He wrote a book. It was a minor hit. Nothing major. It got a handful of good reviews. It dealt with a defining moment in his life. This defining moment had to do with things falling apart. It was a roman à clef, which was irrelevant in the great scheme of things, seeing as he was a nobody. A minor hit. The names, as they say, had been changed. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, he wasn’t that type of person. In any case, the names weren’t important, it was the facts, the event. He hadn’t written the book to examine other people’s motives. He had written it to understand the past, to understand how the past had affected the way his life had turned out. Ailsa had read it. Of course she had. He’d made sure of that. Ailsa had inspired it. She had reappeared in his life, one of those twists of Internet fate, and he had found himself thinking of her and their relationship, which had lasted a few months and been over for decades. Inevitably, he had found himself thinking of the event. He began to write more and more, which was good, until it became one-track, monotonous; an obsession. He wrote about it till he wrote it out of himself. Catharsis. A fictionalised account. His book. But Ailsa wasn’t fictional. She was real. She existed. She wasn’t a figment of his imagination, like the past, or his version of it.
In the past, they had gone their separate ways. They were just kids. Maybe not kids, but they were young, that was the point. It’s all relative. It was years ago. When he left, he meant it, as far away from Scotland as he could get for a hundred and twenty quid. A one-way ticket, the big gesture, fuck yez, I’m off. It was her idea to meet up after all this time. He would never have suggested it; he had got her to read the book, anything else would have been pushing his luck. Things happen in life, things that define you. Things that make you buy a one-way ticket to the limit of what’s in your pocket. She’d been there at the defining moment. She hadn’t just been there in the sense that she’d been around, that she’d been his girlfriend. She had actually been present when the event took place, the pair of them sitting in his tiny room, a shirt hanging from the atmospheric curtain rail and a box of Bold under the wash hand basin. The minutiae. She was part of it. She had been at the address. That’s what the policemen had said when they showed up, talking into their radios, they were at the address. Okay, he had her on a pedestal. You carry things, you can feel the weight of them slowing you down. That’s the thing about thoughts – you try not to think them, but they follow you around, like shadows, growing darker the more light you shine on them.
He agreed to see her. He had reached the point where he couldn’t help himself. So much for catharsis. He wanted to see her so badly that he lied to his wife, on an international scale, which wasn’t as difficult as he’d imagined. He had business back home, he told her. She didn’t ask for details. They were due a break from each other. The place where he lived had become no less foreign over the years. He had no friends. Apart from his wife. She was his only friend. It was his choice. They shared everything. But this, now, this secret, was something he didn’t want to share. Not with her. It was something between him and Ailsa, no one else. It was as if he was playing a game, scanning the ground ahead, left, right and centre. There was a line that marked a boundary. He imagined it as thick and white, like a line on a tennis court. But this was no game. There were no rules, although there would be losers, eventually. He knew this. He also knew that no matter how hard he looked, he would never find the line, because the line was invisible, and he’d already crossed it.
It took five minutes to book the flights. He found a reasonably priced guest house in the West End, Haymarket. En suite, naturally, he was a man who liked his privacy.
He arrived very late in the evening, almost midnight, but they let him in. Despite the hour, or maybe because of it, he shaved. Staring at himself in the mirror, after he’d finished. He’d always had wrinkles, even as a young man, but now his eyes wore hoods of skin at the sides, as if he had grown tired of something, or someone. He twisted the tap till steam covered the glass.
He woke up sweating. He had dreamed of the mirror, and the face in it. He dressed quickly. He had to get out of the room. Edinburgh, this part of it, smelled of beer. Hops. As it always had. He purchased a bottle of his wife’s favourite perfume in Jenners. He could have got it cheaper on the way back, at Duty Free, but he didn’t mind paying full price. She was worth it. She deserved it.
He walked around the gardens, but knew he was just avoiding things. Back in the room he turned on the Internet. Ailsa hadn’t given him her mobile number. She liked her privacy, too. There was an email from her – the location of their rendezvous. They were to meet in a pub. He didn’t recognise the name, but it was in the Grassmarket. Edinburgh, full of markets, full of people selling things. The years move on, pubs close down and are replaced by other pubs. They were to meet in a pub. She was telling him she wanted to spend the evening getting stewed. Together, getting stewed. He found the idea appealing. Encouraging.
He had been ready for hours. He couldn’t sit still, he ended up fidgeting, pacing the floor. He felt stubble on his face. He braced himself for another shave. He cut himself, quite badly. He looked at his watch. He needed to give the cut time to heal. Balsam – he had forgotten to pack it, he should have got some in Jenners while he was there. It was an oversight, his own fault, like the cut. He checked his email, a towel pressed to his throat. Ailsa was just leaving home.
She was already there, sitting at a small table in the corner. Her eyes were on the door when he walked through it. She hesitated, then smiled. She hadn’t changed at all. He crossed the floor to her, the carpet like water. She reached for him. He would have embraced her, but she kissed him on the mouth. His confusion was already total.
‘Ailsa,’ he said.
‘You’ve gone all grey,’ she said. He felt her fingers stroke his hair.
A mirror was set in the wall behind the table, reflecting light from the fixture in the ceiling. It blinded him for a second. ‘It would have been nice to see you before I turned into an old man,’ he said. ‘A bit late, eh?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It suits you.’
He wanted to ask how much time they had, but thought better of it. At least she had come on her own. He had imagined she might bring her husband along.
She was still smiling. ‘God, I feel nervous,’ she said.
‘That makes two of us,’ he said. ‘What are you drinking?’
She put a hand over her glass. A wedding ring and an engagement ring, he noticed. A double crust of diamonds. ‘I’m fine,’ she said.
He ordered a whisky and told the barman to bring it to the table. It was no big deal. The place was empty. He wanted to make the most of his time with her. Standing alone at a bar waiting for someone to pour him a drink would have been
‘Tell me about your wife,’ she said.
The small talk was over quickly. He made sure of that.
‘I’ll have that drink now,’ she said. He gestured to the barman: a glass of wine. ‘So,’ she said. ‘Your book.’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘It’s raised lots of questions for me.’
He had been expecting this. He had everything worked out. Every permutation. You can’t put people into stories then invite them to read those stories without getting some kind of reaction.
‘I’ve got a terrible memory,’ she said. ‘In fact, I’m beginning to think I’m losing it.’
‘How do you mean, Ailsa?’ he said.
The barman placed a glass on the table.
‘Thank you,’ said Ailsa. She insisted on paying. She waited till he was back behind the bar, till they were alone. ‘It was really sad in parts,’ she said.
‘Your book,’ she said. ‘It was really sad in parts.’ She attempted another smile. ‘I’m not much of a literary critic.’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘ “Really sad” works for me.’
‘But it’s got me thinking,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a terrible memory.’
He placed a finger under his collar; there was an itch. He decided not to scratch in case he opened the scab.
‘I remember some things,’ she said. ‘Like how you always wore that green sports jacket.’
‘I threw it out years ago,’ he said, but she wasn’t listening.
‘I remember we went to the theatre a couple of times.’
For someone with a bad memory, she could certainly remember some things. Details. Her minutiae. After twenty years. Trivia.
She took a long drink of wine. ‘Forgive me for asking this,’ she said, ‘but is your mother still alive?’
He looked right into her eyes. They were green. He could have sworn they were brown. There were a few wrinkles at the edges, though not as many as there might have been. Not as many as some people had. For a moment he thought she was teasing him, but the smile had disappeared. She was...her lips were trembling.
‘My mother died years ago, Ailsa,’ he said. ‘When...’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. It’s my memory, you see.’
Why was she doing this?
‘There’s these huge gaps...’
Surely she wasn’t serious?
‘Ailsa,’ he said. He wanted to look into her eyes again, but they were fixed on the table.
Why was she doing this?
‘Some things are just a total blank,’ she said.
He had written his book to try to understand his past. Ailsa had inspired it. He had wanted her to read it to show her that he still remembered something they had shared, to thank her for being there when he needed someone, really needed someone. A homage. The result of an obsession.
She wasn’t teasing him, he could see
My God, he thought. What if she doesn’t remember?
Where does that leave me?
Her silence. An invisible line, one he hadn’t crossed yet. It wasn’t a game.
She couldn’t remember being in his room when they came pounding on his door, shouting his name, talking into their radios, saying his mother’s name. How could she not remember? It was part of the reason he had
She had buried it. But how could she do that? She didn’t want to remember. She had buried it, like something dead, like his mother, like something worse than dead, like something dirty, like rubbish. One person’s defining moment is another person’s toxic waste. Her eyes were fixed on the fuck that she was shaking, terrified, he could see it. She had called him a bastard once, all those years ago. He had tasted blood in his mouth, his own blood. He had deserved it. Hurt begets harm. He was a different person then. A boy. He was a man now. He didn’t want to hurt people. He never had. He didn’t want to hurt her. She didn’t want to be reminded. Certain things should...certain things should not...certain things never happened, for some people. He was different now, he wasn’t the person he had been, but some things were the same.
This wasn’t about his book.
It never had been.
This wasn’t fiction, it was poetry. It was real.
It is real.
It is happening now.
A shadow. Someone sits down. It isn’t the barman.
‘Hi, toots. Are you ready?’
‘This is my husband,’ says Ailsa.
‘I’m Michael,’ says the man, her husband, the winner. Testosterone Nemesis in a two-piece suit. ‘You must be...’
I turn to Ailsa. It would have been nice to hear her say my name; she hasn’t used it once since I came in. Maybe that is something else she has forgotten.
‘Ailsa’s told me all about you,’ says Michael.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m sure she has.’ I imagine my wife. She is at my side. I would ask her, my only friend, to sit with us, but there is no room at the table. How did she find me here? How did she know the address? Perhaps she has come to help me, at this moment when I really need someone. We are in Edinburgh, in the Grassmarket, but no one is buying what I want to sell. It is another defining moment. Life is full of them. Her face wears no expression. She deserves better. She deserves better than this. I reach out, but her image fades quickly as she turns away from the failed deceit.
I think of perfume, with hope verging on desperation.
Everyone is standing. Hands are shaken. It is over. Again. Suddenly. Nothing has been said. I feel my mouth being kissed, then Ailsa is gone. She is gone, with her husband, into the future, hand in hand, where they will be happy. I am on my own. Alone with the stained glassware. I have to lean on something. I catch the light reflecting off the mirror. I stand there like that, I don’t know how long, staring into the light till it blinds me, till I feel the heat inside my eyes, inside my head, forcing myself to stare into the light, the exquisite pain, wishing the memories gone, cremated, willing them to burn till they leave no trace, no pain, no shadows at all, till all that’s left is me, the player, the loser, the nobody swaying awkwardly in the corner of this bar, two thousand miles from home, from my real home, from the place where I belong.
This story is taken from the collection A Man's Hands - link at the side of the page.