On the train from Edinburgh to Inverness the view was quick to shift from medieval city to farmlands to the rugged, rich cliffs of the Highlands. About fourteen miles east in Beauly sat a restored croft house devoted to writers. At the top of a hill, it was nestled between snowy peaks and blanketed by clouds. We were meant to spend the week discussing short stories and indulging our writerly whims.
I heard him before I saw him. The image I’d conjured in my head didn’t match the tenor of his voice. A brown trilby hat rested on one knee while he balanced a full glass of wine on the other. He looked like a long-ago model from a hunting magazine. I sat down on the couch and listened to the conversation when he handed me a glass of wine. “Mark,” he said, offering a hand shake before continuing his discussion.
Over dinner and wine, we got to know one another. The conversation was lively and pleasant. Everyone still on their best behavior as they sought out who was friend or foe.
After dinner, we were to interview a fellow writer about our work and ambitions and report back to the group. The tutors paired me with Mark.
“Ladies first,” he said.
I gave him my elevator pitch—I’m writing the second draft of my debut novel, developing a short story collection, and am partial to literary fiction set in the modern day.
“So like Outlander,” he said.
“No, that’s more like historical fiction with a magical realism twist.”
“Yes, but their historical details are realistic and very important to the story.”
“I understand, but that’s not what I’m looking to write.”
“She’s very popular. It’s now become a television series,” he said.
“That’s great but that’s not what I’m looking to do.”
“What are you looking to do?”
I repeated my pitch. He nodded. I was unsure if he actually listened to me or pretended. A bell rang. My turn to listen.
He wanted to write a memoir about his wrongs and the wrongs committed against him. “That’s what I’ve come here to work on,” he said. He digressed about his time as a journalist, his first marriage, his second marriage and how he saved it, hunting trips, estranged children, love for substances (but not addiction). His words filled the air between us and all I could think about is how his objectives opposed those of the course we were attending. I nodded and retained the few relevant facts to present to the group.
Mark offered to speak first.
“This is Alli and she wants to write the next Outlander series.”
For fuck’s sake.
Guest author David Constantine joined us that evening. Over dinner, most were on their best behavior and asked innocuous questions—what books he’d recommended, where he liked to write, how he knew when something was a good idea. Not Mark.
He gestured with his fork. “The four of you, I believe to be quite shy and quiet and I cannot judge your intelligence because of that,” he said, singling out the women he was referring to before blocking his words with a fork-full of food.
We were on the opposite end of the table from Mr. Constantine, but Mark’s voice reached every corner of the room.
I looked at the other women sitting around me. Anger filled their eyes, but no one wanted to waste energy confronting his unsolicited judgements. I leaned forward. “I’ve never been called shy a day in my fucking life.”
My words pushed him back in his seat as though we’re still in his heyday and women just didn’t talk that way. Another woman stepped in to my defense, but Mark was daft and childish and continued to offer an opinion that no one requested. The women and I traded glances with one another.
After, we took our drinks out to a round, thatched-roof house warmed by wood stoves to listen Mr. Constantine read In Another Country, from his collection by the same name. A love story during world war two; two people separated by tragedy and time but brought together, in a way, decades later by a natural phenomenon.
Our tutors thanked him profusely for sharing his work. Mr. Constantine offered to stay a while longer to answer questions. A shared dread filled the room. Instead of a question, Mark offered an assertion.
“It’s about anti-Semitism.”
“No it isn’t.” Mr. Constantine was steadfast.
“Yes it is.” Mark continued, defiant and erroneous. “The girl had a Jewish name but the boy was not Jewish. I would know, my mother was Jewish.”
Mr. Constantine spoke slowly, annunciating each syllable as though talking to a child.
“Though they could seem as star-crossed lovers, being from two different faiths, the nature of this story is how their love outlasted war, natural tragedies, and death. Their faith had nothing to do with the story.”
While Mark battled Mr. Constantine about the subtext of his own work, I debated whether or not I was surprised by Mark’s actions. Having studied literature, I’ve witnessed my fair share of pretentious intellectuals debate the intentions and realities of an author’s words. But we were not around a long table discussing the works of those, living or dead, that were not there to verify our assumptions. Sitting before us was the author clear as day telling us exactly what his intentions were.
The brave among us tried to shift the conversation until Mark tired at last.
Several of us stood around the kitchen, talking and drinking coffee and tea as we prepared the communal meal. Mark burst into the room. “I’ve had a success! I need to kiss a woman.”
The women looked around at each other, some more nervous than the others. I answered on behalf of the group. “No.” A complete sentence.
Mark complained that it was a simple request, nothing sinister, before he sauntered off. He left us alone for the majority of the night. Or maybe we’d been successful in avoiding him. At that point it was a concerted effort.
His general presence and my combative nature wore on me. I ate, cleared plates, cleaned up the kitchen – anything that maintained distance – while he passed around another bottle of mediocre wine.
He had brought his own stash. A self-proclaimed burgundy man. “I like fine wine,” he told the group, though the bargain-store label suggested otherwise. I declined a second glass and extracted myself to write in the comfort and relative silence of my room.
Noises deadened. Windows turned black as lights were extinguished before I ventured back to the common spaces of the croft house. I made tea and sought the solitude of the quiet, bench out front. Beneath me, the wooden slats were cold from the crisp autumn winds that had blown through the highlands. Balancing my mug between my thighs, I cupped a hand and flicked my lighter. The embers raged in the paper as it crept towards my fingertips.
Between bouts of wind that rustled through the shadows of bare tree branches and tall grasses, the night was mute. The deep silence ensconced me in the unfamiliar landscape. I paced my breath with the stillness of my surroundings, careful not to disturb the established peace.
The door flew open as if propelled by his voice. He did not notice me. He lit his own cigarette and checked his phone. Like an animal confronted by unexpected head lights, I froze. My breaths were shallow and quiet. My tea grew cold and the cherry on my cigarette neared my fingertips as I sat motionless.
He spotted me. “I didn’t know you smoke.”
I released the air from my lungs. His declaration had no care for the calm he was disturbing in the darkness.
“Only occasionally. When I want some quiet.” I inhaled pulling the embers closer to my lips.
He put his hands up in surrender. “I know when to shut up.”
For a few moments we sat in silence though silence had never felt so arduous. In attempts to refocus myself I looked everywhere else but his direction. The clouds as they floated under the moon. The moon in its various shades of brightness as the clouds passed underneath sometimes creating rings around it like a halo, first white then orange then red. My cigarette was out.
There was one left in the pack. Lighting it in that moment would seal my fate. I would say something. I couldn’t not. Not after the few days I’d spent listening to him go on about everything and nothing.
I flicked my lighter.
“A few nights ago you said something to me,” I broke the air between us. “You said I was shy and therefore, possibly, unintelligent. I paid six hundred pounds to come here and learn. I can’t very well learn if I’m the loudest one in the room.”
He nodded. “You make a great point.”
But I had opened a door. He began in on his philosophical feelings of emotions he trusts and doesn’t. He trusted intuition. I reminded him that intuition isn’t an emotion so much as a judgement call.
He changed his word. “I trust uneasiness,” he said. He didn’t trust anger, fear, people who are too loud and too confident. In that moment I seemed to agree with him. For a moment, I wanted so badly to be a mirror.
Alice might as well have been there with us. We went down a rabbit hole with the convers-ation diverting to women’s rights and experiences in general. “Women have always had, at least since I’ve been in the business when I started in the seventies, equal opportunity in the workplace.”
I couldn’t take it. “You’re going to actually sit there and make that statement to me with all the Harvey Weinstein bullshit going on right now?”
He did so happily. He prattled on with a story of how he once was up for a promotion against a woman for two roles, one junior and one senior. “She got the senior job because she had more talent,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it.” None of his work over the week had suggested that he would have been the more qualified candidate. “But you don’t know if there was anything else your management considered before she got the senior job.”
“Well, she never told me.”
“Why would she?”
I was surprised when he paused, considering my question. Maybe he hadn’t considered himself a member of the patriarchy before. “But I don’t think she was ever propositioned,” he said, failing to understand my point or the weight of the words that tumbled from his smoky, inebriated mouth.
Without many departing words, I excused myself.
All at once I had won and lost a battle. I felt strong and resilient yet small and nauseous.
I showered to try and rid myself of the smell on my fingertips, the anger in my blood, the pit in my stomach knowing that I had actively given up on someone. The idea that someone was past repair, or at least repair that I would witness, made me ache. I sat in the shower basin, hunched over as the hot water came down, unmoving until my skin turned red, purifying only the top layer. I was as small as I felt.
A week I had eagerly awaited had nearly gone. I laid in bed trying to decide if the end was a good thing. The previous days had been as sweet and sour as a take-out dish. I did not want to part with the weathered hills that surrounded me, but I made a silent wish for the day to end as quick as it started.
The evening was meant to be a ceilidh of sorts. Large bowls of haggis, neeps, and tatties sat in the center of the table. Drams of single malt were handed out. In true tradition, To a Haggis, by Robert Burns was read, glasses were raised, and we toasted to our literary week.
There was an unspoken truce amongst us twelve. The dinner was reflective of the week we spent together—things we’d learn, stories we hoped to write, ways we’d attempt keep in touch with one another. Even Mark was thoughtful when he spoke. I wondered if maybe I had given up on him too soon. If perhaps our discussion had resonated with him, settled into some nefarious groove of his ignorant mind. Each of us of course were trying to keep our nerves at bay prior to our reading.
Mark read second. His voice filled the room of a story that really happened on a race track that really existed with people he really knew. All of us attempted to give him dedicated attention.
Nine other writers read pieces that they’d written before it was my turn. I had done a reading before, but it never seems to be less nerve-racking. I held my five-minutes worth of pages in front of me. Despite my nerves, I managed to keep my voice steady and at a normal pace for the first few paragraphs—until his phone rang.
Mark jumped up. “One moment! I’ll return in a jiff!” The front door open and closed between us and him, leaving cold evening air in his place.
My hands fell to my side, still clutching my pages. I asked the tutors if I should keep reading or wait. Manners overruled anger at the start. “Let’s give him a moment.”
People whispered about his rudeness and his transgressions over the week as if he were standing just at the other end of the room.
After five minutes, they told me to read on. Seconds after I finished, he walked back in the house. Any merriment being shared by the group was deflated in an instant.
“Thank you all for a lovely week, but I’ve got to be off.” Mark placed his remaining two bottles of wine on the dining room hutch and tipped his hat.
His desertion hung silent in the air.
The croft house grew lighter.
Huddled around the kitchen with the remaining writers, I stood taller than I could the night before.
This story first appeared in Issue 42 of From Glasgow to Saturn in Spring 2019.