Misunderstandings

09/05/2024

really isn’t personal for you is it?” There Daniel was telling me, who had been told by Myra, who was hearing it from her ex, and all I could think about was how odd it seemed that during this walk I’d become interested in the lives of people I didn’t know when I often couldn’t pay much attention to the anecdotes some of the others in our group told me about their existence. 

Daniel asked Myra what she replied when her ex said this. She said she reiterated what the lawyer had insisted upon: she was entitled to her share. He almost wished that she was lying, that she had taken her ex in her arms and hugged him, saying that she was sorry it had come to this and they should have worked things out a couple of years earlier. It might have hinted at infidelity towards Daniel but at least it would have shown compassion towards her ex. That evening as her ex collapsed by the oven, the emotionally important thing wasn’t to be faithful to Daniel but to put her arm around her ex and to stay there for however long it would have taken for him to feel calm. She said she left after a few minutes, knowing Daniel was waiting for her. He recalled they had a table booked at a restaurant that night. She should have cancelled, he thought.  

But there he was, now, about to attend a party wearing the velvet jacket. That morning he had gone to the tailor and asked if there was any chance they could repair his ripped jacket that day and the person said they would try. But when he went back shortly before six, the tailor said he was sorry but his assistant had to go home early; he was on his own with so much work. He would try and fix it the following day he said. Daniel looked at the man’s harried face, a worn look suggesting hassles and harassment in the past and elsewhere. Was he Kurdish, Iraqi, Afhgan, he didn’t know, but he sensed that to ask this man to do him a favour, that it was important, that he must sew on the sleeve, would have been an insult to the man’s experience and show up the callowness of his own. Daniel said of course that would be fine and crossed the road to a second-hand vintage store hoping to catch it before it closed. He was too late. It seemed he was destined to wear the velvet jacket. 

If the husband was to have attended the party, Daniel would obviously not have worn the jacket but there he was in Norway; there was no reason to feel self-conscious. Yet when he arrived with Myra he was sure the host and her partner as they received the wine with gratitude noticed the brilliance of his jacket, and before he had the chance to remove it several other people passed through the broad hallway and said hello. He remained in the hall for more than half an hour in various discussions before he took the jacket off and placed it on the bed. He felt relieved, as though he were himself again and knew that he wouldn’t wear it any more. It would end up in the charity shop after all. When they left the party three hours later he had the jacket in his hand as he said goodbye to the hosts, and didn’t put it on until he was outside the building. Myra asked if he enjoyed the evening; he said he wasn’t sure. She said that seemed odd — how could he not know? Yet as he said to me there are certain events in which we partake where the full consequences of it are retrospective. This was one such instance.

8

By now we were only a few hundred yards from the inn and about to take lunch. I wanted to hear the rest of the story but was aware too that he couldn’t have continued telling it if we were to eat with others. How to fill the other diners in with the various details? Equally, I sensed it would have seemed odd if I were to insist on eating with this stranger alone. Once at the inn, Amelia suggested we sit with Jeremy and Bea and proposed to Daniel that he join us. I ordered the plaice and chips with mushy peas, accompanied by a pint and followed by sticky toffee pudding and ice cream, and an espresso: a modest touch amongst the excess. It had become a tradition to go for the fish and chips and most of the men did likewise, a reward we all sensed we deserved in the middle of a long walk. I had no interest in eating such rich food on any other occasion and I couldn’t say for sure whether it was biological or circumstantial: that I was ravenous and wanted a couple of thousand calories or whether I liked the habit of eating this particular food in this particular place. I said this to the others as we ate, self-conscious perhaps because Daniel was with us and, while Jeremy had ordered the same, Daniel had chosen a smoked salmon salad. He proposed he wasn’t that hungry and I might have assumed it was an attempt to make me feel better at guzzling on such heavy food. But I knew too that he had already eaten his sandwiches during our tea break at eleven and it was now only 130. He asked whether I’d ever driven out here just to have this lunch. I said no and he supposed I’d answered my question. 

    It was a conclusive remark and yet his own story was thus far not yet concluded, even if we had been talking for well over an hour before arriving at the inn. It was as though my remark was there to exist in the smallest anecdotal space and his the largest and I found myself thinking, as the others chatted, about this notion of how large or small a story’s space happened to be. I wasn’t thinking about this at all in terms of stories, novels or anything like that. I was trying to understand why in most conversations it is so easy to join it at any moment without feeling that what has thus far been talked about needs to be reiterated. How often has someone entered a conversation and the people sitting there have offered just a few words and the person can easily contribute? I thought too of jokes and why I have always disliked telling them, even if I believed the joke to be funny. It was the sense of temporal constraint, the feeling that time was being squeezed into an expectation and I had no more than a minute or two to make people laugh. I also noticed that with all of our friends, with the group Amelia and I walked with and other friends too, there was always time subordinate to space, so that even when it wasn’t — as in these long walks we took — the comments we made to each other seemed still constrained by our usual sense of time. 

I came back out of my thoughts and heard Amelia saying we needed to sort out the box room in the flat. We had moved into the present place a year earlier and she wanted to turn it into a work area and at the moment it was full of various boxes that we used for packing. A box room indeed, Daniel said. I laughed, but nobody else did. I knew at that moment most of the others didn’t like Daniel, wondered what he was doing there, thinking since he had chosen to tag along then he could have at least reflected in his request the demeanour of the lonely and the lucky — a person who others had allowed to join them. Gratitude is sometimes best expressed not in thank-yous but in bodily expression, in an extended acknowledgement of a debt. There was nothing to suggest this debt as Daniel sat there, as if he might even have thought others should have been grateful for his company and didn’t quite know what they were missing by not listening to him more. But I think that would have been to misconstrue him. To misunderstand him. Only Bea I sensed might have understood him instinctively, and I often envied Jeremy in having a partner who appeared to believe that everyone has their reasons and that she had neither the need to judge them nor to understand them any more than they wished to be understood. Somehow he wouldn’t have needed to talk to Bea at all, by that reckoning, but why might he have needed to talk to me?

9

Leaving the inn, I could see that Amelia wanted me to walk with her and perhaps also with Jeremy and Bea; that if I were to walk again with Daniel it would be an act of betrayal so small that to explain it might have taken perhaps the same amount of time as Daniel’s story. Yet I knew that Amelia wasn’t inclined to offer such an explanation and that it would manifest in small acts of irritation instead. Yet I wanted to hear the rest of the story and while walking with Amelia, Jeremy and Bea I watched as Daniel, a few feet in front of us, fell into conversation with Bill. He didn’t seem to be talking at all but listening as Bill chatted to him about some issue at work. Amelia started talking again about the boxroom and what she was going to equip it with: she needed a new computer anyway, and she was hoping to replace the shelves with narrower ones that would utilise the space better and could be used for books. I knew all this so anything she said wasn’t directed at me; yet I also suspected if I were to walk on ahead and engage in conversation with Daniel, then it would have offended her.

I knew there was a chance that once we reached Hillhead, once we were at the edge of the city, some might propose getting a bus rather than walking the remaining miles into town. The route was no longer scenic, and the rest of the way would be walking along busy roads and past anonymous housing. I noticed too that despite the sun cream a couple of people were looking slightly burned and the sun was still strong. No matter the weather, whether the walk was done in the rain, or with powerful winds or acute sun, usually a few of us wanted to continue back just to achieve the circularity of the walk, and I was pleased when Bill said he wanted to keep walking, sure that Daniel wouldn’t wish to take the bus. Jeremy and Daniel said they would walk too, and I said I would join them. Amelia didn’t seem especially displeased and, as they waited for the bus, we continued. Bill and Jeremy walked on ahead and Daniel and I fell behind. I said I didn’t think he had finished his story. Was it a story, he asked, and I said it depends on how you define one. It seemed like a story to me, and I felt he hadn’t finished it. He apologised. He had no urge to tell stories and echoed my earlier thought about jokes when saying that the problem with people telling stories is they hold people captive, often against their will, for the length of the tale told. To interrupt or to walk off is rude but isn’t it the person who tells it who is being rude in a different way, in holding the other temporally captive? Perhaps I said, but it seemed that whatever he was saying had been interrupted; that there was still a point I felt about the bottle green velvet jacket. That I remembered it was bottle green convinced him that he should continue; that if I had said merely the jacket he might not have wished to go on. I looked at him as though he were joking but I couldn’t tell by the expression on his face whether he was. 

10

He said that a few weeks after the party, Myra went around again to her ex’s place to talk through a few details about the flat and her share. Her lawyer said that she should keep her distance until the case was resolved but she didn’t want to fall out altogether with her husband and did exactly that by ignoring the lawyer’s advice. She told Daniel what happened when she phoned him as she was leaving her ex’s flat and asked if he could meet her at her place as soon as possible. He got on his bike and was there before she arrived. She thanked him for coming as one appreciates the gesture of a stranger and he knew that evening if she wasn’t in love with her husband, her love for her spouse was evident enough for her to acknowledge the weakness of her feelings towards Daniel. At the time he wasn’t unhurt by this realisation but over the following months, he supposed that he became increasingly irked by what her husband had said about him. It seemed that he had heard that Daniel had worn the bottle green velvet jacket at the party and assumed that it wasn’t only his blazer that Daniel wanted but the metaphorical shirt off his back too — he reckoned Daniel wanted the money from the flat and now believed that it was not Myra who pushed for the cash, nor even her lawyer. It had been Daniel. Myra said that of course that was nonsense but Daniel also suspected that her prejudices about his apartment may have been vocalised to her husband: if someone could in a matter of weeks have revealed to him that Daniel was at the party wearing the jacket, couldn’t have Myra said to him, or to a mutual friend who said to him, that Daniel was living in an ex-council flat. He might then have assumed that Daniel wanted to better himself, and why not do it at his expense?

For some reason he didn’t think too much about it that night, nor over the following few days as he and Myra broke up, meeting several times trying to resolve a situation they both knew was untenable. She came round to his flat for only the third time and he saw in her willingness to stay that her feelings were strong enough to accept that she would even occupy this miserable apartment for a night if it meant lying with him. But the more he mused over it thereafter the more he sensed not just a condescension which suggested amongst Myra’s circle that he was perceived to be living in a hovel and had stolen her ex’s clothes. He was someone who wished to get the husband’s money as well, and thus everything was an enormous misunderstanding. He felt lucky for what he had and never believed he was someone who coveted more. He liked his flat and was all these years later still living in it, happy that he could afford to teach no more than one or two mornings a week along with a few private classes, and could write what he wished for magazines and journals. I asked him about these journals and asked him too for his full name and said I would try and seek out some of the work. He said I could find some stuff online, other stories and articles in the library. By now we had reached Marchmont. We had said goodbye to most of the others on the way and said goodbye to Jeremy up at Bruntsfield. There were just the two of us left and the weather was still warm and the sun still high on this longest of summer nights. 

  He asked where I lived and, as I pointed in the direction of the top floor a few apartments down the street, he said it was at the end of it where Myra’s ex had a place. He never found out whether he sold it or how much money he gave Myra for her share if she took anything at all. It wasn’t his business even if everybody else seemed to think he had made it so. Before that we were in a place around Polworth, I said, and realised just how little I had talked over the last few hours, how few questions he had asked. In most circumstances, I might have found that a problem but for some reason, it was as if he was talking to me but never at me, that whatever he was saying seemed to be of as much interest to me in the listening as it was for him in the telling. How often had he told this story I wondered, and did it matter? As we said goodbye, I promised again to search for his work and he said to read the opening paragraph of a few things and continue reading whatever interested me and, if nothing did, to stop. He said he wrote to be understood but isn’t that what we all want, to be understood, and not only writers?

11

Over the next few days, I could see that Amelia was still mildly irritated that I had talked to her little during the walk and almost exclusively to a man who was a stranger. Such a sense of priorities would almost have mystified Amelia, but I suppose had always been much more ambivalent about me. I liked the security of our peer group and had known Jeremy and Bea for almost as long as I'd known Amelia. I hadn’t the confidence, I suppose, to meet new people. But whenever an opportunity arose, when I was sitting in a pub with the others, and those at the next table wished to engage in chat, I was usually the one most inclined to hear what they had to say, even on occasion joining their discussion and half-ignoring the very friends I came in with. Was I being rude or were they? Was my behaviour obnoxious as I enjoyed the company of people I’d never before met, or were they for showing such reluctance in speaking to others? 

I wondered too if this was why so often we all talked in a manner that meant no conversation could be properly interrupted; that there was nothing new enough that it took any length of time to convey. It was as if when within the group we were all offering each other short articles and I had a yearning, in modern parlance, for a long read. I decided to take that literally and one evening, in the middle of the week, I went online and searched out Daniel’s stories. Daniel Mullaney he had said and I found a few online magazines where he contributed fiction. I read through one which focused on a hippy community on the west coast of Mexico, another a road trip through France and Spain, and a third about a young boy who finds himself parentless when both his mother and father lose their life trying to rescue him from the sea. The boy was in an inflatable ring and the current pulled him far from the shore before eventually he found himself inland again at another bay. The parents couldn’t see him, swam far out themselves, had no inflatable to keep them afloat and perished in the waves. The story was narrated by the boy as a grown-up and it was as though he was trying to find someone who might understand him, comprehend the unlikelihood of such a loss — and of a guilt that you cannot begin to feel you aren’t responsible for in their lost lives. 

The fourth story was the one he had told me as we walked and I was confronted by it the way we are faced with a lie. I am not saying that what he told me was made up (perhaps it was but I had no evidence to match it against) but that I felt a little like someone who, after being flattered, overhears the same person flattering another in a like manner. I also had to admit that two-thirds of the way through the story he had told me, I wanted him to continue; that he didn’t seek me out to finish it. Was it his way of filling out a walk, idly passing the time without conveying anything about himself that had not only occurred to him before but that had already been published in a magazine? I returned to the story about the orphaned boy and read once more a passage where he says he long ago gave up trying to be understood and tried instead to be plausible. Unable to express his pain, to find anyone to share it, he found instead that he could share stories, and in their sharing, a truth would reveal itself he hoped, even if he couldn’t pretend it was his own. When he met people he started to tell them stories instead of his story, and he didn’t know whether this was an act of subterfuge or generosity, whether he was hiding the truth or protecting people from it. That he wanted to be understood didn’t mean he expected to be, the narrator says; that when he found he could express himself on the page as he couldn’t with others he wondered if he should take that expression and see if he could apply it in life too. He started to tell people stories that he sensed they wanted to hear and he enjoyed telling them and believed that he got closer to others this way than he had ever managed when he attempted to explore his life and his feelings by chatting to people. 

Of course, I had no idea whether what he offered in this story was the truth of his actual life, all I knew was the one he told me was a tale that he had previously put on the page. There Myra was, and the ex-husband, and of course the bottle green velvet jacket. And he did tell me a story I wanted to hear since, when it was interrupted, when we stopped for lunch and Amelia talked about the boxroom, I wanted to get back to the tale, to hear more about how important that jacket happened to be. When I thought about it, there wasn’t that much of a story to tell — a person feels misunderstood when his partner’s ex takes the wearing of a jacket to be stealing the shirt off his back. Yet in the negligible nature of the story did it perhaps say something about my negligible life, or did it contain within it a moral I needed to extract if I were to think about my own existence and my relationships? I thought about my partner and my friends and realised that amongst them I had no story to tell, nor one that I sensed they would be interested in sharing either. That dual realisation might not have been the intention behind Daniel’s telling, but I was left with an odd sense that these were the consequences of it. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Misunderstandings

really isn't personal for you is it?" There Daniel was telling me, who had been told by Myra, who was hearing it from her ex, and all I could think about was how odd it seemed that during this walk I'd become interested in the lives of people I didn't know when I often couldn't pay much attention to the anecdotes some of the others in our group told me about their existence.

Daniel asked Myra what she replied when her ex said this. She said she reiterated what the lawyer had insisted upon: she was entitled to her share. He almost wished that she was lying, that she had taken her ex in her arms and hugged him, saying that she was sorry it had come to this and they should have worked things out a couple of years earlier. It might have hinted at infidelity towards Daniel but at least it would have shown compassion towards her ex. That evening as her ex collapsed by the oven, the emotionally important thing wasn't to be faithful to Daniel but to put her arm around her ex and to stay there for however long it would have taken for him to feel calm. She said she left after a few minutes, knowing Daniel was waiting for her. He recalled they had a table booked at a restaurant that night. She should have cancelled, he thought.

But there he was, now, about to attend a party wearing the velvet jacket. That morning he had gone to the tailor and asked if there was any chance they could repair his ripped jacket that day and the person said they would try. But when he went back shortly before six, the tailor said he was sorry but his assistant had to go home early; he was on his own with so much work. He would try and fix it the following day he said. Daniel looked at the man's harried face, a worn look suggesting hassles and harassment in the past and elsewhere. Was he Kurdish, Iraqi, Afhgan, he didn't know, but he sensed that to ask this man to do him a favour, that it was important, that he must sew on the sleeve, would have been an insult to the man's experience and show up the callowness of his own. Daniel said of course that would be fine and crossed the road to a second-hand vintage store hoping to catch it before it closed. He was too late. It seemed he was destined to wear the velvet jacket.

If the husband was to have attended the party, Daniel would obviously not have worn the jacket but there he was in Norway; there was no reason to feel self-conscious. Yet when he arrived with Myra he was sure the host and her partner as they received the wine with gratitude noticed the brilliance of his jacket, and before he had the chance to remove it several other people passed through the broad hallway and said hello. He remained in the hall for more than half an hour in various discussions before he took the jacket off and placed it on the bed. He felt relieved, as though he were himself again and knew that he wouldn't wear it any more. It would end up in the charity shop after all. When they left the party three hours later he had the jacket in his hand as he said goodbye to the hosts, and didn't put it on until he was outside the building. Myra asked if he enjoyed the evening; he said he wasn't sure. She said that seemed odd how could he not know? Yet as he said to me there are certain events in which we partake where the full consequences of it are retrospective. This was one such instance.

8

By now we were only a few hundred yards from the inn and about to take lunch. I wanted to hear the rest of the story but was aware too that he couldn't have continued telling it if we were to eat with others. How to fill the other diners in with the various details? Equally, I sensed it would have seemed odd if I were to insist on eating with this stranger alone. Once at the inn, Amelia suggested we sit with Jeremy and Bea and proposed to Daniel that he join us. I ordered the plaice and chips with mushy peas, accompanied by a pint and followed by sticky toffee pudding and ice cream, and an espresso: a modest touch amongst the excess. It had become a tradition to go for the fish and chips and most of the men did likewise, a reward we all sensed we deserved in the middle of a long walk. I had no interest in eating such rich food on any other occasion and I couldn't say for sure whether it was biological or circumstantial: that I was ravenous and wanted a couple of thousand calories or whether I liked the habit of eating this particular food in this particular place. I said this to the others as we ate, self-conscious perhaps because Daniel was with us and, while Jeremy had ordered the same, Daniel had chosen a smoked salmon salad. He proposed he wasn't that hungry and I might have assumed it was an attempt to make me feel better at guzzling on such heavy food. But I knew too that he had already eaten his sandwiches during our tea break at eleven and it was now only 130. He asked whether I'd ever driven out here just to have this lunch. I said no and he supposed I'd answered my question.

It was a conclusive remark and yet his own story was thus far not yet concluded, even if we had been talking for well over an hour before arriving at the inn. It was as though my remark was there to exist in the smallest anecdotal space and his the largest and I found myself thinking, as the others chatted, about this notion of how large or small a story's space happened to be. I wasn't thinking about this at all in terms of stories, novels or anything like that. I was trying to understand why in most conversations it is so easy to join it at any moment without feeling that what has thus far been talked about needs to be reiterated. How often has someone entered a conversation and the people sitting there have offered just a few words and the person can easily contribute? I thought too of jokes and why I have always disliked telling them, even if I believed the joke to be funny. It was the sense of temporal constraint, the feeling that time was being squeezed into an expectation and I had no more than a minute or two to make people laugh. I also noticed that with all of our friends, with the group Amelia and I walked with and other friends too, there was always time subordinate to space, so that even when it wasn't as in these long walks we took the comments we made to each other seemed still constrained by our usual sense of time.

I came back out of my thoughts and heard Amelia saying we needed to sort out the box room in the flat. We had moved into the present place a year earlier and she wanted to turn it into a work area and at the moment it was full of various boxes that we used for packing. A box room indeed, Daniel said. I laughed, but nobody else did. I knew at that moment most of the others didn't like Daniel, wondered what he was doing there, thinking since he had chosen to tag along then he could have at least reflected in his request the demeanour of the lonely and the lucky a person who others had allowed to join them. Gratitude is sometimes best expressed not in thank-yous but in bodily expression, in an extended acknowledgement of a debt. There was nothing to suggest this debt as Daniel sat there, as if he might even have thought others should have been grateful for his company and didn't quite know what they were missing by not listening to him more. But I think that would have been to misconstrue him. To misunderstand him. Only Bea I sensed might have understood him instinctively, and I often envied Jeremy in having a partner who appeared to believe that everyone has their reasons and that she had neither the need to judge them nor to understand them any more than they wished to be understood. Somehow he wouldn't have needed to talk to Bea at all, by that reckoning, but why might he have needed to talk to me?

9

Leaving the inn, I could see that Amelia wanted me to walk with her and perhaps also with Jeremy and Bea; that if I were to walk again with Daniel it would be an act of betrayal so small that to explain it might have taken perhaps the same amount of time as Daniel's story. Yet I knew that Amelia wasn't inclined to offer such an explanation and that it would manifest in small acts of irritation instead. Yet I wanted to hear the rest of the story and while walking with Amelia, Jeremy and Bea I watched as Daniel, a few feet in front of us, fell into conversation with Bill. He didn't seem to be talking at all but listening as Bill chatted to him about some issue at work. Amelia started talking again about the boxroom and what she was going to equip it with: she needed a new computer anyway, and she was hoping to replace the shelves with narrower ones that would utilise the space better and could be used for books. I knew all this so anything she said wasn't directed at me; yet I also suspected if I were to walk on ahead and engage in conversation with Daniel, then it would have offended her.

I knew there was a chance that once we reached Hillhead, once we were at the edge of the city, some might propose getting a bus rather than walking the remaining miles into town. The route was no longer scenic, and the rest of the way would be walking along busy roads and past anonymous housing. I noticed too that despite the sun cream a couple of people were looking slightly burned and the sun was still strong. No matter the weather, whether the walk was done in the rain, or with powerful winds or acute sun, usually a few of us wanted to continue back just to achieve the circularity of the walk, and I was pleased when Bill said he wanted to keep walking, sure that Daniel wouldn't wish to take the bus. Jeremy and Daniel said they would walk too, and I said I would join them. Amelia didn't seem especially displeased and, as they waited for the bus, we continued. Bill and Jeremy walked on ahead and Daniel and I fell behind. I said I didn't think he had finished his story. Was it a story, he asked, and I said it depends on how you define one. It seemed like a story to me, and I felt he hadn't finished it. He apologised. He had no urge to tell stories and echoed my earlier thought about jokes when saying that the problem with people telling stories is they hold people captive, often against their will, for the length of the tale told. To interrupt or to walk off is rude but isn't it the person who tells it who is being rude in a different way, in holding the other temporally captive? Perhaps I said, but it seemed that whatever he was saying had been interrupted; that there was still a point I felt about the bottle green velvet jacket. That I remembered it was bottle green convinced him that he should continue; that if I had said merely the jacket he might not have wished to go on. I looked at him as though he were joking but I couldn't tell by the expression on his face whether he was.

10

He said that a few weeks after the party, Myra went around again to her ex's place to talk through a few details about the flat and her share. Her lawyer said that she should keep her distance until the case was resolved but she didn't want to fall out altogether with her husband and did exactly that by ignoring the lawyer's advice. She told Daniel what happened when she phoned him as she was leaving her ex's flat and asked if he could meet her at her place as soon as possible. He got on his bike and was there before she arrived. She thanked him for coming as one appreciates the gesture of a stranger and he knew that evening if she wasn't in love with her husband, her love for her spouse was evident enough for her to acknowledge the weakness of her feelings towards Daniel. At the time he wasn't unhurt by this realisation but over the following months, he supposed that he became increasingly irked by what her husband had said about him. It seemed that he had heard that Daniel had worn the bottle green velvet jacket at the party and assumed that it wasn't only his blazer that Daniel wanted but the metaphorical shirt off his back too he reckoned Daniel wanted the money from the flat and now believed that it was not Myra who pushed for the cash, nor even her lawyer. It had been Daniel. Myra said that of course that was nonsense but Daniel also suspected that her prejudices about his apartment may have been vocalised to her husband: if someone could in a matter of weeks have revealed to him that Daniel was at the party wearing the jacket, couldn't have Myra said to him, or to a mutual friend who said to him, that Daniel was living in an ex-council flat. He might then have assumed that Daniel wanted to better himself, and why not do it at his expense?

For some reason he didn't think too much about it that night, nor over the following few days as he and Myra broke up, meeting several times trying to resolve a situation they both knew was untenable. She came round to his flat for only the third time and he saw in her willingness to stay that her feelings were strong enough to accept that she would even occupy this miserable apartment for a night if it meant lying with him. But the more he mused over it thereafter the more he sensed not just a condescension which suggested amongst Myra's circle that he was perceived to be living in a hovel and had stolen her ex's clothes. He was someone who wished to get the husband's money as well, and thus everything was an enormous misunderstanding. He felt lucky for what he had and never believed he was someone who coveted more. He liked his flat and was all these years later still living in it, happy that he could afford to teach no more than one or two mornings a week along with a few private classes, and could write what he wished for magazines and journals. I asked him about these journals and asked him too for his full name and said I would try and seek out some of the work. He said I could find some stuff online, other stories and articles in the library. By now we had reached Marchmont. We had said goodbye to most of the others on the way and said goodbye to Jeremy up at Bruntsfield. There were just the two of us left and the weather was still warm and the sun still high on this longest of summer nights.

He asked where I lived and, as I pointed in the direction of the top floor a few apartments down the street, he said it was at the end of it where Myra's ex had a place. He never found out whether he sold it or how much money he gave Myra for her share if she took anything at all. It wasn't his business even if everybody else seemed to think he had made it so. Before that we were in a place around Polworth, I said, and realised just how little I had talked over the last few hours, how few questions he had asked. In most circumstances, I might have found that a problem but for some reason, it was as if he was talking to me but never at me, that whatever he was saying seemed to be of as much interest to me in the listening as it was for him in the telling. How often had he told this story I wondered, and did it matter? As we said goodbye, I promised again to search for his work and he said to read the opening paragraph of a few things and continue reading whatever interested me and, if nothing did, to stop. He said he wrote to be understood but isn't that what we all want, to be understood, and not only writers?

11

Over the next few days, I could see that Amelia was still mildly irritated that I had talked to her little during the walk and almost exclusively to a man who was a stranger. Such a sense of priorities would almost have mystified Amelia, but I suppose had always been much more ambivalent about me. I liked the security of our peer group and had known Jeremy and Bea for almost as long as I'd known Amelia. I hadn't the confidence, I suppose, to meet new people. But whenever an opportunity arose, when I was sitting in a pub with the others, and those at the next table wished to engage in chat, I was usually the one most inclined to hear what they had to say, even on occasion joining their discussion and half-ignoring the very friends I came in with. Was I being rude or were they? Was my behaviour obnoxious as I enjoyed the company of people I'd never before met, or were they for showing such reluctance in speaking to others?

I wondered too if this was why so often we all talked in a manner that meant no conversation could be properly interrupted; that there was nothing new enough that it took any length of time to convey. It was as if when within the group we were all offering each other short articles and I had a yearning, in modern parlance, for a long read. I decided to take that literally and one evening, in the middle of the week, I went online and searched out Daniel's stories. Daniel Mullaney he had said and I found a few online magazines where he contributed fiction. I read through one which focused on a hippy community on the west coast of Mexico, another a road trip through France and Spain, and a third about a young boy who finds himself parentless when both his mother and father lose their life trying to rescue him from the sea. The boy was in an inflatable ring and the current pulled him far from the shore before eventually he found himself inland again at another bay. The parents couldn't see him, swam far out themselves, had no inflatable to keep them afloat and perished in the waves. The story was narrated by the boy as a grown-up and it was as though he was trying to find someone who might understand him, comprehend the unlikelihood of such a loss and of a guilt that you cannot begin to feel you aren't responsible for in their lost lives.

The fourth story was the one he had told me as we walked and I was confronted by it the way we are faced with a lie. I am not saying that what he told me was made up (perhaps it was but I had no evidence to match it against) but that I felt a little like someone who, after being flattered, overhears the same person flattering another in a like manner. I also had to admit that two-thirds of the way through the story he had told me, I wanted him to continue; that he didn't seek me out to finish it. Was it his way of filling out a walk, idly passing the time without conveying anything about himself that had not only occurred to him before but that had already been published in a magazine? I returned to the story about the orphaned boy and read once more a passage where he says he long ago gave up trying to be understood and tried instead to be plausible. Unable to express his pain, to find anyone to share it, he found instead that he could share stories, and in their sharing, a truth would reveal itself he hoped, even if he couldn't pretend it was his own. When he met people he started to tell them stories instead of his story, and he didn't know whether this was an act of subterfuge or generosity, whether he was hiding the truth or protecting people from it. That he wanted to be understood didn't mean he expected to be, the narrator says; that when he found he could express himself on the page as he couldn't with others he wondered if he should take that expression and see if he could apply it in life too. He started to tell people stories that he sensed they wanted to hear and he enjoyed telling them and believed that he got closer to others this way than he had ever managed when he attempted to explore his life and his feelings by chatting to people.

Of course, I had no idea whether what he offered in this story was the truth of his actual life, all I knew was the one he told me was a tale that he had previously put on the page. There Myra was, and the ex-husband, and of course the bottle green velvet jacket. And he did tell me a story I wanted to hear since, when it was interrupted, when we stopped for lunch and Amelia talked about the boxroom, I wanted to get back to the tale, to hear more about how important that jacket happened to be. When I thought about it, there wasn't that much of a story to tell a person feels misunderstood when his partner's ex takes the wearing of a jacket to be stealing the shirt off his back. Yet in the negligible nature of the story did it perhaps say something about my negligible life, or did it contain within it a moral I needed to extract if I were to think about my own existence and my relationships? I thought about my partner and my friends and realised that amongst them I had no story to tell, nor one that I sensed they would be interested in sharing either. That dual realisation might not have been the intention behind Daniel's telling, but I was left with an odd sense that these were the consequences of it.


© Tony McKibbin