Motives

11/06/2018

1

Sometimes the nicest of gestures can lead to the most underhand of actions: that there is a logic to events that dissolves apparently strong categories like the good and the bad. I think a friend of mine got caught in this ferocious logic, and I wonder how long it might take him to recover from it, and also whether our friendship can survive the insights it might have given him.

I hadn’t seen the friend in a while. We would get in contact, text and email each other, but whenever I was up in Scotland we never quite found the time to meet. When in one email he insisted that we really should meet up, I sensed it was because something had gone wrong and not only that I should attend a key social event. We had been friends all through secondary school, had some contact with each other while we studied in the same town, and no communication at all for a couple of years after that. Then, around ten years ago, we found ourselves in the same city (London) and for about five years were closer than we had ever been.

It was while Morris was in London that he met his wife, married her within nine months and I was his best man. If two words could capture his nature I would offer the generous and the impetuous. He would rarely plan anything, and his generosity never appeared to possess a hidden motive. He would give because he had the money and was in the mood. I recall once that around eight of us went for a meal and at the end of it he said he had a double announcement to make. He had been given a promotion at work (he was in a law firm), and he was going to pay for everyone’s dinner. The restaurant wasn’t cheap (the chef would sometimes appear on television, talking about the importance of locally sourced, organic produce), and we had ordered between us six bottles of wine that had come recommended by the manager and from a well-regarded vineyard in the south of France. A few of us protested, saying if anything everyone else should be paying for his meal: he was the one who deserved the reward. Nonsense, he insisted, merry but hardly drunk, his cheeks flushed as they often were with modest alcohol consumption and an enthusiasm for company. His girlfriend, and now wife, Fran, was by his side (they had met a couple of months earlier), and she looked at him like a woman in love with the most wonderful man she could possibly have hoped to meet. She wouldn’t have been wrong, so what had changed I wondered as we finally met up again?

We met in a bar in Edinburgh: he had moved back to our home city when a job in a small law firm became available, and I was up for a week visiting my parents as well as for his wife’s 30th. It was a windy, Friday evening, around seven thirty, and the pub at the end of Rose Street was full of people in suits winding down after no doubt working hard, letting off steam by getting steamed. Most of the conversations around us were loud and boisterous, and more than once the table shook as someone passed on their way to the bathroom, negotiating the floor like they were thousands of feet in the air, or on a fast-moving train. The smells were of fruity perfumes and musky aftershaves, and occasionally, when at the bar, you could catch the smell of bad breath as someone ordered another round, without having consumed food probably since breakfast, and underarm sweat that another’s aftershave couldn’t quite conceal. I wondered why he had chosen this pub, but when I look back it seems somehow sensorially appropriate; not only as a useful place where the loudness of others could give space and room to the clandestine nature of our own discussion.

He told me as he pointed to a large rectangular object next to him that he had wanted to surprise Fran on her 30th birthday. In recent years they had been trying to have a child without any success and, coming from Bristol, she hadn’t quite managed to adjust to the city, seeing Scotland as a different country, with codes and values she didn’t always feel she understood. Of course, he would often say to her how much he loved her, but he wanted to illustrate it in a gesture rather than in words, and so what he did was commission a painting that she would know nothing about until the moment she would unwrap it when she turned thirty. While she never quite felt at home in Scotland, there was a coastal village they had visited the previous year and a few weeks afterwards they had been sitting up in bed eating croissants and trying to keep the crumbs on the plate, or in their mouths, when she said that maybe she could get used to living in Scotland. Why, he asked. She told him of that moment several weeks earlier when they walked up the hill behind the village and looked down, seeing the port, the castle, the centre. She had said to herself that, finally, she had fallen in love with Scotland, and that it had taken her a lot longer than it had falling in love with a Scotsman.

She offered this to him around four months before her birthday, and he wanted the scene to be painted by a friend of hers whom they had met while living in London. The friend was an artist who worked in what she herself called concrete abstracts: paintings that sought to achieve the reality of the image out of the abstraction of colour. You wouldn’t see the landscape in the line but only in the colour shades. Nothing new in that, perhaps, but it gave her work a sense of the landscape without reducing it to a pretty picture. It was important that Fran would recognize the view, but that it would still constitute a work of art: after all, she taught art part-time in a well-respected Edinburgh college, and wouldn’t have accepted kitsch however meaningful the gesture behind it.

Anyway, Morris didn’t have a direct contact for the friend, so went online, found the email address on her website, and then sent her a message explaining what he wanted her to do. Over the next week, they exchanged a dozen emails; he sent her various images – she said that while the photos were useful she would almost always paint from direct experience. She would get a train up to Scotland at the earliest opportunity and with a ticket at the cheapest possible price. She went ahead and booked saying that the least expensive ticket was from London to Edinburgh; she would get a train to the west coast from there. She could meet him briefly in the city if he were free, and they could talk a bit more about what he thought Fran would want.

3

He met her off the train at Waverley, and they had lunch together in a basement vegetarian restaurant about fifteen minutes’ walk away. She had all afternoon: she would get a train to Glasgow, stay the night, spend the following day looking at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architecture, and the work of the Glasgow school of the eighties. Then on she would go to the village to paint. It was an adventure, she said, and thanked him for giving her the opportunity to embark on one. Morris had never conversed with Jenny before – she was Fran’s friend, and the only occasion they had talked had been in group company. It would have been no more than a few minutes sitting next to each other in a bar, or at a restaurant. She had usually been single during the time he had known her in London, though there was an ex-boyfriend she would occasionally sleep with, Fran had said, and the occasional assignation. She was in her mid-thirties with a slender, willow look, cheekbones that were a sign of good bone structure but also nervous energy: she looked like a woman who could never quite put on weight, and her thinness made her eyes look even bigger than they were. She always seemed to him to appear amazed or surprised, and with her long straight hair she could look skeletal and undernourished in the pale of winter, but lithe and buoyant with a summer tan.

By the end of the discussion three hours later, he knew that he would have to rush to make a four o’clock work appointment, and knew that he would have liked to sit with Jenny for longer. She had talked to him about art in a manner that made his ignorance seem like curiosity, while with Fran it sometimes seemed the other way round. He was disappointed when she said she would be getting the train back from Glasgow, and would not be passing through Edinburgh again. He asked her to send him an image of the painting after it was done, and any other sketches or paintings that she had been working on during the trip. Perhaps Morris would have developed feelings for Jenny if he had thought Jenny had the capacity to project feelings onto him, but he had to admit there was no sense in which she had done so, and he felt, by the next day, more relief than rejection. He loved Fran, and though she could be a little patronising, though she would occasionally ask for more time alone to write up an essay or work in the library than he would have wished, they were a good couple, that is what friends would always say. They complemented each other. In his more insecure moments, he would think about that phrase, believing the complementary aspect was that she was artistic, intellectual and confident, and he was diligent, reliable and with a steady income. He didn’t mention the impetuous or the generous, even if that was always how I saw him. Is this why I thought he was capable of an affair that he himself probably couldn’t have seen coming?

Over the next few weeks, he was in contact with Jenny every few days and he looked forward to the emails that would ping into his inbox, and realised that it wasn’t that he had fallen for Jenny; more that he needed in his life an element of mystery: that his marriage seemed to have removed that possibility in his personality. While he had never been one to cultivate it anyway, had as I knew never been a regular lover at university or afterwards, the short term relationships he would have, and the single status he would usually possess, meant that he could keep himself to himself and his mystery intact. This would have been no more than the mysteriousness that we all have when we are alone; that we have no one to phone saying we will be home late, no one to wonder whether they should pick up a takeway for dinner, or to ask us what the weekend plans will be because friends have invited us over for food. It might usually be referred to as loneliness.

The opposite of that loneliness, however, is predictability, and this was a characteristic he believed could always have defined him. When I suggested Morris was impetuous that didn’t at all make him surprising. He would suggest paying the bill, turning up with gifts for people, and even at university when none of us had much money he would be the first at the bar insisting on getting the round. I would sometimes ask him whether he was being a bit reckless with his cash, but that was Morris: it was partly what made him predictable. Unpredictability would have to come from elsewhere. He asked me that day if I knew anything about something the French called acte gratuit and, good literature student that I happened to be (I teach comparative literature in a London college), I explained it was a term used by a French writer in a novel from 1914. It concerns an unmotivated act, someone throws someone off the train and there is no reason to link the killing to the murderer because there is no possible motive for the crime. It also means that the murderer has created a curiously disinterested act: there is no benefit accruing from the action, nor any hatred for the person whom he kills. Morris wondered if there can be actions instigated lovably and acted upon deceitfully. Maybe the act wasn’t gratuitous he insisted, but it was as though it was happening to someone else.

He went on to say that during these email exchanges with Jenny, he felt that he was both betraying Fran and discovering a new aspect of his personality, but under the rubric of a good deed that didn’t leave him at all questioning his scruples. Whatever attraction towards Jenny he sensed, was contained by the gesture of kindness towards Fran and he said it would have seemed a violation had anything happened between Jenny and himself.
A couple of nights before Fran’s birthday (the night before our meeting) he met up with Jenny who was staying at the travel lodge in the Grassmarket. As he asked at reception for Jenny Harrow, so the receptionist phoned the room, spoke briefly to her, and said that he could continue up to her room on the third floor. Morris tapped on the door and she said in a quiet voice that it should be unlocked but that, as he entered, he should keep his eyes closed. She would tell him when he could open them. Of course, he was like a lover waiting to see his mistress stand before him unclothed, and as he opened his eyes what he saw in front of him was a painting that he had commissioned. Perhaps a new-born baby they had jointly consummated would be a useful metaphor to describe how he felt, he proposed to me, begging my literary forgiveness if the imagery seemed a bit weak. I said he was doing just fine, and that he had narrated his story up until this point with some skill, enough for me to get a sense of context for a tale that I was about to enter, since I too was, of course, going to be his wife’s thirtieth birthday.

5

I had arrived the night before the party, and happened to be staying too in the hotel in the grassmarket near to where the party would be (Fran had sent a joint email recommending it), and it was later that evening, about an hour after Morris and I had parted, that I saw Jenny in the cafe bar.  I’d decided to stay in town for a couple of nights and then go and stay at my parents place, who lived about eight miles out of the centre, in Balerno. I had met Jenny only a couple of times before, and years earlier in London, but hadn’t talked to her at all, and while I might have assumed it was someone else in other circumstances, she would have been someone I half-expected to see staying in a city centre hotel the night before the birthday party of one of her best friend’s. She was sitting at a table by the window and I glanced across a couple of times. As she looked back I couldn’t quite tell if she recognized me, thought I was an admirer or a potential lover, and to clarify the situation I went over and announced who I was and said that we had met before. She said she thought it must have been a friend of Fran and Morris’s, saying that yes, now she remembered me. I took it initially as a slight, but later she explained it was more a trick of the light; that the light falling on her near the window was much more pronounced than the gloom by the bar.

She said this a few hours later. We had gone to eat at a restaurant Fran had recommended (just as we had both found ourselves staying in a hotel Fran suggested), then strolled around the city centre afterwards. We walked from the restaurant on Nicholson Street, walked down Drummond Street, then wound our way down to the parliament, before arriving near the top of Leith Walk. Walking along Princes Street during the spring night the moon was a half-crescent and the sky a fractured blue. I said to Jenny what I liked most about Scotland was its sky; it was rarely static. She said she wanted to hire a cottage for a month or two sometime and focus on exactly that. She then began a sentence that she didn’t finish, and I asked what she was about to say. It was nothing: I would find out about it soon enough, she insisted. Arriving back at the hotel I asked if she would like to sit for a while in the bar. We talked through till 2 in the morning. Neither of us had to get up early, and the party wouldn’t be till 7 in the evening. My only commitment was meeting Morris at 2 o’clock. She looked at me as though I perhaps knew something she also knew, but again didn’t say anything.

6

I met Morris at a basement cafe a few hundred yards from the hotel, and with the sky countering my claims of the previous evening (it was a uniform grey), it seemed apt enough. Morris appeared both excited and agitated. I asked him why he seemed so on edge, and he said I would find out soon enough, echoing Jenny’s remark of the previous evening. For some reason, I didn’t tell him that I had spoken with her for hours into the night, and he, of course, wouldn’t have assumed that we had. During those years we knew each other well in London, when Morris and I would meet up we wouldn’t always have the most scintillating chat, but I had never before found myself sitting with him on a subtext that neither wished to explain.

The venue hired for Fran’s birthday was a place called The Counting House, not far from the restaurant Jenny and I had eaten in. There were about eighty people and outside caterers provided the cuisine in the smaller room, and a ceilidh band were setting up in the main one. Most of the presents Fran received were handed to her as people entered, including my modest gift: a book by her favourite art critic about Spinoza, including the art critic’s own drawings. Yet it wasn’t till later in the evening, after the food had been consumed, the band had been playing for an hour, and the chat had become louder with inebriation, that Morris stood up, signalled for the band to take a break, and said he would just like to take a moment to thank everyone for coming – that he had a final present to give to his beloved wife. Removing the wrapping she gasped in pleasure as she saw the painting, gave Morris a lengthy and loving kiss, then carried on over to where Jenny, I nd a few others were sitting and hugged her friend saying that she loved the painting, loved the gesture, loved the surprise.

Afterwards, I said to Jenny it was a well-kept secret; there we had been talking for hours the previous night and she hadn’t said a word about it. She replied that she had always been one for secrets and I suppose our affair would become another one. She wasn’t looking for a commitment, she said to me later that night in her hotel room bed, and so for the next few months we would meet at weekends, either at her flat in Crouch End, or mine a few minutes from King’s Cross: we’d screw, eat, watch a film, screw and sleep. Sometimes we would go out for dinner, often for a walk the following day, but we never met each other’s friends, and when she suggested after the summer that she was no longer so interested in continuing I concurred. I had started sleeping with someone else a few weeks earlier, anyway, sensing that Jenny was soon to end the affair. She wanted it to remain a secret, and I would sometimes suggest it might have been to protect Morris’s feelings, as I didn’t tell her about the conversation I had with Morris the night before the party. When she told me how often they had emailed during that period over the painting, I said I wondered if Morris had become infatuated with her, even joking whether they might have had an affair. She managed to keep a secret over the present, and was doing the same with her affair with me, why not over Morris? I had noticed that evening during Fran’s birthday party that Morris would sometimes look across as if wondering what might be happening between Jenny and me. It didn’t seem to me to be the look of a friend happy that people he knew had hooked up; more the surreptitious glance of someone with some thoughts on his mind about the situation in front of his eyes.

7

But having spoken to Morris the night before that party it seemed to me clear that nothing had happened between him and Jenny, and I didn’t tell him anything about Jenny and me. Of course, some might wonder if I wasn’t opening up to Morris, why should I assume he wasn’t keeping something from me also. I suppose I couldn’t see the point of Morris coming to me with a confession only to reveal the half of it. Though Morris, in time, would have an affair, it clearly wasn’t with Jenny as he told me on my next visit up north, around three months after the birthday party. The months following the party, Morris felt a little lost and listless. He had contacted Jenny a couple of times, but though she replied there was nothing to suggest she wanted to remain in touch: she was Fran’s friend after all and not his, and he assumed that she wanted to make clear that any secretiveness between them was for a good cause, and that cause was no longer applicable. He didn’t think he wanted an affair with Jenny, but he missed badly the complicity he had built up with her over those months, and it occurred to me as Morris was telling me this, that perhaps Jenny knew she was going to miss it too, and continued that complicity instead with me.

When Morris was at home with Fran he seemed increasingly distracted, didn’t appear interested in engaging in conversation with her and would sometimes go out for walks after dinner, trying not so much to clear his head as extricate himself from domesticity. When she asked where he was going he would say nowhere in particular, he was thinking about a case and thought a walk would be better than sitting in his study. He suspected she wouldn’t miss him: they would both often disappear into their own spaces (for him the study; for her the studio), but wondered if she mused over this change of habit; what it would say to her about their marriage. He certainly found himself musing over this during these wanderings, and while he couldn’t find an answer he did instead find a lover. In the middle of these walks that would last from about 830 till 1030 he would stop off for half an hour and have a drink at the New Town pub about fifteen minutes from the flat. Working there was a Polish woman who he discovered was in her early thirties, and who began after the first week to start asking him questions. She had assumed he was new to the area, and he said not as new as it might seem, offering the remark with resignation that she nevertheless seemed to take as an enigmatic comment. Over those few weeks when he started going out after dinner, he wouldn’t always go to the pub, and she wouldn’t always be working, but when she was she would ask him a few questions. While he never lied he always answered as though there was something left unsaid in the divulgence.

8

He would have been going into the pub for more than a month, and seeing her there about twice a week, when she said that she found Edinburgh an easy city to live in but a hard city in which to get to know people. He said that she could get to know him, and reckoned when he said it that it came from a desire to be friendly rather than a wish to seduce. I believed him; there was nothing in his manner that would ever suggest to anyone the charms of the seducer. What he suggested to women I suspect was a feeling of safety and security, and this is what I imagine he conveyed to Katya. When they started meeting each other, instead of visiting Katya in the pub he would meet her twice a week in the afternoons. He would take time off work and catch up later in the evenings. They usually met in the back room of a small cafe in Stockbridge, would then go for various walks by the canal, at the Botanics, or just walk into the city centre and around Princes Street Gardens. After a couple of weeks, they were sitting on a bench in the Gardens, looking up at the castle in front of them and Weeping Ashes behind them, and he recalled the heavy bearing leaves swooshing quietly in the light breeze.

She must have known he was married since he made no effort to disguise his wedding ring, but he supposed she might have thought he was estranged from his partner or divorced, but that afternoon he put his hand on hers and said he was a married man and that he shouldn’t be taking afternoons off work to walk around the streets and parks of the city with a woman he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t attracted to. It was an impetuous sentence full of mixed messages and she received it with a surprising equinimity. She could have been annoyed for various reasons but instead respected his honesty. She had an ex-boyfriend in Poland, but they were still in contact each week, so perhaps they hadn’t parted at all, except geographically. She asked him about his wife since she already knew much about his work, and it was obvious that quite deliberately no conversation about partners had come into the discussions they had been having. It was part of the complicity, and now their mention became part of it again in a different way. His hand was on hers for probably ten minutes, and then she kissed him: a kiss that indicated that she liked him, was feeling intimate with him, but that she should not be holding hands with a married man.

Nevertheless, over the next three months they would meet up twice a week in the afternoon and go back to the flat she shared with two other people who had day jobs. The flat was on a street near Haymarket station, cramped but cosy, with Katya’s room facing out onto the garden away from the street noise. Her flatmates were office workers rarely home before six, and so they would have three hours in each other’s company, discussing their lives while running their fingers along each other’s bodies, a light sensation close to a tickle turning into another announcement of desire. He didn’t like the feeling he would often have walking home afterwards, but the intoxication of the moment would also leave him feeling more himself than ever before. Yet are there times when we have two selves, and while one is elated, the other one can feel completely defeated, dejected. He couldn’t look his wife in the eye but couldn’t resist cuddling up to her whenever he could. Yet in these hugs there was no erotic possibility at all. He would hug her like the mother he needed and a daughter he ought to look after.

Morris said he didn’t feel very good about himself at all, of course; yet he also acknowledged there was a burgeoning sense of possibility, of privacy, that he had never really activated before. I asked him to say more about this because it was always my assumption that he hadn’t needed solitude, that though Morris and I had been friends for years, I always assumed we were temperamentally so very different. I had been since a child someone given to secrets. I would never lie, just as I would never steal, as though I couldn’t tolerate the possibility of being caught and another person, or authority, having power over my behaviour. That would be an invasion of my secrecy, an exposure of it. Yet I would frequently hold from others information about myself, my whereabouts, and even if I felt the need, my age and where I was from. Now I would never make anything up. This is why I think liars are inept at controlling the nature of withholding. They give too much away about themselves initially and then have to retain privacy with dishonesty. I would be much more careful with the truths I would reveal so that I was not in a position to cover myself with a lie. For example, if I had told Morris that Jenny and I had talked late into the evening that night at the hotel, then perhaps he would have asked me whether anything had happened between us.  Most people I have found are only curious when it concerns them: if you give a piece of information they can get jealous over, obsessed by, then they will work very hard to learn more. But until that personal aspect has been activated, most people graze peacefully in their own ignorance of others. People usually function off a need to know emotional basis; their place in the world defining what they might be curious over. Even when a husband asks his wife how was her day, he asks with the casual curiosity of politeness, but if he happened to see her at lunchtime sitting with another man, that question would then possesses a forensic curiosity. The art of honesty within secrecy resides perhaps in making sure you never activate in another this sense of enquiry.

Yet as I have said, Morris and I are very different personalities, and it was as though he happened to be losing the innocence of his being at a very mature age, and finding in the nature of secrecy the capacity for dishonesty. I asked him more about Katya.
He said that a fortnight earlier he had told her that he could not continue seeing her, and she shrugged her shoulders as if to say that she enjoyed the attention he had bestowed upon her but hadn’t offered so much in return that it would hurt her if they were to part. I said he was maybe too harsh about her and too easy on himself. Perhaps, he admitted, but she didn’t protest at all, saying that her boyfriend would probably be visiting her in a couple of weeks anyway. He had no idea whether she was being cynically pragmatic or emotionally self-protective, but after a week or two, he felt little guilt towards Katya and oddly not very much towards Fran either.

Yet he would feel like a chasm was in front of him as he walked, talked, worked, ate and tried to sleep. He would show indecision towards the simplest things, standing for minutes in an aisle in a supermarket choosing between two cereals without caring which one he would end up eating. He started going out again at night but while before he seemed to be doing so with a hope he couldn’t name until he called it Katya, now he was doing so trying to get anxiety out of his nerves. He didn’t seem to know who he was anymore, and believed not only was he living with a stranger that happened to be his wife, but that he was a stranger to himself too. Fran didn’t seem to suspect anything at all, and had over the previous couple of months been focusing on an exhibition through in Glasgow. The painting Jenny had done he would never see: she put it up in her studio, which he would almost never enter. They were living estranged lives, but he was living an even more estranged one from himself.

9

I had always believed Morris to be a good person, and that goodness rested partly on the characteristics of impetuousness and generosity. Yet I think oddly it would be the former over the latter that seemed to me a sign of a decent person more than the latter. Perhaps because I would say it was an aspect I lacked. I have never seen myself as a good person, knowing that most of my actions have been motivated not by base motives, I believe, but by delayed ones. When I started the short affair with Jenny it might have happened within thirty hours of meeting her in Edinburgh, but in the interim I had thought a great deal about whether to pursue an affair with her. I had thought about how it would start and how it might end. Whether it would be awkward having a casual affair with a good friend of my good friend’s wife. I thought about how attracted I happened to be to Jenny, and whether I had reservations enough to know it wouldn’t last, but desire enough to embark on it anyway. I, of course, wondered whether, during the party, Morris had feelings for Jenny, and perhaps went ahead as a way of protecting Fran and Morris’s marriage, or by way of competing with a friend. I wouldn’t wish to claim that I always knew my motives, only that I deliberated a great deal over them, and I was doing it again that afternoon when I wondered whether I should tell Morris about the affair with Jenny. I didn’t know whether I would be withholding the information to protect him, or to have knowledge over him, especially troublesome as he was appearing to be so open with me. There Morris was talking so directly about his situation, and telling me how terrible a person he believed himself to be, and there I was, neither sure whether I was good or bad, but aware that I had one thing on my mind and another that was coming out of my mouth. As Morris told me how awful he felt and how treacherous he had been, I saw in front of me someone who was open and honest, willing to address his misdemeanours and taking a risk on deepening a friendship or alienating a friend.

At that moment he said I should have told him of my affair with Jenny. As he said it I saw in Morris a self I hadn’t seen before, just as he claimed a new self had been created in him. I asked him how he knew: had Jenny told him or had she told Fran, who in turn told Morris? He said that wasn’t important; it only made him wonder how much more I might have been keeping from him over the years. One reason why he had been telling me about his own experience was partly to see if I would reveal my affair with Jenny. If he had always thought the best of others, believed people’s motives were pure, it resided he supposed in reckoning his happened to be too. Now he knew his motives weren’t; what about other people’s? Perhaps he had talked to me to find a little faith in another person and found instead in one of his best friends someone who wouldn’t even share his personal life as he had been sharing his.

I took a minute to reply; or rather said we should order another coffee, got up, walked over to the counter and ordered a couple of lattes and called over to ask if he wanted anything to eat. He said he would take a chocolate brownie. I ordered the same. I suppose I wanted to feel we were sharing something just as we perhaps seemed at that moment to have so little in common. As I waited for the coffees to be made, the barista said she would take them over to the table and I said not to worry I would wait and take them myself as a few people serendipitously joined the queue. I was sure she could do with all the help she could get; she was the only one working in this compact cafe that had four tables and mainly functioned as a take-away. I was again obviously telling a little white lie and making myself out to be a better person than I happened to be as the young woman behind the counter smiled and said thank you. I looked across at Morris and saw someone who appeared like his mind was elsewhere; a common enough phrase and commonly applied, but it wouldn’t have been one I would usually have thought of when watching Morris from a distance. He was someone who seemed attentive to the world around him as though keen to contribute in any way he might. But there he was instead looking on at me, probably believing I had created an excuse to think more thoughts to myself before talking to him.

When I returned I said that he was probably right, I wouldn’t have shared with him the affair with Jenny. I could not give him a reason for this but I offered self-speculation as my attempt at honesty. There were several possible reasons. One was that she was a friend of Fran’s and perhaps I thought there was something tactless in engaging in the affair; another was that I thought Morris might have been attracted to her and didn’t want to hear details about a fling with her that I had been having. The third was that I wanted to reveal it in my own time; his revelation had been in his. He looked at me with a scepticism I had never seen on his face before, and I admitted I probably wouldn’t have said anything, but that I have always been suspicious of the counter-confession; the idea that after hearing someone open themselves up, one should do likewise. To do so is not always so sincere, I suggested, because it might feel too obligatory. It is a bit like the counter compliment. Someone offers a nice remark; you feel obliged to offer one back. Everything has its place, I proposed, and too often this place is dislodged by the social niceties and expectations.

10

What I didn’t offer was that I would probably never have told Morris about the affair with Jenny because I enjoyed keeping things from others, as if to reveal my affair would have been to create in me the antithesis of the crisis in him. I have in the course of my life been found out on a few occasions. When I was twelve I would steal from a toy shop and was caught on about the sixth theft. At fourteen I was caught cheating in an exam, and at sixteen kissing a friend’s girlfriend at a party that he couldn’t attend. I never confessed to these things: in other words, there was no relationship between the events and my conscience, my interior world and its exposure in external reality That is the point of being caught. I have sometimes wondered since then if I have become more moral it has little to do with being an ethical person, but instead one insisting that he must never again be discovered. It is as though much of my life has been based on this principle. People have often said to me that I seem like a private person, and I suppose they are more right than they may realize.

Yet here I am on the page writing down what might seem like a confession, and yet it was instigated by a quiet collapse on the part of my friend. I haven’t seen him for several months, but I will be going up to Edinburgh next week at the instigation of his wife, who emailed me with some of the urgency Morris had offered emailing me almost a year earlier, saying that he has hardly been communicating with her at all, has been missing appointments at work, and had often going out on his own in the evenings. I have emailed him several times since our last meeting but haven’t received a reply. My feeling is that he has not started seeing again Katya, but that he has instead found an aspect of himself that he cannot easily share with others, perhaps after many years of believing that he could do so with ease, assuming that if he had no secrets then nobody else had either. That is a myth he cannot sustain in the wake of his own behaviour, and one I don’t think I have ever believed in. I have always assumed people have motives beyond their recognized behaviour, and if we don’t acknowledge it then it remains in our subconscious. I do think there are good people and bad, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that good people reveal and bad people hide: that the nicer the person happens to be the more transparent they are. What I will say is that I think many very fine people are also transparent, and that is how I had perceived Morris. Yet there are those who are direct in their expression but have little control over their subconscious motives, and these are not always good, just as there are those whose conscious motivations aren’t always bad, while in others they are pernicious. I suppose one reason I have written this story is to try and understand an aspect of my own ‘goodness’, and perhaps to try to comprehend an aspect of Morris’s crisis, as I feel I may have to send him this tale if we are going to save our friendship, assuming his well-being can countenance its continuation.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Motives

1

Sometimes the nicest of gestures can lead to the most underhand of actions: that there is a logic to events that dissolves apparently strong categories like the good and the bad. I think a friend of mine got caught in this ferocious logic, and I wonder how long it might take him to recover from it, and also whether our friendship can survive the insights it might have given him.

I hadn't seen the friend in a while. We would get in contact, text and email each other, but whenever I was up in Scotland we never quite found the time to meet. When in one email he insisted that we really should meet up, I sensed it was because something had gone wrong and not only that I should attend a key social event. We had been friends all through secondary school, had some contact with each other while we studied in the same town, and no communication at all for a couple of years after that. Then, around ten years ago, we found ourselves in the same city (London) and for about five years were closer than we had ever been.

It was while Morris was in London that he met his wife, married her within nine months and I was his best man. If two words could capture his nature I would offer the generous and the impetuous. He would rarely plan anything, and his generosity never appeared to possess a hidden motive. He would give because he had the money and was in the mood. I recall once that around eight of us went for a meal and at the end of it he said he had a double announcement to make. He had been given a promotion at work (he was in a law firm), and he was going to pay for everyone's dinner. The restaurant wasn't cheap (the chef would sometimes appear on television, talking about the importance of locally sourced, organic produce), and we had ordered between us six bottles of wine that had come recommended by the manager and from a well-regarded vineyard in the south of France. A few of us protested, saying if anything everyone else should be paying for his meal: he was the one who deserved the reward. Nonsense, he insisted, merry but hardly drunk, his cheeks flushed as they often were with modest alcohol consumption and an enthusiasm for company. His girlfriend, and now wife, Fran, was by his side (they had met a couple of months earlier), and she looked at him like a woman in love with the most wonderful man she could possibly have hoped to meet. She wouldn't have been wrong, so what had changed I wondered as we finally met up again?

We met in a bar in Edinburgh: he had moved back to our home city when a job in a small law firm became available, and I was up for a week visiting my parents as well as for his wife's 30th. It was a windy, Friday evening, around seven thirty, and the pub at the end of Rose Street was full of people in suits winding down after no doubt working hard, letting off steam by getting steamed. Most of the conversations around us were loud and boisterous, and more than once the table shook as someone passed on their way to the bathroom, negotiating the floor like they were thousands of feet in the air, or on a fast-moving train. The smells were of fruity perfumes and musky aftershaves, and occasionally, when at the bar, you could catch the smell of bad breath as someone ordered another round, without having consumed food probably since breakfast, and underarm sweat that another's aftershave couldn't quite conceal. I wondered why he had chosen this pub, but when I look back it seems somehow sensorially appropriate; not only as a useful place where the loudness of others could give space and room to the clandestine nature of our own discussion.

He told me as he pointed to a large rectangular object next to him that he had wanted to surprise Fran on her 30th birthday. In recent years they had been trying to have a child without any success and, coming from Bristol, she hadn't quite managed to adjust to the city, seeing Scotland as a different country, with codes and values she didn't always feel she understood. Of course, he would often say to her how much he loved her, but he wanted to illustrate it in a gesture rather than in words, and so what he did was commission a painting that she would know nothing about until the moment she would unwrap it when she turned thirty. While she never quite felt at home in Scotland, there was a coastal village they had visited the previous year and a few weeks afterwards they had been sitting up in bed eating croissants and trying to keep the crumbs on the plate, or in their mouths, when she said that maybe she could get used to living in Scotland. Why, he asked. She told him of that moment several weeks earlier when they walked up the hill behind the village and looked down, seeing the port, the castle, the centre. She had said to herself that, finally, she had fallen in love with Scotland, and that it had taken her a lot longer than it had falling in love with a Scotsman.

She offered this to him around four months before her birthday, and he wanted the scene to be painted by a friend of hers whom they had met while living in London. The friend was an artist who worked in what she herself called concrete abstracts: paintings that sought to achieve the reality of the image out of the abstraction of colour. You wouldn't see the landscape in the line but only in the colour shades. Nothing new in that, perhaps, but it gave her work a sense of the landscape without reducing it to a pretty picture. It was important that Fran would recognize the view, but that it would still constitute a work of art: after all, she taught art part-time in a well-respected Edinburgh college, and wouldn't have accepted kitsch however meaningful the gesture behind it.

Anyway, Morris didn't have a direct contact for the friend, so went online, found the email address on her website, and then sent her a message explaining what he wanted her to do. Over the next week, they exchanged a dozen emails; he sent her various images - she said that while the photos were useful she would almost always paint from direct experience. She would get a train up to Scotland at the earliest opportunity and with a ticket at the cheapest possible price. She went ahead and booked saying that the least expensive ticket was from London to Edinburgh; she would get a train to the west coast from there. She could meet him briefly in the city if he were free, and they could talk a bit more about what he thought Fran would want.

3

He met her off the train at Waverley, and they had lunch together in a basement vegetarian restaurant about fifteen minutes' walk away. She had all afternoon: she would get a train to Glasgow, stay the night, spend the following day looking at Charles Rennie Mackintosh's architecture, and the work of the Glasgow school of the eighties. Then on she would go to the village to paint. It was an adventure, she said, and thanked him for giving her the opportunity to embark on one. Morris had never conversed with Jenny before - she was Fran's friend, and the only occasion they had talked had been in group company. It would have been no more than a few minutes sitting next to each other in a bar, or at a restaurant. She had usually been single during the time he had known her in London, though there was an ex-boyfriend she would occasionally sleep with, Fran had said, and the occasional assignation. She was in her mid-thirties with a slender, willow look, cheekbones that were a sign of good bone structure but also nervous energy: she looked like a woman who could never quite put on weight, and her thinness made her eyes look even bigger than they were. She always seemed to him to appear amazed or surprised, and with her long straight hair she could look skeletal and undernourished in the pale of winter, but lithe and buoyant with a summer tan.

By the end of the discussion three hours later, he knew that he would have to rush to make a four o'clock work appointment, and knew that he would have liked to sit with Jenny for longer. She had talked to him about art in a manner that made his ignorance seem like curiosity, while with Fran it sometimes seemed the other way round. He was disappointed when she said she would be getting the train back from Glasgow, and would not be passing through Edinburgh again. He asked her to send him an image of the painting after it was done, and any other sketches or paintings that she had been working on during the trip. Perhaps Morris would have developed feelings for Jenny if he had thought Jenny had the capacity to project feelings onto him, but he had to admit there was no sense in which she had done so, and he felt, by the next day, more relief than rejection. He loved Fran, and though she could be a little patronising, though she would occasionally ask for more time alone to write up an essay or work in the library than he would have wished, they were a good couple, that is what friends would always say. They complemented each other. In his more insecure moments, he would think about that phrase, believing the complementary aspect was that she was artistic, intellectual and confident, and he was diligent, reliable and with a steady income. He didn't mention the impetuous or the generous, even if that was always how I saw him. Is this why I thought he was capable of an affair that he himself probably couldn't have seen coming?

Over the next few weeks, he was in contact with Jenny every few days and he looked forward to the emails that would ping into his inbox, and realised that it wasn't that he had fallen for Jenny; more that he needed in his life an element of mystery: that his marriage seemed to have removed that possibility in his personality. While he had never been one to cultivate it anyway, had as I knew never been a regular lover at university or afterwards, the short term relationships he would have, and the single status he would usually possess, meant that he could keep himself to himself and his mystery intact. This would have been no more than the mysteriousness that we all have when we are alone; that we have no one to phone saying we will be home late, no one to wonder whether they should pick up a takeway for dinner, or to ask us what the weekend plans will be because friends have invited us over for food. It might usually be referred to as loneliness.

The opposite of that loneliness, however, is predictability, and this was a characteristic he believed could always have defined him. When I suggested Morris was impetuous that didn't at all make him surprising. He would suggest paying the bill, turning up with gifts for people, and even at university when none of us had much money he would be the first at the bar insisting on getting the round. I would sometimes ask him whether he was being a bit reckless with his cash, but that was Morris: it was partly what made him predictable. Unpredictability would have to come from elsewhere. He asked me that day if I knew anything about something the French called acte gratuit and, good literature student that I happened to be (I teach comparative literature in a London college), I explained it was a term used by a French writer in a novel from 1914. It concerns an unmotivated act, someone throws someone off the train and there is no reason to link the killing to the murderer because there is no possible motive for the crime. It also means that the murderer has created a curiously disinterested act: there is no benefit accruing from the action, nor any hatred for the person whom he kills. Morris wondered if there can be actions instigated lovably and acted upon deceitfully. Maybe the act wasn't gratuitous he insisted, but it was as though it was happening to someone else.

He went on to say that during these email exchanges with Jenny, he felt that he was both betraying Fran and discovering a new aspect of his personality, but under the rubric of a good deed that didn't leave him at all questioning his scruples. Whatever attraction towards Jenny he sensed, was contained by the gesture of kindness towards Fran and he said it would have seemed a violation had anything happened between Jenny and himself.
A couple of nights before Fran's birthday (the night before our meeting) he met up with Jenny who was staying at the travel lodge in the Grassmarket. As he asked at reception for Jenny Harrow, so the receptionist phoned the room, spoke briefly to her, and said that he could continue up to her room on the third floor. Morris tapped on the door and she said in a quiet voice that it should be unlocked but that, as he entered, he should keep his eyes closed. She would tell him when he could open them. Of course, he was like a lover waiting to see his mistress stand before him unclothed, and as he opened his eyes what he saw in front of him was a painting that he had commissioned. Perhaps a new-born baby they had jointly consummated would be a useful metaphor to describe how he felt, he proposed to me, begging my literary forgiveness if the imagery seemed a bit weak. I said he was doing just fine, and that he had narrated his story up until this point with some skill, enough for me to get a sense of context for a tale that I was about to enter, since I too was, of course, going to be his wife's thirtieth birthday.

5

I had arrived the night before the party, and happened to be staying too in the hotel in the grassmarket near to where the party would be (Fran had sent a joint email recommending it), and it was later that evening, about an hour after Morris and I had parted, that I saw Jenny in the cafe bar. I'd decided to stay in town for a couple of nights and then go and stay at my parents place, who lived about eight miles out of the centre, in Balerno. I had met Jenny only a couple of times before, and years earlier in London, but hadn't talked to her at all, and while I might have assumed it was someone else in other circumstances, she would have been someone I half-expected to see staying in a city centre hotel the night before the birthday party of one of her best friend's. She was sitting at a table by the window and I glanced across a couple of times. As she looked back I couldn't quite tell if she recognized me, thought I was an admirer or a potential lover, and to clarify the situation I went over and announced who I was and said that we had met before. She said she thought it must have been a friend of Fran and Morris's, saying that yes, now she remembered me. I took it initially as a slight, but later she explained it was more a trick of the light; that the light falling on her near the window was much more pronounced than the gloom by the bar.

She said this a few hours later. We had gone to eat at a restaurant Fran had recommended (just as we had both found ourselves staying in a hotel Fran suggested), then strolled around the city centre afterwards. We walked from the restaurant on Nicholson Street, walked down Drummond Street, then wound our way down to the parliament, before arriving near the top of Leith Walk. Walking along Princes Street during the spring night the moon was a half-crescent and the sky a fractured blue. I said to Jenny what I liked most about Scotland was its sky; it was rarely static. She said she wanted to hire a cottage for a month or two sometime and focus on exactly that. She then began a sentence that she didn't finish, and I asked what she was about to say. It was nothing: I would find out about it soon enough, she insisted. Arriving back at the hotel I asked if she would like to sit for a while in the bar. We talked through till 2 in the morning. Neither of us had to get up early, and the party wouldn't be till 7 in the evening. My only commitment was meeting Morris at 2 o'clock. She looked at me as though I perhaps knew something she also knew, but again didn't say anything.

6

I met Morris at a basement cafe a few hundred yards from the hotel, and with the sky countering my claims of the previous evening (it was a uniform grey), it seemed apt enough. Morris appeared both excited and agitated. I asked him why he seemed so on edge, and he said I would find out soon enough, echoing Jenny's remark of the previous evening. For some reason, I didn't tell him that I had spoken with her for hours into the night, and he, of course, wouldn't have assumed that we had. During those years we knew each other well in London, when Morris and I would meet up we wouldn't always have the most scintillating chat, but I had never before found myself sitting with him on a subtext that neither wished to explain.

The venue hired for Fran's birthday was a place called The Counting House, not far from the restaurant Jenny and I had eaten in. There were about eighty people and outside caterers provided the cuisine in the smaller room, and a ceilidh band were setting up in the main one. Most of the presents Fran received were handed to her as people entered, including my modest gift: a book by her favourite art critic about Spinoza, including the art critic's own drawings. Yet it wasn't till later in the evening, after the food had been consumed, the band had been playing for an hour, and the chat had become louder with inebriation, that Morris stood up, signalled for the band to take a break, and said he would just like to take a moment to thank everyone for coming - that he had a final present to give to his beloved wife. Removing the wrapping she gasped in pleasure as she saw the painting, gave Morris a lengthy and loving kiss, then carried on over to where Jenny, I nd a few others were sitting and hugged her friend saying that she loved the painting, loved the gesture, loved the surprise.

Afterwards, I said to Jenny it was a well-kept secret; there we had been talking for hours the previous night and she hadn't said a word about it. She replied that she had always been one for secrets and I suppose our affair would become another one. She wasn't looking for a commitment, she said to me later that night in her hotel room bed, and so for the next few months we would meet at weekends, either at her flat in Crouch End, or mine a few minutes from King's Cross: we'd screw, eat, watch a film, screw and sleep. Sometimes we would go out for dinner, often for a walk the following day, but we never met each other's friends, and when she suggested after the summer that she was no longer so interested in continuing I concurred. I had started sleeping with someone else a few weeks earlier, anyway, sensing that Jenny was soon to end the affair. She wanted it to remain a secret, and I would sometimes suggest it might have been to protect Morris's feelings, as I didn't tell her about the conversation I had with Morris the night before the party. When she told me how often they had emailed during that period over the painting, I said I wondered if Morris had become infatuated with her, even joking whether they might have had an affair. She managed to keep a secret over the present, and was doing the same with her affair with me, why not over Morris? I had noticed that evening during Fran's birthday party that Morris would sometimes look across as if wondering what might be happening between Jenny and me. It didn't seem to me to be the look of a friend happy that people he knew had hooked up; more the surreptitious glance of someone with some thoughts on his mind about the situation in front of his eyes.

7

But having spoken to Morris the night before that party it seemed to me clear that nothing had happened between him and Jenny, and I didn't tell him anything about Jenny and me. Of course, some might wonder if I wasn't opening up to Morris, why should I assume he wasn't keeping something from me also. I suppose I couldn't see the point of Morris coming to me with a confession only to reveal the half of it. Though Morris, in time, would have an affair, it clearly wasn't with Jenny as he told me on my next visit up north, around three months after the birthday party. The months following the party, Morris felt a little lost and listless. He had contacted Jenny a couple of times, but though she replied there was nothing to suggest she wanted to remain in touch: she was Fran's friend after all and not his, and he assumed that she wanted to make clear that any secretiveness between them was for a good cause, and that cause was no longer applicable. He didn't think he wanted an affair with Jenny, but he missed badly the complicity he had built up with her over those months, and it occurred to me as Morris was telling me this, that perhaps Jenny knew she was going to miss it too, and continued that complicity instead with me.

When Morris was at home with Fran he seemed increasingly distracted, didn't appear interested in engaging in conversation with her and would sometimes go out for walks after dinner, trying not so much to clear his head as extricate himself from domesticity. When she asked where he was going he would say nowhere in particular, he was thinking about a case and thought a walk would be better than sitting in his study. He suspected she wouldn't miss him: they would both often disappear into their own spaces (for him the study; for her the studio), but wondered if she mused over this change of habit; what it would say to her about their marriage. He certainly found himself musing over this during these wanderings, and while he couldn't find an answer he did instead find a lover. In the middle of these walks that would last from about 830 till 1030 he would stop off for half an hour and have a drink at the New Town pub about fifteen minutes from the flat. Working there was a Polish woman who he discovered was in her early thirties, and who began after the first week to start asking him questions. She had assumed he was new to the area, and he said not as new as it might seem, offering the remark with resignation that she nevertheless seemed to take as an enigmatic comment. Over those few weeks when he started going out after dinner, he wouldn't always go to the pub, and she wouldn't always be working, but when she was she would ask him a few questions. While he never lied he always answered as though there was something left unsaid in the divulgence.

8

He would have been going into the pub for more than a month, and seeing her there about twice a week, when she said that she found Edinburgh an easy city to live in but a hard city in which to get to know people. He said that she could get to know him, and reckoned when he said it that it came from a desire to be friendly rather than a wish to seduce. I believed him; there was nothing in his manner that would ever suggest to anyone the charms of the seducer. What he suggested to women I suspect was a feeling of safety and security, and this is what I imagine he conveyed to Katya. When they started meeting each other, instead of visiting Katya in the pub he would meet her twice a week in the afternoons. He would take time off work and catch up later in the evenings. They usually met in the back room of a small cafe in Stockbridge, would then go for various walks by the canal, at the Botanics, or just walk into the city centre and around Princes Street Gardens. After a couple of weeks, they were sitting on a bench in the Gardens, looking up at the castle in front of them and Weeping Ashes behind them, and he recalled the heavy bearing leaves swooshing quietly in the light breeze.

She must have known he was married since he made no effort to disguise his wedding ring, but he supposed she might have thought he was estranged from his partner or divorced, but that afternoon he put his hand on hers and said he was a married man and that he shouldn't be taking afternoons off work to walk around the streets and parks of the city with a woman he couldn't pretend he wasn't attracted to. It was an impetuous sentence full of mixed messages and she received it with a surprising equinimity. She could have been annoyed for various reasons but instead respected his honesty. She had an ex-boyfriend in Poland, but they were still in contact each week, so perhaps they hadn't parted at all, except geographically. She asked him about his wife since she already knew much about his work, and it was obvious that quite deliberately no conversation about partners had come into the discussions they had been having. It was part of the complicity, and now their mention became part of it again in a different way. His hand was on hers for probably ten minutes, and then she kissed him: a kiss that indicated that she liked him, was feeling intimate with him, but that she should not be holding hands with a married man.

Nevertheless, over the next three months they would meet up twice a week in the afternoon and go back to the flat she shared with two other people who had day jobs. The flat was on a street near Haymarket station, cramped but cosy, with Katya's room facing out onto the garden away from the street noise. Her flatmates were office workers rarely home before six, and so they would have three hours in each other's company, discussing their lives while running their fingers along each other's bodies, a light sensation close to a tickle turning into another announcement of desire. He didn't like the feeling he would often have walking home afterwards, but the intoxication of the moment would also leave him feeling more himself than ever before. Yet are there times when we have two selves, and while one is elated, the other one can feel completely defeated, dejected. He couldn't look his wife in the eye but couldn't resist cuddling up to her whenever he could. Yet in these hugs there was no erotic possibility at all. He would hug her like the mother he needed and a daughter he ought to look after.

Morris said he didn't feel very good about himself at all, of course; yet he also acknowledged there was a burgeoning sense of possibility, of privacy, that he had never really activated before. I asked him to say more about this because it was always my assumption that he hadn't needed solitude, that though Morris and I had been friends for years, I always assumed we were temperamentally so very different. I had been since a child someone given to secrets. I would never lie, just as I would never steal, as though I couldn't tolerate the possibility of being caught and another person, or authority, having power over my behaviour. That would be an invasion of my secrecy, an exposure of it. Yet I would frequently hold from others information about myself, my whereabouts, and even if I felt the need, my age and where I was from. Now I would never make anything up. This is why I think liars are inept at controlling the nature of withholding. They give too much away about themselves initially and then have to retain privacy with dishonesty. I would be much more careful with the truths I would reveal so that I was not in a position to cover myself with a lie. For example, if I had told Morris that Jenny and I had talked late into the evening that night at the hotel, then perhaps he would have asked me whether anything had happened between us. Most people I have found are only curious when it concerns them: if you give a piece of information they can get jealous over, obsessed by, then they will work very hard to learn more. But until that personal aspect has been activated, most people graze peacefully in their own ignorance of others. People usually function off a need to know emotional basis; their place in the world defining what they might be curious over. Even when a husband asks his wife how was her day, he asks with the casual curiosity of politeness, but if he happened to see her at lunchtime sitting with another man, that question would then possesses a forensic curiosity. The art of honesty within secrecy resides perhaps in making sure you never activate in another this sense of enquiry.

Yet as I have said, Morris and I are very different personalities, and it was as though he happened to be losing the innocence of his being at a very mature age, and finding in the nature of secrecy the capacity for dishonesty. I asked him more about Katya.
He said that a fortnight earlier he had told her that he could not continue seeing her, and she shrugged her shoulders as if to say that she enjoyed the attention he had bestowed upon her but hadn't offered so much in return that it would hurt her if they were to part. I said he was maybe too harsh about her and too easy on himself. Perhaps, he admitted, but she didn't protest at all, saying that her boyfriend would probably be visiting her in a couple of weeks anyway. He had no idea whether she was being cynically pragmatic or emotionally self-protective, but after a week or two, he felt little guilt towards Katya and oddly not very much towards Fran either.

Yet he would feel like a chasm was in front of him as he walked, talked, worked, ate and tried to sleep. He would show indecision towards the simplest things, standing for minutes in an aisle in a supermarket choosing between two cereals without caring which one he would end up eating. He started going out again at night but while before he seemed to be doing so with a hope he couldn't name until he called it Katya, now he was doing so trying to get anxiety out of his nerves. He didn't seem to know who he was anymore, and believed not only was he living with a stranger that happened to be his wife, but that he was a stranger to himself too. Fran didn't seem to suspect anything at all, and had over the previous couple of months been focusing on an exhibition through in Glasgow. The painting Jenny had done he would never see: she put it up in her studio, which he would almost never enter. They were living estranged lives, but he was living an even more estranged one from himself.

9

I had always believed Morris to be a good person, and that goodness rested partly on the characteristics of impetuousness and generosity. Yet I think oddly it would be the former over the latter that seemed to me a sign of a decent person more than the latter. Perhaps because I would say it was an aspect I lacked. I have never seen myself as a good person, knowing that most of my actions have been motivated not by base motives, I believe, but by delayed ones. When I started the short affair with Jenny it might have happened within thirty hours of meeting her in Edinburgh, but in the interim I had thought a great deal about whether to pursue an affair with her. I had thought about how it would start and how it might end. Whether it would be awkward having a casual affair with a good friend of my good friend's wife. I thought about how attracted I happened to be to Jenny, and whether I had reservations enough to know it wouldn't last, but desire enough to embark on it anyway. I, of course, wondered whether, during the party, Morris had feelings for Jenny, and perhaps went ahead as a way of protecting Fran and Morris's marriage, or by way of competing with a friend. I wouldn't wish to claim that I always knew my motives, only that I deliberated a great deal over them, and I was doing it again that afternoon when I wondered whether I should tell Morris about the affair with Jenny. I didn't know whether I would be withholding the information to protect him, or to have knowledge over him, especially troublesome as he was appearing to be so open with me. There Morris was talking so directly about his situation, and telling me how terrible a person he believed himself to be, and there I was, neither sure whether I was good or bad, but aware that I had one thing on my mind and another that was coming out of my mouth. As Morris told me how awful he felt and how treacherous he had been, I saw in front of me someone who was open and honest, willing to address his misdemeanours and taking a risk on deepening a friendship or alienating a friend.

At that moment he said I should have told him of my affair with Jenny. As he said it I saw in Morris a self I hadn't seen before, just as he claimed a new self had been created in him. I asked him how he knew: had Jenny told him or had she told Fran, who in turn told Morris? He said that wasn't important; it only made him wonder how much more I might have been keeping from him over the years. One reason why he had been telling me about his own experience was partly to see if I would reveal my affair with Jenny. If he had always thought the best of others, believed people's motives were pure, it resided he supposed in reckoning his happened to be too. Now he knew his motives weren't; what about other people's? Perhaps he had talked to me to find a little faith in another person and found instead in one of his best friends someone who wouldn't even share his personal life as he had been sharing his.

I took a minute to reply; or rather said we should order another coffee, got up, walked over to the counter and ordered a couple of lattes and called over to ask if he wanted anything to eat. He said he would take a chocolate brownie. I ordered the same. I suppose I wanted to feel we were sharing something just as we perhaps seemed at that moment to have so little in common. As I waited for the coffees to be made, the barista said she would take them over to the table and I said not to worry I would wait and take them myself as a few people serendipitously joined the queue. I was sure she could do with all the help she could get; she was the only one working in this compact cafe that had four tables and mainly functioned as a take-away. I was again obviously telling a little white lie and making myself out to be a better person than I happened to be as the young woman behind the counter smiled and said thank you. I looked across at Morris and saw someone who appeared like his mind was elsewhere; a common enough phrase and commonly applied, but it wouldn't have been one I would usually have thought of when watching Morris from a distance. He was someone who seemed attentive to the world around him as though keen to contribute in any way he might. But there he was instead looking on at me, probably believing I had created an excuse to think more thoughts to myself before talking to him.

When I returned I said that he was probably right, I wouldn't have shared with him the affair with Jenny. I could not give him a reason for this but I offered self-speculation as my attempt at honesty. There were several possible reasons. One was that she was a friend of Fran's and perhaps I thought there was something tactless in engaging in the affair; another was that I thought Morris might have been attracted to her and didn't want to hear details about a fling with her that I had been having. The third was that I wanted to reveal it in my own time; his revelation had been in his. He looked at me with a scepticism I had never seen on his face before, and I admitted I probably wouldn't have said anything, but that I have always been suspicious of the counter-confession; the idea that after hearing someone open themselves up, one should do likewise. To do so is not always so sincere, I suggested, because it might feel too obligatory. It is a bit like the counter compliment. Someone offers a nice remark; you feel obliged to offer one back. Everything has its place, I proposed, and too often this place is dislodged by the social niceties and expectations.

10

What I didn't offer was that I would probably never have told Morris about the affair with Jenny because I enjoyed keeping things from others, as if to reveal my affair would have been to create in me the antithesis of the crisis in him. I have in the course of my life been found out on a few occasions. When I was twelve I would steal from a toy shop and was caught on about the sixth theft. At fourteen I was caught cheating in an exam, and at sixteen kissing a friend's girlfriend at a party that he couldn't attend. I never confessed to these things: in other words, there was no relationship between the events and my conscience, my interior world and its exposure in external reality That is the point of being caught. I have sometimes wondered since then if I have become more moral it has little to do with being an ethical person, but instead one insisting that he must never again be discovered. It is as though much of my life has been based on this principle. People have often said to me that I seem like a private person, and I suppose they are more right than they may realize.

Yet here I am on the page writing down what might seem like a confession, and yet it was instigated by a quiet collapse on the part of my friend. I haven't seen him for several months, but I will be going up to Edinburgh next week at the instigation of his wife, who emailed me with some of the urgency Morris had offered emailing me almost a year earlier, saying that he has hardly been communicating with her at all, has been missing appointments at work, and had often going out on his own in the evenings. I have emailed him several times since our last meeting but haven't received a reply. My feeling is that he has not started seeing again Katya, but that he has instead found an aspect of himself that he cannot easily share with others, perhaps after many years of believing that he could do so with ease, assuming that if he had no secrets then nobody else had either. That is a myth he cannot sustain in the wake of his own behaviour, and one I don't think I have ever believed in. I have always assumed people have motives beyond their recognized behaviour, and if we don't acknowledge it then it remains in our subconscious. I do think there are good people and bad, but I wouldn't want to suggest that good people reveal and bad people hide: that the nicer the person happens to be the more transparent they are. What I will say is that I think many very fine people are also transparent, and that is how I had perceived Morris. Yet there are those who are direct in their expression but have little control over their subconscious motives, and these are not always good, just as there are those whose conscious motivations aren't always bad, while in others they are pernicious. I suppose one reason I have written this story is to try and understand an aspect of my own 'goodness', and perhaps to try to comprehend an aspect of Morris's crisis, as I feel I may have to send him this tale if we are going to save our friendship, assuming his well-being can countenance its continuation.


© Tony McKibbin