There were about a dozen of us in the group that summer: mainly young men, two or three women. Though the girls weren’t part of the core group – the half dozen of us who would drink Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at Tam’s. The women would usually just join us on Saturday evening.
That’s how I got to know Annie. I knew her boyfriend, Mark, moderately well. He was a good friend of my younger brother: they used to hang around a lot at school, and both were then studying at university in Aberdeen. They also both had the same summer job: tree cutting on the Black Isle. They were saving for the next college year, they said, but would spend a hundred pounds a week at Tam’s. I wasn’t much for drinking. I had the odd pint and rarely joined in the buying of rounds. I was unemployed, and writing the occasional article for a local newspaper while thinking about going back and doing an access course for university. I would buy my own couple of drinks and make them last all evening. I liked sitting, listening, contributing the odd joke, and they tolerated me. Maybe my brother had told them about what had happened, and their general abusiveness towards each other demanded – by superstition, residual faith or a plain conscientiousness – moments of humanity for which I was the fortunate recipient.
Even women were regularly, verbally, mauled. I recall one evening a party at someone’s parents’ house. Richard’s father was the head neuro-surgeon at the regional hospital. The family lived not far from Tam’s along the River Ness, across from what were called The Islands: small clumps of wooded land in the middle of the river that were joined together by light foot bridges. The parents were away, the weather was in the upper seventies, and Richard suggested, as we all sat drinking our beers at the tarmacked rear of the pub, what about going back to his place. Any halfway attractive woman was invited also, and a number of people who overheard the address meandered along the road as well.
One of the women brought back wondered if she could briefly use the phone. Richard said that was okay, and she asked if she could invite a couple more friends. Of course, that was no problem. Half an hour later the friends arrived. By this stage there were about forty people wandering around the house and through the garden. A couple had stripped to their underwear and dipped into the fast moving river that was beyond the garden at the rear of the house. Others had found the croquet mallets and balls and were whacking the latter around the garden. Somebody else had disappeared into Richard’s bedroom and started playing with the decks, drowning out The The from the downstairs stereo.
Consequently nobody heard the doorbell. I just happened to see them standing there as I ran around the garden escaping a water balloon. One of the girls had a stick, and I noticed one of her legs was bent inwards. As I led them into the house, as I saw the girl’s leg dragging, I sensed she was going to be mocked.
I offered them a drink and proposed they take a seat. I would go and look for their friend. By the time I had returned a couple of men were standing over the women, joking to each other about a party so desperate for female company cripples were par for the course. I said to the girls that I couldn’t find their friend, went to get myself a drink and returned to sit with them.
The two blokes wandered off, saying something about disability drawn to disability. It was the first time anybody had said anything about my hiatus, my own partial breakdown the previous year.
Perhaps I have spent too much time contextualizing this story, for the house is not so very important, nor, in terms of narrative consequence, the disabled young woman. But they’re allusively significant; for without this incident would I have understood the nature of my relationship with Annie that summer, and her relationship with others present?
Annie, sable-haired, red-lipped and olive-skinned was easily the most attractive young woman in the group, perhaps the most beautiful woman in an albeit smallish town. She was twenty one – a year younger than I was – and had just finished her degree in biology down in Glasgow. She had been with Mark since she was sixteen and the rest of the group assumed marriage was inevitable: no one else in the group moved in, and they were overtly protective when strangers did so when Mark wasn’t around.
Increasingly, on these Saturday nights, I found that she talked to me more than anybody else. We discussed her degree, and also what she was going to do now she had finished it. We talked about what I might do in the future; or else we would discuss a book I had reviewed, or a local artist on whom I had written. These conversations were, I suppose, engaged in the way the general tone was not. Engagement – discussion that would relate to the past, focus on the doubts of the future – was in an unanalysed way banned from pub discussion. A number in the group had dropped out of courses, were caught in jobs they hated, and still relied on their parents’ financial help. It was as if the pub was a place of present tense autonomy: past, future, parents and jobs – all ignored for the casual discussion of minutiae; about TV, bad movies and the previous night’s adventures.
The tentative, probing conversations Annie and I had were conducted under the cover of the chatting and jeering crowd, and rarely did anyone care to lean over and ask what these private discussions concerned. We seemed simply two people out of reach of the general chat.
This went on right through the summer and into early September. I had applied late to do an access course in Edinburgh. Mark and my brother would soon be going off for their final year at Aberdeen, and Annie had accepted post-grad work at Glasgow. Richard, with his parents on their annual sojourn to Italy, and many of us preparing to go away, insisted on hosting another party.
It was a drizzly day and equally miserable evening. Richard phoned everyone insisting we go directly to his place. There was to be no sitting around in the sun at Tam’s. No croquet in the garden. The house, with five bedrooms, study room, dining room, large kitchen and sitting room, was by nine o’clock full with people. The exhibitionists on this occasion found their excuse in drip-drying clothes on the heater, allowing themselves once again to wander around in their underwear.
As I moved towards Annie, who was sitting on the arm of a deep chair, I noticed a pensive expression on her face that seemed directly connected to the cavorting couple in their underwear. My initial reaction to this was perhaps hopeful projection: did she see some sense of failure in her own relationship brought out in this delirious duo? It was projection, then, but not completely unjustified. I may not have kissed a woman since my retreat two years previously, and clearly was attracted to Annie, but it wasn’t an idle, purely fantastic speculation: how much attention did Mark pay considering he was out drinking with his friends three nights a week? I asked if she would like another drink. ‘Vodka’ she replied.
We talked, as we usually did, about things we knew nobody else in the room would be discussing. When an hour later my brother came over and asked if we wanted to play a drinking game, I felt the intrusion violating. Annie, though, decided it might be fun. I joined her.
The game was called ‘truth’. An empty beer bottle was spun around and wherever it stopped the person the neck pointed to was forced to make a confession. There were maybe fifteen of us crowded round in a circle, and whenever the bottle stopped there were always two or three people claiming it did or didn’t stop at them.
Thus those who had something to off-load, real or imagined, did so. The stories told included mother love, first sexual experiences, and tales of scatology. As there was no privacy to the discussion, so, I sensed, there was no disclosure in the telling. Those who probably had something significant to confess stayed quiet; the determined narrators spun fine fantasies.
The game went on for a couple of hours. People were falling asleep on the floor, others on the couch, still others had flopped into chairs, their arms dangling slack. Mark and my brother had retreated from the game and were arm-wrestling each other on the letter-writing table over by the alcove. Annie asked Richard, who had half fallen asleep on the couch, if she could phone for a taxi. She came back saying there wouldn’t be one for an hour. She asked for a duvet cover, insisting she would fall asleep anywhere. Richard offered her the study along the corridor. There was a clean duvet in there, he said – on the settee.
She smiled, drowsily, and walked off.
I sat and talked to the now fully awake Richard for a few minutes, discussing my access course, and the job he was soon to start in Edinburgh – he had studied chemical engineering, something like that. Then Mark and my brother came over, and enquired if there was any more beer, swaying against each other as they asked. I stood up and said I’d better be going.
Before doing so I tapped on the study door – the light was still on.
‘Come in,’ Annie said, lying on the settee, the duvet over her.
I asked if she was okay; that I was just leaving.
‘Stop a moment,’ she insisted, patting the duvet.
She said she was pleased the bottle hadn’t stopped at her, and asked if I was pleased the bottle hadn’t stopped at me. I took this as an allusion to my period of retreat and said that I was.
She asked if I would go and make her a cup of coffee. I returned with two mugs of instant, placing one on the floor next to Annie, the other on the study desk. I sat in the easy chair across from the couch. After a few minutes discussing the game she asked me if I’d have said anything. I supposed that I had many secrets to tell – this was less a reflection of dishonesty and withholding; just a fact, I suggested, of being alone. I could have offered half a dozen confessions.
She told me that evening she had one confession, but she could hardly have revealed it during the game. She, for reasons that I misinterpreted at the time, reinterpreted the following day, and only comprehended in something resembling its entirety almost two months later, told me what it was.
This, she said, was something she had never told anyone else. A couple of years earlier, while in Glasgow, halfway through the second year of her course, she had an abortion. Even Mark knew nothing about it. It was a decision she took on her own, and a decision that may, she believed, have signified the end of something in their relationship. It was simultaneously practical, emotional, and symbolic. Practical, because she didn’t want a child; emotional because Mark never once guessed that she was pregnant, nor guessed what she had done. And symbolic? She felt in her decision that she had severed herself from him with a lie.
She started to sob and I moved towards her. I sat beside the couch and held her hand, then moved my lips towards hers. As I did so she looked at me, shook her head and said ‘no, you’re a friend. A true friend.’ I stayed for a further, uncomfortable ten minutes, simply holding her hand. By the time I got up to leave the coffees were cold – I drunk mine in one gulp – and she was sitting up, almost happy, certainly relieved. It was the last time we ever spoke to each other.
My initial response – that she wanted to end her relationship with her boyfriend and start one with me – was of course the result of my own perverse projection, my own inability to see that most people do not feel attraction through despair, but chiefly through happiness. I reminded her of despair; I guess she wanted to escape it. I was merely the facilitator. But my following reaction was not entirely correct either. I had believed that she told me because she saw in my retreat something of the same in her action: something that talked to us both about secrecy and revelation.
This was only a partial truth, but I learned more over the next few weeks. That evening Mark and my brother staggered home at four in the morning, leaving Annie at Richard’s place. They laughed when they told me about their drunken meander back, but I felt as they told me a mixture of revulsion and betrayal. I knew Annie had slept with Richard. That knowledge though was merely based on instinct; but it was not until a while afterwards I found its basis in fact. I was walking down the steep, winding Victoria Street in Edinburgh about six weeks after the party and saw across the road Richard and Annie walking up it hand in hand. That moment justified the instinct, but something else, perhaps many other things, gave rise to it. Events of the evening, certainly, and also something Annie had said during one of those Saturday night discussions: that she always entitled herself to one lie; less a lie, she insisted, than an area of privacy withheld. Was her confession to me a dislodging of one area of privacy for another; the affair with Richard the new secret, and also further proof of Mark’s inability to see the practical, emotional and another example of the symbolic?
Eventually of course their relationship became public, and not so long ago I’d heard they got married. A final piece of devastation for Mark, perhaps, whose drinking became yet more regular after Annie announced she was leaving him.
I have often wondered if Annie found for herself another secret. I have no such area of privacy, no single secret to withhold. I simply possess numerous doubts and fears and faults that wait to be expressed. Is this my madness – this need to confess, to talk, to unburden myself: and the double madness in finding no one who will listen? When I saw the two of them walking up Victoria Street that bright, cold Autumn afternoon, I did not feel jealousy – I did not feel enough myself to express so clear an emotion. No, I felt something wider and deeper and dangerously, perhaps pathetically, chasmic. I decided then that I should predicate this tale as the root of my own secrecy, as the story I shall never tell but one I will write down and refer to as my one secret and my one confession. Perhaps a stabilizing non-disclosure: an area of vulnerability I can genuinely call my own. Or perhaps it will be one I shall share with nobody in particular but everyone in general