I've sometimes believed our finest sexual encounters outside our dreams take place in the realm of adolescence. Doesn't sexuality when it is so fully legitimized steal from us our tentative erotic wistfulness? I remember first thinking this when coming across a nude magazine in my father's shed: how it initiated my yearnings and perhaps alleviated my father's. I've probably been as successful as anyone else of modest appearance, adequate salary, and timidly effective social skills at getting women into my bed. Yet I can't pretend that most of these encounters were engineered from a place of much singular consciousness, or that the pleasures I have received from them could surpass my first wet dreams and my early teenage hopes, those moments where I would wonder about the intertwining possibilities available to those initiated into the sexual. By the age of thirty I had accumulated six or seven messily moist one-off situations involving less drink than both of us would claim to have imbibed, and where condoms interrupted a moment of foreplay all the better to stymie heightened arousal and modify the potential anxiety levels of an unwanted pregnancy. I had also managed three year-long relationships that ended with both of us better able to arouse ourselves than our partner, and so I decided to give up. I got married. All of this is not very important or interesting, but it has been ten years since I was wedlocked, emotionally landlocked. I have two children to show that we were excited enough on at least a couple of occasions to produce a child, but maybe my jaundiced perspective is all the more apparent now after a friend's recent disclosure.
I met Paul around seven years ago when we were both working at a call centre here in Edinburgh. It was down in Leith and he was a teleassistant and I was one of the supervisors. I had started as teleassistant myself, before quickly, and mysteriously, getting promoted. The work was for a number of charities and we would cold-call people trying to persuade them to set up a regular direct debit or at least offer a one-off donation. Paul and I would go along with a few others for a drink after work on Friday night, and I enjoyed his company without any evidence as to why that might be, except for our joint interest in music. That was until after a few months when we started discussing what he called the tantalizing audio dimension of the job. He offered the remark with a laugh, and I responded with a laugh as puzzled as his was complicit. Tell me more I insisted. He said that sometimes you would phone someone and the person answering indicated a whole world in their voice and in their remarks, and others would give very little of themselves away even if they were on the phone for several minutes. He then offered two recent examples of people who had what he called an audio openness. The first was a woman who owned a house in a part of the town (the Grange) where the houses were vast and the owners almost inevitably wealthy. It was one of the first calls of the day, shortly after nine in the morning. A man answered the phone and said he was awfully sorry but happened to be in a terrible hurry and off he had to go, but he would just get his wife. She answered the phone blurry-voiced, saying as her husband was leaving that he should take the Porsche, she would need the BWM, and could he pick up some fresh salmon for dinner - the Ramsays were coming round. As she asked Paul why he was calling, and Paul explained the purposes of the charity, so she would occasionally interrupt saying that she just had to feed the cat, that she needed to go upstairs to check that the window was closed since it had started raining, and at another moment caught herself in the mirror and insisted she really ought to get dressed. Usually a call gives us almost no presence beyond the person's voice, he said, but here was a woman whose house became a space he could probably have drawn with some accuracy, and he wondered also what the woman might have looked like. Her remark when she caught herself in the mirror could have been that of a beautiful woman who simply needed to get dressed, or a woman whose looks needed an hour of preparatory work before she could go out.
He admitted that he didn't get her to sign up for a direct debit that day, though she looked like she could have been persuaded; no, he said he would phone her again later in the week when she perhaps had more time. What he wanted to do, though, was play for time of his own: he wanted to talk to her again and thus gave himself the excuse to ring her once more. I looked at him momentarily with the stern regard of someone who was his boss, but replaced it promptly with the gaze of someone who was interested in hearing more about his anecdote. When I asked him whether he phoned her back I put my stern face back on, but my voice indicated curiosity more than admonishment. Bear with me a moment he said, reminding me that there were two people who had offered him this audio openness.
The other was a young woman he phoned around ten thirty in the morning a couple of days after phoning the wealthy wife. She answered the phone, said she had expected somebody else, and he guessed from the music playing in the background, the coffee machine schlurping nearby, and the tone evident when she first answered the phone, that she was waiting for a lover to return: presumably he had gone out to buy bread, milk, cigarettes. She had probably snatched at the phone without thinking. It was, Paul believed, a new affair, and he supposed she was content to keep him on the phone for however long it took for her lover to come back. It was as if she was even flirting with Paul while she waited. He could feel that her whole environment, even a person on the other end of the line cold-calling her, was part of this newly erotic universe. When he said he was campaigning for a particular charity, she said she knew it well: the work they were doing coincided with her degree in environmental science. She was in her final year, she said, and intended to get involved in the charity because it would be useful for her dissertation; and for the world she added, giggling. Paul heard a doorbell in the background, and the girl said she really needed to go, but thanked him for calling. He looked bashfully at me as he was aware that he should have got at least a donation.
Paul could offer these examples of professional laxity because he was usually successful in getting customers. He had a higher rate of sign-ups than any of the other call centre assistants, and the third highest rate for donations. I even wondered whether part of his success resided in his ability to muse over the lives of others. He didn't appear to view the people who phoned as anonymous; more as acoustic curiosities, a term he used that I quite liked. Though he had trained as an electrician after school, his main interest was music, and he had a voice that was an asset to the call centre. It had a nice grain to it: deep but not gravelly. He played mainly in experimental bands, and earned money by working in odd jobs: call centre work or electrical work, it was all the same to him. Since moving down to Edinburgh from Aberdeen he had taken the first job available, which was the call centre post.
I asked him again about the other woman he had spoken to. He said he phoned the wife at the beginning of that following week, saying that he had contacted her a few days earlier: would she be free to chat now. It was around mid-day, and she said that would be fine as he persuaded her to donate twenty pounds a month to the charity, and also give a one-off hundred pound donation. He smiled as he said this, seeing that he had fulfilled his professional duty all the while intriguing me with a story that had yet to conclude. While talking to her, he said, she took another call on her mobile, and the tone indicated that she wasn't talking to her husband but another man, a man Paul suspected had come to the house for an assignation not long after the husband had left the other day. Perhaps tomorrow, she said to him, perhaps in the morning - she was getting her hair done at twelve. It wouldn't do for him to mess it up. She presumably though that she had covered the mouthpiece on the landline, but clearly not well enough. He wasn't entirely sure if she had given such a generous donation as well as offering a direct debit because she suspected he had heard the exchange, felt guilty over cheating on her husband, and spent still more of his money alleviating that guilt, or whether she thought it was a cause she ought to support. Perhaps it was a combination of them all.
Now what he told me at the time didn't quite pass for a story, merely examples of the tantalizingly audio. Paul stayed in the job for another nine months; I am still there - now in a management capacity. I accepted the management post at the same time I got engaged, and with a young boy of three, a girl of one, and a wife who will not quite understandably return to work until the children are at nursery, the security and the wage are necessary. Paul now makes a living doing electrical work in a theatre, makes a little money from gigs, and more still from wiring up houses. He was once, briefly, almost famous. He was in a more commercial band than his inclination generally allowed, and the song was in the top ten. It wasn't a song he had written, but he sang it. We have remained friends and he tells me more exciting anecdotes than I tell him, but where the honesty and disclosure is equally dispersed. I talk about the dullness of work and home; he tells me about his adventures.
Speaking to him a few months ago he told me about a job he did while he was still an apprentice up in Aberdeen, and a more recent housewiring here in Edinburgh. He had always liked a girl in the year above him at school after seeing her on a Saturday at the swimming baths, and where all the other women in the pool were either very young or much older, Helen was the closest to his age that day and she was wearing a bikini where usually those in the pool would wear a swimsuit. There had been a couple of weeks of good weather, and she had a skin tone caramel that contrasted with her white bikini and the exclusively and very white people at the pool. What aroused him however was that as she got out of the water he could see the further contrast of a hint of bikini line pale against the rest of her flesh. This would have been when he was fourteen. Three years later he was working as an assistant to a senior electrician, and putting in a few more sockets into the rooms, when from the hallway he saw coming out of a bedroom and going into the bathroom the very girl from the baths.
He could hear from the hall the shower being turned on, and imagined Helen soaping that body he had seen several years earlier. It was perhaps his first memory of being excited by sounds in relation to images, and he sometimes wondered whether he took the job in the call centre out of a quiet eroticism. What he also noticed was that her mother looked like an older version of the daughter, and remained trim and neat in a royal purple skirt and jacket that resembled the attire of an air hostess. She rushed through the house hoping that she hadn't forgotten anything, told her daughter to hurry up or she would be late for school, and said goodbye to Paul.
I wondered as he told me this what look I would have given him years before if he had said when we were talking in the pub that his interest was sexual more than professional, and that each time he phoned a client he was hoping for some echo of an erotic reverie from his teen years. But as I mused about this so he was too involved in telling me about his latest erotic adventure to care too much what look I had on my face. I knew that his work in the band often led to sexual assignations, but these were encounters perhaps too much like my own from before I was married. He knew that they often took place because he was a musician and they could have slept with someone else in the group almost as easily as with him. He wished, he said, that this was not so: that they could respond to some aspect of the audio musical experience that would be be personally erotic and not socially predictable. As he continued he added that maybe what makes an experience properly erotic is that chance meets with singularity: that something unexpected meets the long anticipated. He reminded me of those two occasions at work where in the one week a couple of women managed to give a very strong sense of their presence through their voice and comments. I think he expected me to have forgotten, but instead I gave him a simple nod. I remembered not only because I had so little in my own life to recall, but also because Paul could make his personal experiences vivid enough to be remembered by anybody after a few years, and more especially because Paul's erotic encounters could speak to my own, often unspoken, thoughts on the subject.
One of those two women he believed he had met again recently. He was in the Grange, on the south side of the city, and drove up to a roomy driveway where a Porsche was parked. He was there to wire up a 10 metre indoor swimming pool at the back of the garden. The woman who answered the door and said hello, saying her name was Mrs Murray, was in her early to mid-forties, he assumed, and was dressed in a cream coloured skirt and matching jacket, white blouse and heels of a light brown: the ensemble worked well on this crisp early Autumn morning where there were no clouds, and where it hadn't rained for several days, but the suit would have seemed perhaps too emphatically bright for most Scottish mornings. She looked like a woman who took her time before going out, and never left the house until she was ready: whatever work she did he believed allowed her much flexibility. As she walked in front of him as they went along a thin path of concrete surrounded by a well attended garden full of primulas, hyacinths and tulips of red, blue, yellow and lavender, he couldn't imagine that she looked after the garden; that she wasn't a woman given to such practical earthiness. As if to confirm his prejudice, when they arrived at the wooden cabin she said she was sure her husband had briefed him on the work that needed to be done, and any questions he had to give him a ring. She then said she would be gone for a couple of hours but would be back not long after eleven. If he could wait, she would make him a cup of tea when he returned.
He started the job, and though he often found electrical work unexciting, with the usual problems announcing themselves and easily resolved, it had also always been work he could lose hours to without really noticing the time. When there was a chap on the door he was surprised to be told it was already eleven thirty as Mrs Murray asked if he would like to join her for a cup of tea in the kitchen. As she made the tea (black, no sugar) while he sat at the breakfast bar, in a high chair that made him feel like a child, he wondered whether this was the woman whom he had told me of years before, but it also brought back a memory of the mother whose house he had wired when an apprentice in Inverness. As they talked, she asked him for how long he had been an electrician and, as he explained it was work he had been doing since leaving school, but that he sometimes worked in other jobs to fund his music, she said that he had a good voice as he talked, and wasn't surprised that he was a musician. He said he was a guitarist who wrote most of the band's songs and sang a few of them. He asked her whether she worked: she owned a couple of hairdressing salons. She never cut anybody's hair now, she said, but it was her trade after leaving school. He noticed as she talked she started to play with her hair, but though it could have been flirtatious, he believed it was more that she was now thinking of her youth, and for some reason he wondered whether she never cut hair now because she couldn't so casually look at herself in the mirror any more. There was nothing casual or accidental about her appearance, and he suspected that extended to looking at her reflection very deliberately.
He went back to work, ate no more than a few oatcakes and a banana for lunch, and shortly after three he received another knock on the door and Mrs Murray, now dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, asked him if he wanted another drink. He said he would be fine: he would finish at five and return early the next morning if that was okay. She said of course, but a few minutes later he heard a knock on the door and, after putting a wire in place, he went to the door and saw on the step was a cup of black tea. As he left at five he looked in to see if he could see her, intending to say thanks for the tea and to wish her goodbye, when instead he saw what must have been her daughter wearing white underwear that couldn't but remind him of the girl from many years earlier. Parked outside was no longer the Porsche, but a Smart car, a vehicle as high and squeezed as the Porsche was low and stretched.
The next morning was a Tuesday and when he arrived at the house the Porsche wasn't there but the Smart car was. He went straight to the cabin and started work, and around ten thirty he heard a knock on the door and there was what he assumed was the same young woman from yesterday, and presumably Mrs Murray's daughter. The accent however wasn't Scottish, but from Eastern or central Europe, with the words spoken hesitantly and yet firmly, as though it took her a while to find her words but that she had no doubt once choosing them they were the right ones. She said she was Mrs Murray's help - she did some gardening, housework, and would sometimes cook when the Murrays had guests. Mrs Murray said she should offer him a drink. Paul assumed that she must have been working in the garden the previous day while he he was in the cabin, and that she was probably changing out of her gardening gear when he saw her in her underwear. She was also older than he might have thought initially, and assumed she was about twenty five. They talked for about ten minutes in the kitchen - she was from Poland, had been in Scotland for nine months, and was saving money to travel: she had always wanted to go Mexico and Argentina. Her name was Dorota.
The weather was as sunny as the previous day, but several degrees warmer, and he took his time eating a more substantial lunch of egg sandwiches he had made that morning, and a chocolate bar he bought on the way to the house. As he sat there, he could see by the side of the building Dorota was trimming a hedge. He called up to her and asked if she had eaten. She shouted down that she was going to make a sandwich for herself in the kitchen, and did he want anything. He lifted the sandwich out of the box and into the air, as he shook his head, and a few minutes later she joined him with a cheese one.
Dorota had light brown hair, a round face, and a figure sitting inside baggy dungarees that nevertheless suggested a young woman comfortable in her body. As she lifted her arm to massage the back of her neck as if she had strained herself slightly while gardening, he noticed the skin just inside her bra was lighter than the tan she had obviously accumulated in the last few days of good weather. He looked at me as if to say that of course it again reminded him of the girl from his teen fantasies, but didn't mention it as though to allow for a certain type of subtext indicating Dorota had moved beyond a fantasy in his head to a significant reality. He asked her if she was would be at the house the next day. She said she would pop in late in the afternoon to do a bit of work in the garden; Paul said he would probably be finished by the end of the morning. He asked for her number; it would be nice if they could meet again. She gave it to him just as Mrs Murray drove up.
The next morning he arrived and the Porsche was in the driveway and Mrs Murray standing at the front door. She was dressed in a purple skirt and jacket not very different from the one Helen's mother was wearing years earlier, asked him if wanted a tea before starting work, and that she would pay him now since she wouldn't be at the house when he finished. She offered the invite within the practical as though to hide a more pressing reason, and sure enough once she handed him the cup of tea she said she was sure she knew his voice from somewhere. She asked as though she knew it intimately, and perhaps if he had said she might have heard his voice a couple of times through the phone when he persuaded her to sign up to help a charity years earlier, they may have moved towards the type of encounter that would have wonderfully brought together the contingent and the distant memory: would a brief affair with Mrs Murray have fulfilled one of those teenage yearnings which until that moment had gone unsatisfied? Or is sex itself a form of sublimation he wondered.
Instead he said that possibly she did know his voice. Five years ago he was in a band that had a bit of a hit. She asked him the title but looked blankly back, and as he started to hum it she hummed it too, saying that yes she recalled it now - it was very catchy. As always, when he talked about the song, he announced he hadn't written it, was happy to get some royalties from it, but his music was usually quite different. He wondered though as she continued humming it to herself whether she was one of those people who had heard the song and heard not only the all too familiar that was indebted to a couple of Beatles numbers and who knows how many songs since, but more singularly still the voice behind it that she may have heard cold-calling her on the phone. Was that voice, his voice, part of her continued sense of yearning, a voice that may have reminded her of an experience from years earlier, captured again on a cold-call and echoed numerous times on the radio? He offered me this not with arrogance, but with a certain type of modesty that insisted all our experiences are echoes of others, and yet within these we arrive at certain moments we can call our own. If he didn't much care for the song that was a hit it was because it was too obviously indebted to other bands; its refrain wasn't secretive enough.
I am not quite sure if I understood what he was saying, but this seemed less important to him than trying to be fair to his own thoughts and making sense of his own experiences. He said he did phone Dorota; that he had met her a few times since he had worked at the Murrays'. Many of the desires he possessed and that seemed so fragmentary were at the moment all contained in his desire for her, He didn't think this had ever happened before, and perhaps it wouldn't last very long, but he was present to his desires.
He knew from our conversations over the years that I had never been present to mine, and I admitted to him after I got married that I did so as if out of sexual defeat. It wasn't that I didn't love Susan, that I didn't enjoy having children, but that during my twenties I had hoped my youthful longings would be met by actual experiences. I know many people talk of dreams and hopes practically and materially: the success they will have in their career, the dream house they will build, the early retirement with the restaurant by the beach. I suppose I have those expectations too, and I would sometimes talk to Paul about remortgaging the flat and opening a cafe that would be more experimental in its musical tastes than most. As I've said, Paul and I first shared an interest in music as in those first few Friday nights we talked about bands none of the others had heard of or would have cared for. But this wish to have a cafe, if I can be crude about it, would be called a dry dream, and many of our hopes in the world are exactly that: meaningful, legitimized and public, but are Paul and I alone in seeing that our lives are just as motivated by wet dreams, by desires much more subterranean? Perhaps what we so often call love, seual love, is the meeting point between these external wishes and internal desires. Paul might have believed it was no more than hope meeting chance, but maybe it is the wet and the dry, the private and the public conjoined.
As I went home to Susan and the kids, I didn't feel they were strangers to me, didn't feel that this life I was leading was badly chosen, except for this lie in my loins. As I walked through the door and kissed her cheek, I felt no desire for her body, knowing that if we were to have sex later that evening I wouldn't be thinking of her. I would be thinking of my childhood fantasies, perhaps thinking of Mrs Murray or even Dorota, and didn't know whether to feel as if I were betraying my wife, betraying my friendship, or betraying a desire far more primal that most seem to sacrifice for the very things I have in my life. I recalled then my father's robust handshake on my wedding day and his announcement that now I was a man, and wondered at the time whether I was another human produced out of a communion that was one of diluted desire. Would Paul and Dorota's children, if they could turn this desire into a union, be different I mused as my own son and daughter came into the room and seemed so happy to see their daddy. It was a desire (but on their part, on mine, on society's?) I couldn't quite deny appeared to have been met. As they came to me for a hug, I heard Susan's voice from the kitchen, a cooing, sympathetic request for me to set the table, and a voice that possessed in its physical absence little hint of a sexual presence I wished for like a miracle.
© Tony McKibbin