A friend asked when he visited me here in Edinburgh not so long ago whether I recalled a particular flatmate of his from when he lived in London. I said I did, offered an anecdote concerning one night where the three of us went to a jazz bar in Stoke Newington, and that I recalled during the evening discussing with this friend a recent break-up. I recalled too meeting him about nine months after that and asking him about how he was feeling. He said he was just fine, smiled and said that in fact he'd had another break up since then. I offered my condolences but he laughed saying it was nothing serious. I supposed it was an affair to get over the breakup; not quite a relationship initself. As I gave Andrew these details he said it was interesting that I should remember the second affair at all - it seemed such a minor detail in Barry's life even if it happened to be a very important relationship for the woman, Maria, he was having an affair with. It lasted no more than six months. Maria had been a colleague of Andrew's at the time, both working in a school at Crouch End, both English teachers. Barry was a musician who taught private classes and usually did a couple of gigs a week. I never heard him play but Andrew thought he was good but could have been better if he put as much effort into it as he would into seducing women.
Yet that was fifteen years ago and the last time I had heard Andrew talk about him was a few years back when he said Barry had got married; Andrew had been the best man. Barry and his wife moved down to Dorset where they were both from (and where Maria and Andrew happened to be from too), and he got a job teaching music in a school down there while his wife opened a cafe bar where he would play two or three evenings a week. And then he hadn't talked about him again as I assumed that everything was great and there were no more adventures to report. But perhaps the difference between adventure and drama rests on the weight behind the latter and the absence evident in the former. Barry was a young man having fun, but what happens when that need for adventure carries with it responsibilities, or forces them upon you?
That was how Andrew couched it as he went on to tell me that indeed Barry was again showing the irresponsibilities of youth and, as we talked, I might have wondered what he thought about my own questionable approach to the responsible: I remembered him asking me around three years earlier what I happened to feel obligated by. He didn't offer it accusingly at all, and didn't know certain details about my life before I met him, but there he was married with two children working in a school in Newcastle where he sometimes brought in food for a few of the kids who just weren't getting enough nourishment. Their parents were unemployed or in low-paid work and changes to government policy, suspending benefits, withholding allowances, freezing rent money at a certain level, meant many were suffering. I didn't quite know how to answer the question, or perhaps I didn't want to offer an answer, one I'd formulated for myself years earlier, to anyone else. But perhaps I am now in a position where I could formulate it in the manner of a divulgence in the wake of Andrew's story about Barry, a story that he told me in a number of instalments over a period of some months the first of which took place as we went on a long walk out of the town centre, all the way to Bruntsfield, down Morningside and made our way out into the Braid Hills. We must have walked for five hours that day, and of course talked about other things, but what I remember is the story of Barry's adventures that I thought had turned quite dark indeed. By the time we had finished the walk, it was six o'clock and the light had faded on that late September day and it seemed fittingly crepuscular as my memory remembers it was around this time that the first part of the story concluded. The second part he couldn't tell me about that day because it was still to happen, if it were to happen at all, but I think by the end of that walk I knew the story wasn't quite over, and I think he knew it too as I wondered what exactly further episodes might contain.
What Andrew told me that day was that a year earlier Maria had moved back down to Salisbury as well. She had married a couple of years after the break-up with Barry and now had two children and a husband Andrew had always suspected was there to assuage Maria's feelings over Barry. Andrew had seen just how difficult the separation from Barry happened to be, just how long it had taken her to function again afterwards. She took three months off work and for the next six would still break down in tears whenever the subject of Barry came up in conversation or she felt something alluded to him. Most of the time Andrew avoided mentioning him, even if Barry remained one of his closest friends, but sometimes Maria would ask him what he was doing on a coming weekend and he admitted he was going to go for a drink with Barry. She started to sob and fell into reminiscence, reminding him of times that the three of them would go to the jazz bar in Stoke Newington. During those nine months, Andrew saw a lot of Maria, intially she slept over at his flat on the couch, he then visited her a couple of times a week in her flat when she was off work, and, after she returned, had on occasion to take over her class when she came into the staff room, where he was marking, and said she couldn't go on. He went into the class and said Ms Grant wasn't feeling well, going through with the students passages from Tennessee Williams and from Shakespeare that Maria found too difficult to hear even the students recite.
Over the years, though, he lost contact with Maria and assumed Barry hadn't been in touch with her for even longer. When he moved out of London, they had the occasional email exchange but in time that ceased. Andrew knew that she had children but wouldn't have been able to recall their names and had even forgotten the name of her husband, though he'd been to the wedding. It was an event full of the absence of Barry he had thought then but hoped that over the years as more and more filled that marriage, a mortgage, children, a new group of friends who would also have kids, so Barry would fade away into the background of her life. Yet surely moving back to Salisbury was putting him once again potentially in the foreground. The town's population was only 40,000, Andrew said. He'd visited Barry down there a couple of times while also visiting his parents nearby, and knew how easy it would have been for Barry and Maria to pass each other on the street.
As Andrew continued telling the story he said that a year earlier Barry had broken up with his wife. Betty wanted to make love; he wanted to make music - or more especially she wanted to produce a child; he wanted to produce an album. As he played gigs in the cafe bar he could see women were sometimes interested and even on occasion would give him their number when his wife wasn't looking or if they didn't know he had a wife at all. For a while, this flattered his ego without activating his libido but he started to imagine too easily a life in which he was no longer married, no longer hampered in his desire to make music and make love to others who wouldn't expect a child from his loins. So he left, moving out of the two bedroom home they had bought several miles from the city centre, a semi-detached cottage in what passed for the country side, thatched and stone built and which always garnered favourable responses from visitors. Betty received such compliments the way he absorbed praise for his music, but he didn't feel at all attached to that semi-detached dwelling and in time realised that he wasn't so attached to his wife either. He left, renting a studio flat on the top floor above some offices in the town centre. He found a new cafe bar to sing in and didn't need to worry if his wife was watching as admirers sat on the front row, or if staff might have noticed someone giving him her number and then telling his wife what they saw. He felt himself again, he had said to Andrew, but Andrew wondered what that self was once again capable of. When Barry had told him a few months after the break-up that Maria had moved back to Salisbury and came to watch him play, he suspected nothing but feared the worst. He didn't expect Barry to lie to him, but he wondered if Barry was lying to himself when he said while he thought Maria had aged very well, seemed sexier than ever, the past was in the past.
Andrew went down to visit him a few months after the break-up and a couple of weeks after Maria had seen him play, and he couldn't deny that Barry seemed happier and less irritable. The new flat however, was very compact indeed. Andrew spent the first night sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag; Barry had offered him the futon but Andrew insisted it was for just the night and he would carry on to his parents later the next evening. Andrew hoped he wouldn't come across Betty during his visit. He liked her, was happy that Barry had married her when they seemed happy together, but on his last visit she seemed miserable and Barry easily annoyed and frustrated. He felt sympathetic towards her and disapproved of Barry's tone when he spoke to her, evident Andrew believed in a couple of moments when he asked if she was okay while Barry looked on as if he felt contempt towards the pair of them. But Barry was his friend and now that he'd left her she was free to find someone who could give her the life she wished for and the child she yearned to have. Andrew was relieved and hoped she would be okay but coming across her on the streets of the city somehow seemed likely to embarrass him, as though his loyalties should have been more divided, no less on her side than Barry's. He did think of sending her a message when they broke up but didn't quite know what to put in it that wouldn't have appeared like a betrayal to his friend.
He never did see Betty but instead the next morning saw what looked like Maria coming out of a health food store with a few items in a hemp bag over her shoulder. They shouldn't have been surprised to see each other (Barry had told Maria that Andrew sometimes visited; Andrew knew that Maria had moved down) but surprise they had shown on their faces as Andrew said that she looked wonderful (and meant it), and Maria said that Andrew looked great too (and may not have meant it). She said she had taken up running a couple of years ago; Andrew had gained a couple of stone, lost some of his hair and the job often tired him out, especially with the additional problems of trying to deal with the extra needs of children whose parents lacked the money for the basics. But he supposed he had grown into himself in recent years: really felt he understood what values he wanted to live by and what happened to be important. He couldn't pretend they didn't centre on his wife, two children and his home but it also rippled outwards to the school kids and the broader community. He knew he belonged in the North East of England and what mattered to him was what mattered to the people living there.
Maria insisted that they must get a coffee. She looked at her phone, said she didn't have to pick up her daughter from the swimming pool for another hour - they would have time to chat. He had time he supposed - Barry was setting up the equipment for a gig later that evening and would be a while longer. The health food store had a cafe attached and the table outside became free while they were talking as she suggested sitting there. After Andrew and Maria sat down it was clear she was a regular as the waiter asked if she wanted the usual and Andrew ordered a hot chocolate. She may not have been back in Salisbury for that long but she appeared very much at home in the town yet even more at home in herself. Andrew remembered a woman in her mid-twenties who always seemed to need a second opinion on everything, who assumed in any discussion that she was probably wrong and the other person right and usually looked surprised when a man offered her a compliment or would try speaking to her at a bar. This was before going out with Barry. Afterwards, she wasn't at all herself and there hadn't been too much of herself in the first place.
But there they were in the cafe with Maria dressed in tight jeans with a rip on of the knees, thick high-heeled sandals, a white blouse low at the neck, and a long beige cardigan. He remembered her hair as sandy but now it was a distinctive yet not garish blonde. Like Barry, she didn't so much not look her age as wear that age with style and poise - if ten years younger she might have looked oddly overdressed even if the image was nevertheless casual. It was clear money and effort had gone into it and he could without difficulty see Barry and Maria sitting together in a bar in Salisbury looking like a couple in the process of seducing each other. Andrew suspected that over the years Maria's husband had made her secure, managed finally to make her the confident person that she had never been and that Barry almost made untenable. Would he return and destroy not just that confidence but also her marriage and her family? He didn't mention during their chat that Barry said he had seen her and she didn't say at all anything about Barry. They talked instead about his difficulties teaching in the North East of England: that teaching and social work segued into each other.
She admitted she was now teaching at a private school in Dorchester. He said he knew of it and mentioned a couple of well-known people who had gone there. She said maybe she shouldn't have left the public sector but now she could really teach; most of the pupils were eager to learn, none of them had to worry about money and all of them had the sort of confidence she wished she'd had at their age. Andrew said to me he didn't disapprove of her decision. She was practising the educational ideal - that private schools weren't now probably terrible places; they were merely terribly unjust places relative to the schools most people in the country were attending. He joked to her saying we needed far more schools like Dorchester -- only they should all belong to the state. She smiled and said she was pleased he wasn't judging her; she feared he might.
It is true he didn't judge her he knew of too many teachers who became exhausted by the combination of poor wages, long hours, disruptive pupils, intrusive government policy and trying to take into account the hard everyday realities of the families of the people they were teaching. They often dropped out of education altogether, took off abroad and taught English, or managed to get a job in an independent school. Yet he also suspected that Maria had never been proud to teach in a comprehensive. She'd been to an independent school herself he recalled; perhaps it was only a matter of time before she expected to return to one. Andrew felt it was his duty to work in the North East, saw it as part of a broader politics that I knew drew on a tradition of writers like Tawney, Williams and Hoggart, people who believed in working-class traditions and culture, and that he had over the last two or three years been working on as part of a PhD that he knew would take a few more. But he did worry that he might judge her if she were to start seeing Barry again, as if the little bit of help he had given her and what he suspected was the immense amount of encouragement her husband had no doubt provided, would be wasted on a close friend of his whom he hoped wouldn't become close again to her.
They were about to part and were in the process of exchanging phone numbers when he saw Barry coming towards them and his instinct was to turn away, to let Barry keep on walking past the pair of them. But Barry saw him and started to wave from thirty yards and, as he approached, Andrew said to Maria that it seemed the past was catching up with everyone. She turned and saw Barry, immediately deploying a battery of gestures that Andrew had not received: from combing her hair over her ear to putting her finger to her lips as Barry asked her a question. Nothing seemed to have started yet, but an onlooker with no prior knowledge wouldn't be surprised if it was about to commence. Anyone with prior knowledge might have hoped it wouldn't.
When Andrew asked me a while back what I felt responsible towards I couldn't really answer the question and wasn't sure whether this meant I felt no obligation to anything at all, or whether this lack of a concrete responsibility left me more abstractly answerable than many people I know; more than Andrew who was of course impeccably responsible to a small number of obligations that immediately concerned his family and his school and opened up for him into the political concerns with the region, the UK and the environment. I'd read some of the writers who had shaped his perspective but I didn't feel as close to them as I did to philosophers and thinkers who I ostensibly seemed to share nothing. I had been reading for a number of years Pascal, Kierkegaard, Weil, Maritain, Buber and Levinas, yet I had no interest in religion and seemed I supposed to be seeking a belief system that I could feel some confidence in abiding by without assuming a higher being need be guiding my actions. Over the last decade, I have had a number of conversations with Andrew over our differences and vital to them was the very different ways in which we lived. While Andrew was a family man with a hectic job, I lived in an attic flat facing out onto the sea on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I owned little: a bike, a tent, a rucksack, several long shelves of books, a laptop that I bought expensively seven years ago and would be loath to lose, and several cameras. I occasionally exhibited photographs in galleries but was always surprised when I made any money from them. When the weather was agreeable I would frequently cycle away from the city for a few days and camp wildly. I made a living teaching English three mornings a week, my studio apartment cost no more than 400 a month with bills included, and I occasionally offered private classes when I needed more money.
I felt very minor obligations to the students who I hoped would pass their exams, but I knew them often for no more than several months, many of them came from comfortable families and any failure meant just spending more money trying to sit an exam again. For several years, I have been single apart from very occasional one night stands and can't see that changing any time soon unless I desired to change the nature of my circumstances, believing that to let someone into my life would be tantamount to acknowledging they would probably wish to change it. However, my single-status had another reason behind it as well, one from before I'd met Andrew. Yet I could have said to Andrew that my duty was towards myself, to remaining in a state of equilibrium no matter the forces we come into contact with, but to have expanded upon such thoughts in more detail would have been to talk about things I'd kept to myself for many years. Before Andrew told me Barry's story, I might have assumed such a claim would be the height of selfishness and Andrew would have agreed. Now I'd be more likely to think it indicates if not the depth of soulfulness then perhaps comes from a place central to what we might mean by the soul at all. I might even believe that Andrew told me about Barry's actions aware that for all his own endeavours, for all his good deeds, he somehow reckoned that he was much closer to Barry than he was to me. He could see that while he was much more selfless than I was, paradoxically he was also much more selfish.
Speaking to Andrew on the phone a few months after he had provided me with the first instalment, and after we had caught up with the immediate details of our own lives (rather more elaborate in Andrew's case than mine), I asked him if he had any more news about Barry. He did indeed. Of course, an affair had started but more than that, Barry said, she was thinking of telling her husband. Barry wasn't so keen, aware that while he cared far more for Maria than he did when they were lovers fifteen years earlier, did he care enough to break-up her marriage and become step-father to her children? Barry offered this with what passed for moral acumen, as if he had looked at the permutations of the situation and knew what was the best thing for everyone to do. But Andrew told him that the best thing wouldn't have been to start the affair at all to see that Maria had built a life with her husband and reentering her existence was tantamount to destroying it. Andrew offered this to me and explained that he was surprised by himself, surprised at how angry he had become with Barry when he had told him that he and Maria were sleeping with each other, and found himself thinking again of the wedding when Maria looked like she had less interest in making love with the man she was vowing, at the altar, to spend the rest of her life with than making a decision: one upon which her health and stability would reside.
But he was also angry with Maria, even if it wasn't until Barry mentioned her husband's name that Andrew recalled it. What loyalty did he have to this stranger; shouldn't he have far greater loyalty to his friend, and even for that matter Maria whom he knew so much better than her husband? Usually, he admitted, that for him morality lay in proximity. He was close to his family, close to his pupils, and close to the community he worked out of in the north of England. Something happening in another country, in another education system, to people elsewhere, happened not to be his concern, perhaps even a distraction from his concerns, which didn't mean he approved of Britain bombing other countries or taking its resources. But there he was thinking far more about the thoughts and feelings of a man he could easily have passed on the street without recognising him. As we talked I could have replied that what finally matters isn't how close we are to someone but how close we happen to be to the values we possess, but I don't think that would have helped no matter how straightforward might have been the proposition. He may have replied that when a friend does something bad they remain a friend; when a stranger does something good they remain a stranger. It was as if he needed around him only people who committed good deeds and there Barry was in the process of committing what he saw as a very bad one.
I reminded him of what he had asked me several years earlier: where did I feel my duty resided, told him I'd been thinking a lot about that question since he asked it, and that the story about Barry seemed part of that enquiry. I said that obviously I had friends and one of them happened to the person I was presently talking to, but that these friendship never demanded of me any duties. I said that a few years ago when I was with someone for around nine months, someone Andrew only met once, she said to me one evening that a friend of hers with whom we'd had dinner a couple of times had been driving though the city when she saw me cycling past her on the inside lane. She mentioned it to my partner and said she thought I was riding my bike a little recklessly. She said she wouldn't have liked it if the father of her children were cycling like that; my partner reiterated what was said as if to make clear that any long term arrangement would include her having some say over my actions. The longer we were together the more duties and obligations I was likely to accumulate. This might have been anything from a mortgage to pay to a child we would bring up, but I said to Andrew that I recalled feeling stifled by the comment, believing that I wouldn't easily tolerate another constantly checking my behaviour. With friends there was no sense that I needed to drink modestly or give up smoking or to tell someone if I decided to move to another city or another country, to explain to anyone what I'd spent money on that day. Andrew reckoned these were the checks and balance of love, that relationships are so interwoven with duties and obligations that most people accept they are part of loving itself. I didn't quite know what to say, though I knew I disagreed and it wasn't really till I'd heard further developments about Barry and Maria in this second instalment of the story that I would have been able to explain why.
Andrew saw Barry in Salisbury a few weeks after Barry started seeing Maria. His mother was having an operation and he wanted to be there in the days immediately after the op, and he thought of driving past Salisbury and going directly to Dorchester. But he remembered a conversation he had with Barry shortly after Barry returned south and said to him that the moment he bypassed Salisbury and went directly to see his mum would be the day the friendship would have died. He said it jokingly but somehow it stuck and Andrew also believed that to avoid seeing Barry would be tantamount to passing moral judgement on him, even if he reckoned the reason he wished not to see Barry was for other reasons: who wanted to find himself at the centre of a fresh new relationship? He visited for only a few hours on the way down, meeting Barry in the very cafe Maria and he had coffee in a few months earlier and asked Barry how things were. He said that Maria had been asked to leave the house and now the pair of them were sharing his tiny flat, which was fine for the moment, more than fine in fact, but for how long? Barry explained that the husband had been initially tolerant when his wife told him that she had met someone, didn't know what was going to happen but needed time to think things through. She said that her family was still the most important thing in her life and she didn't want to break up and lose any of it. Her husband was initially surprisingly tolerant, suggested that she could move into the extra bedroom in their four-bedroom house that Maria used as a study, and that she could take her time before coming to a decision. But then, about a week after first telling him there was another man, she told him who that man was. The husband remembered Barry of course though he'd never met him; knew he had been the person who left Maria devastated, and might have claimed that his dismay rested on wishing not to see once again his wife hurt. But throwing her out of the house didn't seem to suggest that he was worried chiefly about her feelings but his own ego: it was as if he had never existed there was Barry before and Barry now; whatever happened in between emotionally didn't count. This was how Barry described it to Andrew and presumably how Maria had offered it to Barry. Barry reckoned that of course she had loved her children and was so happy that she had them, but always referred to them as her children and never theirs. They were obviously her husband's children too, but then they were his children. It is as if her husband suddenly recognised this breach and acted upon it quickly, protecting no more than his own selfishness and in the process showing Maria a side of himself that he had hitherto hidden. As Andrew told me this I couldn't quite work out whose formulation this was exactly, and perhaps it had to come through the various parties (the husband, Maria, Barry and Andrew) to become formulated at all a sort of theoretical Chinese whisper that perhaps I've added to as well.
As Barry and Andrew talked, Andrew asked what arrangement they had with the children since obviously Barry's place was too small to accommodate them. Thus far she would pick them up from school and be at the house with them for a couple of hours but left as soon as her husband arrived home. She took them to the park and to the cinema at the weekend, and on two occasions her husband had gone to visit his parents in Bournemouth and she stayed in the house while he was away. Andrew asked about longer terms plans and Barry replied he had no idea as though the question didn't concern him at all. If for Maria she had always seen herself as a woman with two kids of her own, Barry saw himself as a man who was in a relationship on his own, someone who Andrew could see had never really thought about anyone else in the relationship, even if the very notion of such a thing predicated itself on the couple. Andrew left dispirited, wondering if this might be the end of their friendship but checked himself as he drove back up to Newcastle, thinking that he too was falling into the trap of solipsism: wasn't a friendship based on more than one as well, and that he thus couldn't make the decision alone?
Yet as he told me this, I said while it was true, most of the time the ending of relationships and friendships are unilateral decisions; even more the former than the latter though relationships would seem much more clearly based on the combination of two people than a friendship. After all, didn't Barry's girlfriend all those years ago unilaterally break with him, and he, in turn, decided on his own to break with Maria; then he with his wife, and Maria, now, was unilaterally parting from her husband? Most of the decisions were made alone, even when there were children involved. Eventually the children would be asked whether they wanted to live with Maria or their father and yet if they were really given a choice how many children would ask for their parents to stay together? I asked Andrew if that was partly what he meant when he asked me about duties; that he was also asking himself what his happened to be in the worst-case scenario? He said he had sometimes thought about it, sometimes wondered what would happen if he fell in love with someone else. He loved his wife, had no particular interest in any other woman though he found many attractive and if circumstances were different perhaps that attraction could lead to infatuation, possibly love. But the circumstances were that he had been married for a number of years and had two children, a job that was meaningful to him in a part of the world he had long thought of as home. But just suppose, I said, that all this, all the morality we believe is vital to our life, is no more than chance or luck?
He asked me to say more and I didn't know what to say because I knew I was formulating an idea about myself, offering no more than a provocative thought about Andrew, and perhaps doing so to suggest that ending a friendship with Barry might be unfair. I said his life had the good fortune to be untouched by internal catastrophe, very different from the death of a child, the loss of his job, the illness of his wife or himself. I realised as I talked that Andrew and I were good friends who could tell each other a great deal about our lives but rarely broached speculation, an arena of thought more dangerous in some ways than confession. I predicated it again on his speculative question about duties. I said I think people are more inclined towards either living in a manner that closes down chance or opens it up that we either wish to banish it from our lives or wait for it to enter our existence. I said to Andrew that it seemed to me that he wanted to remove chance very much from his life while I lived far more for its possibility. I said that chance needn't upset my existence; only augment it and I could live a happy, solitary life awaiting its possibility without fear or anxiety. Andrew smiled, saying he did indeed wish for stability and may have long since 'hoped' that chance wouldn't come into his life, aware that it would manifest itself as ill-luck, but what about Barry and Maria? I proposed that if people might see them as selfish it rested on this question. They both still believed in chance and yet lived their lives in a manner that its appearance could damage it, in Barry's case, devastate it in Maria's. Perhaps we should try and reserve judgement I said, or rather reframe it, seeing it less as an issue of morality than of misconception. Maria and Barry were confused figures of chance rather than stability, while he was the latter and I seemed to be the former.
A few months after this discussion, which had been in early winter, I texted Andrew to say I would be down in Newcastle for an exhibition and he said he hoped I'd stay over: I hadn't seen his children now for over a year. Interestingly, though the friendship between Andrew and I was a friendship, we almost never predicated meeting up on the basis of it. He passed through Edinburgh two or three times a year as he often went hill walking in the Highlands (the calories he burnt off he put back on in the pub afterwards), and I had links with a gallery in Newcastle that had moved there from Edinburgh, and which led me to the city usually once or twice a year. We hadn't seen each for so long because I hadn't needed to go down, and Andrew didn't start walking until late spring. We had emailed back and forth a few times but often with a link to a newspaper article or a video clip. I had sent him a few scenes from a filmmaker I liked who often dealt with questions of chance. I hadn't asked him at all about Barry and Maria and on the afternoon I arrived. We took the kids to the nearby playground for a couple of hours and had an early dinner with Linda and the children, talked for an hour about work afterwards, and then, by 930, everyone else headed for bed. Linda and Andrew had invitingly made up the bed settee in the study, with sheets, a blanket and a couple of pillows. But I wasn't yet tired and after twenty minutes lying looking at the ceiling I thought even reading wouldn't help, put my shoes back on and went for a walk. The house was fifteen minutes from the city centre and I wandered around it for half an hour before returning home. Newcastle seemed as undulating a city as Edinburgh but it didn't feel like a place I could ever have made my home. It was an industrialised town, its nature turned into fuel and its people into a class that would extract energy from the earth and thereafter be left to find work as before they had been expected to find coal. But to find coal for all the horrors and terrors of the job was to be proud of oneself; to look for work was to be ashamed of oneself. I remember Andrew telling me this a couple of years before and asked him why he felt so attached when he came from a southern town so different from Newcastle. He said he never felt he belonged in Dorchester, felt it was a town that had buried its past rather than lived with it. Visiting Newcastle you could see that it was a major coal producer, you could see it in the numerous Victorian and Edwardian buildings that indicated it once had money to spend made on the coal that it had extracted, from Grey Street to Leazes Park it suggested hints of past wealth. In Dorchester who knew that it was where the trial of the Tolpuddle martyrs took place? No, when he moved to Linda's home city he knew it was where he wanted to live as he turned chance into the categorical.
I had arranged to get the last train back to Edinburgh the following evening. With my bags packed we met in a cafe after Andrew had finished work, underneath the statue of Earl Grey and got a coffee in defiance of the monument standing above us, then walked around by the university, building up an appetite for dinner. Over the evening he told me what he knew of the affair between Barry and Maria. The honeymoon period had been brief indeed: Barry very quickly saw that he hadn't just escaped his own marriage and fallen into a light affair; he had quickly instead adopted a family. Maria's husband decided he didn't want her near the house she had to take the kids to the park, to the cinema, to cafes, but there was no room in Barry's studio flat for them and very quickly Maria suggested that they needed to find a two-bedroom place to live in. While in those first few weeks before Maria told her husband, and in the couple of weeks after that when the husband didn't know it was Barry, things were blissful it was the most unusual of experiences where he was rediscovering an ex-lover. His memory of Maria before was of someone lacking confidence which extended into the bedroom; the older Maria had no such sexual reservations and he wondered where this confidence had come from, assuming there was only one lover in between, namely her husband. Maria had admitted that during the years with her husband she had often fantasised about being with Barry, and as he told this to Andrew, and Andrew was now telling it to me, for the first time I could fully imagine Maria's presence. Before she remained somehow the young woman deserted, and no matter the impression Andrew gave when he and Maria bumped into each other outside the health food shop, she seemed no more than a function in the story rather than an active presence, But the allusive reference to her sexual fantasies, and that she had held Barry in mind and body for so many years, made her a character indeed - and not an unproblematic one. I didn't know whether I was more scared for Barry or for Maria, for the husband or for the children. I asked him to continue, fearing the worst from an anecdote that might have initially seemed so mundane.
Barry realised then that Maria assumed that he wasn't merely an escape from a dull marriage but a return to a love that she had never forgotten. Andrew said that Barry was never a modest man but even he didn't quite know what to do with this realisation that he'd been so important to someone he had hardly thought about in the years since they had broken up and before now getting back together. For him, it was a fling with a woman which carried an added frisson from the past but he couldn't have countenanced himself as a person who had been in someone's thoughts for fifteen years. As Andrew knew, Barry always saw himself as a seductive presence; not a memorable one. It is partly why he felt little guilt leaving one woman or another: he really convinced himself he didn't occupy a particularly strong place in their thinking. His confidence resided in getting women into bed; it wasn't predicated on assuming they couldn't get him out of their minds. Yet there he was with Maria in his bed acknowledging she couldn't forget him and would often actively, sexually, remember him. All the things that she didn't have the confidence to do then she had fantasised about many times and wanted to do now. Those first couple of weeks were even by Barry's sexually active standards adventurous and exciting. Barry finally showed discretion and didn't go into detail, telling Andrew what they were, but that might have been more because of Andrew's wincing look rather than about Barry's self-censoring. After all, Maria had once been Andrew's friend did he want to know about a friend's sex life with another friend? Since I didn't really know either of them I could have tolerated the confession, and found myself thinking a little about what that adventurousness consisted of.
Andrew had asked him what he intended to do about the children. They weren't his responsibility yet he was responsible for breaking up a family. When Barry tried to protest saying that Maria was in an unhappy marriage, Andrew said it was unhappy for her: the break up would be unhappy for the two people completely innocent of adult machinations - the children. By taking up with Maria he had also to taken on board her kids, Andrew told him, shocked at how assertively he believed this. Barry too looked surprised, as though all the years he had gone to Andrew for advice had been on the assumption that no judgement would be passed. But for all Barry's philandering, for all his self-centredness, here was a person who didn't wish to do harm to others even if he inevitably did a little harm while pleasing himself. But now he was harming people too young to defend themselves, too young to think through the implications of Barry's deeds and who had no say in parrying his behaviour. That Barry couldn't quite see this shocked Andrew as he thought about our conversation concerning luck and saw that Barry seemed to believe luck was all his own and didn't have consequences.
Over the next few months they talked every few weeks on the phone and Barry discussed a deteriorating situation. Maria had rented a one-bedroom flat with the bedroom reserved for the children when they visited while she slept on the couch. She still saw Barry a couple of times a week and still hoped that he might in time suggest they move in together but when Andrew went down to see his mother and again visited Barry in Salisbury, a few weeks ago, he also contacted Maria on her old email account to see if they could meet up. He tried to phrase the email in such a way that it was clear he wanted to meet her alone and at the same time didn't wish to indicate that Barry was not invited. He said he was seeing Barry in the evening perhaps she would be free in the afternoon. She replied saying that things were very stressful but she'd let him know nearer the time. There was something odd in the response, a shamefulness he couldn't even recall when she occasionally stayed over in his apartment back in London and slept on the couch, crying herself to the saddest of sleeps. He was now worried, but also, a few days later, relieved when she sent another email saying that of course she wanted to see him, and suggested that he come round to her new flat.
When he saw her that afternoon he was surprised she suggested the apartment, which was cramped, full of clothes drying on radiators and on a couple of laundry horses. Dishes were piled up in the sink and she was dressed in running gear she said she hadn't had time to change out of. It is the only way she could clear her mind she said, but when he had seen her outside the health food store her announcement that she was running indicated a vital health now it seemed like the only thing that could hold her together. What Andrew saw in front of him was a woman not so much falling apart as properly fraying at the edges: her hair was dryer and the ends were split, her fingernails looked unattended to and her skin coarser. It seemed beside the point to ask her if she was okay and instead he went over and held her in his arms, the bulk he was a little embarrassed by when they last met now a shelter. Andrew asked where the children were. Over at their father's she said. They'd be here that evening; she hoped their clothes would be dry in time she had forgotten to wash them. She had taken a few weeks off school she said, but still didn't seem to have time enough to do everything. She didn't cry as they talked and this worried him even more, as though even the tears were drying up inside her. He thought of those tears when she came round to place his back in London, and saw now how much hope they had still contained.
As he left her that afternoon he would have liked to believe that she had temporarily ruined her life and that soon enough she might be able to see that leaving her husband was a silly idea, that she had seen once again that Barry's character was less than honourable and his commitment weak, and that what really mattered were her children, their future and she would do whatever was necessary to make them happy. Yet he had a feeling that Barry existed in her body unremittingly and there was nothing she could do to eradicate it. He existed there fifteen years ago and for the fifteen years in between before she saw him again, and it was as though even producing two bodies out of her own, a son and a daughter, was weak next to the presence Barry's body had on hers.
Later that day he met up with Barry and didn't know what to tell him. Barry hadn't seen her all week, he said he'd been busy with three gigs and he supposed he needed to keep his distance. Andrew wasn't angry with Barry, he was just terribly sad for Maria that her absence for him was a relief; his absence for her a torture. He reminded me again of our comments on chance and luck, saying that Maria and Barry were indeed very different figures in that he reckoned Maria's fortune came to her in the form of Barry, that she loved him and couldn't love anyone else even if she tried (and she had). No such person appeared to have come into Barry's life, even if Barry himself may have claimed it was the girlfriend before Maria, all those years ago, who had left him devastated but had really only left him. Barry was used to doing the leaving, and Andrew didn't doubt if the relationship had gone on for many months longer Barry would have left her.
Barry was always waiting for that figure who would exist for him as he existed for Maria, and in this sense, Andrew said, maybe resembled me more than I might like to admit. The difference, he said, was that Barry insistently sought out women wondering if they could transform his life and found they couldn't he found his life worse. I seemed to wait, he said, wondering whether they might make it better. Yet what Andrew didn't know was that I had been in too similar a situation to the one Barry was in now. When I was eighteen, in my sixth year at school. I went out for eight months with a girl I didn't love but who loved me, and the more indifferent I felt the more attracted she became. There were other problems that had little to do with me, and which preceded me, and she took her life six months later, after I went off to university and after she started working in the local cafe to help her mum out. At university I rarely returned her calls, I had other lovers and there always seemed something more pressing than contacting Michelle. And why should I have contacted her since I had told her it was over at the end of the school year, even if I kept sleeping with her occasionally throughout that summer? I knew after she took her life that my duty was towards other people's feeling as readily as my own. Some might think this absurd, seeing Andrew's sense of obligation as healthy and grown-up, my own as adolescent and neurotic, and Barry's as the personification of selfishness. But who is to decide what we are obligated to as it seems Andrew's was to family and its extended possibilities, mine to a guilt that might never go away, and Barry's to a search through others that perhaps he should have found in his music. But if he had never met Maria would she have married, had children and possessed only a vague yearning that might have occasionally intruded upon her contentment but never insisted upon a damaging return? That I couldn't say but though I'd never met Maria I felt a horrible presentiment not so different from the feeling I had that day when someone I cared very much about, but no more, insisted on seeing me off at the train station as I went off to start a degree. I never her saw again except in a coffin that I was no doubt partly responsible for putting her in. I hoped Maria escaped that fate, but fate was what she seemed to believe in, and it didn't seem Barry could be anything other than the realisation of it in terrible form.
© Tony McKibbin