As it turned out, I had been correct in my assumptions about Annie: she did know all about her brother-in-law’s secret. A few weeks later, I heard the full, unexpurgated story of how she had become his confidante, several months previously, after he had confessed all. Suffice to say, her suspicions about him had first been aroused on a family outing to Edinburgh in late December. Kenneth and Annie had been seated together in a busy train, the rest of the family having been obliged to occupy another carriage. It seemed that, during the journey – and unbeknownst to Annie - Ned’s brother had become intimate with an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander who had taken the seat at his other side. The encounter began with the pressure of one man’s thigh against the other, at first – apparently – accidental, and then (at Bishopbriggs, following the departure from the carriage of the remaining passengers) more deliberate; and it progressed, by furtive, fumbling degrees, to a concluding act which I will not elucidate here, but which Kenneth performed manually upon the soldier as the train entered Haymarket Station; his actions cunningly concealed by the military cape draped across the stranger’s lap. (This aspect of the tale, Annie alluded to only in the most vague of terms, but there was no mistaking what she meant).
I gathered that what she found most unnerving was that all of this wanton activity had occurred right beside her, whilst she was deeply absorbed in reading a book, her beloved David Copperfield and, at the very moment when Kenneth had been applying himself with the greatest fervour to the Highlander, on the approach to Haymarket, she had just reached the saddest part of the story: the deaths of Jip, the adorable miniature dog, and also of the hero’s wife, poor little Dora. These combined tragedies (all within a single page!) had reduced Annie to tears; and it upset her to think that - whilst she wept, quietly oblivious, and moved by masterful storytelling - Kenneth had been at her side, fiddling about in the clammy netherworld of a soldier’s kilt (not her words but mine). It was only afterwards - when the soldier had disembarked at Haymarket, and Kenneth had acted strangely, running after him, and then refusing to say why - that Annie grew suspicious.
“So I asked him about it, at Hogmanay, when he was drunk. He wouldn’t tell me at first, just kept hinting there was something about him I didn’t know. But later, he got more drunk and then – well - he said what had happened on the train.”
Despite any reservations that she may have harboured, Annie had since been careful not to show Kenneth her disapproval. She was, I think, flattered that he had confided in her. As for Kenneth, once he realised that his brother’s wife would not only keep his secrets, but also allow him to talk about them without condemning his actions, he acquired a taste for confession and abandoned all modesty, even seeming quite thrilled to provide her with unexpurgated accounts of his exploits.
© Jane Harris 2011