I got on the train, saying that he was very sorry for all he had done, and wished she would give him another chance. He was pleading with her on the phone for ten minutes, and she was shaking with a mixture of fear and anger. There she was, she said, an eighty-year-old woman trying to calm a man half her age, and feeling probably as tense as he was. I said would it be best if I tried to contact him, and over the next day or so, I sent two texts and also an email. In the first text I said that he had been very irresponsible and given much stress to a woman who was of an age where she couldn’t easily cope with it and that while I accepted that he might have some personal issues, nevertheless he would be expected to fully remunerate us for the damage done, and the rent unpaid. The second I sent a few hours later saying that I suspected he had received the text and chosen to ignore it, and since he was incapable of common politeness he needn’t expect anything in return from me. I wrote adding that for a man of his age, which happened also to be mine, he was acting like a child who would not take responsibility for his behaviour. I again received no reply.
Later that evening after everyone had gone to bed, after speaking to Moira on the phone, and telling her in detail about what had happened, I wrote a lengthy email the motive of which I have often wondered about since. In it, I said that I too was someone who tried to survive without readily conforming to expectation, that I too didn’t always have much money and didn’t believe in taking for granted societal values, but I did think it was important that people bore responsibility for their actions. I felt he had taken advantage of my mother, and had an obligation to show to her that he was sorry for what he did, and the very least he could do was apologise. But what was the most he could do? My tone had ben indignant and superior, as I wrote to a contemporary as if he were a young child, and a creative equal as if he had no right to create unless he had the financial means to do so.
I found out the worst he could do the following morning, when we were informed that Jamie had taken his own life, that the reason why my train had been delayed was because he had thrown himself in front of it. That morning my mother received another text from his girlfriend saying that she was, of course, feeling guilty, but also angry that my mother hadn’t given him another chance. We all need second chances, she wrote, as if looking to deflect her own culpability onto another while no doubt finding it impossible to ignore her own.
I remember talking to a friend whose father had killed himself, and he said what is so terrible is not least that the distribution of guilt is so manifold. With a murderer there is the culprit and the victim, but with a suicide the very lack of a perpetrator multiplies the number of the guilty. I thought back to the couple of hours I was waiting for the train to start moving on my way up to the Highlands and knew that I had given the man who had taken his life very little attention. He was hardly more than an obstacle on the track; when I looked outside the train window and saw policemen combing the field with torches I thought in passing about the impact that the body must have made, the brain and bone splattering against speed and tonnage, parts of that formerly conscious self temporarily lost in the dark. I thought much more of the inconvenience, a sense of frustration rather than empathy, with the police trying to find bits of the person that could hold up the journey still more. And perhaps if I were honest enough I would also admit that this wasn’t because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother; more that I didn’t want her to be disappointed by me.
Yet perhaps though I never knew Jamie at all, knew him no more than the body that happened to be the same man hitting the train, the body was an obstacle while Jamie was a person, I found myself thinking a lot about how while the self-destructiveness and destruction were his, how similar his trajectory could seem to my own. Except while I had parents who rented a flat for me that contributed to my small income, had a brother and sister who would always help me out, and suggest I was on the right track (the irony of idiomatic language), what did Jamie have except a set of rails to throw himself upon? I even found myself wondering whether his suicide was like his art; that everything in his life was about throwing something at something, even finally himself.
What do mean when we say someone gets inside our head; isn’t this what happens when we fall in love and isn’t it what artists try to do when they convey to us their sensibility? Yet guilt appears to be an unwanted intrusion as we cannot get out of our mind someone whose place in our thinking makes us uncomfortable in our body. During the remaining three days I was in the Highlands, before going back down south on Wednesday (I had no classes at the beginning of that week), I wondered how lucky I had been, and that a life I believed had been full of fight and struggle as I determined to live as freely as I could was contained by family and money that made my existence seem temporarily less real than a man who had chosen to end his.
That Sunday night my parents had arranged a family meal. I asked sheepishly that morning whether it had anything to do with my lateness the other day; that we would try again in a more immediately familial situation, and my mother said that while she would be entirely entitled to indicate that this happened to be the reason, she insisted that it wasn’t. Would the kids be around, I asked. I hadn’t seen my brother’s two daughters, nor my sister’s two sons, since I’d arrived, and when my mother said that it would just be the five of us I was mildly disappointed. I said I would try and see them after school the following day; they were all in the same primary.
Given how the conversation turned perhaps it was best that we didn’t have the kids running around, or maybe if they had been there the talk would have never turned to Jamie at all. My brother and sister, as well as my parents, had met him: my brother had fixed a ventilating fan in the windowless bathroom after Jamie said that it would rattle on for minutes after using the toilet, and my brother adjusted it to go off after thirty seconds. He had also looked in at an interconnected problem a few weeks’ later. There was a hint of gathering damp above the shower cubicle; that the previous setting had been for a reason: to keep the room from getting moist. He readjusted the fan to a time that wouldn’t irritate Jamie and wouldn’t allow the bathroom to gather mould. My sister had met him when she went with our mother as a witness at the signing of the lease. I asked them what they thought of him. My brother said Jamie seemed agitated when they met, perhaps irritated that another family member was seeing him in the flat, seeing how he lived. How did he live, I asked, and my brother said there were empty beer bottles piled up in front of the breakfast bar, takeaway pizza boxes, and Chinese takeaway cartons next to the bin. He noticed in the bedroom where the door was open that the bed was unmade, even though it was seven in the evening. I asked about his paintings: my brother said there were a couple on the walls that were presumably his own, but no sign of an easel or paints anywhere.
My sister had nothing to say about the flat: she saw him just as he was moving in, but she added that he appeared constantly nervous without at all being shy. It seemed to be the body language of someone who wasn’t intimidated by others’ company, but not entirely happy in it. I knew that many of my sister’s best observations of people came from her comparative relationship with animals, and in this instance, it sounded especially astute. I asked her to say more. She said it seemed like he could only be around people he felt comfortable with, but the discomfort he felt around others wasn’t because he didn’t feel the equal of them, but that everyone was abased in themselves: that seeing others means seeing something terrible in our own personality. It is, she supposed, a very human shame. I knew my sister was halfway through a part-time PhD drawing distinctions and similarities between humans and animals, but there was in her remark more than a skilful analysis of behaviour, there was in it a scrutiny of a particular individual, as if she had thought quite a lot about Jamie. I sensed she had more to say but nothing further to add, and I interrupted the embarrassment I perceived with a question to my mother. Why did she choose him; how many people had come to see the flat? She said around ten were interested, but he was the first to look at it, and the one who appeared to need it the most. If my sister’s remarks revealed an aspect of her personality as well as potentially feelings for Jamie, my mother’s were out of character. She was not someone who believed in first come first serve but would have usually wondered who she could most trust. I was surprised also that my mother hadn’t immediately served an eviction notice when he had ceased paying the rent. Perhaps had he explained in apologetic terms why he couldn’t find the rent money, if he had told her precisely when he would next be paid, then she might have been lenient. But instead he had said that he couldn’t pay the rent; he had no work over Christmas. I am not saying he should have been thrown out as a consequence, just that I was surprised my mother hadn’t tried to do so. She was a businesswoman after all, and had always insisted that you don’t always need to have a brilliant mind to be in business, but it helps to possess a shrewd one. But in this instance? My father was all but silent throughout, and I looked at him as if I was seeing in his countenance the opposite of the animal my sister saw in Jamie. My father had always been calm; comfortable in others’ s company and relaxed in silence. I thought that evening, and perhaps for the first time, that while I had always seen him as someone who kept his own counsel, he would do so while not quite becoming his own man. I thus saw in him the inverse of Jamie, the latter a man incapable it would seem of keeping his thoughts and feelings to himself. I could neither see my father throwing paint on a wall in creativity or tumult. But then could I see my brother or me doing so either?
The next afternoon, after school. I was playing with my nieces and nephews in my brother’s garden out by Coylumbridge. We were playing hide and seek and I was hiding in the treehouse when I got a call from the house. It was my brother’s wife, saying my mother was on the phone. I clambered down the rickety wooden ladder and heard a chorus yelling ‘I see you’ as I started moving towards the cottage.
My mother said she had received a text from Jamie’s girlfriend asking her to give her a ring, but my mother said she was afraid that the young woman might blame her for what had happened. She didn’t want to ignore her but didn’t want to phone her back. What should she do? I am not sure what I could claim my motive happened to be but I said that she could text her back, give her my number, and say that if she needed to talk I would be willing to talk with her. An hour later, just after finishing the game I returned to, I noticed a text come in as I was washing my face upstairs and preparing for an early dinner with the kids, my brother and sister and their spouses. She asked if I was willing to meet up and talk for a little while about Jamie. I replied saying I was the one family member who hadn’t met him, but if she needed to talk I would have time the following day. My train was at four in the afternoon. I asked if she would be willing to meet me in Aviemore; it saved me getting a train north and then back down south. She said that would be fine; she had been signed off work and could use Jamie’s mini-van.
After dinner I asked my sister if she fancied a walk; it was around nine in the evening and we would often walk even after dark. It was mid-February but with good head torches we would be fine, so we walked out onto the back road by Coylumbride and through the nearby farm before coming out on the main road for a couple of minutes, before taking a lane at the back of Aviemore. We must have walked for an hour and a half. While walking I asked her about those remarks concerning Jamie. It wasn’t just perceptive; it seemed revealing too. Perhaps she blushed; she definitely stammered, saying that some people remind us of what we are humanly: what we might be as another species. Some people are so human that we never need to ask, and then there are others. She said, of course, working with animals made her think of this often, and she supposed that was partly why she chose to work on a PhD, to explore it more rigorously. I asked if she was attracted to him as if I somehow felt his demise would make the question safe. She said no doubt she was and suspected even our mother had been. Then she said something that quietly shocked me, and I am not quite sure why. She said it wasn’t so much that he was a bad boy but a good wolf. My sister was four years older than me and I remember she was one of the school’s most sought after girls even if I wouldn’t have been inclined to say she was one of the prettiest. She would always have numerous suitors, and at university too, I am sure. Yet the first boyfriend she was happy to call by that name became her husband, and I would be inclined to believe he had no wolf in him at all. She then said to me that she would often go out at night as were doing then, as we would often do when I was visiting, on her own. When she would arrive at a place far from any houses, she would take a moment and howl into the night.
I had arranged to meet Jamie’s girlfriend in a cafe across from the station at 2 o’clock, and as I came in she half put up her hand in acknowledgement, though I think I would have guessed easily enough who she happened to be. She was in her late twenties, had long, thin legs that made me think of the sixties, and light green eyes, with burgeoning bags under them that indicated more than the tragedy of recent days. She thanked me for speaking to her but admitted she felt some anger towards my parents. After we sat back down and ordered she believed that Jamie had just needed another chance. Hadn’t my mother taken a chance in the first instance, I said, and hadn’t he been unable to pay the rent?She admitted I was correct, but she also said that some people need far more chances than others, just as some people need explaining to them things several times to know how something works. Not everybody passes their driving test on the first occasion, she said; should they never be allowed to drive? She smiled, and in that smile I could see someone who would have passed her test first time, who had done rather better at school than Jamie would have done, who wouldn’t have needed to be told more than once how to act. Yet I could also see that she had been in love with this man, and perhaps partly because he didn’t know how to behave. That he had what we commonly describe as behavioural problems, but in the wake of speaking to my sister I was beginning to see behaviour in quite different terms.
I asked her to tell me about him, about his life, about how he found himself in Inverness, and how they came to be together. She said he left school at sixteen, with no qualifications but an interest in art that wasn’t acknowledged in the classroom, and found himself unemployed in between doing low-paid, temporary work. He started by sketching in the galleries, and by his mid-twenties, he was painting with oils, often stolen from art shops. Around the same time he got into painting and decorating, and he signed off for good: he would make his living by painting one way or another and started using house paint for his own work. That is what he had been doing for almost fifteen years, and she met him three years ago when she went along to an exhibition of his in a community centre in the Gorbals. She was over at the Citizen’s theatre for a job interview as front desk assistant manager and saw a poster for an art show. The image was striking and she was intrigued. It was five minutes along the road, and when she arrived she was impressed by the work immediately. The canvases were large and…tense, yes that was the word she said. There was no calm to the work; everything was energy. She wondered what type of person would produce these massive, restless works and looked around the room to see if he might be there and if she could guess who he might be. It didn’t take her long to work out it must have been the man with the cropped, silvery hair, the olive complexion and the intense expression of insistence as he talked to others. She watched him for a few minutes and then asked him if the paintings happened to be his. She expected him to say with pride that of course they were, but instead he said he was happy that he had some use for leftover house paint.
They talked for about twenty minutes and he said he would like to talk some more. They arranged to meet the following day in a cafe over in the West End where she was living, and that was that. They had been together for three years, with exasperated break-ups but with no one else involved. They did love each other she said. I expected that she might start to cry, but she said it with a hard resolve: as though speaking of a struggle. I asked why she believed he was so temperamental. She said she didn’t think it was his family upbringing. He seemed loved, his parents never divorced, he was an only child, and his parents were always in work, (his father had been employed at the post-office; his mother worked in a nursing home) and had enough to provide for his needs; if not much left over. Perhaps it had to with credence, he often felt people were not taking him seriously; that in a middle-class milieu he was a working class nutcase. Sometimes he played that up. She remembered one evening not too long after they had moved to Inverness. She had got that job at the Citizen’s, and then six month’s ago she applied for the front of house manager’s job at the theatre there, Eden Court, and got that one too. The first six months came with accommodation, and since she and Jamie had never lived together they decided they would move up at the same time, but initially live separately. She supposed he was never happy with this arrangement and saw in it a sign that she was embarrassed by him. That he was the working class savage she couldn’t easily tame, so better that he was caged in his own flat a mile or two away from her place. That was how he couched it one evening not long after they had moved up, having dinner at his flat. Yet on that occasion, he said it with the humour and irony offered that first time she met him. When he made similar remarks again it was on the evening that he half-destroyed the flat. There had been plenty arguments before, but he would calm down within half an hour and apologise for his outburst, and she would always placate him. But this time there was something terrifying in his eyes as she had said that she wasn’t sure if he was ever a man she could easily live with. He didn’t react for a while, but just kept pouring himself whisky after whisky, and must have drunk about six doubles in the space of forty-five minutes. She tried to explain what she meant, but he said that he knew exactly what she meant. He was a bit on the side, good in bed and fine company, but what she wanted was oils not house paint: something that would last; something that wouldn’t hopelessly crack. He could often be maliciously clever and this was one example, and the more he drank the wittier he would be until he could barely speak at all. He would then sit looking morose, defeated. On this occasion though, after the bottle was finished (it had been half full when he started), he went outside and hurled it through the neighbours’ window. He then must have gone into the bin and found another bottle that he smashed against his flat window. She watched the glass shatter across the breakfast bar and ran for the door. Seeing him standing at the front entrance, she ran through the corridor and out the building’s rear exit, and kept walking, flagging down a taxi she promptly hopped into. Take me home, she said, bursting into tears. Where is home, love, the driver, asked.
She didn’t see Jamie again. I asked as politely as I could why she wanted to talk to me: I hadn’t even met him, the flat was more or less my mother’s yet she gave me the rent from it. She said that she hadn’t wanted to talk to me especially, just someone whose flat he had half-wrecked. She wanted to apologise for him, she supposed, but also perhaps to share the burden of guilt: to feel that wasn’t solely responsible for him taking his life. She then asked me why I had been willing to meet her. I didn’t quite know, I said, but knew I would give it much thought. She asked what I meant by that, and I explained that the other members of my family had talked a bit about Jamie; what they knew about him, about the work he did. I admitted he sounded fascinating. She said she would sometimes say to him he was not of this world and he would reply that perhaps just not of this species. I was, of course, reminded of my sister’s comment and felt for a minute how comfortably ensconced in humankind I happened to be, and how the resistance that my brother and sister respected me for seemed so insubstantial next to this artist who I sensed was always somehow taking his own life. Was I romanticising him – no doubt; is it not what we often do with the creative suicide? Yet I think a better word for it might be transfiguring; that sometimes I wonder if people kill themselves not because they want to die, but they no longer want to be part of the species to which they belong. I occasionally think this might be the desire to create; that rather than wishing to be part of human civilisation and posterity, they want to announce their relationship with a world beyond the human. Whether it is the poetry of Rimbaud or Verlaine, the paintings of Pollack, Bacon and Rothko, the music of the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. It had nothing to do with high or low culture. It concerned a need to escape the confines of the human. Is that what I wanted to do; to write an article about this man; thus interviewing the girlfriend for research? I hoped not but wondered if to write an article would be a way of getting closer to the instinct for understanding than ready condolences. I knew nothing about this man except what I had heard; to feign a feeling I couldn’t quite possess would be the further reaches of the animal and within the too ready reaches of human convention. I did not of course say anything of this to her. Perhaps she would have understood, perhaps not. I instead asked if we could exchange email addresses. If there was an exhibition of Jamie’s work in Glasgow I would like to see it. She seemed moved by this, and it was an honest interest, much more honest I thought than if I had asked about the funeral.
She asked me when my train happened to be. I said I had a few minutes. She said she would in other circumstances have seen me off on the platform. I understood. I would just pay for the coffees and say goodbye. I went over to the counter, handed over a five-pound note and waved away the change. I looked back to the table, and offered a similar hand gesture by way of a goodbye. She offered a half-wave back and I thought that often the meaningful farewell lay in the distance between the individuals and not close proximity. I thought of past girlfriends and recalled the parting not through the hug but through the wave going through security at an airport, waving goodbye as the train left the station. Hugging her would have felt perhaps intrusive but certainly false: it wouldn’t have conveyed the meaningful aloofness of our exchange.
As I got on the train I thought how odd it was that a few days earlier that it had been delayed for a couple of hours and the mild irritation I initially felt when the news came through, and the mild disquiet I observed when everyone was told it was a suicide. Then it happened again when I arrived in Aviemore and later that evening my mother had told me about the damage to the flat. Again there was that initial irritation, replaced by something approaching empathy and understanding as I found out these two moments were interlinked; that I was even partially responsible for the death. On the journey down I recognized several people from the journey up and found myself sitting across from one of them. She was the woman who seemed to so shocked by the person’s demise. She recognized me instantly, and said it was terrible wasn’t it? Terrible. She said she had been thinking of very little else the last few days, so I started to tell her my story, and by the end of the journey she had also told me hers.