It can't be too often when we find ourselves reading the newspaper and, within a month, notice two stories that concern us, however indirectly. But perhaps out of this coincidence a third story comes to mind, and reveals an aspect of how memory works.
Several years ago a friend had access to a holiday cottage for a couple of weeks on a small island off the Scottish coast and planned to spend the time with his girlfriend, only for her to tell him a week before they were due to go that various circumstances meant it wouldn't be possible to join him. She said her mother was ill, she couldn't really take time off work, that she wasn't in the mood to spend a fortnight on an isolated island on the West coast of Scotland. The excuses were too many and too profuse, and he knew that what she wanted to tell him was they were breaking up, but probably believed to do so, when they had planned a holiday together, was too unreasonable and thus placed a few obstacles in the way to prepare him for the rejection a month or two later. They had been seeing each other for only four months and he said why bother keeping it going any longer. He said that was it and he would go with a friend instead.
I have often been the friend of last resort, the person who could be relied upon to make himself available when their relationships failed. Both my job and my personal circumstances allowed it: I was a self-employed copy editor and occasionally worked on scripts; more occasionally still on my own. I seemed to need the freedom not so much to escape from commitments; more to know that I could follow through on that commitment while knowing it would very soon be over. Being a freelance suited my temperament, or exacerbated the problems of it.
As for my emotional life, there isn't very much to say. Some might insist I was awkward with women; others that I had issues with responsibility, commitment and intimacy. Still others would see in me an idealism that no woman would be able to satisfy if I were to tell them about my one affair when I was nineteen. I might say to people if this subject were at all broached that I'd rather not talk about it, but I'm inclined to think whenever someone says that the urge to talk about it is very strong what matters is to find the right interlocutor. At thirty-five I have still not found that person, who perhaps would have taken the form of a friend, a counsellor, one of my parents, or maybe my brother, and ideally, I suppose, a lover. Maybe one reason that I am writing this at all is to find an interlocutor on the page, which isn't the same as saying a reader. I would be surprised if anybody were to read this at all.
So I received a call from Calum saying that Samantha wouldn't be going with him to the island and if I happened to be free in two weeks I should join him. It was late June, I hadn't planned any holiday that summer, and had no work I was committed to beyond the week ahead of me. I asked him a few words about it; he said that we would be staying at his uncle's place. His uncle planned to sell it in the spring, hadn't done so and left it free for family members over the summer months. He explained what happened with Samantha and said that we could hire a couple of bikes on the island and just walk, swim and cycle for up to a fortnight. I said why not. I arranged to meet him at Glasgow and he said we could drive northwest from there. I'd get the train through from Stirling.
The closeness between Calum and I was based I suppose on the fact that we lived when we were younger in the same Highland town (though we didn't know each other at the time, even if we happened to be the same age) and on the number of girlfriends he had over the years, and my willingness, even keenness, to hear about them, and about the disastrous nature of their endings. He wanted no commitment and yet would react to the demise as though they were girlfriends for life, as if it were only in the moment of finality that he could see an eternity that they may have expected from him and that he hadn't at all countenanced. Yet as with several other friends who would act likewise, I'd be their friend in need: they wouldn't quite be ready to search for another girlfriend, and yet weren't good in their own company either. Perhaps I should have felt resentful in such situations, knowing that soon enough they would find girlfriends again, but it was as though there was always one of these friends who happened to be in that period where they were no longer hooked up and not willing to be alone. I always had at least one friend to spend time with, knowing that though I might easily have been the loneliest of us all, I was also the one best suited to my own company. I always felt they needed me more than I needed them.
During our time on the island, it was just warm enough for us to swim most days in the sea and we got into the casual habit of cycling each afternoon to a beach far enough from the town's main port where we were staying to make every day a cycling adventure. Calum's one disappointment was that he ran out of hash after the first weekend and didn't know who he should ask to find out who was the town's local drug dealer. In Glasgow, he knew dealers he could trust and knew also plenty people who knew other dealers they would trust too. But here they were on an island with a population of a few thousand and no one they knew at all. He could just as easily have asked a cop's brother as a fellow hash smoker and so apart from one half-request to a couple of back-packers they met in the pub near the end of the week, Calum resisted a search in case he found himself the recipient of one. Yet I remember the evening before we returned to the mainland, a Saturday night in a bar with a live band, when I went outside for a cigarette (Calum only smoked joints; I only smoked rollups), I overheard a conversation between a couple of people probably in their early thirties talking about a bit of a dearth on the island at that moment. They expected it to pick up very soon, which I assumed meant a decent stash would be on its way, presumably on one of the fishing boats that would arrive in the town. Perhaps if the conversation had been about its procurement rather than its immanent delivery I would have tried to join their conversation, but not only did I remain silent, I remained silent too when I got back to the pub. Why tell Calum about the lack of drugs available in the town?
I now wonder if one of those two men may have been the father of the child sexually abused and murdered by a teenage boy, a boy who would sometimes buy hashish from the father in the months before he killed the child. It was recently when I met up with Calum for the first time in almost a year (he has been in a relationship now for close to eighteen months) when I brought up that moment outside the pub. He wondered why I was telling this to him now, and I asked if he'd been reading the papers. He recalled a couple of weeks earlier there was a story about a terrible incident on the island but hadn't read further into it. He had good memories of the trip, heck, it helped him get over his break-up, why add a retrospective bad one to his thoughts about the place?
I could see his point but didn't agree with it, perhaps because while I enjoyed our time on the island it reminded me of my small-town childhood in the Outer Hebrides. While all Calum seemed to see was a quaint fishing village and a still quainter island, I saw a place of claustrophobic interconnections. Calum only saw the nature of the island's dynamics through the smoke he didn't get; through remaining outside the world in which drugs could be procured. I saw it in the memories that the place invoked. Having lived on an outer Hebridean island for six years after moving up from Newcastle, when my father took a job managing a hotel there, I never fitted in, always remained at best an outsider; sometimes an interloper, occasionally a colonial settler. People like your dad are stealing our dads' jobs I remember a boy in the year above saying as he pushed me against a wall in the school playground, as though such a gesture would return the island to full employment. It was on my first day at school. Now I would view the boy's reaction more sympathetically, but then all I could feel was unwelcome and the island a hostile environment. But the sympathy I now felt would be more socio-political than personal as I was a member of a party seeking Scottish self-determination. But going to that island with Calum forced upon me again the smaller picture, one that reminded me of the exclusionary nature of small communities that visitors tended to idealise.
I noticed Calum was doing this when we went into a bar or a cafe and he would say the locals were so friendly. It was true that they would engage us in conversation as they would sometimes ask where we were from, what we did and for how long we were staying. Yet whenever I would ask a question in return there was an awkward silence, a half answer, a hasty task that needed completion. In one cafe, the woman behind the counter, a warm, full-faced woman who seemed happy in her plentiful skin, withdrew into a sudden frostiness when I asked for how long she had been running the cafe. Did she assume I was a tax inspector; a government officer? Talking for a moment with a fisherman at the bar while ordering a couple of whiskies and where he'd recommended a specific malt instead, I asked him a couple of questions about his boat and he went quiet, looking at me with a suspicion indicating questions were things only friends asked. A stranger was being impertinent.
It was when I was seventeen I moved to the mainland. I got three Highers but didn't stay on for sixth-year studies, and instead of going off to university, which would have expected me to cover the extra year, I did a course at Inverness college instead. It was one year Media Studies, and alongside it I did another three Highers which helped me later get into Edinburgh to study politics. It was at college where I found people much friendlier, even if few would probably claim Invernesians are as warm as Geordies. They appeared to me much warmer than those from the Outer Hebrides. I say this with no sense of prejudice beyond my feelings and would hate anybody to assume such statements stands for anything if their experiences contradict my own. I speak only of places that make us feel welcome; not chiefly of unwelcoming people.
Perhaps it is a question of first impressions. My first was a boy pushing me against the wall. My first in Inverness was stopping for a moment to hear a man of an indiscernible age busking. As he took a break after I'd listened to him play three songs in a row so badly and with such a poor speaker system that I couldn't easily make out the words he was singing, he stopped and started chatting. He asked me a few questions and I asked him a few back, and with each one I would ask he expanded the answer beyond polite limitations. He told me that he had spent the last ten years travelling but now he was tired and thought he would settle in this Highland town. He said he'd arrived from the States in his late teens and busked in London, Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Manchester and various cities in the south of France. He liked Inverness more than any of them and reckoned he'd stay unless he was pushed out of the town. As he said this I had the image of getting pushed against the wall in mind and said I hoped he felt welcome.
I saw him often as he played through the summer and spring, but also the autumn and winter too. He had the resilient look of someone who had been to both poles and up a few high mountains. Like a lot of so-called outdoor types, his skin appeared to possess an extra layer of protection from the elements. He was slim but not skinny, his long thick hair usually kept in place by a headband or occasionally a bandana. He always looked if not tanned then healthily windswept, and it was only up close that you could see the pores were open and the capillaries around his cheeks broken. He looked happy, a full set of white teeth giving his features a chipmunk demeanour that suggested a cheeky warmth that nothing I ever saw contradicted. Yet I never again spoke to him for more than a minute. I passed, said hi, asked if he were cold when the weather was freezing and whether he wasn't too hot when we had a rare day of sweltering Highland heat. Over time it became easier to work out the tunes he was playing but I don't think it was because he got any better; more that my ear became attuned to his out-of-tune cords.
Halfway through college, I went out with a student on the art course. We often passed each other in the corridor and, while never saying hello in that first term, I thought by the end of it there was a complicit awkwardness as though we both acknowledged the non-acknowledgement of the other. Most of the time I would pass people and say hello or not, but with Amelia it was as though neither of us could quite offer such a minor gesture aware that within it lay a far greater one. It wasn't until the start of the second term when we started working in conjunction with the art class on our film projects that I got to know her as she was assigned to the film a group of us were making. We media students were sectioned off into four groups of five each with a specific function: the director, writer, and three actors. (Any other actors we needed were extras we picked up from around the college). But we were also asked to take two people each from the art class to help us as production and costume designers. Amelia was our costume designer; I was the scriptwriter.
Knowing that she was to be in charge of clothes I shaped my script around a setting that would involve her far more than if I had just set the film in the present. I aimed for a mid-sixties look, deciding that the film would emphasise narrowly cut pale suits, mini-skirts, pastel blouses and high heels. I wanted interiors with paisley wallpaper and ties to match, and hoped also to find at least two cars that would be from the period but in superb condition a Mini and a Triumph my ideal. I wanted there to be a car chase, fascinated by how we would film it on so low a budget. I suppose I was chosen as scriptwriter because I'd written a couple of short stories in the first term for a student literary magazine, but I didn't expect to see the script as anything more than a blueprint for the director. Yet when Amelia was also mentioned for the project it made me think for the first time visually, to muse over what they would be wearing and how this would impact their behaviour.
I wrote the script over the weekend (the film was to be twelve minutes) and when Amelia and her art course colleague joined us on that Monday afternoon, the director moaned at the amount of work he'd have to put in finding the costumes and trying to find the cars. The actors thought it would be a lot of fun dressing up in clothes their parents or grandparents might have worn; Amelia said that she was very excited by the project, and thanked me as though I had done it just for her without at all indicating an awareness that is exactly what I had done. After the director's show of irritation, I said I would be happy to help Amelia find the clothes we were looking for, even the cars we would need. Amelia smiled, and a couple of weeks later, once we had started seeing each other, she said it was at that moment, when I offered my help and that she had offered her smile, that she suspected part of my interest in making a period movie was based on spending more time with her. I said that was an arrogant assumption and entirely true, as the coyness we had shown towards each other months earlier, as we passed in the corridor, was now an intimacy that meant thoughts hidden could be shared.
Over the next few weeks, we would quiz relatives, scour antique shops and markets, and took trips to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. An uncle of mine over in Strathpeffer gave us the use of a vintage 1967 mini, a great uncle of hers, in Glasgow and well into his seventies, insisted on giving us his Aston Martin, saying we must take it with us up north. We said we weren't insured, and over the next couple of days he sorted out all the documents and said he couldn't think of a better use for it than for it to appear in a film. We tried to make clear it was a student work, only twelve minutes long and wouldn't be seen by anyone, but he insisted nevertheless. He wanted to see his car immortalised now that his eyes were so poor and his hands so shaky that he couldn't drive. His wife had passed away several years earlier and his two sons had plenty of money nobody would miss it he said as he passed us the documents. So there we were driving up to Inverness in an Aston Martin and with three mini-skirts, two trilby hats, an elegant suit from a sixties designer whose name I don't recall, and a couple of pastel shirts in the boot. If we were stopped by the police and had been wearing any of the clothes, they might have assumed we were in a time machine.
I still have a copy of the film but I haven't watched it for years, and haven't seen Amelia for much longer. The relationship lasted only till August that year; I never did quite know at the time why it finished, though I might have a better understanding of it now. One afternoon while we were in town she went quiet and then later that evening I asked what was wrong. She said nothing. I gave it a moment and asked again; she said that not all men are as decent as I happened to be. I hadn't thought I was decent but I should perhaps have read into her remark a claim that had nothing to do with me at all, so I ignored it. Within a few weeks, we seemed to be arguing more often than not, and when she said that maybe we weren't compatible I didn't have the wherewithal to disagree, so we parted. A few weeks later I went off to do a degree in Edinburgh; Amelia went down to London.
Since then I haven't been in another relationship and perhaps if I understood what happened with Amelia better I might understand my own resistance a little more clearly. I do know that for a long time I didn't like myself enough to believe anybody else would like me very much either, and it may have had something to do with the role I was sometimes asked to perform within the relationship; Amelia might have said the same. But instead of trying to work this complicated scenario out I mastered my solitude and showed myself to be a loyal friend, as evidenced by my last-minute availability when Calum needed a holiday partner. In such situations, I usually felt useful rather than used, but something in these two stories from the news headlines made me reassess an aspect of my friendships and also my relationship with Amelia. When I look back on that trip to the island, whatever feelings of unease I might have had at the time as I sensed Calum was more attached to a good smoke than to our friendship, as I would find myself frequently recalling my time on the Hebridean island as I sensed so many similarities between the two places, so a story in the newspaper obliterated any positive memories I might have had of the island we visited. I want to make clear that this has nothing to do with this island, one that millions have gone to with immense pleasure and have found on it an enchanting splendour, friendly people and several fine sites including of course a castle and an elegant house from 1719. I do not wish to undermine its tourist industry. Yet it is as if my childhood memories have now collided with a terrible incident reported in recent months by the media.
I make no secret of the incident and have already mentioned it earlier in this story, but sometimes there are situations that no matter how often you report them, no matter how often they are repeated, never lose their sense of initial horror, and the rape and murder of a young child can be best summed up by the mother of the girl who insisted she wanted to visit the sixteen-year-old boy responsible for the crime in prison. She wanted to know why her daughter, why did he kill her little girl. It seemed he had wanted to do so for some time, bought drugs from her father regularly, and had contacted him on the night of the abduction. The young girl was not living permanently on the island but was holidaying there visiting her father and grandparents. A frantic search was embarked upon by various locals after the grandmother noticed at around 6 in the morning that the girl was missing, and the body was found several hours later on the beach, a beach I recall walking along and dipping my feet into to see if it was warm enough to swim. When I dipped my foot into the water I remembered various occasions when during the summer on the Hebridean island we would go to a beach on the northeast, venturing tentatively into the sea before swimming enthusiastically. On Sundays we would have the beach almost to ourselves no matter the warmth of the weather it was a religious island where the idea of sunning oneself on the sabbath wasn't an acceptable means of showing one's faith. That toe in the water led to a series of mixed feelings, but now the memory of that cold toe leads to horrible ones as I think of the young child washed ashore, found by a local no doubt keen to help and who instead became the bearer of bad news indeed.
Calum would sometimes look at me during the trip and wonder why I seemed so pensive; shouldn't he be the one lost in thought thinking of his recent breakup? I tried to explain to him my pensiveness after he said this. We were drinking in the bar in the town centre that we would make our regular during our stay there, the pub outside of which I'd overheard the two men talking, and said that I suppose time didn't always play fair to its passing on a calendar, that sometimes it is space more than time that dictates our memories. Maybe if Calum had had a smoke he might have understood me better, or been less irritated in asking me what the heck I was talking about. I fell into silence, and Calum too. A while later, he said that he thought he knew what I meant. He seemed to understand that the island was bringing up memories for me involuntarily while he would be thinking of Samantha deliberately. He couldn't easily get her out of his mind, but that meant at least she needn't return to it without his instigation. Reading about the island in the papers brought the place back to me involuntarily all over again and I found myself thinking of this young girl's mother for whom memory would become an atrocious trap, where probably there would be no time or space into which she could escape.
I read about the case in 2019 and, of course, it was in every newspaper. But I also read around the same time about a man describing himself as an Inverness street trader who had gone back to the States where he had originated, and where he was rumoured to have faked his death. The various reports differed slightly from paper to paper. All agreed that it seemed the man had tried to give the impression he killed himself, some said he was soon to be on trial concerning incidents that couldn't be disclosed; others that he would be on trial for rape. The newspapers pushing the rape charge didn't show a clear photograph; other papers indicating that he'd gone missing did. I recognised immediately the first person who had shown warmth towards me in Inverness after arriving from the Hebrides, but also recalled, as I read about the charges, that Amelia hadn't been so friendly toward him when I introduced them that afternoon in the town centre. I hadn't thought too much about it but it was around that time Amelia and I started to see less of each other, and to argue more often when we did meet. I certainly wondered often during those months what had happened, but never once associated it at all with this cheerful busker who seemed to me so welcoming.
Reading that he'd been charged with numerous counts of rape I wondered whether Amelia might have been one of those victims or may have known someone who had been abused by him if these stories were true. In recent years many examples of abusive behaviour that were well-known secrets have become public ones as well, and was Amelia another instance of a person sexually assaulted? Maybe it had nothing directly to do with this street busker and trader at all, but instead that my own behaviour that had been amplified in the face of this person she had been caught in the company of, had been abused by, or knew of others who had been abused by him. When Amelia and I parted I knew I didn't care for another relationship because I didn't care much for myself, and didn't assume anyone else would have cared for me either. But it was more specifically due to a series of intimate games Amelia and I found ourselves caught in and the perversity of which might have suddenly become pronounced when she saw how friendly I happened to be with the busker.
In my studio flat just after we started seeing each other we would play the roles of the characters within the film we were working on. The film was about a messy menage a trois and though the script was harmless enough, we would improvise within the script for our own sexual purposes, finding in the characters' desires that could be better fulfilled than when we went by our actual names. When I think of the trajectory of that desire, when I recall that while it was Amelia who instigated it, I was the one who would usually wish to stay in the fantasy as she would try to break out of it. She said on a couple of occasions that she wanted us to be ourselves, to look at each other when we would make love and use each other's names. I found the fantasy much more exciting. On the occasions when we did make love with our own identity, I couldn't achieve the same degree of arousal. For years afterwards, I thought Amelia had left because of those games that became terrifying to her. It wasn't that they were violent; nothing suggested we would physically harm each other in the deed it was as though instead we were creating a split personality that she and certainly I couldn't countenance sexual desire without.
I heard nothing more about the busker's trial for some months when I looked online I found a series of reports from around early March but nothing else. Yet in the absence of information, I found myself ruminating and speculating. I have played in my mind numerous times moments that I had hardly attended to at all: the day Amelia and I stopped for a few minutes and talked to the busker just after he had played a well-known rock song without distinction. I remember as I stopped, Amelia was tugging my arm and I assumed it was because she wanted to catch the shops before they closed. As I asked what he'd been up to I now have in my mind a look on Amelia's face that indicated whatever it was he shouldn't have been up to it, and that he spent more time looking lustily at Amelia than he did having a minute long man-to-man chat with me. I do recall I think with some accuracy walking away from the encounter feeling odd but unable to locate that oddness. Was it in me, in Amelia, in the busker? Every previous encounter I'd had with him was full of humour and banter, however brief. That time there was no humour but I suppose then I would have credited it to awkwardness between Amelia and myself.
Yet here I am all these years later with no risk, I hope, of a prison sentence but almost no history of relationships either. I retreated from desire perhaps aware that I couldn't find a way of reconciling my day-to-day reality with my sexual one, and for a brief period found with Amelia a way of doing so that I thought was mutual but soon enough found out that it wasn't. It was around then that we finished shooting the film and she decided we should move towards acknowledging our feelings for each other and not through the people we were pretending to be. I wished to remain inside my character, a character after all that I'd written and with Amelia the costume designer. When we were in Glasgow, when we wandered around numerous vintage shops and antique stalls, when we were given her uncle's car, I felt the pleasure of being beside myself and out of that pleasure came a means by which to be with Amelia. But I couldn't sustain this into a coherent reality whenever I would think not only of my pleasure but also of a future with Amelia, it was beyond me. All I wished for was both a perennial present and an abstract desire. "That was a film we made and characters we were playing", she would say when I would ask her once again to put on the sunflower yellow mini-skirt, the lime green blouse and thigh-high tan brown boots. I sat there dressed in my tight beige trousers, powder blue and white paisley shirt and shiny brown brogues, ready to play again the part that I had written for another to perform.
That was the last time I attempted to persuade her, feeling absurdly anachronistic sitting in the chair dressed up while Amelia stood there dressed down in dulled jeans and a T-shirt. A couple of weeks later the college course finished and it seemed a natural enough end for what I suppose was a quite unnatural couple. I have written a few things since and I watched the film we made many times after we parted, and in the year or two after we broke up I wished I had persuaded Amelia to have played one of the women in it as well. The film is a testimony to my perversions, I guess, but at least there are no newspaper reports documenting it, no lives I hope ruined in the process of pleasure only briefly satisfied. For others, their names are in the papers, a body is in the smallest of graves and there may also be numerous women who will soon come forward and reveal a troubling encounter with someone whose demeanour seemed to me warm and even charming.
The next time Calum and I met, we talked mainly about his latest girlfriend, how well he thought everything was going. But I also mentioned the busker that would play in the highland town in which we both had lived and that I knew he would have seen around too. I brought it up not really to talk about the busker nor even about the case, but perhaps to find a way in which to talk about an aspect of myself, to try and explain to Calum why I hadn't had a girlfriend in so many years and talk again about the horrible murder on the small island we had visited several years earlier. But all we managed to do was talk about the headlines, to express our dismay at how difficult it must be now for many of the locals to go on living with such a horrific murder having taken place in their midst, and to say a few words about the craziness of the busker faking his death on the other side of the world as he tried to avoid a court case on this continent.
However, then Calum talked of one girlfriend he had been seeing when he was nineteen. She had been in an awkward situation with the busker when he gave her a lift over to a concert on the Black Isle. She had relayed the story to Calum not long afterwards. She thought they were picking up a few others as well but found there were only the two of them in his van. He suggested they stop off on the way he had just bought some hash and also had a bottle of Jack Daniels. She lied that some friends would be waiting for her there. They can't be in that much of a hurry to see you, he said, giving her a look indicating he had other things on his mind, more than simply getting her to see her friends the quickest way possible. She was scared, feeling he could have stopped off anywhere, and there wasn't much she could have done about it. Later, she said to him, after the concert and on the way home. But once at the concert, she managed to lose him and find some people she knew a little and stayed with them, crashing at a house in Fortrose that evening. She would avoid him thereafter and when she passed him on the street he would smile as though he knew her hardly at all and had never so blatantly propositioned her. It is funny, Calum said, talking about a girlfriend from so long ago when he knew he usually wouldn't shut up about the previous one. Were they together long, I asked, and he said a few months. But a few years afterwards, about five years ago, he met up with her in Glasgow as she was finishing up a PhD at the university. He was living in the West End and so was she. They got together a few times but the old feelings weren't there even though they could talk more easily than when they were awkward teenagers. Once he had asked her about that story concerning the busker, that whenever he was up in the Highland town, and saw him playing, he would think of her and the van, and how there he was playing no matter the weather, looking as innocent as the day was long or short he really was a man for all seasons. She had a lucky escape, he supposed. She didn't disagree, but then told him about a young man she hadn't escaped from, someone she had briefly loved and who nevertheless left her feeling much more traumatised than a man with a van and a bad speaker system. He then said this was a person she was seeing, someone who made a film with her as a costume designer which he had written and who, during the several months they were together could not, in her words, make love out of character, though he, nor she, didn't have a part in the production itself. I'd told Calum years ago about making a film while at college and remember feeling disappointed that he hadn't asked me more questions about it. Now I was relieved he hadn't done so, as I felt a hint of exposure that made me feel that I had made the headlines too someone whose private life had met with public acknowledgement, however indirectly. I believe I haven't done anything terrible that there is no reason for anybody to put me on the front page of a newspaper but I sensed after Calum talking about someone whom he didn't know, who happened to be me, it meant that my years alone would continue well into the future just as they stretched back into a now lengthy past.
© Tony McKibbin