When speaking to a friend last week, he discussed how a former colleague of ours, who I hadn't seen since he moved back to Brighton five years ago, had offered the woman that he is now married to an engagement ring by way of forgiveness. The friend said that she did forgive him but maybe it rested on her cheating on him too it was indeed going to be a marriage based on mutual incrimination. The friend, Jay, offered this story to me as though it was a subject we had discussed before but I didn't know anything about it until last Monday afternoon when we were sitting in a cafe talking about colleagues in the video games business who had changed careers or moved away. While this detail about how Joseph and his wife married surprised me, it was another element to the story that surprised me more, which may have seemed paradoxical since this added aspect to the tale concerned me.
I recalled the wedding as an enjoyable day with the usual level of hypocrisy and cant we might expect from any public declaration where feelings are offered in front of a hundred people. When Joseph gave a speech commenting on how important Jennifer was to him, I didn't think especially of Joseph's possible insincerity but of the insincere nature of such events. He said that he first started seeing Jennifer when they were teenagers back in Brighton but that she went off to university in York, and he came to Edinburgh. A few years later she got a job here and they became initially reacquainted and, not long after, their love was reignited. And love it was, he said, though there were moments when he didn't recognise it enough; didn't see that Jennifer was the most important person in the world to him and how could he not want to make that clear to everyone he knew by getting married and spending the rest of his life with this wonderful woman. Yet as Joseph went on for a couple of minutes detailing all the ways Jennifer was so special, so loving, so caring and the only person he could ever have thought of marrying, this outburst of feeling was met by Jennifer with a look I couldn't quite read. All I recall is being surprised by it, expecting to see tears, perhaps, or at least the tenderest of smiles that the words seemed inclined to invoke. But no.
At the time of the wedding Jay, Joseph, Jennifer and I were all in our mid-thirties and I did wonder if Joseph and Jennifer married to start a family, and perhaps thought it all the more when seeing that there was little sentiment in Jennifer's expression during Joseph's speech. Yet that was the type of information to which I wasn't privy and if Jay knew that was the reason he didn't tell me and I don't recall asking. However, he did say when we met last week, and the reason why Joseph came into the conversation, was that Joseph had been offered a job in New York with a games company that was working on a programme that would create ever more vivid world-making. It was mainly the subject of our conversation as we talked about the intricacies involved and the broader social implications of a game so real that reality would struggle to compete. Jay said that there weren't really any impediments to going since Joseph and Jennifer didn't have children and since it was Jennifer who suggested they move back down to Brighton, so it might be Joseph's turn to propose they move again. It was then Jay talked of the marriage proposal and why it had come about, saying he saw no reason why she wouldn't consider moving again as long as it wasn't Edinburgh as Jay mentioned the affair Joseph was having which led to the marriage she insisted upon. It seemed that Jennifer had been in contact again with an ex-boyfriend she had known in York and while Joseph didn't think she had been unfaithful to him it was surely emotional infidelity. When Joseph told him that Jennifer would accept nothing less than marriage, and soon, Jay more or less told him that, well, he had better be wed. Joseph said he would give it some thought but had always been sceptical of marriage ever since his mother re-married a man who clearly wasn't in love but knew how to take advantage of his mother's grief and wished to ensconce himself in the family home. Joseph's father had died two years before that re-marriage and left if not a fortune then a modicum of comfort that Joseph saw the new husband enjoying more than his father ever did. It made him cynical he proposed and thus was wary of making a proposal of his own. Yet if he didn't want to lose Jennifer, and Jennifer wouldn't stay if they didn't get married, then the outcome was clear, Jay said.
And so the wedding took place and I took as my partner someone in the office with whom I'd been seeing secretly, a covertness that was initially her decision but that I was happy to agree upon since at the time I was still in contact with an ex-girlfriend and if she and I were in the same city maybe we would have reunited. Anyway, it meant that this colleague, Cassandra, and I could have a night or two together each week, usually consisting of a takeaway and a film since neither of us had the energy or inclination to cook, and after an hour didn't have very much to talk about it. This continued for a couple of months until she mentioned that Joseph and his partner were getting married, and would I consider going as her partner to the wedding since she didn't want to go alone. She said we could go as though we weren't seeing each other but just as friends, since our affair wasn't public anyway. I couldn't find a reason to say no and there we were at the wedding showing no sign at all that we were any more than colleagues, attending together all the better to give the impression that, paradoxically, we weren't simply single. I would have had no problem going to the wedding alone but assumed that Cassandra felt far more the exposure of her status as a single person than I did. My assumption was probably not a little sexist: that a man in his mid-thirties felt far more comfortable in being uncoupled than a woman in her early thirties. Yet while that may have been true, it wasn't the only reason she wanted her casual and private lover to become her public yet platonic partner.
Several months after the wedding, Joseph and Jennifer moved in together. She had been renting a flat off Leith Walk and the owner wished to sell. Joseph had been renting a flat from the council for years but for some reason couldn't buy it but had been reluctant to move out even though he was now married, and Jennifer wasn't keen to move in. She persuaded him that they shouldn't miss out on the chance to buy the flat she was renting and they could afford it if they shared the mortgage. Joseph told me all this by way of asking if I wanted to take off his hands about a hundred books. There really was nowhere to put them in the new apartment and they had been in Jennifer's words cluttering up the place as they were trying to organise their new home. He knew I often browsed second-hand book shops and here he was offering a couple of boxes of what he insisted was decent literature: many of the books he had bought while at university, a way of escaping algorithms. I agreed and arrived the next day walking down from my flat at Marchmont, and intending to get a taxi straight back home. But once there, Joseph insisted I stay for at least a cup of tea and while we chatted we heard a key turning in the front door and Jennifer, entering, and, apparently unaware of my presence in the kitchen, she made a comment about the books still lying around in the hall. Joseph looked at me as if to say this was married life and I would do well to avoid it, but when Jennifer came through the door she offered him a kiss that I didn't think was entirely for my benefit as she asked how I was, showing no surprise that I was there.
She put the kettle on, insisted I stay for a top-up and also for a piece of Canelone: she had bought them from a well-known Sicilian cafe in the district. I sensed the invite was as genuine as the kiss she plonked on Joseph's cheek and for the next hour we discussed various things including Jennifer's job: she was a trained psychiatrist who worked as a psychoanalyst and I asked her a few questions about the work and told her my mother was an analyst too. I sensed as we talked that Joseph was becoming a little uncomfortable and tried to work out why, but while never finding an answer that day a failed joke appeared to reveal an aspect of their hidden lives. We were talking about whether psychoanalysis would be necessary if people had better friends or if no matter how good our friends happen to be they cannot play the role of our confessor. It isn't that they don't care enough; often they do - it is more that they are part of the very situation one is trying to express and explore. I wondered if psychoanalysis created, though, in its professional objectivity, a different anxiety; that instead of someone disclosing as part of the nexus of fraternity, and who fears others hearing about it within their community, it is replaced by the anxiety of economic relations: that people know that each session adds to their financial loss. I offered it provocatively and also I thought humorously, and if I expected anybody to take umbrage at the comment then surely it would have been Jennifer. Instead, Joseph looked at me and asked me what I was implying. The complicit moment between Joseph and me when Jennifer had come through the front door became a glance between Jennifer and myself, even if I didn't know why it had come about. I left with the books and thought little about it until Jay's comments last week, which made me recall the few occasions when I had been in Joseph's council flat, and most significantly, perhaps, months before the wedding.
Over the previous couple of years before he married, I had been to Joseph's place on several occasions; once a month a few people from work and some of Joseph's friends met to play trivial pursuit and I had been three or four times but I'd never been invited over to his place while he was alone there. Yet one afternoon at work he asked if I was doing anything later and that if I wasn't did I fancy joining him for a bottle of wine and a takeaway. It seemed an odd request in some ways since we weren't close friends, but I recalled Jay saying that Joseph wasn't good on his own at the moment - that it looked like he had broken up with Jennifer and we should all keep an eye on him. Jay had started seeing someone in Glasgow only a couple of months earlier and often stayed over; he wasn't quite as available as he might have wished, and hoped others would share the emotional burden while he was emotionally and sexually getting all the satisfaction he needed in Edinburgh's rival city. I took it to mean no more than a general obligation placed upon a few of us who knew Joseph reasonably well and who all worked on the same floor. Still, I didn't expect a sole invite to his place. He asked me what I liked - Indian, Italian, Thai - and I said he could choose the nationality and the dishes.
I arrived at the same time as the person who dropped off the Indian delivery and I paid for the takeaway, knocking on the door of Joseph's second-floor flat feeling a gracious guest with the takeaway in my hand and a bottle of wine under the same arm. The flat which was usually so neat and tidy for the monthly quiz sessions was now a chaos of clothes left lying around, takeaway pizza boxes piled up in a corner and dishes left unwashed in the sink. He plopped the rice and the dhansak and daal onto what may have been the only remaining clean plates I found in the cupboard and rinsed out two wine glasses before we returned to the sitting room, to a table that he hastily cleared before going back into the kitchen and coming out with a damp dishcloth. The table thus wiped, we sat down to eat but there seemed something so hasty about the situation that we had finished within fifteen minutes, as though we were about to rush out and see a film or catch a play. Joseph said he hadn't eaten all day by way of explanation but I also had the feeling that the food was unimportant next to something I assume he had to say. However, though I was there for almost three hours, we talked only about work and had what I think was an interesting conversation about video and actual games.
I was in the industry since I loved playing computer games since I was a child and thought that when I was older it would be great to design them, to advance the game itself and not only advance in a game. Joseph said he always enjoyed much more playing board games like Monopoly and Cluedo, liked the communal atmosphere that came from a group of people sitting around a table or on the floor, moving pieces. As a kid he found video games alienating and played them only when he was around at friends' places. Yet as they sat on the couch fiddling with the controls and staring at a screen, he felt as if nobody was quite there; that they had been sucked into a video world. Yet here he was in his thirties designing the sort of games he would only reluctantly have played. Everybody knew he was one of the most brilliant at the job but, as he often said, he liked maths, not video games, and if there was a solution he could find, an innovation he could programme, there was pleasure in that. But sometimes he thought he was like a chemist who was interested in formulas but didn't like the drugs that were made out of them.
The conversation was interesting, even revealing, yet there still seemed to be a discussion he wanted to have that he hadn't yet disclosed. When shortly before eleven I said I should be going, he said he would see me out - he needed to buy a few items from the supermarket ten minutes away and felt he needed a walk. We left and he pulled the door behind him and, as we walked down the stairs, he realised he had left the key in the flat. He cursed several times and kept repeating that he knew it, he knew it. It was an internal thought expressed aloud and it was as though to enquire into it would have been to violate that privacy. Instead, I asked if there was any way we could climb up; was there a window he might have left open since it was a warm June evening. He thought for a moment and was sure that the bedroom window was slightly ajar and I said we could go outside and look up; see if there was any chance of climbing a drainpipe and getting back in. The housing estate was built in a hilly part of the city and so the third floor was close to a second, with the ground floor more like a basement. We glanced at the window and saw that it was open and looked at the thick pipe one might have clambered up, before noticing that halfway up the pipe and just below his window the pipe appeared to be rusted; not so badly that water would yet leak out of it, but serious enough for it to be unlikely to hold someone's weight.
We stood for a few moments before he said that fate had decided. It was in her hands. I asked him if he had his mobile; it was still in the flat. He could stay the night at mine and get a locksmith the next day when it would be cheaper. He thanked me for the offer but insisted that he had a solution; it was meant to be. If the mess in the flat and locking himself out wasn't enough to suggest he was losing just a little of that very fine mind, then his ramblings at that moment all but confirmed it. What had fate decided, I wondered, and hoped that finding a building taller than his own that he could jump off wasn't it. The thought was dark and the situation absurd as I vacillated between concern and mild irritation. I didn't know Joseph that well and was now embroiled in his crisis; my most pressing, and selfish, thought was that he would choose a closer friend than I was to bed down with for the night.
I left him a few minutes later after he said he knew what he needed to do, and that he would sort it out. He said it adamantly, with a certitude that suggested that it wasn't only the problem with the key that he was going to resolve, and I left him to move in the direction of Leith Walk while I continued up to my flat fifteen minutes away.
At that time, and for several years until last week, I had no idea that the decision he made that night was to marry Jennifer if she would still have him. He had said to Jay not long before the wedding that he had proposed to her on a night where he had locked himself out of his apartment, and somehow believed that losing Jennifer was akin to losing his mind. What he didn't say to Joseph was that I was the person who was there the night that he locked himself out and I suppose there was no need. I was an irrelevant detail in the monumental decision he was making and I suspect had he locked himself out and I hadn't been there the decision would have been exactly the same.
Nevertheless, in the caf, Jay added there was another complication: the affair Joseph was having and one that Joseph said had ended around a month before he had locked himself out of the flat. Jay was one of the only people who knew of it and reckoned there was no reason to keep it secret all these years later. He was sleeping with a colleague of ours, Jennifer found out, and he broke up with the colleague instantly but Jennifer wouldn't have him back unless he committed to marrying her. It seemed she wasn't blameless but supposed that their lack of commitment to each other rested on how unstable the relationship happened to be: they weren't married; they weren't living together. Why wouldn't affairs start? Joseph couldn't deny it but was still wary of proposing until he very fundamentally believed that he needed Jennifer. Jay supposed that it was no longer necessary to keep the secret after five years, said that his lover was Cassandra and that perhaps I knew anyway - that in our friendship she had acknowledged her temporary closeness to Joseph. He thought it possible that the reason why I had taken her to the wedding was that she would find it easier going with a platonic partner than on her own. Jay had never known that the brief affair with Cassandra was sexual as we agreed to keep it to ourselves, and thus why we went to the wedding as friends. Cassandra and I accepted that to go as a couple when we both wanted no more than company one or two nights a week would have been tantamount to a declaration not quite equal to Joseph and Jennifer's commitment but a commitment nevertheless.
She agreed and I remember thinking there was an especial frisson going to a wedding with a partner everybody assumed was no more than a friend while only the two of us would have known that we were more than that. We even agreed in advance what sort of gestures and movements were consistent with friendship and that we needed to be careful about the sort of proximity that lovers often assume, thus giving away the sexual nature of their relationship. We approached the wedding like two actors preparing for a part, and I never desired Cassandra more than during this period when we seemed to be playing the opposite of role play. If often couples might dress up and perform a character they wouldn't feel comfortable adopting outside the sexual game enacted, there Cassandra and I were rehearsing a celibacy that was sexually enticing. I suspected that on the night of the wedding that Cassandra and I had far better sex than Joseph and Jennifer; that all day pretending to be no more than friends built up a tension we released well into the night. Yet here was Jay telling me it wasn't quite the secret I thought it happened to be as he said the reason Joseph had first mentioned it to him was that Cassandra admitted that she was in love and wanted Joseph to leave Jennifer. She didn't expect marriage; they needn't even live together - but he would have to be faithful to her. Jay asked him how he felt; there he was with a long-term partner who required a little more commitment from him than he had thus far provided, or a woman he hardly knew who was willing to start an affair with him and after a couple of months make ultimatums. Jay tried to offer it as a proper dilemma but he knew that he had couched it in a manner that indicated both options weren't equally valid. A couple of weeks after that, Jennifer found out about Cassandra and Joseph felt the decision had been made for him: he wanted to return to Jennifer but was also aware that his marital reluctance would have to be overcome, living alone would no longer be possible. He hummed and hawed and fell apart, Jay said, and all Jay knew was that during this period Joseph didn't see Cassandra at all, who had started seeing someone else almost instantly, someone Cassandra hadn't named but whom Joseph suspected.
Was that suspect specifically me, I wondered, or were there others that Joseph invited round for a takeaway and a bottle of wine and wished to discover whether they had become the lover of his now lost mistress? Obviously, I couldn't have known that this may have been on Joseph's mind; I had no idea that Joseph and Cassandra had been lovers. But I did sense that he was preoccupied and that my purpose there was not that of a friend in need but I might now assume as an enemy with a secret to hide. I did have something to hide but I didn't think I was specifically hiding it from him, I was hiding it from everyone since this had been the agreement Cassandra and I had made. If he had found the wherewithal to ask me if I was sleeping with his recent lover would he have locked himself out of the flat? I might have said to him that it was an impertinent question, especially if he hadn't acknowledged that he had been sleeping with her before me, but he may at least have managed to reveal what was on his mind that evening. Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself and I kept a secret to myself: he locked himself out of an apartment that he soon after the wedding would give up, and now was living in Brighton with the wife he is still married to, and with whom he may soon move to New York.
That night was clearly full of subtext but had that chat in the cafe not taken on sub-text too as Jay told me about an affair between Joseph and Cassandra he knew about that I hadn't? After all, it was with someone I happened to have been sleeping with and who I hadn't told him of. The secret that I believed I was keeping between myself and Cassandra was known by at least three other people: Joseph, Jay, and Jennifer. She would have been aware that at least two of them knew: Joseph, of course, but also Jennifer who found out about it. Jay didn't say how Jennifer discovered the affair but did this involve another person telling her or did she find out by showing up at Joseph's place when she was there; or at Cassandra's, when he was there?
In video game design we have areas that are fully programmed and others that remain merely I suppose trompe l'il, plausible looking spaces that are nevertheless not part of the possibilities of the game. People try going through the door and they can't: there is nothing behind it we haven't programmed beyond certain parameters. That evening in Joseph's flat we talked about this when we were discussing his antipathy towards video games and his love of board games. There are no empty spaces in a board game; it is real and apparent. Video games give the impression of infinite space he said but, at the same time, they are utterly confining. He believed the video game was an entombing experience, one that for all the talk of expansion, closed the world down. There he was as a games designer contributing to this entombment. What he would really like to be doing, he said, was designing new board games but where was the money in that?
It was one of those interesting conversations that I guess happens quite rarely: a chat that is engaging in itself even if a more significant one sits behind it. Most of the time we accept that what is on someone's mind isn't expressed in the discussion we are having; when asked how we are, we say fine even if our job is threatened, our health precarious or our relationship in trouble. We discuss the weather or a football game, a political issue if we feel we are inclined to agree, or how the kids are doing if we have children. We know we are floating on the surface of the conversation. But occasionally the discussion goes somewhere as we talk personally about our feelings or more specifically about a football match or a political point. However, that evening with Joseph it seemed the latter hid the former, that we engaged in the topic and were alienated from each other simultaneously. I have thought over what he said about video games on a few occasions over the years and have discussed it with others but what I have never done before now has been to give very much thought to what else was going on behind that analysis. It was as if he had two things on his mind that evening, both pressing, and they pushed out the automatic memory of picking up a set of keys before pulling the door closed. He was so locked up in his mind that he locked himself out of his flat.
As Jay and I talked last week, everything he said after revealing Cassandra's affair with Joseph floated on the surface, as my attention drifted from the present to the various pasts, to the wedding, to the afternoon I visited Joseph and Jennifer's flat, to the evening in Joseph's. I was no longer in contact with Cassandra; she left the games company and as far as I know she works here in some capacity for the university. I guess I could find out and contact her but I am not sure what I would say? That she insisted I take her to a wedding as a friend when we were lovers all the better to hide from the groom whom she loved that she was sleeping with me; a wedding that Joseph insisted upon only after a moment of absent-mindedness that I was privy to witnessing? I thought again of that night after the wedding, when on the way home, by one of the many narrow streets around the old town, I pulled up Cassandra's still narrower dress and felt her excitement as I placed my hand inside the thin underwear. Cassandra and I kissed, groped and caressed before a couple of carousing drunks were about to pass and we ducked into a doorway several steps up as they obliviously continued. Cassandra said we should wait till we get back to her place; that we had all night.
It was a night I've thought about often and wondered on occasion over the years if I had ever had better sex before or since but I haven't at all wondered if part of the pleasure for Cassandra was that she was thinking of the man she loved rather than the one she was merely sleeping with. She too may that night have had something else on her mind just as Joseph had several months earlier but I consoled myself with the idea, perhaps untrue, that if Joseph happened to be thinking of Cassandra while he was sleeping with Jennifer, just as Cassandra may well have been thinking of Joseph while she was sleeping with me, whatever thoughts were passing through her mind that evening her body felt very much mine. I am not sure if when Jay and I next meet whether I will tell him about my affair with Cassandra. I suspect the moment has passed but I do wonder how often the reality we experience that we might think need be no more developed than the unprogrammed spaces of a video game, is, in its own way, very programmed indeed.
© Tony McKibbin