Perhaps a certain type of empathy in friendship can hide blind spots elsewhere. That giving our thoughts over to one person can indicate far more our inconsiderateness towards others, and yet speculation takes many forms without always indicating depth of feeling. I believe I had always given much thought to my closest friend, and at the same time, we would explore these thoughts in numerous conversations over many years. But let us say this story is about a certain type of egotism, a failure of feeling, finally, rather than a surfeit of it.
I had been talking for about three hours with this friend in the Highlands whom I would see whenever I would visit my parents, north of Inverness. He was more conversationally subdued and yet more emotionally excited than usual. On the way up and on the way back we would meet, sometimes go to a restaurant, go for a walk or on occasion, if time were limited, sit for a while in a cafe. That was exactly what we had been doing that day when he seemed not quite himself. It is a common enough phrase but of course contains within it an uncommon set of feelings, and that afternoon I couldn't quite work out what was going on in Jake's mind, someone who would usually go to great lengths to explore what he had been thinking about in the periods between meetings. Only once before in our twenty-year friendship had we been unable to speak to each other, and that was for very understandable reasons I will later divulge.
We had been chatting from around three to six before I left to catch my 630 train and I thought there was something amiss about ten minutes into our conversation. I had arrived first, found a table near the window in a cafe across from the shopping centre at the end of the high street. I chose it over a couple of our other regulars because the windows were steamed up and I knew it would be warm; earlier that day I had sat with my brother in another cafe where we had kept our jackets on throughout lunch and it robbed us of the conviviality we had shown to each other a couple of days earlier at our parents, where we had become merry on a 21yr old bottle of Malt whisky he had bought me as a present. But that was whisky savoured in front of an open fire; at lunch we sat hunched over our soup, conversation slow and tired. I was looking forward to meeting Jake knowing that the chat was usually quick and open, and determined that a steamy, warm cafe was necessary.
Yet when he walked in he appeared displeased with my choice as he asked why I'd chosen this cafe over one at the other end of the high street as I explained that I had already been there with my brother and that it had been too cold. He commented on the windows being steamed up, a remark that I would only much later assume was the opposite of a non sequitur. I asked him how Christmas went, well aware that before it he hadn't seen his wife in some months and his daughter for a few weeks. He and his wife had separated and were negotiating whether or not to get back together: Christmas had been the test, and we had talked a few days before, as I had arrived off the train and thrown my bags temporarily in his car. We took in the remainder of the dwindling daylight to walk along by the river and across a series of small island to the other side of the town and back again, across the bridge that had taken us out of the town centre. He said then that he had missed them, or at least missed the domestic routine of planting and sewing in the garden at the house they owned on the Black Isle, putting his daughter to bed, plonking himself on the couch next to his wife and watching a couple of episodes of a TV series. Watching the same show in the bedsit he had rented in the town centre illustrated both the impoverishment of the show and of his predicament: in a moment of illuminating disillusionment, he said he wasn't sure whether to change the channel or return to his life. His energy that day while we walked seemed minimal yet his need to talk pronounced. In the cafe it was the opposite as he couldn't quite keep still and would offer distracted remarks that lacked his usual need for enquiry and revelation. I asked him how he felt staying in the family home for the first time in several months; what they had for Christmas dinner; which presents did his daughter Megan receive, and each time he would reply with answers that anybody could have given. Usually when we would talk it wasn't as though these small details would have been so important, but they were vivid, and would allow us to talk about other things - thoughts and feelings - no less precise. When at one moment he asked me if I believed in the Loch Ness Monster I wondered if the talk could get any smaller, any less consequential.
I said goodbye to Jake outside the cafe, strolled along to the station, my body warm from the cafe heating despite the frost under my feet, the cold that turned my breath into hot air, and thought of the coldness that had come off Jake. Why had he been so frosty, a word I would never have associated with him before, and that made me muse over what it means as a term of light abuse. It was as though his temperature had dropped a few degrees from before and after Christmas. and I assumed that there had been tension between him and his wife. But I rarely had to assume anything with Jake - he would speak his mind, I thought, another clich that in Jake's case was quite specific. It wasn't just that he could be bold in his proclamations; what made them plausibly assertive was that he didn't seem to be hiding other thoughts as he expressed ideas about politics, TV shows, films or books. I know of some in the advertising company I used to work for in Glasgow who would have opinions on everything outside of themselves but nothing to disclose about themselves. I am often suspicious of such people, feeling their remarks are deracinated; lacking roots in their own psyches, they are offered chiefly for others. Jake's opinions always seemed rooted. Yet as we talked in the cafe he was hardly rooted at all.
I had been on the train for about fifteen minutes when I noticed a few seats up in the same carriage was a couple I could not imagine together no matter how I configured it. She was black; he was red - a fat, flushed, meaty face on a thick neck; a heavy shaved head and folds of flesh on the back of the skull. I also noticed a bulging beer gut when he got up out of his seat and swayed along to the toilet. I didn't like my prejudicial observations, and probably wouldn't have found myself making them were it not for the discrepancy I saw between them. He must have been in his fifties; she was possibly in her well-preserved late thirties. I couldn't make out their conversation as they talked intermittently from Inverness to Perth but I noticed that he was becoming increasingly inebriated as the cans of empty lager piled up on the table, before all falling off as the train tilted in one direction. He picked them up, crushed them and deposited them in the bin a seat away from me. This was a few minutes before arriving in Perth, and going back to his seat he cursed as he looked at the baggage rack above the seats. It was then I realised the woman seated at the same table was not with him at all: she was showing the polite concern of the stranger, rather than the irritation of the vested interest. He asked her if she remembered where he had placed his bag, went over to the nearby ticket collector asking the same. Getting off the train, he realised he had forgotten even his jacket, shook his head furiously several times as he got back on the train, heard the whistle announcing the train was about to leave the station, and managed in time to leave the coach before the train doors closed. There were only a few of us left in the carriage, and I was now the nearest person to the women who seemed to want to express something, as though she wanted to express not so much distaste for the man seated opposite her, but for the assumption I and others might have made that they were together. As I passed on the way back from the bathroom she apologised for the scene and said she hoped he would be able to get his bag back somehow, if he had one at all, or one that he took on the train with him. I was initially a little surprised that she had wanted to talk to me, but she said I seemed to be observing the pair of them keenly, as though trying to work out what the relationship between them happened to be. She said others were doing so also, but then quickly made up their mind and got on with reading their book, watching a film on the laptop, or playing a game. I didn't she said - it was like I didn't have an instant prejudice, but a delayed one. I seemed to want to investigate further, and here she was giving me the opportunity.
This was a woman who would speak to anyone, I thought, and wondered why she was in conversation throughout the first part of the journey with a man who was struggling to hold his liquor and cared not to hold his tongue, cussing and cursing at various points in the journey and not only when he couldn't find his bag. As she asked me to take a seat I couldn't find a good enough reason to say no. I had intended to mark some school essays on the way down and had succeeded in only finishing one. Why not waste another hour and half talking to someone I had earlier been looking at? So sit down I did, and over the next hour I felt I got to know a little the woman opposite me, but also Jake. She disclosed within minutes that she was an escort, someone who travelled the country servicing men who were lonely in a particular kind of way. I wasn't quite sure initially whether she was having me on or wished to have it off: wanting me to part with some money before we parted ways. She had been in Inverness for a long weekend, arriving on Boxing Day, she announced, and had two clients, saw a bit of the town, took a drive along Loch Ness and here she was again on the train back down to Glasgow. There she had another couple of clients, and after that she would go back to London. She said it in a matter of fact manner and yet no doubt many offered a surprised look after she did so. But my surprise rested on that remark about Loch Ness, which had suddenly made Jake's earlier non sequitur possibly appear much less so. A coincidence some might say. Perhaps but very unlikely as I now thought that what he hadn't talked about in one of our very rare stilted conversations was the woman I was now sitting opposite. I even suspected the reason why he was a little annoyed by the cafe choice was that he was hoping to see her at least one more time, and at least through a window pane, but there I was having chosen a cafe with steamed up windows and at the back of the town so that the woman would be unlikely to pass it: it was not at all on the way to the train station.
As I was giving this a little thought she was looking at me as if perhaps my thought concerned interest in a sexual assignation. You haven't asked my price, she said; perhaps I am afraid to do so I joked, flattering her with the suggestion that she was outside my price range as I tried to extricate myself from the idea that I had nothing to lose but a few, probably quite a few, pounds in the encounter. I had broken up with my partner three months earlier, missed the best part of the relationship which was the sex, and for a moment wondered if this was a useful means of recovery. I stayed on the subject without offering a commitment, asking her how long she would be in Glasgow. She said she could stay for an extra day if necessary; her ticket was flexible and her life her own. I supposed she was a little younger than I initially believed, perhaps even in her early thirties, and wondered if her casual comment about her life being her own was an exclamation of selfishness or freedom. Did she have a child or two down south, and a hapless husband who might have been also complicit pimp - someone who would look after the kids while she would go hunting and gathering men who could put bread on the table as she would lay on her back. What assumptions was I generally making for such thoughts to pass through my mind, and what at that moment was passing through my body as I entertained the idea that in a couple of days' time I would sleep with the very woman my friend had already sexually encountered. Just before getting off the train she gave me her card and said she hoped I had all my baggage. I asked if she needed help with her suitcases: I had noticed there were two - and she said no, she would be fine, For the moment.
That evening and on occasion the next day I would think about that train ride and also think back to the conversation with Jake as I couldn't quite work out whether he was trying to hide something from me or to confess it. Obviously, I didn't know for sure that he had slept with Miranda: a name I knew only because of the card she gave me and which I assumed was a professional nomenclature as I was a little annoyed with myself that I hadn't probed a bit further. I am sure she would have offered enough information about her clients, while retaining general confidentiality, for me to work out for sure whether Jake had slept with her. I was less sure about my motive for contacting her the following day: was it because I wanted to sleep with her myself or just as much find out more about Jake's actions? It is frequent enough that our motives are mixed, but sometimes in that process we also arrive at the perverse; a quite different notion I believe from the immoral. Robbing an old woman of her savings is immoral; robbing an old lady of her savings and then contacting her again a couple of days later to say that you have found the money is perverse. Normal is not robbing the old woman at all. If only such categories were usually so clear. I emailed her to say that if she was still interested in staying in Glasgow for another twenty-four hours I would like to spend some of that time with her, and we could arrange to meet at a hotel of her choice. She said if I wanted to spend the afternoon with her it would cost 300 - all inclusive. I emailed back asking what all inclusive meant, and she said that would be where various sexual desires that might not be regarded as entirely normal would be included. I didn't ask for further specifics. Perhaps because I was trying to keep the exchange polite, perhaps because I wanted to fantasize about all the possibilities available in the remark.
Did Jake also ask for the all-inclusive, I wondered, and would his sexual desires be similar to my own? We may have been close friends, and that closeness had included sharing details of our sexual lives, even briefly in a roundabout way sharing the same lover. It was after this incident that we hadn't talked to each other for six months, both taking umbrage with each other and a girl in the sixth form who had slept with both of us without informing either Jake or me of the deed done with the other one. Shelly. we decided, liked sex, insisted on taking precautions and allowed the damage to be emotional rather than medical as she worked her way through various members of the sixth form with member the operative word. It was all part of an ethos that meant no one man had possession of her body, and she had been amused when I confronted her saying that I couldn't believe she had a month or so earlier slept with my best friend. She had screwed Jake at one party, with me at another a couple of weeks' later, and I was confronting her at a third after Jake and I acted in a manner that made it clear we had both taken advantage of her body as she, we insisted, had taken advantage of our gullibility. It wasn't as if either of us wanted a relationship - that wasn't the point, I now might think, as she might well have done then, that this lay in the relationship being between Jake and me and not in a hetero, monogamous one. If we had felt betrayed had she not felt rejected; that she knew each of us wanted something casual? It might have seemed odd that I hadn't given much attention to her thoughts since the previous year we had been in the same English class and the teacher had always admired how clearly and lucidly she could express herself. Usually, when we had written a story, it was Shelly's that would be read out.
Jake and I didn't talk at all for eight months. The party had been in May, I went off to France in June till early August, visiting a cousin whose girlfriend had access to her parent's holiday home for the summer and it was there I became a low-key sensualist. The house was in the South of France about ten miles from the sea in a high-perched village called Grimaud. The family had a fleet of mopeds that we could use at will, which would take us out in the afternoon to the beaches near Plage de Gigaro and in the evening usually to St Tropez. I worked mornings in a cafe whose name I don't recall and whose name has probably changed since anyway, but it gave me enough money to enjoy the nightlife as long as I spent carefully. My room was free and the three of us shared the grocery bill, and my cousin and his girlfriend did not mind when I would sometimes bring a girl back to the apartment, zipping through the night along zig-zagging roads with the woman clinging to my back and with her arms around my waist, safer than me with the helmet that I had chivalrously given her leaving my own head bare. I had been on foreign holidays before, but this was the first time I had been away for more than two weeks and without my parents. Taste, touch and smell seemed new. Whether it was a tarte au citron that was so tangy it left my tongue with not just a taste but a sensation, the scent of mimosa that I would smell after opening my window in the morning, or the sun massaging its warmth in my skin and the sand between my toes I felt, alive to my senses.
During this period I would sometimes think guiltily about my friendship with Jake. It wasn't only that we hadn't talked for three months; it was also that my familial advantage had led me to the south of France; his to hard work in the north of Scotland. I knew at that time he would be at his parent's farm out the Nairn road, taking care of the cows and the sheep and, maybe if he was lucky, sharing the company of the occasional Wwoofer, a temporary farm worker usually from abroad. But though I would often think about Jake and how silly it was that we had allowed one woman to get in the way of our friendship when there in the South I slept no less casually with several, it wasn't until I was back from my first term at university that Christmas when I saw Jake in a pub in the town centre. A dozen of us caught up for the first time since getting back from our various courses around the country. I had been warned he might be there and I assumed he had been warned too, and it is was with this assumption that I went over to talk to him. I asked how his veterinary course was going in Aberdeen; he asked how was my history degree. We talked less like strangers. or enemies or friends, than people who knew each other a little, but as if we might have struggled to recall each other's names. I didn't know how to bring into the conversation the incident with Shelly but thought if the friendship were to continue it needed to be acknowledged. We both managed to do so perhaps a little too clearly at the expense of Shelly, as he asked me whether I managed to find any beautiful girls after I told him of my time in the South, and he said it without the resentment I might have anticipated. I said I had; he said it had been a ripe harvest for him too. We didn't need a year off, we joked, just a few months having it off. We laughed, perhaps misogynistically as Shelly became just one of a number of people we had bedded and not the person who had come between the friendship. We never talked directly about her again, and I would occasionally wonder how she felt sleeping with both Jake and me, wondered if it somehow left her violated by the complicity we had with each other and that we would never have had with her. Only very recently have I given it a lot more thought.
After that, during the rest of our time at university, Jake would visit me often and I only occasionally. We would meet frequently enough in the Highlands when I was home and he was back through from Aberdeen. It made sense for him to come and visit me, with Glasgow's bars, clubs and cinemas places making him feel that he had left home, while for me Aberdeen seemed to me like returning home. It was cold, wetter and windier than Inverness, and it had cold money as opposed to Glasgow's warm poverty. I always believed everything in Glasgow was run down yet propped up; that the spirit of those living there didn't mind that the place was falling apart as long as their own energy wasn't affected - and for a small city I believed Glasgow was energetic; one reason I have since made it my home. Anyway, Jake would usually come down around once a month, and through my second, third and fourth year there was always plenty space as I initially rented with five others an enormous flat on two floors behind the Botanic gardens. It was a flat I managed to persuade my parents to allow me to buy, as they acted as guarantors, and in which I still live, sharing with a couple of others. It felt like home in that second year, and became home after that and, with its spare box room and copious living room, numerous friends have stayed over the years, but no one more often than Jake.
There are some friends who would seem to do everything together. But for Jake and me it was more that we would discuss most things together, and over the next fifteen years we would often go out with others for drinks, go as a group to the pub, go with the girlfriends we had at the time to see films, go to galleries and go to restaurants, but we were, in such situations, simply part of a group. It was in the numerous one on one chats we have had over the last decade and a half that has made our friendship so special, so revealing. Over these years I have had a few girlfriends and felt very close to a couple of them, but I knew also that in protecting their feelings at certain moments, I was also keeping an aspect of myself to myself. There we would be lying in bed and I would not talk to her about an unusual look another woman had given me that day, or a doubt that I had a week earlier about feeling a little bored. These thoughts would be tucked away and shared with Jake when we would next see each other, and likewise, I had always assumed, he would hold some things back from his partner and reserve them for me.
Maybe I thought this would have changed around six years ago when Jake got married at twenty-seven and had a daughter a few months later. I would have understood if he had wanted to keep that relationship sacred and keep their privacy intact. But no, he would tell me when they would argue, when the sex wasn't working, even detailing as we had done in the past why a woman would be unable to arouse us, what sort of fantasy we would sometimes require to make the sex work. I have heard such discussions are common enough between female friends, but not amongst men, and I know of no other male friend with whom I would talk about these things. There are details I know about Jake's wife I am sure she would blush at if she knew that I knew, and I sometimes wondered whether the marriage had survived on the basis of Jake being able to talk to me, or was collapsing because of the complicity he had been destroying. Of course, this was a thought I discussed with him, too, and he admitted he wasn't sure what the answer was. However, during these years, while Jake and I were so complicit, he never cheated on his wife, which made me think that talking to me helped him remain faithful. He could not quite go to another woman saying his wife didn't understand him, for no better reason than that he would come to a friend who he believed clearly did.
Was this why I was so shaken by the idea that Jake had been withholding something from me on that visit up north, and was this why I was going to sleep with an escort to find out more about my friend than he had been willing to divulge to me? We arranged a time and a place, she asked me if I had particular sexual preferences and whether I would wish her to wear anything in particular. As we emailed back and forth she said, of course, she only had a small selection of items at her disposal as I recalled the two large suitcases she had with her which seemed excessive for a trip to the Highlands, yet now seemed inadequate when thinking of the range of men's fantasies. She added that she would be happy to buy items that would meet my desires, but I would have to pay for them. I could keep them myself if I so wished, or give them to her as gifts. She added with a couple of smiley emoticons that some men liked to keep them and leave them unwashed after she had worn them; others would keep them, wash them, and insist she put them on again the next time they would arrange a meeting. I felt as we exchanged emails that I was understanding several things simultaneously. I began to comprehend the mind of a professional sex worker, the desires of numerous men, and also found myself hypothesising over what type of man Jake happened to be sexually from a new point of view. For all the talk over the years, for all that I knew of his interest in women and what he expected from them, somehow it was still as if I knew only what he chose to confess, however confessional the remarks seemed to be. Now here I was, in the wake of a refused divulgence in the cafe on Jake's part, perhaps finding a new aspect to his personality.
However in the exchanges with Miranda I couldn't pretend I wasn't excited by my own fantasies too and stayed online for another hour looking at various items that I imagined her wearing for me. There was a lace bralette and lingerie set, delicately embroidered and none too expensive, available in both white and black. There was an Indigo lace bodice that was a bit pricier, but that met with a fantasy I recall having as a teenager after looking at a model in one of my father's magazines. Yet at the same time the process brought to mind a memory of my older sister's comics, where she would sit and cut out various dresses and choose which one best suited the model: there I was twenty-five years later doing exactly that with a live woman, using virtual technology. It felt both oddly arousing and no less disturbing as I well knew that advances in technology had a bad habit of impinging upon the nature of prohibition. I would remember with Jake and others looking at magazines at night with a torch in the woods; now I would occasionally catch kids watching porn on their mobiles while I was trying to get them to memorise a few lines of an Arthur Miller play. Was I in the process of allowing technology to move me beyond my own sense of propriety? I have probably seen myself as curious but respectful, interested in other people's lives but not to the point of violating them, and yet here I was arranging an assignation with a sex worker whom I was sure had already slept with my friend. Or was I finally not so curious about whether Jake had slept with her but was using it as an excuse to take advantage of a situation that I could claim happened contingently: meeting Miranda on a train journey? It is interesting that profound desire meets with mixed motives, while relative indifference can claim the assertiveness of the unambiguous. If it is cold outside I put on a coat and a scarf; I don't muse over at all my motives for doing so and life would be a very slow process indeed if every decision we had to make demanded working through all the manifestations. But desire goes beyond the bounds of necessary action, and beyond the realm of ready motivation, as I wondered what I was doing and could find no easy answer. It felt more compulsive than motivated: I wanted to sleep with Miranda.
I emailed her back that evening saying we should meet the following afternoon at the hotel she would still be staying in, and which I would be paying for. I added that she should wear what she thought would appeal to me, and that I would meet her in the hotel cafe bar. I didn't sleep well that night, as though the anticipation of the next day mingled with the problematic feeling that I was betraying a friend and paying a woman for sex. They weren't by most people's reckoning morally commendable acts - and I think for a long time I had seen myself as a morally commendable person, at least since my teen years. I got out of marketing as quickly as financial necessity allowed, I had never slept with a colleague at work, had never been other than diligent when marking student essays, would always devote as much time as I could manage to extracurricular activities, and had played a fatherly role to various students who were suffering emotional neglect at home. In my head, I was one of the good guys, even if a couple of ex-girlfriends might have questioned that self-definition. Yet I had never cheated on them, never lied. That night as I slept restlessly and woke up too early, I must have known I was overstepping a mark, crossing a line, violating a principle. But what happens if you don't know where the line is; if you only know that you will know after you have crossed it - should you retreat from merely an apprehension?
I showered, breakfasted, marked some student work and waited. After lunch, I wondered what I should wear to a sexual encounter I was paying for. Should I dress up or dress down, do you make an effort or assume that, along with the sexual act, all the effort will come from the person you are paying? The one thing my restless night hadn't incorporated was fretting over what to wear, but there I was trying on various trousers and shirts intending to impress a woman who had probably slept with hundreds of men and cared for nothing more than the size of their penis and how much lubrication would be required. A vulgar thought but a necessary one as I made my decision to dress smartly but not formally, and walked for twenty minutes from my flat in Circus Park, out by Charing Cross and up along Sauchiehall street. It was a windless day, the little drizzle in the morning had cleared up, the sun was out and the temperature must have been around eight degrees. I had walked slowly, determined that no sweat would accumulate on my back or under my arms: I wanted to arrive as clean as I could be, unaware that Miranda would insist I shower before the encounter. I nevertheless arrived a few minutes early and took a seat in the hotel bar. A waiter came over to the table and asked if I was waiting for someone or was ready to order. There was in his voice, or to my ear, an intonation that suggested he knew I was there for more than a drink and I couldn't work out whether the tone was insinuating or obsequious: whether he thought I was there for a suspect rendezvous or to make an important business deal. I supposed that many of the business deals were underhand and the assignations legitimate, and perhaps his tone was hard to place because he knew that he himself wasn't sure if a business deal was soon to be struck, a sex worker soon to be paid or perhaps a bribe offered. I have ordered many a tea in a cafe over the years and never placed my order with the waiter asking so ambiguously. Or perhaps the ambiguity was all my own as I dawdled over the decision by asking to look at the wine menu. He smirked, leaving me unsure whether the smirk, which may not have been a smirk at all, was there because I was about to order wine (indicating a rendezvous), or didn't quite know what I wanted to order; another indecisive customer in a classy establishment. Something in meeting up with Miranda had turned me into an incompetent, and perhaps that is true of us all whenever we choose to try new things.
Miranda arrived just as the waiter had handed me the wine menu, and he would probably have been within earshot as she laughed saying maybe I needed a bit of Dutch courage, though she would be surprised if they had any wines from Holland at the hotel. But you never know, they might also cater for all tastes. While her tone had hinted at flirtatiousness on the train, as we sat waiting for the French wine she seemed fully in character: before she may have been offering a sneak preview; now she was playing the role and I was surprised how quickly I managed to create a character too. By the time we were up in the hotel room, I had used language I had never used before, described things I wanted her to do that I had never asked for in the past and left a couple of hours later feeling that my sex life before that encounter had been incomplete.
I knew when I thought about it later, and for many days after, that I had treated a woman as an object, and became a reduced subject in the act: a body of nerve ends, a contracted lump of selfish wishes as I cared not at all to please the woman I penetrated. Yet throughout the encounter I never felt she did anything just for the money, even if that was exactly why she was there. It was this detail I think I pondered over for those next few days, and still ponder over now some months later. I wanted an oblivious encounter and she provided it. I wanted to get outside myself during the act and managed to do so more than on any other sexual occasion in my life. I went in thinking I might know more about Jake and came out understanding perhaps an aspect of both of us, and understood, too, why Jake wasn't very communicative that afternoon we met. Yet I also remember a couple of details after the encounter while still in the hotel room with Miranda. I asked her if she had ever thought of becoming an actress. She said she supposed she was and looked at me as if she yearned just occasionally for the moment I suppose Jake and I had sought out between us over the years. She looked away as the hint of sentiment was replaced by what I perceived as disgust - with herself or with me I couldn't say. She said it was best if I showered quickly and left as she started to count the money I had given to her on the way up to the room, in the lift.
Of course, I didn't know for certain whether Jake had also slept with Miranda, wasn't sure if he had slept with a Miranda at all while still perhaps sleeping with the same person, or whether the name had been different and the persona different too. Or had she been the same person with him as she had been for me? Jake and I met again when I was in the Highlands at Easter and we talked as we always had. Jake had returned to Samantha, saying that he missed Sarah, and I asked him if he would have gone back had it not been for his daughter. We were sitting in the other cafe, the one at the opposite end of the high street, and though the sun was out, the weather had turned cold the night before and the temperature was close to zero. The cafe was warm enough for the windows to be steamed up but many customers had kept their coats on, and perhaps we had taken ours off not because we were warm but as though in acknowledgement of the frostiness of our previous encounter. He asked me if I was seeing anyone and I told him about a meeting I had a few months ago with a woman with professional experience, and added that this experience was sexual. As I told him in some detail about what took place, where and when, I watched his face to see how he would admit to his own probable liaison with the same woman only a few days before I had spent a couple of hours in a hotel room with her. But he didn't say anything at all and, as I spoke, I realised I too wasn't being as open as I might have been as I did not tell him where I met her, what we had talked about or given him her name: that I was only telling him what I thought he needed to know to reveal his own encounter. However, as we moved onto other topics, so an hour after mentioning my time in a Glasgow hotel room he said that he could not easily make love to Samantha anymore, that there was a reason for this that he didn't feel he could disclose, and envied my single status that allowed for a confession to be my own and one that needn't implicate others. Was this him admitting that he too had slept with a sex worker, unaware that it would have been the same woman that I had slept with, and that while I had no reason to withhold anything and had done so, he was as honest as he could be within the constraints of a marriage he was determined to stay in? Of that I couldn't know and somehow didn't need to know. That he had returned to the subject and admitted what he couldn't disclose was enough of a confession for me. It wasn't that we needed to tell each other everything; more that we needed to protect the space that would otherwise create the sub-textual, the troublesome, the problem that arose all those years earlier.
Over the next few months, I thought occasionally about Miranda but was never tempted to contact her again to arrange another meeting, and during this period I saw no one else either, professionally or personally. I cannot say for sure why, except that it wasn't uncommon for there to be a period of six months to a year between my having one relationship and another, but it was also because I didn't want to find myself contrasting an encounter I couldn't quite countenance with a girlfriend I might have feelings for but where the desire could not match that feeling. I was sure that in Jake there was much guilt and a great deal of dissatisfaction if he had shared with Miranda an experience as pleasurable as I had. To then climb into bed with a woman he no longer desired and still perhaps loved, or needed, or wished he loved and needed, must have been terrible. But I had no such worries; merely a few moments of memory that needn't cause me much pain, and near the end of the year, around October, I joined a dating website that led to half a dozen encounters within the space of a month. Both my partners and I seemed content with the casual nature of the exchange without quite having the wish to do it again and I think this rested on a complicit assumption that while the action wasn't prostitutional, it happened to be impersonal. I and perhaps they made sure no feelings could develop as we refused to talk about personal things and kept the conversation light and flirtatious until we went back either to my place or theirs. The sex was pleasurable without being memorable and in no instance was it disastrous. But I also by early December started to feel guilt I couldn't quite give a name, and only did so a week before Christmas.
It was shortly before I was going up north again to visit my family, and saw Miranda in a small role in a TV cop show. She was playing a sex worker and I wondered if this was a moment of gritty realism on telly as it insisted on drawing directly from life, or if Miranda had another existence altogether that was one as a professional actress. I managed to trace the credits of the film and the prostitute was listed as Melanie Reynolds, and a further search came up with a dozen tiny TV parts, a few plays and a number of shorts. She had been acting for a decade it said, and there was, of course, no details at all about her alternative life in the sex industry. As I managed to find another couple of shows where she had very small roles, so I found watching them a feeling of tenderness towards her that no longer allowed her to function as the sex object of my imagination, someone I believed others could not match and with whom they would endlessly compete. I no longer saw her as a body capable of a dozen positions while offering a willing smile, as someone who would say that she loved to let her mouth linger over my penis as my nerves spasmed. She could now be a mother of a child, or the grown-up child of oblivious parents who might have known a little of her thespian struggles but nothing of a life that meant she would occasionally be acting a part in front of them too.
I didn't know what to make of my newfound information except to say that it seemed to make me moral, if morality is the recognition of another's mind, body and general existence that we had previously left unacknowledged as we used that person for our own needs and pleasures. It is the argument we often see used for abolishing slavery or giving up meat, and we wonder how some people could have been so unwilling to accept the former and muse over why so many of us still countenance the latter. I am not sure if I feel that a person who gives her body to others is in the same position as a slave taken from one continent to the other, an animal in a field that ends up under fluorescent light, wrapped in plastic. I wouldn't like to rob completely the person of agency; to do so might be almost as problematic as denying them a mind in the act. All I knew was that before I hadn't avoided contacting Miranda again because of my feelings; it was that I was afraid I would become addicted to the words and acts that were closer than ever before to a dream of sex rather than the sometimes prosaic nature of the action. Now, with the illusion shattered, a reality evident, I could not sleep with her again. I would see the manifold human rather the specifically sexual object she had created for me.
I had planned to meet Jake in a cafe after arriving off the train, but a couple of days before going up I sent him links to these shows and one of the shorts with a cryptic message saying that here was a familiar face perhaps I'd like to say a few words about. He replied a few hours later saying that would be fine but gave no indication he might also have a few words to say about it too. On the train up I thought about how I would address the subject while also musing over what my motives were for discussing it at all. I had reasoned it thus: that if I had managed to turn Miranda from a woman whose body I couldn't get out of my mind and whose image disappeared from it after seeing more of the person, would it help Jake to do so also if he too had a broader perspective on a woman I was sure he had slept with as well? I couldn't pretend I wasn't a little wary as I got off the train, walked along the road and along the high street, turning left rather than right as we had arranged to meet in the cafe where we had met the year before. The windows were again steamed up and I was pleased to see that most of the customers were sitting there in shirts and jumpers rather than wearing woolly hats and jackets, and went in. Walking towards Jake I noticed he was reading a book written by Shelley MacIntyre, published about five years before. He hadn't given much thought to Shelley he said as I sat down across from him, but those links I had sent got him thinking. He looked up Shelly and saw that she had published a couple of novels, a few short stories. She didn't seem that well-known, but had won a minor prize, and been interviewed by a couple of newspapers. He found a copy in the bookshop under Scottish writers, and said it brought back to him some of the times: it was about a teenager in a northern town that was more or less Inverness. I looked at him as if to say did we happen to be in it, and he replied saying he waited to find himself brutally depicted on the page, but it didn't seem that sort of book, didn't seem to wish to attack or expose anybody. He was halfway through. It was about her life, not ours, he said pointedly, and for some reason, it no longer seemed necessary to talk about Miranda at all. I read the book myself a few days later and found about two-thirds of the way into the book passages that did indeed seem to refer to Jake and me. They were not especially harsh but they were perceptive, and perhaps all insightful remarks can make us feel quite exposed, a sort of inversion of the confession. For some reason I found myself imagining a film written by Shelley, with a lead role for Melanie Reynolds, and my character's part very small - the smaller the better.
© Tony McKibbin