Jul 092010

by Alex Mitchell.

I first became aware of Carmina – I never learned her last name – when we were both students at the University of Aberdeen. She was a dark-haired, exotic beauty at the centre of a group of decadent, upper-class sophisticates who seldom bothered to turn up at lectures but would come lurching into tutorials, at which attendance was compulsory, still half-wrecked from the excesses of the previous night or weekend. 

Most of Carmina’s set had dropped out by the end of the first year, although they continued to hang around King’s College and the Student Union. At least one was known to have committed suicide, apparently as a result of rejection in love by Carmina herself; two or three were to die following drug overdoses, whether by accident or design; others subsided into alcoholic depression or disappeared into clinics or institutions, never to be seen or heard of again. These were all men. Carmina had few women friends – perhaps none – having little enthusiasm for girl-talk or, perhaps, competition. She seemed remarkably unscathed by the obvious hazards of her chosen lifestyle, although it was hard to tell given that she was seldom seen out and about in daytime, being very much a ‘night person’. We thought of her as a femme fatale, like Marlene Dietrich in the film The Blue Angel,- “Men cluster to me, like moths around a flame”. Few of the young men drawn into Carmina’s ambience seemed to retain their health or sanity for very long, any more than moths can ultimately evade being consumed by the scorching flame.

It is unlikely that Carmina and I would ever have come into contact – our social circles could hardly have been said to intersect – but for the friendship I struck up with Archie Forsythe, mainly on the basis of our shared interest in the philosophers and belles-lettristes of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century – David Hume and Adam Smith were our particular heroes – and in certain other, darker matters of a similarly antiquarian nature.

We were fascinated by the old toun, the medieval burgh of Aberdeen, and spent much of our time exploring the older parts of the city, trying to place old streets and buildings, or, more usually, their former locations. After an evening spent drinking in the more atmospheric bars, the Prince of Wales or the Kirkgate, we would roam the dank, tunnel-like alleys and back-passageways, the oppressive, enclosing courts and closes, the steep, narrow stairs and plummeting back wynds of the medieval burgh; a territory which, in the enveloping fog and stillness of a frosty winter’s night, seemed hardly to have been affected by our own time.

We would wander the ancient Kirkyard of St. Nicholas, then cut through Correction Wynd, deep under Union Street, to the Green and Carmelite Lane, then along Shiprow and up into the Adelphi on the crest, as was, of St. Katherine’s Hill, then along to the empty expanse of Castlegate; or we might follow the curve of Shiprow along the former base of St. Katherine’s Hill, back under Union Street via Carnegie’s Brae – the remnant of Putachieside – up towards Netherkirkgate, then out along the haunted Ghaist-raw and up the sinister, winding Gallowgate to the Port-Hill and Gallowgatehead as was; then, finally, back along the former line of the Vennel, the most notorious of all the tenement slums of the old toun, to the Lochside Bar, to light, warmth and comfort.

Or, other nights, we might wander through Adelphi Lane and Exchequer Row to the Castlegate, then venture warily down Peacock’s Court to pay our respects to the late Dancing Master; then from the Tolbooth, the Mids o’ Mar, out through the former Justice Port and round by the Heidin’ Hill – the one-time place of execution, still evocative of the witch-burning frenzy of the 1590s – up on to Castlehill proper for the view of the Harbour and Aberdeen Bay; then down the steps of Hangman’s Brae to the reclaimed Shorelands, to Virginia Street and Sugarhouse Lane, past Shore Lane and up the slimy steps to Bannerman’s Bridge and Marischal Street; up out of the darkness and into the light.

In the chill, clinging night air, the steep, narrow streets, the looming tenement buildings and the dark, congested courts, closes, alleys and wynds seemed to exhale the distilled essence of the accumulated secrets, lies, griefs, passions, cries and whispers of generations long dead, of decades and centuries extending back to time beyond human memory or record. We became time-travellers, adept at time-tripping. We came to know the town, and to know it very well indeed, not as it was then and largely is now, but as it used to be before the various crass post-war developments, back before the slum clearances of the 1890s and the 1930s; back to the 18th century and beyond, long before the mile-length of Union Street was superimposed, east-westwards, across the narrow streets and wynds of the medieval burgh. We looked at Castlehill and we saw, not the high-rise blocks of flats to be seen there now, but the remnants of the medieval castle and the Georgian military barracks; we walked along St. Paul Street, but we saw the notorious Vennel, we looked in the direction of the St. Nicholas Mall but we thought of the Wallace Tower, the 16th century lodging of George Keith of Benholm; we wandered along sodium-lit tarmacked streets lined with banal, identikit blocks of yuppie flats, but what we saw were uneven expanses of granite cobblestones, glistening in the eternally-drizzling rain and the flickering yellow light of wrought-iron gas-lamps; and crumbling, smoke-blackened tenements, infested with poverty and disease and despair.

Archie’s background was quite unlike my own. He was the sole heir to huge but chronically loss-making estates in Buchan and the North, which had gradually consumed a once-substantial family fortune. The reputation and prestige of the Forsythes had never recovered from the Clearances and from a long succession of ill-chosen political alliances and inept or ill-timed betrayals thereof. Marriages had been contracted on the same shabbily opportunistic basis, but to no useful effect, serving only to add to the family’s vast and unproductive tracts of barren mountainside and low-lying bogland. Not even the sheep the Forsythes had preferred over their own clansfolk could find sustenance in that bleak, windswept and treeless landscape. In more recent times, the Forsythes had seemed to lose all hope, lacking even the energy or will to reproduce their kind.

However, as so often, the son and heir to a dynasty founded on cruelty, exploitation and betrayal was himself a perfect gentleman, perhaps too much so for his own good. Archie was physically large, plump and lethargic, fair-haired and afflicted with a nervous stammer which made him self-conscious and reluctant to speak up for himself in company. He fitted in with neither the rugby-players nor the left-wing intelligentsia at the University, and was certainly quite unlike any of Carmina’s set, but, for some reason – perhaps she was tiring of her style of existence, or worried about her future prospects – she set her cap at him and he fell for her in a big way. Perhaps she was the first woman who seemed to take him at all seriously.

Very few of us, of course, could have resisted Carmina. She really was outstandingly beautiful, slim but voluptuous, with a very pale complexion and dark, glossy hair, and she was always dressed in a graceful Pre-Raphaelite or medieval style, quite unlike the ubiquitous denims and T-shirts of most of our contemporaries. She gave the impression of possessing something beyond mere intelligence; of knowing and understanding all that there was to be known, to the extent that conversation seemed unnecessary. No doubt an advantage as far as poor Archie was concerned.

The wedding service and reception took place at Forsythe Castle, rather than in the adjacent Episcopalian church, this being at Carmina’s request. I had never before visited a house of any description so utterly lacking in warmth, good cheer and comfort, or so perceptibly imbued with the bitterness and sorrows of times past, even though the original Jacobean castle had been extensively remodelled in the fashionable Gothick style in the 1830s and was still inhabited to a greater or lesser degree. It was not yet by any means the roofless and dilapidated ruin to be seen there today. I could understand why an older, medieval, fortress had been built on this bare Buchan headland – facing the King of Denmark, as Dr Johnson put it – but not why any sane person would have chosen to go on living there in more recent times.

The decayed remnant of the Forsythe clan – the lame and the halt, the mad and the merely half-witted – had turned out in force for the wedding ceremony and reception. It was a beautiful afternoon at the end of summer, the gardens now overgrown by wild fuchsias in lush, blood-red bloom but Carmina looked tense and ill, and seemed to be suffering some discomfort in the bright sunshine. It occurred to me that I had never before seen Carmina in the full light of day. She toyed with her food throughout the interminable wedding feast. I found myself wondering whether Carmina had, in fact, ever been known to eat anything at all. Strange, the connections which form in the mind, decades later, fuchias … blood-red … encarmin’d … Carmina.

Only one member of Carmina’s family was present, an austere, silent gentleman in late middle age, of distinguished but foreign appearance and formal, old-fashioned courtesy and attire, who was introduced to us as the bride’s uncle. He too seemed uncomfortable in the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun, and soon retreated back into the subterranean gloom and penetrating dank chillness of Forsythe Castle. We had, of course, no real idea – we had never thought to ask – as to Carmina’s background and origins. I thought it unlikely that she could adapt to her new life, if life was the word for it, at Forsythe Castle. It seemed one of those doomed marriages in which each partner expects the other to turn into the person they really wanted to marry in the first place.

Archie and I had drifted apart in the year or so before his wedding. He had, inevitably, been drawn into Carmina’s set, and I disliked the way they patronised and exploited his undiscriminating good nature and generosity, his puppy-like eagerness to please. I, for my part, now mixed in more conventional, career-minded company, all of us scrabbling to become cock o’ our chosen midden, amongst whom the more conspicuously louche and bohemian of Archie’s new friends would have been anomalous, at the very least of it. On the rare occasions when our paths crossed that last year before Finals, Archie seemed more nervous and unsure of himself than ever, and also curiously diminished in a physical sense, by which I do not mean that he was smaller, but that some of the bulk or substance seemed to have been lost from his formerly massive frame, and that his face had taken on a darkened, yellowed aspect which could at first sight have been mistaken for a sun-tan, then not. This was characteristic of other members of Carmina’s set and I put it down to alcoholic excess; they looked pretty much as most of us felt, most of the time.

After graduation, we all went our separate ways, losing touch to an extent. Then, towards the end of the following year, I was stopped in the Castlegate by, I first thought, a poor old man who seemed vaguely familiar but whom I could not quite place; desperately thin and shrivelled in appearance, and very stooped and tremulous. I could not believe my ears when this individual, in tones of some indignation, insisted that he was my old friend, Archie Forsythe. We made desultory conversation. It is difficult to exchange the usual small talk about mutual acquaintances, their successful careers and contented domestic situations, with an obviously dying man. We exchanged telephone numbers and I promised to come up to Forsythe Castle sometime in the New Year. Archie’s eyes filled with tears. “Make it soon, old man”, he whispered. “They’re killing me, you know”.

Then, on a bright April morning, I saw his death notice and obituary in The Scotsman. It referred to a tragically foreshortened life of unfulfilled promise. Archie was the last of the Forsythes; his life had been without issue or consequence. There was a reference to some unidentified wasting disease, but I knew better.

The bad things we do come back to haunt us, and I have been consumed by guilt and remorse ever since. I could have stopped that wedding. I knew what Carmina was. I tried, but failed, to convince myself that I didn’t know, or that I didn’t fully understand, or that there was nothing I could have done anyway. Of course, Archie must himself have realised the truth about Carmina sooner or later, but he had by then, no doubt, lost the independence of mind or strength of will he would have needed to break her hold on him. Perhaps he was never sufficiently determined to hang on to life, to remain in the land of the living. To return to Forsythe Castle, after his years at the University, was certainly to choose a form of death, death of the spirit, of intellect, in preference to life. Perhaps Carmina was his way out, much as alcohol and drugs were the way out for so many others of our generation.

Last thoughts: why Archie and not me? I sent the usual condolences to Archie’s senior relations and to the grieving widow, but I did not attend the funeral. I thought it safest to stay away. In fact, I wondered about leaving the country, going abroad. Then I realised that going abroad wouldn’t make any difference. Carmina would soon have to find someone new, and her choice of victims in the isolated environs of Forsythe Castle must have been limited, if not already exhausted. I knew that if Carmina came looking for me, or called me, I would be no more able to resist her than could poor Archie. She really did have looks that kill.