Happy Valleys

04/06/2011

1

I would frequently see him sitting in a café in the town centre, usually The Coffee Pot or Happy Valley – places where teas and coffees were nursed as the time appeared to inch along. He often wore a pale blue track-suit and he initially seemed but one of half a dozen regulars I would notice when going for lunch, and that I would see again when occasionally going back after college.

I often half-wondered whether they stayed there all afternoon or whether they went off and would come back later. What I felt however was that time was not passing for them – that time had already passed. For us it had barely begun, and I am now reminded of a line from Queneau, “the fine days are passing, the fine holidays, sun and planets are turning in a circle, but you, my little one, you go straight on towards something you don’t see”. While some of the others in our crowd would laugh, saying these regulars were on the death bed of their life, I felt the chief difference between these older men and ourselves was that they were simply more aware of death than we happened to be – as though youthful flesh was ignorance in physical form, or fresh faces the mask of and for that ignorance.

We were all in our later teens, and hadn’t quite got the grades we needed for university, so instead went off to the local technical college and did a media course which allowed us to do Highers in History, English and Modern Studies. At school I hadn’t failed; I had three Bs in Modern Studies, History and English and an A in Art, but I wanted to get into Edinburgh and needed more As, and anyway didn’t feel I was ready to leave the town yet; my parents had moved up to the Highlands only four years before from Glasgow, and I enjoyed the pace of the place and the company of these other relative failures.

As we would go to college during the week and drink our way through the weekends, I suppose I gave no great thought to time’s passing, and much of what passes for reflection here is not only time lost hazily regained, but the recapturing of a certain reflection, a perception that I don’t believe is only retrospective, but was then sub-conscious. It’s as though in our advancing years reflection imposes itself on action; in our earlier ones it is the other way round; which is really to say this story is not about hindsight, but creating insights that were perhaps always present but never quite expressed.

Between September and May five of us would go to The Coffee Pot or Happy Valley every lunch time. Both places did cheap sandwiches and coffee refills, and both offered useful vantage points to observe passing pedestrians and allow us to offer casual comments. Happy Valley was upstairs and The Coffee Pot on ground level, but both were equally effective as spaces for indifferent observation – as though glass created a harsh distance, a magnified cruelty that allowed us to offer jibes without at all thinking through the consequences. As we commented on a person’s middle-aged hair loss, musing over whether he realized the wind had scattered the wisps of hair, harshly exposing any attempt at hiding the sparseness, I’m not sure if we wanted to be cruel; we wanted no more than contingent conversational prompts: looking for any detail from life that we could open up into a world of briefly alleviated boredom. If we’d thought about it, we would probably say that we hung out not out of ennui, but with a sense of anticipation, with the feeling that we were waiting in the afternoon for the pleasures the evening would give us. Were we to look not out of the window but across at our fellow cafe companions we may have thought that nothing better awaited them later, the cold comfort of a self-administered pleasure, perhaps with visual aids; perhaps not.

Of the five of us, Michael was both the most successful with and the least interested in women. I may now wonder whether he was the most effective out of this apparent lack of enthusiasm, even though women have often told me that what they expect from the man is a look that can show desire in a glance – Michael as far as I could recall met a look only through conversation or stared for observation. I would frequently see him looking keenly across at a scene happening nearby and would see him intently engaged in a discussion, but what I never saw him do was catch and hold a woman’s gaze, or go up to her with the intention of getting her into bed.

He fascinated me as someone who lived as though emotionally and intellectually disengaged, and yet still going through the very motions that often the more intensely emotional and sexual were failing to achieve.

The others in the group that year admired his success but seemed never to muse over his motivations; I don’t think even I ever worked out what sustained him, and if I say nothing of the others it is because only Michael contained aspects of the inexplicable. To talk of the rest would be to create a milieu, a world, a social environment in which the story can take place. None of that seems relevant.

2

The man in the blue track suit was of course the other person who fascinated me that year, and though I’d been seeing him in the café for months, it wasn’t until one afternoon, around late February, that I went up to Happy Valley after college, glanced across and saw that he was looking directly at me. He was only a couple of tables away, and he enquired where the other musketeers were; I asked if we happened to be musketeers or the Famous Five; more Enid Blyton than Dumas. He laughed and said he didn’t know whether I was hinting at things to come – was fame likely? – or modest in terms of our adventures and literary merit. He spoke like the well-read man he obviously was, and his accent, while undeniably indicating he was from the region, seemed personalised or perhaps merely diluted by years elsewhere. We didn’t say much more that day; he snapped closed whatever book he happened to be reading and said he needed to go – there was a film on at the cinema across the river, and it was starting in fifteen minutes.

Each time I saw him in one of the cafes thereafter I would nod and he would gesture likewise, but we still didn’t talk. If I believed I hardly knew Michael because he seemed in some ways not to know himself, with the man in the blue tracksuit he remained at that stage a mystery simply through my not knowing him. In the previous few months Michael had been sleeping with numerous women, and while it impressed the others, it seemed increasingly to depress him. He was doing okay at his Highers as he passed all the prelims with an A, was keeping fit by jogging with the running club three times a week, but the only activity he seemed to enjoy was getting so drunk that he didn’t quite know who he was. Most of his sexual conquests came out of that incapacity; there were girls who would come over and talk to him early in the evening and he would be polite for a few minutes and then extricate himself with an excuse. Later he was too inebriated to refuse their advances, and would often be helped into a taxi and perform his duties as best he could when they took him back to their place. One might have assumed he wasn’t much of a lay, but if this was true it didn’t stop some of them trying to see him again when they would see us queuing in the college canteen at break.

I had never envious of Michael, though my own sexual experiences were minimal, and my own approach the antithesis. I was more likely to see in a woman a tantalising potential; that she could not possibly be approached without first of all projecting numerous possibilities upon her, and that is exactly what happened when I saw a student new to our course after the Christmas period. She had studied the previous year, but left after the first term due to a loss in her family, and came back to finish the course. I feel no need to describe her appearance, except to say that she glowed outwardly and seemed to mourn inwardly, and I’m not so sure if that wouldn’t be a way to describe Michael also.

3

Debra lived on the Black Isle, in a village about fifteen miles away from Inverness, and she befriended a couple of the other girls on the course well enough for her sometimes to stay over at their place. For some reason we never got to know them before Debra arrived, perhaps because they disapproved of what they perceived were Michael’s womanizing ways, without quite noticing the melancholic nature of these seductions. After Debra came to the college, though, it was as if they saw more of the misery and less of the merriment; spending time with Debra who also liked to drink, to sleep with numerous men, and to despise the ease with which she did so, perhaps made them realize that Michael wasn’t so much sleeping around as falling over or falling into someone’s bed. At least this is how it was expressed to me one evening at a college party where one of the friends drunkenly asked me what I thought of Michael’s ways and I tried to explain that if it was a way it hadn’t an awful lot of agency to it. She said it seemed similar to Debra, that it was difficult to envy her looks when they gave her so little control over her life. However, I felt in the friend’s statement resentment towards Debra alleviated by schadenfreude: that she didn’t understand her, more that for all Debra’s beauty which she could have envied, there was a weakness of character that she couldn’t admire. This friend might also have once been attracted to Michael, but any rejection she may have felt in his indifference was compensated for by what amounted to his incompetence.

As I’ve said, what I am offering here is a story of long ago, and while I might not have articulated it then as I’ve just done now, I nevertheless knew at the time my feelings for Michael and Debra were not working off envy and sympathy, off admiration and pity. When the friend made her comment I recall a chilling sense of how people suicide others, and yet she offered it with a smile of compassion.

4

It might have appeared likely that Michael and Debra would have started seeing each other, but while they were the most beautiful people on our course, maybe in the college, they seemed at the time far too damaged, far too smart and far too promiscuous to go out with each other, and yet there was a complicity in their behaviour that I could only explain irrationally yet symmetrically: by noticing that though during those few months in college they never slept together, all the one night stands and flings they had was actually a method by which to show their feelings towards each other. It was the case as I’ve proposed that Michael never met a woman’s gaze, but he was someone who would observe intently, and I frequently noticed that he looked at Debra with the deliberateness of someone trying to understand himself; while Debra I observed often did the same in return. This wasn’t at all however the reciprocal gesture of seduction, and, though it seems unlikely, perhaps at the time they never once noticed the other looking.

They would nevertheless frequently engage in conversation, and whenever the group of us went off to see a film at the art-house across the river, in the café bar afterwards, on the short trip back into town, or in the bar that we would then go to, Michael and Debra would quickly lock into conversation, and the rest of us walked or sat slightly adrift, lobbing comments about the film back and forth at each other but rarely creating any intellectual heat.

During one of these conversations in the film café bar after the screening, Debra got up with a melodramatic flourish and walked off to the bathroom. She was gone for fifteen minutes, and when she came back she had obviously been crying. She asked Michael if she could talk with him alone for a moment, and they walked away, then out of the building, and we didn’t see them again until the following day at college. Yet I hadn’t assumed they slept together. There was nothing in their body language to indicate they had; and they possessed no reason to hide an affair from anyone.

Over the next couple of months there were two or three scenes like the one in the café bar, and though I would never hear the discussion that instigated them, they shared the same pattern. We would be out of an evening, Michael and Debra would be talking knottily, Debra would get up and disappear into the bathroom, come out a while afterwards, ask Michael if they could talk alone, then we wouldn’t see them again until the following day, and nothing was said at all about the incident.

I once asked Michael whether everything was okay, we were worried for them, but he nodded and said it was fine.

5

Near the end of that second term I got to know the man in the blue track suit much better, and though he said his name was James, he said it in so perfunctory a manner, that I never felt comfortable calling him by it, and even when bringing him to mind it is the tracksuit and not the name that conjures him into consciousness. It would have been much more appropriate I always believed if he told me why he always wore a blue tracksuit, of which I assumed he possessed several: one afternoon he spilled a bit of tomato soup onto his lap, and a small stain appeared; the next day I noticed it was absent, and thought it more likely that he had another clean one than that he managed to remove the stain overnight.

At the time I wondered why he always wore the same clothes, and also why a track-suit. He talked like a man who would wear smart but casual clothing; a sports jacket and a pair of cords perhaps; or a suit but with a tie worn loosely around the neck. We mainly talked about books, but in a manner neither casual, as amongst friends, nor formal, as in an English class. When we discussed a book by Lawrence, he talked mainly about the language, but not in terms of metaphor and simile, of alliteration and sibilance, but about the way in which Lawrence piled words on top of each other that he thought could be better understood not with all the armoury of literary technique; more with a lateral approach: wasn’t Lawrence the Van Gogh of writing? Once he mentioned that the best writers today are not masters of description but of absence – that the gaps so central to modernist literature now often could be captured through the minimal description of character and space. He wasn’t interested in post-modern flamboyance; more a continuation of modernism by others means – though he insisted he hated such blanket terms, and God only knows he often wondered how anybody could have taught them.

Frequently our chats would end abruptly, with him saying he had to go off and see a film, attend a poetry reading or see a play. Though he had no discernible friends, and never talked of any, he still seemed to me an astonishingly social person. I once asked him why he was alone so much; and he said that he liked engagements with things more than with people: he assumed that everybody was unreliable, and that a film or a play would be more likely to turn up. He never explained what he meant by this, but offered it with a smile, and I assumed it was the sort of comment that alluded to a great loss or heartbreak, but that could be contained now by an off-hand remark. It was the case that whenever we met up it was contingently, and whenever I asked if he would be in the café at a certain time on a certain day he always replied that he didn’t know – though there was very rarely a day where he couldn’t be found in either Happy Valley or The Coffee Pot between about one and five in the afternoon. As for the other regulars, I asked him whether they would also spend most of the afternoon there; he said they would usually move on after an hour; maybe turn up again later. He sometimes nodded to them, as he had initially nodded to me, but he didn’t know anything about their lives. I sensed that all his curiosity was now for art, even though he talked about it with much human warmth.

When we were talking together I never saw him as the old man he happened to be, but sometimes when he would go off to his pressing appointment I would look out of the window, and see him walking along, frail and shrunken, again the glass magnifying my perceptions, but with the others absent feeling no need to comment on that magnification.

6

With the course almost over, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the summer. I thought about travelling for a couple of months but instead decided I would set myself a reading list and an exercise routine. All the others planned to go away, and I felt a pleasant aloneness thinking of how I would shape my day around neither external demands (like college) nor personal expectations with the group. Maybe it came to mind after James’ comment about the reliability of events over people, and perhaps especially so when I was given evidence of such unreliability.

A week or two before college finished we went for a meal before going on to the final college disco. There were nine of us and really the only people there who interested me were Michael and Debra, no matter if I had spent much of my time over the months in everyone’s company. As I was sitting next to a couple of others and ostensibly engaged in conversation, I was instead half listening to Michael and Debra’s. It still appeared that nothing had happened between them; it still seemed they wouldn’t even arrange to meet up alone, though whenever in the group they always ended up talking together. At a certain moment over pudding they disagreed on some political issue, and this time it was Michael who got up and walked out of the restaurant.

He didn’t return, but later at the disco I saw him listlessly drunk and necking someone in a corner. He left with her shortly afterwards; and an hour later Debra exited the building with someone as well.

The next day at college Michael turned up after lunch and Debra didn’t appear at all, and indeed I didn’t see her again for the rest of the term. A few days later I asked Michael if he had any news of Debra; he shrugged, saying he hadn’t. The shrug reminded me a bit of James’s gesture when he mentioned people’s unreliability, and though it was a gesture of indifference, it seemed to me to be hiding a sorrow of some kind, while at the same time he knew he was going away soon, knew that he would be taking a job in the south of France selling donuts on the beach.

7

The only person I saw much of that summer was James, and he was less a friend I would see than a one on one tutorial that I would attend. I showed up in the cafes several afternoons a week and we talked about the book I had been reading. Though I had lots of questions concerning the books, I also had another I never quite found the space to ask; and it concerned the blue track suit. As part of my fitness routine I swam three times a week, an activity I hadn’t practised since before we had moved to the Highlands, and at the baths I noticed the swimming pool attendants wearing exactly the same blue track suit that James would always wear. I knew in his often dismissive comments about teaching and academia that he probably had never taught, or had left it for other employment, but what that other job may have been I had previously no idea. Yet while I found the track suit anomalous enough, James’s working as an attendant at the pool was even more so, and I couldn’t imagine him diving into the water to save someone’s life: I couldn’t I realized imagine him as a young man.

Yet this failure of imagination was at least contained by an interest in James’s life, and so over the summer months I asked him a number of questions that moved beyond the confines of the novel we were discussing. I enquired when he first read a particular book; I asked him what he studied at university; I wondered aloud whether he had travelled much. Over the months I came to know a great deal about James, and I saw no reason to disbelieve what he told me. He did a degree in French Literature, followed several years later by a PhD in continental philosophy, focusing on existentialism and phenomenology, Jaspers and Marcel, and in between travelled throughout France, Spain and also the Balkans. He worked his way through the countries with the sort of predictability one would expect – picking grapes here; teaching a bit of English there – but all the while trying to make his experiences his own. Maybe more through accident than intent: the several occasions he became ill he felt he was experiencing events as though someone else; and he remembered once that even the smell of lavender in the south of France sickened him when he lay in bed for three days after eating a sausage from a market that gave him food poisoning. It is one thing to smell from health and another to smell from illness. He believed it was the difference between observing an event and being part of it; and yet he admitted that sometimes people are so sensitive – to smells, to other people’s feelings, to their own, to their futures and their pasts – that their relationship with reality can be like his to lying in bed in the south…

As he trailed off I noticed in his eyes a sorrow that made all the other comments he offered over the months not dishonest, but protective. It seemed to be exactly the place I thought I couldn’t go to when wishing to ask him about the blue track suit. As he looked at his watch and said there was a film he needed to catch, I watched him bundle on his jacket, put his book into his bag and hurry out the door and down the stairs of the Happy Valley. We were sitting at a table away from the window, but as he left I went over to the glass and watched him take the direction not for the cinema but for home.

8

This would have been a couple of weeks before I went off to university. I got the As I was looking for, and waited to go to Edinburgh. James would still visit the café, and we talked on a couple of further occasions about books, but with an aloofness that actually impeded our understanding of the material we were looking at. The books became exercises in form, not an opportunity for subtly refracted enquiry. At the same time I had heard Michael was back in town, but nobody had seen him; that he had spent much of the summer in the south of France, improving his French, for he wanted to study literature at university. I would have wondered more about the similarities between James’ interest in France and French literature and Michael’s desire to study the same subject had it not been for James’ near collapse in front of me. I found myself thinking instead that whatever Michael’s ambitions, they seemed without passion, and the feeling James had always given me was of a man of thwarted desire. In all the time I had known Michael, admittedly less than a year, I had seen him passionate only once, and that was when he left the restaurant that day of the disco. He seemed to need an abstract desire, a purpose that couldn’t be readily fitted into the hopes and dreams of a life, but perhaps even through their absence, and though, as I’ve proposed, this is a story written unavoidably with hindsight, I also believe that the insights were there before the event, and so when I heard that Michael had disappeared himself a couple of weeks after he returned, days before I went off to university, and days before he was meant to be going to study in Sussex, I wasn’t surprised.

I wasn’t even really shocked to hear that he had been with Debra for most of the summer, that nobody knew where she was, only that she hadn’t returned to Inverness. I didn’t know whether they became a couple during that trip or thereafter, whether they went abroad or whether they ended up going to university at all. Michael’s parents moved away a few months after the disappearance; I never knew them and had no idea where they went. I only knew they’d left because one of the people I would hang around with that year, and who would still work in the Co-Op during his holidays from university, said Michael’s father was no longer managing the co-op he worked in; that the parents had moved away.

The day before leaving for university I was buying some books I had ordered for the course in a shop along from Happy Valley and as I passed I looked up and saw James by the window. He would rarely take a window seat, as if more interested in hiding from public view than observing public life, and I waved up and he waved back. I was in a hurry to get back home and pack, but hopped up the stairs to say a quick goodbye. For the first time I noticed James didn’t even have a book in front of him, and I half jokingly said that now we were all leaving, he could take over our vantage point. He looked at me sadly, and I looked back at a man in his mid-to-late-fifties wearing a faded blue track suit. As I stood there looking perplexed, completely without the wherewithal to offer a word of comfort, if that was what he required, he said that he would give me his number, and that I should ring him if I ever needed anything. If he didn’t answer straight away, that was okay. I should ring a few times; then phone again.

9

I got the degree, travelled for a year and a half in North and South America, fell in love hopelessly and traumatically, came back alone and did an MA, and then continued studying by writing a PhD on Raymond Carver. A predictable path I supposed for someone from an affluent culture who doesn’t quite know what they want to do with their life. I then took a teaching diploma; started seeing a fellow teacher trainee, who seemed to assuage so many of the insecurities I still felt after the girl I’d met in San Francisco finished with me one afternoon on a dirt road in Patagonia, and I believed this was what love could just as easily be: an intensity of meaning as readily as feeling.

She was from Skye and after our training we started applying for jobs in the Highlands, and she got a position at the Inverness Royal Academy, teaching Maths, and I got a job teaching English at Portree. We bought a house on the Black Isle, roughly the same distance between her school and mine, and would often go in the evening to the very art house cinema James would frequent years before. I never saw him at any of the screenings, but one evening Sarah and I went to see a French classic and before the film, at the bar, I noticed Michael and Debra. I don’t think they recognized me – over those last ten years I had lost much of my hair and made up for it by growing a beard – but they still looked the same, except so much more serene now. I wondered what they had been doing for the last decade, and whether they had actually been together throughout this period. As I looked at them on that warm Spring evening, both wearing clothes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a tourist in a village in India or Thailand, I mused over how they had lived those years. They hadn’t as far as I knew kept in contact with any of the group from college, though by that stage I’d lost touch as well, and so their lives were a mystery; yet I couldn’t bring myself to go up and talk to them.

It was about nine months after that when I read in the local paper of a man who had committed suicide in his late sixties. His name was James Watson, who for a number of years worked as a pool attendant at Inverness Swimming Baths. I was sure this was James, and I felt that I had betrayed him by never phoning him after giving me his number. I had always kept it, and never phoned because the only time I felt the need, and he told me to phone him if I needed to, was in South America, where his number would have been at home somewhere in my parents’ house. Early that evening, after reading the news in the paper, I rang the number, and a woman answered. I said I knew James some years ago, that I wanted to offer my condolences. She asked in a slightly suspicious voice how I knew him, and I told her my name and the context. Her voice turned warm and she said she was James’s sister and he had mentioned me on numerous occasions; that he recalled that I went off to university and was almost pleased I had never phoned: he assumed I was always okay.

As she said this I asked her about the funeral. She said there were details in the back of the paper. I impulsively asked if we could meet up. I wanted to tell her about the wonderful conversations James and I had one summer all those years ago. She said she would like that very much, and we arranged to meet in a café. I would have suggested Happy Valley or The Coffee Pot, but neither café was any longer there, and we agreed to meet at the café bar of the arthouse cinema.

10

As I mentioned some of the books we would talk about, she said that James was always the reader in the family, that he was the only one who went on to university, and she was surprised when after it he came back to live in Inverness again, staying in his mother’s house with initially their widowed mum looking after him, and, in time, as she became sick, with James increasingly looking after her: he was the only one of the four children who didn’t have kids of his own. He did travel during his university days, and sometimes went away in the two or three years afterwards, but then he got a job working at the swimming pool, and he was happy sometimes simply to hire a cottage in a place near Aviemore where the family had gone on holiday when they were all children. He would take a pile of books, and stay there for ten days, sometimes a fortnight.

I suppose I never really intended to meet up with James’s sister so that I could tell her about him, except in the most perfunctory yet nevertheless meaningful way. I wanted her to know that there were people whom he’d touched; yet I knew most of the talking would be done by her: she obviously knew far more about his life than I could possibly know. All I could offer was a tiny, but perhaps useful perspective. I didn’t need even to ask questions; with most of the people presumably with whom she’d talked of James to after he died, there wasn’t really anything to add. With me she could see a curiosity that wanted to know more: it was an opportunity not only to reminisce, but also to inform. She explained she had always known him as single, though he occasionally alluded to a girlfriend at university, and someone with whom he had travelled one summer. She once came across pictures that indicated this was so; photos taken in the south of France with a pretty, dark-skinned, short-haired girl who looked like she was herself from the region. In many of them they seemed like a couple in love, but since she came across the photos accidentally when cleaning up the house while he was on one of his trips to the cottage, she couldn’t ask any questions about her, and he never divulged any information himself.

It was however partly this knowledge that made her believe it extremely unlikely that the accusations made against him were true. It would have been some twenty years before, when he was in his mid-forties, and after he had been working at the pool for more than fifteen years, that there were rumours James was only working there so that he could ogle young boys. It was a rumour she heard through her own children, when one of them said that people were saying their uncle was strange. She pressed them on it, and they explained after some reluctance that James wasn’t normal. James was an anomaly, she admitted; he never married, never even had a girlfriend in the town, and though well-educated chose to work in a swimming pool in the north of Scotland. What were his real motives? She never found out where the rumour started, but suspected it wasn’t with the kids themselves, but one or two of the parents. One afternoon, the manager at the pool asked James into the office and told him of the rumours, but in such a manner that James supposedly took it as an accusation, and when asked if he ought to leave, the manager was not immediately supportive enough for James to feel he was on his side. James said that he wanted to resign. He had by this stage his mother’s house to himself, he had savings and spent very little, and knew that he didn’t need the job and could devote his life to reading.

I asked her why she thought that he had taken his own life; wasn’t she worried that it might seem to vindicate the rumours? I offered this to her not because I believed it, but that certain ideas needed to be expressed to be dismissed, and she could see in the manner in which I had asked, that I clearly didn’t think this the case, but knew James must have known his suicide could have been interpreted that way. She was aware he was lonely, thought that perhaps he realized later than most that his life hadn’t added up to much, and in this instance perhaps little more than the reading of thousands of books. Maybe he was looking again at the pictures from that summer. He was always a solitary man – maybe he found himself suddenly also a lonely one. She didn’t know. She asked me to tell her what we talked about. Was it only books?

11

The funeral was a couple of days after James’s sister and I met, and of course I attended. I expected a tiny gathering, and yet at the funeral the church was full and there were also people standing in the churchyard. The ceremony was brief as the minister offered what I assumed was a standard speech, yet at one moment he referred to not judging lest ye be judged. As he hesitated in saying the words, and as he seemed to stumble over them and swallow hard as he talked, I wondered whether he had improvised it. I could see a couple of aisles in front of me to my left, James’s sister, and looked at what I assumed were her two children around my own age, who were sitting either side of her, and also her grandchildren, next to what I assumed were their parents.

James’s sister had asked me if I would be willing to help carry the coffin and I obviously concurred. As we walked the few hundred yards from the church to the house, where the coffin would be placed into the hearse and taken to the graveside, most of the people from the church and also numerous others who hadn’t attended the service, lined the streets. Funerals in the Highlands could often be quite public affairs, with relative strangers offering condolences, and this funeral must have touched and perhaps implicated the public even more, with mention in one newspaper of the utterly unsubstantiated rumours that led to James leaving his job as a swimming pool attendant many years earlier. The article by inference seemed to make a connection between that rumour and his suicide. Amongst those lining the streets looked like the people who had been those café regulars years before, but I also noticed Michael, and a couple of the others from the college course. For some reason it had never occurred to me that Michael and some of the others may well have been amongst the very people who had been responsible for the rumour-mongering that led to James leaving the job. Would they not have been around ten when James left the baths, and would I indeed also have been responsible for spreading rumours had I been living in the town at that age? As I kept walking I wondered whether any of them had recognized me. I think, though, the years had treated them rather well as all were instantly recognizable. How had the years been to me, and I felt a curious and absurd moment of envy as I thought of James’s full of head of hair even into his mid-fifties?

As the coffin was placed into the hearse I tried to recall how I had talked of the various passers by we would look out on in The Coffee Pot and Happy Valley, wondered how caustic was my humour, how cruelly idle was my curiosity. I somehow believed that if I had been cruel and caustic with others, then was I not also somehow responsible for James’ death? I also thought of the old gang from that year, together again, and threw us into the future, sitting there, all into our fifties, and looking not out of the window as if at a life we couldn’t yet see, but looking inwards, at each other and at our pasts, at what we had become, at how much responsibility we could take, and want to take, for the men we had turned into; and also, finally, the cost to others of that ripening. I looked at Michael, in this present and in this future, with his full head of hair, only lightly flecked with grey, and his body still lean and fit. He seemed no happier now, but so tranquil, still somehow not quite feeling he had done any more than survive a life; that even Michael had not, for whatever reason, quite lived it.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Happy Valleys

1

I would frequently see him sitting in a caf in the town centre, usually The Coffee Pot or Happy Valley - places where teas and coffees were nursed as the time appeared to inch along. He often wore a pale blue track-suit and he initially seemed but one of half a dozen regulars I would notice when going for lunch, and that I would see again when occasionally going back after college.

I often half-wondered whether they stayed there all afternoon or whether they went off and would come back later. What I felt however was that time was not passing for them - that time had already passed. For us it had barely begun, and I am now reminded of a line from Queneau, "the fine days are passing, the fine holidays, sun and planets are turning in a circle, but you, my little one, you go straight on towards something you don't see". While some of the others in our crowd would laugh, saying these regulars were on the death bed of their life, I felt the chief difference between these older men and ourselves was that they were simply more aware of death than we happened to be - as though youthful flesh was ignorance in physical form, or fresh faces the mask of and for that ignorance.

We were all in our later teens, and hadn't quite got the grades we needed for university, so instead went off to the local technical college and did a media course which allowed us to do Highers in History, English and Modern Studies. At school I hadn't failed; I had three Bs in Modern Studies, History and English and an A in Art, but I wanted to get into Edinburgh and needed more As, and anyway didn't feel I was ready to leave the town yet; my parents had moved up to the Highlands only four years before from Glasgow, and I enjoyed the pace of the place and the company of these other relative failures.

As we would go to college during the week and drink our way through the weekends, I suppose I gave no great thought to time's passing, and much of what passes for reflection here is not only time lost hazily regained, but the recapturing of a certain reflection, a perception that I don't believe is only retrospective, but was then sub-conscious. It's as though in our advancing years reflection imposes itself on action; in our earlier ones it is the other way round; which is really to say this story is not about hindsight, but creating insights that were perhaps always present but never quite expressed.

Between September and May five of us would go to The Coffee Pot or Happy Valley every lunch time. Both places did cheap sandwiches and coffee refills, and both offered useful vantage points to observe passing pedestrians and allow us to offer casual comments. Happy Valley was upstairs and The Coffee Pot on ground level, but both were equally effective as spaces for indifferent observation - as though glass created a harsh distance, a magnified cruelty that allowed us to offer jibes without at all thinking through the consequences. As we commented on a person's middle-aged hair loss, musing over whether he realized the wind had scattered the wisps of hair, harshly exposing any attempt at hiding the sparseness, I'm not sure if we wanted to be cruel; we wanted no more than contingent conversational prompts: looking for any detail from life that we could open up into a world of briefly alleviated boredom. If we'd thought about it, we would probably say that we hung out not out of ennui, but with a sense of anticipation, with the feeling that we were waiting in the afternoon for the pleasures the evening would give us. Were we to look not out of the window but across at our fellow cafe companions we may have thought that nothing better awaited them later, the cold comfort of a self-administered pleasure, perhaps with visual aids; perhaps not.

Of the five of us, Michael was both the most successful with and the least interested in women. I may now wonder whether he was the most effective out of this apparent lack of enthusiasm, even though women have often told me that what they expect from the man is a look that can show desire in a glance - Michael as far as I could recall met a look only through conversation or stared for observation. I would frequently see him looking keenly across at a scene happening nearby and would see him intently engaged in a discussion, but what I never saw him do was catch and hold a woman's gaze, or go up to her with the intention of getting her into bed.

He fascinated me as someone who lived as though emotionally and intellectually disengaged, and yet still going through the very motions that often the more intensely emotional and sexual were failing to achieve.

The others in the group that year admired his success but seemed never to muse over his motivations; I don't think even I ever worked out what sustained him, and if I say nothing of the others it is because only Michael contained aspects of the inexplicable. To talk of the rest would be to create a milieu, a world, a social environment in which the story can take place. None of that seems relevant.

2

The man in the blue track suit was of course the other person who fascinated me that year, and though I'd been seeing him in the caf for months, it wasn't until one afternoon, around late February, that I went up to Happy Valley after college, glanced across and saw that he was looking directly at me. He was only a couple of tables away, and he enquired where the other musketeers were; I asked if we happened to be musketeers or the Famous Five; more Enid Blyton than Dumas. He laughed and said he didn't know whether I was hinting at things to come - was fame likely? - or modest in terms of our adventures and literary merit. He spoke like the well-read man he obviously was, and his accent, while undeniably indicating he was from the region, seemed personalised or perhaps merely diluted by years elsewhere. We didn't say much more that day; he snapped closed whatever book he happened to be reading and said he needed to go - there was a film on at the cinema across the river, and it was starting in fifteen minutes.

Each time I saw him in one of the cafes thereafter I would nod and he would gesture likewise, but we still didn't talk. If I believed I hardly knew Michael because he seemed in some ways not to know himself, with the man in the blue tracksuit he remained at that stage a mystery simply through my not knowing him. In the previous few months Michael had been sleeping with numerous women, and while it impressed the others, it seemed increasingly to depress him. He was doing okay at his Highers as he passed all the prelims with an A, was keeping fit by jogging with the running club three times a week, but the only activity he seemed to enjoy was getting so drunk that he didn't quite know who he was. Most of his sexual conquests came out of that incapacity; there were girls who would come over and talk to him early in the evening and he would be polite for a few minutes and then extricate himself with an excuse. Later he was too inebriated to refuse their advances, and would often be helped into a taxi and perform his duties as best he could when they took him back to their place. One might have assumed he wasn't much of a lay, but if this was true it didn't stop some of them trying to see him again when they would see us queuing in the college canteen at break.

I had never envious of Michael, though my own sexual experiences were minimal, and my own approach the antithesis. I was more likely to see in a woman a tantalising potential; that she could not possibly be approached without first of all projecting numerous possibilities upon her, and that is exactly what happened when I saw a student new to our course after the Christmas period. She had studied the previous year, but left after the first term due to a loss in her family, and came back to finish the course. I feel no need to describe her appearance, except to say that she glowed outwardly and seemed to mourn inwardly, and I'm not so sure if that wouldn't be a way to describe Michael also.

3

Debra lived on the Black Isle, in a village about fifteen miles away from Inverness, and she befriended a couple of the other girls on the course well enough for her sometimes to stay over at their place. For some reason we never got to know them before Debra arrived, perhaps because they disapproved of what they perceived were Michael's womanizing ways, without quite noticing the melancholic nature of these seductions. After Debra came to the college, though, it was as if they saw more of the misery and less of the merriment; spending time with Debra who also liked to drink, to sleep with numerous men, and to despise the ease with which she did so, perhaps made them realize that Michael wasn't so much sleeping around as falling over or falling into someone's bed. At least this is how it was expressed to me one evening at a college party where one of the friends drunkenly asked me what I thought of Michael's ways and I tried to explain that if it was a way it hadn't an awful lot of agency to it. She said it seemed similar to Debra, that it was difficult to envy her looks when they gave her so little control over her life. However, I felt in the friend's statement resentment towards Debra alleviated by schadenfreude: that she didn't understand her, more that for all Debra's beauty which she could have envied, there was a weakness of character that she couldn't admire. This friend might also have once been attracted to Michael, but any rejection she may have felt in his indifference was compensated for by what amounted to his incompetence.

As I've said, what I am offering here is a story of long ago, and while I might not have articulated it then as I've just done now, I nevertheless knew at the time my feelings for Michael and Debra were not working off envy and sympathy, off admiration and pity. When the friend made her comment I recall a chilling sense of how people suicide others, and yet she offered it with a smile of compassion.

4

It might have appeared likely that Michael and Debra would have started seeing each other, but while they were the most beautiful people on our course, maybe in the college, they seemed at the time far too damaged, far too smart and far too promiscuous to go out with each other, and yet there was a complicity in their behaviour that I could only explain irrationally yet symmetrically: by noticing that though during those few months in college they never slept together, all the one night stands and flings they had was actually a method by which to show their feelings towards each other. It was the case as I've proposed that Michael never met a woman's gaze, but he was someone who would observe intently, and I frequently noticed that he looked at Debra with the deliberateness of someone trying to understand himself; while Debra I observed often did the same in return. This wasn't at all however the reciprocal gesture of seduction, and, though it seems unlikely, perhaps at the time they never once noticed the other looking.

They would nevertheless frequently engage in conversation, and whenever the group of us went off to see a film at the art-house across the river, in the caf bar afterwards, on the short trip back into town, or in the bar that we would then go to, Michael and Debra would quickly lock into conversation, and the rest of us walked or sat slightly adrift, lobbing comments about the film back and forth at each other but rarely creating any intellectual heat.

During one of these conversations in the film caf bar after the screening, Debra got up with a melodramatic flourish and walked off to the bathroom. She was gone for fifteen minutes, and when she came back she had obviously been crying. She asked Michael if she could talk with him alone for a moment, and they walked away, then out of the building, and we didn't see them again until the following day at college. Yet I hadn't assumed they slept together. There was nothing in their body language to indicate they had; and they possessed no reason to hide an affair from anyone.

Over the next couple of months there were two or three scenes like the one in the caf bar, and though I would never hear the discussion that instigated them, they shared the same pattern. We would be out of an evening, Michael and Debra would be talking knottily, Debra would get up and disappear into the bathroom, come out a while afterwards, ask Michael if they could talk alone, then we wouldn't see them again until the following day, and nothing was said at all about the incident.

I once asked Michael whether everything was okay, we were worried for them, but he nodded and said it was fine.

5

Near the end of that second term I got to know the man in the blue track suit much better, and though he said his name was James, he said it in so perfunctory a manner, that I never felt comfortable calling him by it, and even when bringing him to mind it is the tracksuit and not the name that conjures him into consciousness. It would have been much more appropriate I always believed if he told me why he always wore a blue tracksuit, of which I assumed he possessed several: one afternoon he spilled a bit of tomato soup onto his lap, and a small stain appeared; the next day I noticed it was absent, and thought it more likely that he had another clean one than that he managed to remove the stain overnight.

At the time I wondered why he always wore the same clothes, and also why a track-suit. He talked like a man who would wear smart but casual clothing; a sports jacket and a pair of cords perhaps; or a suit but with a tie worn loosely around the neck. We mainly talked about books, but in a manner neither casual, as amongst friends, nor formal, as in an English class. When we discussed a book by Lawrence, he talked mainly about the language, but not in terms of metaphor and simile, of alliteration and sibilance, but about the way in which Lawrence piled words on top of each other that he thought could be better understood not with all the armoury of literary technique; more with a lateral approach: wasn't Lawrence the Van Gogh of writing? Once he mentioned that the best writers today are not masters of description but of absence - that the gaps so central to modernist literature now often could be captured through the minimal description of character and space. He wasn't interested in post-modern flamboyance; more a continuation of modernism by others means - though he insisted he hated such blanket terms, and God only knows he often wondered how anybody could have taught them.

Frequently our chats would end abruptly, with him saying he had to go off and see a film, attend a poetry reading or see a play. Though he had no discernible friends, and never talked of any, he still seemed to me an astonishingly social person. I once asked him why he was alone so much; and he said that he liked engagements with things more than with people: he assumed that everybody was unreliable, and that a film or a play would be more likely to turn up. He never explained what he meant by this, but offered it with a smile, and I assumed it was the sort of comment that alluded to a great loss or heartbreak, but that could be contained now by an off-hand remark. It was the case that whenever we met up it was contingently, and whenever I asked if he would be in the caf at a certain time on a certain day he always replied that he didn't know - though there was very rarely a day where he couldn't be found in either Happy Valley or The Coffee Pot between about one and five in the afternoon. As for the other regulars, I asked him whether they would also spend most of the afternoon there; he said they would usually move on after an hour; maybe turn up again later. He sometimes nodded to them, as he had initially nodded to me, but he didn't know anything about their lives. I sensed that all his curiosity was now for art, even though he talked about it with much human warmth.

When we were talking together I never saw him as the old man he happened to be, but sometimes when he would go off to his pressing appointment I would look out of the window, and see him walking along, frail and shrunken, again the glass magnifying my perceptions, but with the others absent feeling no need to comment on that magnification.

6

With the course almost over, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the summer. I thought about travelling for a couple of months but instead decided I would set myself a reading list and an exercise routine. All the others planned to go away, and I felt a pleasant aloneness thinking of how I would shape my day around neither external demands (like college) nor personal expectations with the group. Maybe it came to mind after James' comment about the reliability of events over people, and perhaps especially so when I was given evidence of such unreliability.

A week or two before college finished we went for a meal before going on to the final college disco. There were nine of us and really the only people there who interested me were Michael and Debra, no matter if I had spent much of my time over the months in everyone's company. As I was sitting next to a couple of others and ostensibly engaged in conversation, I was instead half listening to Michael and Debra's. It still appeared that nothing had happened between them; it still seemed they wouldn't even arrange to meet up alone, though whenever in the group they always ended up talking together. At a certain moment over pudding they disagreed on some political issue, and this time it was Michael who got up and walked out of the restaurant.

He didn't return, but later at the disco I saw him listlessly drunk and necking someone in a corner. He left with her shortly afterwards; and an hour later Debra exited the building with someone as well.

The next day at college Michael turned up after lunch and Debra didn't appear at all, and indeed I didn't see her again for the rest of the term. A few days later I asked Michael if he had any news of Debra; he shrugged, saying he hadn't. The shrug reminded me a bit of James's gesture when he mentioned people's unreliability, and though it was a gesture of indifference, it seemed to me to be hiding a sorrow of some kind, while at the same time he knew he was going away soon, knew that he would be taking a job in the south of France selling donuts on the beach.

7

The only person I saw much of that summer was James, and he was less a friend I would see than a one on one tutorial that I would attend. I showed up in the cafes several afternoons a week and we talked about the book I had been reading. Though I had lots of questions concerning the books, I also had another I never quite found the space to ask; and it concerned the blue track suit. As part of my fitness routine I swam three times a week, an activity I hadn't practised since before we had moved to the Highlands, and at the baths I noticed the swimming pool attendants wearing exactly the same blue track suit that James would always wear. I knew in his often dismissive comments about teaching and academia that he probably had never taught, or had left it for other employment, but what that other job may have been I had previously no idea. Yet while I found the track suit anomalous enough, James's working as an attendant at the pool was even more so, and I couldn't imagine him diving into the water to save someone's life: I couldn't I realized imagine him as a young man.

Yet this failure of imagination was at least contained by an interest in James's life, and so over the summer months I asked him a number of questions that moved beyond the confines of the novel we were discussing. I enquired when he first read a particular book; I asked him what he studied at university; I wondered aloud whether he had travelled much. Over the months I came to know a great deal about James, and I saw no reason to disbelieve what he told me. He did a degree in French Literature, followed several years later by a PhD in continental philosophy, focusing on existentialism and phenomenology, Jaspers and Marcel, and in between travelled throughout France, Spain and also the Balkans. He worked his way through the countries with the sort of predictability one would expect - picking grapes here; teaching a bit of English there - but all the while trying to make his experiences his own. Maybe more through accident than intent: the several occasions he became ill he felt he was experiencing events as though someone else; and he remembered once that even the smell of lavender in the south of France sickened him when he lay in bed for three days after eating a sausage from a market that gave him food poisoning. It is one thing to smell from health and another to smell from illness. He believed it was the difference between observing an event and being part of it; and yet he admitted that sometimes people are so sensitive - to smells, to other people's feelings, to their own, to their futures and their pasts - that their relationship with reality can be like his to lying in bed in the south...

As he trailed off I noticed in his eyes a sorrow that made all the other comments he offered over the months not dishonest, but protective. It seemed to be exactly the place I thought I couldn't go to when wishing to ask him about the blue track suit. As he looked at his watch and said there was a film he needed to catch, I watched him bundle on his jacket, put his book into his bag and hurry out the door and down the stairs of the Happy Valley. We were sitting at a table away from the window, but as he left I went over to the glass and watched him take the direction not for the cinema but for home.

8

This would have been a couple of weeks before I went off to university. I got the As I was looking for, and waited to go to Edinburgh. James would still visit the caf, and we talked on a couple of further occasions about books, but with an aloofness that actually impeded our understanding of the material we were looking at. The books became exercises in form, not an opportunity for subtly refracted enquiry. At the same time I had heard Michael was back in town, but nobody had seen him; that he had spent much of the summer in the south of France, improving his French, for he wanted to study literature at university. I would have wondered more about the similarities between James' interest in France and French literature and Michael's desire to study the same subject had it not been for James' near collapse in front of me. I found myself thinking instead that whatever Michael's ambitions, they seemed without passion, and the feeling James had always given me was of a man of thwarted desire. In all the time I had known Michael, admittedly less than a year, I had seen him passionate only once, and that was when he left the restaurant that day of the disco. He seemed to need an abstract desire, a purpose that couldn't be readily fitted into the hopes and dreams of a life, but perhaps even through their absence, and though, as I've proposed, this is a story written unavoidably with hindsight, I also believe that the insights were there before the event, and so when I heard that Michael had disappeared himself a couple of weeks after he returned, days before I went off to university, and days before he was meant to be going to study in Sussex, I wasn't surprised.

I wasn't even really shocked to hear that he had been with Debra for most of the summer, that nobody knew where she was, only that she hadn't returned to Inverness. I didn't know whether they became a couple during that trip or thereafter, whether they went abroad or whether they ended up going to university at all. Michael's parents moved away a few months after the disappearance; I never knew them and had no idea where they went. I only knew they'd left because one of the people I would hang around with that year, and who would still work in the Co-Op during his holidays from university, said Michael's father was no longer managing the co-op he worked in; that the parents had moved away.

The day before leaving for university I was buying some books I had ordered for the course in a shop along from Happy Valley and as I passed I looked up and saw James by the window. He would rarely take a window seat, as if more interested in hiding from public view than observing public life, and I waved up and he waved back. I was in a hurry to get back home and pack, but hopped up the stairs to say a quick goodbye. For the first time I noticed James didn't even have a book in front of him, and I half jokingly said that now we were all leaving, he could take over our vantage point. He looked at me sadly, and I looked back at a man in his mid-to-late-fifties wearing a faded blue track suit. As I stood there looking perplexed, completely without the wherewithal to offer a word of comfort, if that was what he required, he said that he would give me his number, and that I should ring him if I ever needed anything. If he didn't answer straight away, that was okay. I should ring a few times; then phone again.

9

I got the degree, travelled for a year and a half in North and South America, fell in love hopelessly and traumatically, came back alone and did an MA, and then continued studying by writing a PhD on Raymond Carver. A predictable path I supposed for someone from an affluent culture who doesn't quite know what they want to do with their life. I then took a teaching diploma; started seeing a fellow teacher trainee, who seemed to assuage so many of the insecurities I still felt after the girl I'd met in San Francisco finished with me one afternoon on a dirt road in Patagonia, and I believed this was what love could just as easily be: an intensity of meaning as readily as feeling.

She was from Skye and after our training we started applying for jobs in the Highlands, and she got a position at the Inverness Royal Academy, teaching Maths, and I got a job teaching English at Portree. We bought a house on the Black Isle, roughly the same distance between her school and mine, and would often go in the evening to the very art house cinema James would frequent years before. I never saw him at any of the screenings, but one evening Sarah and I went to see a French classic and before the film, at the bar, I noticed Michael and Debra. I don't think they recognized me - over those last ten years I had lost much of my hair and made up for it by growing a beard - but they still looked the same, except so much more serene now. I wondered what they had been doing for the last decade, and whether they had actually been together throughout this period. As I looked at them on that warm Spring evening, both wearing clothes that wouldn't have looked out of place on a tourist in a village in India or Thailand, I mused over how they had lived those years. They hadn't as far as I knew kept in contact with any of the group from college, though by that stage I'd lost touch as well, and so their lives were a mystery; yet I couldn't bring myself to go up and talk to them.

It was about nine months after that when I read in the local paper of a man who had committed suicide in his late sixties. His name was James Watson, who for a number of years worked as a pool attendant at Inverness Swimming Baths. I was sure this was James, and I felt that I had betrayed him by never phoning him after giving me his number. I had always kept it, and never phoned because the only time I felt the need, and he told me to phone him if I needed to, was in South America, where his number would have been at home somewhere in my parents' house. Early that evening, after reading the news in the paper, I rang the number, and a woman answered. I said I knew James some years ago, that I wanted to offer my condolences. She asked in a slightly suspicious voice how I knew him, and I told her my name and the context. Her voice turned warm and she said she was James's sister and he had mentioned me on numerous occasions; that he recalled that I went off to university and was almost pleased I had never phoned: he assumed I was always okay.

As she said this I asked her about the funeral. She said there were details in the back of the paper. I impulsively asked if we could meet up. I wanted to tell her about the wonderful conversations James and I had one summer all those years ago. She said she would like that very much, and we arranged to meet in a caf. I would have suggested Happy Valley or The Coffee Pot, but neither caf was any longer there, and we agreed to meet at the caf bar of the arthouse cinema.

10

As I mentioned some of the books we would talk about, she said that James was always the reader in the family, that he was the only one who went on to university, and she was surprised when after it he came back to live in Inverness again, staying in his mother's house with initially their widowed mum looking after him, and, in time, as she became sick, with James increasingly looking after her: he was the only one of the four children who didn't have kids of his own. He did travel during his university days, and sometimes went away in the two or three years afterwards, but then he got a job working at the swimming pool, and he was happy sometimes simply to hire a cottage in a place near Aviemore where the family had gone on holiday when they were all children. He would take a pile of books, and stay there for ten days, sometimes a fortnight.

I suppose I never really intended to meet up with James's sister so that I could tell her about him, except in the most perfunctory yet nevertheless meaningful way. I wanted her to know that there were people whom he'd touched; yet I knew most of the talking would be done by her: she obviously knew far more about his life than I could possibly know. All I could offer was a tiny, but perhaps useful perspective. I didn't need even to ask questions; with most of the people presumably with whom she'd talked of James to after he died, there wasn't really anything to add. With me she could see a curiosity that wanted to know more: it was an opportunity not only to reminisce, but also to inform. She explained she had always known him as single, though he occasionally alluded to a girlfriend at university, and someone with whom he had travelled one summer. She once came across pictures that indicated this was so; photos taken in the south of France with a pretty, dark-skinned, short-haired girl who looked like she was herself from the region. In many of them they seemed like a couple in love, but since she came across the photos accidentally when cleaning up the house while he was on one of his trips to the cottage, she couldn't ask any questions about her, and he never divulged any information himself.

It was however partly this knowledge that made her believe it extremely unlikely that the accusations made against him were true. It would have been some twenty years before, when he was in his mid-forties, and after he had been working at the pool for more than fifteen years, that there were rumours James was only working there so that he could ogle young boys. It was a rumour she heard through her own children, when one of them said that people were saying their uncle was strange. She pressed them on it, and they explained after some reluctance that James wasn't normal. James was an anomaly, she admitted; he never married, never even had a girlfriend in the town, and though well-educated chose to work in a swimming pool in the north of Scotland. What were his real motives? She never found out where the rumour started, but suspected it wasn't with the kids themselves, but one or two of the parents. One afternoon, the manager at the pool asked James into the office and told him of the rumours, but in such a manner that James supposedly took it as an accusation, and when asked if he ought to leave, the manager was not immediately supportive enough for James to feel he was on his side. James said that he wanted to resign. He had by this stage his mother's house to himself, he had savings and spent very little, and knew that he didn't need the job and could devote his life to reading.

I asked her why she thought that he had taken his own life; wasn't she worried that it might seem to vindicate the rumours? I offered this to her not because I believed it, but that certain ideas needed to be expressed to be dismissed, and she could see in the manner in which I had asked, that I clearly didn't think this the case, but knew James must have known his suicide could have been interpreted that way. She was aware he was lonely, thought that perhaps he realized later than most that his life hadn't added up to much, and in this instance perhaps little more than the reading of thousands of books. Maybe he was looking again at the pictures from that summer. He was always a solitary man - maybe he found himself suddenly also a lonely one. She didn't know. She asked me to tell her what we talked about. Was it only books?

11

The funeral was a couple of days after James's sister and I met, and of course I attended. I expected a tiny gathering, and yet at the funeral the church was full and there were also people standing in the churchyard. The ceremony was brief as the minister offered what I assumed was a standard speech, yet at one moment he referred to not judging lest ye be judged. As he hesitated in saying the words, and as he seemed to stumble over them and swallow hard as he talked, I wondered whether he had improvised it. I could see a couple of aisles in front of me to my left, James's sister, and looked at what I assumed were her two children around my own age, who were sitting either side of her, and also her grandchildren, next to what I assumed were their parents.

James's sister had asked me if I would be willing to help carry the coffin and I obviously concurred. As we walked the few hundred yards from the church to the house, where the coffin would be placed into the hearse and taken to the graveside, most of the people from the church and also numerous others who hadn't attended the service, lined the streets. Funerals in the Highlands could often be quite public affairs, with relative strangers offering condolences, and this funeral must have touched and perhaps implicated the public even more, with mention in one newspaper of the utterly unsubstantiated rumours that led to James leaving his job as a swimming pool attendant many years earlier. The article by inference seemed to make a connection between that rumour and his suicide. Amongst those lining the streets looked like the people who had been those caf regulars years before, but I also noticed Michael, and a couple of the others from the college course. For some reason it had never occurred to me that Michael and some of the others may well have been amongst the very people who had been responsible for the rumour-mongering that led to James leaving the job. Would they not have been around ten when James left the baths, and would I indeed also have been responsible for spreading rumours had I been living in the town at that age? As I kept walking I wondered whether any of them had recognized me. I think, though, the years had treated them rather well as all were instantly recognizable. How had the years been to me, and I felt a curious and absurd moment of envy as I thought of James's full of head of hair even into his mid-fifties?

As the coffin was placed into the hearse I tried to recall how I had talked of the various passers by we would look out on in The Coffee Pot and Happy Valley, wondered how caustic was my humour, how cruelly idle was my curiosity. I somehow believed that if I had been cruel and caustic with others, then was I not also somehow responsible for James' death? I also thought of the old gang from that year, together again, and threw us into the future, sitting there, all into our fifties, and looking not out of the window as if at a life we couldn't yet see, but looking inwards, at each other and at our pasts, at what we had become, at how much responsibility we could take, and want to take, for the men we had turned into; and also, finally, the cost to others of that ripening. I looked at Michael, in this present and in this future, with his full head of hair, only lightly flecked with grey, and his body still lean and fit. He seemed no happier now, but so tranquil, still somehow not quite feeling he had done any more than survive a life; that even Michael had not, for whatever reason, quite lived it.


© Tony McKibbin