Most of the articles he wrote for the magazine were what Steven would call deskbound pieces, stories that maybe required a couple of phone calls and reading through a press release, possibly a brief visit to a restaurant or club to ask a few questions. Occasionally though the magazine would make him the subject of the story, and so over the last couple of years he had taken advantage of Promethean pieces. He was a sort of Promethius undeskbound, as he went bungee jumping, hang-gliding, hill-walking and Scuba diving. Then the magazine thought it would also be great if he did less exotic activities, so he worked a shift in a video store, did a night as a porter, and a morning as a postman. Obviously Steven worked accompanied, but for the sake of the story it was as if he more or less worked alone - thrown into a job and doing it as well as he could. The last such assignment was in a pub, and it was there that he found himself performing, perhaps more than in any other activity he'd been asked to do. Obviously that was what he thought he had been doing in every other job or activity also, as in no instance was the project instigated by Steven himself.
But at one particular moment during this assignment Steven noticed he was flirting with a woman who was in the bar with couple of her friends as if he was someone else, like someone who wasn't still getting over a girlfriend he'd split up with five months before, like someone who thought the most meaningful way to exist was at the same time the most superficial: in this instance that evening Steven felt in the moment as much as when he was bungee jumping or hang gliding. But where on those occasions he was in the moment with himself and his body descending through space, or gliding through the air, here he felt a freedom he perceived was not quite so self-contained: that it implicated others. What he chiefly remembered about the evening was the comment the young woman had made about black suiting him, though it was a colour he would never have otherwise worn. Steven was given to browns, greens and beige, a loosely academic attire, he supposed, even if his skin colouring and hair would have indicated black suited him better. As he'd helped the other members of staff tidy up, and sat for a while after that discussing with them what they liked and disliked about the job, he had the occasional thought about the woman that believed he suited black, but at the same time dismissed it as an amusing variation on the notion of mistaken identity. He assumed she had no idea that he was working there on a journalistic assignment and believed she wouldn't even recognize him in the street, wearing his usual garb of browns, beige, and greens. She quite literally he assumed had mistaken him for someone who had both chosen the profession and chosen if not quite the clothing, nevertheless the job for which the black trousers and shirt were more or less obligatory. Over the next couple of weeks he thought almost no more of the woman except for the comment, and would look in the odd second hand or vintage store and muse over whether to incorporate black into his fashion sense or lack thereof.
There wasn't really any reason why Steven should have noticed the picture at all. Indeed, writing for the arts and lifestyle magazine in Edinburgh he would write the article, send it in and never look at it again. It was a commercial commission, and Steven believed he was lucky to have a semi-creative job that would still leave him time to concentrate on writing and publishing poetry in small magazines and for small publishing houses where, obviously, the remuneration was minimal. Yet one afternoon a couple of weeks after writing the pub piece, he was in the office and the editor said it seemed like he had an admirer. As he looked at the article, and more especially the picture accompanying it, he noticed that indeed a very attractive woman was gazing at him as he served a pint. It was the very woman who had made the remark. It wasn't until he saw the picture, though, that she became a mild distraction in his mind, and, thinking about the photo over the next week or two, she was a woman he realised he wanted, however ambivalently, to meet up with for reasons at the time he couldn't quite ascertain.
The most obvious reason why he didn't want to do so was that he insisted on a clear dividing line between the poetry he wrote and the hack work he produced. The journalism was so obviously part of his social life meant that he didn't want it to intrude on his private existence. All the girlfriends he went out with in the past ten years were literary people - a young woman doing her PhD on Tony Harrison, someone who edited a poetry magazine, an academic who had taught several years before the woman writing on Harrison - and while this may have been snobbery; it was also no doubt a curious sense of self-definition. In his family and at school amongst the people he knew poetry was seen as pompous and irrelevant, and he remembered one day not long before going to university an argument with his mother. He was saying he was going to study literature; that it contained the intimate memory of the world, and she asked if even a thousand of the bloody poems he would read could bring his father back. He always wondered whether she meant poetry was obviously incapable of bringing anybody back to life, or whether she was assuming it had no interest in a man whose job was working in a fish farm in the Highlands until an early death at fifty.
At the end of his first year at uni, Steven got off the train at the village of Aviemore, walked the half mile along the main road to his mother's council house, and wished that he need never come back again. Some months later his wish was granted: his mother died, and like his father of a heart attack, though the sparse number of friends attending the funeral wondered whether it broke rather than gave in. With no brothers or sisters, he returned to university after Easter, feeling often confused and shut out of from his upbringing but still relieved that he needn't ever go back to the small town that seemed to have no interest in poetry and literature.
After his degree in Glasgow he moved to Edinburgh and worked in adult education for a few years, teaching amongst others Tony Harrison's work, as though with his mother's ambiguous comment in mind he tried to show that poetry could talk to and memorialize anyone and everyone. Yet he suspected he taught as someone who was coming from a very different background than many of the people he was teaching, and that teaching didn't so much get him back in touch with his past as give him a more secure presence as teacher and poet.
It was whilst still teaching that he took a job writing for a magazine in the city, reviewing books, theatre, films and food, and it was out of the reviews that he wondered what if he was someone who instead of reviewing would become for a day the activity or job he wrote about. The premise was based on pursuits that he would not ordinarily try in his everyday life. Whether it was jet-skiing or mountaineering, snow-boarding or parachuting; working on a building site or as a gardener, the idea was that these were removed from anything he would choose to do under his own identity.
Now though it was true that he didn't actually adopt a pseudonym for these activities, temporary jobs or travel pieces, he still believed they were all part of an alter-ego, a social self that could be separated from the poetry. While he never saw the reviews and general articles he wrote as meaningful work; he never really felt the existential need to separate himself from them. With the other pieces though he was like an actor playing a part, perhaps on certain occasions no more than a stuntman. For the sake of argument, for the sake of an involved, convoluted argument with himself, he believed the poetry corresponded to the personal life; the alter-ego magazine work a public persona, and that as long as he could keep the two worlds separate then his creative and personal well-being would be sustained.
Yet over the following few weeks after first seeing the photo in the magazine, he kept returning to the image, searching it as though for either a secret it contained or a reality he wanted to avoid. As he looked at the woman's eyes he recalled how they had looked at things, other faces, other people's clothes; at their hands, and even at people's feet, as she noted heels or flat shoes, baseball trainers or shoes of neatly polished patent leather. Where for the first few days after working the night in the pub all he seemed to think of was her comment about the black clothes, increasingly other aspects of not so much her personality but her observational sense came to him. Whenever she would be left out of a conversation she wouldn't fiddle with her mobile phone, or try and seek attention from a passing man, she seemed instead to take it as an opportunity to take in the world. Though she seemed in her dress sense and her demeanour an office girl, there was of course no reason why she couldn't observe as well as Steven could, indeed better, as an off-duty secretary, solicitor, banker or management consultant.
What exactly though was she observing in him Steven mused, as he would sit and fiddle around with a poem that seemed no longer to be offering self-expression but an avenue for highfalutin' doodling. As he pushed the words around, as he moved a comma here or a semi colon there, he was becoming a caricature: a writer worthy of the ironic remark Wilde made about putting in a comma in the morning and taking it back out in the afternoon.
After a few days of making no progress on the poem, he phoned the magazine to see if they would be interested in finding him a placement as an office worker, and perhaps that he could work for more than a day, several, even a week. They asked what sort of work exactly, and he reckoned data processing, or perhaps as a general clerk. He could write up letters, answer the phone - obviously nothing that required any great skill or where his potential carelessness might cost the company money or their reputation. The editor said he would ask around; he was sure one of the staff would have a friend or a husband or wife that worked in a law firm or a bank. He asked Steven to come in the next day and they could talk about.
He announced that Steven would be working at a solicitor's for a week and that they specialised in property. He could edit and proof read the blurbs and show people around apartments.
The following Monday morning he arrived at the place wearing his one good suit. It was a small firm in the Stockbridge part of the town, the same area as the pub, and though it was one of the richest parts of the city, he noticed many of the properties they were renting and selling were in less desirable areas. For some reason he had always assumed the places for rent would generally be in the same part of the town as the agency renting them, but he was quickly informed by one of the six members of staff at the firm that they would rent and sell anything as long as there was a profit involved. Steven shouldn't of course have been surprised by the reality of the bottom line, but he was a bit taken aback by the ferocity with which it was offered. As he looked at this forty odd year old, slickly and slowly receding blonde-haired man who wore a tie of blue, yellow and green that indicated a boldness of manner entirely matched by his own demeanour, Steven asked him whether he was on a commission. He said he was, and half-apologising for the rabidity of his earlier comment, said that he would barely make a living otherwise.
During that week Steven mainly proof-read and tidied up the copy of letters going out, of adverts that went into the windows, of the short column that went into papers like the RSPC. A few times he went out and showed people a flat, but usually accompanied by one of the employees, who would of course get any commission that came off the rental or sale of a property. Several times somebody came into the shop and asked if they could see a property straight away, and if it was in Stockbridge the boss would tell Steven to go and show them around; if they were really interested and wanted to take it immediately they could come back to the office and promptly sign the papers. The boss took the commission.
Generally the quality of the properties the agency was renting was poor and on a couple of the viewings Steven was surprised that people took the places: one was in a neighbourhood that would sometimes find itself on the front page of the Herald and Postfor its high incidence of neighbourly unrest; another for its gang presence. The flats themselves were furnished perfunctorily, as if nobody who bought them had ever lived in the place, and the interior design came out of obligation and aesthetic indifference: carpets that didn't go with the wallpaper, tables and chairs too big for the spaces they were asked to occupy, huge beds that cramped the bedroom. It was Alice in Awful-land, and Steven thought surely it couldn't have cost that much more to decorate the flats in a pleasant manner. He didn't even think his observations were especially issues of taste; almost of logistics. In one flat the sitting room door couldn't be opened or closed because of the over-sized settee; in another a large dining table had four chairs around it but the space was too small to allow four people to sit comfortably.
Steven looked at the faces of those looking to rent and they knew that he knew it was sub-standard; but they also knew that the other properties they had looked at and would be likely to look at would be far from wonderful also, and sometimes, out of exhaustion it seemed, like someone who's been walking for hours and flops down on the first available bench, no matter if it is a bit damp and less than comfortable, they signed the papers.
During the week there was always someone willing to go for a drink after work, and usually to the very pub that Steven worked in that Friday night. He would go along, no doubt hoping to see once again the woman from the picture, and when they announced what bar they were going to, Steven wondered how much chance and how much design happened to be involved. It was true that he wanted to work briefly in an office hoping to see somehow or other the woman again, but he hadn't chosen the place in which to work, and couldn't he have gone down to the pub any day of the week on his own if he hoped to see her there again? Perhaps, and yet all he could have said was that it didn't feel right, that somehow his intrigue was still part of a parallel world, and that he wasn't quite willing to cross from one to the other. Yet he never did see her in the pub that week, not even on the Friday night which would have been exactly four weeks after the night he worked there, and Steven was curiously despondent all evening, unsure how much of his downheartedness was because of the job, how much due to the woman's absence.
It would have been perhaps six weeks later that he happened to be doing a poetry reading with a couple of others when he noticed, as people began to take their seats, amongst them was the woman from the bar. He wasn't usually nervous doing public readings, and any reservations he had about reading his poetry in public was a convoluted one of poetry and privacy, not of terror in the face of an audience. As the place filled up, though, all he could see was this woman sitting not in the clothes she was wearing some weeks before, but a pale green coat and a rainbow coloured scarf. He was the first to read and he hoped the tension he felt in seeing her sitting there wouldn't manifest itself in the wavering readings he would sometimes notice in other poets. It turned out to be okay and afterwards, after the other poets had read, Steven went over to where she was standing alone and said that he remembered where he had seen her.
They talked over their glasses of wine and the hubbub around them. She said that of course she remembered him, and how could she forget when a week or two after that evening in the pub she had seen a picture of herself in a magazine looking at the barman. Now she said there was a very good reason why she was looking at him for a good part of the night, and it wasn't only that she believed he looked good in black. Wasn't he also someone that she had known in the past? Steven asked her from where; she said that she was in the year below him at school, and that he had known her sister quite well, that he would sometimes come round to the house when they were all burgeoning Goths. She actually offered the comment about his looking good in black to see if it might have jogged the memory. Obviously a jolt was required, and it was only as she talked that he indeed remembered how he and a few others would go round to her house in Aviemore and listen to various Goth bands, about eight of them piled into the bedroom in a council house up the road from Steven's parents'. He even started to recall not only her sister, but her also; that she won a miss Aviemore contest when she was fifteen, that summer before he went off to university.
As they continued their conversation at a diner nearby, he told her about his more recent venture, working as an estate agent for a week, and she said that was exactly her profession, though over the last month she had left the company she had been with and started her own firm. The company she had been working for had no ethical basis, she believed, and rented flats of poor quality to people who took whatever was available at the price they could afford, who usually had no time to say no. Whether these were students new to the city, incoming workers, or people recently asked to move out of their flats as owners looked to sell, she found that several nights of the week she would get gloriously drunk, and often in the very bar that Steven was working in that night. The job was worthless and made her feel likewise.
Mandy wasn't sure whether it was reading the story in the magazine of someone becoming somebody else for a night that didn't make her decide that she wanted to be someone less radically different but for a much longer period of time. So she gave her notice, utilised her contacts, got in touch with any friends, and friends of theirs, who were renting through agencies, and tried to persuade as many people as possible to rent through her. The only condition was that all the flats would be done up in a manner that was consistent with a certain ethos. She didn't know whether the owners would make any more money out of their flats than they had previously, but she sold the idea on the basis of the principles of fair-trade, and that she wanted to rent flats that nobody would we be taking because there was nothing else.
As she explained all this, Steven wondered whether she was a little mad: he imagined many of the flats decorated in a way consistent with the clothes that she was wearing that day. As he looked at her bright green jumper and her burgundy skirt, and again at the rainbow scarf, he imagined the flats decorated in a similar manner - as if before all the flats were consistent with the pale grey clothes she was wearing in the pub the day that he thought he had first seen her. But as he was thinking thus it was as if she guessed his mind had wandered, and she said of course she had only been doing it for a few weeks, and maybe it wouldn't work out. What she did know was that all those years ago in Aviemore, when everybody used to gather round at her parents' place, her parents were the only ones who seemed to make the house warm enough for all the kids in the neighbourhood to want to stay for hours. Steven recalled his own parents' house, and the wallpaper muggy with years of cigarettes smoked, of the carpets dulled and dirtied by boots and trainers walking over it, and even when they did do the whole house up, it seemed to be based on home improvement adverts and not on any organic feel for the living space.
It would be untrue that Steven would never return to any of these memories from his past, but he wasn't so sure if just as he would take a job for a day, or indulge in an activity for an afternoon, without feeling either had anything to do with his personality, was the same not also finally the case with the poetry? He would often write the poem in one sitting, and then endlessly go over it as an object that was of curious interest and disinterest; any emotion extracted in the writing was quickly dealt with, and thereafter there was a text that required kneading into poetic shape, as impersonally as a lump of dough.
They parted after eating, and as they exchanged numbers he promised he would call her at the weekend. She said he didn't need to promise anything. He would do it if he wanted to and she would answer if she wished for them to meet. He actually texted her on the Friday to tell her that he wouldn't be able to make it; that he was going to go up to Aviemore for the first time in a some years. He wanted to say that their talk had made him think about a lot of things, and that he wanted to see her again, but somehow not before he had gone back up north. How long could a text message be, he wondered, and instead of an explanation he offered three kisses.
He arrived in the early evening, and this was at the beginning of September and it was still light. He booked into the Bed and Breakfast in the road behind and below the high street, and went for a walk. He walked up the high street and passed a Tesco that had been built in the intervening years, and round by the centre, a combination of hotels, bars and accommodation that was in a state of disrepair when he had last been there, and looked plush and new and aimed at a completely different clientele than the previous leisure centre. He went to the end of the main street, and kept walking until he reached the council houses on the left hand side. He walked into the estate and walked past the house his parents had rented for many years, and looked in. It was now dark enough for the lights inside to be on, and Steven watched someone making dinner in what looked like a newly fitted kitchen, and looked at the next window where two kids and a man were presumably waiting for dinner to be served. The house looked pleasantly furnished yet at the same time he wondered how easily this family could be replaced with another. Perhaps the feeling lay in how there was, no doubt, not a trace of his parents' life inside those four wall now, but it seemed even more that the interior dcor could have belonged to any number of people, and all he could see was family going through the motions of their life without imposing themselves upon it: they seemed as arbitrarily fitted into their existence as he would feel he had been placed into his little assignments.
Obviously this was Steven imposing his own perspective on theirs, but he felt a queer and intense longing to close his eyes and open them again to see his parents sitting there eating dinner and watching TV, cigarette in one hand, a fork in the other. Their lives might have been incomplete, their hopes never met, but they loved, and maybe in their gloom knew that their love for each other had never been given the form it deserved: they had never travelled anywhere together; they rarely, as far as Steven could recall, even went out. They were too tired from work they would often say, their bodies containing exhaustion in every movement. He couldn't disagree; He knew he simply wanted to leave, and their own departure from life made it all the easier for Steven to escape the village.
As he passed a few more houses he tried to recall which one belonged to the girls, and he knew as soon as he passed it. Their parents still obviously lived there, and as he looked in and saw the two of them cooking together, he noticed while the house no longer looked like he remembered it, it reminded him instead of the very colour scheme that Mandy was wearing the other day at the poetry reading. As he stopped for a minute and stood wondering if, in the darkening light, they could see him peering in from the pavement, he noticed that here were two people in their seventies, two people who must have been together for at least forty years, still brightly decorating their home, still cooking together and eating together. He couldn't recall what Mandy's parents did; maybe her dad didn't work at all, or worked sporadically. He remembered he would sometimes see him working on something in his shed. Steven found as he moved back in the direction of the Bed and Breakfast that he had many questions to ask of a village that he had believed for many years had nothing to offer him, and he knew that in this questioning he longer felt that his life need be so carefully demarcated. He had the idea that when he returned, whether he would see Mandy again or not, that he wanted to give up writing articles for the magazine, wanted never again to work in a pub under a semi-false identity and in the process fail to identify someone from his own too inactive past. He wanted instead to find more ways in which to activate, aware that merely the briefest of walks through his own past had created far more feeling than many of his assignments, even, he had to accept, much of his poetry.
© Tony McKibbin