Some years ago I wrote a story about, amongst other things, a secret a woman a few years before had told me, a secret which she hadn't even mentioned to her boyfriend and now, with more information, I want to talk about it again. I was living in Inverness at the time, and I had always suspected this divulgence created a schism between herself and her partner; one more extreme than if she had had an affair. Daniella and I never slept together, but for the purposes of their relationship, which continued for another year, we might as well have. Yet what is odd is that as I retell this story with rather more information to hand, other mysteries present themselves.
I fictionalised the story in various ways, setting it somewhere else, making numerous events up, and utilising in the story a dramatic device to allow for the revelation. But the reality was very prosaic as she told me one evening after her boyfriend had fallen asleep in another room. There were eight of us and we had gone through to a nightclub in Elgin, about forty miles east of Inverness, and we were staying at a friend's farmhouse a couple of miles from the town. There were six young men and two young women: Daniella was going out with Drew and Bea was seeing Joe. Joe's dad had a few months before bought an eight-seater Toyota Previa, his father was willing to let him use it and Joe rarely drank. Like the other three, Ally, Rick and Andy, I was single at the time, and for a time: there was a reason why I wanted to be alone, but there was also I suspect ways in which I showed that I didn't wish to be, and one of these instances suggested itself in my increasingly intimate friendship with Daniella.
While the group went through to Elgin because they knew the DJ there on Saturday night, and that he played music they liked, Daniella and I didn't care to dance, so we would often sit and observe the others, listening to the lyrics and talking about leaving the Highlands; living somewhere further south. Sometimes I felt she talked to me in a surrogate fashion: that she was rehearsing the conversations she couldn't quite have with Drew about her yearning to live elsewhere. Daniella was working at the time as a supervisor in Marks and Spencer in the centre of Inverness: she had gone off to do the training not long after leaving school and she was earning decent money for someone so young. Drew was assistant manager in a textile shop on the edge of the town, and was earning a comparable wage. The would have been seen as a successful couple in their early twenties; people who had done well enough at school to have gone off to university, but who decided instead to make their own way in the world without relying on any more book learning than was necessary. That was how Drew would sometimes describe it, but I never sensed it was a thought Daniella shared. When he said it in my company I thought she would instinctively shrink from the remark and feel, perhaps, that he had insulted me.
I would have been for Drew probably the ultimate fool: a book learner without point or purpose. There I was at twenty one having left school at sixteen without any hope of going to university, and for the last five years had done very little except read books. I had tried other things, but more out of coercion than enthusiasm. Parental expectation and societal obligation had led me briefly to join a welding course, and a year after that I'd been apprenticed out on some government scheme to work as an assistant to a local joiner. The welding course lasted three months, and the joinery apprenticeship not much longer. The tutor of the former said that I had no aptitude for the work, and the joiner was fearful for his future employment. He said he couldn't trust me to do much more than make the tea and saw the wood. Any specific tasks like bevelling, the making of mortise joints or grooving were beyond me, and though he wasn't paying me a penny (the government paid me), he thought I would cost him his job. He said that he would tell me the unemployment people anything they wanted to hear if it meant I would be able to claim the dole and he could find another apprentice.
He admitted as he dropped me off at my parents' house on my last day that he liked my company: that he enjoyed the chats we would have during lunch hour and between jobs, but I needed to sort out what I wanted to do with my life, because working with my hands didn't seem a useful direction. He was thirty eight years old with three children between seven and fifteen, but would talk more often about the miner's strike, the selling of council housing, high unemployment and the political situation in Central America. He was a man of principle, he once said, who was expected to compromise. He had bought his council house and there he was employing people like me and not paying them a penny.
Of course Drew was aware of these stories of my practical incompetence, of my apparent laziness, as I would tell the group for reasons that I can more easily ascertain now than then. I hated lying, and liked storytelling, so unlike some of the others I didn't hide my failings, I narrativised them. A fancy word perhaps but a useful one, or at least I found it useful when coming across it in a book some years later and a few years ago. I some times think, in reference to that last sentence, that certain stories shouldn't be set in the past, present or future tense, but in a temporal bifurcation that acknowledges that the past is the future and the future the past. How many stories after all anticipate the future by looking back on the past? It is as though we are caught between two tenses in anticipation and in reflection. I also think that one reason I started writing fiction was because I wanted to continue to hate lying, and continue to tell stories, but no longer so insistently speak about myself. But of course I now present a story here as a truth while admitting my wish to write fiction to avoid doing exactly that. Such are the conundrums of a certain type of writing.
Let us return to Drew and Daniella, who I would sometimes believe were united more by the perceptions of them as a couple, by those around them, rather than by anything intrinsic in their coupledom. They would rarely sit next to each in group situations, and affectionate gestures, especially by Drew, would appear to announce ownership rather than affection. He would put his arm round her, or kiss her on the lips with the attitude of someone stroking a car that would get him arrested if it were not his. They would dance only at the end of the night when we would go the club: he would drag her up from the seat she was usually sitting next to me on, and pull her onto the dance floor. He would look back at me as if to say she might lend you an ear but I am the one who can whisper sweet nothings into it. I would often sense that for Drew the complicity they shared only went so far as was required to illustrate his power over her.
One evening that summer, and several weeks before the revealed secret, we exited the club and walked the few minutes along the road to a kebab shop we would always visit afterwards. Drew and one of the others went in, and while we stood outside someone I had seen a few times before in the club came over and started chatting to Daniella. He was of medium height, and of a lean build, with black hair and grey-blue eyes who would usually wear tight jeans and T-shirts, and moved on the dance floor like a ballet dancer or a gymnast. He had firm lean muscles and would often dance closely with women, as if not so much seducing them as hoping they would be seduced by him. I can't easily explain this distinction, except to say it might tell us something about the difference between a womaniser and a narcissist. I have no idea whether he went off with any of these women, though I did see him at least twice kissing someone in one of the speakeasies. As he came over he ignored the rest of us and immediately moved in close to Daniella, saying he had seen her around and wondered where she was from. Daniella responded with a mixture of unease and, I sensed, a feeling of being flattered, and talked to him for a couple of minutes while the rest of us talked among ourselves. I glanced into the shop a couple of times and noticed Drew looking at Daniella and her momentary suitor. He could have left Rick to pick up the kebabs while rushing out and telling the stranger to leave his girlfriend alone, but that wouldn't have been Drew's way. He waited for the order to be completed, came out with a plastic bag full of kebabs, and making the most of his height and build, put his arm round Daniella's shoulder and said to the rest of us that we should get back to the car and start eating before the Kebabs would cool down. He didn't even jostle his rival out of the way: Drew's immensity left the other person inevitably vacating space and leaving the young man lost in his own body language. All his prowess on the dance floor was useless to him as he was left standing there on the pavement.
While the others saw an exchange Drew easily won, I wasn't so sure. As we sat in the Toyota, a couple of people said that Drew dealt with the chancer like he didn't exist, but I had the feeling that for Daniella he very much did so. I could see on her face as she talked to him that she wasn't indifferent to his approaches. The victory Drew would have seen suggested an aspect of his misplaced priorities: he had shown what he was to his friends, but troublesomely revealed who he was to Daniella. He saved face, but who was his face turned to in the process of saving it? Not his girlfriend's.
It would have been several weeks after this that we went to the club again. The DJ was performing in Aviemore for a three week stint so went there instead. By the time we went back to Elgin I sensed in the car on the way out that Daniella was a little nervous, but I couldn't ascertain whether this resided in worrying that Drew might start trouble with the person who had shown interest, or that her own interest hadn't quite waned. Drew didn't seem bothered at all.
Usually we would meet up at Andy's farmhouse on the outskirts of Inverness, on the road to Elgin. He was about five years older than the rest of us and worked the farm after his father had passed away three years earlier. He was an only child and his mother had died when he was still very young. I didn't know too many of the details, but it was as though the tragedy of a personal life was irrelevant next to an opportunity for a drinking den. We would arrive there around six in the evening, cook up a huge pan of pasta, with Andy contributing his speciality: a meat Bolognese sauce. We would eat and drink through till nine, get in the car and arrive at the club around ten. After the club we would all crash at Andy's, taking full advantage of the seven bedroom farmhouse that Andy had refurnished, centrally heated and double-glazed the previous year with money he made from a bit of land he had sold off. A new supermarket was going to be built there he said. Or rather, a supermarket chain had bought up the land making sure no other supermarket chain would build a supermarket. The land was about a mile away, and the three acres was of little use to him. I passed by the house and land a couple of years ago: there was a supermarket and a few other out of town stores based there.
I am surprised now that I wasn't more interested in either Andy's personal history, or his financial dealings, but now I know about the immense significance of the land, and also know that Andy took his own life a few years later, hanging himself from a barn rafter. I think that period when we would stay over was the happiest in his life. He would never during the time I knew him so much as put his mouth to a girl's lips, but he had friends, even if I might now think we were really no more than acquaintances taking full of advantage of his hospitality. I can't even recall who it was that befriended him initially.
Anyway, that evening when we arrived at the club it didn't look like the possible suitor was present, and for the first time I found Daniella's mind wandering when we talked, and less inclined to observe people and make up little possible stories as we would usually do. It was if all she could see was the absence of the young man who had somehow revealed to her a contempt for Drew that hadn't before been manifest.
Indeed that is exactly how she phrased it several hours later when we arrived back at Andy's place. Drew was perhaps drunker than I had ever seen him. On the way back he had fallen asleep in the car, and Andy and Joe carried him into the farmhouse and plonked him onto the couch. Bea asked Andy for a blanket and threw it over him. The rest of us sat around the dining table next to the kitchen, chatting for an hour, and drinking whisky. In turn people started going along the corridor to one of the three bedrooms downstairs, or to one of the four upstairs. My bedroom was at the end of the corridor on the ground floor. Drew's and Daniella's was on the floor above. I turned in before some of the others, but after about twenty minutes, after hearing the sound of feet softly traipsing up the carpeted stairs, there was a minutes of silence, and a chap on the door. I was by now in bed, but with the light still on. I said the person should come in. Daniella came into the room, sat on a chair next to the desk and by the window, and said she didn't know what to do about Drew. She seemed to be speaking not just about his lumpen body lying prostate on the couch, but about their relationship as well. She didn't ask me to drag him up off the couch and help her take him up to bed; it was as if she were asking how could she no longer share one with him.
It was the smallest bedroom in the house and the gap between the desk and chair and the bed would have been a couple of feet. I might have been the one lying down, but it was Daniella who appeared to be seeking the talking cure as she discussed with me initially what she felt about the good-looking stranger from several weeks ago. At that moment of course I thought this was her big confession; that she wanted to tell someone that she was no longer so attracted to Drew. But I suppose she told me about the other young man to make it clear to me that though she was about to tell me something she hadn't told anyone else, that didn't mean that she was attracted to me. I am still, now, not quite sure why she told me, but I suppose the logic of our relationship, the complicity we had built up over those months, was not at all of a sexual nature, but of a meeting of minds: we both felt a coincidence of displacement. I wouldn't now think that she had at all fallen in love with this person she had seen on only a few occasions, someone she talked to briefly only once. Yet the combination of all those small-scale complicit discussions with me as we observed others, as we would sometimes talk more seriously in the car on the way back, or in the farmhouse living room when we returned, and the interest the stranger had shown, weakened the knot of feeling she had for Drew.
So I believed she mentioned this other man first to make clear to me that I was to be her priest, not her lover. She then started talking about the six years she had been with Drew, that when they started seeing each other in third year at school she believed he was the most handsome, most popular and most athletic person there. Like her, he would go on to become a prefect, a position voted for as I knew by one's peers, and a position I had never been likely to attain, and not only because I left school at sixteen. She wondered if she had become one because she was seeing Drew. He was the best sportsman at the school: brilliant at football, cross-country running, and very good at rugby and basketball. He even had trials with a couple of professional football teams. That they never took him on he didn't appear to take as a failure; he instead settled for playing semi-professionally in the Highlands. He didn't really want to move down to Glasgow anyway. She was telling me things I knew already, as if trying to find a way into talking about a subject she couldn't easily broach. After about ten minutes of this, she said that a couple of years ago she had an abortion. She discovered she was pregnant when she was on the training course down south, and though she would talk to Drew almost every night on the phone, there was a period of around a month where they didn't see each other at all. She was studying all weekend; he couldn't come down: he had a game each Saturday afternoon.
Whenever they talked on the phone she couldn't find a way to discuss it; after ten days of trying, she went ahead and made the appointment, and after another ten days went in for the operation. She had never told anyone about it. She supposed the baby that should have been growing inside her body became the secret: an embryo that has increased in size over time and now was at last a monstrosity that needed to be born. Occasionally when we talked Daniella would express herself in metaphor: a couple of times I suggested she should write, and now I suspect she did. After she told me I asked if she needed a hug; she asked if she could lie and sleep next to me. Wasn't she worried that Drew might wake up and find her there? With the amount he had been drinking, with the exhaustion from playing a game in the afternoon, it was unlikely. She didn't really care if he found her in bed with me: it would give him a good shock. I didn't look forward to that moment: a shock for Drew would mean a beating for me I suspected. But there she was, lying in my arms for a few hours. Before we fell asleep I asked her why me: why did she tell me? She had no one else to tell, she said, as if confirming her loneliness rather than alleviating it.
I think she also told me because she knew the summer was almost over and I was leaving the Highlands. I had some family in Glasgow and an aunt said she would allow me to stay for a few months until I found somewhere of my own. We all went out to Elgin for another couple of weekends, but it was as though there was a far greater distance between Daniella and I then there had ever been before. On the first of those nights the stranger was there, and for the first time that summer I saw her dance without being persauded. She was dancing with Drew but probably for the stranger's eyes. It seems to be from that night I remember most vividly the disco balls, the smoke whirling around from both the machines and also the cigarettes that could still be smoked inside pubs and clubs. I recall the refracted light, the blues, yellows, reds, greens and purples. I also remember, now, Andy wearing a black shirt and lighting effects making it look like it was covered in snow. The dandruff easily detectable.
The events that summer came to me again quite recently when I visited my mother and her second husband, Dave. Dave had known Ed since they were boys, and had known Ed through three marriages and a number of affairs. Now Ed was into his seventies, and had yet another girlfriend. I was visiting for a long weekend (I had never moved back up north), and when I returned from a long walk around by Culloden battlefield a few miles from my mother's house, there were the four of them in the sitting room playing cards. My mother introduced me to Gillian, saying that perhaps I might have known her son: Drew. I said that I never knew him very well, but yes, there was a summer many years ago when we would all go through to Elgin together. She would remember that period, she said: it was the last time for a long time Drew had been happy. She didn't say any more, though it might have seemed more than enough: there they were playing rummy and she dropped in a remark about her son's long period of misery.
I was staying at my mother's for a few days. My girlfriend was off at a conference in the States for a week and so I had taken the chance to visit the Highlands. The following lunchtime I was writing in the spare bedroom where I would also sleep, and my mother tapped on the door asking if I would like to join them for lunch. They were going with Gillian and Ed. Sometimes it is hard to know when you write whether certain invites are accepted out of politeness, sociability or creativity, but this I couldn't pretend was closely linked to the latter. I wanted to ask Gillian more about Drew, as if feeling that there happened to be another story there to tell. I don't want this to sound callous; indeed I would like to make it clear that I believe it to be the opposite. One of the advantages of writing is that we can show interest in lives other than our own without feeling we are only interested in gossip. Yet this felt especially given to the creative: it was as though I had been offered a sequel to a story that I believed had long since been completed.
We drove out in Dave's car to Fortrose, but I never found the opportunity to ask Gillian more about Drew in either the car or when we were eating. We were seated around a small table in a half empty pub that served food: there was no music playing, and little conversation around us. To ask her about Drew would have been to involve the others in my query. I suspected there wouldn't have been an opportunity at all that day if I hadn't pushed for it. I suggested we should all go for a walk round the small village and down by the harbour. The men grumbled, saying they would prefer a pint by the fire: it was cold out. It was a February morning with the sky overcast, and rain heavy enough a couple of hours earlier for Dave to make brief use of the windscreen wipers, but the town was so small that we wouldn't have been caught in the rain for more than a couple of minutes. I knew my mother was constantly trying to get Dave to walk more, and whatever self-interest I had, it wasn't at least, I believed, to the detriment of the others' well-being. Exiting the pub I immediately fell into step with Gillian and knowing the walk would probably be quite brief, I opened by asking her again about Drew. By the time we had passed the cathedral and were making our way down to the harbour, she was already telling me about that year after Drew and Daniella split up, after she met someone else.
He wouldn't leave my side, she would say. This big, burly son of hers who would laugh at anyone showing emotion, couldn't stop expressing his feelings. He must have written Daniella a dozen letters, phoned her parents' home numerous times asking if he could talk to her. Sometimes she would come to the phone and tell him that she hoped one day they could become friends, that she cared about him, wanted to know he was okay, but that she needed time to find herself again. Of course this infuriated him; she was not finding herself, but finding herself in another man's arms, in his bed. But he also knew, and would sometimes admit, that she had probably been finding herself again while they were still together: aware that he had been so indifferent on occasion to her emotional needs that she wouldn't talk to him about them, but keep them to herself.
He would wait for her after work and while never confronting her, or harrassing her, he would watch her walking back home, sometimes with her new boyfriend, sometimes alone. He knew throughout this period he was being unreasonable, and it was only this awareness that made him stop short of directly confronting her.
Perhaps, Gillian said, if it weren't for her own advice as much as her care, he would have been much more abusive and intrusive. She had been aware since Drew was very young that he liked to get his own way: she always thought he would be a success in life but worried he might be a failure in love, as if these were two contrary qualities: we can assert ourselves over others and gain a fortune; but can we apply the same approach to a wife and expect her to hang around? I suppose at this moment Gillian was talking about herself: I knew that summer years ago Drew's mother had left her father a couple of years earlier, as soon as Drew had left school, and knew more recently from my mother that she had remained single for years before meeting Ed. I also recalled Daniella talking briefly about Drew's dad: that when Drew's mother left him, he couldn't cope on his own: perhaps he became an alcoholic, took anti-depressants and sleeping pills, she didn't quite know. Drew didn't really talk about it. What Daniella did know is that in only a few brief years his business that he'd built up over more than two decades collapsed: he owned around seven hardware shops in the highlands and they all closed down or were sold off. Listening to Gillian talk about Drew made me think she was probably talking as much about her ex husband, and gave texture to the few words Daniella had offered me about Drew's parents.
This was confirmed when Gillian said she was relieved that Drew discovered young what it means to lose a love that can put into perspective the ambitions people have in life. It was as though after this, after the year when he didn't work, stopped playing football and would instead run every day, that any professional purpose he had couldn't be to the detriment of his emotional existence. I suppose she didn't quite phrase it like this, but I don't think I am misappropriating her words for my own ends. Gillian was an articulate woman - someone who had worked for many years in the Highlands and Islands Development Board and, my mother said, who did well there despite having very few formal qualifications. She was a shrewd judge of character, my mother said to me the next time I visited, as if Gillian had said a few things about me that were pertinent. Maybe she had asked my mother why I was so interested in Drew, and perhaps surmised that it lay in my interest many years ago in Daniella. But if this was so, I think she talked to me partly because even if she might have thought I had had an affair with her son's ex-girlfriend, the long term consequences to her son were beneficial. He was married with two children and had, like his father, become a small town businessman of some repute, but one who was unlikely to lose it all because of a delayed awareness of emotional realities.
I wouldn't have thought when going through to Elgin every weekend one summer, that many years later I would be taking another trip outside of Inverness with Drew's mother, nor that I would have written a story about one divulgence from his son's girlfriend, and then writing another one some years' later about his mother talking about her son's collapse and also hinting at his father's. But perhaps every story contains an aporia, and I suppose come the end of this one the person who presently remains a mystery to me is Daniella. Where is she, I wonder, and now recall something she had said that evening when we talked while Drew snoozed in the room next door. She said that perhaps she should leave Drew, but she had neither quite the strength to do it alone, nor believed she could live with the guilt of leaving him for someone else. I suspected that she would leave him in time by leaving the town; not by leaving him for another man. I knew of other female friends and acquaintances in the Highlands who had falsely misdiagnosed their frustrations: finding another man rather than another place. Instead of running away they ran into a brick wall: the new man often a bad choice because they wanted to escape the clutches of one and accepted the ready arms of another. One I know drank herself into an unrecognisable personality, another into regret so vociferous that she lost her sense of enthusiasm: she had nothing to look forward to in life because she was so busy looking back on it. Of course I know of others who left a bad relationship and found a much better one, and I hope Daniella did exactly that, or at least eventually discovered herself out of that initial semi-emancipation. I suppose I find it odd that the person who first told me about a secret in her life remains now the figure of mystery within this story. It isn't any longer her past that awaits to be divulged, but the future she had after she told me one summer in a house of someone who would take his own life several years later, about a baby she chose not to bring into the world. That house now feels like a story of two deaths, and I say with no moral judgement to be made about abortion or suicide. I have no interest in condemning either, but I cannot help but feel that the loss of life is one reason why we create fictions: to still into being, with words on the page, lives not lived and those lived that are lost.
© Tony McKibbin