I recently became intrigued by Kenneth Tynan's provocative claim concerning Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood. Tynan, writing not long after the book came out in the mid-sixties, suggested it was in the book's interest that the two real-life characters would be executed by the state so that Capote could have the best possible ending. Capote called his book a non-fiction novel, a work that would have the shape, form and artistry of the fictional while also unable to make up events as it went along. Tynan proposes that Capote could have done more to help the two men on death row he was writing about, that he could have got high-powered friends far more involved, but while that would have been good news for the murderers it would have been bad news for the arc of Capote's novel. A book that ended not on their execution but endless appeals and life on death row wouldn't have had the same power.
I was thinking about Capote's novel not so long ago when I wrote a story about two incidents that were based on real-life personages. One was about a terrible crime on a small Scottish island, and the other about a busker in the north of Scotland. In that story, I found the integrity of the piece rested on naming names, on making clear who the very people involved happened to be, and, while waiting on the outcome of one of the cases, clearly I couldn't do anything with the story but leave it to one side. Yet for some reason in this story, I feel under no obligation to name people specifically even if there is no less 'reality' in this tale than the other. I am not sure why that is so, why the integrity of the earlier tale needed real names and this one doesn't. That might best be explored in a more discursive piece; what you have in front of you is, finally, a fictional work that remains within a fully fictional remit.
A while ago a friend was arrested and detained in prison. I would say that I never knew him that well while also feeling a great affinity with him, and while I sometimes puzzled over this dichotomy, sometimes wondered why I could never quite work out what job he did, who he lived with, and where he came from, as we discussed books, films and music, philosophy and, just a little, politics, I felt close to what I can only call his sensibility.
I first met him around eight years earlier while teaching English as a foreign language. He was going out with a Spanish girl on the course and I met him when at the end of the ten weeks I invited the students out for a drink and she asked if it would be okay if her boyfriend came as well. They had met a few days after she arrived in the country in a cafe where she was reading a book he knew well and they started talking about the writer. That evening in the pub I chatted to Aaron for some time and didn't think too much about it though it was very far from a tedious encounter.
Around three months later I met him again while on my way to a second-hand record store in Stockbridge, and winding down the cobbled street towards Raeburn Place I saw him sitting on a bench eating a banana in a ciabatta roll, a bottle of water beside him. I noticed the roll and the banana before the person eating it, and then he said hello and I recognised him from the pub, asked him how Sofia was and he said she had gone back to Spain and they were no longer together. As he said this I couldn't quite work out if she had gone back and they had broken up or that they had parted and she returned to Spain but what I sensed from his voice was a solitude that I think I noticed in the pub but which seemed more pronounced now; it had segued into loneliness. I said I was off to a shop to see if they had an album a friend claimed was available there. I wanted to catch the place before it closed at 5, but if he wanted to get a coffee afterwards I could meet him in a cafe that was open until 7 now that we had entered the spring months. I planned to sit outside somewhere for a while and, recalling the previous conversation, I reckoned Aaron would offer time as well spent as reading a novel.
That early evening we talked about a book we had both read but hardly at all about Sofia, as though neither of us quite knew how to approach what I assumed was their break up. I didn't want to seem impertinent in asking, and I supposed he didn't want to sound like he was hogging the conversation with the personal, but during those two hours, I think we managed to arrive at an intimate exploration of our thoughts and feelings without discussing our own. The book we talked about was a collection of stories by Julio Cortazar, and especially two tales, in particular, Axolotl and Continuity of Parks. In the first, a person each day goes to Jardin du Plants and looks at the axolotls in the tanks only by the end of the story to find himself an axolotl looking out at the man he was. In Continuity of Parks, a man reading a book about a murder taking place finds that he is reading his own demise as the man in the story is also the one who comes into his house and wishes to kill him. What interested Aaron about Axolotl was that our sense of self can get destroyed by allowing our imagination to flood into the other person, to think so much about them that we can no longer think of ourselves, no longer feel there is much of a self to think about. I found Continuity of Parks so fascinating because it suggested there wasn't much of a gap between literature and life; that rather than a dichotomy it is a continuum, and no story better than Continuity of Parks captured that, even as I mentioned others that I thought managed to convey a similar sense of inextricability. Sitting outside on a warm day without much light, we noticed during the two hours we talked the har coming in off the coast and turning the air chilly. The street lamps came on, a halo surrounding them, and I wasn't sure whether the shift in light and temperature gave the impression of a much longer conversation, or that not a moment was wasted. Going home that evening I had the impression we had talked for some hours.
I didn't see Aaron for a few months. I had no mobile phone then and he hadn't suggested we exchange email addresses, but I felt that we would see each other again and I knew a friend had been made. I regretted slightly not giving him my home number, mildly worried that while we had talked about other things he still very much had on his mind the absence of Sofia. As we talked about Axoltl, when he mentioned another preoccupying us so that we lose ourselves in the other person, I assumed he was also talking about how he felt. Yet after that evening, I gave Aaron no more than the occasional thought and merely hoped to see him sometime in the future.
That future arrived six months later. I was at a friend's party when I saw in the kitchen Aaron in conversation with a couple of people. The friend's parties were always busy, he shared a six-bedroom apartment with others, on two floors, and the invites were open: people who knew Mario would come but they would also be free to invite half a dozen others as well. It wasn't uncommon for a hundred people to be occupying the space and I enjoyed the parties knowing that I was likely to meet people I'd never seen before, spend an hour chatting with them, dancing with them. Even, on several occasions, walking them home and kissing them on their doorstep, going in, staying the morning and half the day, and leaving, only to see them sometimes passing on the street and both of us offering a sheepish nod.
One of the people Aaron was speaking to happened to be a woman of around 25, several years younger than me, who I'd noticed at a couple of the parties before. I was interested in her capacity to stand for an hour observing people without feeling obliged to dance or to chat and in such a manner that to have entered into conversation with her, to have asked her to dance, would have seemed like an imposition. I even wondered once why she came at all, when someone said she used to come to the parties with an ex-boyfriend, but that he had returned home after finishing his Master's. Saying hello to Aaron also gave me the chance to say hello to her, and so when he waved, seeing me coming into the kitchen, I carried on over to the corner next to the sink where the three of them were engaged in chat. I was introduced to Emily, then her friend, and after about ten minutes her friend disappeared to dance, leaving the three of us to talk about what we were doing with our lives. Aaron didn't say much about his, yet asked plenty of questions, I talked for a few minutes about the tedium of teaching English as a foreign language to beginners as opposed to advanced students, and then Emily talked mainly about her PhD. It was an interesting project: Compromise and The Aesthetic Endeavour, a dissertation where she wished to focus mainly on the socio-economic nature of art creation rather than the creative act itself. She was taking three well-known post-war artists (a painter; a novelist and a playwright) and indicating how the nature of their success was predicated on circumstances that wouldn't have been available to them fifty years earlier. It concerned the nature of post-war education, public funding of the arts and the fact of a more democratised media. She was two years into the PhD and while she conveyed how fascinated she clearly was by the project, I could also sense in the language she used, language that wasn't quite hers, as if she were drifting further and further away from the instinct of the project and towards the demands of the institution itself. At one moment she would describe in detail the struggling years of the painter before starting to use words like 'hegemony', 'false consciousness', 'deconstruction' and 'subjectivation'. It wasn't that I didn't know what such words meant (anyone who passed through a particular undergraduate degree at a forward-thinking university was likely to do so), and Aaron was clearly familiar with them too. It was that they were being used in a synonymously redundant manner. Emily had made her point well and then seemed obliged to use them rather than the terms organically coming out of an impasse, a stalled thought that needs a little heavy theoretical artillery to help her out. I thought as we talked that this passionate and clear thinker might become disillusioned and muddy the further into the academic world she would get.
After we conversed for forty-five minutes she said she needed to go, the anxious look on her face suggesting she might have left the oven on, before adding that she had to get up early the next morning: there was a great deal of reading still to do. When she left, I asked Aaron if he already knew her and he said only twenty minutes before I had arrived. I asked him what he thought and we both agreed that she was a very smart person in danger of losing the edge to that intelligence. He quoted literary a critic he'd once read: "when the jargon runs away with the insight, that's no good," We talked for another fifteen minutes and then wandered into the sitting room. It was 230 in the morning, the party was probably peaking, and numerous people were on the dance floor. Aaron and I stood by the door, next to the radiator, and said but a few words over the music. The room was smoggy; a few people were dancing with a fag in their hand, as a machine occasionally billowed out a swoosh of smoke, and a timed tricolour of lights changed the colour of the room every couple of minutes from red to blue to yellow. We watched as some people benefited more from one colour than another, one part of their body availing and another losing out. A girl's corn coloured-hair came alive in the yellow light but her skin became jaundiced; a red-headed boy became overly flushed and his hair a worrisome flame, while a young woman with black hair benefited completely from the blue, her hair and her skin as if demanding the hue that most light couldn't have provided. I've always found it interesting that many people take so much time over their appearance, the make-up they apply, the shoes they wear, the hairstyle they adopt, but have so little control of the light, interior and exterior, that will affect how they look. I recall reading once an actor who insisted on his own lighting crew for interviews and press conferences; instead of the usual bodyguards to protect his body from harm, he insisted instead on a team of people to protect his image.
I offered this information to Aaron as we stood watching people dance but I wasn't sure if he could hear me. A few minutes later the young woman who had been speaking to Aaron and Emily came over and yanked him by the arm, pulled him into an embrace and they danced to a song that was slower than the others. I left shortly after that, never knowing whether the girl was someone he knew, had met that evening, whether they ended up in bed together, or embarked on an affair.
Every time I met him he appeared unencumbered emotionally and yet at the same time someone with responsibilities. The next occasion we met was a few months after the party, he was walking five or six dogs near the bridge that gave Stockbridge its name. I said I didn't realise he was such a dog-lover and he said after walking half a dozen dogs for an hour the best you can hope to be is a dog-liker. It was how he made a few pounds and lost a few, he added, as I realised I'd never asked him what he did for a living, and wondered how much he might make from such a strenuous activity. As if reading my mind, or just observing my face, he said it paid quite well. He also cat-sat and was looking after more than twenty-five animals a week as well as a slightly agoraphobic mother and a deteriorating grandmother. The comment on his family appeared to slip out, as though, reading his face as he had read mine, I knew this was something he wouldn't normally discuss, and it was the only time he ever directly mentioned his working and living circumstances. By this stage (it was around 2013) I'd finally bought myself a mobile phone and suggested we swap numbers. It would be nice to meet up when his hands weren't quite so full. I asked him to give me his number as I gave him a missed call.
Coincidentally, around the same time, I also saw the person from the party, the one writing on three post-war artists. I only heard her name once and couldn't recall it at that moment, and was surprised that she looked like she wanted to stop and speak at all my instinct would have assumed she might just walk on, ignoring someone to whom she had talked in passing at a party with numerous other people in attendance. As I came towards her, she slowed her step and said hello, added she enjoyed the conversation that night at the party, and that it helped it was good to talk to Aaron and me about what she was doing without the academic context. We were standing under a cherry blossom tree in the Meadows, and the breeze gently blew onto her a couple of petals, one landing on her shoulder and another on her hair. She smiled for the first time, a grin that brought out even more a pain she seemed to be suffering. I wanted to blow the blossoms off her as if doing so would blow away the misery she appeared to be suffering from, but I instead asked her a couple of questions about her work, said that I had seen Aaron not long before, and perhaps sometime the three of us should get together and talk art. She said that would be lovely and before I had the chance to give her my number she was off, rushing along the path, a brisk walk indicating once again that she had left something on at home.
I kept reminding myself I needed to contact Aaron and yet never did so; any feelings of guilt offset by the awareness that he could have no less easily have contacted me. And so it was another six months before I saw him again, at another party in the same flat as before. This time it was me who was standing in the kitchen in the middle of a conversation and Aaron who came through the door and looked into the kitchen, saw me and nodded but didn't come over. I saw then that I should have contacted him, somehow my status, which would have been hard to define, gave me the authority that he somehow didn't feel he possessed. There were probably more than a dozen people I knew at the party, including the couple I was conversing with when Aaron came through the door, and it wasn't until forty minutes later that I finally got the chance to say hello, to joke about not getting in contact, and saying that it seems only chance or other people's design (our host's parties) could bring us together. Neither the person he was dancing with last time or the one I met on the Meadows were there on this occasion but at one moment I mentioned that I had seen the latter, that I was surprised she stopped and talked, even if she then promptly dashed off. I asked him if he had seen her and asked how she was. It was an innocent enough question but as he answered I realised my enquiry could have given the impression that I was mildly concerned, and perhaps I had been. On both occasions her gesture of retreat seemed so sudden, a momentary anxiety so encompassing, that my instinct probably felt that she wasn't quite well.
He said that Emily had contacted him a few weeks earlier, that she couldn't go out but couldn't stay in, couldn't work but couldn't stop thinking about the work she had to do, couldn't phone friends but didn't want to be alone. She said as they talked that managing to phone him was the most constructive thing she had done that week. He asked if he should come and visit her but she said no she just needed someone to talk to for a while on the phone. He hadn't heard from her since and while he texted her several times asking how she was, he didn't receive a reply. We moved on to other topics, discussed a book we had both read, and then returned to the kitchen where there were a couple of empty chairs around the table, six or so others sitting there, and we joined a heated debate that became lukewarm without becoming any the less interesting. I watched Aaron manage to convey to both parties the ones arguing for a citizen's income; the others arguing against that it may have been more constructive to debate strengths and weaknesses rather than assuming it is a brilliant idea or an idiotic one. I saw in that gesture confidence I wouldn't have expected: an assertive willingness to compromise, a paradoxical position perhaps but one that Aaron offered as he didn't so much intrude on the discussion as remove the gristle from it. I could see why Emily had contacted him before anybody else, presumably over people she knew much better than Aaron.
That evening we left at the same time. The party was on Nicholson Street, not far from the university. I lived in Bruntsfield; he said he lived near Haymarket. He said he wanted to walk so I said we could carry on up to mine and then he could walk down towards the canal and home that way. Talking for twenty minutes as the darkness lifted on this late May morning (it was around 5 AM) I asked him a few questions about his background but he answered in a manner that suggested while he didn't want to be dishonest he couldn't quite tell the truth. I asked him about the cat and dog-sitting but he insisted it was just a few hours here and there; it didn't make much money. I wanted to ask him what did, though felt I would be intruding and recalled at one moment during a conversation around the table that evening someone speaking to him about computers. Aaron seemed to know plenty about them, appeared able both to programme and repair them, and I overheard Aaron saying he could pop round and take a look at it. The person asked how much he charged and Aaron said he would have to see what the problem was: if he couldn't fix it there wouldn't be any charge at all.
Instead of asking him more about work we once again discussed books. He asked if I'd ever read The Executioner's Song. I said I had but didn't expect ever to have a conversation with anyone else who'd read it. He asked why I had. I'd watched a film about Mohammed Ali fighting George Foreman, Mailer was interviewed in the film and so I read his book about it, The Fight. Then I wanted to read more Mailer and read The Executioner's Song. I asked him why he had read the book. He was always interested in what made a person a criminal he said. Was it in the blood, in the family, in the society, in a set of circumstances? His answer was much more meaningful than mine but also vaguer and yet I didn't feel I could ask further. He instead added that he saw the real-life protagonist in it as a distant heir to Zola's figures and wondered, no matter how much society became more egalitarian, whether all it could do was minimise the force of traits that reflected a very real and very deep sense of the human beast. He said probably very few people in prison were there for reasons other than sociology but as long as some were it caused problems for those who insist reform is the answer.
I didn't know what to make of what he was saying; I couldn't see him as someone opposed to social justice yet there was potentially in his position an argument that would appeal to those who thought prison reform was a waste of time. As we walked up through Bruntsfield Links in silence I thought for a moment about the characteristics I might be hiding that allowed me to pass for a civilised person fit for the society in which I lived. I had no desire to hurt anybody, no wish to steal, gained no pleasure in lying, nor in taking advantage of another. I wouldn't have believed I was a good person; nor had I thought much about the circumstances in which my decency wasn't my business. I had been brought up in a way that indicated none of these aspects (lying, stealing, and so on) would have been beneficial. It was as if Aaron knew they could be even if I had no sense that he was a person who wished to exploit others. We said a few more words after that, about the party, about people we knew there, then I said to him I lived on the street we were now walking along. He said we should meet again. This time I promised I would phone him. He replied there was no point; he had changed phone numbers but he would contact me.
The next day after sleeping till lunchtime, I went for an hour's walk to work off a hint of a hangover and then stopped at a newsagent, bought a Sunday newspaper and carried on to a cafe off the Meadows where I took a coffee and a sweet scone. Flicking through the newspaper I noticed a short article in the Scottish section about a person in the Highlands who had just been sentenced to five years in prison. He had been found guilty of various offences, including fraud, grievous bodily harm and sexual harassment. His name was James Redditch and had been in the year below me at school in Inverness. He was in charge of a gang that terrorised others in his year but he was also seen by many as charismatic, and I recall my younger sister and her friends, who were two years below me, all found him attractive, with one claiming that she kissed him at a party but pushed him away when he tried to have sex with her.
People said he had been with numerous girls even though he would have been no more than sixteen. He often slept with older women too, that from the age of thirteen he had been sleeping with women in their twenties. He supposedly never told the truth when a lie would suffice, always seeing in such lies a chance to take advantage of others more gullible, or just more honest, than himself. It was a formula my sister offered to me many years ago, adding, he was like a character in a book that he probably wouldn't read, though he'd like the idea of someone writing about him. She offered the formula and the remark long after we had all left school, when I said to her that a friend was working in one of Redditch's takeaways. I have no idea whether she was passing on what her friend had believed at the time she was seeing him, if the friend arrived at the remark years after the event, or if the comment was my sister's own, one that may have indicated she too once had an affair with Redditch. He had left school at the first opportunity and when I was in sixth year, the fifth years said the atmosphere had changed; they no longer felt frightened about going to school and even some of the teachers were said to be relieved that Redditch would no longer be coming to their classes. I suppose it wasn't only Redditch; most of the gang probably left at the same time, pursuing hard outdoor jobs like working on building sites, or skilled if modest professions like plumbing, welding and mechanical work. I offer such claims with no prejudice; my father owned a garage and sometimes he expected me to help out. It was both grimy, exhausting work and also sometimes intricate and skilful I could never change a spark plug or drain the oil without making some stupid error. But what I knew of Redditch was that he initially became a postman even if some claimed this was a front for flogging drugs until he put enough money aside to buy a takeaway van, which was again used as a front, before eventually owning half a dozen takeaway shops in Inverness. Perhaps he gave up selling drugs by then, if he ever sold them in the first place. There were no drug-related charges in the offences he had been jailed over.
I thought occasionally during the next few years about Redditch, partly because my sister's friend who said he tried to kiss her, was going out with him for a few months when I was at university here in Edinburgh. I remember going up one Easter and she was staying for a few days at our house. It seemed as though he cheated on her several times during the brief period when they were together, and, when she tried to part from him, he became furiously jealous, wanting to know who the person was that she was leaving him over (there was no one), and roughed up a couple of her male friends on the off chance it happened to be them. Discovering that she was staying over at our house, one evening he came into our garden, stood there for a few minutes, and screamed abuse up at the window he assumed she was hiding behind. I watched from my bedroom but he didn't seem to notice me there. The light was off and it was getting dark outside. My father arrived home late from work and saw standing in front of him a young man hollering up at the window. I knew my father was strong (I'd seen him lift an engine out of a car with a colleague who wasn't doing the heavy-lifting, and knew I couldn't have come close to taking even the lighter load), but I had never seen him before aggressively angry. By then Redditch was twenty, and probably my father's height at over six feet, and well under half his age. But as he turned towards my father I was sure I saw in his body language fear far greater than I would have expected, and saw in my father's countenance anger that suggested a calm which had already decided that whatever must happen would take place. "I want you to leave" my father said, and though the words were simple enough the emotion behind them indicated violence I often wondered about but never saw again. Jamie left, swearing a couple of times and once more yelling up at the window as though to save face without risking damage to his own. A couple of days later all four tyres on my the father's car had been slashed. I expected my father to be further enraged but he said he supposed it was better than having his face slashed, offered with a wisdom that made me wonder if he might in the past have been in a situation where such a thing had been a possibility.
I suppose I sometimes thought of Redditch because I occasionally thought about my father's look that day, how a town hardman had been cowed by that anger, and I sometimes sought in my father's personality signs of that violence present enough for merely a hint of it to scare Redditch off. I knew my father came from a housing estate outside Glasgow that was known to be both impoverished and crime-ridden, but he had always talked about how lucky he was to escape it, meet someone from the Highlands (my mum), and whose garage (and dealership) made good enough money for the family to live in a part of the town (Old Edinburgh Road), that suggested very much an escape from poor beginnings. Jamie appearing at the house was an affront but it also indicated a return, but to what I've never known.
A few weeks after the party, Aaron sent me a text, asking if I wished to meet up and I proposed a cafe that I and other friends had several years earlier made our regular. It was a place we usually went to on a Wednesday afternoon if we didn't have an office job and on Sunday afternoon for those who did. I usually went both afternoons and other days too, often taking a tea there and reading a book, the music was ambient, the view of the castle spectacular, and the staff indulgent of someone who wanted to do no more than sup a cuppa for a couple of hours while immersed in turning pages. I arrived forty-five minutes early, read for a bit and, when he turned up, rather than immediately talking about our lives, we discussed instead the lives of the characters in the book, extending it into the lives of other characters that somehow allowed us to then incorporate our own existence more engagingly. I was reading a book by a French writer that implicated himself and his family in a novel that was undeniably based partly on fact (it was easy enough to look up various details) but also possessed the momentum of fiction, as well as a speculative faculty that cannot quite be deemed factual, a point the writer himself addressed. It was a fact that the writer's mother was well-known, and a fact that he went to a country suffering in the wake of Communist collapse, but speculation that certain things happened and also speculative were the motives of various characters for why it happened. Aaron reckoned fiction was better read for its speculative possibilities than its fictional ones. Isn't there far more fact in serious literature than trivial fiction, in the sense that so many great novels are based close to our everyday realities while lighter fiction often incorporates the fantastic, the exaggerated and the overly dramatic? He paraphrased Flaubert: to write a novel about nothing but to speculate about everything. Shouldn't this be the purpose of literature? I couldn't say so with such confidence, though it was true I was often taken by fiction that worked not so much with motivation (the cause and effect of an action) but which speculated over the myriad possibilities in a deed. If we happen to contain multitudes, shouldn't these subjunctive selves become manifest? Aaron agreed just as the waiter took his order, and for the next two hours we continued talking about books and ideas, occasionally bringing into the conversation a detail about people we knew, an experience we once had, but always returned to literature. As we parted I insisted he must come to the cafe regularly, mentioning how we would meet on Wednesday and Sunday. I said sometimes we played a game of chess, read our books, chatted, but if he came along we could chat as we had today and maybe try and involves some of the others in what we were discussing.
Over the next couple of years, Aaron came often; sometimes we just talked alone, other times several of the others joined in and it became a debate, but two features of his discussion remained evident. Firstly, he never got into an argument: whenever somebody made an outrageous claim, rather than refuting it furiously, he usually asked where they got such a piece of information from, and why he thought it might not be entirely accurate. He made people feel not only that they weren't entirely wrong, but actually a little wiser, as if by augmenting their position with some facts that often even altered their stance, he made them feel the point they were making was more intelligent even if the point no longer really held. The friends were often smart people, well-educated and well-informed, but several of them were also egotistical, and winning a debate often took precedence over offering a coherent argument. I am not sure if Aaron was better read and smarter than they were (whatever these things really mean) but I did know that he didn't allow his ego to intrude on the discussions he found himself in. Secondly, he never predicated his position from any personal stance; never said that because of a particular experience he knew what he was talking about and thus invalidated the argument of someone who had no such personal knowledge. But then during those years he never said anything at all about his personal life, and though I would have by then known him for six years, I knew no more about him than what I found out that day when he mentioned his mother and his grandmother.
However, one afternoon after we left the cafe together he suggested he wanted to walk; would it be okay if he just walked in my direction for a while? Keen to walk too, I proposed we go down through the Meadows, up through Marchmont and the Grange and round the back of Blackford Hill. Eventually, we would come out near my place but that would still leave him with a walk home. He said he didn't mind; he'd been walking so much the last few weeks that another few miles wouldn't be noticed. I knew three months earlier that Emily had died, though I heard it indirectly from someone who themselves didn't know her but knew people who did. They didn't know what happened and suspected the family wanted it to remain nobody else's business. I worried that it was suicide, which seems somehow a needless fret since she was no longer alive and whichever way she was killed (by an illness, her own hand, the hand of another or by an accident) hardly mattered. And yet I thought it did as I recalled meeting her on the Meadows, remembering the Cherry Blossom petals falling on her, and seeing as she rushed off a woman in fear of herself and the world. I hardly knew her and what could I have done to prevent her death if suicide it had been, but I knew I wanted to ask Aaron what happened, feeling that if anybody knew, or at least anybody I knew, knew, it would be him.
I had heard about her death not too long after it had occurred and searched Aaron's face in the cafe in the weeks afterwards to see if he might wish to talk about it. I saw no sign until we started to walk and in his comment about having walked so much lately I assumed he was referring to Emily. I asked him what he knew and he said that she contacted him a few times in the month or two before her death. He offered to meet up but she always refused; instead, talking to him on the phone until her or his battery died. She was obsessed not so much with her PhD; more the fact of the thesis itself. She no longer talked about the ideas she was working on, the specifics of the books she was reading, and the flow of her thoughts. She only talked about how imperfect it was; how she believed it wasn't written in a style that was academic enough; that she didn't have enough references, that she didn't any longer want to show it to her supervisor it was so terrible. Aaron asked when she last showed her supervisor a chapter. She said more than six months earlier and there were a few criticisms that pierced her, punctured her confidence and also her sense of purpose. She didn't want to show it to anyone until it was finished, when it was perfect. Aaron tried to tell her it didn't matter if it was perfect. It would undeniably be good, better than many a PhD and she needed to be less hard on herself. It is killing me, she said, and he half-laughed. She repeated it again; this time in a quiet whine, and then again in a loud shriek. He managed to calm her down a little but his phone shortly afterwards went dead. The conversation had taken place while Aaron was sitting outside on a park bench a couple of miles from home. By the time he got back, started to charge the phone, he noticed three missed calls. He phoned her back but she didn't answer.
There were several phone calls like this one, and always, at some point during the conversation, she would say that the dissertation was killing her. He believed that it did. I asked if he knew if she took her own life. He said he didn't know and at the funeral, nobody would say. He couldn't see how it could have been otherwise, and everything Emily was saying suggested that the only way she could escape the tyranny of her dissertation was not by giving it up but giving up on herself. By now we were walking through the Braids behind Blackford Hill, a late spring day accompanied by the sounds of birds tweeting, a brook babbling and chatter from a couple having a picnic. Obvious sounds but ones to which perhaps Emily's ears had become deaf, the clamour of arguments and counter-arguments crowding out any sounds that might offer a perspective beyond the terror of words and thoughts. He offered this to me as if to say weren't we lucky we could still hear nature, that our world hadn't yet been suffocated. I recalled yet again that moment when the petals fell on Emily's hair and shoulder; that she didn't seem to notice at all.
During these years that Aaron joined me and others at the cafe, little in my life had changed. I was still living in the same flat and teaching at the same language institute. My life hadn't changed but I discovered Aaron's had. A letter arrived that had my name and address on it but no postcode. It was from Aaron: clearly, he remembered where I lived from the two occasions he had walked by my place, and in the letter he told me that he was presently residing at Edinburgh Prison, detained until a court hearing, one that concerned a fraudulent attempt to gain access to a degree course at the University of Dundee. It seemed that to do so he had to create a false ID since, he admitted in the letter, he and his family never had legal residency in the country. For years he had walked dogs, looked after cats, helped fix people's computers, developed others' websites. His mother and grandmother knitted and made money selling the jumpers as made in Scotland, an irony considering they were never legally allowed to live in the country. His degree was going to be in law, a practical subject with a more specifically practical application: he hoped to find a way of getting them all to stay in the country legitimately easier he hoped with a law degree and with a knowledge of the system. He said he expected a sentence of between three months and two years. He told me I shouldn't bring anything to the prison except my passport and recent bill with my address on it. There was no point bringing anything for him like books or CDs they would have to be requested in advance and then pass through a complicated system.
I visited him a week later, taking the bike out along the canal as if to contrast my freedom with Aaron's incarceration. It was a late spring day and the midges swarmed in front of my eyes, the sun beat down on my forehead, and every thirty seconds I twanged the bell as I went past numerous walkers enjoying a day that had probably been the hottest so far that year. I turned off the canal and carried the bike over my shoulder as I descended about sixty steep steps, came out at a stream below the canal and cycled along it without quite knowing where I would end up, hoping the path eventually led to a main road near the prison. And so it did. The beauty I had cycled along met with a busy road and industrial buildings and a few hundred yards further on a turn off for the jail. I gave my name at reception, was asked to wait ten minutes in the visiting area, and then started to queue outside the prison itself. About a third of us were standing there before a door was released. We went through it, then through security and then waited again in a room between the security area and another door that led along a corridor to another door, and then a wide-open lounge area with about seventy seating spaces: one side for the prisoners; the other for the visitors, with a table in between. I was assigned to D3 and sat there until the prisoners started to come through from another door. There were fathers happy to see their partners and their children, fathers looking a little shell-shocked visiting their son in prison; others looking like they wouldn't have expected anything less as though their boy was now seeing what his father had gone through a couple of times before. Yet nobody looked more confused and disoriented than Aaron who, dressed like everybody else in either a brown sweater or T-shirt (Aaron was wearing a sweater), appeared as if he still hadn't quite worked out where he was, even though by then he had been in the prison for almost a month. The first thing I noticed was how much weight he had lost, which wouldn't have been more than half a stone but on someone as slight as Aaron it showed, giving his high cheekbones and large eyes, which before indicated a physically attractive disposition, a skeletal one, while his slim build and narrow shoulders suggested clothes had suddenly become ill-fitting. I had to remind myself while talking to him that he had only lost a few pounds; the loss looked horribly transformative.
I visited him a few times over the next three months, and then visited him again when the sentence was passed: he received two years with a year suspended. But he was also, along with his family, given an immigration lawyer often successful in getting his clients citizenship in the UK. It was during one of these visits after he was sentenced I saw at a table behind me James Redditch. He looked like one of those people we would say hadn't changed: he was of a similar weight to when I saw him fifteen years earlier, had kept his hair, which remained sandy blonde. But even from a reasonable distance, I could see that his face looked ravaged, a visage perhaps containing no scars from knife fights but carrying the stress of probably having been caught in a few of them. He seemed irritated, sitting throughout the visit with what I assumed was his girlfriend, looking like he couldn't get access to the legal highs that according to Aaron kept many of the prisoners in a state of relative calm. For a while, they were smoking pages from books laced with LSD. Now books could only be bought online and there would be nothing more on the pages than the words that they could read. That may have been more than enough for Aaron, who had always accepted books could transform him to another place, but I had no sense that Redditch had put his nose in a book except to find a way of getting high off it. Perhaps somehow his girlfriend had managed to smuggle something else in and any pleasure he was feeling in her presence was small next to the pleasure she would pass on to him and that he would take when back in his cell.
I asked Aaron if the book I had sent him from an online source had arrived. It had and so we talked for ten minutes about the book as I reminded him about The Executioner's Song while we discussed the idea of the hardened criminal in a place that would have a few of them, including I suppose James Redditch. He said he had always been interested in criminality, as I recalled, and knew now of course that throughout his years in the UK he was risking incarceration, and yet it wasn't fear that got him interested, it was something else. It was a strange notion of freedom. That afternoon, and in the space of twenty minutes, he told me for the first time how he came to be in Britain. He was a seventeen-year-old boy with a mother who was invited to a conference in the UK and a grandmother who was recently retired. The mother was an industrial chemist; the grandmother was a pharmacologist. They were living in a Russian city whose name I didn't know, and many people were struggling. It was a few years after the Soviet Union fell and his mother suspected her job would soon run out of funding, and had heard of people nearby who couldn't afford to heat their homes in conditions that were well below freezing. An old man was found dead, frozen to his own floor. There were many incidents like it and all around them a society that had been oppressively liveable became one of luxuriant comfort or terrible destitution. He didn't want to exaggerate; he didn't need to; it was far worse than he could detail if for no better reason than that much of the worst he had blanked out. They came to Britain and once here had no intention of leaving, and so for the next fifteen years they lived hoping eventually to find a way of getting citizenship after an initial asylum claim was rejected, but it never happened.
I knew his name wasn't Aaron as I visited him under his real name of Michael Sorokin, but I was always reluctant to ask him directly about his life, and even more so when visiting him in a prison where he might feel obliged to lie. That he volunteered the information made me see no reason why what he offered wasn't true. I didn't tell him that while what he said was fascinating, no less so was the person who I could still see sitting a few metres behind Aaron who seemed rather more deserving of his occupation in a prison cell than my friend, based on my memories of school and the rap sheet that the newspaper reported a couple of years back.
After the prison visit, I looked online to find out anything about Aaron's case but nothing under his real name came up, so I found myself instead looking at information on Redditch. There were various articles, a number of photographs and it wasn't difficult to put together the existence of this man who I had feared many years earlier and whose adult life could be collated quite precisely with news items. He was married with two children in their early teens; he ran a number of takeaway shops in his early to mid-twenties and expanded into property and land by the time he was in his thirties. He was 33 when jailed and had never lived anywhere but the town where he was a determined and finally failed self-made man. There were stories too about drug-taking episodes, drinking binges and sexual holidays in various parts of the world. It was the colourful life of a modest-league gangster and nothing in it surprised me. It was the actual life lived and there it was containing no secrets and revealed for all to see if they wished to look for the information. Yet Aaron, in prison, his real name revealed, remained a mystery, someone to whom the virtual life didn't only matter in the numerous books he read and that we would often talk about, but whose entire existence resided in an arena that couldn't ever quite be actualised. I didn't know why nothing had been reported in the press about his case but I did know that it didn't go before a jury and that the court was closed. How would the press have got the information? I also wondered whether Aaron never told me about his past, never acknowledged to me that he was illegally in the country, not out of a fear that he couldn't trust me, but aware of forcing a burden upon me that I wouldn't have wished to accept.
I would have liked to think he was wrong, that he could not only have trusted me but relied upon me as well; that I felt an obligation towards him that I might not have felt for example were a student of mine seeking illegally to remain in the country. I felt an obligation to Aaron as Aaron felt an obligation towards Emily, who remained a mystery to Aaron not least because I think she remained a mystery to herself: a young woman who must have well known that she was generating a demand inside her that could only be met by the void that it was creating. There must, too, have been for years a void in Aaron that he could not fill for perhaps no other reason than that he had to assume a name and an identity that always needed to remain distinct from the reality that he had continuously to hide. Yet fill it he did, I always thought, believing that any truth he couldn't disclose was compensated for by an interest in art that suggested a greater honesty than the biographies we are expected to live by. As for Redditch, I supposed it was more the opposite; that fiction wasn't a higher realm that could create affiliations with others but an optional mode towards reality that could get him what he wanted. And yet there he was, inside a prison, his name in the newspapers and his lies exposed by the most mundane of factual reporting. And there too was Aaron, no less incarcerated in a jail cell, but his secrets his own, there to be divulged rather than exposed. I hoped the lawyer who was defending him would allow Aaron, his mother and his grandmother to stay in the country, yet I think I thought this more for his relatives than for Aaron himself. As he once said to me, quoting Novalis: "philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere." I thought about this urge, and also its opposite, one that Emily perhaps found and that I sensed Redditch wouldn't have countenanced: an urge to be nowhere.
Nine months after this visit, Aaron was released and I saw him about ten days afterwards. We went for a long walk that included the places we walked through before Marchmont, Bruntsfield, Blackford Hill but though it was a spring afternoon again, he said it was vividly so this time; only vaguely so before. He said that when he was in prison his senses didn't die but they became suppressed, as though he was determined to retain a sense of desire, to taste, touch and smell the world, aware that three of his senses were either impossible or curtailed. The food was bland, the hour of exercise outside gave little sense of nature and for a year he hadn't touched another human except for the few occasions his mother arrived and they hugged. Our hugs had been brief and awkward and I couldn't have hoped to match the need. But throughout that year he knew too that sensual things had been removed but his senses hadn't been deadened. He couldn't but think of Emily and how her world had shrunk and shrivelled from inside her body and her mind. Prison didn't do that to him at all, he said, and books were alive on the page in the smallest of gestures and details. A meal described#, a caress commented upon, a kiss met. They were evocative because they could still evoke and while he yearned to close the gap between the words he read and the experiences he wished for, in that very yearning he knew his mind was as free as his body was not.
I thought about this after the walk and wondered if Emily's tragedy was that she couldn't get outside her head; Redditch's that he couldn't get into his own: that the gap between a thought and an experience was non-existent and there he was serving a five years sentence with many of those experiences unavailable to him; would he be forced to find them indirectly, in books and films? I recall my sister saying that when a few of them went to the cinema, Redditch couldn't concentrate on the screen, he had to talk through the film, look at others and go for a wander around the cinema halfway through. There was nothing to suggest that he could experience the world indirectly and how many prisoners suffer all the more from their inability to abstract themselves from events and turn them into reflection? Aaron always could, as though the abstract world was a place in which he could live without it becoming a place in which he might die, as I suspected may have happened to Emily.
I thought again of In Cold Blood and Tynan's comment about Capote's responsibility towards the killers and was thinking too of what mine was towards not just the story I had written and was awaiting a legal outcome over, but also the one you have in front of you now. Who is the reader of the story, is it my friend Aaron who I will show it to and who can comment upon it, is it Redditch who were he to read it might express as much surprise in finding himself in it as I would be in discovering that he had read it, or perhaps even more Emily, who I hardly knew and yet feel the written word has a responsibility towards. I recalled reading that though one of the killers in Capote's book never finished third-grade, it seems he was a keen reader and would no doubt have read Capote's novel if he hadn't had to die first to give it an ending. As I write about Aaron, now a free man if not yet a UK citizen, I know that any story I write about him needn't contain within it his demise to allow it a conclusion, even if hovering over it is another death that my story includes. When I think of the character from Capote's book I think too of Redditch and who was I to assume he wasn't a reader; that maybe my sister's comment was a disdainful remark that played up prejudice without offering insight. If he hadn't been a reader, at least books hadn't terrified him, and who knows what ferocious prejudice Emily had applied towards herself as she became afraid to open a book since whatever one she opened there were many, many more that she hadn't read. If one of the men in Capote's book couldn't read it because first he had to die for its completion, then how many completed books had created such terror in Emily that it was as if she might prefer to die rather than face the emptiness of all the books that she had still to read? Every word we write is in some manner a death sentence, a move towards our oblivion, yet which we hope needn't contribute to the oblivion of others too. To discuss that would be for the discursive essay this story has constantly threatened to become, and has also tried to resist becoming, as though finding in the fictional a truth that belongs finally to it, and not to the world.
© Tony McKibbin