Bragging

09/05/2024

                         1

   He would often brag about the women he had slept with and wasn’t shy of telling me and perhaps others about what exactly had taken place. However, when he started seeing someone a year and a half ago, he didn’t tell me anything about their sex life at all. He must have known very quickly this was a person he would hope to see for a long time, someone he might eventually marry and who would be the mother of his children. When he had told me of various flings and one-night stands, lovers he had met on holiday or someone from work he had slept with, I wondered if he knew nothing could come of these affairs because he offered too many intimate details to continue seeing them for long. Perhaps Abel may have kept in mind an anecdote I told him some years before. 

   The anecdote went like this: a friend in Glasgow was part of a social circle I never really became acquainted with. They were friends from secondary school, while I met Mick at university. He described them as his secondary school friends, to distinguish them from his primary school friends, which was another circle. Anyway, one of these friends he had known since secondary school was bragging to the blokes after a night out that he’d more than scored; he’d got a bull's eye. He managed to take her up the behind on a first date. Mick thought this revelation crass but a couple of the others slapped the friend on the back, aware that his sexual encounters were usually less frequent than some of the other lads'. Mick guessed this was why the one-night stand turned into a relationship. Fast forward a few years and Mick’s friend was complaining that since the kids had been born his wife wasn’t any longer much interested in sex, and one of the others said that there he was getting more than his hole on the first night and now he couldn’t even get her to put out at all. 

   Mick would sometimes tell this anecdote as a warning: keep the details of your sexual encounters as the secret it ought to remain. If not, it might come back as a gag at your expense. I mentioned this to Abel after he first told me about a sexual experience with someone but he seemed to pay no heed, telling me over the next couple of years about numerous assignations. Yet when he started seeing someone who was not just another assignation, he was surprisingly quiet.         

                            2

   If Abel was someone I knew who couldn’t keep quiet about his flings, Craig was discreet when it came to the briefest of affairs and the lengthiest of relationships — except when it was over. He would tell me and no doubt others various details after a break-up and this wasn’t because he was given to gossip. It was more that he was thinking aloud about what he did wrong. During these periods he was often self-hating but that wasn’t enough: he had to dramatise that disgust by offering in immense detail why he was a terrible person. On one occasion Craig described exactly the same act that caused Mick's friend to move from celebration to scorn. It was the first time his partner had tried it with anyone, it was five months into their relationship and, while she showed enthusiasm when he proposed it, and appeared to enjoy the act itself, for days afterwards she seemed withdrawn and preoccupied. He never suggested they do it again, and three months later they broke up and this was one of half a dozen moments that he believed catalysed the split. She was a girlfriend I never met. One of the others he offered was over a female friend of another girlfriend, Tina, he admitted he found very beautiful. She was visiting from Berlin and worked as a make-up artist on film sets. During the long weekend she was in Edinburgh, Craig met her twice with Tina: once for an afternoon walk; the following night for dinner. After she returned to Germany, Tina asked Craig if he found her beautiful. At first, he was reluctant to say he did, but Tina was persistent and so he said of course she was. He included the ‘of course’ more to indicate that it was an objective fact that needn’t reflect on his own desire, but Tina took this ‘of course’ as a claim that couldn’t be applied to Tina herself. Craig would have called Tina beautiful on many occasions but this, Tina believed, was different. He would never have said of course she was beautiful; she was merely beautiful. Someone he was with who he found beautiful but her friend was so much more beautiful than Tina because everybody could see that. He never told me this after their argument but only after their break-up. I said he probably didn’t take Tina’s insecurities seriously enough at the time, and was taking them too seriously now that it was too late. I also added that on the few occasions I met her, I thought she was potentially a little flirtatious. That is the thing, Craig said: she often commented on his friends and how attractive some of them were, and yes — he did wonder if she was flirting with me and others but never said anything to her about it.  

                             3

  I noticed in the six or so breakups Craig went through over a dozen years that I would be inclined in some instances to see the problem as the woman’s, sometimes Craig’s. This didn’t mean anyone was to blame, and how can one apportion responsibility in other people’s relationships? It is impossible enough to apportion blame over one’s own. Sometimes Craig was a reliable narrator of his feelings; sometimes not. I said it seemed to me Tina wasn’t ideal; there was no point getting idealistic now. Nothing I said made any difference, of course, but over time, and with time, he would acknowledge I was probably right, and a couple of months after that he announced he had a new girlfriend, Harriet.

      This would have been five years ago, and as usual he said little during that first year they were together, though I probably got to know her better than any of Craig’s previous girlfriends. We both worked in film promotion; I was employed by a company based in Glasgow; Harriet worked for a smaller one here in Edinburgh. She and I had often seen the same films and usually the three of us would meet up and only occasionally be joined by my partner. Cassie worked in London, in one of the biggest film distribution companies in Europe. Anyway, Harriet and I would fall into conversation and sometimes exclude Craig, before Harriet offered a gesture that managed to convey her pleasure in the conversations she was having with me while making clear that the person she was with was Craig. He might have been involved in film too, but saw himself as a practical man, an assistant director for hire who worked usually on TV productions, occasionally films. But he never cared especially about the profundity or otherwise, and was chiefly concerned that it paid well. He was a professional he said. If there were people who wanted to make art, and they could pay him as much as a daytime TV show, he would be happy to work on it. If they offered a penny less he would choose the show no matter how poor the perceived quality. 

   Harriet and I would shake our heads, a moment of complicity Craig allowed as he could turn himself into the representative of the hard-headed. His parents weren’t poor but they crept into the working class just enough for Craig to feel a righteous representation of the working man. His father worked for years at the local council in the benefits department; his mother was a nurse. Harriet and I were dreamers he said, with the films we distributed reliant on state handouts and poor wages, including our own. We were not paid so well and the owners of Harriet’s company in Edinburgh and mine in Glasgow usually employed people with a passion for film and a capacity to live on little money — or with the help of familial wealth. When Craig heard that one filmmaker of an important cinema wave, who managed to make his first film after his wife came into a large inheritance, it was frequently brought up as an example of privilege allowing for art. Still, he liked to add, better than robbing the poor taxpayer to fund it. 

                              4

     For all Abel’s casual affairs, and his careless way of speaking about them, he was a person who cared very much about the work he did and how he did it. If anyone could counter Craig’s casual dismissal of creativity as the product of a wealthy background or the exploitation of the wealth of others, it was Abel. Abel left school at sixteen and worked as a farmhand for several years in the Highlands and also abroad. He then went to university, became a social worker and by the age of 26 he managed a community theatre, where he would put on plays by various well-respected playwrights, finding a way of directing them, and acting in them. They drew in people from the community who could see in these works often from the late 19th and first half of the 20th century their own lives reflected on the stage. Abel worked exclusively for this small theatre company except when he appeared in films that were always low-budget, often independently funded, and were made all over Europe. I’d seen him in films from Greece, Ireland and Portugal, as well as two features made here in Scotland. The Greek film my company distributed.

    He would tell me he’d never accept a role because of the money, and turned down a few lucrative theatre offers as well, saying that he had no interest in appearing in plays for the wealthy middle-classes when he could be doing theatre within the community where he himself had a flat. When I proposed that those apparently wealthy people could see him in the Greek film, the Irish film and so on, he said that wasn’t the same. That was the advantage of cinema, he said: he could be in it but he needn’t be present to the audience of it. He didn’t have to hear their smug laughter; their tame applause. He said it half-facetiously, adding that it wasn’t only that he didn’t wish to appear live in front of the comfortable; more that he wanted to remain involved in his own theatre. To appear in front of people at various theatres in the city centre would be to disappear from his community. With film he really could be in more than one place at once.

   Over the years Abel and Craig never met; I never felt the need to introduce them to each other and, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had been on occasion in the same room, that would probably have been a crowded one: perhaps at a cinema event, during a film festival or premiere. What they had in common would probably only have exacerbated their differences. While I liked knowing that someone from a poorer background than Craig’s could have countered better than most Craig’s assertions, to have allowed Abel to do so would have left me taking sides in friendships that could coexist well enough if kept separate.

                              5

   Harriet and Craig stayed together for about three years but those initial disagreements that could seem jovial, even flirtatious, became acrimonious. When I last saw them, a couple of months before Craig told me that she had ended the relationship, the three of us were in a cafe on a Sunday afternoon, Harriet’s favourite. We were discussing a film Harriet’s company was releasing and they had both been to a preview screening the previous night. More money had been put into buying the rights and on distributing the film than any before it, and Harriet was nervous at the screening since she more than anyone else was behind purchasing it for the UK. She’d seen the film several months before at a festival, loved it and persuaded the company chief that this could be their breakout film: it was a first feature that some were talking about as a likely winner of the festival’s top prize and Harriet convinced the boss that, were it to win, the price would double. She bought the film but it didn’t win the prize, yet she insisted this made it no less fine a work

   At the preview she was watching it for the first time since its festival screening, and the first time since the company had bought it. When it finished she was still convinced by the film’s quality but wasn’t quite so convinced that it would be the success she hoped. There was something resistant in its sympathy towards its characters, which probably made it a better film —  yet also made it a more difficult proposition. After the screening her boss said it was a very good film, saying it as though he meant it. But he also said it as though he knew they would be unlikely to make their money back.

   She needed Craig to support her choice but on the way home, quite drunk, he said the film was pompous, boring and only the pretentious would care to see it. Harriet said that must make her very pretentious indeed since she bought the damned thing. More fool you, he said, and then offered an apology that she supposed he didn’t mean but that he felt obliged to offer. The tension hadn’t quite been alleviated by the time they met me, and when I asked Harriet if everything was ok, after Craig went outside for ten minutes to take a call from a TV director he was working with, she explained, and for a moment tearfully, what had happened. I sympathised with her and said I would talk to Craig if she wished. She said there wasn’t much to say. She didn’t tell me it was over, but when Craig informed me two months later that they were no longer together, I wasn’t surprised. I told Craig that I sensed Harriet had been unhappy for quite some time, and central to it from what I could see was that he didn’t quite respect what she was doing. He laughed grimly, saying even if that was true, then he didn’t respect what I was doing either, and we were still friends. He offered it as a home truth, as though Harriet and I were both deluding ourselves that this work was meaningful to us when he could see through its pretensions. He seemed to think that because his background was less privileged than ours, this meant he wasn’t fooled. Yet I didn’t tell him about Abel, who was perhaps in Craig’s terms more deluded than Harriet and me, yet whose social upbringing should have made him see through such nonsense. I didn’t do so perhaps because Craig’s perspective irritated me but never infuriated me, and it never seemed to undermine me. For Harriet, I suppose it infuriated her and undermined her.

                           6

    Ever since Harriet, Craig has been involved in occasional assignations and has usually been alone. I’ve suspected this was because he cared more for Harriet than he would admit, and maybe regretted how foolish he had been. In the months after their break-up, Craig talked a lot about Harriet but I also knew he withheld some of the more explicit and troublesome details since I had known her and still do. Though Harriet and I rarely met up socially, our work often brought us in contact: at festivals, premieres and so on. I knew though that he could be more specifically revealing when he would speak to someone about an ex if the other person didn’t know who he was talking about, saying that he had an ex-girlfriend who would enjoy sex a certain way, who had one or two odd habits he could never quite accept. In a pub with Craig and some others not long after he parted from Tina, I overheard him saying how this ex-partner would never let him take her from behind: that to do so would be to allow patriarchy in sexual action. She would occasionally allow him to go on top but usually insist that she would, working herself to orgasm on her terms rather than on his. He could be indiscreet but always thought he was doing so with discretion; a paradox he resolved by keeping the person anonymous. The one discretionary detail that passed for an alibi within the revelation. 

 In this, he was more tactful than Abel had often been. On a few occasions, Abel and I would be out for a drink. While I was getting ready to go home, even if my partner was working out of town, he would be negotiating a late night by joining others, asking me initially to join whatever group he was keen to attach himself to if there were women amongst it: women he hoped were single and would be interested in a fling. Usually, I would slip away when I could see him flirting with someone and sure enough, the next time we met, he would tell me that he went back to her place or she went back to his. Often he would be vulgar and explicit and I would sometimes think of reminding him of my friend Mick’s tale. I wondered if he was always so open with others when discussing these casual encounters, or if he enjoyed seeing my face contort into vicarious shame, as though I was taking on the expression of the person he has slept with, hearing how he would discuss the encounter. All I knew was that while he insistently told me about these affairs, this all stopped when he started his relationship.

 

 

 

                        7

   Craig had been single now for a couple of years and I had seen Abel only twice since he had been with this person he seemed to care for very much. He had said little but I could tell this was more serious than any of those numerous flings he would talk about and partly in the reticence he showed towards this new partner whom he didn’t even name. He said I would find out all about her when we would eventually meet. There were plenty of other women I never met whom he would talk about, presumably on the assumption that I need never meet them, or had met them briefly before the assignation too place. Yet I still hadn’t met her even though now they’d been together for six months. I knew that he was busy with the community theatre, and had been away working on two low-budget feature films. He was also of course in a new relationship that was no doubt taking up much of his time. In one text exchange, I said I would try and catch the forthcoming play but I hoped to see him sometime soon; that I was having a fortieth birthday party; he really ought to come. He asked for the specific date, said that he was free and would have made himself so if he hadn’t been. He asked if he could bring his new partner. I said of course; it would be lovely to meet her.

    My partner arranged everything, and wanted to spend lavishly, perhaps aware that with her away so often it might seem to our friends that she didn’t care for me as much as she insisted she did. I never doubted it, and I would often tell her we were both in a commuting relationship — it just meant my commute allowed me to come back home every night; hers sometimes only at the weekends and not always then. When Cassie said she wanted to include not just close friends but people I would work with and others that I felt an affinity with, I wondered how broad my social circle happened to be. In some ways, it was narrower than Cassie’s even if she was in Edinburgh so little. When she was in the city, any time she wasn’t spending with me she gave over to morning yoga and a pre-lunch coffee and a pastry. Sometimes she would meet only one friend at a time; sometimes she saw them as part of a group, and once a month, on a Friday evening, she went out with friends she had known since school. She wanted to invite half a dozen people from yoga; a few friends she would have coffee with, and also eight or nine of her school and university friends. She said this was terrible perhaps and she ought to wait until her own thirty-fifth birthday in a few months’ time. She wondered if maybe we should make it a joint occasion. She offered it as a joke but I would have been happy for it to have been the case: I wasn’t one for exposure, ironically perhaps since I worked in publicity. Yet to me, the job wasn’t about revealing myself but pushing others into the glare. Cassie liked much more the attention and there are plenty images online of her in the company of various celebrities. But no - this is your occasion, she said, and at the very least I needed to invite as many people as she was inviting. 

    We aimed for a party of fifty and I asked Craig if he was seeing anyone seriously enough that he might wish to invite her along. He said he wasn’t, and maybe hoped to meet someone there if the party was going to consist of Cassie’s friends as much as mine. I thought of people I knew in film publicity in Scotland, realising beyond my immediate colleagues in Glasgow, and Mick, the person I knew best was Harriet. I wondered if I should ask Mick to invite his social circle to boost my numbers. I might have invited Harriet if it weren’t for Craig, and might have invited her anyway if I knew Craig was seeing someone else. But inviting Harriet without suggesting she come with a partner may have looked like I was trying to bring she and Craig back together. To make up the numbers, I would have in other circumstances invited Harriet and two of her colleagues, but I couldn’t invite the colleagues I felt without inviting Harriet — even if she may have understood the reason for their presence and her absence. Somehow I managed to come up with thirty people I knew, including Abel and his new partner. Cassie invited twenty. 

                          8

   The party took place in the upstairs of a bar on Buccleuch Street. I was relieved as this modestly sized place filled up and didn’t look half-empty once everyone had arrived. Cassie had arranged the catering with a couple we knew from regular restaurant visits, a small vegetarian place that was only open three nights a week but also offered its services to parties and gatherings. Nobody seemed to mind that all the food was plant or dairy-based except for Craig, who later in the evening for reasons that had nothing to do with the food, complained saying that he could murder a burger and took off to find one. 

    Initially, however, he seemed as happy with the food, the company and the music as everyone else. A friend of Cassie’s was d-jaying and by around 9 at night a dozen people were dancing. Abel still hadn’t arrived and when he did at 930 he came alone. After he apologised for turning up so late I said was there something wrong — the absence of the partner and the late arrival made me hardly fretful but at least a little concerned. He said things were ok; his partner decided she didn’t want to come when she received the invite and he was still trying to persuade her when they were having a drink in a bar nearby. He said that was why he was late — there was no crisis bigger than that, though he was disappointed. When we talked later in the evening he said he might not have been so persuasive if it hadn’t seemed so out of character; she was usually happy to meet newcomers and this was the first occasion that he may have wondered if she were being difficult. 

    This chat would have been not long before I saw Abel and Craig in discussion together. Finally, they were compelled to meet, though I might have hoped that they needn’t also have talked: after all, I had never introduced them to each other for a reason. I knew Craig could be provocative and dismissive; Abel fiery and defensive. But seeing them in a corner of the bar at a table small enough that further guests at it might have seemed intrusive, they seemed engaged in a conversation that neither of them appeared to have taken umbrage over. I was relieved, went back to mingling with others, and danced a couple of times with Cassie. 

     But then I heard the table overturn, with Abel looking furiously at Craig, equally angry yet also oddly bashful. He came over to me and that is when he said he could murder a burger, and off he went. The evening never quite recovered from this mildest of altercations, with no fists flying, no grappling, no words exchanged that were loud enough to hear over the music. It was only the table that indicated to everyone any tension at all, and it seemed that Craig had accidentally knocked it over when he got up to leave. Mick went over and asked if Abel was ok.

   After Craig left, I asked Abel if everything was alright, perhaps hoping for an explanation while Mick wished to offer no more than a kind word. Abel said it was fine but the look on his face suggested it wasn’t, and though he stayed for another forty minutes he looked preoccupied and agitated. As he was leaving, I asked again if he was alright, and he said he probably owed me an explanation but that this would have to wait. Cassie came over after Abel departed and asked what happened and I said I didn’t know. I would have to wait to find out.

                           9

   Over the next few weeks, I contacted Craig on several occasions but while he replied promptly he claimed he was too busy to meet. I was sure it was an excuse: whenever Craig had an intense work schedule he usually still found time at least for a coffee, and even if he couldn’t, he announced when he would have. When I contacted him on each occasion he offered a variation of the same thing. He was working hard.

     I texted Abel several times as well and he was also unable to meet up. Yet in his messages, I sensed a mixture of pressing work commitments and also that he was working something through, trying to make sense of a situation he was struggling to understand rather than hinting to a friend he wanted to end a friendship. There was in Craig’s messages an air of finality; in Abel’s prevarication.  

    Cassie knew both friendships were important to me but never knew Craig or Abel well. Spending so much time away, when she was in Edinburgh she had only enough time for me and a bit of time for her friends, and understandably no time for my friends. One reason she was so keen on the party was so that she could see the people I was close to as well as friends of her own. She noticed after the party how despondent I was, wondered if either friendship was worth the effort I’d put into them in recent years, and said this again when a couple of weeks later she asked if either Abel or Craig had been in contact and I said they hadn’t. I didn’t tell her I’d tried both of them more than once; she was infuriated enough that they hadn’t contacted me to apologise for their behaviour at the party. I knew she was right but also knew that Cassie’s capacity to resolve a problem didn’t always include trying to see the complexities within it. I sensed there was more to Craig’s unresponsiveness and Abel’s unwillingness to meet up. It seemed not just rudeness, though I suspected I might have to wait quite a while before finding out what the problem was.  

                          10

    It was about six weeks after the party when Abel contacted me. He apologised for failing to meet up; said any time next week would work for him. We met on a Wednesday afternoon in the very cafe (The Blue Nile) where Harriet and Craig had argued and that helped instigate their break-up. Abel said it was his favourite cafe as he went on to tell me why he and Craig had fallen out. He said he arrived at the party late was, as he told me that evening, his girlfriend decided she didn’t want to go. He didn’t know she decided not to do so because she realised it was my party and Craig was likely to be there. He would find out later in the evening why she was so reluctant when he and Craig were in conversation, and Craig started to talk about an ex-girlfriend that Abel increasingly realised was his present one. If Craig could be a little indiscreet over the details of exes’ lives with those who knew her - but not too indiscreet - he assumed if he offered no names then the explicit details could be revealed without a specific person being shamed. But here he was telling Abel about aspects of his ex’s personality, her personal habits, even her sexual ones, that were also those of Abel’s girlfriend. 

  As Abel told me this I was both horrified for him, sad for Craig, who realised in terrible circumstances Harriet had a new boyfriend, and well aware that, from a certain perspective, neither of them deserved too much sympathy. I asked him if he remembered an anecdote I told him years before. He looked puzzled and rueful, as though aware that the awkwardness of his predicament lay in a past he could have avoided becoming his present. Perhaps he was right. I said I once told him about someone who stupidly told his friends of a great one-night stand and, after going into all the details, as if the person was going to remain a stranger, became the partner he still happens to be with. Abel did recall the story and perhaps that may have been one of the reasons why he would only ever divulge the intimacies of people whom he knew would remain strangers. He had no interest in speaking so explicitly about Harriet. I proposed that had he talked a little bit about Harriet he might have saved himself the awkward evening at my party. I didn’t offer this statement harshly, didn’t wish to judge Abel for his disclosures, thoiugh I did say that his principle that it was alright to discuss his flings as long he kept to himself the intimacies he was having with someone he regarded as a partner, was only as good as the principles other people possessed. Had Abel disclosed to me that he was seeing Harriet I could have warned him that her ex would be at my party. However, there I was knowing all sorts of details about women who had passed through his bedroom, or whose bedrooms he had passed through, and was unaware for several months he was seeing someone I already knew. 

   Abel could see the irony but I added that if Craig had the same principle as Abel, all would have been fine. Yet Craig didn’t brag about people he was casually sleeping with; he mourned, moaned and mooned over loved ones after the relationship ended. If the odds of him doing so to someone who was now with one of his exes must have been slim, they were so much less so than if he had been discreet about their affairs, however brief or elongated. I said it could have happened that Abel was talking about one of his flings and this was someone else’s ex. There he would have been, speaking without disrespect but with no sense of love to someone who may still have been attached to this ex-partner who for Abel was little more than a physical encounter. He might have been on the receiving end of a very hard punch.

    I didn’t tell him that this was the cafe where I witnessed Craig and Harriet’s relationship coming apart, though I did wonder if it was one they would regularly visit, seeing Harriet as unlikely to return after the upset she felt that day. I asked Abel if it was a regular of theirs and he said oddly it wasn’t - though he liked it and often met friends here, he and Harriet had never come here together. I said no more but felt my instinct was confirmed even if there may have been other reasons why Harriet and Abel never came in. Abel didn’t ask why I was enquiring and I saw no reason to divulge what was behind the question. Was I being discreet or deceitful? Need it be one or the other, I thought to myself, as I found myself thinking about Craig and Abel’s relationship with art, and of the anecdote I offered to Abel he took as advice without quite seeing perhaps the full moral it contained. 

     Craig’s resistance to many films wasn’t just that they weren’t commercial. It was also that they offered what he saw as pointless ambiguities. He said he couldn’t be bothered seeing films that thought there weren’t any differences between protagonists and antagonists. Viewers needed a meaning he said; they needed to come out of the cinema and understand that some values are more valid than others. It was what Craig said that afternoon in the cafe with Harriet, reiterating remarks he had made to Harriet at the premiere the previous evening, and Harriet and I said films didn’t need to make moral points; they needed to explore messy lives. Yet when I told Abel the anecdote about Mick’s friend, I offered it because of the point I was making through the telling. Yet while the story was pointed, it clearly didn’t have enough of a point for Abel to learn from it. I suppose I wanted through the anecdote to say that Abel should have kept his counsel; instead, he took it to mean no more than that he shouldn’t disclose details about anyone he thought might become a partner. 

     If I had fictionalised it, made it clear that I was telling not a factual story with a meaning that could be extracted from it but a moral taking anecdotal form, I would have made my point more authoritatively. But the truth would have been sacrificed to it. I never told the story to Craig, assuming he would have no need for it and there he was meeting Abel years later and indiscreetly telling him all about Abel’s new girlfriend. What story I wondered would be useful to tell and to show that what mattered was keeping many thoughts to oneself? 

                          11

  I saw over the next six months Abel and Harriet often, and Cassie accepted his apologies over ruining my 40th birthday without quite knowing why. She was content to accept there was tension between Craig and Abel, and it was Craig who created the scene by knocking over the table that evening. She was forgiving I supposed because she liked Harriet. Everyone did, and maybe nobody more than Craig, who I supposed was still mourning her absence with a newfound pain. 

   The friendship with Craig appeared to be over when almost a year after the party he contacted me, apologised for his absence, admitted he was embarrassed by his behaviour that evening, and didn’t quite know how to express it. He wondered if we could meet up, and proposed The Blue Nile cafe. 

    He was there when I arrived, and I could see him seated not far from the window, with the cafe’s glass front revealing how busy it was. I took a moment before going in, as Craig was texting on his phone when the waiter came over and placed a Macchiato with hot milk on the side (his regular order). I saw him smile as he exchanged a few words. I had never known him to say more than thank you to a member of staff, and never quite worked out whether this was shyness or arrogance, though he was rarely shy and often abrupt. I came in, moved through the tangle of tables and said it was good to see him, the sort of remark I would make to anyone I hadn’t seen for a while. It wasn’t insincere but it wasn’t exclusive either, and when Craig said it was good to see me as well it appeared more than an obligatory reply. It was as though he didn’t expect to see me again, and was perhaps surprised I’d come. 

    After a few minutes of chat about his work and mine, he said he should have contacted me soon after the party but his useless pride, his aggrandising hurt got in the way. He felt humiliated that he was hearing about Harriet from a new boyfriend, and hurt that another person could speak so lovingly about his former girlfriend as he had never managed to do so when seeing her. As I well knew, it was only after it was over that the tenderness came in and that comingled with rancour. He wasn’t always much fun to be around when in a relationship, he said, even for friends, and was a lot worse out of one for his friends when they had to hear how everything had gone wrong. I said he was being hard on himself, and he said maybe a better way of describing it would be that he had gone soft instead. He started telling me about his new girlfriend, and spoke of her as he had never spoken about any partner before, as I wondered whether this person was so special or if he wanted never again to find himself retrospectively garrulous after so often being initially reticent. I said it was nice to see him not so much in love but aware that he happened to be so. He agreed, adding that it wasn’t only about his new partner; it was a process he went through that made him realise as well how often he would criticise films for their pretensions when he saw, in rewatching some of them over the last year, they were attempting to deal with people over events, emotions over goals. He couldn’t see for years that was what he was doing too, re-viewing, as he bored me and others with his relationship failures. For the first time after hearing about Harriet from her new partner, he watched many of the films she had recommended, and that he had dismissed, seeing in them a nuance he would’ve previously insisted were of no value. 

    I then told him the story Mick told me. I saw in it for the first time less a moral than a temporal conundrum, that if we all kept our own counsel, then that might avoid some predicaments but not others. After all, if Abel had been more forthcoming, the situation at the party could have been as easily avoided as by Craig keeping his mouth shut. Either would have worked equally well. I didn’t doubt in Mick’s telling the point was to show his friend’s clumsy boastfulness. Yet it also revealed a future he couldn’t predict, while the punchline rested on a friend’s hindsight that was perhaps no less agreeable. Perhaps what Craig was beginning to see in the films he was now willing to watch with a less skeptical eye was what Harriet, Abel and I were drawn to more instinctively. Mucking around with time frames as well as creating ambiguous characters might seem like a pompous way of telling a story. But it may also be the best way to remove the given moral from a tale, as I wondered if someday so slight an anecdote as the one I have told, expanding upon one so easy to convey, will be of any cinematic value at all. I thought I might speak to Abel about it; though that would be to reveal my thoughts and the actions of others. Yet there would be a perverse pleasure in Abel making such a film, especially if Harriet or I distributed the work, and Craig found himself watching it. He saw a smile cross my face and asked me what was so amusing. I said some things are best left unsaid. He didn't disagree.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Bragging

1

He would often brag about the women he had slept with and wasn't shy of telling me and perhaps others about what exactly had taken place. However, when he started seeing someone a year and a half ago, he didn't tell me anything about their sex life at all. He must have known very quickly this was a person he would hope to see for a long time, someone he might eventually marry and who would be the mother of his children. When he had told me of various flings and one-night stands, lovers he had met on holiday or someone from work he had slept with, I wondered if he knew nothing could come of these affairs because he offered too many intimate details to continue seeing them for long. Perhaps Abel may have kept in mind an anecdote I told him some years before.

The anecdote went like this: a friend in Glasgow was part of a social circle I never really became acquainted with. They were friends from secondary school, while I met Mick at university. He described them as his secondary school friends, to distinguish them from his primary school friends, which was another circle. Anyway, one of these friends he had known since secondary school was bragging to the blokes after a night out that he'd more than scored; he'd got a bull's eye. He managed to take her up the behind on a first date. Mick thought this revelation crass but a couple of the others slapped the friend on the back, aware that his sexual encounters were usually less frequent than some of the other lads'. Mick guessed this was why the one-night stand turned into a relationship. Fast forward a few years and Mick's friend was complaining that since the kids had been born his wife wasn't any longer much interested in sex, and one of the others said that there he was getting more than his hole on the first night and now he couldn't even get her to put out at all.

Mick would sometimes tell this anecdote as a warning: keep the details of your sexual encounters as the secret it ought to remain. If not, it might come back as a gag at your expense. I mentioned this to Abel after he first told me about a sexual experience with someone but he seemed to pay no heed, telling me over the next couple of years about numerous assignations. Yet when he started seeing someone who was not just another assignation, he was surprisingly quiet.

2

If Abel was someone I knew who couldn't keep quiet about his flings, Craig was discreet when it came to the briefest of affairs and the lengthiest of relationships except when it was over. He would tell me and no doubt others various details after a break-up and this wasn't because he was given to gossip. It was more that he was thinking aloud about what he did wrong. During these periods he was often self-hating but that wasn't enough: he had to dramatise that disgust by offering in immense detail why he was a terrible person. On one occasion Craig described exactly the same act that caused Mick's friend to move from celebration to scorn. It was the first time his partner had tried it with anyone, it was five months into their relationship and, while she showed enthusiasm when he proposed it, and appeared to enjoy the act itself, for days afterwards she seemed withdrawn and preoccupied. He never suggested they do it again, and three months later they broke up and this was one of half a dozen moments that he believed catalysed the split. She was a girlfriend I never met. One of the others he offered was over a female friend of another girlfriend, Tina, he admitted he found very beautiful. She was visiting from Berlin and worked as a make-up artist on film sets. During the long weekend she was in Edinburgh, Craig met her twice with Tina: once for an afternoon walk; the following night for dinner. After she returned to Germany, Tina asked Craig if he found her beautiful. At first, he was reluctant to say he did, but Tina was persistent and so he said of course she was. He included the 'of course' more to indicate that it was an objective fact that needn't reflect on his own desire, but Tina took this 'of course' as a claim that couldn't be applied to Tina herself. Craig would have called Tina beautiful on many occasions but this, Tina believed, was different. He would never have said of course she was beautiful; she was merely beautiful. Someone he was with who he found beautiful but her friend was so much more beautiful than Tina because everybody could see that. He never told me this after their argument but only after their break-up. I said he probably didn't take Tina's insecurities seriously enough at the time, and was taking them too seriously now that it was too late. I also added that on the few occasions I met her, I thought she was potentially a little flirtatious. That is the thing, Craig said: she often commented on his friends and how attractive some of them were, and yes he did wonder if she was flirting with me and others but never said anything to her about it.

3

I noticed in the six or so breakups Craig went through over a dozen years that I would be inclined in some instances to see the problem as the woman's, sometimes Craig's. This didn't mean anyone was to blame, and how can one apportion responsibility in other people's relationships? It is impossible enough to apportion blame over one's own. Sometimes Craig was a reliable narrator of his feelings; sometimes not. I said it seemed to me Tina wasn't ideal; there was no point getting idealistic now. Nothing I said made any difference, of course, but over time, and with time, he would acknowledge I was probably right, and a couple of months after that he announced he had a new girlfriend, Harriet.

This would have been five years ago, and as usual he said little during that first year they were together, though I probably got to know her better than any of Craig's previous girlfriends. We both worked in film promotion; I was employed by a company based in Glasgow; Harriet worked for a smaller one here in Edinburgh. She and I had often seen the same films and usually the three of us would meet up and only occasionally be joined by my partner. Cassie worked in London, in one of the biggest film distribution companies in Europe. Anyway, Harriet and I would fall into conversation and sometimes exclude Craig, before Harriet offered a gesture that managed to convey her pleasure in the conversations she was having with me while making clear that the person she was with was Craig. He might have been involved in film too, but saw himself as a practical man, an assistant director for hire who worked usually on TV productions, occasionally films. But he never cared especially about the profundity or otherwise, and was chiefly concerned that it paid well. He was a professional he said. If there were people who wanted to make art, and they could pay him as much as a daytime TV show, he would be happy to work on it. If they offered a penny less he would choose the show no matter how poor the perceived quality.

Harriet and I would shake our heads, a moment of complicity Craig allowed as he could turn himself into the representative of the hard-headed. His parents weren't poor but they crept into the working class just enough for Craig to feel a righteous representation of the working man. His father worked for years at the local council in the benefits department; his mother was a nurse. Harriet and I were dreamers he said, with the films we distributed reliant on state handouts and poor wages, including our own. We were not paid so well and the owners of Harriet's company in Edinburgh and mine in Glasgow usually employed people with a passion for film and a capacity to live on little money or with the help of familial wealth. When Craig heard that one filmmaker of an important cinema wave, who managed to make his first film after his wife came into a large inheritance, it was frequently brought up as an example of privilege allowing for art. Still, he liked to add, better than robbing the poor taxpayer to fund it.

4

For all Abel's casual affairs, and his careless way of speaking about them, he was a person who cared very much about the work he did and how he did it. If anyone could counter Craig's casual dismissal of creativity as the product of a wealthy background or the exploitation of the wealth of others, it was Abel. Abel left school at sixteen and worked as a farmhand for several years in the Highlands and also abroad. He then went to university, became a social worker and by the age of 26 he managed a community theatre, where he would put on plays by various well-respected playwrights, finding a way of directing them, and acting in them. They drew in people from the community who could see in these works often from the late 19th and first half of the 20th century their own lives reflected on the stage. Abel worked exclusively for this small theatre company except when he appeared in films that were always low-budget, often independently funded, and were made all over Europe. I'd seen him in films from Greece, Ireland and Portugal, as well as two features made here in Scotland. The Greek film my company distributed.

He would tell me he'd never accept a role because of the money, and turned down a few lucrative theatre offers as well, saying that he had no interest in appearing in plays for the wealthy middle-classes when he could be doing theatre within the community where he himself had a flat. When I proposed that those apparently wealthy people could see him in the Greek film, the Irish film and so on, he said that wasn't the same. That was the advantage of cinema, he said: he could be in it but he needn't be present to the audience of it. He didn't have to hear their smug laughter; their tame applause. He said it half-facetiously, adding that it wasn't only that he didn't wish to appear live in front of the comfortable; more that he wanted to remain involved in his own theatre. To appear in front of people at various theatres in the city centre would be to disappear from his community. With film he really could be in more than one place at once.

Over the years Abel and Craig never met; I never felt the need to introduce them to each other and, though I wouldn't have been surprised if they had been on occasion in the same room, that would probably have been a crowded one: perhaps at a cinema event, during a film festival or premiere. What they had in common would probably only have exacerbated their differences. While I liked knowing that someone from a poorer background than Craig's could have countered better than most Craig's assertions, to have allowed Abel to do so would have left me taking sides in friendships that could coexist well enough if kept separate.

5

Harriet and Craig stayed together for about three years but those initial disagreements that could seem jovial, even flirtatious, became acrimonious. When I last saw them, a couple of months before Craig told me that she had ended the relationship, the three of us were in a cafe on a Sunday afternoon, Harriet's favourite. We were discussing a film Harriet's company was releasing and they had both been to a preview screening the previous night. More money had been put into buying the rights and on distributing the film than any before it, and Harriet was nervous at the screening since she more than anyone else was behind purchasing it for the UK. She'd seen the film several months before at a festival, loved it and persuaded the company chief that this could be their breakout film: it was a first feature that some were talking about as a likely winner of the festival's top prize and Harriet convinced the boss that, were it to win, the price would double. She bought the film but it didn't win the prize, yet she insisted this made it no less fine a work.

At the preview she was watching it for the first time since its festival screening, and the first time since the company had bought it. When it finished she was still convinced by the film's quality but wasn't quite so convinced that it would be the success she hoped. There was something resistant in its sympathy towards its characters, which probably made it a better film yet also made it a more difficult proposition. After the screening her boss said it was a very good film, saying it as though he meant it. But he also said it as though he knew they would be unlikely to make their money back.

She needed Craig to support her choice but on the way home, quite drunk, he said the film was pompous, boring and only the pretentious would care to see it. Harriet said that must make her very pretentious indeed since she bought the damned thing. More fool you, he said, and then offered an apology that she supposed he didn't mean but that he felt obliged to offer. The tension hadn't quite been alleviated by the time they met me, and when I asked Harriet if everything was ok, after Craig went outside for ten minutes to take a call from a TV director he was working with, she explained, and for a moment tearfully, what had happened. I sympathised with her and said I would talk to Craig if she wished. She said there wasn't much to say. She didn't tell me it was over, but when Craig informed me two months later that they were no longer together, I wasn't surprised. I told Craig that I sensed Harriet had been unhappy for quite some time, and central to it from what I could see was that he didn't quite respect what she was doing. He laughed grimly, saying even if that was true, then he didn't respect what I was doing either, and we were still friends. He offered it as a home truth, as though Harriet and I were both deluding ourselves that this work was meaningful to us when he could see through its pretensions. He seemed to think that because his background was less privileged than ours, this meant he wasn't fooled. Yet I didn't tell him about Abel, who was perhaps in Craig's terms more deluded than Harriet and me, yet whose social upbringing should have made him see through such nonsense. I didn't do so perhaps because Craig's perspective irritated me but never infuriated me, and it never seemed to undermine me. For Harriet, I suppose it infuriated her and undermined her.

6

Ever since Harriet, Craig has been involved in occasional assignations and has usually been alone. I've suspected this was because he cared more for Harriet than he would admit, and maybe regretted how foolish he had been. In the months after their break-up, Craig talked a lot about Harriet but I also knew he withheld some of the more explicit and troublesome details since I had known her and still do. Though Harriet and I rarely met up socially, our work often brought us in contact: at festivals, premieres and so on. I knew though that he could be more specifically revealing when he would speak to someone about an ex if the other person didn't know who he was talking about, saying that he had an ex-girlfriend who would enjoy sex a certain way, who had one or two odd habits he could never quite accept. In a pub with Craig and some others not long after he parted from Tina, I overheard him saying how this ex-partner would never let him take her from behind: that to do so would be to allow patriarchy in sexual action. She would occasionally allow him to go on top but usually insist that she would, working herself to orgasm on her terms rather than on his. He could be indiscreet but always thought he was doing so with discretion; a paradox he resolved by keeping the person anonymous. The one discretionary detail that passed for an alibi within the revelation.

In this, he was more tactful than Abel had often been. On a few occasions, Abel and I would be out for a drink. While I was getting ready to go home, even if my partner was working out of town, he would be negotiating a late night by joining others, asking me initially to join whatever group he was keen to attach himself to if there were women amongst it: women he hoped were single and would be interested in a fling. Usually, I would slip away when I could see him flirting with someone and sure enough, the next time we met, he would tell me that he went back to her place or she went back to his. Often he would be vulgar and explicit and I would sometimes think of reminding him of my friend Mick's tale. I wondered if he was always so open with others when discussing these casual encounters, or if he enjoyed seeing my face contort into vicarious shame, as though I was taking on the expression of the person he has slept with, hearing how he would discuss the encounter. All I knew was that while he insistently told me about these affairs, this all stopped when he started his relationship.

7

Craig had been single now for a couple of years and I had seen Abel only twice since he had been with this person he seemed to care for very much. He had said little but I could tell this was more serious than any of those numerous flings he would talk about and partly in the reticence he showed towards this new partner whom he didn't even name. He said I would find out all about her when we would eventually meet. There were plenty of other women I never met whom he would talk about, presumably on the assumption that I need never meet them, or had met them briefly before the assignation too place. Yet I still hadn't met her even though now they'd been together for six months. I knew that he was busy with the community theatre, and had been away working on two low-budget feature films. He was also of course in a new relationship that was no doubt taking up much of his time. In one text exchange, I said I would try and catch the forthcoming play but I hoped to see him sometime soon; that I was having a fortieth birthday party; he really ought to come. He asked for the specific date, said that he was free and would have made himself so if he hadn't been. He asked if he could bring his new partner. I said of course; it would be lovely to meet her.

My partner arranged everything, and wanted to spend lavishly, perhaps aware that with her away so often it might seem to our friends that she didn't care for me as much as she insisted she did. I never doubted it, and I would often tell her we were both in a commuting relationship it just meant my commute allowed me to come back home every night; hers sometimes only at the weekends and not always then. When Cassie said she wanted to include not just close friends but people I would work with and others that I felt an affinity with, I wondered how broad my social circle happened to be. In some ways, it was narrower than Cassie's even if she was in Edinburgh so little. When she was in the city, any time she wasn't spending with me she gave over to morning yoga and a pre-lunch coffee and a pastry. Sometimes she would meet only one friend at a time; sometimes she saw them as part of a group, and once a month, on a Friday evening, she went out with friends she had known since school. She wanted to invite half a dozen people from yoga; a few friends she would have coffee with, and also eight or nine of her school and university friends. She said this was terrible perhaps and she ought to wait until her own thirty-fifth birthday in a few months' time. She wondered if maybe we should make it a joint occasion. She offered it as a joke but I would have been happy for it to have been the case: I wasn't one for exposure, ironically perhaps since I worked in publicity. Yet to me, the job wasn't about revealing myself but pushing others into the glare. Cassie liked much more the attention and there are plenty images online of her in the company of various celebrities. But no - this is your occasion, she said, and at the very least I needed to invite as many people as she was inviting.

We aimed for a party of fifty and I asked Craig if he was seeing anyone seriously enough that he might wish to invite her along. He said he wasn't, and maybe hoped to meet someone there if the party was going to consist of Cassie's friends as much as mine. I thought of people I knew in film publicity in Scotland, realising beyond my immediate colleagues in Glasgow, and Mick, the person I knew best was Harriet. I wondered if I should ask Mick to invite his social circle to boost my numbers. I might have invited Harriet if it weren't for Craig, and might have invited her anyway if I knew Craig was seeing someone else. But inviting Harriet without suggesting she come with a partner may have looked like I was trying to bring she and Craig back together. To make up the numbers, I would have in other circumstances invited Harriet and two of her colleagues, but I couldn't invite the colleagues I felt without inviting Harriet even if she may have understood the reason for their presence and her absence. Somehow I managed to come up with thirty people I knew, including Abel and his new partner. Cassie invited twenty.

8

The party took place in the upstairs of a bar on Buccleuch Street. I was relieved as this modestly sized place filled up and didn't look half-empty once everyone had arrived. Cassie had arranged the catering with a couple we knew from regular restaurant visits, a small vegetarian place that was only open three nights a week but also offered its services to parties and gatherings. Nobody seemed to mind that all the food was plant or dairy-based except for Craig, who later in the evening for reasons that had nothing to do with the food, complained saying that he could murder a burger and took off to find one.

Initially, however, he seemed as happy with the food, the company and the music as everyone else. A friend of Cassie's was d-jaying and by around 9 at night a dozen people were dancing. Abel still hadn't arrived and when he did at 930 he came alone. After he apologised for turning up so late I said was there something wrong the absence of the partner and the late arrival made me hardly fretful but at least a little concerned. He said things were ok; his partner decided she didn't want to come when she received the invite and he was still trying to persuade her when they were having a drink in a bar nearby. He said that was why he was late there was no crisis bigger than that, though he was disappointed. When we talked later in the evening he said he might not have been so persuasive if it hadn't seemed so out of character; she was usually happy to meet newcomers and this was the first occasion that he may have wondered if she were being difficult.

This chat would have been not long before I saw Abel and Craig in discussion together. Finally, they were compelled to meet, though I might have hoped that they needn't also have talked: after all, I had never introduced them to each other for a reason. I knew Craig could be provocative and dismissive; Abel fiery and defensive. But seeing them in a corner of the bar at a table small enough that further guests at it might have seemed intrusive, they seemed engaged in a conversation that neither of them appeared to have taken umbrage over. I was relieved, went back to mingling with others, and danced a couple of times with Cassie.

But then I heard the table overturn, with Abel looking furiously at Craig, equally angry yet also oddly bashful. He came over to me and that is when he said he could murder a burger, and off he went. The evening never quite recovered from this mildest of altercations, with no fists flying, no grappling, no words exchanged that were loud enough to hear over the music. It was only the table that indicated to everyone any tension at all, and it seemed that Craig had accidentally knocked it over when he got up to leave. Mick went over and asked if Abel was ok.

After Craig left, I asked Abel if everything was alright, perhaps hoping for an explanation while Mick wished to offer no more than a kind word. Abel said it was fine but the look on his face suggested it wasn't, and though he stayed for another forty minutes he looked preoccupied and agitated. As he was leaving, I asked again if he was alright, and he said he probably owed me an explanation but that this would have to wait. Cassie came over after Abel departed and asked what happened and I said I didn't know. I would have to wait to find out.

9

Over the next few weeks, I contacted Craig on several occasions but while he replied promptly he claimed he was too busy to meet. I was sure it was an excuse: whenever Craig had an intense work schedule he usually still found time at least for a coffee, and even if he couldn't, he announced when he would have. When I contacted him on each occasion he offered a variation of the same thing. He was working hard.

I texted Abel several times as well and he was also unable to meet up. Yet in his messages, I sensed a mixture of pressing work commitments and also that he was working something through, trying to make sense of a situation he was struggling to understand rather than hinting to a friend he wanted to end a friendship. There was in Craig's messages an air of finality; in Abel's prevarication.

Cassie knew both friendships were important to me but never knew Craig or Abel well. Spending so much time away, when she was in Edinburgh she had only enough time for me and a bit of time for her friends, and understandably no time for my friends. One reason she was so keen on the party was so that she could see the people I was close to as well as friends of her own. She noticed after the party how despondent I was, wondered if either friendship was worth the effort I'd put into them in recent years, and said this again when a couple of weeks later she asked if either Abel or Craig had been in contact and I said they hadn't. I didn't tell her I'd tried both of them more than once; she was infuriated enough that they hadn't contacted me to apologise for their behaviour at the party. I knew she was right but also knew that Cassie's capacity to resolve a problem didn't always include trying to see the complexities within it. I sensed there was more to Craig's unresponsiveness and Abel's unwillingness to meet up. It seemed not just rudeness, though I suspected I might have to wait quite a while before finding out what the problem was.

10

It was about six weeks after the party when Abel contacted me. He apologised for failing to meet up; said any time next week would work for him. We met on a Wednesday afternoon in the very cafe (The Blue Nile) where Harriet and Craig had argued and that helped instigate their break-up. Abel said it was his favourite cafe as he went on to tell me why he and Craig had fallen out. He said he arrived at the party late was, as he told me that evening, his girlfriend decided she didn't want to go. He didn't know she decided not to do so because she realised it was my party and Craig was likely to be there. He would find out later in the evening why she was so reluctant when he and Craig were in conversation, and Craig started to talk about an ex-girlfriend that Abel increasingly realised was his present one. If Craig could be a little indiscreet over the details of exes' lives with those who knew her - but not too indiscreet - he assumed if he offered no names then the explicit details could be revealed without a specific person being shamed. But here he was telling Abel about aspects of his ex's personality, her personal habits, even her sexual ones, that were also those of Abel's girlfriend.

As Abel told me this I was both horrified for him, sad for Craig, who realised in terrible circumstances Harriet had a new boyfriend, and well aware that, from a certain perspective, neither of them deserved too much sympathy. I asked him if he remembered an anecdote I told him years before. He looked puzzled and rueful, as though aware that the awkwardness of his predicament lay in a past he could have avoided becoming his present. Perhaps he was right. I said I once told him about someone who stupidly told his friends of a great one-night stand and, after going into all the details, as if the person was going to remain a stranger, became the partner he still happens to be with. Abel did recall the story and perhaps that may have been one of the reasons why he would only ever divulge the intimacies of people whom he knew would remain strangers. He had no interest in speaking so explicitly about Harriet. I proposed that had he talked a little bit about Harriet he might have saved himself the awkward evening at my party. I didn't offer this statement harshly, didn't wish to judge Abel for his disclosures, thoiugh I did say that his principle that it was alright to discuss his flings as long he kept to himself the intimacies he was having with someone he regarded as a partner, was only as good as the principles other people possessed. Had Abel disclosed to me that he was seeing Harriet I could have warned him that her ex would be at my party. However, there I was knowing all sorts of details about women who had passed through his bedroom, or whose bedrooms he had passed through, and was unaware for several months he was seeing someone I already knew.

Abel could see the irony but I added that if Craig had the same principle as Abel, all would have been fine. Yet Craig didn't brag about people he was casually sleeping with; he mourned, moaned and mooned over loved ones after the relationship ended. If the odds of him doing so to someone who was now with one of his exes must have been slim, they were so much less so than if he had been discreet about their affairs, however brief or elongated. I said it could have happened that Abel was talking about one of his flings and this was someone else's ex. There he would have been, speaking without disrespect but with no sense of love to someone who may still have been attached to this ex-partner who for Abel was little more than a physical encounter. He might have been on the receiving end of a very hard punch.

I didn't tell him that this was the cafe where I witnessed Craig and Harriet's relationship coming apart, though I did wonder if it was one they would regularly visit, seeing Harriet as unlikely to return after the upset she felt that day. I asked Abel if it was a regular of theirs and he said oddly it wasn't - though he liked it and often met friends here, he and Harriet had never come here together. I said no more but felt my instinct was confirmed even if there may have been other reasons why Harriet and Abel never came in. Abel didn't ask why I was enquiring and I saw no reason to divulge what was behind the question. Was I being discreet or deceitful? Need it be one or the other, I thought to myself, as I found myself thinking about Craig and Abel's relationship with art, and of the anecdote I offered to Abel he took as advice without quite seeing perhaps the full moral it contained.

Craig's resistance to many films wasn't just that they weren't commercial. It was also that they offered what he saw as pointless ambiguities. He said he couldn't be bothered seeing films that thought there weren't any differences between protagonists and antagonists. Viewers needed a meaning he said; they needed to come out of the cinema and understand that some values are more valid than others. It was what Craig said that afternoon in the cafe with Harriet, reiterating remarks he had made to Harriet at the premiere the previous evening, and Harriet and I said films didn't need to make moral points; they needed to explore messy lives. Yet when I told Abel the anecdote about Mick's friend, I offered it because of the point I was making through the telling. Yet while the story was pointed, it clearly didn't have enough of a point for Abel to learn from it. I suppose I wanted through the anecdote to say that Abel should have kept his counsel; instead, he took it to mean no more than that he shouldn't disclose details about anyone he thought might become a partner.

If I had fictionalised it, made it clear that I was telling not a factual story with a meaning that could be extracted from it but a moral taking anecdotal form, I would have made my point more authoritatively. But the truth would have been sacrificed to it. I never told the story to Craig, assuming he would have no need for it and there he was meeting Abel years later and indiscreetly telling him all about Abel's new girlfriend. What story I wondered would be useful to tell and to show that what mattered was keeping many thoughts to oneself?

11

I saw over the next six months Abel and Harriet often, and Cassie accepted his apologies over ruining my 40th birthday without quite knowing why. She was content to accept there was tension between Craig and Abel, and it was Craig who created the scene by knocking over the table that evening. She was forgiving I supposed because she liked Harriet. Everyone did, and maybe nobody more than Craig, who I supposed was still mourning her absence with a newfound pain.

The friendship with Craig appeared to be over when almost a year after the party he contacted me, apologised for his absence, admitted he was embarrassed by his behaviour that evening, and didn't quite know how to express it. He wondered if we could meet up, and proposed The Blue Nile cafe.

He was there when I arrived, and I could see him seated not far from the window, with the cafe's glass front revealing how busy it was. I took a moment before going in, as Craig was texting on his phone when the waiter came over and placed a Macchiato with hot milk on the side (his regular order). I saw him smile as he exchanged a few words. I had never known him to say more than thank you to a member of staff, and never quite worked out whether this was shyness or arrogance, though he was rarely shy and often abrupt. I came in, moved through the tangle of tables and said it was good to see him, the sort of remark I would make to anyone I hadn't seen for a while. It wasn't insincere but it wasn't exclusive either, and when Craig said it was good to see me as well it appeared more than an obligatory reply. It was as though he didn't expect to see me again, and was perhaps surprised I'd come.

After a few minutes of chat about his work and mine, he said he should have contacted me soon after the party but his useless pride, his aggrandising hurt got in the way. He felt humiliated that he was hearing about Harriet from a new boyfriend, and hurt that another person could speak so lovingly about his former girlfriend as he had never managed to do so when seeing her. As I well knew, it was only after it was over that the tenderness came in and that comingled with rancour. He wasn't always much fun to be around when in a relationship, he said, even for friends, and was a lot worse out of one for his friends when they had to hear how everything had gone wrong. I said he was being hard on himself, and he said maybe a better way of describing it would be that he had gone soft instead. He started telling me about his new girlfriend, and spoke of her as he had never spoken about any partner before, as I wondered whether this person was so special or if he wanted never again to find himself retrospectively garrulous after so often being initially reticent. I said it was nice to see him not so much in love but aware that he happened to be so. He agreed, adding that it wasn't only about his new partner; it was a process he went through that made him realise as well how often he would criticise films for their pretensions when he saw, in rewatching some of them over the last year, they were attempting to deal with people over events, emotions over goals. He couldn't see for years that was what he was doing too, re-viewing, as he bored me and others with his relationship failures. For the first time after hearing about Harriet from her new partner, he watched many of the films she had recommended, and that he had dismissed, seeing in them a nuance he would've previously insisted were of no value.

I then told him the story Mick told me. I saw in it for the first time less a moral than a temporal conundrum, that if we all kept our own counsel, then that might avoid some predicaments but not others. After all, if Abel had been more forthcoming, the situation at the party could have been as easily avoided as by Craig keeping his mouth shut. Either would have worked equally well. I didn't doubt in Mick's telling the point was to show his friend's clumsy boastfulness. Yet it also revealed a future he couldn't predict, while the punchline rested on a friend's hindsight that was perhaps no less agreeable. Perhaps what Craig was beginning to see in the films he was now willing to watch with a less skeptical eye was what Harriet, Abel and I were drawn to more instinctively. Mucking around with time frames as well as creating ambiguous characters might seem like a pompous way of telling a story. But it may also be the best way to remove the given moral from a tale, as I wondered if someday so slight an anecdote as the one I have told, expanding upon one so easy to convey, will be of any cinematic value at all. I thought I might speak to Abel about it; though that would be to reveal my thoughts and the actions of others. Yet there would be a perverse pleasure in Abel making such a film, especially if Harriet or I distributed the work, and Craig found himself watching it. He saw a smile cross my face and asked me what was so amusing. I said some things are best left unsaid. He didn't disagree.


© Tony McKibbin