I was having a drink with a friend and we were discussing amongst other things the obsolescence of technology. Earlier that day he had bought a set of headphones and couldn't work out how to use them wirelessly. I explained what he needed to do but he seemed to have stopped listening, admitting every time someone talked about tech his mind went not so much blank as foggy. Though as far as I knew he didn't write I often wondered why not; he had far more stories to tell than I had and some I've written down have been predicated on experiences that have happened to him. Yet that doesn't feel quite right either. As he speaks he isn't only telling me about his experiences but associating them with thoughts and feelings; sometimes when I've based stories on what he has told me I have proposed there should be a co-authorship credit. He would laugh when I said this and insisted the hardest part was putting the words down and he liked nothing more than putting images to words. He didn't envy the reporters who put words on the stories to which he added photographs, photographs others had taken.
He has been working as a picture editor for the main newspaper in Glasgow for some years, after studying photography and film at a university in Edinburgh. While he still takes photographs occasionally, he says he does so therapeutically to counter the sort of practical images he daily puts into the paper. He also takes analogue photographs only, and that is of little use to a fast-moving newspaper. He sometimes reckons he should become once again a newspaper photographer but he thinks that, if his work must be uncreative, then better it be so sitting at a desk rather than travelling the country doorstepping people in damp and drizzle with a digital device. I joked saying that with the stories he had given me over the years, maybe I was the picture editor, so to speak, and he was the one doing the legwork.
Anyway, that evening over a few drinks in a bar that combined the sophistication of a restaurant with the rowdiness of a pub, he asked me If he'd ever talked about a brief relationship he had been an odd witness to when he was twenty-four and not long out of university. I said I didn't think so but I was intrigued, promising that if it was a good enough tale it might become the next story I would write. He said as long as the names and places were a little altered he wouldn't mind, though maybe it wasn't much of a story to tell. It seemed to him buried in the rubble of other stories. I laughed and said I would be the judge of that and that he should speak of the debris.
In the final year of his university course in Edinburgh, he started sending material to the newspaper he now works for. Whenever there had been a fire, a car accident, a fight in a bar or any other semi-serious incident he would cycle as quickly as he could to the scene and take numerous images. Some of the photographs were published and, not long after he graduated, the paper offered him a job and he moved to the city in which it was based. He moved to Glasgow on finishing his degree, finding a flat with two others just off Great Western Road, one that he lived in for a couple of years before buying his own place in Dennistoun. He wasn't always so enthused by the journalistic environment and would usually go for drinks if a colleague was leaving, or if it was someone's birthday, but he never quite felt like a proper newspaperman because he didn't keep up with the gossip, the pub crawls and the rounds bought in a regular not far from Strathclyde University. He didn't have the liver for journalism he sometimes said and reckoned if he lived like they did he would probably die by fifty. I knew his father had died of liver disease in his mid-fifties, that ten years before his death, the doctor had said if he continued drinking he wouldn't live for more than a decade, and he took it to mean rather than stopping immediately he still had ten more years of good drinking ahead of him. Jason could see some of those at work saying the same thing, and he sometimes thought he avoided the pub not only to protect his liver but to avoid seeing further slow suicides after witnessing his father's. Yet he could also see why some of them didn't care too much for their bodies, having in a few instances made their reputations in circumstances that, had they been more circumspect, wouldn't have led to them becoming well-known names. A couple of journalists at the paper had witnessed and reported on conflicts throughout the world, flying into war zones and burgeoning revolutions, reporting without the protection of the sort of embedding found in more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One, who died several years back from alcohol poisoning, discussed an interview with an incipient African dictator keen to talk to journalists who were willing to search him out in a small village that was two miles off a main road and along a dirt track. The journalist was at the time working freelance and reckoned the best way of getting a permanent contract at a newspaper was by showing how reckless he was willing to be to get the material papers were keen to publish. He had flown into the country a week earlier and hoped that the coup would take place sooner rather than later before he ran out of money. It looked like the coup was taking longer than he expected, and he thought, while drinking in a bar with several Formica tables, a strip light along the middle of the ceiling, and walls a fading pale green, he would have to return home without a story. Someone came over and asked him why he was there and he said he wanted to be the first person to report on a revolution. His heart was thumping as he said it, hoping that he had guessed correctly and the men at the table next to his were fomenting unrest rather than protecting the president. His gamble worked. The man said he could probably arrange an interview with the rebel leader but the journalist would have to go with them, late the following night, in the back seat of a car they would be driving, and get driven back before dawn. He thought about it for a moment, as if trying to register the pace of his heartbeat and reckoning that, if it were any slower than when he first guessed correctly that the men were rebels, he would agree. He agreed.
The next evening he waited for the two men at the same bar the night before and they arrived at 930, asked him to join them in the vehicle that he noticed, under the harsh street lamp, had two bullet holes in the rear door that he was about to open, and for an hour they drove in the relative darkness of only the occasional highway light before arriving at the turn-off to their destination. There were no lights at all except from the car, and the incremental fading of the light, from the bar's strip-lighting, to the lamp outside, to the occasional street lights on the main road, to only the car headlights, made the circumstances appear even more ominous than they were. They drove along this dust path, stones crunching underneath, for a couple of minutes, before arriving at a dwelling. The place was more than a shack but less than a house; a hideout for those who could desert it without regret. Four men were waiting when the Glasgow journalist and his chaperones arrived, all sitting around a kitchen table with the same strip-lighting as the bar. There was a gas stove with a large teapot upon it and a fridge that thrummed like an ominous soundtrack. He took out his tape recorder and said he wanted to hear their story. Two hours later he was back in the car, but rather than driving him into the town he came from, they drove for far longer than an hour. He thought once more about his heart; it was thumping more ferociously than when he first mentioned the revolution and he was sure he was going to die. Yet his mind was slightly at odds with his body, thinking that it made no sense for them to kill him; he was an asset to them now. Or was he?
They dropped him off at a hotel in a small city, the second biggest in the country and told him he would be much safer there. Someone would pick up his belongings from the old hotel during the day and he would have them by the evening. He thanked them less for the suitcase they would drop off later than the fact that he was still alive at two in the morning. At the hotel, he took off his shirt and trousers and they were soaked in a sweat that was about more than the moisture in the air. He put them on the balcony, took a cold shower, and afterwards lay on the top of the bed looking up at the fan which was creating more noise than cool air.
A couple of days later he returned to Glasgow, published the story and became one of the UK's most prominent journalists who over the next twenty years reported on numerous situations around the world. I asked Jason about the person the reporter had interviewed on the occasion he told me about. He named a famous dictator who tortured and killed numerous members of his population. The reporter wondered whether this dictator would have been able to do so had he not managed to reach an international audience with his cause. The story made the reporter's name and helped make the dictator's, and Jason reckoned that might have been one of the many reasons why the reporter drank. The other major reporters on the paper may have had similar stories to tell but what he knew was that they all drank copious amounts of alcohol and that their success contained for each of them, it seemed, a sense of failure, a sense of loss.
But a sense of loss can take numerous forms he said, as he started to tell me about an incident that happened a couple of years after he started working on the newspaper and he hadn't mentioned it before to anyone. Perhaps he hadn't done so because it was too private, because it concerned the editor who was employing him, or there hadn't been a call to talk about it at all before now. I knew Jason hadn't been happy for some months, that he'd lost a relationship by embarking upon an affair, thinking like Nietzsche that all good relationships allow for exceptions and found that his didn't. He hadn't talked to me much about the break-up, though at the time of the affair he wasn't discreet at all, a moment in Jason's life where he was almost boastful, certainly immodest, and probably deluded.
He had been with Tina since college but she had been working in Edinburgh for years and only moved permanently to Glasgow after they had bought a couple of years earlier the flat in which they often invited me round for dinner. It was the sort of place that threatened to become a family home and yet could also function well as a flat that could be a comfortable apartment for a childless couple. Yet my feeling when I visited was always that it would be cluttered with a child and was slightly underpopulated with just the two of them. The spare room was set up as a study and also a dark room but neither tended to use it. It had a bed that I had once or twice slept on when I couldn't be bothered going back home to my nearby flat. Jason used the facilities at the newspaper and Tina, who was a social worker, had an office to herself in the building in which she worked. I never asked Jason if the flat they bought was in some ways a compromise a flat big enough to bring a child into the world if they chose; but not quite big enough to make it appear like a categorical expectation. I always liked visiting them there and it wasn't only for the company; it was also a flat I could see myself living in, but for some reason I could never sustain a relationship long enough for talk of cohabitation to become likely, and I'd been renting for ten years a flat not far from where they lived, all of us in Partick.
Over the years they came round to mine once or twice for dinner but the arrangement didn't quite work. My kitchen table can comfortably sit one, is romantically cosy for two, and becomes cramped and comical when extended to three or four. To take the table into the sitting room always seemed too much of a gesture and it made sense whenever I would suggest they come for dinner that they proposed I come to there's especially after they bought the flat.
Yet it was in my flat Jason often came during the affair to tell me how energised he felt in a new relationship and how guilty he was that he hadn't told Tina since he believed that this was a fling, a brief attempt to ward off the resentment he thought had been building between Tina and himself over the last few years. He thought that buying a flat together would have resolved a niggling sense that he wasn't quite committed enough but instead it gave space to the sub-text in their relationship. He could see it felt somehow empty but he didn't want a child, wasn't quite ready to assume another life might be more important than his. And so he told me about his affair, saying that perhaps he needed this liaison all the better to come out of it feeling more fully committed. It wasn't what he said that shocked me; it was the lack of irony in the telling as though he couldn't see the paradox he was offering. I sometimes think when a man loses his sense of humour it is tantamount to losing his soul, or at least losing his sense of perspective. Jason had lost that.
I asked him about the woman. She was an assistant festival director who had come to Scotland on a four-month contract; she was originally from the States but travelled from country to country organising theatre, film and music festivals and enjoyed the peripatetic lifestyle. She was in her late twenties and had no intention of settling down to a place or to a partner any time soon. I asked how they met. He said he took the photos for the launch of a theatre production and she was there. The launch was in a room at the university. They talked for a few minutes and she said that as she was new to the country she hoped there would be people who could show her the sights. He joked that he could start by showing her around the campus and she said that would be lovely. It might make her feel young again. He said she seemed young enough and he realised that for the first time in years he was flirting. He wasn't of course a heavy drinker and the two glasses of wine he'd already drunk made him feel not just light-headed but light, as though he could keep floating out of the room and leave his life with Tina behind. Usually, when he was at an event he would text Tina to say he wouldn't be late even if he didn't think she cared whether he would be or not. That night she was out with friends and he didn't text her at all, arriving home at 1 in the morning, and fell asleep as he sometimes did on the bed in the study. I asked him if the affair had started that night. No, he said, it was the following weekend.
I knew in the years that I had known him that he sometimes would say he couldn't get married and have children with Tina not because he didn't love her but that he would be accepting a reality he wasn't quite prepared to acknowledge. He had often admitted to thinking about other women but never thought he would do anything about it. Yet the assumption that he might be with Tina and nobody else for the rest of his life was a notion that he couldn't countenance; indeed didn't countenance as he often thought about women at work, women he saw in cafes, women he saw in the street. And over the years many of the stories he had told me were of colleagues he knew who had cheated on their spouses, stories of their affairs when they were young, taking a gap year, working abroad, or having fun during their student days. One or two of these stories were Jason's own but most belonged to others, though he talked about them as if he wished they were his too. I didn't doubt that some of my experiences were part of his anecdotal reservoir and that when telling them to others, couched in the discretion he insisted upon where names and situations were altered, my life may have seemed more exciting than it was, the encounters presented not as messy emotional failures but as experiences that gave the impression I knew the world, or at least women.
This isn't the place to go into why I knew women hardly at all and that, experiences, when indicative of exacerbated failings, shrink us rather than indicate maturity. All I knew was that Jason liked turning the events in other people's lives into stories that could compensate for the hesitations in his own. I think this was why he was so happy to tell me about his affair.
So he met Nicole the following weekend at a restaurant which had recently opened in Dennistoun, a part of the city that was becoming increasingly gentrified, or at least studentified, and where he had a flat that was temporarily empty. He had bought it before the area had become popular with students after moving out of the flat on Great Western Road, and secured a mortgage with a decent deposit from his father's inheritance. A couple who had leased it for a couple of years had moved out and he thought he'd rent it on short-term lets throughout the summer and then to a student or two when the term started that September.
As they talked over dinner he told her that he had a flat nearby (but didn't say he lived in another one to the west of the city with his partner) and she said she supposed that was why they were eating in this part of town. She offered the remark flirtatiously rather than as a dig at his premeditation, and they returned to the apartment that night which earlier in the day he had visited to make it appear lived-in. He had put the heating on for a couple of hours since it was a cold April day, made up the bed and even lay on it for half an hour to make it seem like he had slept in it. What he had also done a couple of days earlier was say to Tina that now the flat was empty he was going to do a little work on the apartment and would occasionally sleep over.
The woman and Jason returned to the flat after dinner and he realised when she asked if he wanted to put on music as he opened a bottle of wine (which they bought minutes before the off-license had closed at ten) that he had forgotten to take his computer and that there was no CD player in the flat. Whenever he rented the place it was always as a one-bedroom apartment as he kept the boxroom locked, and where he had stored various belongings over the years. In it there were, amongst other things an old tape recorder. He had kept the tape recorder for no other reason than that he didn't want to get rid of the tapes. They were a collection he found amongst his father's belongings when he was clearing out the apartment and, more than anything else, more than the leather settee, even more than his father's most precious possession, an 18th-century gold-leafed antique French mirror, it was finding the tapes that moved him to the tears the funeral didn't quite provoke.
He wasn't sure whether it was because he saw in them his father's aspiration to culture or the obsoleteness in the technology that somehow echoed his father's demise. His father died at the beginning of the millennium and tapes were phased out around the same time. While the leather couch remained in the apartment, and the mirror found its way to the flat he shared with Tina, the tapes were locked up in Jason's own mausoleum that contained numerous objects from his past, including board games and other gifts he had received during his childhood years. But while he could imagine clearing out the room he didn't think he could get rid of those tapes nor the tape recorder that would play them.
That evening when Nicole asked for music he admitted that all he had was an old tape recorder and some classical tapes. He didn't tell her why he still owned them and presented what was an heirloom as surprisingly useful junk. Any music is better than no music she said, and that evening as they kissed on the couch they listened to a whirring sound play Debussy and then Rodrigo, as he poured another glass of wine each time they turned or swapped the tape.
Over the next three months, he slept over in the flat a couple of nights a week and did nothing to the flat at all. Sometimes he felt worse doing nothing to the apartment than he felt sleeping with Nicole in it. Of course, sex with Nicole was a betrayal but it wasn't a lie; it was merely an omission. Tina never asked him how sex was going with his lover but she did sometimes enquire about what he had thus far done to the flat. He made up stories and hoped she didn't ask to see the work: she hadn't been in the place since they lived there for a few months after she sold her old apartment and they had bought the new one. He would sometimes wonder whether he ought to start working on the place; the windows needed double-glazed, the walls repainted and the floors re-varnished. But to do any of these things was impossible if he were to continue using it as the locale for his assignations. Nicole was living in a flat with a colleague who was also on a short-term contract with the festival and it was both convenient and necessarily private that they spent their nights together in Dennistoun. Though Nicole soon enough discovered that he had a girlfriend in the west of the city she never seemed bothered by this, and nor would she have had a right to be: she had a partner in New York. But he did wish he could find some way to work on the flat instead of creating elaborate fictions for Tina that could be exposed by the briefest of visits.
He did get to work on the apartment but only after a surprise that had nothing to do with Tina's sudden appearance. The appearance was Nicole's partner who came over for the month during the festival. Nicole announced it apologetically only days before he arrived and said that the festival had given her a flat that she could share with her partner for a month. He wasn't quite sure if Nicole had planned this, whether her partner had insisted on coming over, or Nicole had taken advantage of the offer of a flat for herself and realised that she would prefer to be with her partner there than with Jason. He expected to be if not devastated at least disappointed but any mild despair he felt seemed irrelevant next to the anxiety and guilt he was alleviating. He knew all it would have taken was a remark by Tina saying she wanted to see how he was progressing with the flat to make his lie manifest, and he also felt oddly guilty about that first night where he had played his father's tapes during the initial assignation with Nicole. It was how she laughed at the tape recorder and the tapes, at how obsolete the technology happened to be and he had laughed too, feeling he was also laughing at his father.
Over the next six weeks he still occasionally stayed over in the flat as he sanded the floors, arranged to put in the double glazing and cleared out most of the boxroom, aware he could rent it at a higher rate since the room had a skylight and the flat could pass for one with two bedrooms. He wanted the work to be completed by the beginning of September, unaware that it needed to be ready not for eager youth but resigned, incipient approaching middle-age. He would move into it himself. The only things he intended to keep were the tapes and the tape recorder, and not long afterwards, after he knew his life had changed, a memory came to him that had been as if blocked by his own emotional good fortune that no longer held.
He had hoped that the work he was doing to the flat would pass for an alibi and that Tina need never ask about his nights in Dennistoun and, if she did, he could justify them with the work he had been doing after the affair with Nicole was over. One evening, when he was close to finishing the work, he suggested that she might come and see the flat once everything had been done. Instead of saying that would be nice, she said that the flat was his and no concern of hers. It was said so coldly and with such disdain that it was as though she knew of his affair but had used it for a decision of her own. She never did ask him if he was sleeping with someone else, never said that she was having an affair herself, but she made clear that his staying over at the flat was merely further proof that they should split up, that they wanted from life different things and that in their present existence they didn't have much in common. He had known over the last year the loose structure of her life, knew that she worked Monday to Friday, went to yoga three evenings a week, and would go out with friends on Saturday night and for walks with others on Sunday. There may have been a new man in this life just as there had been a new woman in his for a few months, but there was nothing contrite in her insistence that he should move out, as though not so much that she had been having an affair but that she knew he had but felt no reason to mention it: that the relationship was over and needed no third party to register a fact that was between the two of them. He left a week later. The flat was ready.
And so, during the immediate months after he and Tina parted, he came often to my place. Sometimes I'd make dinner, at other times we'd watch a film. Occasionally we did both, and sometimes we would go to the pub. And thus it was one evening at the pub, as we were discussing obsolete technologies, he told me about the arts editor of the paper who he always liked but never believed he knew. He joined the paper a couple of years after Jason moved through to Glasgow and during the first year there people said this dark, compact man with black hair that never looked like it would thin, and a springy body that suggested a past athleticism and a present gym regularity, must have slept with at least a woman a week; at any social event he rarely left alone though he arrived without company. Others said that they saw him in bars and restaurants around the West End, always in female company, and usually not the same one twice. He didn't know if any of this was true but Jason supposed he looked like he could be a womaniser and sometimes wondered if people were projecting their envy or their hopes upon him; that they would have liked to look like him or have been one of those he had slept with. The editor didn't stay in the city nor in the job for very long (at most two years), and during this time made only one good friend on the paper, the assistant arts editor.
They seemed to become especially close during that second year and during a period when the arts' editor's way with women had become a way with only one. All Jason knew was that the woman was married but supposedly getting a divorce and that over that year she couldn't quite make up her mind whether she should stay with her husband or commit to a new life with the arts' editor. During that second year, Jason saw the editor take on a melancholic disposition, noticing it in a voice that became an octave flatter, and also evident in a few specks of grey in his abundant hair. Jason would have supposed he was in his early thirties when he joined the paper; in his late thirties when he left, even if only two years had passed.
He left alone, the woman stayed, or returned, to her husband, and Jason thought little about him until about nine months later. The assistant art's editor took over the job and would often harass Jason over how unavailable he sometimes happened to be, even if most of the time Jason could be found in the office, Monday to Friday. The new arts editor (the former assistant's art editor), had recently got himself a mobile phone and reckoned all the other staff should have one as well. Jason said he had no interest in the newfangled and that his landline should suffice. And how was the editor going to be able to contact him, he said, and Jason said by showing patience. Like everybody else over the years. They came to a compromise. The new editor no longer had any need for his answering machine; everybody could now contact him by his mobile, but Jason could have it if he liked. He agreed and over the next few weeks he received various messages from the paper on the machine. Yet one day after listening to the latest message, about two-thirds of the way through the tape, another message came through that revealed the new arts editor hadn't blanked it completely when giving it to him. He heard on the tape, the former arts editor crying, saying that Lina had left him once again and this time he couldn't cope. He couldn't be alone but nobody else's company would stave off the loneliness. He needed to talk he said, and maybe the best he could do was talk to a machine. The message continued for a minute before Jason heard the click of the tape recorder button switching off.
He hadn't recalled this for years, Jason said, but a few days earlier as he put the last of the items from the boxroom into charity shops, the old board games, some vintage toy cars, and a few modelling kits that he never got round to turning into the planes and cars they were waiting to become, so when he returned to the flat he saw sitting on the shelf, his father's tape recorder and tapes. Bartok, Beethoven, Bach and others. He couldn't recall what had happened to the other tape recorder but did remember that after hearing the former arts editor's despair on the tape, recorded over it completely, burying it in a moment that reminded him, he said to me that evening in the pub, of the day that he buried his father. At that moment I could see that if he was thinking of any woman it wasn't Nicole, it was Tina, and if any tears had been shed they were those for a woman he had lost who contained within his love for her the love that he possessed for his father, though this may be my projection, a reflection of my own life's losses that often find expression best in listening about the lives of others.
As we sat there I thought back to the evenings I would spend with Jason and Tina and missed them inexplicably. I thought about the spaces that needed to be filled in a flat that was too big for the pair of them because there wasn't enough love between them to fill it, wondering if I had been the temporary third party who allowed them to pretend nothing was missing. For some reason I thought about the spare room in their flat I very occasionally slept in, and Jason's box room, now empty except for a tape recorder and a selection of tapes. I also thought too about the story Jason told me about the renowned journalist at the paper, and the dictator who might have remained anonymous and relatively harmless had it not been for the journalist's scoop he managed to get on tape. In that story Jason told it was initially suspenseful and tense, full of a life threatened by danger but a story that ended with the journalist alive after a reckless trip but who slowly then drank himself to death. Regret is a broad church, I supposed, and hoped that Jason wouldn't find himself in the bar where journalists could incrementally, on pints and chasers, drown their sorrows on the way to burying their memories, as others may eventually have to bury them. Jason didn't take after his father, he would often tell me, and I hoped he was right, even if that night was the first in which I ever saw him properly drunk.
© Tony McKibbin