My friend insisted he had told only one conspicuous lie in his life before the age of thirty-five and it happened to be to his spouse. We would meet every month or so, talk little and have a couple of pints in a pub while watching the football. We had met when we were both working in a call centre ten years ago, and would go to a nearby pub when the shift finished, watching whatever sport happened to be on the TV. For a couple of years, we watched tennis, golf, football, rugby, even darts and snooker. We just didn't much care to talk after eight hours trying to persuade people to buy satellite memberships. Conversation seemed corrupt; staring at a screen watching people knock a ball around, smack it over a net or prod it with a cue all appeared more meaningful even if we both admitted the only sport we would usually have watched was football. After we left the job we kept in contact and continued the nature of the friendship a little bit more exclusively, arranging to meet for football derbies, cup games and, during this particular period very recently, the world cup, where we would meet about twice a week. I was a Scotsman who had long since been used to supporting other international teams and I'd put a hundred pounds on France winning the tournament. Malcolm, who was an Englishman who had lived in Edinburgh since he started university here, had done the decent thing and put a hundred pounds down on England winning. He would also help England along with superstitious rituals: he always had a rabbit's foot with him during a game.
Over the years we had rarely talked about our private lives, usually saying a few words between quiet moments in games, and it might seem odd that though we'd known each for so long I'd hardly met his wife at all. It didn't seem appropriate, suggesting appropriateness rests on habit over decorum, and our habit had been to watch sport with few words said. Perhaps with others he was much more voluble - I knew I could be and had three or four friends who were well aware of my emotional entanglements, but never once with Malcolm, except to say that I'd been seeing someone for a while, I was feeling a bit lonely after a break up, or that I'd argued with my brother or my sister, my mum or my dad. He'd always ask if I happened to be okay and that seemed to be enough. To talk more about it felt like it would undermine the gesture of feeling rather than expand it.
Was it because we were seeing so much more of each other that led to his confession or was it something I had said during a first-round game when a player took a dive and I announced that I hated cheating? The player had weaved his way around three players from before the halfway line but as soon as he entered the box it was as though he was looking less at the goal than for a defender to brush up against him; as soon as someone did down he went. He could possibly have scored a beautiful goal but looked for the penalty instead. The referee ignored it. Cheating takes so many forms Malcolm offered, and I assumed he meant specifically in the sporting context as I mentioned Madonna's goal against England in 1986, an accusation made against Roger Federer over some medical time out, or a moment in the 1982 world cup where the German goalkeeper deliberately crashed into a French forward to stop him from scoring. I remember reading somewhere in the context of the latter George Orwell's remark that football has nothing to do with fair play. "It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence," he said. "In other words it is war minus the shooting." We talked about these incidents during an often dull first round game, but it wasn't until after France beat Uruguay in the quarterfinals that he told me he wasn't only thinking of cheating in sport. Don't we often cheat in life as well? I admitted that there had been a time at university when I was sleeping with three different women and none of them knew each other but I wasn't sure if I was cheating on any of them. At no point had I indicated we were anything but occasional lovers, and perhaps they were sleeping with other people too. At no stage did I feel I had to lie to any of them, even if I might now admit that I would have been embarrassed if one of them had seen me with another in a bar or cafe.
He told me that evening of two different moments: one where he lied, and another where he cheated. Yet in the first he hadn't cheated and thus far, concerning the second, he hadn't yet lied. Around three years ago as I well knew he had taken a job as a pharmaceutical salesman, wining and dining doctors so that they would prescribe his company's products. His background was in chemistry, but after his PhD, he couldn't easily find work in his field, did low-paid jobs for several years, and then as he entered his thirties, knew he needed to find more lucrative work. The salesman job provided it. In the first year, he enjoyed the dinners, didn't mind the travel, and missed Marla less than he might have expected. They had been together seven years, married five years ago, and with the new job, they managed to move out of their one-bedroom flat in Gorgie, buying a ground floor flat with two bedrooms near the sea by Portobello. He was in no hurry for a family, and wasn't so sure if buying the new place was setting things in motion so that they could move towards having children, or an appeasement measure to dissuade Marla from being in too much of a hurry. Let us settle in first, he remembered saying. Perhaps this remark and the many days a year he wasn't around led to that affair Marla had.
He had returned from a three-day trip up in the Highlands, came through the door, and saw a stricken look on Marla's face as she sat drinking some tea in the kitchen. "I do love you" she said as though she were finishing off a much longer sentence that had no doubt gone through her mind on many occasions. The rest of the statement appeared over the next hour in a series of semi-jumbled comments apologies, tears and hugs. He was telling me this after the Uruguay game, euphoric that the England team was in the semi-finals, but more ambivalent about his life over recent months as he explained in a quieter bar we went to after the game that he had been having an affair with a colleague who would also often work in the Highlands. At no stage had he lied about this affair to Marla: the four times he had met up with Sandra were occasions when he had been working away. I said as he mentioned this that he was getting ahead of himself, that I needed to know more about his wife's affair first. He smiled sadly and said that he had almost forgotten that I had worked voluntarily for a couple of years with the Samaritans, and it was often the case that just by putting someone's story in order it sometimes seemed to help people put their life in order too. If psychoanalysis I've often thought is all about the backstory, the past that haunts the present, I sometimes would feel that being a good Samaritan was a little like being a good editor: you had to help the person tell their story as there was usually very little you could do about their life.
My friend said that Marla explained the affair only lasted a couple of weeks, that she was angry he had been working away so much, had gone out with a couple of friends who were visiting from Split, met a persistent figure in a bar, gave him her phone number to get rid of him assuming that he was drunk and would never get in contact, but the next day received four texts within around five or six hours. She didn't reply to any of them. But then she sent Malcolm a text that he didn't reply to until the end of the evening, and by that time Marla had replied to the persistent stranger saying she would be happy to meet him for a drink. It was an act of revenge that became a fling to forget: three assignations involving a lot of alcohol, oblivious sex and useless headaches. That is how he described it to me and I couldn't quite see Marla describing it to him quite like this. I'd only met her a few times and very briefly, once for example when we were watching a football game and she nipped into the bar to pick up the car keys; another time after a match she picked him up from the pub. I had the sense that he was describing his feelings towards his own affair as I asked him whether he had acted out of revenge also. He wondered whether it may have been the opposite: that it was perversely an act of consideration. He looked at me then with a face sheepish with the sort of guilt that had nothing of the magnitude we would usually attribute to an affair, but closer to that of someone pulling the wool over another's eyes. And yet he believed what he was saying, insisting that he knew that Marla felt terrible about what she had done and that his forgiveness had given him a power over her that he didn't wish to deploy. So he initially pretended that he too had slept with someone around the same time that she had slept with the persistent stranger. He did so for similar reasons to her, he insisted: that he too was lonely and missing her.
She was annoyed that he hadn't told her straight away, but then she hadn't told him straight away either. But he could have told her when she talked of her affair. No, he insisted, it would have seemed like he was making it up; that he was saying it to assuage her guilt. As he had said this he was surprised at how easy it was to lie to her in the process of making her feel better. He could briefly understand so many dishonest politicians who would insist that yes they had not told the truth, but it was in the country's interest that they had dissembled. He was lying for a higher good, but then as if to give truth to the lie he too had now had an affair. Of course, it would be nonsense to insist that he had slept with someone else to create what he could only refer to as the balance of recriminations - a phrase he vaguely remembered reading a few years before. Yet equally he had felt little passion for this woman with whom he had now slept several times, and could not find a better reason for sleeping with her than to get not so much even with his wife, so much as to remove the lie that he had told.
I had never found Malcolm to be so subtle, even if while writing this I am putting words into his mouth that are as readily my formulations as his own, but I think the nuance came out of a feeling he could not quite explain and that he was trying to provide a hypothesis for. I asked him as gently as I could whether he was no longer having sex with Marla, that it was the excitement of a new body. He insisted that the sex was as good as it had ever been, in some way better than in the first year or so where Marla was not sure enough of her feelings to instigate the deed. If there is a saying that if you put a penny in the jar for every time you have sex in the first year, and take a penny out for every time you have sex thereafter, and that the jar will never empty, he believed that was not at all true in their case. He reckoned that if he categorically ended the affair as soon as possible, all would be well, but first, he had to persuade Sandra to do one thing. His face took on a grave look, a demeanour I had not quite seen before as any seriousness he showed I sensed could quickly become humorous. Not this time. Sandra was pregnant, he said, and while he did not know whether it was his (she had other lovers), or perhaps she had made the story up to keep him (she admitted she could lie when it suited her the first night they slept together) there was a moment which would have justified her claim.
Sandra was thirty-seven, he said, and while she had no great desire to have a child, once the burgeoning creature was in her body she began to feel that this might be the last chance she would have to bring into the world a baby, and she did not know if she would wish to imagine herself in the future looking back on the child that she aborted. My friend had not known what to say, caught between many different thoughts and feelings that coagulated around one: that he must persuade her to get rid of the foetus. Perhaps it was not his, but the notion that there would be a child in the world that would be an extended lie, and a living lie growing into a man or a woman and capable at any moment of knocking on his and Marla's door and saying he wanted to know more about his father, would be a horrible, ongoing threat. He could, of course, wait it out, hoping that the child would not be his. When it was born, he could take a blood test to find out for certain. It was then that I told him of one of the few occasions in my life that I could not recall without a lurch of guilt around the solar plexus.
I said to him it would have been during the time in the call centre and that he might recall I was seeing a Serbian girl I had met during a trip to Serbia and also Montenegro. It was in the latter, in the walled Montenegrin village of Kotor, that I met Branca and a holiday romance was continued into a long distance relationship that lasted eighteen months. She came over and visited me twice. I went over there about four times. On the last trip, in Belgrade, she told me she was pregnant and that she did not know whether she wanted to keep the child. I was twenty-seven. She was twenty-four and I insisted that we both had so many future opportunities either together or apart, to have a baby. Any ambivalence she felt was countered by my certainty that this was not what I wanted, and conveyed to her however unfairly that this was not a unilateral decision. She would be ruining not only her own life but mine also. I left the decision to her and returned to Edinburgh, receiving a long email ten days later after she had not replied to a couple that I had sent her. She said she had gone through with the act and did not want to hear from me again. She was not blaming me for anything, she insisted, or not blaming me any more than she was blaming herself, but she felt we were joint accomplices in a murder. She could live with herself but the idea of living with someone who was also responsible for the deed was too atrocious a thought. I had assumed this was sent in a moment of anguish so soon after aborting the foetus, but over time I would think about that email often and especially the phrase about us being joint accomplices. It is the type of phrase that could be used very successfully for a pro-life campaign, but though I think Branca's guilt was justified, and more especially my own, the point is that it was our guilt. Murdering a living person is a state crime; any personal guilt secondary to a police investigation. There are many things over which we feel guilt but where we aren't threatened with a prison sentence, and indeed Marla's affair, and my friend's would be other examples of it. But that doesn't mean there is a simple moral line between the legal and the illegal - and I sensed that if my friend cajoled a woman in her late thirties into an abortion, the practical problem of a child in the world might go away, but it would be replaced by an imaginary one no less haunting.
This is what I explained to him that evening after the Uruguay game and we didn't meet again until the final of the world cup. He had watched the England-Croatia semi-final with Marla (who was Croatian) and was so preoccupied with Sandra's pregnancy that he only half-paid attention to a game that would usually have him anticipating every pass, shouting at the television when a forward missed, or the goalie almost fumbled catching a cross. Marla, who had no interest in football, was far more engaged than he was, seeing as she said a place in the final her country's full recuperation as a nation, a country that could be more than a tourist resort and a nation of war survivors. For the previous few days when she had told anyone that she was Croatian it registered in a way that it hadn't before. She didn't care who kicked the ball as long as they kicked it towards the English net. But she must have also noticed during the game that Malcolm suddenly had little interest in a sport he usually loved, and afterwards didn't seem to mind that England had lost without showing much enthusiasm that Croatia had won. He wanted to tell her why he was so preoccupied, but instead said he had a mild problem which he implied, but didn't state, concerned work. He would be fine once he had sorted it out. He didn't want to lie and so he settled for an omission, promising himself that if Marla enquired further he would have to be honest, and yet hoped that she wouldn't. She didn't.
And so there we were about to watch the world cup final and I was about to ask where Marla was when he said she would be joining us with several Croatian friends. I asked him quickly about Sandra and he acknowledged he had seen her the previous day: she wanted a child but also wanted to be with someone who loved her. He revealed that he didn't; she said she could not bring a child into the world out of revenge, though at that moment she would have been happy to ruin his life as she felt he would be happy ruining hers. He knew there was no good solution to be had but believed the least terrible was that she would have the operation with no further coercion from him. When she looked at his face she did so with a contempt that he knew could easily result in her telling Marla about their affair but as far as he knew she had no way of contacting her. Marla wasn't on social media and he had withheld from Sandra his address: they had always met at her flat. She didn't even know he lived in Portobello. But of course, she could follow him from work, onto the bus that he might start taking instead of the car, and follow him once he got off it. But he would no doubt see her on the bus and get off in Niddrie or Musselburgh. Whith such thoughts he believed he could protect Marla. I looked at him wondering how far from the goodness of his initial lie he had moved. He saw in my face this worry, and I hoped he could see in it also a face not of pure judgement but of fretful awareness that I too had gone to places which hadn't put me in prison but had, for a while, left me in a state of self-incarceration.
Marla arrived with three Croatian friends - a couple and the cousin of the woman. They were all wearing the Croatian strip of red and white that looked as if you could play chess on it. They were also wrapped in scarves and carrying small, rolled up flags. Marla said hello and felt quickly obliged to say that the full rigmarole had been courtesy of her friends who had arrived from Croatia the previous day and brought with them the full fervour of the country. She offered it as though it was a fancy dress party she felt obliged to attend, and I liked her capacity to distance herself from the event without at all being dismissive towards it. I could see that she was happy this country with a population smaller than Scotland's had made it into the world cup final, without getting hysterical over the game. The couple appeared a little more engaged but not belligerently enthusiastic, which was the feeling I happened to get from the woman's cousin. He was around eighteen and carried within him a sourness a game of football might bring out more fully. For a moment, though I had money on France, I hoped Croatia would win,
As we watched the game in the beer garden pub, a few yards away from the university, and a boisterous but unaggressive venue to watch a game, I saw sometimes Marla glancing at Malcolm with a tired and concerned look on her face, as though she knew there was a conversation to be had but hadn't found the time or the opportunity to have it. Maybe I would have read that look differently if my friend hadn't divulged so much to me over the last couple of weeks, but I don't think so. I believe I saw someone whose friends had arrived at either the worst or the best possible moment: I sensed that perhaps she had talked to them about her fears. During the game I was watching the others almost as much as I was watching the match, and saw when Croatia scored their goals that the teenager would clench his fist and press it firmly down against the table. When France scored, he had both hands open in front of him as though ready to wring someone's neck. At the end of the game, France had beaten Croatia 4-2. When the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic hugged the players and the manager during the awards, I noticed Marla couldn't quite stop her eyes from watering, and she hugged her friend. Malcolm appeared oblivious to this as it appeared as though he was still involved in the permutations of the game, but no doubt thinking about the permutations of his own life. All around us were French supporters, singing, waving flags and chatting loudly. There were a few scattered Croatian tops but rather more blue ones - though most of those in the garden were neutral in their dress even if far less so in their support. The atmosphere was French.
We all went for a drink in another, quieter bar a few hundred yards away that was not especially quiet, and was almost always busy, but felt tranquil as none of the clientele looked as though they had shown any interest in the game at all, and looked a bit wary as we came in with several of us wearing Croatian colours. We stayed for an hour, talking about the game but as if everybody was thinking about something else. Marla looked like she wanted to talk to Malcolm but was afraid to, the couple appeared to look at Marla as if worried for their friend, and the young man seemed to be looking at Malcolm and me as if assuming some conspiracy between us. At one moment I said that Croatia had the spirit and energy I had seen in few other teams during the world cup. They could lose a game but somehow they couldn't be defeated. The young man said that this was what made Croatia such a great country. It never gave up. It was relentless. I could see in this young man's face a bitterness that may have been handed down from an earlier generation who fought in a war that he would have known nothing about, would have suffered no more than I had in the context of WWII. But he had allowed it to become an aspect of his identity, perhaps seeking situations that would justify a jingoism that twenty years earlier would have been pertinent to his father or grandfather. I'd read after the England-Croatia game that a fan reckoned Croatia was a nation forged by war, and I could see in the young man someone who would seem to have taken such a statement to heart. It had no doubt a much stronger reality than the would-be-WWII-heroism of many a nationist in England, but he seemed to be another young man looking for a cause to get belligerent over. Though he was fluent enough in English, on the two occasions, once at half-time and again in the pub, when I tried to engage him in conversation, he answered briefly and harshly.
I hadn't planned to see Malcolm for a while; there were no major sporting events to watch together. But around a week after the final, I got a text asking if I would be okay to meet up for a drink. I supposed he had resolved his dilemma, or it had been resolved for him, but I was surprised to see as I came towards him in the same beer garden pub we had watched the final, in the early evening, during yet another close, humid and partially sunny day, I saw him sporting a black eye. I asked him what happened and he said he was trying to be a good sport about it, as he explained it was proudly given to him by the surly teenager. The following day after the game, Marla, the couple, the cousin and Malcolm were walking along the beach and he and the cousin fell into step and Malcolm tried to fall into conversation. They talked about the England-Croatia game, Malcolm thought England were unlucky and the cousin was having none of it. The English claim themselves to be lions but they fight like cubs. Croatia he said were the lions, but they would also fight like tigers; they had the stamina and pace of Jaguars. The tone was righteous with national pride and Malcolm unavoidably laughed at the pomposity. A moment later he received a smack on the jaw and a second punch that landed around the eye. As he went down, the cousin stood over him and said that there are many ways in which you can hurt a Croatian's pride as he realised also that the young man knew that somehow he had betrayed, or hurt, Marla.
The beach was busy as it had been for much of this summer as day after day had offered if not always blue skies then at least weather warm enough to take a walk along the beach and the promenade. Various people looked round. One or two appeared ready to help. But Malcolm said he quickly got to his feet and waved his hands as if to say that there was nothing to worry about. Marla and the couple turned around too and Marla ran towards him, cursing the cousin in Croatian and asking Malcolm in English if he was alright. As Malcolm nodded she continued dressing down the now cowed cousin. That evening the couple and the cousin booked into a Bed and Breakfast in nearby Juppa, and he and Marla, at last, managed to talk. He didn't tell her the whole truth, at least not yet. He told her that he had made up the affair when she had told him about hers, feeling that it was important she felt no contrition over what had happened. But that yes, more recently, over the last month or two, he had been seeing someone; that he couldn't quite understand why and that there was no doubt that he loved Marla and has little interest in this other woman. Perhaps he had started seeing her to justify the lie he had told her; that now he had somehow told her the truth but only the temporal order was wrong. He admitted this sounded like a pathetic excuse but he could find no other justification for it.
He then asked her what she had told her friends. She had been walking along the beach the morning before the final with the couple when she admitted that she and Malcolm weren't speaking much, that she knew her husband had had a brief affair but that as far as she knew it was over. She hadn't told them that she had been seeing someone as well, perhaps justifying not doing so because the affair had long since concluded, while she thought perhaps his was ongoing, but also because she couldn't quite countenance telling her friends she had cheated on her husband. All she wanted was a little advice; what she got was a beaten up spouse after the cousin had overheard what they had talked about. The couple had listened carefully, Marla said, offering friendly suggestions that didn't at all indicate any ill feeling towards Malcolm, and were horrified when they saw the cousin attacking him.
As Malcolm and Marla talked he knew he couldn't quite tell her that there was another woman pregnant with what was almost certainly his child several miles away, but he also believed that this concealment was consistent with the lie he had told months earlier about having an affair. Too much truth would clearly hurt, and all he could hope for was that Sandra had taken care of the child herself. As he said this I could see that he knew he deserved more than a black eye, even if I believed he probably received it less for his infidelity, let alone getting another woman pregnant, than for no other reason than that Croatia lost the world cup final. He was probably punched the way someone else would kick a chair, a chair perhaps with a wobbly leg that wasn't functioning properly but little more than a chair nevertheless. As I was thinking this, he said he hoped to speak to Sandra but wanted, first of all, to wait for the black eye to go away. Things were complicated enough, as if aware that Sandra would be happy to give him a second one.
I didn't hear from Malcolm for a few weeks and might not have heard from him for a lot longer than that if I hadn't texted him saying we should meet up. I was sure he had news for me. He said he did indeed, apologized that he hadn't filled me in on the details, but that he was free for a couple of hours that weekend. The weather was still sweaty and humid. I said I would meet him out in Portobello: I could do with some fresh sea air. He appeared calmer than I had seen him in a few months, and as walked along the wide expanse of sand that separates the sea from the promenade, I asked him why the smile on his visage rather than the prior furrow on his brow. His smile left his face as he told me that Sandra had had a miscarriage, that fate had indeed intervened. But it had intervened again, he said: Marla was pregnant. I well knew Malcolm was capable of superstition, but I felt uneasy at how he was equating a miscarriage and a pregnancy through his own good luck. I asked him if he had seen Sandra since it happened. No - she texted him a couple of days after we talked and stated that there would be no need for an abortion. She replied that a misfortune had taken place the previous evening and she didn't wish to talk about it. He didn't reply but slowly felt relieved. When a couple of weeks later Marla thought she was pregnant he didn't know whether to feel appalling guilt or accept his amazing luck. All he could say was that he felt more happiness than misery. He didn't deserve this good fortune, he admitted, but do any of us deserve luck, be it good or ill? After he left, I kept walking along the beach for another couple of hours, stopping along the way for a cup of coffee in a cafe on the promenade. As I watched people pushing prams, young children clambering over climbing frames and a couple of expectant mothers walking with their backs straight and the bump in front of them pronounced, I thought of football. I thought of Orwell's comment that sport was war minus the shooting, but also that football like other sports was a game of luck within the confines of very established rules. Before the final I could have predicted that France or Croatia would have won: there was no other possible outcome. But a few weeks ago I could not easily have predicted that Malcolm would have been open to me, that his mistress would become pregnant and then miscarry; his partner find herself expecting and her friend's cousin give him a beating that probably had as much to do with Croatia's defeat as Malcolm's failings. But that is perhaps why so many enjoy sport and the limits placed upon its contingency. Others prefer stories, as I thought of writers I would read who might be inclined to make something of this one.
© Tony McKibbin