Rings

14/09/2023

                 1

    His was a Scottish titanium Celtic knot ring and hers was an Irish white gold Irish ring. The rings were in a similar style but his was chunky and he would always take it off when using the pull-up bar, while hers she insisted felt as if it wasn’t just on her hand as an object but also as a presence she felt as a reassurance. He couldn’t wait to take the ring off at night and this wasn’t only out of physical discomfort. It reflected a greater resistance she on occasion suspected, and commented upon. 

     He had never worn a ring in his life and joked to me when I first saw him wearing it that his ball and chain had been melted down to fit onto his finger. It was offered with exaggeration: of Mark’s four girlfriends since I first knew him at university, Annabella was the least interested in marriage, children and even commitment. I recall a conversation the three of us had in a bar along Dumbarton Rd, next to the Partick Plaza. It was the first time Mark had introduced me to Annabella and near the end of a long and pleasant evening that started for Mark and me on beers, and ended on testing several different single malts, while Annabella went through no more than two glasses of wine and a bag of unsalted peanuts. She said she could never expect anything from a partner other than fidelity and more generally honesty. You cannot expect people to start wanting other things if they don’t initially propose them, she said. If two people meet and they have the same hopes and expectations, they might not find they love each other enough to build upon them, but the expectations are there. Is it fair however to expect someone to conform to your idea of a life if they don’t, hoping they change their mind? It was the sort of conversation that wouldn’t be unusual if people were talking disinterestedly about relationships, but there we were having this discussion shortly after Mark and Annabella started seeing each other, and on the first occasion I had seen them together. It was hardly the drink talking either – Mark and I may have by midnight got quite drunk, but Annabella had been sipping away and munching away at a very slow pace all evening.  

     That night she may have just been saying what Mark wanted to hear; that I knew and perhaps she did too that Mark’s previous relationships came to grief on the partners wishing to share a home and in two instances hoping to share a child. But Annabella didn’t seem the type of person who wished to please someone else more than herself, and she would have been either a hypocrite or in denial if she predicated a relationship on honesty and then couldn’t even be honest at the start of it - and in front of her new boyfriend’s best friend. She said that evening, if all was going well after a year, all she would wish was for a ring each of them would wear showing their love and fidelity. I looked at Mark and asked if he could just about manage that level of commitment; for true love he just might be able to do so. She in turn gave him a look that suggested a couple who had known each other for years: a withering look of disdain mixed with affection, and one that I didn’t doubt contained love.

                           2

     Annabella was a documentary filmmaker who managed to arrange a very good deal with a TV company she started working for after leaving university a dozen years earlier. She was directing within a year and the material she was working on in those first five years was worthy enough work, though it didn’t interest her so much creatively. She worked for a year looking at people who were forced to use food banks; another about the difficulties many had accessing disability benefits, and a third on a housing estate exploring the numerous problems tenants faced with damp flats and difficult neighbours. They were all socially conscious works and managed to escape the condescension of more famous examples that were being made around the same time. Yet there wasn’t much creativity there, and she knew in advance what she wished people to say and the style in which it would be filmed and edited. It was for a mainstream television audience and her purpose was to generate dismay in viewers. It was purposeful work but not very enquiring, and she managed to persuade the producers to extend their range into feature documentaries. They agreed to give her a more modest salary in return for the freedom to develop her projects, works that would aim to be shown at festivals rather than specifically for television. 

     I had known of the TV programmes Annabella made without thinking too much about who made them: they were reviewed in a couple of newspapers I would read, and I watched bits of episodes afterwards online. When she explained one evening a few weeks after that night in the pub, at a dinner at mine with a couple of other friends, I promised I would look at them in more detail. She said I needn’t bother – detail wasn’t their thing. If I had time to look at a couple of the documentaries she had made since, she would be happy to send them to me. I watched them, could see they were in an observational style television rarely had any interest in, and I recall discussing them with Mark a while afterwards. She was a good filmmaker, I told him, and needed to make films. In the TV work, there wasn’t much observation, even if compared to a lot of television there was at least a sense of respect towards the people she was interviewing.

      Over the three years I knew Annabella, even if almost exclusively through Mark, I never once witnessed anything that seemed contrary to the integrity that I had seen in the work, and yet it was a betrayal on her part that led to the break-up, if a betrayal is what it was.

                                3

      It was after they had been together for a year that she said they should buy those rings, adding, Mark told me, that he needn’t take this as a proposal of any other sort. She never wanted to get married so there was no point in them getting engaged. He said he wasn’t sure if he would feel comfortable wearing jewellery but felt so comfortable with her, and the arrangement they hadn’t even needed to negotiate but both fell into, that of course he would be happy to wear a ring.  

       Yet he never did seem happy wearing that ring, and sometimes seemed to find excuses to remove it (that pull-up bar), or would forget to put it back on. Once or twice when we met for a drink, he’d look at his hand and note its absence. But I always sensed less anxiety than relief that it wasn’t there. He would no doubt have felt guilty leaving it in the flat, but to have forgotten to put it on his hand was an understandable slip; and needn’t reflect on his feelings towards Annabella. He knew I was unlikely to let that pass and offered my best impersonation of a learned doctor, telling him that the heart had reasons reason did not know. I wasn’t quoting a fellow psychoanalyst in this instance, but perhaps much of the profession owed a debt to the 17th-century theologian who made such a claim.  

      During that discussion, he wondered whether it would have been better if Annabella and he had agreed on a mutually satisfactory gesture. After all, Annabella often wore jewellery, wearing earrings, bracelets and several rings on occasion. If she could say with some lucidity that it wouldn’t have been fair to start a relationship with someone knowing you wanted more commitment than the other person seemed to wish, he said, was it fair to insist on a material gesture that was consistent with her personality but not with his? I told him I recalled the conversation in the pub a year earlier and that he agreed to wear a ring after a year if they were still together. That may have been the time to negotiate a different arrangement. I said it facetiously and wondered if Mark would always seek an excuse, with even so modest a commitment beyond him. He said it wasn’t that he wished to extricate himself from a gesture of fidelity; it was more that he knew the ring meant nothing to him and was an inconvenience. The other day the ring caught in his hair while he was showering and he found himself cursing Annabella for the first time. What good is this ring if it makes me irritated with the woman I love, he added.

      I asked him what gesture he would have preferred and he said a necklace. I couldn’t have seen Mark with a medallion dangling from his neck but he reminded me that when he was eighteen, he went travelling. 

It wasn’t a year out; he had no place in university lined up, and he didn’t especially want to see the world. He just couldn’t stay where he was; a village between Glasgow and Edinburgh that was perfect for parents who wished to escape what they saw as the hectic pace of city living but that by the time he was fourteen seemed to him uselessly sedate. When his older sister went to university in Glasgow he stayed weekends on her couch whenever he could and sometimes went out to clubs on his own if his self-made ID card worked. But at eighteen he didn’t know what he wanted to do and doing anything just so he could live in a city seemed a twofold waste of a future. Why use his grant for a degree he might regret or take a year out pretending to know what he would be doing after it? He had some money from his grandmother’s will, and also a St Christopher that belonged to his grandfather, that his grandmother had given him not long before she died. With his money, and this symbol of the peripatetic life, he believed he was destined to travel. 

   When he had told me of his travel stories before I knew that he went to Europe and beyond with money from his grandmother’s will. But he never said anything about the Saint Christopher, and he added it was the only piece of jewellery he ever felt comfortable wearing. His grandfather had worn it during the war and didn’t feel he wanted to wear it again afterwards. It was given to him by another soldier in the same battalion who died during the conflict and the nurse said she suspected the dead man would have wanted someone else to wear it. His grandfather wasn’t oblivious to the irony of a medal that was supposed to bring him good luck and safe travels coming from a man who was killed, but he wore it more out of respect than anything else, and put it in a box when he returned after the war. Maybe the luck was meant to be his grandfather’s rather than the other man’s, Mark said, when his grandmother gave it to him and told him the story as she handed it over. She said that if his grandfather could have believed that, he might have been a happier man on his return. His grandfather often philandered and my grandmother left him twice. She forgave him eventually, and maybe kidded herself by blaming it on the war, though she supposed if that was so it afflicted a generation: she knew of other husbands who would stray as well. She then told him she thought that originally the necklace belonged to another soldier, that it was stolen, the thieving soldier died and then it came into the hands of Mark’s grandfather. It will bring good luck if it falls into the right hands she said and clasped his as he held onto it. 

     As Mark told me this I could see he was moved, almost tearful, and while I have never found him cynical I have always found him unsentimental. I was close to him after a couple of break-ups but didn’t see any tears in his eyes there, and wondered if he hadn’t told me this story before it was because he knew it might get tearful in the telling. 

                             4

    He travelled for more than two years, and I’ve seen photographs and heard stories of those travels on several occasions. While I have a few of them in the back of my mind a couple are perhaps more immediately so because of Annabella’s documentaries. The first was set in Mexico, the second, Turkey. In the Mexican film, the film follows four people, a waitress, a nurse, a taxi driver and a cliff diver. It looks like an observational documentary without a clear point beyond the observations it makes, following the four characters, with the cliff diver’s story the most obviously exciting as we see him on a couple of occasions making a jump. But the nurse also takes in a couple of patients who have been injured, collateral damage in a shooting, while the taxi driver talks about the risks when you never know who will get into your cab. It might be a gangster who suspects you couriering drugs for a rival gang; you could have a gang member in your car and the rivals spray the car with bullets at traffic lights. The waitress’s story seems the most mundane, as she goes about serving customers. But about two-thirds of the way through we discover that the waitress’s job proved the riskiest of all. She was working in the very bar she is still working in when, two years earlier, four men arrived with shotguns, wearing balaclavas and killed six people. Two of them were gangsters the men were seeking; the other four people having a drink and a light supper. The waitress wasn’t injured but the chicken dish and a fish platter the four were sharing were covered in blood only a few seconds after she served them. One of the four additional people at the table killed was the cliff-diver’s brother, who was initially still alive and who was attended to by the nurse, while the taxi driver had driven the four men who arrived with shotguns to the bar. They stopped his car at gunpoint and told him to drive to the given destination. They got out, he drove off, and a few seconds later six people were shot. He said that he knew they were going to kill people. He just hoped it wasn’t him amongst them and that those they were killing were going to be fellow gangsters. He felt scared at the time and guilty over the four who died who might have been alive if he hadn’t given them a lift. He would have been dead but four might be living. It turned out the brother who was murdered was also a cliff diver, and the brothers may have been risking their lives most days jumping into the water but no cliff diver had ever died. Hundreds were dying now each year on the streets of Acapulco.

      During his two years travelling Mark had been in Mexico for several weeks and halfway through the trip he was on a bus passing through Oaxaca that got stopped by four men in a pickup who seemed to be from a cartel. Mark spoke no Spanish and saw only the guns. They said a few words to the bus driver, and two of them got on and started walking up the aisle of the bus asking people to open their bags. The search wasn’t very thorough and two men seemed to be doing it half-heartedly while Mark knew his own heart was in his mouth, as he for the first time understood the feeling behind the expression. They left the bus after about four minutes and said a few words out loud to the customers as they alighted. Sitting next to Mark was a Spanish traveller who was heading to Oaxaca City too and explained to him exactly what they had been looking for after the men got off. They said a man had left Mexico City on a bus with something that belonged to them. They were determined to get it back. They apologised for any inconvenience and thanked everyone for their patience. Patience wasn’t quite the word as several people burst into tears with relief after the bus started moving again. What stayed with him was the gangsters’ indifference and their politeness. All the films he had seen with people hijacking or searching buses and planes were of the gangsters and terrorists yelling and waving guns around furiously, as though they were no less nervous than the people they were intimidating. But this had seemed mundane and routine, and somehow the politeness didn’t appear inappropriate. 

    He told me the story less as one of lucky escape than of exaggerated fear, and when I was watching Annabella’s film it was more the reverse. Mark had offered an exciting anecdote that turned out to be of little consequence; Annabella offered the quotidian for much of the film’s running time before showing how these four people were connected to an atrocity. But in different ways, I think Mark and Annabella were making a similar point. Mark teaches media studies here in Glasgow and I know he has used this anecdote with his students, saying that often film and television create unnecessary fears out of necessary financial gain. People might not have been interested in his story by the end of it, or at least felt disappointed by the conclusion, but most were very engaged at the beginning. He didn’t tell it for false suspense; he offered it to say it is easy to get people’s attention but harder to sustain it. Film and TV often wanted to grab the viewer and their way of not letting go was to create drama even if in reality that drama would be absent. How did students feel about that he would say; offering his own example as reality. Annabella’s films didn’t want to grab the viewer at all, I thought, but to lull them into what was tantamount to a false sense of boredom. 

      She did the same in her Turkey film. It started in the south of the country at a beach resort, as it followed four young women holidaying on the Turquoise coast. It seemed for all of them Turkish was their second language as we heard them speak amongst themselves and order in shops, cafes and restaurants. They were accompanied by no men and on a couple of occasions we see them chatted up in bars and rejecting the men’s advances. There is no sense though that they are lesbian, nor do they seem religious. None of them are wearing headscarves and when on the beach wear bikinis as skimpy as the western tourists. A couple of them smoke. We follow them at the coast for forty-five minutes of the film’s ninety-minute running time. We then switch to Istanbul and for a further ten minutes we assume they are waitresses in a couple of expensive city bars, before discovering they are sex workers who earn far more money than they could waiting tables, though this is often how they started. The most beautiful and the most needy are often tempted by the money they can earn and much of it is garnered by entrapment more than sex work. The film shows them arranging to meet a man in a hotel room; the client starts getting undressed and, when half-naked, two police officers arrive and threaten to arrest him. He offers to pay a large, on-the-spot fine and the client is relieved, if not sexually satisfied. The cops, who are gangsters, get the money, and the sex worker gets a percentage. This is information the film offers in voiceover as one of the prostitutes explains how it works while the camera shows us a typical room where such a transaction would take place. At the end of the film, subtitles explain how the film was made and that the four workers are no longer in Turkey and are living in undisclosed locations in Germany.  

   After watching the documentary, I asked Annabella how she managed to film the clubs in which they were working, and she told the management that she was filming high-end restaurants, hotels and bars, which wasn’t a lie. She initially intended to make a film about the contrast between wealth and poverty in Turkey: her grandmother was from the country. But when she managed to talk to the four women in the film, when she heard they were going on holiday to maintain their high-end appearance, to swim, lie on the beach, exercise, and sleep long hours, she thought a more interesting film might develop, especially when she heard the women wanted to escape their life, or to augment it with better opportunities elsewhere. The only condition was that she wouldn’t release the film until the women managed to get out of Turkey and Annabella said she would do what she could to help them leave. After all, it was now in her interest as well as theirs to get them out. Annabella offered this as the cynical concern of the documentarist; quite different she supposed from that of the fictional filmmaker who pays an actor for a role and who doesn’t expect a duty of care after the filming. The actor can go back to being themselves; the documentary subject is themselves during and after. Was she still in contact with any of them, I asked. No, she said — the duty of care was over; they were in Germany — they were no longer her responsibility. The response appeared harsh but I supposed it was pragmatic. If Annabella would go on to make many films, how could she expect to be concerned about the lives of the numerous people whom she was filming? 

       Mark’s Turkish story could have been Annabella’s documentary seen from a different perspective — from one of the clients. Mark was staying in a hostel not far from Taksim and there were four of them sitting around having a drink and desperate for a smoke. One of them asked if any of them had seen an American film from the late seventies where someone was arrested after trying to smuggle hash out of the country. It made for grim viewing, he said, and Mark knew of it but hadn’t seen the film. They wondered who if any of them would be brave enough to at least try and access some hash. Mark said he knew someone at a street corner nearby who was selling knocked-off DVD and CDs, and was sure that he would know someone selling drugs. They drew straws to see who would inquire further and Mark drew the shortest one. The next afternoon he went up to the street-seller and told him he didn’t want to buy DVDs. Is that all you sell, Mark asked and the seller looked around him, sniffed, put his hand into his pocket and took out a mobile phone. Give me a moment, he said, and started to talk to someone over the noise of the traffic. He then waved across at a boy of around fifteen, said a few words and then said to Mark, using a mixture of English and body language, that he must follow him. They walked for about ten minutes and passed through an area full of hanging washing, hungry-looking cats, ragged dogs and kids with T-shirts with the names of football stars and pop stars on them. Mark guessed they were left in hotel rooms over the years by tourists and made their way eventually to the poorer neighbourhoods. They kept walking and came across another area less impoverished and into a part of the town that looked familiar to him and where there were lustrous bars and opulent hotels. They walked into one of these bars, a vigorous and broadly built doorman holding the door, and the man who had taken him insisted Mark take a seat at a speakeasy while he found his friend. Seconds later, two women came over and, after sitting down, called the waiter and ordered various items. The drinks arrived, all specialities of the house, one of the women said, and then two packs of cigarettes were placed on the table as well as the bill. The Bill was for 500 Euros. Mark was expected to pay. The person he came in with was nowhere around and the waiter, who spoke English well, said that he hoped Mark wasn’t going to refuse to pay the bill. Mark said he only had the equivalent of a hundred and fifty Euros in his wallet and the barman asked Mark to follow him. The woman sitting next to Mark who was slender slipped easily out of the booth and allowed him to exit the speakeasy. He wondered for a moment how easy it would be to exit the bar itself, and saw outside, through the glass doors, the bouncer standing. He tried to recall if the door swung inwards or also outwards and if he could escape by hammering the door against the doorman as he opened it. Would he be better just handing over the money and hoping that would be enough? He chose the latter option when he followed the barman into a small office near the front of the bar; perhaps had it been at the back he might have risked running for the door but somehow felt safer being at least near the entrance.  

   The man who presumably owned the bar said in a comprehensible but mangled and heavily accented English that Mark should sit down and he wondered where Mark was from. Mark said he was Scottish. That is lucky for you, he said. He didn’t like the English, said something about feeling cheated out of his nation. Mark later gleaned that he was probably Kurdish, that he saw the Scots as oppressed by England. Mark may or may not have seen this as a fair reading of history but if it was an askewed account then it worked in his favour. The owner, who had a scar that left his eyebrow with an area where hair wouldn’t grow, and what looked like its continuation on his cheekbone, may have escaped a terrible attack that could have taken his eye out. He would have been lucky, and he seemed to extend this luck to Mark saying that if he had been English, if Mark had shown any sign of arrogance, or made an attempt to escape, the doorman would have taken him into the back and would have at least beaten him, maybe at worst deliberately scarred him. The gangster then laughed, as if maybe no such thing would have happened, and he was just playing the sadistic gangster or laughed aware that what would have been a minor order during a gangster’s day, yet one which could have ruined Mark's life. He then saw Mark to the entrance, asked him to hand over his wallet, took the biggest note out of it and passed it to the doorman. This is your exit fee, he said, happy he knew the term. He added, that maybe the lucky escape wasn’t down to his kindness, but the St Christopher Mark was wearing. I like a superstitious man he said, adding you Celts. 

                                   5

  If I may initially have thought that what drew Mark and Annabella to each other were shared experiences, a shared knowledge of the countries Mark visited and Annabella filmed in, then I might also have mused over the different tone in Mark’s anecdotal telling and Annabella’s filming. Mark’s stories were of good fortune and an exaggerated fear while Annabella’s films proposed that we could never be cautious enough. What I noticed too in her films was that she trusted the viewer, and expected them to have the patience to wait and see how the film would develop without, any earlier than necessary, making clear the film was about terrible acts. Obviously, someone reading the blurb might have an idea but when I asked Annabella about this she said that where possible she kept the synopsis brief and suggestive. The synopsis for the Mexican film read: four people go about their lives in a dangerous city in Mexico. Formerly famous for its resort lifestyle, it has become a place even locals fear to tread. That was more or less the publicity blurb, she said, and was pleased whoever wrote up the entry on the website didn’t add anything to it. She said what mattered to her was trust and understatement. She offered it as a claim about her filmmaking but she seemed also to be talking about her life.

    The conversation took place when both of us had turned up on time for a drink with Mark who was running thirty minutes late. A colleague’s PhD student was frantic over a deadline and he would calm her down before joining us. We were sitting in a bar on Gibson Street a few minutes from his office, and as we talked about her work she appeared mildly anxious about his absence. This isn’t the first time, she said, and I admitted it was far from the first time he’d been late for me as well. I said I tolerated it, saying it just meant that I could be late too if I wanted or needed to be. She asked if this happened often. I admitted it hadn’t even happened once. When Mark did arrive she noticed a detail I missed and that she didn’t comment upon until later when Mark was in the bathroom. He isn’t even wearing the ring, she said, before apologising — she had no right to complain about my friend. It was true; she should be having this conversation with Mark, and I said as much while trying to suggest I wasn’t unsympathetic to her irritation. I drank the last of my wine and when Mark returned from the bathroom I said I needed to dash. He started saying that we hadn’t even chatted for an hour when he stopped mid-sentence. It must have occurred to him that was hardly my fault, and maybe he also saw a look on Annabella’s face that indicated she wished to talk to him alone. 

                             6

   I didn’t find out for a while what they discussed and wondered too if Mark had forgotten the ring or deliberately taken it off. Mark may never have been unfaithful as far as I knew but he would always give the impression of availability, as though aware that no relationship would be likely to last and so he must always act as if new possibilities ought to be entertained if not acted upon. Yet for the next six months or so I think all was well between Annabella and Mark. At least when I saw them, there was none of the acrimony I witnessed that evening in the Gibson Street bar. Annabella started pre-production on a new film, and then went off on a four-month shoot in Spain, working on a documentary about separatist movements in the country, most especially in the Basque region and Catalonia. She came back a couple of times but I didn’t see her, and Mark said he didn’t see too much of her either. This was the first time that Annabella had been shooting a film while they’d been together. In the interim, she mainly worked as an editor on other people’s projects, and now she was once again completely immersed in her own.  

     Mark and I always met regularly, but this period it was Mark who was instigating the meetings more frequently than I was, and while he seemed initially happy that Annabella was so busy and engaged, and he felt he had more time to be with friends, more time to watch football and play pool, he also wondered if Annabella was drawing away. He said that evening after the drinks in the Gibson bar, and for days afterwards, she wasn’t happy and they barely slept for arguing over the absence of the ring. It wasn’t enough that he was late, he also turned up with a bare hand when all she asked of him as a commitment was to wear a sliver of metal on his finger. She said she had no idea whether he cheated on her that afternoon in his office with a PhD student but if he did it would only be adding a further pain to an already twin injury. I asked him more bluntly than I would usually allow myself if he slept with the student if not in his office but at another time, and he insisted he hadn’t. What he admitted though was that he took the ring off earlier that afternoon, happy to give the impression to the student that he wasn’t someone in a committed relationship. It was the only time that this had happened and, of course, he admitted it was wrong. Would he have slept with the student if she had been interested? He said he didn’t know if she wasn’t and obviously she was a student even if not one of his, and in her late twenties. But he added that was the strange thing. He knew he had no intention of anything happening, yet he knew too he didn’t want to be seen by her wearing the ring. Surely she must have seen him wearing it on other occasions I said, and he thought not. They had only seen each other twice before. The first time was when he was walking through the university cloisters. She was with her PhD advisor, they said hello as they were introduced and it was a cold morning and he would have been wearing gloves. The second time they chatted outside a cafe she passed and he was taking a table outside. Again it was cold and he was wearing gloves. She took a takeaway coffee and, as they talked while she was waiting for her order, he proposed she sit and drink it with him if she wasn’t in too much of a hurry. He asked her a few things about her PhD and he supposed this was why she contacted him over the deadline when she couldn’t access her supervisor. 

   As he talked he spoke as if this wasn’t important in itself but it was important to his relationship with Annabella. Did Annabella know the full story? He said she didn’t: he just told her he very occasionally forgot his ring and that was one such occasion. Since the argument, he hasn’t forgotten it once, nor deliberately taken it off. 

                               7

  It was when she was close to finishing the shoot he wondered if it would be ok to visit her in Spain and she said it would be best if they met in Barcelona, though he wondered if it would be possible to visit her in the village inland from San Sebastian where she had hired a house, was editing the film, and where her cinematographer and sound person were staying too. She said it was best if they met in Barcelona; it would give them more privacy and she would be doing some work in the Catalan capital. Her suggestion seemed plausible and practical and yet he sensed that she didn’t want him in the house for another reason. He acknowledged when we talked days before he was flying out that this might have been just the way Annabella worked. Why take it so personally? So off he went for a few days, keeping from Annabella that it was a place he already knew well, having stayed for a fortnight ten years earlier with a girl from the city he met while she was on an Erasmus year at his university. 

    During the easter break, with her parents away in Granada visiting relatives, and Mark and this young woman having her parents place in Gracia, they would walk the streets and occupy the bars late into the night, getting up late in the morning. They would get a milky coffee and a croissant at a cafe and sometimes go for a walk around Parc Guell or more often go further into town, meeting up with friends of hers, catching a film or a concert. They were good times, careless times, perhaps, as he flirted with her friends and she flirted with a bar person or musician. She didn’t seem hurt and neither was he, and they would go back to the parents’ apartment each night and wonder whether they were being naughty having sex in her parents’ bed, or for having flirted with other people and felt all the more desirable to each other as a consequence.

    Annabella and Mark stayed in the Barrio Gothica, and breakfasted at the hotel terrace and then read for a couple of hours there or at a cafe. In the afternoon they would walk, and in the evening go to a concert or a film. The habits were similar but there seemed to be a weight to their actions, a heaviness they were carrying around with them, though neither Mark nor Annabella were carrying any extra weight either physically or otherwise. There were no children to worry about, Mark’s job was demanding but not stressful, and Annabella was making a documentary with a crew so small they could easily fit into one house. Mark wondered whether he wasn’t alone in wandering around Barcelona with memories of a previous assignation, and sometimes found himself fretting over whether Annabella’s memories were much more recent. When she left a day early saying a couple of interviewees had become available sooner than she expected, and that she must return to the village, he acquiesced, both hurt and relieved. He wasn’t sure if he believed her but was also aware that he wanted to have a day on his own exploring the city, musing over those memories from well over a decade before. 

  It was an odd last twenty-four hours, as he would recall places he had been years earlier, fondling in a park, getting aroused in a cinema, kissing passionately in a cafe, and he even went back to the apartment block where the young woman and he had stayed. Were her parents still living on the third floor, was the now not-so-young woman visiting it, living in it, perhaps now its owner. She had no brothers or sisters. The thought of accessing the building and ringing the doorbell would have amused him before and he might have done so, and she would have been taken by the audacity. But now, a man in his late thirties, he realised he was old because he was cautious. What nonsense he immediately thought, but he couldn’t deny the caution, and also what he discovered was fear, as he was sure that Annabella was no longer keen to make love even if she may not be sleeping with anyone else either. He knew it, he said, in ways that perhaps it wouldn’t be fair for him to convey to me. But we all know when a woman no longer is in love, or at least with us. I said that I did, as he well knew. 

                              8

     Several months later the film was made, Annabella had finished the editing, worked on the colour grading and fixed any problems with the sound. It was to have its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and Annabella would be presenting the work, and there would be Q and As with her and her tiny crew — the cameraman and the sound person. Mark hadn’t seen very much of her during the months preceding its release. Yes, they went for dinner, would go for a few walks, and even on a couple of occasions to a film and once to a gallery. But she always said she had to go and he accepted that editing a film absorbed many hours in a day and that it wouldn’t be fair to judge her distance as necessarily about him. During all this time he found a little comfort in that she always wore her ring, and he began to understand her anger that day in the pub when he turned up late and without his. He had never given the ring the value he gave to the St Christopher, and when he told me this, when we chatted a few days before the film’s premiere, I asked him why he no longer wore the necklace. He said this was something he’d never told anyone before, and I might have wondered if he was telling me now out of vulnerability rather than revelation, that he wanted to speak about his feelings and the story of the St Christopher was the means to do so.  

   He said that returning from the trip, flying into Edinburgh from Amsterdam, after a long haul flight to the Dutch city from Buenos Aires, he was exiting the plane’s steps when the chain broke and he found it lying on the ground a few moments later. People looked at him strangely as he searched the tarmac before finding it, and the security person advised him to stay away from the underside of the plane as he found it a few yards from the air stairs. It was a mild misfortune he supposed next to the fortune the St Christopher may have blessed him with on that bus in Mexico, and in the club in Istanbul. He removed the chain, put it in a box and he said he hadn’t worn it since. He somehow felt it would have been bad luck to continue wearing it, and maybe, one day, if he were ever to give the chain to someone as his grandmother gave it to him, he would have it fixed. I told him I found it a bit unusual that he was initially so reluctant to wear the ring when years earlier he took so seriously another piece of jewellery. He said this was probably so, but he could never take rings seriously.  

                9

   I went with Mark, Annabella and others to the film’s opening. Mark was happy that the film was well-received but even happier during the Q and A afterwards when there was no sign of flirtatiousness between Annabella and either member of her crew. But then, during the festival and before the film’s second screening, he was looking through the brochure and the catalogue used an image that wasn’t from the film but from the production. In it, Annabella was talking to the cameraman and also in the picture was the interview subject, a man about forty-five, with greying hair to a little above his shoulders, a light beard, and a manner that even in a still photograph suggested the commanding. He was handsome, Mark said, but he was a good-looking man who appeared to have subordinated his looks into a purpose. Mark was a handsome man as well, but when he said this to me I knew that he never managed to give that impression. He went to an expensive hairdresser, and would often be aware of how fashionable were his clothes along with an awareness that he wasn’t dressing stupidly young. He would ask me, no doubt Annabella, and I suppose others what they thought of a new shirt, jumper, hat or shoes. The man in this photograph didn’t look like he cared what people thought about what he was wearing. But most importantly, in the photo, Mark saw that Annabella wasn’t wearing her ring. 

      What could he say, really, he admitted, speaking to me a couple of days after the second screening, after I asked him if he had said anything to Annabella. There she was, he added, making a film and probably a ring on her finger was an inconvenience, and yet he noticed that she had the other rings she often wore still on her hands. Should he have it out with her, he thought, a phrase that seemed so outdated; one for his grandfather’s generation where women were expected to know their place, a place that was in the kitchen and very far away from another man’s bed. Yet he did in that moment feel like a man from his grandfather’s generation, did feel that Annabella was his and couldn’t stop wondering if the man in the photograph had become her lover. He said he would find a way of discussing it. He just didn’t know how, and I saw Mark stranded Mark between the man his grandfather may have been and the one Mark thought he ought to be, which was supposed to encompass the sensitivity of the hurt but without quite being capable of expressing that pain. I suppose it was why his other lovers had left him. 

                              10

   Several months later she left Glasgow and left Mark. Her film was well-received at various festivals and especially so in Spain and she was offered a job in a Catalan university which would allow her plenty of time to work on future projects. It meant she could give up editing other people’s work and concentrate on her own. She told Mark this as if it were all a matter of practicalities, but I wondered if it was also because he did eventually confront her over the ring yet managed, I suppose, to expose his hypocrisy without registering his hurt. He told me he said, a month after seeing the photograph, he thought it was a bit unreasonable that she expected him to wear a ring and then given half a chance and behind his back, wouldn’t wear it herself. She asked him what he was talking about and he mentioned the festival catalogue, and a photo showing no ring on that finger. She laughed, saying she wasn’t wearing it because she wanted to protect it. The ring was more delicate than any of the others and clearly the one that meant most to her.      

  Was she telling the truth? I am sure she was; nothing in my interactions with Annabella suggested she would lie, and I had the advantage of objectivity. When I saw the image in the catalogue I didn’t think much of the man in the photo — he was probably less handsome than Mark, though perhaps more striking. But then I didn’t make anything of the missing ring either; I wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for Mark’s comment. If Annabella left, as she did, I didn’t think it was that she had fallen in love with this man; more that she fell out of love with Mark and that his questioning didn’t help. She probably wasn’t doing anything behind his back but she might have guessed that in using the phrase he was sometimes doing exactly that to her. Mark may not have been unfaithful but he liked the idea of its possibility, and that was why he didn’t wear the ring when he met with the young woman that afternoon to discuss her PhD. Annabella may not have assumed that the ring’s absence when he arrived late in the bar was because he had a sexual assignation before it. But after accusing her of its absence thinking she must be cheating on him, wouldn’t it be fair for her to assume that, when he wasn’t wearing his, he was cheating on her? 

    But I am sure things were subtler than that; she saw hypocrisy more than infidelity and the job in Barcelona allowed her to escape it. I found myself thinking too of the piece of jewellery in which he had so much faith, and which helped him out he believed of two potentially very dangerous situations. There, he had inherited his grandfather’s St Christopher which seemed to bring him luck, but he also maybe more than he realised inherited his grandfather’s attitude to woman, and it wasn’t bringing him much luck at all. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Rings

1

His was a Scottish titanium Celtic knot ring and hers was an Irish white gold Irish ring. The rings were in a similar style but his was chunky and he would always take it off when using the pull-up bar, while hers she insisted felt as if it wasn't just on her hand as an object but also as a presence she felt as a reassurance. He couldn't wait to take the ring off at night and this wasn't only out of physical discomfort. It reflected a greater resistance she on occasion suspected, and commented upon.

He had never worn a ring in his life and joked to me when I first saw him wearing it that his ball and chain had been melted down to fit onto his finger. It was offered with exaggeration: of Mark's four girlfriends since I first knew him at university, Annabella was the least interested in marriage, children and even commitment. I recall a conversation the three of us had in a bar along Dumbarton Rd, next to the Partick Plaza. It was the first time Mark had introduced me to Annabella and near the end of a long and pleasant evening that started for Mark and me on beers, and ended on testing several different single malts, while Annabella went through no more than two glasses of wine and a bag of unsalted peanuts. She said she could never expect anything from a partner other than fidelity and more generally honesty. You cannot expect people to start wanting other things if they don't initially propose them, she said. If two people meet and they have the same hopes and expectations, they might not find they love each other enough to build upon them, but the expectations are there. Is it fair however to expect someone to conform to your idea of a life if they don't, hoping they change their mind? It was the sort of conversation that wouldn't be unusual if people were talking disinterestedly about relationships, but there we were having this discussion shortly after Mark and Annabella started seeing each other, and on the first occasion I had seen them together. It was hardly the drink talking either - Mark and I may have by midnight got quite drunk, but Annabella had been sipping away and munching away at a very slow pace all evening.

That night she may have just been saying what Mark wanted to hear; that I knew and perhaps she did too that Mark's previous relationships came to grief on the partners wishing to share a home and in two instances hoping to share a child. But Annabella didn't seem the type of person who wished to please someone else more than herself, and she would have been either a hypocrite or in denial if she predicated a relationship on honesty and then couldn't even be honest at the start of it - and in front of her new boyfriend's best friend. She said that evening, if all was going well after a year, all she would wish was for a ring each of them would wear showing their love and fidelity. I looked at Mark and asked if he could just about manage that level of commitment; for true love he just might be able to do so. She in turn gave him a look that suggested a couple who had known each other for years: a withering look of disdain mixed with affection, and one that I didn't doubt contained love.

2

Annabella was a documentary filmmaker who managed to arrange a very good deal with a TV company she started working for after leaving university a dozen years earlier. She was directing within a year and the material she was working on in those first five years was worthy enough work, though it didn't interest her so much creatively. She worked for a year looking at people who were forced to use food banks; another about the difficulties many had accessing disability benefits, and a third on a housing estate exploring the numerous problems tenants faced with damp flats and difficult neighbours. They were all socially conscious works and managed to escape the condescension of more famous examples that were being made around the same time. Yet there wasn't much creativity there, and she knew in advance what she wished people to say and the style in which it would be filmed and edited. It was for a mainstream television audience and her purpose was to generate dismay in viewers. It was purposeful work but not very enquiring, and she managed to persuade the producers to extend their range into feature documentaries. They agreed to give her a more modest salary in return for the freedom to develop her projects, works that would aim to be shown at festivals rather than specifically for television.

I had known of the TV programmes Annabella made without thinking too much about who made them: they were reviewed in a couple of newspapers I would read, and I watched bits of episodes afterwards online. When she explained one evening a few weeks after that night in the pub, at a dinner at mine with a couple of other friends, I promised I would look at them in more detail. She said I needn't bother - detail wasn't their thing. If I had time to look at a couple of the documentaries she had made since, she would be happy to send them to me. I watched them, could see they were in an observational style television rarely had any interest in, and I recall discussing them with Mark a while afterwards. She was a good filmmaker, I told him, and needed to make films. In the TV work, there wasn't much observation, even if compared to a lot of television there was at least a sense of respect towards the people she was interviewing.

Over the three years I knew Annabella, even if almost exclusively through Mark, I never once witnessed anything that seemed contrary to the integrity that I had seen in the work, and yet it was a betrayal on her part that led to the break-up, if a betrayal is what it was.

3

It was after they had been together for a year that she said they should buy those rings, adding, Mark told me, that he needn't take this as a proposal of any other sort. She never wanted to get married so there was no point in them getting engaged. He said he wasn't sure if he would feel comfortable wearing jewellery but felt so comfortable with her, and the arrangement they hadn't even needed to negotiate but both fell into, that of course he would be happy to wear a ring.

Yet he never did seem happy wearing that ring, and sometimes seemed to find excuses to remove it (that pull-up bar), or would forget to put it back on. Once or twice when we met for a drink, he'd look at his hand and note its absence. But I always sensed less anxiety than relief that it wasn't there. He would no doubt have felt guilty leaving it in the flat, but to have forgotten to put it on his hand was an understandable slip; and needn't reflect on his feelings towards Annabella. He knew I was unlikely to let that pass and offered my best impersonation of a learned doctor, telling him that the heart had reasons reason did not know. I wasn't quoting a fellow psychoanalyst in this instance, but perhaps much of the profession owed a debt to the 17th-century theologian who made such a claim.

During that discussion, he wondered whether it would have been better if Annabella and he had agreed on a mutually satisfactory gesture. After all, Annabella often wore jewellery, wearing earrings, bracelets and several rings on occasion. If she could say with some lucidity that it wouldn't have been fair to start a relationship with someone knowing you wanted more commitment than the other person seemed to wish, he said, was it fair to insist on a material gesture that was consistent with her personality but not with his? I told him I recalled the conversation in the pub a year earlier and that he agreed to wear a ring after a year if they were still together. That may have been the time to negotiate a different arrangement. I said it facetiously and wondered if Mark would always seek an excuse, with even so modest a commitment beyond him. He said it wasn't that he wished to extricate himself from a gesture of fidelity; it was more that he knew the ring meant nothing to him and was an inconvenience. The other day the ring caught in his hair while he was showering and he found himself cursing Annabella for the first time. What good is this ring if it makes me irritated with the woman I love, he added.

I asked him what gesture he would have preferred and he said a necklace. I couldn't have seen Mark with a medallion dangling from his neck but he reminded me that when he was eighteen, he went travelling.

It wasn't a year out; he had no place in university lined up, and he didn't especially want to see the world. He just couldn't stay where he was; a village between Glasgow and Edinburgh that was perfect for parents who wished to escape what they saw as the hectic pace of city living but that by the time he was fourteen seemed to him uselessly sedate. When his older sister went to university in Glasgow he stayed weekends on her couch whenever he could and sometimes went out to clubs on his own if his self-made ID card worked. But at eighteen he didn't know what he wanted to do and doing anything just so he could live in a city seemed a twofold waste of a future. Why use his grant for a degree he might regret or take a year out pretending to know what he would be doing after it? He had some money from his grandmother's will, and also a St Christopher that belonged to his grandfather, that his grandmother had given him not long before she died. With his money, and this symbol of the peripatetic life, he believed he was destined to travel.

When he had told me of his travel stories before I knew that he went to Europe and beyond with money from his grandmother's will. But he never said anything about the Saint Christopher, and he added it was the only piece of jewellery he ever felt comfortable wearing. His grandfather had worn it during the war and didn't feel he wanted to wear it again afterwards. It was given to him by another soldier in the same battalion who died during the conflict and the nurse said she suspected the dead man would have wanted someone else to wear it. His grandfather wasn't oblivious to the irony of a medal that was supposed to bring him good luck and safe travels coming from a man who was killed, but he wore it more out of respect than anything else, and put it in a box when he returned after the war. Maybe the luck was meant to be his grandfather's rather than the other man's, Mark said, when his grandmother gave it to him and told him the story as she handed it over. She said that if his grandfather could have believed that, he might have been a happier man on his return. His grandfather often philandered and my grandmother left him twice. She forgave him eventually, and maybe kidded herself by blaming it on the war, though she supposed if that was so it afflicted a generation: she knew of other husbands who would stray as well. She then told him she thought that originally the necklace belonged to another soldier, that it was stolen, the thieving soldier died and then it came into the hands of Mark's grandfather. It will bring good luck if it falls into the right hands she said and clasped his as he held onto it.

As Mark told me this I could see he was moved, almost tearful, and while I have never found him cynical I have always found him unsentimental. I was close to him after a couple of break-ups but didn't see any tears in his eyes there, and wondered if he hadn't told me this story before it was because he knew it might get tearful in the telling.

4

He travelled for more than two years, and I've seen photographs and heard stories of those travels on several occasions. While I have a few of them in the back of my mind a couple are perhaps more immediately so because of Annabella's documentaries. The first was set in Mexico, the second, Turkey. In the Mexican film, the film follows four people, a waitress, a nurse, a taxi driver and a cliff diver. It looks like an observational documentary without a clear point beyond the observations it makes, following the four characters, with the cliff diver's story the most obviously exciting as we see him on a couple of occasions making a jump. But the nurse also takes in a couple of patients who have been injured, collateral damage in a shooting, while the taxi driver talks about the risks when you never know who will get into your cab. It might be a gangster who suspects you couriering drugs for a rival gang; you could have a gang member in your car and the rivals spray the car with bullets at traffic lights. The waitress's story seems the most mundane, as she goes about serving customers. But about two-thirds of the way through we discover that the waitress's job proved the riskiest of all. She was working in the very bar she is still working in when, two years earlier, four men arrived with shotguns, wearing balaclavas and killed six people. Two of them were gangsters the men were seeking; the other four people having a drink and a light supper. The waitress wasn't injured but the chicken dish and a fish platter the four were sharing were covered in blood only a few seconds after she served them. One of the four additional people at the table killed was the cliff-diver's brother, who was initially still alive and who was attended to by the nurse, while the taxi driver had driven the four men who arrived with shotguns to the bar. They stopped his car at gunpoint and told him to drive to the given destination. They got out, he drove off, and a few seconds later six people were shot. He said that he knew they were going to kill people. He just hoped it wasn't him amongst them and that those they were killing were going to be fellow gangsters. He felt scared at the time and guilty over the four who died who might have been alive if he hadn't given them a lift. He would have been dead but four might be living. It turned out the brother who was murdered was also a cliff diver, and the brothers may have been risking their lives most days jumping into the water but no cliff diver had ever died. Hundreds were dying now each year on the streets of Acapulco.

During his two years travelling Mark had been in Mexico for several weeks and halfway through the trip he was on a bus passing through Oaxaca that got stopped by four men in a pickup who seemed to be from a cartel. Mark spoke no Spanish and saw only the guns. They said a few words to the bus driver, and two of them got on and started walking up the aisle of the bus asking people to open their bags. The search wasn't very thorough and two men seemed to be doing it half-heartedly while Mark knew his own heart was in his mouth, as he for the first time understood the feeling behind the expression. They left the bus after about four minutes and said a few words out loud to the customers as they alighted. Sitting next to Mark was a Spanish traveller who was heading to Oaxaca City too and explained to him exactly what they had been looking for after the men got off. They said a man had left Mexico City on a bus with something that belonged to them. They were determined to get it back. They apologised for any inconvenience and thanked everyone for their patience. Patience wasn't quite the word as several people burst into tears with relief after the bus started moving again. What stayed with him was the gangsters' indifference and their politeness. All the films he had seen with people hijacking or searching buses and planes were of the gangsters and terrorists yelling and waving guns around furiously, as though they were no less nervous than the people they were intimidating. But this had seemed mundane and routine, and somehow the politeness didn't appear inappropriate.

He told me the story less as one of lucky escape than of exaggerated fear, and when I was watching Annabella's film it was more the reverse. Mark had offered an exciting anecdote that turned out to be of little consequence; Annabella offered the quotidian for much of the film's running time before showing how these four people were connected to an atrocity. But in different ways, I think Mark and Annabella were making a similar point. Mark teaches media studies here in Glasgow and I know he has used this anecdote with his students, saying that often film and television create unnecessary fears out of necessary financial gain. People might not have been interested in his story by the end of it, or at least felt disappointed by the conclusion, but most were very engaged at the beginning. He didn't tell it for false suspense; he offered it to say it is easy to get people's attention but harder to sustain it. Film and TV often wanted to grab the viewer and their way of not letting go was to create drama even if in reality that drama would be absent. How did students feel about that he would say; offering his own example as reality. Annabella's films didn't want to grab the viewer at all, I thought, but to lull them into what was tantamount to a false sense of boredom.

She did the same in her Turkey film. It started in the south of the country at a beach resort, as it followed four young women holidaying on the Turquoise coast. It seemed for all of them Turkish was their second language as we heard them speak amongst themselves and order in shops, cafes and restaurants. They were accompanied by no men and on a couple of occasions we see them chatted up in bars and rejecting the men's advances. There is no sense though that they are lesbian, nor do they seem religious. None of them are wearing headscarves and when on the beach wear bikinis as skimpy as the western tourists. A couple of them smoke. We follow them at the coast for forty-five minutes of the film's ninety-minute running time. We then switch to Istanbul and for a further ten minutes we assume they are waitresses in a couple of expensive city bars, before discovering they are sex workers who earn far more money than they could waiting tables, though this is often how they started. The most beautiful and the most needy are often tempted by the money they can earn and much of it is garnered by entrapment more than sex work. The film shows them arranging to meet a man in a hotel room; the client starts getting undressed and, when half-naked, two police officers arrive and threaten to arrest him. He offers to pay a large, on-the-spot fine and the client is relieved, if not sexually satisfied. The cops, who are gangsters, get the money, and the sex worker gets a percentage. This is information the film offers in voiceover as one of the prostitutes explains how it works while the camera shows us a typical room where such a transaction would take place. At the end of the film, subtitles explain how the film was made and that the four workers are no longer in Turkey and are living in undisclosed locations in Germany.

After watching the documentary, I asked Annabella how she managed to film the clubs in which they were working, and she told the management that she was filming high-end restaurants, hotels and bars, which wasn't a lie. She initially intended to make a film about the contrast between wealth and poverty in Turkey: her grandmother was from the country. But when she managed to talk to the four women in the film, when she heard they were going on holiday to maintain their high-end appearance, to swim, lie on the beach, exercise, and sleep long hours, she thought a more interesting film might develop, especially when she heard the women wanted to escape their life, or to augment it with better opportunities elsewhere. The only condition was that she wouldn't release the film until the women managed to get out of Turkey and Annabella said she would do what she could to help them leave. After all, it was now in her interest as well as theirs to get them out. Annabella offered this as the cynical concern of the documentarist; quite different she supposed from that of the fictional filmmaker who pays an actor for a role and who doesn't expect a duty of care after the filming. The actor can go back to being themselves; the documentary subject is themselves during and after. Was she still in contact with any of them, I asked. No, she said the duty of care was over; they were in Germany they were no longer her responsibility. The response appeared harsh but I supposed it was pragmatic. If Annabella would go on to make many films, how could she expect to be concerned about the lives of the numerous people whom she was filming?

Mark's Turkish story could have been Annabella's documentary seen from a different perspective from one of the clients. Mark was staying in a hostel not far from Taksim and there were four of them sitting around having a drink and desperate for a smoke. One of them asked if any of them had seen an American film from the late seventies where someone was arrested after trying to smuggle hash out of the country. It made for grim viewing, he said, and Mark knew of it but hadn't seen the film. They wondered who if any of them would be brave enough to at least try and access some hash. Mark said he knew someone at a street corner nearby who was selling knocked-off DVD and CDs, and was sure that he would know someone selling drugs. They drew straws to see who would inquire further and Mark drew the shortest one. The next afternoon he went up to the street-seller and told him he didn't want to buy DVDs. Is that all you sell, Mark asked and the seller looked around him, sniffed, put his hand into his pocket and took out a mobile phone. Give me a moment, he said, and started to talk to someone over the noise of the traffic. He then waved across at a boy of around fifteen, said a few words and then said to Mark, using a mixture of English and body language, that he must follow him. They walked for about ten minutes and passed through an area full of hanging washing, hungry-looking cats, ragged dogs and kids with T-shirts with the names of football stars and pop stars on them. Mark guessed they were left in hotel rooms over the years by tourists and made their way eventually to the poorer neighbourhoods. They kept walking and came across another area less impoverished and into a part of the town that looked familiar to him and where there were lustrous bars and opulent hotels. They walked into one of these bars, a vigorous and broadly built doorman holding the door, and the man who had taken him insisted Mark take a seat at a speakeasy while he found his friend. Seconds later, two women came over and, after sitting down, called the waiter and ordered various items. The drinks arrived, all specialities of the house, one of the women said, and then two packs of cigarettes were placed on the table as well as the bill. The Bill was for 500 Euros. Mark was expected to pay. The person he came in with was nowhere around and the waiter, who spoke English well, said that he hoped Mark wasn't going to refuse to pay the bill. Mark said he only had the equivalent of a hundred and fifty Euros in his wallet and the barman asked Mark to follow him. The woman sitting next to Mark who was slender slipped easily out of the booth and allowed him to exit the speakeasy. He wondered for a moment how easy it would be to exit the bar itself, and saw outside, through the glass doors, the bouncer standing. He tried to recall if the door swung inwards or also outwards and if he could escape by hammering the door against the doorman as he opened it. Would he be better just handing over the money and hoping that would be enough? He chose the latter option when he followed the barman into a small office near the front of the bar; perhaps had it been at the back he might have risked running for the door but somehow felt safer being at least near the entrance.

The man who presumably owned the bar said in a comprehensible but mangled and heavily accented English that Mark should sit down and he wondered where Mark was from. Mark said he was Scottish. That is lucky for you, he said. He didn't like the English, said something about feeling cheated out of his nation. Mark later gleaned that he was probably Kurdish, that he saw the Scots as oppressed by England. Mark may or may not have seen this as a fair reading of history but if it was an askewed account then it worked in his favour. The owner, who had a scar that left his eyebrow with an area where hair wouldn't grow, and what looked like its continuation on his cheekbone, may have escaped a terrible attack that could have taken his eye out. He would have been lucky, and he seemed to extend this luck to Mark saying that if he had been English, if Mark had shown any sign of arrogance, or made an attempt to escape, the doorman would have taken him into the back and would have at least beaten him, maybe at worst deliberately scarred him. The gangster then laughed, as if maybe no such thing would have happened, and he was just playing the sadistic gangster or laughed aware that what would have been a minor order during a gangster's day, yet one which could have ruined Mark's life. He then saw Mark to the entrance, asked him to hand over his wallet, took the biggest note out of it and passed it to the doorman. This is your exit fee, he said, happy he knew the term. He added, that maybe the lucky escape wasn't down to his kindness, but the St Christopher Mark was wearing. I like a superstitious man he said, adding you Celts.

5

If I may initially have thought that what drew Mark and Annabella to each other were shared experiences, a shared knowledge of the countries Mark visited and Annabella filmed in, then I might also have mused over the different tone in Mark's anecdotal telling and Annabella's filming. Mark's stories were of good fortune and an exaggerated fear while Annabella's films proposed that we could never be cautious enough. What I noticed too in her films was that she trusted the viewer, and expected them to have the patience to wait and see how the film would develop without, any earlier than necessary, making clear the film was about terrible acts. Obviously, someone reading the blurb might have an idea but when I asked Annabella about this she said that where possible she kept the synopsis brief and suggestive. The synopsis for the Mexican film read: four people go about their lives in a dangerous city in Mexico. Formerly famous for its resort lifestyle, it has become a place even locals fear to tread. That was more or less the publicity blurb, she said, and was pleased whoever wrote up the entry on the website didn't add anything to it. She said what mattered to her was trust and understatement. She offered it as a claim about her filmmaking but she seemed also to be talking about her life.

The conversation took place when both of us had turned up on time for a drink with Mark who was running thirty minutes late. A colleague's PhD student was frantic over a deadline and he would calm her down before joining us. We were sitting in a bar on Gibson Street a few minutes from his office, and as we talked about her work she appeared mildly anxious about his absence. This isn't the first time, she said, and I admitted it was far from the first time he'd been late for me as well. I said I tolerated it, saying it just meant that I could be late too if I wanted or needed to be. She asked if this happened often. I admitted it hadn't even happened once. When Mark did arrive she noticed a detail I missed and that she didn't comment upon until later when Mark was in the bathroom. He isn't even wearing the ring, she said, before apologising she had no right to complain about my friend. It was true; she should be having this conversation with Mark, and I said as much while trying to suggest I wasn't unsympathetic to her irritation. I drank the last of my wine and when Mark returned from the bathroom I said I needed to dash. He started saying that we hadn't even chatted for an hour when he stopped mid-sentence. It must have occurred to him that was hardly my fault, and maybe he also saw a look on Annabella's face that indicated she wished to talk to him alone.

6

I didn't find out for a while what they discussed and wondered too if Mark had forgotten the ring or deliberately taken it off. Mark may never have been unfaithful as far as I knew but he would always give the impression of availability, as though aware that no relationship would be likely to last and so he must always act as if new possibilities ought to be entertained if not acted upon. Yet for the next six months or so I think all was well between Annabella and Mark. At least when I saw them, there was none of the acrimony I witnessed that evening in the Gibson Street bar. Annabella started pre-production on a new film, and then went off on a four-month shoot in Spain, working on a documentary about separatist movements in the country, most especially in the Basque region and Catalonia. She came back a couple of times but I didn't see her, and Mark said he didn't see too much of her either. This was the first time that Annabella had been shooting a film while they'd been together. In the interim, she mainly worked as an editor on other people's projects, and now she was once again completely immersed in her own.

Mark and I always met regularly, but this period it was Mark who was instigating the meetings more frequently than I was, and while he seemed initially happy that Annabella was so busy and engaged, and he felt he had more time to be with friends, more time to watch football and play pool, he also wondered if Annabella was drawing away. He said that evening after the drinks in the Gibson bar, and for days afterwards, she wasn't happy and they barely slept for arguing over the absence of the ring. It wasn't enough that he was late, he also turned up with a bare hand when all she asked of him as a commitment was to wear a sliver of metal on his finger. She said she had no idea whether he cheated on her that afternoon in his office with a PhD student but if he did it would only be adding a further pain to an already twin injury. I asked him more bluntly than I would usually allow myself if he slept with the student if not in his office but at another time, and he insisted he hadn't. What he admitted though was that he took the ring off earlier that afternoon, happy to give the impression to the student that he wasn't someone in a committed relationship. It was the only time that this had happened and, of course, he admitted it was wrong. Would he have slept with the student if she had been interested? He said he didn't know if she wasn't and obviously she was a student even if not one of his, and in her late twenties. But he added that was the strange thing. He knew he had no intention of anything happening, yet he knew too he didn't want to be seen by her wearing the ring. Surely she must have seen him wearing it on other occasions I said, and he thought not. They had only seen each other twice before. The first time was when he was walking through the university cloisters. She was with her PhD advisor, they said hello as they were introduced and it was a cold morning and he would have been wearing gloves. The second time they chatted outside a cafe she passed and he was taking a table outside. Again it was cold and he was wearing gloves. She took a takeaway coffee and, as they talked while she was waiting for her order, he proposed she sit and drink it with him if she wasn't in too much of a hurry. He asked her a few things about her PhD and he supposed this was why she contacted him over the deadline when she couldn't access her supervisor.

As he talked he spoke as if this wasn't important in itself but it was important to his relationship with Annabella. Did Annabella know the full story? He said she didn't: he just told her he very occasionally forgot his ring and that was one such occasion. Since the argument, he hasn't forgotten it once, nor deliberately taken it off.

7

It was when she was close to finishing the shoot he wondered if it would be ok to visit her in Spain and she said it would be best if they met in Barcelona, though he wondered if it would be possible to visit her in the village inland from San Sebastian where she had hired a house, was editing the film, and where her cinematographer and sound person were staying too. She said it was best if they met in Barcelona; it would give them more privacy and she would be doing some work in the Catalan capital. Her suggestion seemed plausible and practical and yet he sensed that she didn't want him in the house for another reason. He acknowledged when we talked days before he was flying out that this might have been just the way Annabella worked. Why take it so personally? So off he went for a few days, keeping from Annabella that it was a place he already knew well, having stayed for a fortnight ten years earlier with a girl from the city he met while she was on an Erasmus year at his university.

During the easter break, with her parents away in Granada visiting relatives, and Mark and this young woman having her parents place in Gracia, they would walk the streets and occupy the bars late into the night, getting up late in the morning. They would get a milky coffee and a croissant at a cafe and sometimes go for a walk around Parc Guell or more often go further into town, meeting up with friends of hers, catching a film or a concert. They were good times, careless times, perhaps, as he flirted with her friends and she flirted with a bar person or musician. She didn't seem hurt and neither was he, and they would go back to the parents' apartment each night and wonder whether they were being naughty having sex in her parents' bed, or for having flirted with other people and felt all the more desirable to each other as a consequence.

Annabella and Mark stayed in the Barrio Gothica, and breakfasted at the hotel terrace and then read for a couple of hours there or at a cafe. In the afternoon they would walk, and in the evening go to a concert or a film. The habits were similar but there seemed to be a weight to their actions, a heaviness they were carrying around with them, though neither Mark nor Annabella were carrying any extra weight either physically or otherwise. There were no children to worry about, Mark's job was demanding but not stressful, and Annabella was making a documentary with a crew so small they could easily fit into one house. Mark wondered whether he wasn't alone in wandering around Barcelona with memories of a previous assignation, and sometimes found himself fretting over whether Annabella's memories were much more recent. When she left a day early saying a couple of interviewees had become available sooner than she expected, and that she must return to the village, he acquiesced, both hurt and relieved. He wasn't sure if he believed her but was also aware that he wanted to have a day on his own exploring the city, musing over those memories from well over a decade before.

It was an odd last twenty-four hours, as he would recall places he had been years earlier, fondling in a park, getting aroused in a cinema, kissing passionately in a cafe, and he even went back to the apartment block where the young woman and he had stayed. Were her parents still living on the third floor, was the now not-so-young woman visiting it, living in it, perhaps now its owner. She had no brothers or sisters. The thought of accessing the building and ringing the doorbell would have amused him before and he might have done so, and she would have been taken by the audacity. But now, a man in his late thirties, he realised he was old because he was cautious. What nonsense he immediately thought, but he couldn't deny the caution, and also what he discovered was fear, as he was sure that Annabella was no longer keen to make love even if she may not be sleeping with anyone else either. He knew it, he said, in ways that perhaps it wouldn't be fair for him to convey to me. But we all know when a woman no longer is in love, or at least with us. I said that I did, as he well knew.

8

Several months later the film was made, Annabella had finished the editing, worked on the colour grading and fixed any problems with the sound. It was to have its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and Annabella would be presenting the work, and there would be Q and As with her and her tiny crew the cameraman and the sound person. Mark hadn't seen very much of her during the months preceding its release. Yes, they went for dinner, would go for a few walks, and even on a couple of occasions to a film and once to a gallery. But she always said she had to go and he accepted that editing a film absorbed many hours in a day and that it wouldn't be fair to judge her distance as necessarily about him. During all this time he found a little comfort in that she always wore her ring, and he began to understand her anger that day in the pub when he turned up late and without his. He had never given the ring the value he gave to the St Christopher, and when he told me this, when we chatted a few days before the film's premiere, I asked him why he no longer wore the necklace. He said this was something he'd never told anyone before, and I might have wondered if he was telling me now out of vulnerability rather than revelation, that he wanted to speak about his feelings and the story of the St Christopher was the means to do so.

He said that returning from the trip, flying into Edinburgh from Amsterdam, after a long haul flight to the Dutch city from Buenos Aires, he was exiting the plane's steps when the chain broke and he found it lying on the ground a few moments later. People looked at him strangely as he searched the tarmac before finding it, and the security person advised him to stay away from the underside of the plane as he found it a few yards from the air stairs. It was a mild misfortune he supposed next to the fortune the St Christopher may have blessed him with on that bus in Mexico, and in the club in Istanbul. He removed the chain, put it in a box and he said he hadn't worn it since. He somehow felt it would have been bad luck to continue wearing it, and maybe, one day, if he were ever to give the chain to someone as his grandmother gave it to him, he would have it fixed. I told him I found it a bit unusual that he was initially so reluctant to wear the ring when years earlier he took so seriously another piece of jewellery. He said this was probably so, but he could never take rings seriously.

9

I went with Mark, Annabella and others to the film's opening. Mark was happy that the film was well-received but even happier during the Q and A afterwards when there was no sign of flirtatiousness between Annabella and either member of her crew. But then, during the festival and before the film's second screening, he was looking through the brochure and the catalogue used an image that wasn't from the film but from the production. In it, Annabella was talking to the cameraman and also in the picture was the interview subject, a man about forty-five, with greying hair to a little above his shoulders, a light beard, and a manner that even in a still photograph suggested the commanding. He was handsome, Mark said, but he was a good-looking man who appeared to have subordinated his looks into a purpose. Mark was a handsome man as well, but when he said this to me I knew that he never managed to give that impression. He went to an expensive hairdresser, and would often be aware of how fashionable were his clothes along with an awareness that he wasn't dressing stupidly young. He would ask me, no doubt Annabella, and I suppose others what they thought of a new shirt, jumper, hat or shoes. The man in this photograph didn't look like he cared what people thought about what he was wearing. But most importantly, in the photo, Mark saw that Annabella wasn't wearing her ring.

What could he say, really, he admitted, speaking to me a couple of days after the second screening, after I asked him if he had said anything to Annabella. There she was, he added, making a film and probably a ring on her finger was an inconvenience, and yet he noticed that she had the other rings she often wore still on her hands. Should he have it out with her, he thought, a phrase that seemed so outdated; one for his grandfather's generation where women were expected to know their place, a place that was in the kitchen and very far away from another man's bed. Yet he did in that moment feel like a man from his grandfather's generation, did feel that Annabella was his and couldn't stop wondering if the man in the photograph had become her lover. He said he would find a way of discussing it. He just didn't know how, and I saw Mark stranded Mark between the man his grandfather may have been and the one Mark thought he ought to be, which was supposed to encompass the sensitivity of the hurt but without quite being capable of expressing that pain. I suppose it was why his other lovers had left him.

10

Several months later she left Glasgow and left Mark. Her film was well-received at various festivals and especially so in Spain and she was offered a job in a Catalan university which would allow her plenty of time to work on future projects. It meant she could give up editing other people's work and concentrate on her own. She told Mark this as if it were all a matter of practicalities, but I wondered if it was also because he did eventually confront her over the ring yet managed, I suppose, to expose his hypocrisy without registering his hurt. He told me he said, a month after seeing the photograph, he thought it was a bit unreasonable that she expected him to wear a ring and then given half a chance and behind his back, wouldn't wear it herself. She asked him what he was talking about and he mentioned the festival catalogue, and a photo showing no ring on that finger. She laughed, saying she wasn't wearing it because she wanted to protect it. The ring was more delicate than any of the others and clearly the one that meant most to her.

Was she telling the truth? I am sure she was; nothing in my interactions with Annabella suggested she would lie, and I had the advantage of objectivity. When I saw the image in the catalogue I didn't think much of the man in the photo he was probably less handsome than Mark, though perhaps more striking. But then I didn't make anything of the missing ring either; I wouldn't have noticed if it weren't for Mark's comment. If Annabella left, as she did, I didn't think it was that she had fallen in love with this man; more that she fell out of love with Mark and that his questioning didn't help. She probably wasn't doing anything behind his back but she might have guessed that in using the phrase he was sometimes doing exactly that to her. Mark may not have been unfaithful but he liked the idea of its possibility, and that was why he didn't wear the ring when he met with the young woman that afternoon to discuss her PhD. Annabella may not have assumed that the ring's absence when he arrived late in the bar was because he had a sexual assignation before it. But after accusing her of its absence thinking she must be cheating on him, wouldn't it be fair for her to assume that, when he wasn't wearing his, he was cheating on her?

But I am sure things were subtler than that; she saw hypocrisy more than infidelity and the job in Barcelona allowed her to escape it. I found myself thinking too of the piece of jewellery in which he had so much faith, and which helped him out he believed of two potentially very dangerous situations. There, he had inherited his grandfather's St Christopher which seemed to bring him luck, but he also maybe more than he realised inherited his grandfather's attitude to woman, and it wasn't bringing him much luck at all.


© Tony McKibbin