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Cords

 

1

Obviously at various stages in our lives we have secrets, but how many of these are imposed upon us, or voluntarily withheld? How often are they little details we feel forced to keep from parents when we’re young; lovers when we’re older, or how often are they something which was at one stage known to others (perhaps our being mocked at school), but over the years become secrets of our own? Frequently the former require a degree of immediate deceit, the latter merely the ability to withhold the confession. Perhaps this story combines the revelation of both.

I would have been thirteen and in the second year of secondary school, and I realised a couple of days after the beginning of the school year, that many were no longer wearing a full school uniform, and only a small handful, including myself, wore the traditional flannel school trousers. My father, though in many ways liberal in his own life, was a stickler for tradition when it came to his kids, and I knew there was no point asking if I could drop the flannel trousers for cords. But I also knew I couldn’t go on wearing those flannel pants that would flap at the sides in the strong west coast island wind. I knew I had to find a solution.

So what I decided to do was leave the house in the flannels, but then change into the cords in the shed downstairs, where nobody could see me. This was possible because of the layout of the house. My father owned the top half and part of the downstairs of a large stone-built terraced abode, and generally people would go in and out of the back door by the kitchen, down the steps and out through the backyard and round by the alleyway at the side of the building. Behind the yard was a high wall that generally left the yard devoid of sunlight, and so it was quite easy to nip down the steps, pop into the shed, get changed, and then leave by the side alley without being noticed. I decided to hide the cords in the satchel that was attached to my sister’s bike, a bike she never used. But while this worked for a day or two, I noticed that in the damp shed the cords started to smell. I reckoned it would be better if I put my cords under my flannels whilst still in the house, and then left the flannels in the bike shed, putting them back on when I returned from school.

This might have seemed a relatively simple act of subterfuge, but there were other problems. Throughout the first year I’d gone home every day for lunch. I lived in the town centre and about half a mile from school, so there was no reason to eat at the school canteen, but changing into and out of the cords four times a day would double the chance of getting caught. I promptly found a solution: half a dozen kids in the class got free school meal vouchers, with each voucher worth enough to get a hot dish, a drink and a pudding. I suggested to a couple of them that I’d give in cash half what the voucher was worth, and two or three days a week they could spend the money in the video arcade that had just opened up in the centre of town.

I could afford swapping the vouchers for money because each Saturday I did a milk round, working from about half seven in the morning through till four or five in the afternoon, sometimes even into the early evening. It all depended on the pleasantness or the viciousness of the weather; and the more vicious the climate the longer the day  – but also better the tips. So sometimes I would earn very good money for a boy of my age. My father may have always thought it was this job that gave me a sense of autonomy, but I’m not too sure it wasn’t much more the deceit that made me my own man, and that at the time what the job gave me was enough money to be readily deceitful.

I suppose like my two older brothers and my younger sister I had always been a bit awed by my father, even to the point of mild fearfulness. He was tall and broad-set, and a small town businessman of whom everybody seemed to have heard. Even sometimes amongst people my own age I would be introduced as ‘Steven MacRoberts’ son’, and there was something omnipresent about him. He may well have believed that instilling in me the work ethic at an early age would give me a sense of being my own man, but, as I’ve said, I’m not so certain if it wasn’t the act of subterfuge that made me feel independent. And was there not something especially independent about the way I went about shaping my life around my secret, and escaping what I perceived was his omniscience?

As I offered people money for their meal tickets, and gained some pleasure from knowing this was money I had earned rather than pocket money I’d received, I think I felt not just that I was betraying my father but in some ways emulating him, as if I too were a small town businessman making deals. But of course, at least at the time, I believed there was a very basic, emotional difference. My father was working without a sense of paranoia and unease; he needn’t worry that his father might see him walking home wearing a pair of ‘illegal’ cords, nor that a parental hand might arrive on his shoulder asking why he hadn’t returned home for lunch.

2

In some ways that year taught me the power of deceit, power in the mathematical sense, the degree to which we generate removes from reality once we start to deviate from the specifics of truth. Obviously truth is an amorphous, endlessly analysable concept, but sometimes it functions quite straightforwardly, and can allow others to function within the same truth value.

Perhaps I’m retrospectively and nostalgically saying that before the age of thirteen I always told the truth, and that it was only during the second year at school I started to falsify my existence. But I think I can say whatever lies I told before carried no weight – they were white lies dissolving into the past with no further impact on reality. But that year the notion of lying seemed to carry within it a heavier burden.

It was during that year I first started going out with a girl. Catherine lived a couple of streets away and we used to walk home from school together, and I would sometimes wonder whether my apparent initial indifference was what attracted her to me, and whether my equally ostensible chivalry worked no less well when we became a couple. We would be standing talking outside my house in those first few weeks, when I would usually abruptly conclude the conversation and quickly disappear through the alleyway as a sudden fear struck me that my father would arrive and I would be spotted wearing the cords. But when we started going out together I insisted I should walk her home, a romantic gesture that may not have occurred to me had I not been so keen to avoid dawdling outside my own house.

And was this romantic, chivalric persona she’d perceived not taken further when on a couple of occasions during those first months we were together, she said her parents were out and that we could have a couple of hours to ourselves, and I said we’d better not? I well knew that to arrive home around six would multiply my chances of being caught. I recall that she then looked at me with a respect that overcame any sense of disappointment, and I was then overcome by a slightly chilly feeling as I realized that as she seemed to be moving emotionally closer and closer to me, I sensed, in knowing that there was a reason within my apparent reason, I was moving further away from her. I know it’s often been said that as humans we have to rationalize our passions. We have to forgo our immediate pleasure for wider considerations – the woman may be a best friend’s lover, one might notice one’s feelings are more or less purely sexual over the more generally emotional, and retreat before hurting another. But in this instance I was rationalising at the same time both a passion and a lie. And the lie superimposed itself on the passion on my part; but on Catherine’s it must have seemed a passion had been superimposed by a wider sense of truth, of decency, of love.

Yet I suppose I would often feel during that period I was getting caught in emotional paradoxes. Internally I found myself feeling more and more powerful. I noticed the degree to which I could create a gap between what I was thinking inside and expressing on the outside. I had become impenetrable. Yet on the other hand I lived in a state of low-key external fear, of being found out by my father. When I say that this second year at school was the period of time where I found myself falsifying my existence, it was also a period of time in which I understood something about the notion of complexity, of the multiple selves potentially at work within us.

Perhaps though if I’d only understood my own ‘complexity’ I would have quickly arrived at solipsism, at a self-absorbed perspective on the world that could have left me cold to the nuances I perceived, and leaving me with little human warmth with which to interact with others as I noticed everyone at one remove. But near the end of that year something happened.

3

As I’ve said, my father was a small town businessman. He owned a taxi firm, two grocery stores, a couple of flats and a video shop. He also had four children and the memory of a late wife who seemed as readily as the four children to make him work as hard as he did: he may have worked so hard for us, but I suspect even more he worked so hard to contain his thoughts about her. But whatever his general decency, he was not above breaking the law it seemed. For it was near the end of that second year when, as I came home from school dressed in my cords, I saw my father being bundled into the back of a police car, his hands cuffed. As I started running towards the car, it pulled away. My father didn’t turn round – ironically if he had it would have been the one time he could have seen me wearing the cords.

He was jailed for six months – his offences were tax evasion and employing a couple of what would now be called ‘asylum seekers’ to work on the taxis. With no jail on the island he had to serve his time on the mainland, at Porterfield in Inverness. I visited him a couple of times, and on the first of these visits I asked him if he felt any anxiety about the evasion, about employing illegal people. At first he thought I was asking ‘morally’ – to decide how culpable he was. But then, maybe because of the nature of the questions, he seemed to realize I was interested in something else. He said he’d been putting money aside to buy the remaining part of the house, and that he thought he’d found a tax loophole that would allow him to hold onto several thousand pounds a year rather than give it to the taxman. As for the Romanians he employed, he said it was simply a case of giving a couple of blokes a helping hand. He shrugged, saying yes he knew what he was doing was wrong – or not so much wrong as creating in him anxiety that wouldn’t have been there if he had followed the rule of the law. He wondered if that was what I wanted to know.

On the second visit I mentioned to him that I’d asked about the notion of anxiety for a specific reason. I said I didn’t want to trivialise what he was going through, but maybe I understood this subterranean anxiousness better than my brothers and my sister. I explained that in my own way I’d been anxious over the last year as well. I told him about the cords, about my semi-honest relationship with Catherine, and the curious thoughts that came out of the consequent situations. He said, semi-cryptically, that perhaps I’d understood at an earlier age than most the nature of truth and lies, authority and escaping from it. He said at so early an age I might even be able to learn from this understanding.

In many ways that was the most open my father had ever been, and would ever become. He served his sentence, returned to the island, and continued much as before. He was less gregarious though, and spent very little time socialising, and winnowed his friends down to a small handful who would come round to the house for a couple of drams. He did end up buying the other part of the house, but by then all but my sister had left home. In fact the rest of us had left the island.

4

It was on one of my visits back, not so long ago, that I discovered details about my father’s life he was perhaps alluding to in these conversations at Porterfield. I was at a party with some old school friends when one of them, a very good friend of Catherine’s in fact, came over and we started talking. Isobel and I were both not quite drunk, but perhaps inebriated in a manner that lends itself well to revelation. After a while, and after various moments of openness on both her part and mine, she alluded to something that left an awkward silence. I asked what she wanted to say, and after some reluctance she asked if I knew that many years ago my mother had been having an affair with her father. I said I didn’t. She said she wondered whether it was partly the affair that had been responsible for killing him. He’d died just over a year and a half ago, she said, and, after the funeral, her mother had taken her to one side, saying he’d spent the last ten years of his life slowly drinking himself to death. Her mother also said, though, that she never knew whether he’d taken to drinking because – and this was when she had first talked to her mother about the affair – he couldn’t get over my mother, or whether he couldn’t get over the guilt of having committed adultery. I asked when the affair had ended. She said supposedly when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Did my father know of this affair, I asked? She believed he found out just before it ended – at least that was what her mother supposed. I asked Isobel when she had found out. She said she had known ever since arriving home one day from school and saw my mother zipping up her cords on the sitting room couch; her father in the kitchen making tea. Where was her mother, I wondered. She was working, she said. I asked Isobel if she had told anybody else. Only Catherine, she said, telling her shortly after she had seen her mother and my father together in the house.

5

I hadn’t talked intimately with my father since he’d been in prison all those years before, so I broached the subject with him on the basis of that previous intimacy. Did he recall, I asked him, how honest we managed to be when he was in prison? He said he could, and so I asked him if he might be that honest again. I explained I’d been talking to a girl at a party and mentioned what we had talked about. He said that what she said was of course true, that actually he’d planned to divorce my mother when she told him about the affair. But when she was diagnosed with cancer…well it put things into perspective. He insisted my mother was a good woman, but that she felt lonely being an outsider on the island (she was born and brought up in London), and that he was too busy working to attend to her understandable emotional needs. His tone indicated guilt rather than condemnation.

I guess I could now see it as ironic that I should have worried so much about a father’s observational sense concerning his son’s wearing of cords when he was a man too preoccupied even to notice his wife’s affair. But that would be facile. I think there are several things of import that come out of this entanglement. For me, one of these things has to do with the way authority so often seems an amorphous concept: for one of the ideas my father expressed, as we talked about my mother and recalled our conversations when he was in prison, was that in many ways it wasn’t going to prison that so worried him, but instead what he thought his children would think. When I first visited him in Porterfield he said he felt as nervous as if I were the father and he was the son, a comment that perhaps came to his mind, he now mused, because it was similar to a comment he said my mother had made to him when she told him about the affair: that, as she told him the truth, she felt like a daughter confessing to a father.

The second realisation may seem paradoxical. That instead of seeing my subterfuge as trivial next to the weightier matters that surrounded it, it actually served as a significant emotional rite of passage. Sometimes monumental events take place but the crystallisations are minimal: maybe because of the individual’s lack of self-consciousness, or that the event has so little residual interpretive after-effect. But if we can maximise our emotional responses to even the smallest of events, perhaps we can then comprehend something of them that ostensibly appears much more significant. That is the way I feel about my own family history. Initially I felt involved in an act of immediate secrecy. But now the story of a young boy sneaking off to school wearing a pair of cords instead of flannel trousers is contained within something wider, much more broadly significant, and that can only be called, I suppose, a confession. But finally whose confession is it? Mine, certainly, but also my father’s, my mother’s, also that of my mother’s lover. And to whom is this confession addressed? For as I reveal it I feel no sense of shame or guilt in the eyes of another, but instead a sense of well-being in the sharing of an experience and at the same time the revelation of a thought. The ancients had a wonderful term for this revelation that was not a confession, not something that demanded moral approbation or disapproval. They called it, quite simply, a soul service.

 

©Tony McKibbin