There are experiences that we look back on without the guilt that we might assume is an attribute of the event. And there are others that fill us with guilt even of they cannot easily be talked about. If I have for many years felt guilty over a tragedy that I can often talk about because people will both understand it and will assuage my feelings of culpability, so there are other experiences apparently much less important that cannot so readily be conveyed. We reserve them for the page, and possibly for someone who, in our attempt to make contact, might well add to our sense of remorse.
I am being too abstract I know, so let me now become very concrete. When I was ten my parents bought me a cat, a ginger creature they gave me suspecting I needed affection and a companion, and that subsequently, I treated as a creature to be looked after conditionally. I never hated Lionel, but my love for him had to pass through a hatred during this period I would have been feeling towards myself. At the time my parents were both working as secondary school teachers in disparate parts of London. My mother was teaching in the north, at Highbury, and my father was in the South, near Brixton. They would leave early and arrive home late and so I would go off to the local school on my own, coming back to the flat hours before they would return. We were living in a block of flats in Swiss Cottage, and a few minutes away from George Eliot primary school which I attended. I would walk to school alone and walk home alone, making myself on my return a cheese and pickle sandwich, with two chocolate digestive biscuits, watch TV or do some homework, and wait for them to arrive back.
We had moved to London the previous year. My parents had had teaching jobs in Edinburgh but because of an event I will shortly relate, and a set of convenient circumstances, we moved to London, the birthplace of my parents but a strange place to me. I had been born in the Scottish capital and all those rolled rs sounded odd to the ear of my classmates, who in this new school didn't so much mock me as feel under little obligation to befriend me. My parents had taken advantage of a great aunt's recent demise, moving into her two-bedroom flat near the school, having given her the money to buy her council apartment after the government allowed the right to buy. They didn't at all I think exploit her frailty - it was more that my father was my aunt's favourite nephew. For a number of years, he had helped her whenever she was in financial need, and she was always welcome at our house in Edinburgh where she would sometimes stay for a month at a time and where everyone was always sad when she returned south. My aunt knew my parents missed London, and so said to them that she would buy the flat very cheaply under the right to buy scheme with my father's savings, and put it in his name in her will. Her death was a sad business, but business I suppose it was, yet if they didn't grieve as much as they might have it was because of a tragedy elsewhere; one vital to our move south and central to the acquisition of the cat.
My parents had applied for jobs in April or May for the new school term near the end of August and failed not only to get jobs near where we were living, but even near each other, and I have since given some thought to the difficulties they must have felt with the family scattered across the city while before we all lived a few hundred yards from the James Gillespie school in Edinburgh: where they taught in the school which I attended. In London, they would arrive home after six tired and resigned, as though life had defeated them in more ways than they could countenance yet always, they insisted, happy to see me. I knew they meant this more deeply than most parents and an ache of tenderness towards them. that would not have been evident at the time, almost always comes over me when I think about it now. I see in my mind's eye, their own eyes looking at me half in fear and half in affection: a look few parents possess and for very good reasons.
Throughout that first year in London, before my parents both managed to get jobs much nearer the flat, I would play after school not with people in the class who lived in the area, but with Lionel. Occasionally, it was true, a school mate would suggest joining him for some tree climbing in his garden, another would say a few of them were going to play on the grass at the housing estate. Usually, I would say no, preferring to play with the cat, aware somehow that no amount of company, no new acquaintance, could quite provide the perverse pleasure I would get from making Lionel fear for his life and feel safe in my hands.
Perhaps I found myself thinking of Lionel because of a story a friend told me a few weeks ago. I had hardly seen Joshua at all for about five years. After graduating from a university not too far from London and working for several years in a cafe and then a youth hostel in the city, I applied for jobs back in Edinburgh, accepting an admin job at the uni while considering whether to do further studies. It was good to be back in a place that brought to mind so many memories, a place I returned to partly to access those memories. I no longer had any friends in the city and so for the first couple of months I would wander around going to places I remembered as a child. My parents and I would occasionally visit a close friend of theirs, and a sort of aunt to me, when we returned north, but when she passed away twelve years ago, when I was nineteen, Edinburgh became a place strangely inaccessible. Yet I moved back partly to find some way of accessing it.
During the five years I have been back in the Scottish capital I have made a few friends, had two girlfriends, though the relationships didn't last very long, and the one job which I am reluctant to leave even I can't quite explain why. London friends would occasionally visit, yet I suspect sometimes they wouldn't have done so had I moved to a city less beautiful than the one I am living in. The exception I believed was Joshua, my closest friend in secondary school and someone with whom I thought there would be an affinity for life. We could feel pain in a similar way even if we comprehended it quite differently and there was often in this difference a distance I always felt an event could exacerbate.
During my time in Edinburgh (after he helped me move up) while we would talk on the phone sometimes, email frequently, and text every few days, but I had seen him only once over the last five years: three years ago in London where I stayed the night before taking the train to Paris: one of the girlfriends I mentioned was doing an internship in the French capital. I stayed with him for two nights, and during the second one he talked about a woman he had started seeing, knew he was in love but also suspected that it could lead to unfortunate consequences. He didn't elaborate and I didn't really ask, aware I suppose that for the moment elaboration wasn't useful. He was predicting his future not exemplifying the past, and when he said it I had a mild lurch: a presentiment of another's impending pain as if a reminder of my own. Three years later he had the full story to tell.
He said it would have been a few weeks before I saw him in London three years earlier that he had started seeing but not quite going out with a woman who appeared to like his company, had commented on liking his looks, but nevertheless at the end of the evening after accepting he could walk her home, made clear that an attempt at a pass on his part would be taken as an affront on hers. I asked him what made him think this and he said he couldn't quite say. Over the next three months he would see her perhaps once or twice a week, would always pay for dinner, the tickets to the cinema, and the drinks afterwards. She would never offer to pay and obviously this made him more and more irritated as at the end of the night she would give him a peck on the cheek and disappear through her apartment entrance door. He would walk away and wonder if his anger was unjustified before one evening formulating things thus: if he happened to pay for all the drinks in the hope that she would offer him his body, was he not turning the whole affair into an act of prostitution? Surely it would be better for him to insist that she should sometimes pay in a gesture towards equality, rather than building up in himself resentment that played much more on traditional role models and the oldest profession in sublimated form.
The next time they went out he said he wanted to feel special for a change and that she would have to treat him. He expected Samantha to respond with dismay but instead she allowed a curl to form and a bigger smile afterwards to emerge: she was surprised it had taken him that long to suggest it. If there is one thing she didn't like it was a man who thought he could buy his way into her bed. It suggested to her a lack of character; something she suspected he had plenty of otherwise she would have stopped seeing him long ago. Yet she had been determined she wouldn't sleep with him until some of that character was obviously evident. She paid for dinner that evening and invited him to her apartment that night, and for the next couple of years they were a couple. They would have separate bank accounts and separate flats, and while he would sometimes pay for dinner, or for flights, or for hotel rooms, she would do so as well. Throughout the relationship after those first few weeks before it started, he never once felt exploited - but instead he would, he supposed, often feel quietly alienated. There seemed to be no way that he could get close to her, believing this was partly due to what he saw as their transactional affair. While in the first month or two he would fret over the exploitation, for the next couple of years he was frustrated by her offer to pay for dinner, or say that since he got the flights she would get the hotel. They were both earning around the same amount of money (she was a speech therapist and he was a counsellor) so he could see that practically this made sense, but he also saw in the gesture a need for her to keep her distance. Even though there seemed an enormous difference between the apparent exploitation she initially showed, and her insistence that she pay her own way later, somehow the two appeared to him as part of the same problem.
Perhaps he was now exaggerating the reservations he had at the time; he admitted he hadn't thought that much about it while they were going out together. They had broken up six months earlier and he was still puzzling over exactly why as well as still pained by her absence. He surmised that she would never get too close to anyone, that her need to share the costs was also her way of saying that humans cannot merge: they will always remain separate and must constantly acknowledge this not in sharing with others but transacting with them. If the early weeks they would date suggested she was testing him, the following two years indicated that she was making clear that for her a relationship was always a contingent affair easily ended when the moment of tentative connection had passed. That was how she described it as she said one afternoon, at the end of a lunch she paid for, that she had enjoyed her time with him but she believed it was time to part. She said it as though she had to rush off sooner than intended after lunch, but there she was ending a two-year entanglement as if there were nothing to disentangle. Perhaps she was right.
As Joshua told me this I was seeing in his description of his ex-girlfriend a depiction that some might have seen in me. As I was speaking to Joshua I knew I wanted to speak even more to his ex-girlfriend. Somehow I didn't want to ask him about her emotional history, about her childhood and the crises therein, and couldn't easily have said why. It might have been that I didn't want to ask questions; I wanted to let Joshua talk. It could have been that I wished in enquiring further I might have felt obliged to talk about my own background too, and while I sensed there may have been similarities between Samantha and me, I would have preferred to think about them on my own (or to talk with her) rather than discuss them even with such an apparently close friend - at least at that moment.
I also suspect I did so because I sensed that the story's interest for me lay in something obscure and a little abstract, something I had always been ashamed of but had never found the means by which to speak about it, and which while shameful was hardly monumental. It was then that I found myself thinking about Lionel and also about my brother's death. It was after the latter that we moved down to London, six months after his body washed ashore on a beach near North Berwick. He was fourteen when he died and he had gone swimming with three others when he swam out far beyond the shore and didn't have the energy to make it back. He was a good swimmer and a competitive one, but he always seemed to me to be competitive with himself rather than with others and I suppose he had decided to swim out to a particular point and determined to return. I sometimes wondered if my parents thought he had killed himself but there was nothing to suggest this except their own need to feel guilty and assume the blame. While we had originally intended after my great auntie's death to rent out the flat in London, it was after my brother's demise we decided it made sense to change location and try if not to forget then remember at a safer distance. I wouldn't want to claim my parents were insensitive over my inability to cope moving to a new school while they were teaching at disparate parts of London, because I think if there was any insensitivity it lay in buying me a cat at a time when I was more inclined to abuse its vulnerability rather than allow Lionel to assuage my pain.
We received Lionel from a cousin who was moving to Germany from London for work at a time when construction workers were paid far more there than here, and they asked friends and family if they knew anyone who would be interested in a two-year-old cat. My parents asked me, I said yes, and there Lionel was, delivered to our door with a dozen tins of cat food and a litter tray. Within days I was assuaging my own anxieties by generating a few in Lionel instead. After school, I would place the cat on the top of the sitting room door, or on top of a bedroom cupboard and watch it look frightened and fretful. Frequently he could not stay on the thin wedge at the top of the door but as he would start to fall I would always catch him. I would of course never let him fall, yet time and again I would place him there determined to put him in a position of danger that would allow me always to be his saviour. This went on for several months until Lionel disappeared one day and I have no idea whether he did so because he ran away or got run over - maybe he got run over running away. Sometimes, for a year or more afterwards, I would cheat myself into thinking he had found a better home, but even then the guilt would quickly return as I realised it was the best option I could offer my conscience.
I have never told anyone about the incident with the cat, but when Joshua told me about the way he was treated by Samantha I thought that she might be someone with whom I could talk, as though assuming that in her past was a terrible incident too and that Joshua might have been a victim of Samantha's mindset just as Lionel years before had been the victim of mine. I asked him what he knew of her and he said as far as he could tell she had a conventional upbringing in the south of England, with a brother and sister, a father working in the city and her mother a manager of a charity. She had gone to university in Sussex, was rather more radical than her parents would have wished her to be, and had what she called a politely strained relationship with them. He had never met them, he admitted. Did he find this strange, I wondered. Perhaps but since he had heard that they were inclined to conservative values and had little patience with their daughter's Left-Wing ones he couldn't see what benefit there would have been in meeting them. I suggested that he would have known Samantha that bit better. He admitted he never really cared to get to know his girlfriends in this way: he lived as much as he could with them in the present. Their history before him was not his concern, and he would never ask them about ex-boyfriends or their childhood. It was only when something went wrong or when it was over that he started to analyse their natures and the nature of the situation.
This I always thought was central to Joshua's nave well-being. Over the years I have seen him flummoxed by situations he hasn't understood, and seen in them not an invitation for inquiry, but nothing more than a realisation of senselessness. Some things don't make sense he would say to me, and so why should we tie ourselves up in knots trying to find motives for them. I suspect even telling me about Samantha was because he knew I was interested in emotional complications. He didn't only not believe in the unconscious; he hardly believed in conscious motives either, except of the most practical kind. He went to university to get a good job, went out with someone because he found them beautiful, had a handful of friends because it was important to be sociable, and ate well because it was important to maintain one's health. I think over the years I have often admired this in him, and no doubt have seen in Joshua a capacity for living without complication, a trait I needed to witness even it was one I could not share. He was one of the least baroque thinkers I have ever met, and yet there he was recovering from a relationship with someone whom I thought was probably very baroque indeed.
I was in London for three weeks. The year before I had started a part time PhD on three painters, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock. It concerned the nature of pushing beyond representation through what I was calling nervous configuration. If the Alberti perspective removed the human from the process as a nervous force, these three artists for me very much insisted upon its presence. There was an extensive Pollock exhibition, a handful of talks and also a conference. I was staying at a temporarily empty cousin's flat in Islington, not far from Joshua's place in Camden. He said one of the most awkward things about the break up with Samantha was that they were near neighbours: she lived between where I was staying and where he lived. They had crossed each other on the street a few times, and indeed on the last occasion she mentioned they should get a coffee if it happened again - her tone half-playful and half-exasperated: as if she thought he might have been following her.
A few days later he met her again, a week into my stay, and said they had gone to a cafe and talked for an hour. She had discussed her job and he had talked very briefly about his. There was no suggestion she wanted to get back together; nothing to indicate she had moved into a new relationship. Would he meet her again? Oddly, she indicated that she would like that, but he hadn't yet arranged anything. He admitted he was intrigued to know what I would make of her, and said that next time he might engineer it so that he could be with me first, she would come along to the place we were sitting in, and I could stay for perhaps fifteen minutes after she arrived. At first, I offered one or two protestations, but I wanted to meet her and began to wonder how such an arrangement might be possible, and there Joshua was offering it himself. The manipulation of the event had even come from him and not from me, perhaps out of character, perhaps a sign he was learning what character so often happens to be. But how to arrange it?
I could feel an affinity with this woman I had never met. Yet Joshua had shown me a couple of photographs, with her reddish hair, her green eyes and her feline movements, I felt looking at those images she possessed not only a character, as she would have defined it, but a character within that character. I have sometimes thought there are weak characters and strong characters, but then there are those who appear to have more than one character within them, which is not at all the same as saying they have split personalities or any other mental disorder. It is more that such people - and I have for many years thought that I happened to be one - never see the world directly, as if some crisis at an early age intrudes upon their perception of the world. They see it indirectly, and if they are fair people, kind and considerate, who will not deliberately take advantage of this capacity to see beyond the everyday, to see in others thoughts, feelings and motivations that the other cannot understand. I hadn't met many people who possessed this quality of perception and far fewer still who haven't used it for their own ends. When Joshua told me about Samantha, told me that she wanted to see his character, not exploit his generosity, I knew I wished to find a way to talk to her. and an opportunity presented itself a couple of days before I was to leave for Edinburgh without any need of Joshua's plan. It was a Saturday afternoon and Joshua and I were wandering around Camden Lock market when he saw coming towards us Samantha, on her own, with a couple of cotton bags over her shoulder full of shopping. Joshua introduced me and then said as if deflecting from his own interest in seeing her that I had expressed the wish to meet up, a remark he then appeared to see as foolish since they were no longer together, and which I interrupted by saying that a coffee would be a great idea and that I was keen to meet people he knew in London. I said Joshua was one of my oldest friends, and she said that I must be Rick - that Joshua had mentioned me a few times. Joshua's embarrassment was ameliorated but perhaps at the cost of complicity between Samantha and me. It was as though just as he had mentioned to me aspects of her personality that made her appear someone I would like to meet, so he had mentioned to her aspects of mine that made her no less intrigued.
So we found a cafe in the market and sat talking for several hours before it closed at seven. What did we discuss? We talked about her work as a speech therapist and my work on the PhD. Joshua talked little, and though on several occasions Samantha or I tried to ask questions aimed at him, he remained quiet - listening, certainly, observing, probably, thinking, I am sure. By the end of the discussion, I knew I was attracted to Samantha and sensed that she was drawn to me. During the conversation, she mentioned where she worked and as I walked back with Joshua, with neither of us talking, I gave some thought to leaving a message at her workplace on Monday morning. I would be leaving the following day. As I said goodbye to him near his place as I carried on walking back to Islington, I had the feeling I wouldn't see him again before I returned to Edinburgh. It wasn't just that he may have guessed I was attracted to his ex-girlfriend, it was as though he could see an affinity between Samantha and I that excluded him, and perhaps had always excluded him: that he was a person with character, but not quite the complexity of personality that Samantha sought. As I had talked earlier of the dismay involved in loss, as we discussed her work and I hinted at my life, so I could see in her eyes a curiosity I can only call avid. I suspect Joshua saw in this look towards me one that she had never offered to him, no matter if I could still see in her gaze towards him admiration and fondness, something she would never probably aim at me.
For much of the following day, I wondered if I should leave a note at Samantha's workplace, whether I should try and talk to Joshua about my feelings, or whether to ignore altogether what had happened. Yet I felt that to ignore it wouldn't avoid creating a crisis in our friendship: that it wasn't my meeting Samantha which had generated a problem between us. It was always there as a condition of difference; Samantha had merely brought it out. It was as though that afternoon as we sat in the cafe in Camden Lock market Joshua could see that he never quite understood Samantha, and nor quite understand me. I would add that if he failed to do so this was not his problem, but ours - or rather that we were the ones with problems; Joshua was a person without sides, as they say, someone who was no better or worse than others, but who would act as if everyone had their reasons, but they weren't couched within a series of motives.
I did not know what Samantha's motives happened to be, but let me say that if her reason for getting Joshua to pay initially for their dates would function within the realm of reasons, however exploitative and no matter if they were the cover for insecurities, suggesting she needed to know Joshua cared about her, the presence of motivation manifested itself in her need to test him and then pay her way thereafter. I understood instinctively this need to find motives within oneself, rather than social reasons for our actions. That afternoon Joshua may not have understood, but he must have sensed, there was an affinity between us that he did not share with Samantha or with me. I also believed that to try and talk about this with Joshua would have been met with resistance; that he would say that there was nothing to discuss because for him there was nothing to discuss. It would remain an obscure feeling, I suspected, in his body, an antibody to his functioning system. Yet at the same time I believed not only could I talk to Samantha about this but she would want to, and not only could I talk to her about what we had in common that Joshua could not countenance, but also about my brother's death, the way I treated Lionel, the distress I must have felt in moving to London. I could do so not least because I thought there were incidents in her past also; situations from her childhood perhaps that manifested themselves in odd behaviour in the present, but the behaviour would by others be accepted bemusedly or rejected, but perhaps never understood.
Why did I think I could understand it? I make no great claim to being an astute psychologist, but I do reckon that some are much more attuned to the intricacies of the individuality of others. Just as it is claimed that autists lack a theory of mind, do others not have an excess of theory of mind? If the autist cannot understand the way the mind works in the context of social behaviour, do others have a comprehension of the labyrinthine possibilities in motivation partly because of their own troubling experience of the world? I have never told anyone about Lionel, have never quite known how to explain to someone the awfulness of the deed and at the same time in some ways the negligible nature of it. I have told numerous people about my brother's death; an event that of course marks me and haunts me and yet one somehow in the social realm of experience. However, some instinct tells me that I could talk to Samantha about the vindictiveness of leaving a cat precariously hanging on the top of a door with the need to be its saviour, to play God with life after a higher being failed to save my sibling.
And so I decided to send Samantha a note, explaining, in rather fewer words than the total offered in this story, why I believed she and I had something in common, and that I hoped she would write to me at the address I put in the letter. I was betraying Joshua and yet didn't write to him at all. I knew my note to Samantha was likely to end our friendship, that whether she contacted me or not, she would be likely at least to tell him that I had tried to get in touch with her. I had no sense that what I was doing was right, but was this because I was judging right and wrong by the social notion of behaviour that I had always found suspect since it didn't comprehend with enough nuance the hidden aspect of a motive? I could claim I suppose that I had fallen in love and this would be justification enough for my actions - I would accept that I was a terrible person but what could I do? All is fair in love and war and love conquers all. I could trot out the phrases and insulate myself from my deed, but no - if nothing else I would acknowledge even if I had fallen in love with Samantha, I was lucid enough to know that this was not some coup de foudre but an awareness of sensibility. I had the need, above all else, not to touch her, not to make love with her, but to talk with her, to see if she might understand in me an aspect of herself, and acknowledge in so terrible a story, in a story horrifically insubstantial, yet revealing of the despicable, an understanding of a self that has little role in the world, one that goes far beyond, and yet well short of, character. I also thought that she might destroy me, that I would deserve it, as I imagined that she was somehow the reincarnation of my own haunting.
© Tony McKibbin