Wow, Archie. I hadn’t really thought about Archie for some years – I think I may actually have avoided thinking about him – but recently he cropped up in conversation with my wife, and not long ago I threw out some old papers, in which I found an invitation to Archie’s retirement dinner, which was certainly not yesterday.
Archie and I both worked for the same (very large) employer for many years, though we never met and knew nothing of each other for almost all of that time. He spent his time in the sales organization, managing branch offices in different parts of the UK, and my world was of mathematics and computers, at boring old Head Office. Since we were roughly the same age, we eventually met up – collected together like fluff in a corner – when we had both become senior enough and old enough to become something of an embarrassment.
I can’t claim to be an expert on working careers, since I only ever had one, but there are some characteristics which seem far clearer to me now than they were at the time. If you are successful (and Archie and I were both pretty successful, I suppose, by any commonsense standards) then the ingredients will be a rough mixture of hard work, talent, luck, personal contacts and what we might call “politics”. Strangely, we tend not to notice much except the talent and the hard work on the way up, but when the momentum starts to run out we become painfully aware of the rest, especially the politics. It is pathetically easy to blame our ultimate humbling on conspiracies, or bad breaks, but the reality is that we must have benefited from exactly those same elements when we were doing well, but we chose not to see it. Eventually, old senior managers become too expensive, too risk-averse and too much of an obstruction to the promotion of the next lot of hot-shots, and they have to go. Nobody explains this at the time.
Anyway, Archie and I came together, late on, on the steering committee of some no-hope project that nobody cared about, and we got on very well. We used to meet up for lunch, to discuss important stuff like football and music, share uproarious tales of our memories of our working lives and the stupidity of the useless and pointless jobs we had now been pushed into (to make room for the hot-shots), and generally to enjoy each other’s company, though I fear that much of the chat was heavily negative.
Archie had been through a very traumatic divorce (he explained, quite cheerfully, that his wife eventually couldn’t stand him any more) and had moved back to the town of his birth – a small place not far from Glasgow – a town where the railings of the public park were painted red, white and blue and the Council had never, ever employed a Catholic, as far as anyone knew. As the lunches continued, I became rather less comfortable in Archie’s company; there was something about him – he burned too brightly – he was always too jovial, or too intense, or too angry, or too something-or-other. He also had a disquieting habit of supporting the points he made in conversation by trotting out biblical quotations, complete with chapter and verse numbers. In what I hope was a good-natured way, I asked him not to do this, since these quotes only served any purpose if:
1. The listener knew the passage, and thus could identify it as genuine.
2. The listener accepted the intended interpretation of these words in this particular translation.
3. The listener was otherwise convinced that these words carried some form of authority because of their inclusion in the Bible.
In all three of which departments this particular listener was a bad target.
We agreed that Archie would calm this down – the tacit understanding, I think, being one of joint acceptance of my inadequacy. On one occasion, when there were four of us for lunch, two being business contacts whom we did not know at all, Archie very kindly took it upon himself to say grace before we ate, which seemed a bit presumptuous in the circumstances, and we subsequently agreed that he would not repeat this, either.
And then, bit by bit, over a few months of lunches, we got to the horror story. Archie seemed to have a need to tell it to someone, but it came out slowly, in hints and fragments, until one day it became the subject for discussion for today. It had all happened years before.
Archie’s father was a devout member of some pretty extreme Protestant faction, and he brought his kids up as he thought best. Archie’s sister was a rather nervous, quiet girl, and she went away to teachers’ training college in Glasgow, where she became involved with a man who was a Catholic. There was a lot of trouble at home – a lot of tears and screaming, and eventually things reached the point where the father and daughter became irreconcilable, she was banished from the family, and she went away to live with her new partner. Her father even took legal steps to remove her from his will – this was a situation from which there could be no return.
Sadly, the girl’s relationship did not go well, for whatever reason; she suffered serious depression and was hospitalized for mental illness for a while, and she made contact with her father, to ask if she could come back to live with him. I am not sure where Archie stood on all this, but the father refused to answer her letters – he had no daughter – in God’s name he had no daughter. Some months later she committed suicide.
Now, of course, I have no idea how these things stack up – was she unstable enough to have committed suicide anyway, was her extreme upbringing part of the cause – who knows? It is tempting to assemble what I remember of what Archie chose to tell me into a novella of any style you choose – you choose Bronte and I’ll choose the Woman’s Realm. It’s also none of my business, anyway, but it was certainly Archie’s. I asked him – since it seemed appropriate – how he felt about it all now.
Archie had a habit of avoiding eye contact when he made his biblical quotes, and he stared into space very carefully now. He told me that his father and he had been devastated, of course, but eventually they were glad that God had sent them this trial as a test of their faith, and that they had come through it together. They were stronger in Jesus as a result, he said. The tragedy to Archie’s sister appeared to be incidental, and there was certainly no suggestion of guilt, or even regret.
I am sorry to say that I had a lot of trouble with Archie’s story – I was profoundly spooked by it. We met less often, and shortly after that he retired and our paths rarely, if ever, crossed. For a while he sent me emails (as part of a large circular distribution) drawing my attention to ranting letters he had had published in the Glasgow Herald – usually about the mismanagement of his former employer by the new hot-shots – and then later he sent out some pretty appalling racist and anti-Islamic materials, and I got him classified as SPAM, and I haven’t heard from him since.