A friend of my sister's was getting married and I received an invite. But I decided initially not to go I guess because the wedding was in London, I was living in Edinburgh, and the friend wasn't close enough I suppose for me to justify the inconvenience. But as the date approached, and I still hadn't turned the invite down, I thought that maybe there was another reason why I was so reluctant to go. This was going to be, I surmised, as much a reunion as a wedding, and my sister was saying I could see some of the people I hadn't seen since her own wedding three years previously. It was maybe this idea of meeting people from my sister's wedding that so disturbed me.
Let me explain. My sister, Alice, had married up in the Highlands - where my partner and I were at the time living - in a lovely local church and they had the reception, dinner and dance in a hotel next to the Caledonian canal. It was a late summer wedding with the weather warm but not stifling so that nobody felt uncomfortable in their kilts or their wedding or bridesmaids dresses. There weren't even arguments; though both sets of parents were divorced and remarried, and hadn't seen their original spouses for many years. And at the time I was, as suggested, still with my partner, and for the first occasion in my life I remember spending much of the evening dancing where usually I would sit in a corner and watch the others.
I could say the memory of that day and evening has turned bitter because I am no longer with my partner, and that attending a reunion as much as a wedding would bring to mind - to my mind, obviously, but perhaps also to the minds of others - my own failed relationship. And yet I felt there was something more distasteful involved, something to do with weddings and reunions that had nothing to do with my own immediate life, but instead with the lost life of somebody else altogether.
It would have been a couple of days after the wedding when I saw in a supermarket queue one of my sister's bridesmaids, Sarah, a few places in front of me. As she didn't turn round I waited until she was at the checkout, and thought I would catch her eye as she packed her shopping. However, as soon as she looked up and saw me, she immediately looked down again, though in that briefest of moments I noticed a purple and brown swelling around one eye. I in turn looked down, and didn't lift my head again until I knew she would have left the supermarket. The next day, talking to Alice, I mentioned I'd seen Sarah whilst shopping and that she had what looked like a black eye. My sister nodded with a wince, and said Sarah had been badly beaten by her partner, James, after they'd returned home from the wedding.
Over the next few days I had thought a lot about this act of violence, and wondered whether there was anything on the night of the wedding in the partner's demeanour, or in the dynamic between the pair of them, or even between the pair of them and the social gathering generally, that would have hinted at its presence. I concluded that if there was I had missed it: indeed what I noticed most obviously in James, whom I'd never before seen or met, was a certain decency, the way he smiled in acknowledgement that I was the bride's brother, and yet at the same time didn't introduce himself as a specific person: the mutually acknowledged look was all that was required.
So while there was nothing that I could see in James that evening which hinted at battery, nevertheless the decency I did see was given a horrible credence a week or so after the wedding. James was found hanging from a rafter in his father's barn. It was generally accepted that the chief cause for this effect was the beating he administered to Sarah: all week he was abjectly apologetic, with Sarah very understandingly accepting his apologies but insisting that she never wanted to see him again.
Would this event in the past affect the nature of the wedding I might have wondered? But that wasn't the problem in-itself - the idea of a hundred people all thinking about but not talking of the person who had taken his life in the wake of my sister's wedding. No, but I knew that James' demise was likely to affect my feelings towards others present, and this was not because I had a great affection for James. Obviously I barely knew him; nor that anybody knew of my own close call with domestic violence - one of the reasons why my partner and I had split up. But would any comment made about James not brush up against my own hints at abuse; and would I feel the only reason I was attending this second wedding and James wasn't, was because I had run out on a relationship that if it had continued much longer would have I'm sure led to the violence that James first of all inflicted onto his partner, and perhaps lead even to the violence James inflicted upon himself?
For a while after my sister's wedding I had thought a lot about this man's death, and the wedding invite made me think my thoughts all over again, even though it has been almost three years since my sister's wedding, and two years since my partner, Isabelle, and I parted. I wondered whether his actions suggested less simply thuggery than a curious type of courage; where my actions suggested less constraint than cowardice. Of course these were dubious thoughts, and maybe I should have accepted that a thought of an action - there was no physical violence between Isabelle and me, though doors were slammed and arguments loud - bears no relation to acting upon it. But while that may be so in a court of law, the two are less easily divided in an individual's mind.
It was with these thoughts in my head that I visited my sister and her husband in Glasgow, and brought up the subject of Sarah and James. I brought it up tentatively, but actually found that they had been thinking of the very same subject themselves since the invite came through. My sister and her husband, Sandy, reckoned it marred their own memory of the wedding because every time they looked at the wedding pictures, and looked at the bridesmaids, they thought not of the beautifully brocaded dresses, but of the black eye Sarah would be sporting a day later, and the boyfriend's death a week after that. I asked if they thought it might even affect the mood of the wedding they were going to attend.
They said they hadn't really thought about it; but when I said that if they couldn't look at their own wedding pictures without thinking of the whole incident, would another wedding that was also a reunion not bring to mind the incident once again? Sandy believed not; he reckoned only a handful of people knew about the beating and the subsequent suicide. No, it didn't really mar even their own wedding, they thought - after all, the events took place in the wake of it, and maybe the only thing it really affected, and they both agreed upon this point, were the moments when they looked at their own wedding photos. Of course many other people had looked at the wedding photos and seen simply a happy occasion. And when somebody commented on Sarah's beauty - for she looked especially lovely in photos, with her high cheek bones and black hair and naturally red lips - they, unlike my sister and her husband, had no memory of the subsequent beating that would spoil that face.
But I wondered when I talked to the pair of them whether they had made another connection: the idea that I might be asking because of my own brief liaison with Sarah about five years before, and whether they knew the reason I had backed out of the relationship was due to Sarah's moodiness and cutting tongue, and my own inability to remain calm. On one occasion after an argument I'd broken a couple of glasses in her flat, and on another hit my fist against a wall. So I split up with Sarah not because I no longer felt passionate towards her, but that the passion I felt wasn't able to contain itself. Is this what I mean when I talk of James' bravery and my cowardice? Would not attending the wedding be yet another act of fearfulness, one to put alongside splitting up with Sarah while I still, at that time, loved her, and, again, splitting up with Isabelle because I felt I couldn't contain my temper?
So it was that I came to the conclusion I should attend the wedding, aware that if merely the invite could set off so many thoughts about my own vacillating behaviour perhaps the wedding itself could have a similar effect, that it could somehow make me know myself better than I knew myself before. Of course such thoughts are solipsistic and self-indulgent, but then again maybe the thoughts are in some ways the opposite: that they are redressing the solipsistic and self-indulgent actions of the past, and thus in some way are trying to liberate me from my earlier faint-heartedness.
Alice and Sandy said that they were driving down and I could go with them, and maybe I could stay the night at Sarah's place as well. I should have realized this was where my sister and Sandy were likely to stay. Sarah had moved down to London shortly after her partner's death, and was now earning a good wage in IT. My sister and her husband had stayed in her roomy apartment in Camden on a couple of occasions before, and if I were to go with them it would seem to make sense for me to stay over with them at Sarah's as well. I said if this was fine with Sarah, I would be happy to sleep on her couch.
The wedding took place on the Saturday and we drove own early on Friday morning, arriving at Sarah's place at tea-time. I hadn't seen Sarah since that day in the supermarket, and so any discomfort was manifold: I wasn't just meeting with an ex-lover, not simply one of my sister's best friend's, but also a woman I'd last seen badly beaten by her lover, and a lover now dead. Yet when we met she showed no signs of discomfort, no hint of hiding various thoughts and memories, and I began to wonder whether all my feelings of unease about the wedding were absurdly unjustified. After all, if Sarah seemed to have dealt with the memories of the episode, surely I should have much more readily still.
Throughout the evening, with my sister and Sandy, Sarah and I going out for a meal in a Camden restaurant, and afterwards sharing a couple of bottles of wine at her flat, I looked for signs in Sarah's demeanour that would hint at her past, at her relationship with me and her feelings of despair my sister talked about after James had killed himself, but could only see a successful IT specialist in a nicely furnished flat in a comfortable part of London.
Lying half awake on the sitting room couch after the others had gone to bed, I suppose I could have felt either stupid or resentful or both. Why did I work myself into such a state over an incident that Sarah seemed if not to have forgotten, then allowed her body to have absorbed? There were no neurotic symptoms that I could see. So instead I gave room to a thought that of course had occurred to me in passing often enough, but it was a thought I had never dwelt upon, perhaps because I'd never quite been confronted with a situation that would crystallize it. I wondered whether my instinct for retreat, for 'cowardice', created a greater weight of past in me than in others; and that in each 'failed' action I would increase that weight, would create still more thought in the negation of an action. But then didn't many people live too lightly, too far away from their pasts, as if in flight from themselves and too close to both other people and some notion of the present? Their being lay not inside themselves but too readily out there, in social compromise, in easily acquired opinion, in hastily acting out one's instincts that may barely be one's own. Maybe I could have gone further, and started asking questions about what made my self a self. The point, though, wasn't to generate philosophical questions about my own insistent retreat from so many aspects of life, but to understand the low key resentment I felt towards Sarah that evening.
I slept surprisingly well after my reflections, and woke to hear the sound of a kettle being boiled and toast popping out of a toaster. I blurrily saw Sarah's shape as she came into the sitting room, and as I stretched, I asked if the others were up yet. They were already dressing for the wedding she said. I quickly showered, had some breakfast and then put on my suit. I ended up being ready before the others.
Throughout the day, at the wedding, at the reception, and at the evening ball, I seemed to think little about the very things I most feared leading up to the occasion. It was as if the actual presence of the people had obliterated my thoughts about them, so that I don't really recall thinking of their possible thoughts but chiefly of their definite existence. Maybe alcohol helped, or maybe it was the type of personality I had where I wasn't given to reflecting on people in their company but only in their absence.
It is, perhaps, finally, this idea of personality types that drives the story, for later that evening when Sarah and I returned to the flat alone, leaving my sister and her husband still chatting to friends at the ball, she started talking about events from the past. I asked if she was talking because she was drunk; she replied she wasn't talking because she was drunk, but drink allowed her to talk. She asked whether I thought she should feel responsible for her ex-partner's death. She would be being unfair to herself if she did, I replied. She explained that sometimes though things have causes and effects - can we pretend they don't? I think I knew what she meant: would refusing responsibility for her role in her partner's death not be denying at the same time reason itself, and would denying reason be an act of subtle madness? I said that yes, on the basis of reason, she could be held responsible for her partner's suicide. But by such thinking where do causes start and effects stop? She nodded in understanding and wondered, then, whether if she refused to deny reason then perhaps she needed to extend it, needed to search further for its causes to make sense of her culpability without being destroyed by it. She then asked whether by this reckoning I could also be implicated in James's death. She offered the statement provocatively, as if thinking aloud a thought to which she had never quite entitled herself. However, her following statement suggested she had thought of it many times before.
She explained that after we had split up she learnt something about relationships, learnt that her moods were her own and she oughtn't to inflict them upon others. She said that my anger on those occasions where I would become annoyed was maybe not really myanger, my temper, but merely a reaction to her temperament. I replied that I must have instinctively known this; after all, I'd split up with both her and afterwards Isabelle because I couldn't control my temper in their company. Though that I had the same problem with the pair of them suggested it was as much my problem as theirs. Sarah said James had never lost his temper with her before the evening he beat her: he had always been placid, always loving, and though she had occasionally been irritable and snappy, he had always responded with a knowing awareness that the mood was hers and not his. However on that night, after the wedding, she believed her barbed manner had intersected with what she could only guess was a blind jealousy on his part. When they returned to her flat after the dance, Sarah had put the kettle on in the kitchen and, quite casually, wondered whether he thought her ex-boyfriend, namely me, was good looking. He asked why she was asking, and she said there was no reason really. James added that he didn't think it was his business whether he thought I was good looking or not - and hoped it needn't be. She casually said that you never know about these things, and as she came out of the kitchen with an ironic smile on her face, she was met with James' mad fury as he pushed her to the ground and attacked her with kicks and punches. He then burst into tears and left.
I suppose from a certain point of view I could be held responsible, but did she blame me for splitting up with her years before, for being at my sister's wedding or for what exactly? Maybe it was subtler than that, she believed; maybe it had something to do with the idea that she had simply taken my own thinking, or more generally male thinking, and had completely misunderstood James' feelings. After all, when she argued with me, it was always based on anger. When James turned on her it was based on nothing more than what she thought was a little joke, She may have shielded another from her own irritation and moodiness where possible, but hadn't anticipated that she would have to protect him from a casual, ironic sense of humour, and herself from another's furious jealousy.
So a week later he was hanging from a rafter, and several years later Sarah and I were sitting in her London flat wondering whether it had taken another's demise to understand ourselves a little more; and if we did whether it was because someone else, in this instance, knew himself too little. Of course it is impossible to know how much thought we need in relation to action. Maybe I offered too much in my relations with both Sarah and Isabelle, and James not enough in his relationship with Sarah. But I suspect the biggest problem lay not in thought or action, per se, and the ratio of one to the other, but the degree to which the thought turns into the intermediate state of conversation, of thoughts aloud - or thoughts allowed. From this perspective there seemed to be something healthy about this late night chat, something that could have at that moment led to more intimacy still. It was at that moment, though, that we heard the key turn in the door. My sister and her husband came in to the sitting room, looking cheery and not especially drunk, and, flopping on the couch opposite, said that it was nice to see another happy couple. They were talking about the newlyweds, but it passed through my mind, and perhaps also through Sarah's, that they might have been talking of us.
© Tony McKibbin