Certain family secrets are little more than fragments of memory given no tangible form. There may have been rumours of grandfather's lovers, of grandma's attraction to the postman. Other family secrets are more tangible, with hints of evidence: a letter supposedly somewhere if anyone can find it where granddad declares his love to another woman; maybe even a telling photograph the daughter finds amongst her mother's belongings, where she is looking longingly into the camera, at the man who took it, a man who couldn't have been her husband because he was fighting in the war; or perhaps a photo where either husband or wife are seen in the arms of someone else. But if there is the private rumour and the private piece of evidence, what about when the material is very public, but the evidence it contains barely known by the family?
A couple of years ago I got a job working in the Scottish film archive, and while there happened to be cataloguing a few films when I noticed that one of them had in a leading role someone called Margaret Reid - which happened to me my grandmother's name. Hardly uncommon in Scotland; but I also noticed that it was directed by Michael Wallace, a friend of my grandfather's during the war whose name I recalled because once when looking through some pictures of his battalion with him when I was about sixteen, I asked who the others were, and as he went through them name by name, he paused at Wallace, and said a little angrily, but mainly with sadness, that Michael used to be a friend. I asked what happened; and he said that friendships don't last forever. I wondered if they had drifted apart; not exactly, he replied. A few days afterwards I asked my grandmother about my granddad's friendship with Wallace, and she said that she didn't really want to talk about it: it was for my grandfather to discuss. However what she did say was that my grandfather and Michael once were very close, and as she offered his name I heard in her voice a wistful sadness.
Was this the same Michael Wallace, and had my grandmother appeared in one of his films? The film was dated 1947, and as I watched it I recognized my grandmother less from when I knew her as a boy until her death when I was eighteen, but as I saw her in pictures the same day my grandfather showed me photos of people in his battalion. The film was a low-budget studio picture shot partly near Dingwall, in the Highlands, and in Glasgow. It was set shortly after the war and was about a girl around nineteen who leaves her village as she tries to get over her boyfriend who died in the conflict. In Glasgow she meets various characters who treat her well and one of whom she falls a little in love with, a former Italian Prisoner of war who vacillated between returning home to his wife, or making a new life for himself in Glasgow. At the end of the film, he returns to Italy, their affair unconsummated, but with the young woman at least aware that she could love again.
I've sometimes thought that when we watch certain films we can say that the actors are in love with each other, and on other occasions that actors are in love with the director or the cameraman. It's as if there are different kinds of chemistry at work in film than in the theatre, and maybe we overestimate the feelings between the actors, and underestimate those between the actor and the director. When I look at Ingrid Bergman films with Cary Grant and Gregory Peck from the mid-forties, I don't feel that she was in love with the actors, but when I see the late forties and early fifties films she made with Roberto Rossellini behind the camera I sense that she was besotted. It was exactly the feeling I had when watching my grandmother playing the role of the young woman in the film she made for Michael Wallace; indeed made it around the same time that Bergman made her first film with the Italian director, and which caused such a scandal in Hollywood as she left her husband to be with Roberto.
Now I knew my grandmother had briefly been an actress, but I thought it was exclusively in the theatre, and that she appeared in various plays during and shortly after the war in Glasgow and Edinburgh before moving to Strathpeffer where my grandfather started his own medical practice. Perhaps it was that no mention had been made of this film, and not only the longing looks at the camera, that made me wonder whether my grandmother might have had an affair. My grandmother, nor my grandfather, were any longer around to ask. They had died not so long after our conversation, when I was eighteen and in the first year of my degree. My grandmother had died first, and her husband followed within the year.
My mother and father had taken over the medical practice my maternal grandfather had started, and the next time I was up I wanted to ask her about this possible affair. But in the interim I went to the library, and tried to find out more about my grandmother's acting career. I saw that she appeared in about ten plays over a three year period, and in most of them took a leading role. This was between the end of the war and 1948, and a couple of the plays were directed by Michael Wallace. In one of them he also had a leading part, and also directed it. One review in The Scotsman said where Margaret Reid was a great natural and Wallace somewhat stilted, they nevertheless had a chemistry that might have been better expressed had Wallace simply directed her and found another man for the leading role. I wondered what my grandfather made of this review if he ever read it. It is as if the critic were saying here was a couple made for each other but not for acting opposite each other. In another review, a critic said that no actor could work easily with Margaret Reid on the stage because she would inevitably draw one's eye to wherever on the stage she happened to be.
I went on to scan reviews of the film. The film was not successful, but Margaret Reid had a great career in front of her, and the director seemed to possess a talent for working with actors. I read that Michael Wallace took that talent into television, where he directed numerous soap operas, cop shows and comedy sketches well into the nineteen eighties, but why did my grandmother so suddenly stop acting to become a housewife in the Highlands of Scotland?
That evening I went over to dinner at my girlfriend's. Nina and I had been going out for only several months, and were still asking each other questions about our families rather than settling into the facts of our day to day lives, and I asked her if she knew anybody in her family who happened to be a mystery to her, someone for whom their life seemed to contain mysteries she couldn't quite comprehend. Nina said the closest was an uncle, who would be out of the country for much of the year and yet whenever he returned he would always have gifts to give, stories to tell and, sometimes, a girlfriend who had decided to return to Britain with him. Nobody quite knew what he did to fund his travels. The official story was that he was a travel journalist, but that was exactly Nina's profession now, and she knew that even well-known ones could struggle to make a living: she often took odd-jobs. Her uncle was not well-known, and probably quite lazy when it came to getting commissions and even writing up the articles when he did. At the time, she accepted the story he told, and never heard her parents questioning it though she knew they must have to each other. Now, when she thought about it, she presumed that he sold and trafficked drugs or worked as a gigolo to older women. Perhaps both.
However there was nothing abject in her uncle; he always dressed well if casually, didn't seem to drink very much, and the several girlfriends she remembered meeting were sensitive, intelligent and not especially young. Nina reckoned that each one was special, each one was someone he might have married, and each one she was sure left him hurting after they split up. I asked what he was doing now. She said he was living somewhere in California as far as she knew. The family were no longer in touch; he ran, maybe owned, a travel bookshop, she had last heard. One of the things she always remembered about him was something he would say to her. He would say she had the most gentle eyes, the eyes that could even make a man like him happy. I looked into Nina's eyes as she said it. We were sitting eating at the bay window of her tiny top floor flat that faced out onto Queen Street here in Edinburgh, and I got up from my seat, shifted my bum next to hers on her chair, and looked into them and said I think he might have been right. I kissed her and said, for the first time, that I loved her. She said she loved me back.
The next day as I was walking back to my flat on the other side of town, I knew, even as I said 'I love you' to Nina, whose eyes hers reminded me of. It was of course my grandmother's, and when I got home I looked through my photo albums to try and find pictures of my granny in colour when she was still a young woman. The film was of course in black and white, as were all of the pictures from when she was in her twenties, and it wasn't until around 1970 there were pictures of her in colour. By then she would have been fifty, and the eyes, while a warm blue, had probably lost that unusual combination Nina's possessed: the capacity to seduce but the desire to love. There were in the pictures of my fifty year old grandmother, in pictures taken probably a year or two before my birth, where she was no longer able to so easily seduce, a warmth perhaps that had become even more pronounced.
But there was also a sadness in my grandmother's eyes that were also in Nina's, and, though this hardly seems explicable, I don't think I would have seen this sense of loss in Nina's eyes if I first hadn't seen it in my grandmother's, and had never seen it in my grandmother's before musing over the possible lost love affair. It seemed so strange that I had never thought about this melancholic aspect of Nina when I suspect now it was what first drew me to her, but perhaps I should say more about that later.
A few days after speaking to Nina about her family and mine, I went up north to visit my parents. Nina couldn't come, she was off to Barcelona for the weekend, writing on it for The List, but I knew I wanted to talk to my mother alone, and that might have proved awkward if Nina had come with me. I hadn't introduced her to my parents, and it was as though I didn't quite want to until I had talked to my mother about her own mum. Also, I hadn't been to the Highlands in months and not since before meeting Nina, and as I said goodbye to her as she went off to the airport, and I went to get the train, I might have suspected a look on her face that mused over whether I had planned the trip deliberately to coincide with a weekend she was busy. I didn't, but I was happy with the coincidence, and if I felt any guilt at all it may have been because I was more excited asking about my grandmother, than I was forlorn about missing Nina.
When I arrived at the house, my mother was in the kitchen baking for my brother's kids, and as I gave her a hug she apologised for failing to return the gesture since her hands were full of cake mix. My two nephews were asking her to hurry up so they could lick the bowl. I played with them for an hour until my sister-in-law arrived, and as we said hello I asked where Bill was. He went up a mountain to paint a picture, she said, with a wry smile that didn't even attempt to hide the fact that she would have rather he had spent the time with her. I remember a year or so ago asking my brother why he had married Jill and he said because she was reliable. He said before her he fell in love with people who hadn't been. I asked Jill when he might appear, and she said that they had arranged to invite me over the following day for Sunday lunch if I fancied it. I said that would be great, and after Jill and the kids left I didn't even bother asking my mother where dad was: the weather was clear, the wind soft - he was almost certainly fishing, and afterwards he would probably go and eat some of the catch at a friend's house near the loch.
I was mildly irritated by my father's absence but half-expected it, and anyway it gave me the opportunity to ask my mother questions that would have been difficult to ask in his presence. As we sat down to an early dinner I started asking her about my grandparents. Now I am not sure why but we've always been able to talk easily about numerous subjects, and even issues of family had never before made her retreat from discussion. But this time when I asked if it would be possible to talk about a film I discovered her mother had made in the forties, she defensively asked where I had heard about this. I explained that I saw the film while working at the archive, and I was surprised that nobody in the family had talked about it. I thought it was quite good; something the family should be proud of. For a while it seemed my mother wanted to change the subject; asked how my life was. But I kept asking questions, and as she had had a glass of sherry before dinner and a couple of glasses of wine with the food, her need to reminisce and talk was stronger than her resistance. Sometimes, she said, people make choices, and these choices affect the rest of your life, and so consequently you try and forget the choice you didn't make. I asked her to be more specific, and as she talked I wondered if she were talking almost as much about her own life as my grandmother's.
My mother said that once, and only once, and quite near the end of her life, did her own mother speak to her about this, and maybe this would be the only time she would ever talk to me about it. Her mother was what everybody called a beauty, and one weekend at a dance in Inverness when she was nineteen and shortly before the war broke out, she met someone who was working in films. He was up in the Highlands working as an assistant director for a feature that was being made, and he said if the film hadn't already been cast he would have definitely found a role for her. She thought he was merely flattering her, but later in the evening, after he found out that she had been in a few school plays, and in leading roles too, and after she said that she was shortly going to move to Edinburgh, he promised he would tell theatre friends he knew her. That evening he gave her his address, and made her to promise that she would get in touch when she arrived in the city.
She had been in Edinburgh a few weeks, and managed to get a job working in a fashionable boutique on George Street, where numerous customers would say that where they had the money, she had the looks. Who should really be wearing these clothes? Margaret admitted she would often receive compliments in the Highlands, but often from men who wanted pleasure from her, and from her family who obviously loved her. This was different, and she couldn't help but think of the theatre where she perhaps could wear some of these clothes, and where she might even earn enough money to buy them. Margaret, who was staying in a room in Tollcross, wrote a brief note to Michael Wallace and posted it to the address he had given her that was in the New Town. After posting it she decided, since it was her day off, to go and see where it was that Mr Wallace lived, and walked for the first time beyond George Street, and passed houses and flats with large, grand windows clearly lending light to large, grand rooms. It was in one of these houses, far from George Street and near Carlton Hill, where Wallace seemed to live, and as she looked in the ground floor window to a house that seemed to be on four floors, she saw Michael and a handful of other people standing around as if waiting to be served lunch next door. One of the guests saw her as she walked very slowly past, and later she would find out it was Michael's sister. Margaret remembered the day as cold but sunny, and while her brisk walk countered the December temperatures, she flushed at that moment and it took her a while before her equanimity returned, and with it her feeling of cold as she had been walking at a slow pace back towards her flat.
A few days later Michael sent her a letter in return and said that he would like to meet up; that he might have a play in which she would want to appear in a minor role. It was between those few days however that Margaret met her husband, my mother's father and of course my own grandfather.
Interestingly my grandmother never said how they had met, but she did say that she knew she had met someone with whom she could spend the rest of her life: never had she met someone who gave her such a feeling of security. But a couple of days after this meeting, a few days after posting the letter to Michael, Margaret met up with Wallace and he cast her in a small part in a George Bernard Shaw play, saying he hoped to put on Pygmalion some time soon and thought she would be perfect for the role. She couldn't help but say not too perfect she hoped; and he smiled and said most women have one half and play the other, but that she seemed the sort of woman who could fluidly move between a person who could work with her hands to somebody who knew how to use her mind. Before going up north I had read some articles on Wallace, and also a biography of his life. In it there were only three references to Margaret Reid, and all related to the film they made, but the biographer said Wallace had a tongue so smooth and eyes so blue that it took a certain type of woman to resist. Was my grandmother such a woman?
Now it transpired that Wallace and my grandfather knew each other. Bill and Michael had gone to the same private Edinburgh day school, and had also been in the same division during the war before moving from soldiers on the battlefield, to becoming a doctor in the medical corps in Bill's case, and editing and camerawork in propaganda docs in Michael's. They weren't very close friends but they were more than convivial acquaintances, and when Margaret told Bill that she was appearing in a small role in a play, Bill asked where, and said that he happened to know the director and jokingly added that she should be wary of him: he liked women, and in the plural. My grandfather then supposedly said he liked women in the singular, and announced, even though he had only known Margaret a couple of weeks, that he was falling in love with her.
Within a year they were married, and it was shortly after their wedding that she started working on the film that my mother said was the film I must have watched in the archives. When her mother told her about it not long before her death, my mother hadn't seen the film, still hadn't seen it, and was surprised by its existence: it was the first she knew of it. Her mother announced that was the only time she ever came close to being unfaithful to her husband, and perhaps, she said, it was her very daughter who stopped that infidelity from taking place. My mother looked at her puzzled, she said, and then of course it occurred to her that Margaret must have found out she was pregnant. Margaret looked at her daughter and noticed the look on my mother's face and said that people often say children give us a sense of perspective, but she couldn't think of a better example of it than this one.
My mother explained that it was as if her own mother wanted to talk before death took her, and took with her the other life that she not only never lived, but perhaps had never before discussed. I wondered whether she had never quite needed to discuss it because there was a film where that life, subjunctively offered in film form, existed, and was she not luckier than most that it was not only in her mind, but also on a piece of celluloid? My mother asked me about the film which she had never seen, and the title of which she didn't even know. I explained the story to her, but also added it wasn't the story that was so distinctive; more how her mother would look into the camera, a very unusual form of infidelity. My mother went on to explain that Margaret said that she probably had fallen a bit in love with Michael Wallace, but knew also that the film contained any feelings that she had for him rather than exacerbated them. She admired Michael and found him attractive, but it was if she also knew not only would she no longer admire or find him attractive if anything happened, but she would fail also of course to respect herself, and consequently knew she would either lose her husband or lose respect for him if he so readily accepted an affair that she would have with a friend of his. Margaret offered this to her daughter with the sort of retrospective analysis of one who had dwelt upon the issue many times but nevertheless was a subject towards which she had no regrets. "I loved deeply once in my life: and that was the love I had for the father of my two children."
After my mother finished, I asked her whether gran had ever talked to her like this before, and she said never, and somehow as she talked it was if somebody else was talking - almost the other woman that she could have become had she started an affair with Michael, divorced her husband, and searched out a life less constrained by expectation. I asked if she thought her mother's imaginary life often dwelt upon this existence she never led, and my mother said she didn't know.
As we talked I realised also that my mother and I had never talked quite like this before either, and I couldn't help but ask her if she had ever thought of an alternative life to the one she had chosen. She joked saying maybe she would tell me when she was much nearer the end of her life than she hoped she happened to be. Yet the line was offered without much levity to the humour, and I wondered if she could say with as much certitude as my grandmother that she was with the man she had loved most deeply.
As I returned south I thought much about my grandmother, but also about my own mother, who as far as I knew didn't even have that brief, potential forking path my grandmother was offered. It was after the film that my grandparents moved up to Strathpeffer, and where my grandfather opened his surgery, and it was there that my mother and her brother were born. I knew my mother at nineteen went off to university, after a few months travelling with a couple of school-friends, and it was there that she met my father, and after working as junior doctors in Edinburgh, they took over my grandfather's practice. Did her own life have no secrets, no path that happened not be taken?
Back home in Edinburgh I went directly from the station over to Nina's, where she was cooking dinner. My own flat was not far from Tollcross and hers not far from Carlton Terrace, and as I walked from Waverley station, I only had a light rucksack and decided to do the very walk that my mother described Margaret taking that day more than half a century before. It was again a cold and bright, much later in the afternoon than the one many years before, and it was much easier to look in at people's windows, where many had the lights on, without them noticing and looking back. I tried to imagine myself in my grandmother's mind, soon to be cast in a play, soon to meet her husband, and her unaware of her future and me now much more aware of her past, a past she may have suspected no member of her family would choose to explore in any more detail than through the story she offered to her daughter not long before she died.
At Nina's, I told her about my talk with my mother, and my mother's talk with her mother, and asked if she had ever discussed with any one in her family a past which released an emotional history also. Nina said that she never felt close to her mother, and perhaps what people often mean when they say this as that there is never an opportunity to access a parent's emotional life; and that if she felt much closer to her uncle it may have been for that very reason: that she could. It was strange, she said, now speaking again of her uncle, since we had never talked about him until just before I went up north, and yet of all the members of her family he was the one who made her feel entitled to an emotional life of her own.
I asked her more about this, and she explained that when she was around seventeen, she had a long conversation with him about feelings. It was one afternoon when he came to visit her parents for the weekend at their house in Gullan, not far from Edinburgh and along by the coast. Nina was back for the summer after her first year at university, and her uncle was back from a year of travelling, mainly teaching English in Spain. It was the first time she had seen him in several years, and the first time they had talked together as adults. As they left her parents and a couple of friends lying in the sun on the beach, they walked along it and she found herself asking him what he wanted from his life. There he was around thirty eight and still working in odd jobs, writing some articles on travel, unmarried and no kids. She laughed and said it sounded like a life much better than her parents. But when she looked across at him he looked back earnestly and said that he believed her parents loved each other and they wouldn't have wanted a life other than the one they had, and wouldn't want a daughter (their only child) other than the one they happened to have. He believed even the jobs they did (they were teachers) were jobs they wanted to do, and the house they lived in what they had worked towards. They were much more contented than he was, he insisted, and yet that didn't mean she shouldn't use him as a role model more than they: especially at her age.
Nina asked him why he hadn't got married, and he replied that it wasn't so much he hadn't found the right person; more that he might have let the right one go. Or maybe a better way of looking at it was to say that sometimes you love someone very meaningfully and intensely, but it cannot become for whatever reason marriage and children, and you are left with a memory so strong that it doesn't make marrying anyone else easy either. Life seems always on the point of compromise, and the best way to avoid this feeling is to commit to no one in particular and keep the memory. At least if you are alone you feel entitled to the memory, he said, entitled to talk about it and think about it, where imagine, he added, if he were married with children, who were sitting on the other end of the beach with her parents and their friends, and there he was talking of a woman whom he once loved more than anybody else. Nina asked him who this person happened to be. He laughed at how easy it is to tell a story of suspense, how easily we can create tension in our listener, but often about an event that is not so easy to live: pain, hurt and loss make for easy drama, but hard lives.
Yet he had to admit there was not a lot of hardship in his tale, and he said he met her while he was teaching English for a few months in Barcelona. Her and some friends were passing through. He was in his early twenties and she was in her late teens, and they met one afternoon while flicking through records in a shop. They were both browsing for an hour when he asked, perhaps with all the presumption of a shop assistant, what she was looking for. She said nothing in particular, and that she probably wouldn't have bought anything even if she had found something: she was travelling, and a record would have been a cumbersome item to take from place to place. But she said a week before she had been in Paris and done the same thing, promising that some day she would come back and buy a lot of the records that she saw in shops in the French capital and would maybe do the same here.
As they went for a coffee she told him that she was from small village in Scotland, and one of the things she so liked about going to big cities wasn't especially buying records, clothes and books, but knowing they were there - available to be bought. He laughed and said she sounded like someone living in a Communist country discovering the west, and she said, yes, that is a nice way of putting it. But perhaps there are worse conditions to live under. For a few weeks she let her friends carry on travelling through Spain while she stayed with him in the city, and she only left him when her friends were thinking of going to Morocco. She joined them in the South of Spain, and said, before leaving him in Barcelona, that maybe they would see each other in the future. They laughed as if not to cry, and said that maybe their relationship had been a little like leafing through record collections in city music shops.
When her uncle finished his story the sun was close to setting in the sky and he said they should be getting back, but Nina thought this had less to do with wondering whether the rest of the family were worrying about them, less about the fading light, and more to do with the churned up feelings he probably didn't want any longer to access. But as Nina looked across at me she saw tears forming in my eyes and a look of quiet shock on my face. She asked if I was feeling okay; that my colour seemed a bit pale. I didn't know how to explain to her that I thought the person her uncle may have been talking about was my very mother. The trip to Spain, the small village, the record collection that I had always assumed was more my father's than my mother's. Maybe it didn't even matter if it was my mother she was talking about; it was more that she was talking about loss at all, and as we sat now by the fire, the wine finished, another bottle threatening to be opened, and a candle no more than a stub, I thought of so many people at once. I thought of my grandmother and my grandfather, of my father and mother, of Nina's uncle, and Nina and me.
But I also found myself asking Nina if she happened to know if her uncle had any photos of his time with that young woman in Barcelona. She said next time they talked, and if they ever again talked like they did that day years ago on the beach, then she would definitely ask him. I suspected though that whoever happened to be in those pictures I would be unlikely to find them somewhere in the Scottish film archive.
© Tony McKibbin