Obsession at first glance: a Scottish pub encounter
The pub was very noisy that night, packed to sardine-can capacity with eager students—and an assortment of locals—celebrating the start of the academic year in the way inhabitants of the British Isles know best, by inebriating themselves to various degrees of oblivion. So I did not hear the first time around what was asked of me, neither did I see who was doing the asking. We were all battling to keep our ground in the limited space available, and I was near the bar where everyone was wrestling to be. Even before I glanced up to see who was talking, I instinctively leaned closer to hear better. “I was just asking what clan your kilt’s tartan belongs to”, the voice repeated. As I looked up to see the bearer of that barely audible voice, I sky-dived deep into a pair of silvery-blue eyes. Foreign lass meets local bloke.
The world stopped... YES, it did! Much to the disbelief and rather amused reaction I can picture on your face as you read this line. The noise in that hectically busy student pub came to an abrupt halt; the frenetic movements of people trying to reach the bar to place an order slowed down in that cinematic slo-mo we are all familiar with in romantic movies. You are now smiling, I am sure, thinking how unoriginal my writing is, but I assure you it was so. All I could see was this pair of eyes, not even the face they belonged to or indeed any other features of it. I was staring into a pair of self-existing eyes with no apparent physical body to contain them, and in a soundproof vacuum at that! Was I drunk? you must be asking now. No, not that night at least, although it did not take me long to acquaint myself well with the local drinking customs, which I practiced de rigeur at the cost of my poor liver and which took years to detox. To this day, and more than two decades later, I can transport myself back to that very precise moment and relive it all in its full intensity. And so, that’s how my one and only obsessive romantic encounter started… with staring into eyes of winter-clear northern skies.
Although this was the first of many encounters that lasted over a period of four years, I have often wondered what made that very first one so fateful. What if I had not looked straight into his eyes? His voice was not particularly enchanting; it was the voice of a young man, still finding its shape, the voice of a timid man, masculine enough and kind, but unsure of itself. As I have no recollection now of the sound of his voice, would that be proof enough of its indistinctness? What if I had looked at him before he spoke, or indeed had taken a good measure of the whole of him before diving into his eyes alone? He was a handsome guy, the rugby player type, but still, not my usual type. Did the sequence of communicative identification matter? What made either of those random acts of human communication—diving into a stranger’s distinctively colored eyes, and an unfamiliar, barely audible voice asking for the clan provenance of my kilt’s tartan—so evocative that each one merited my instant attention and subsequent obsession? Because that’s what this first encounter resulted in, a long-lasting obsession with a local young Scot with whom I had nothing in common, not culture, education or interests. He was a Northerner training to be an accountant, a rugby player in his spare time and a man’s man, while I was a Southerner training to be an intellectual, engaging in mental gymnastics at all times and a woman of the world, not to mention a budding feminist. Obviously rational explanations have no role in such encounters.
I know you must be curious by now to know how I answered that tartan provenance question. Indeed, I wore a modern Campbell deep green/blue kilt, freshly bought in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, part of my newly acquired Scottish attire that served as a statement of my desire to belong. There was no requirement for visitors to the country to pass a clan test, and thus I was ignorant of what clan my kilt back then belonged to… to my everlasting shame! Not many young women walked around in kilts, Scottish or not, and definitely not in a student pub, so I guessed it was a valid question meriting an answer, one that I no longer remember. That was the impact of that momentous glance; it obliterated any potential memories from that first encounter.
Glancing became the theme of our encounters, eyes meeting across the room in busy pubs for unfolding moment after unfolding moment, lingering night after lingering night, slow motion week after slow motion week, fast-forward month after fast-forward month, passing year after passing year. Furtive glances, searching glances, flirting glances, non-committal glances, daring glances, here-we-go-again glances, inwards-rolling-eyes glances, pissed-off glances, cooling-off glances, proud glances, ignoring glances, throwing-daggers glances, checking-if-you-are-around glances, checking-if-you-are-looking-at-me glances, hurting glances, amused glances, intense glances, see-if-I-care-glances, I-am-here-isn’t-that-enough-for you-to come-to-me glances, perplexed glances, desperation-filled glances, glazed glances, waking-up-from-a-deep-trance glances, magnetic glances, dark glances, what-the-fuck glances, karmic-loaded glances, I-am-out-of-my-mind glances, sparkling glances, moody glances, obsessive glances, withdrawing glances…. including that very last silent glance when meeting outside the pub’s toilets where he was waiting for me in expectation that just acknowledging me with his eyes would have been enough for… Oh no, no, better not go there. For it was not… enough this time, the glancing encounters season had run its course and all he got was a proud/see-if-I-care/oh-you-are-too-late-mate composite glance back before returning to my table and long-suffering friends.
A long time after this last episode, I was walking up Buchanan Street in Glasgow on a sunny winter’s day and I felt someone looking at me from the other side of one of the busiest pedestrianized areas in urban Scotland. I looked up, and that was the very last time I laid my dark Southerner’s eyes on his pair of winter clear blue Northern skies; it lasted just a few seconds before he disappeared in the crowd again. A mirage, a trick of my imagination, you might think—don’t we all know that obsessed lovers see the object of their obsession everywhere? But it had to be him, it was him I am sure, for no other person’s eyes have left such an imprint in my inner vision. A fitting ending to an obsession that started with a single glance…
“...falling in love could be achieved in a single word—a glance.” - Ian McEwan, Atonement
Peter Thomson, The Field, 1996
For more stories by this author see: