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Generosity

 

1

It was on my father’s fortieth birthday, the age I happen to be now, that I recall him saying to my paternal grandmother and to my mother, that he thought I was mean. They were sitting in the kitchen, and I had sneaked into the bathroom next to it, refusing, as always when I needed the toilet after going to bed, to switch the bathroom light on, knowing my grandmother, sleeping next to the bathroom, got annoyed by these late night trips to urinate. As I peed quietly against the bowl, I heard him add that it was because I was selfish. My grandmother immediately agreed, as she so often did when my father offered an opinion, while my mother was implicated in her own so frequent silence: as someone who often didn’t know what she thought, and was ambivalent about how she felt. I suppose she knew my father had a point, but didn’t quite share his feeling, and I’m not so sure if over the years I wouldn’t feel concerning my father’s comment exactly what my mother I assumed was feeling at the time.

Earlier that evening he had put on a party for a hundred people where we lived, in Inverness. There was a sit down meal for his family and closest friends, and then afterwards a dance in the same hotel, a hotel along the road from our house on Island Bank Road, next to the River Ness. I remember wondering whether I would have a hundred friends to invite to a gathering when I was his age, since at school I didn’t really have any. My father had asked me a couple of days before whether there was anybody I would have wanted to bring, and I didn’t need to think for very long to answer in the negative. Yet all that evening as I watched my father interacting with people, I wondered if having friends would alleviate a loneliness I couldn’t believe could be eradicated simply by the presence of communication. How else are we to eradicate loneliness you may ask, and perhaps this story is an attempt to answer that question.

I suppose my father made the comment because I gave him for his birthday a card and no present. My first cousin, Milly, who was seventeen and was treated by my father like the daughter he never had – had given him a replica model of his favourite car. It was a Rolls Royce, a car he promised he would have by the time he was forty, and that my cousin believed he should at least have  in miniature form. She also gave him a huge box of Liquorice All Sorts, his favourite sweets. In the card she had written it said: to an uncle who would have had several Rolls Royces by now if he had kept his success to himself and hadn’t shared it with other people. The grocery store and the pub he owned, the charity works he was often involved in, and his political commitments to the Labour Party, all indicated both his industriousness and largesse. My card said no more than that he should have a lovely day on his fortieth birthday. When it comes to buying gifts I have never known what to buy people, never quite thrown myself into somebody’s life with material empathy. Milly, like my father, always has, yet I nevertheless thought that the comment on my meanness still wasn’t valid.

At that time I earned my pocket money cleaning taxis, a friend of my father had a firm with a small fleet, and between the ages of twelve and fifteen I cleaned them inside and out, hoovering the inside and washing and waxing the outside, making the carpets so clean they seemed like an animal’s healthy pelt, and the body work like a clear skin. Yet whenever I felt the car was especially pristine I refused take money for cleaning it. The drivers would insist, and I would insist still more vigorously, and eventually they would accept my paradoxically perverse generosity, later buying me a gift: sweets, a small toy, a comic. Often they forgot, or didn’t bother, but I never felt aggrieved by their oversight.

It was perhaps this thought that I had in mind when my father made his comment about my meanness, and perhaps it is a thought that is still often in my mind now, as I wonder if my father falsely diagnosed a problem; that there was something in my generosity that had nothing to do with his, a largesse not so much of giving but of refusing to receive. If my refusal to take money from the taxi drivers was a generous gesture, then can I claim many of my refusals over the years have been acts of generosity also?

2

When I was sixteen I wanted to leave school, even though my father insisted I ought to stay, and that he wanted me, like Milly, to finish fifth and sixth year and go on to university. He could afford it, he said, during one particular discussion, and looked at the mantelpiece where the replica Rolls Royce sat, and believed that the real Rolls Royce could wait. It was perhaps that glance across at the miniature that confirmed to me that I should leave school, and indeed a few months later, at the end of the summer holidays, after working in a filling station, I went travelling for a month, a trip that I sometimes think was more formative than all the years at school. When I got back I managed to get a job in the filling station again, shared a flat with a couple of students who were at the local college, and at twenty one, after doing various pottery classes over the years, I rented a cheap cottage a few miles from Inverness and opened a pottery shop out of the garage.

The pottery shop never made very much money, but I managed to pay the small rent on the cottage, have enough for food and a car, and even very occasionally for travelling to some of the favourite places I had been to on that month-long trip abroad. With the Eurorail card I bought I had gone to Paris, Barcelona, Montpellier; to Berlin, Amsterdam and various places in between. In one of these places, a small village not far from Montpellier, I noticed a sign for a pottery, and followed it down a small alley and saw a compact, middle-aged man behind a pottery wheel, and hundreds of bowls, cups, saucers and plates on shelves behind him. I didn’t speak any French, and he spoke no English, yet when I chose to buy a particular piece, and went into my pocket to pay for it, he gestured that he didn’t want any money, that it was a gift. I had no idea whether he simply gave everything he made away, or whether he occasionally had moments of generosity and I was that day’s luck recipient, but I know for a long time I decided to believe that it was a bit like the car-cleaning. I reckoned that occasionally he would have been so proud of a particular piece of work that he couldn’t possibly sell it: he must give it away, as if the object would be sullied by a financial transaction.

It was perhaps the gesture more than the object that made me fascinated by pottery when I returned to Scotland, but when I started pottery classes myself a few months after getting back to Inverness, the sense of shaping an object through touch seemed the most human thing one could do with inanimate matter. At school, metalwork and carpentry were too aggressive, too much based on battering and hammering things into shape, and I sometimes think that they serve as great metaphors for a certain type of forceful existence; while pottery exemplifies gentler possibilities. I remember at school my parents saying that if I wasn’t going to use my brain then I at least ought to use my hands – but  how I would often wonder, since I had little interest in the clanging and banging of the metalwork and joinery classes, no matter my competence in doing the work.

A couple of years after starting my own business out of the cottage, I went back to the South of France, went looking for the pottery shop, but it was no longer there. I had a bit of French by then, and asked at a nearby café what had happened to the man who owned the pottery. The bar person said that Jacques’ family had put him into a home, that basically he had gone mad. I asked a few more questions in a mixture of French and English as I took a coffee at the bar, and was informed that Jacques’ wife had left him several years before, not long after the kids had gone, and that all he had to occupy him was the pottery shop. Increasingly his behaviour became erratic, and by the end, not long before his children and ex-wife insisted he needed help, he was giving away most of the items he ought to have been selling. I asked what he had been like before the wife and children had left, and he said that he was always a little strange; that he was from the village and even as a boy was seen as eccentric. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied he said that Jacques and he had been to Scotland once as teenagers, on a school trip. I talked to the person in the bar about my own pottery shop in Scotland, gave him the address over a lunch he insisted on giving me for free, and joked and said that he had better be careful – too much generosity can be dangerous for one’s mental health. He laughed and then looked sad. Jacques remained a friend, he insisted, and said that he would be visiting him the following Friday. I offered my name and asked him his: Michel, he said.

I wondered when the barman had reckoned Jacques was an eccentric whether that might have been a more appropriate word my father could have used towards me than the one he did choose. Were the choices I made eccentric – off-centred? Occasionally I too would give a piece of pottery away. If I sensed somebody had fallen in love with the piece, and didn’t simply use the term as a commonplace, I would give it to them, saying that love we shouldn’t have to pay for, as though my decision had been based on all those taxis I had cleaned for nothing, and the bowl that Jacques had given me for free.

3

My pottery shop was also in a small village, between Inverness and Nairn and famous for its castle, yet though I made most of my money during the summer months when the castle was open to the public, I cannot say my decision to base myself there was a shrewd one. The decision was personal rather than mercantile: I wanted to live away from people, and Cawdor seemed the most appropriate place I could think of, having frequently cycled out this road, out past Culloden battlefield and through Croy, and knew that I needn’t have to buy a car to live out in the country.  The shop was open between 9.30 and 5.30, and most of the time I was working on the wheel, or painting the items, while stopping of course when customers wanted to buy something, and for a couple of short breaks and lunch.

I knew I sometimes lost out on sales, that people with obviously plenty of money to spend sometimes came in and wanted immediately to be attended to, but I would sit working on the wheel until they asked a question or came to the counter with something to purchase. Obviously for people used to immediate service and hospitality my apparently indifferent approach jarred, and they left the shop, irritated, even offended. Yet I could never convince myself that selling was my job. My purpose was to make things, not to sell them. The selling was merely a by-product of the making, no matter if without those sales I could of course not have afforded the rent on the cottage.

4

Every other Sunday I would cycle into Inverness and have dinner with my parents. My father would often ask if work was going well, and my mother frequently enquired whether I had a girlfriend. My grandmother, who was still alive during those first few years of opening the shop, would nod approvingly when I said the shop was doing well, and perhaps understandably fret at the idea that she would not live long enough to have great grandchildren. I sometimes thought when she looked across at me as we ate what would be my only meat dish of the week – and usually roast pork, beef or lamb – whether she was still thinking of my father’s comment from years before: that I was so mean I wouldn’t even part with what was required for bodily reproduction.

My grandmother was a woman who had given birth to six children, two of them now living in Canada, one in Australia, two in the South of England, and my father now the only one who remained in the town in which he was born, and who took my grandmother in after his father and her husband passed away many years earlier. She often talked about her children less with the pride of someone admiring each of her children’s singularity, but more their quantity. There I happened to be, each Sunday, sitting across from her, an only child with no kids of my own. I sometimes looked at her with I suspect as disdainful a look as she I believed was offering me. I didn’t want to bring children into the world, and prove to her I was capable of it. I wanted sometimes for her to die and leave me to live how I wished. Yet her occasional comments about her fertility and the lack of my own, clearly discomforted my parents also. One child was all they had managed, and that with difficulty. Were they hoping I would have children quickly, or that conscience hovering over them, my grandmother, would pass away and with it the pressures placed upon me and by proxy themselves? I think sometimes I wished her death not especially selfishly, but for my mother – a daughter-in-law who had failed to provide my father with more children, and one child so incompetent and ungenerous, that perhaps they needn’t have made the effort. If only they had also given birth to Milly, I sometimes, thought, now with two kids and living in Salisbury.

During all these years I always tried to cycle to and from the Sunday lunches, and on the very few occasions where I could not – when the bike was being repaired, when the roads were heavy with snow – my father would pick me up and drop me off in his four-wheel drive, and on the way back ask me the sort of questions my grandmother’s looks I always reckoned indicated. Is this really how you wish to spend the rest of your life, he would say. Your mother worries about you a great deal, he would add. Don’t you think you should give your grandmother a great grand-child? It was if Milly had become the surrogate again, and would sometimes come up north not to visit her own parents (since her mum also lived now in Salisbury) but to allow my parents and grandmother to feel like they had grandchildren and great grandchildren. I never knew what to say, and jumped out of the vehicle as soon as it pulled up at the cottage.

Yet on one occasion, not so many years ago, my father asked me to wait a moment, as he let the engine idle. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, snow was falling lightly again after a major fall that morning which had left the trees frothed with snow and the ground coated white. I found newly lain snow tranquil, and perhaps that was why, when my father insisted I stay with him in the car and that we talk for a few minutes, I agreed.

This time he didn’t try to shape my life with bruising words or dictatorial demands; he instead started talking about himself. He asked me if I remembered my grandfather. There was no reason why I shouldn’t: I was eleven when he died, and I recalled him as someone who talked very little but pointed a lot. Sometimes he wouldn’t ask me to pass him something he would simply wave his hand in its direction, and I was supposed to guess what that something was. No, no, no, he would often growl when I got it wrong, and yet it was as though not only please and thank you were beyond him, but even using the language required to order someone around. I would never have thought I could have said exactly that to my father, but around twenty minutes into a conversation that went on for more than an hour, that is what I said, prompted by father’s own comments about his childhood and his father’s ways.

My father was the youngest of the six children, three girls, three boys, and only one of the others by the time he left school was still living in Scotland. (The sister who would become Milly’s mother). The rest had escaped the bullying, a couple of them had said; they wanted to make their lives on their own terms, one of his brother’s insisted. If their children never knew their grandparents it would be a gain rather than a loss, one of his sister’s had told him. The last time they had all been together was at his father’s funeral, my father said, and though nobody expressed it, he wondered whether some of them were relieved he had died. I asked him whether he was aware at the funeral that he would be the one, since he was still living in Inverness, and a lot better off than Milly’s mum (whose husband had long since left)  that would have to look after my grandmother.

He said he believed even Milly had moved down South because she didn’t really like the manner in which our grandmother talked to her kids. Sure her husband got an accountancy job in London, but he would often wonder how much of their decision to move a few years ago lay in foregoing the Sunday lunches where the children’s great-grandmother would tell her how to bring them up. It was surprising he supposed that Milly came up at all – though she had clearly always been close to my mother and father: if Milly had been the daughter my father never had; my father was, he admitted, the closest she had to a father after her own left.

My father had never expressed to me such thoughts and feelings before, even if there were plenty occasions where I felt that he was as reluctant to voice agreement with his mother as my own mother had been in expressing agreement with him that night where I overheard their conversation on my meanness. Why this day, I mused, but didn’t quite ask. We talked some more, and for the first time he asked me not how much work I had on, but what the work was like, why I had chosen it. I explained to him many of the things that have found their way into this story, told him of his comment on my meanness, told him that I didn’t feel I was mean, that I would often clean taxis for nothing. I mentioned that when I was in the South of France I tried to buy a piece of pottery and the person insisted on giving it to me for free. It was somehow the catalyst for my own interest in it.

5

After he drove off I thought a lot about why my father felt the need to talk that day, and I’ll say a bit more on that shortly. But I also thought that my interest in pottery somehow alleviated my need for the touch and warmth of a woman that I think my mother was implying I needed whenever she would ask how I could remain single. As I shaped the clay into various forms, I felt it seemed strangely much more purposeful and assuaging than my experiences with women. That evening, after the talk in the car, I went into the garage, lit the Calor gas heater in the corner, and worked on a bowl that seemed to give me the meditative space to think through why my father might have decided to talk with me that day. I came up with various scenarios, but none of them matched the reality.  A couple of weeks later he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and for a while there had been blood in his stool.

With a change of diet, with chemotherapy, with much rest, my father recovered, but he was never as active as he had been before. He didn’t sell the several small businesses he owned, but he rented everything out and lived off the income that came from them.  A couple of years after he was diagnosed, and long after he had recovered, my grandmother was told she had cancer and she didn’t fight it, but seemed almost to allow her eighty seven year old body to succumb. It was the first time since her husband’s funeral that the family were together, and I sensed a warmth between people that I couldn’t recall from my grandfather’s. One of the brothers in Australia said he was thinking of moving back to Scotland; a sister said she might return from Canada. Milly mentioned that her husband was looking for jobs again in and around Inverness; that certainly they wanted to move back up to Scotland.

6

It would have been a few months after my grandmother’s demise that I was working in the shop on a late summer afternoon, with the weather having held for a week and where I would often take a couple of hours off in the afternoon and sit and read at the table outside. It was a garden table with two benches attached, and over the years many a visitor had sat there and drank the coffee I would usually have brewing while I made them a bowl, a mug or a plate according to their specifications, and which they would then pick up a couple of days later after I had painted it. Sometimes they would wonder off and visit the castle, and when they got back they would sit with me on the bench, drink coffee and we would talk for half an hour or so. The bench was full of fond but hardly profound memories, but it was there that I was sitting, reading a book, when walking towards me were a couple of men who looked around my father’s age; and at first I thought it was indeed my father and someone else. As they approached the bench I recognized Michel, and of course Jacques. I shook their hand and while Jacques wandered off into the shop to look at the pottery, Michel told me in greatly improved English (he had taken lessons before coming) that Jacques was still locked in on himself, but that he hoped maybe a trip to Scotland would help. I asked them how long they were staying in the country for, and he said ten days. They had already been to a few of the places the pair of them had been to when they were seventeen. They had stayed in Edinburgh for a few days, which was where their host families had been, and travelled up through Glasgow and along the west coast. They were going back in three days’ time. I asked him how he managed to find me. He said that he remembered I had a pottery shop near Inverness, and so searched on line, which listed all the places mentioned in the area, and here they were.  I looked round and saw that Jacques was sitting at the pottery wheel and the pair of us went inside, and I got him some clay and Michel asked him in French if he wanted to make something. He nodded, and we left him at the wheel while I made some fresh coffee. We took it outside and watched as Jacques worked away for the first time in many years. I expressed surprise, thinking he would have had the opportunity to create pottery in the hospital. Michel said that he never wanted to; it was as though it was too public an environment: for years Jacques had worked in his own space. Maybe, Michel, proposed, my garage resembled his own workplace. They did look similar he said.

We finished our coffee, talked for a while longer, and then went to see what Jacques had made. It was a beautiful bowl not unlike the one I had chosen many years before, one that I used as my fruit bowl in the house. I asked them if they would stay for dinner, and Michel said that would be lovely. I closed up the shop, and asked them to follow me into the house. Michel was much taller than Jacques and I, and stooped slightly as he crossed the threshold, and Michel said he was surprised how much it resembled Jacques’ place. Throughout the simple meal of Pasta and salad, and some wine Michel very kindly brought over, Jacques didn’t say anything, but the barman seemed to think he looked happy. They left at about ten thirty, and the summer sky was still quite light. I went into the barn to close up, and saw the finished bowl Jacques had been working on and that I’d put in and taken out of the oven earlier. I’d forgotten to give to him. Perhaps he wanted me to have it, I surmised, and took it into the house and compared it to the one he had given to me years before. It was almost identical in shape and I thought I would paint it with the same colours.

It was a couple of months ago, not long before my own fortieth birthday, where my father was taken into hospital with what had started as a common cold and had developed into angina. In the space of a couple of weeks his health had gone from that of  taking him into hospital as a precautionary measure, to being in a critical condition. As he wheezed and coughed, speaking as though somebody had grabbed him round the throat when it was the angina that was creating the feeling of suffocation, I was reminded of the one time that we had really managed to talk, sitting in the four by four as the engine idled. Now here he was, his own body idling for the first time since his cancer, and I wondered whether he would recover. Over the weeks he did start to get better, and numerous people visited him, and after a while the doctors and nurses who were reluctant to allow him guests, thinking that they might tire him out, realised that they seemed to be re-energising him. It would have been a few weeks after that, on my own fortieth, that I visited him with a fruit selection in the bowl that Jacques had made while in my own workshop.

He thanked me for it, and said he was surprised that I had never given him, or indeed anybody in the family, a piece I had made myself as a present. It was true that I had never given anything I made to them as a gift; though often whenever my father, my mother (or Milly and the kids, when they were up) came out to visit me, I would ask them to look around the shop and take whatever they liked. I said that bowl wasn’t my own, and told him the story not only of the recent visit by Jacques and Michel, but also told him in more detail than before the one I had made to France many years ago and that instigated my own love of pottery. As I told the story my father’s eyes were sentimental with tears, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he’d never understood what had motivated his son to devote more than fifteen years shaping little objects into being. Perhaps I was equally filled with a certain type of remorse, aware as I put the bowl on the bedside table that it was the first time that I had managed to give anyone a gift with a moment of true feeling. As I left the hospital I saw Milly arriving in a taxi with her kids, all of them carrying gifts. I couldn’t but admire Milly’s generosity, of feeling, of consideration, of gift-giving, but I knew I would never share it, and for some reason I didn’t go over and say hello, but instead turned towards my bike, put on my helmet and cycled back to Cawdor.

 

©Tony McKibbin