I locked a man in my house once, for a whole day. A drastic way of ensuring a man stays put, you might think, but let me assure you, that was not my intention. There must have been some Freudian undercurrent at play for this incident to take place as it did. I will let you decide.
Duncan and I had our first and only date one bitterly cold December night at the Royal Arms, my local pub in the small Scottish university town where we both lived. I had met Duncan way before this first formal dating encounter I am penning in here, and the subsequent events it triggered. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had not accidentally bumped into each other that late December afternoon. Of course, none of it would have had any chance to happen if I had simply been allocated another tutorial group to start with.
He was an undergraduate student in my tutorial group. I still remember that class; my first university teaching experience. I was wearing a man’s tomato red jacket I had bought in Paris, years before, over black jeans. I noticed the very tall, mature-looking Scottish student, sitting in descending order next to a short and rotund gingery-looking Scot and a svelte chilled-out youth with a nest of swirling dark hair – the campus’ dope dealer as I found out later. I noticed Duncan because he was following me intently with his big dark eyes around the class. I felt his attention on me acutely and disconcertingly, albeit flatteringly. I am sure he registered my reciprocal interest.
He was a handsome man, a student of politics and former professional baseball player, half Scott, half some other blood that had resulted in an impressive body and accounted for the dark looks. The other half blood was obviously, in this case, the improving half… My apologies to all Scotsmen out there, but in all my years in Scotland I had failed to meet Gerard Butler or any of his lookalikes, and the one that had mattered was of another league.
Just a small disclosure here for the morally upstanding reader. Duncan was older than me, despite his undergraduate student status, in case you think I took advantage of a young and innocent boy. Of course, that is known to happen, especially with the genders reversed. Duncan was also my rebound story; another encounter with a man had preceded this one and had laid its stake, which I was still trying to get unstuck from my psyche. Duncan’s chances were thus limited from the start, much to my subsequent regret.
The encounter I am narrating here comes much later, after the end of that first semester when neither of us was bound to the rules of ethical contact between teacher and student. I still remember vividly our accidental meeting, standing there on the street, self-conscious, on a cold winter afternoon’s fast dimming light, he asking me what I was doing over Christmas, I responding, nothing special, he offering to meet for a drink, and I accepting in a casual tone.
What ensued was the intense beginning, tragicomic interludes and abrupt ending of what could have been, if allowed, a full relationship with all its expected domesticity and potential for love. For this man clearly had feelings for me that I was then not fully aware of and, upon reflection years later, regretted not having allowed to develop—those ‘what ifs’.
The date at the pub was not great, rather awkward and predictable. The conversation was stilted; neither of us knew how to translate the attraction into the sort of easy going encounter that first dates should be all about but often fail to be. I asked him about his past relationships and he talked darkly, with a deceiving lightness in his voice, about the woman he nearly married, but for the immigration rules of another country that forced him to return with the ring in his pocket before he even had a chance to propose. “There, you’ve had it, the story that you were looking for,” he said, sort of annoyed. “The story that shows I am messed up. Isn’t that what all women look for? An explanation for a man’s attitude to relationships? A man with wounds to be nursed?”
I was not sure what I was looking for, but it was certainly not this story! Who wants unfinished business hanging around on a first date? In all fairness, we were both nervous. He drank more than I thought was acceptable on a first date, but then we were in Scotland, where drinking rules have higher limits.
We walked to my place, and he had some more to drink, and then we got into a negotiating game that involved attempts to delay what was meant to come, including spending an inordinate amount of time in the shower. It was what it was… I’m not sure how we fitted in my narrow single bed, given his long athlete’s body, but we did. All I remember was the freezing cold temperature, being unable to feel his touch on my skin. The cold had frozen my senses too, although my body seemed to have its own mind, responding to his in some sort of automatic way, for how is it possible to be aroused when you have lost all sensation of touch? It was apparently the lowest-ever temperature on record in Scottish weather history that night. Some other Freudian element at play, you would think?
The following morning, I left early for an appointment in Edinburgh. He was still sleeping as I said goodbye quickly and asked him to turn the lock from the inside before he left. I returned late in the afternoon from Edinburgh, not feeling in the mood to spend New Year’s Eve on my own. But I didn’t want to go home, in case Duncan was still there, and I would have to confront a situation with a disgruntled fresh lover. So I took the cowardly option of avoidance and stopped by a friend’s place and was invited to stay the night to celebrate the New Year with her flatmates.
Coward I might have been, but not completely lacking in good manners, and because I was nudged by a feeling of deep unease or guilt—I will leave it to you to decide which—I decided to ring home to check if Duncan was still there. I was hoping he was not, so I could then enjoy my evening guilt-free. There. You have it now, my true motive. His voice answering the phone came as a shock to me. The man was still in my house! And not because he was desperate to see me after a night of passion in sub-zero temperatures. Alas, I had accidentally locked him in when I went out that morning!
What had transpired was truly a story for a comedy script. He had spent the entire day on his own; my housemates were away for Christmas, as were all his friends, so he had nobody to call for help. His only chance of getting out came when my upstairs neighbor knocked on my door to check my plumbing, because the freezing temperatures the night before had burst his. This resulted in a hilarious but rather uncomfortable encounter behind a locked door, as he had to tell the man that the woman of the house was away and he was locked in. I can only imagine the amusement on my neighbor’s face, and Duncan’s annoyance at having to account for his locked-in state by his previous night’s date. Further chagrin must have come with his realizing that this man on the other side of the locked door, his only chance to get out, was not going to be of help.
So, he spent his time reading, pottering, eating all the food in the house—he was a big man—pottering some more, watching TV, going through my stuff, pottering a bit more and then getting really bored, annoyed and claustrophobic, emotions I heard in his voice when I called. Apparently, shifting all my books from the window sill and near shelves kept him busy for a while when he realized that the little air heater I had left on when I left had melted the ice on the inside of the window and had ruined them. When I finally returned the day after, my room looked like it had been either recently unpacked or was in need of packing up.
I did say I was a coward, so having lied through my teeth that I was still in Edinburgh at the start of the conversation, I could not just appear at the door to let him out. I offered to call a friend nearby who had my house keys and ask her to drop by and let him out. I had told better lies before! My friend, having heard an edited version of my story which presented Duncan not in the best colors, agreed to do this coward’s errand. I had developed by then the bad habit of involving friends in my fraudulent dealings with Scottish men.
I never had another encounter with this man, other than a brief—and rather pathetic on my side, I must admit—talk in passing, on campus, one promising Scottish spring morning, several months later. It counted as a lame explanation of my subsequent disappearance, leaving much unsaid, including an apology. I think I might have hurt this man, and in telling this story I seek atonement.
“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of
deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form
that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.
There is nothing outside her. In her imagination, she has set the limits and the terms.
No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists.
It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point.
The attempt was all.” ― Ian McEwan, Atonement
Helen Flockhart, Legacy, 1996 [with the shadow of the writer]
For more stories by this author see: