It was a couple of years ago when I suppose I first had a clear comprehension of betrayal, and this understanding of the word lay not in a singular incident but in an emotional resonance that I'll try and explain.
I was living in Glasgow with my girlfriend, we'd both finished our post-grads a couple of years previously, and I was on a short-term research fellowship trying to make sense of violence on TV, whilst she was tutoring French privately and with a language school. She was herself from France, from Montpellier, and had a yearning to return whenever the weather turned foul, or when she saw vomit on the pavement. But then, over a period of months, I noticed that this yearning was increasingly there without any external impetus. I knew she wanted to return home. Maybe it was just stupid nostalgia, she said, but if she didn't return she thought it would become resentment, resentment towards me and towards my country. She knew I wanted to stay where I was, and said 'Let me return to France for a year. Let's not split up, let's just be apart for a while.'
I agreed - I had a final year left of my contract, and had no desire to live in France. My French was inadequate, and I liked living in our pleasant, roomy flat off Byres Road.
Marie-Anne in fact didn't return to Montpellier but decided instead to live in Paris where she took a job as a bi-lingual secretary in a legal firm. She rented for herself a small room on the top floor of a block of flats on the 17th Arrondissement and we arranged to visit each other every month, with her coming to Glasgow one month, and me visiting her in Paris the next.
But on one occasion, after she'd been in Paris six months, I was about to book my flight when she said I shouldn't come. She was confused she said, and found she couldn't continue a relationship if we were based in different countries. As she didn't suggest she should come back to Scotland, or that I should move over to Paris, I suspected that she was perhaps seeing somebody else. The next time we talked on the phone, a week after I was expected to visit, I asked if she was having an affair. She said no, she wanted to be alone. She said she wanted to live in her own country without reference to another. She felt I in some way stopped her being fully French, stopped her from feeling as if she'd relocated to her own country.
It wasn't long after that, maybe two weeks later, that I got a phone call telling me my father was ill in hospital. He'd had a bad cold and it had developed into angina, and he'd been taken in. I went up to the island on which he lived the day after I'd received the call. I stayed in the family home, which seemed eerily empty without his presence, and visited him a couple of times a day in hospital. My brother, who had a small business on the island, said our father might have to move to a hospital on the mainland if it got any worse. He said it might be an idea if he came to one in Glasgow.
The angina did actually get worse and a few days after I'd returned back south, my brother phoned to say our father would be coming down to stay in Glasgow. He said if our father stayed in a Glasgow hospital then at least he'd have somebody - namely me - to visit him every day. 'Sure' I said. 'I'll be able to come down at the weekends,' my brother insisted.
It was while my father was in hospital in Glasgow that Marie-Anne asked if I would visit her again in Paris. I instantly said of course, but that it would only be for a long weekend, because of my father's illness. I told her my brother could visit him over the weekend while I was away, but I was the only person who could visit him during the week.
Yet when I arrived in Paris I noticed Marie-Anne looked tired and strained. After we'd dropped my bag off at the flat and went for our favourite mint tea in a cafe in Barbes, I asked her what was wrong. She said there was nothing wrong. She was just tired. She said she'd spent the last couple of weeks working not her usual eight to four shift, but an eight till eight because a colleague was on holiday. All that weekend though she seemed agitated and distracted, and maybe it was my father's illness that made me suspect that Marie-Anne had something physically wrong with her that she was refusing to tell me about. After all, after she'd left to move to Paris, and asked me to open her letters in her absence, a couple of them concerned cervical smears and breast cancer tests that she'd told me nothing about. I decided to pay a surcharge on my ticket and stay for a couple more days.
I phoned my brother to tell him that I wouldn't be back until the Thursday instead of the Monday night; I said I thought there might be something wrong with Marie-Anne. My brother said my father's condition was steady: he should be alright.
Over the next few days I would ask Marie-Anne if anything was wrong and she would always deny it, saying that she was so tired, that Paris fatigued her and that maybe the city wasn't for her. She said she'd lost her coordinates, that she maybe realized Scotland was more of a home for her than she had thought. I took this as a veiled suggestion that she wanted to return, but she'd committed herself to staying for a year and I didn't want to convince her to come back until she'd followed through on her own decision.
Returning to Glasgow I felt better than I had done for months, and, getting out at the station at Hillhead, I walked along the road and saw Glasgow not as the cramped, messy and poverty-stricken place I so often believed it to be when I returned from abroad, but a place where one could dwell and have one's being - a phrase that I'd come across on a couple of occasions in books by Moritz and Hazlitt, and found it fascinating that it was a term which would seem so quaint today.
But that feeling was replaced within minutes of being back in my flat. My brother had left a message on the answering machine saying dad had passed away. I quickly phoned my brother and said I would travel up to the island the following morning.
My father had no family on the island apart from my brother; his own family was from the South of England, and his wife, and our mother, had left him twenty years before, after failing to fall in love with the island the way my father had, and after failing to convince him to leave. Yet there were many friends who would come to the house that was situated not far from the town centre, a few hundred yards from the pier of this small fishing village. And it was somehow in their presence that I'd felt that first pang of betrayal. They seemed to know my father so much better than I did, and told me anecdotes that I could merely nod at, having so few of my own to offer in return.
But I maybe added to that sense of betrayal by staying for such a short space of time after the funeral. I left the following morning on the early ferry, aware that many more friends would be visiting the house over the next few days - 'I'll pop in and we'll have a chat about your dad' a number of people had said - and I didn't have the heart or the decency to tell them I wouldn't be around. My brother would have to take care of all that.
Why I was so keen to escape the island was simple: Marie-Anne had phoned on the day of the funeral and said that she needed to see me, said she'd received my message on her answering machine that my father had passed away, and that she was very sorry to hear the news. There was something in her voice I couldn't locate, but felt that she wasn't quite telling me what she was thinking and feeling. She said all that could wait, and that she'd be getting an early morning flight and that she would arrive in Glasgow at lunchtime.
She was sitting in the flat when I got back, and I realized that any loss concerning my father's demise seemed irrelevant next to my anticipatory feelings towards Marie-Anne. Now if I really believed she was ill maybe my relative disinterest in my father's death and my obsessive interest in Marie-Anne's state would have been readily justifiable, but did I not really think that she'd been having an affair, and that my excuse for staying in Paris while my father was ill in Glasgow was to find out if Marie-Anne had been cuckolding me?
When she said that yes she was seeing someone else I wasn't surprised, I just went numb for a few hours, as I walked around Glasgow and noticed the city had quickly become a place where I could no longer dwell and have my being. But what I couldn't disentangle, and still couldn't distinguish for months afterwards, were my feelings of jealousy from feelings of betrayal. If the initial feelings of jealousy were more important - feelings that eclipsed my father's illness and then his death - then maybe, in retrospect, betrayal has become much more the evident emotion. For in jealousy lay just my problem with whatever Marie-Anne might have been doing in Paris, but in betrayal lay many things. Had I not perhaps betrayed Marie-Anne by refusing to move to France, had not I betrayed my father by being in France whilst he was dying in a hospital bed in Scotland, and had I not further betrayed him by refusing to stay on the island for a few more days and share the memory of him with his friends?
Betrayal is a big word, and too morally loaded I suppose. But with jealousy alone I think I would have been able to accept Marie-Anne's affair, accept that the relationship was irredeemably over and even gain a certain resilient strength out of knowing I was the wronged partner. But these other elements - that I refused to go over to France with her; that my father's demise touched me so little at the time of his death - shouldn't be viewed too objectively, because it is enough, it seems, to find self-condemnation in the knowledge that I can't find a place, no matter that I've given up the flat and left Scotland, where I can dwell and have my being.
© Tony McKibbin