Even those who believe in the motto neither a borrower nor a lender be cannot always escape the principle when such a term involves the messier element of emotion, and perhaps one reason why we have art is to allow us to explore that messiness in ways that other professions, like my own, the law, cannot quite countenance.
I had seen a play a friend had put on based loosely on this theme that had been more of a success than they expected, and he and the producer thanked me for making it so. I had lent the friend several hundred pounds for publicity material; the box-office had been a little slack before they managed to make up flyers with the money I gave them. It played for four nights and sold out on two of them; the other two evenings the shows were three-quarters full. I said I could afford it: after all, my job was rather more remunerative than those working so directly in the arts. After that final performance, there were around twenty of us sitting in the theatre's basement bar when someone who was part of the circle of friends involved in theatre, music, cinema and literature, and worked mainly as a DJ and in odd jobs, sat next to me. We had never talked before though we would usually say hi, and this time, seeing an empty seat next to me after someone had left, he came and sat in it. Looking for something to say I asked if he had seen anything of Jamie, an acquaintance of mine and a friend of his, an actor I hadn't seen for a while. I thought he might have been at the play. Jack said he hadn't seen him for a couple of months: that they had fallen out. I asked what over; he said over money. Jack said he's been given regular Friday/Saturday slots at a student club through in Glasgow, and had temporarily moved there during term time. He had moved back when the term finished. He was renting a flat in a student apartment and had to be out by a particular date. He needed to hire a van, had left it last minute, and was also short of cash. He phoned Jamie and asked if he could loan him a couple of hundred pounds and only for three days - he was waiting on payment for the previous weekend's event. Jamie told him that he was furious, that he hated being asked for money and that Jack had asked him once before and he had said no then, that he shouldn't have had the temerity to ask again, and hung up. Jack phoned him back but Jamie didn't pick up, and several text messages were met with no response at all. As he talked I saw in Jack's face a hurt that made me see that the friendship meant a great deal: so much so that he couldn't countenance a wrong had been done to him, but that he had committed an atrocious error. Yet as he said a little more about his friendship with Jamie I could see not only was Jack not so much in the right but almost certainly wronged. I could see that Jamie had the habit of upgrading or downgrading the people around him according to criterion I can only call hierarchical. Jack told me about an evening the previous year when he had friends visiting. He introduced Jamie as his best mate in Edinburgh and Jamie said to him later that he hadn't liked what Jack had said: that he wasn't his best friend.
While Jack was hardly even an acquaintance to me, for a while Jamie might have constituted being a friend, if friends are people we meet up with every month or two and with whom we discuss aspects of our private lives, though he had chiefly talked to me about his. Over the year and a half I had known Jamie well, I had talked with him about his childhood, that wasn't uncomplicated, and about a couple of relationships that didn't last long but that he needed to talk out of himself. I talked too, about my divorce from several years ago. I had the impression that he needed to share intimacies without himself perhaps being capable of intimacy, as he talked about two relationships where he said that he could never tell them that he loved them and that he could never look at their faces when they would have sex. After it was over he was sometimes enraged, disappearing into the bathroom for ten minutes clenching his fists. Sometimes if he was over at there's he would quickly put his clothes back on and leave without saying a word. He supposed it was linked to a mother who never offered affection and a father who offered nothing but advice. His father would tell him to pull his trousers up, clean his shoes, tidy his room, while his mother would just say to his dad that he should leave him alone. That is exactly what she did, but he now thought perhaps that wasn't what he needed. Maybe if his father had been so critical, but his mother more loving, he might have been able to treat his girlfriends with respect, but most of the time he had felt contempt, either criticising them harshly or infuriated as he tried not to do so.
I had been part of the same art circle as Jamie for around five years but for the first three or so I had known him no better than I now knew Jack. I would see him in the group and nod a hello but never more than that. However, it meant when he would later tell me about his past two relationships I had a visual recollection of both women, even had made a few observations at the time that I had subsequently withheld from Jamie. They were flowers wilting in the heat of Jamie's internal rage, as he himself once put it, and It felt odd as he would talk about them that I had this vague presence in my mind and then a vivid knowledge of their thoughts and feelings a couple of years later. Susan was a Scottish arts graduate with corn blonde hair who would usually wear lime green or orange tops and dresses. She would probably have seen her own personality as bubbly, but while she was with Jamie it was as though the effervescence was isolated to the clothing. She would dress up but look liked she had been dressed down: a brief remark undoing all the makeup and preparation for the evening. I think I had half-observed this when seeing her out with Jamie and the others, but Jamie told me that was exactly what he would often do as he sabotaged an evening in a phrase. He did the same to Rachel he said, but with different results. While Susan would fall silent, feeling she was to blame for Jamie's annoyance, Rachel would devote the evening after one of Jamie's barbed remarks to enjoying herself as provocatively as she could. She would dance with his friends, ignore his apologies and would often go home alone. I recall it took me a while to work out that they were going out together, and on several occasions, it looked from the outside like they had just started their affair. Their inability to get on gave the impression they were for the first time getting it on.
I would sometimes envy this relative stranger, seeing in his interaction with women an interest on their part what no woman was showing me. I became one of the group while still married, but my marriage to Maria was already moving towards indifference after only five years, a marriage that never had much energy to it in the first place. We had a lot in common, we would tell friends when they asked, but that was when we both enjoyed hill walking and trekking. She became more interested in Yoga and I became fascinated by people involved in art. The desire we had for each other was no stronger than for the things we had in common, so we divorced as amicably as such things are possible, with a few minor skirmishes over money, but not much emotional animosity. I was looking for some passion I supposed in the theatre and found it in the plays I would watch and also, in time, in the entanglements of Jamie. Rachel and Susan were the girlfriends he talked about, but there were also other weekend flings and one night stands. I had an odd perspective on all this - a memory of those relationships, the occasional assignations I would witness him embarking on in bars, and the conversational intimacy he would offer when we would meet for a coffee.
Jamie had appeared in many plays and a few films. He was, like me. in his mid-thirties when we had first seen each other as part of the group, and I think he had assumed the sort of film stardom he sought was unlikely now to happen. Ten years earlier he had appeared in two films as a second lead. They were in each instance stories of women who were searching in their lives and in the first film Jamie's character was the boyfriend she leaves, and in the second the man that she finds. Both actresses became famous, but Jamie did not - though nobody could claim he was a bad actor, and his reviews were almost always favourable. No, it appeared that Jamie possessed a quality that was not conducive with a stardom that worked at all abstractly. It was as if the tensions within him could work on the stage but seemed to me exaggerated and even aggressive when seen on the screen. Had his childhood ruined his film career before the event, and was it also ruining his relationships, even his friendships too? When I asked Jack if he had seen Jamie around it was partly because I didn't want to see Jamie myself, a few months earlier I had very quietly, with nothing said, ended the friendship. I wished for him to be no more than an acquaintance.
It was an evening a few months earlier when there were around ten of us out in a bar in Leith when one the group started to talk to someone in another group whom he knew a little and for the rest of the evening the two groups intermingled. Afterwards, all of us, over twenty people, went back to Jamie's newly bought, nearby flat. Amongst those in the other group was a couple who were clearly having problems and while she seemed keen to continue on to the ad hoc party, he was trying to persuade her that they should go home. She said he could go home if he liked but she was staying out. She was having fun I overheard her saying, and thought of how that sentiment might have been in my mind near the end of my marriage. But I had never said it out loud and, even if I had done so, Maria and I were both it would seem so equally relieved that we wouldn't be spending the rest of our lives together that we might have taken it well if it had been. But what I saw on the partner's face as she said this was a look of such human defeat that I was fearful for this stranger, this person with whom I hadn't shared even a word but whose pain I felt go through me like a spasm. He did not want to go to the party but he wanted far less to leave her to go alone, and so there he was in a printed slim fitting shirt that a burgeoning paunch had malformed, a mop-topped hairstyle that would have been a fine head of hair had it not suddenly seemed greasy, and glasses that may have in other circumstances given him a sophisticated look but left him appearing geeky. I offer this without anything less than the harsh self-appraisal I felt he would have been giving himself, as if he were an onlooker that happened to be him. In other words, I felt for him.
So back to the party we all went. Jamie put on one of his playlists and as most of us left the music to play in the background, Jamie jostled it into the foreground as he got up and dragged a couple of others off their feet to dance to a couple of Joy Division songs, followed by the Cure and then Talking Heads. I had always thought he danced well but I had only seen him do so in clubs and bars where the music was not of his choosing. Now as I watched him move I could see his timing had the precision of the well-rehearsed: these were songs he must have danced to in front of the mirror over and over again. The others who were dancing around him were props for the central performance. I looked across at the couple: the woman seemed mesmerized; the man incapable of offering a single gesture that would gain her attention. Half an hour later around eight people were up dancing, the pace had slowed and a few were swaying to the music. Jamie held his arm out and the woman rose instantly, not even looking back at her partner to see if it would be okay. They danced closely through three songs and halfway through the second one her partner left. He didn't storm out, he didn't try to grab her and force her to leave with him. He did so with the dignity of complete defeat and my pity for him ended my friendship with Jamie.
I knew that Jamie would almost certainly sleep with the woman, and this assumption was confirmed on my last meeting with Jamie a week after that evening. We met for a coffee in the mid-afternoon somewhere next to the Grassmarket. He told me about the woman he had slept with and that she had sent him half a dozen texts during the week and he was thinking of replying to her now he had a free evening and was remembering the pleasure of the encounter. I said to him that she seemed to be in a relationship; he said that was all the better: she would not be making too many demands upon him. I said that half a dozen texts without reply might seem like a demand. He shrugged. She hardly had the moral high ground. A few weeks later he texted me saying the woman was driving him nuts: he would screw her at the weekend and she would harass him all week. Did I have time so that we could meet up and chat about it and other things. I replied I was busy, and a couple of weeks later he texted me once more; again I said I was busy. He didn't send another and nor did I, and that seemed the end of that. I'd like to think I wasn't so moralistic to end a friendship on the basis of someone I knew having an affair with another's partner. Somehow I wouldn't quite feel that itself was my business. So what was? Perhaps it was a combination of elements, but the most important was that I felt far more for the stranger's predicament than for Jamie's, which consisted of irritation over a woman. There is morality, I suppose, and then there is value. The moral commandment is though shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, but that seems too absolute, too indifferent to the specifics of the situation and offering too little freedom for us to have a position of our own on it. But value indicates evaluation: a means by which we can take responsibility for the deeds of others in the context of ourselves. I believed that by continuing the friendship with Jamie I would be implicating myself in a value system I didn't like, and thus, more or less, ended the friendship.
About six months after the conversation with Jack, I was sitting in a film cafe bar when I saw on one of the screens an event the following Friday. A classic mid-eighties film was screening, and afterwards there would be DJing in the bar with music from the film and other hits from the same period. I had liked the movie when I first saw it without thinking I'd ever care to see it again, but sometimes we watch old films because they tell us who we were, perhaps even reveal to us the values we possessed at the time. When I noticed that the DJ was Jack, who I hadn't seen since that evening when he revealed that Jamie wouldn't lend him money, I decided I would go. I had never seen him DJ. I had persuaded a couple of solicitor friends to join me at the screening and they said they would stay afterwards for half an hour and listen to a bit of music but couldn't make a night of it. Saturday morning meant taking their kids to various activities. When they arrived at the cinema they already looked worn out and I wondered as we got into our seats how I would feel if they had embarked on an affair. I knew that their domestic situations were quite different and that consequently their adultery would possess a different value. One, Brian, had a wife and child, and would occasionally admit he would feel trapped, but he also knew that he had chosen well and his feelings were those of nostalgia towards a youth that he would have hoped to continue for longer than he had managed. But at twenty-nine he met his wife, could see his life unfolding with her, and didn't want to lose that possibility. The other friend, Simon, was I could see coerced into a marriage he didn't want, was manipulated by her family, and would work overtime to pay for things he didn't think they really needed. I've seen him with his wife on a few occasions and she seemed interested in anybody in the room but her husband. Would I have the same reaction to them both having affairs, or leaving their wives? I think not. There is no value worth defending in the latter instance, though they are both married men whose moral obligation would have been towards that marriage.
After the film, the three of us were in the bar. Jack was setting up his gear across the still half-empty room, saw me coming in and nodded towards me as if to say maybe we could chat later but he'd better get organized for the moment. Brian stayed for twenty minutes, but Simon seemed reluctant to leave, even keen to talk, and so he remained for another hour, telling me that indeed his marriage was in trouble and if it weren't for the kids and so on. I said did he want his children to have unhappy parents together or much happier ones apart. Simon said he hadn't looked at it like that, and I might not have couched it in this manner if I hadn't been giving some thought to the difference between morals and values. As we chatted he seemed relieved that he could leave this marriage if he wanted to; the irony was that by the time he left the bar he didn't appear to wish to do so: the idea was enough. He needed to know of someone who approved of its possibility.
As Simon got up to leave, I said I probably wouldn't stay too much longer but it would be nice to say hi to Jack and pay attention for a little while to the music. I found him at the bar, taking a brief break and he smiled and said he saw me a little earlier but I seemed immersed in conversation. I said with a smile that he appeared immersed in the logistics of putting music together. He asked how I knew about the evening; I said I saw a poster and that I thought it would be nice to hear him play. He insisted I join his group of friends, amongst them was Rachel. I'd of course never talked to her while she and Jamie had been together, and so she had become someone whose vague face was attached to a number of specific anecdotes. She was an actress too, but I'd never before thought to look her up on the internet, nor had I seen her in anything on the stage. She had only been in very small roles or very small plays. It was an odd experience speaking to someone who acknowledged she remembered me to see, but who could say, with an honesty I could not, that she knew nothing about me at all. She offered it as a chance for me to speak about myself, even if I have retrospectively seen in it a hint of reproach. We spoke for around half an hour and then she went off to dance for twenty minutes before returning to the crowd generally and me specifically. I recall Jamie saying that she would never be as aroused as she was when she had a drink in her, but she was always faithful to anybody she happened to be with. I asked her if she was seeing anyone; she said she wasn't. The occasional assignation but nothing really since she and Jamie had split. With complicity, she asked too if I was seeing anyone; I replied with a half-hearted attempt at enigma and said, no I wasn't.
Was it so simple? It seemed to be. That night we went back to her flat which was a few minutes away from the cinema, in Tollcross. I told her about the fall out between Jack and Jamie, explained why the friendship had ended, and said she wasn't surprised. Jamie hated the idea of lending anything to anybody. For the next three months, Rachel and I were if never an acknowledged couple then at least the first point of contact of an idle evening. Sometimes she would text and say she was sitting in listening to music and didn't want to do so alone. Another time it would be a film she had downloaded, or a takeaway she was thinking of ordering. It felt clandestine but was not secretive. On another couple of occasions we went out to hear friends of hers play and she was tactile enough for nobody to doubt we were sleeping together. I enjoyed being with her but I didn't like it. She would flirt with other people and perhaps in different circumstances I wouldn't have accepted it, and for reasons very different from Jamie's. She would have semi-seduced others around her because Jamie wasn't giving her the attention she no doubt believed she deserved. I was giving her more than she knew what to do with and she was insistently escaping from my anxiously attentive gaze to find a more relaxed one in the eyes of others. She once said to me while we were lying in tangled sheets that were damp with my sweat, that she had known since she was seventeen that she was sexy but knew from twenty one that she wasn't lovable. She could have almost any man she wanted but could keep only the masochistic ones, and who would want that? I was exhausted and pleasured moments before, but it's as if the sweat was ready to turn cold as she offered the line like a death sentence. When I thought of Jamie I saw instead a sadist. Though we rarely talked about Jamie during our months together, he would often be in my mind as I would worry about seeing him out in a bar or a cafe, and feel I would be keeping something from him if I happened to bump into him on my own, or would be exposed if he saw me with Rachel. I had no reason to feel any shame. He had ended the relationship and I started seeing Rachel long afterwards, but shame I know I would feel.
I never did see him in the time I was with Rachel; after four months she announced that lovely though the affair had been, it was best if she ended it now before I might develop feelings which wouldn't have been very useful. She would only hurt me, she insisted, as I stood in the kitchen of her flat holding the mug of tea she had just made for me, feeling she had a way with obvious symbolism. I felt indeed like a mug but without the usefulness the object could claim, and I resisted doing what many people might be inclined to do in such situations and demand from it the uselessness I felt by melodramatically smashing it on the floor. I put the mug down on the sideboard, no more than a sip taken out of it, and went through the kitchen door, into the narrow hall and out the front door, closing it quietly behind me. Self-respect is so often self-constraint, and realized that at no time in my married life had I needed to show it.
Within a couple of months of the break up I felt relief, looked back on the number of occasions she had made me look foolish standing there in a bar alone while she talked to a man who would lean into her, breathing down her neck and in to her cleavage, while he would occasionally look across at me to see if I would have the good sense to leave. I never did, and Rachel never went off with anyone, but they were moments that were humiliating nevertheless. Yet I sometimes thought there was a deeper humiliation in going out with a former friend's ex-girlfriend, perhaps especially so since I ended the friendship with him on that question of values. What happened to be my own?
Over the next six months I saw very little of anyone, perhaps feeling that the world of the arts was not for me, and instead would occasionally visit Brian and Simon. I seemed to enjoy going round to their houses and playing for an hour with the kids and sometimes staying for dinner. Brian and his wife looked like a couple who had made their own choices and were happy with them, but even Simon appeared content now, saying on a couple of occasions that our talk in the bar that evening had given him a bit of perspective. Obviously, he could walk out on this any time, he said, as we sat in the garden with a beer, the kids playing in front of us and his wife in the kitchen making dinner and yelling at him to get the kids ready for bed. It is a life, he said, and by that reckoning I didn't have one. But I didn't envy his arrangement at all: I was simply happy to drop in on it. At that time it felt safer than the fluidity of the art scene. I would even on occasion feel a small affectionate ache for Maria. I'd heard that she was married and now expecting her first child. Yet the feeling had nothing to do with regret.
One afternoon I was walking along the high street and I saw coming towards me Jake, who said he was DJing the following weekend at the same cinema bar he had played in precisely a year before. Again there would be an eighties film playing beforehand, and again he would be playing various eighties songs. Would I come? He also said that he had recently made up with Jamie, and that he would probably be there too. I am not sure if he offered this disclosure out of enthusiasm or as a warning: that he was so happy that they would become friends again, or to give me advance notice. Perhaps had he given me a little more information within the advanced notice I wouldn't have gone at all, but maybe at that moment he didn't have it. I took a seat in the cinema just after the trailers had started. The lights were down and most people had taken their seats, so I sat near the end of the row in a busy, one hundred and fifty seat cinema, and as I scanned the heads around me I saw two rows in front Jamie's head, and sitting next to him was what looked like Rachel. Over the course of the film I paid some attention to what was on the screen but no less attention to what was happening in front of me in the auditorium as the woman put her head on Jamie's shoulder halfway through the film and kept it there till the end.
After the screening, I hoped to sneak out, but as I exited before anybody else I saw Jack in the foyer saying he was really pleased I had come, clearly assuming I had done so to hear him play. At that moment it occurred to me that he hadn't known anything had taken place between Rachel and me: he would have only seen us leave the cafe bar together a year ago, and so saw no reason why an awkward moment was about to ensue. Seeing that I was on my own he said I should join him. I could help him set up if I liked. There wasn't much to do; I could see this was Jack trying to include me without asking anything of me, and for a couple of minutes I worked through his eighties vinyl records, impressed at the effort he must have made to build up this collection or around three hundred LPs. I noticed too that he had all of the songs played in the film lined up at the back of the box. I asked Jack if he'd like a drink. He said I could get him a pint: it would be on the house. As I stood at the counter with a wide mirror the length of the bar behind it, I could see coming in Jamie and Rachel, affectionately wrapped round each other as though they had both come out drunk from a club at three in the morning. While waiting to get served I wondered whether either of them had seen me at the screening, and also whether Jamie knew that I'd been seeing Rachel. If the answer was affirmative in both instances how could I not see their behaviour as somehow being performed for me? When I returned with the drinks, they were both standing next to Jake. They nodded as though both had met me somewhere before but couldn't quite remember where, and over the next few minutes I worked out with some confidence that Rachel hadn't told Jamie anything about our fling, that Jamie had been as happy for our friendship to fade out as I had been, and Jack looked very pleased that Jamie was a friend again, with Jamie standing next to the decks somehow increasing, once more, in Jack's eyes, Jack's standing. I continued to assume Jamie knew nothing about the affair with Rachel when he asked me what I had been doing over the last year. There was nothing in Jamie's personality which would suggest that type of irony; plenty in Rachel's indicating she knew how to keep a secret. She didn't say a word. As he asked I half glanced at Rachel and she couldn't quite keep a smirk off her face. I felt an indiscernible complicity that I tried to work out an hour later as I was walking home alone. I was sure there had been no prior ulterior motive to Rachel's actions but there she was back with Jamie and showing that even the most stern practitioner of neither a lender nor a borrower be can find himself a victim of it; if victim ought to be the word. I also thought about the type of actress Rachel was, since during the time we were together she had appeared in no plays, and been instead in a couple of music videos with no dialogue. Indeed, there hadn't been any speaking parts I could find when I had looked online just after we started seeing each other. There were adverts, roles as an extra, and a few music videos. She was enigmatic in everything and expressive in nothing. She more or less appeared to have been playing the same role on Jamie's arm that evening. Arriving home at the flat I had bought with Maria I could feel not for the first time the emptiness of a space far too big for one, but I was thinking not of Maria, especially, but of my friends who, like Maria, had brought others into the world. An act of creation quite distinct from the creative act of theatre, music and film. but also one that I thought, at that given moment, and perhaps only for a moment, seemed so much less fluid and no less meaningful.
© Tony McKibbin