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House

 ‘House’, I remember my younger brother shouting, a look of surprise on his pristinely innocent face. We were playing bingo in the house in Tong, a village several miles from Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, a house our parents owned, and where the extended family would traipse to from London each summer, including my brother, my sister, our parents, our grandparents, sometimes cousins, aunts and uncles. Maybe the house, which was sold long ago, comes to mind so vividly now because the village was recently visited by one of its wealthiest sons. Donald Trump’s mother was from this hamlet, and supposedly a not very distant relative, and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of someone going through life accumulating far more geographical space than the entire village he was born into. I wondered why, despite as a boy being as excited as my brother at winning the game of bingo we would play with the rest of the family, I never seemed interested as an adult in accumulating even the square metres required for owning a flat or a house. Yet it also comes to mind as I think of my brother and the island for other reasons, as I try to make sense of events in recent years, and my own feelings in relation to them.

As I think of my brother’s flushed face I recall also that he was paler than my sister and I, as though less of our partial Jewish blood had affected his pigmentation, and I remember that as he shouted house that day, sitting near the open fire on a windy and cold summer’s afternoon, his face was ruddy with a mixture of warmth from the fire and excitement that he had won a pound.

It was the first of many pounds he would accumulate in his life, no matter if he was unlikely to match the fortunes of Tong’s best known ancestor. At the age of eighteen my brother left school and moved up to the Highlands. He had met a girl the previous summer on the island, and she was going to college in Inverness. He got a job working in a textile store, making manager by the age of twenty one, and area manager by twenty five. At twenty seven he sold the house that he’d bought when he became manager, and invested the money he made on it in a pub in Uig on the Isle of Skye, on the Atlantic side of the island, and where a ferry would leave each day for the very island where we had spent our summer holidays. While working in the pub during the first two years he slept mainly in a caravan nearby. He had long since left the girl he’d met on Lewis, and though they were together for three years, she now exists in my memory as little more than a pretext for my brother’s life up north. When our parents died within a year of each other, when he was in his late twenties, and I was in my early thirties, we sold their house in London, and also the cottage in Tong. He invested his share in paying off the mortgage on the pub, buying the adjoining building, turning it into accommodation, and also, with the collateral, getting a mortgage on another pub in the more picturesque town of Portree. While Uig and the make-shift almost Portakabin pub gave off a feeling of desolation, the much more sheltered, aesthetically pleasing Portree – with its fishermen’s houses, now usually B&Bs and restaurants, all painted different colours; and its snug position facing not out onto the Atlantic but towards the mainland – seemed to suggest, to me, that he was settling into his life, no matter if the pub he usually worked in was the one in Uig. Indeed it was also in Uig where he usually stayed.

But then I may have thought his life was becoming settled because while he was investing his money into two pubs, my money sat in the bank, utilized for trips to various parts of the world but for not much else. I earned a reasonable income working part-time at a university in London, and I’d been living in a rent-controlled flat for years. When our parents died and left the three of us with the windfall, my sister bought a bigger house in Sherborne in Dorset, where she and her husband were working, and where she had two kids. But I could never quite adjust to the money, and, ten years after receiving it, I still have it sitting in a high interest account.

Yet I’m not so sure if recent events have suggested to me that in some way it isn’t only money that I have left sitting there and accumulating, but also what I can only call inner assertiveness – which seems to be paradoxical since it has stemmed from many years of doubt. As I have remained single, as I have had no long term attachments, as I’ve worked in my part-time academic post in London with diligence but published only the occasional article when I’ve been professionally obliged, so I have wondered on many occasions what I have been living for. Yet on these occasions I have not been filled with deep anguish over this apparent emptiness in my life; for I have been contended. I have always slept well, no matter my doubts, always drank little, had no interest in drugs and have never smoked. I cycle most places, and occasionally go for a run, as well as regularly doing light yoga. My body, for a forty two year old man is, I suppose, in very good shape – maybe in solid condition for a man some years younger. I think I still weigh the same as when in my mid-twenties. I still have my hair, though I am fairly grey, but my skin, with its olive complexion, and the trips I take abroad, means that any greyness is offset by the skin tone. I would still occasionally meet women, and sometimes we would sleep with each other for a few weeks, even a couple of months. But then they always slipped away from me, and I never managed, until very recently, to find the inclination to keep anyone in my life.

As I offer all this perhaps it seems like I am preparing the reader for the shattering of this complacent existence, but that is not the case: there is no shattering for me, nor even that much complacency in the life that might the fictional demands of its shattering. As I have said, I have spent many years fretting over my contentment, worrying, if in a very low-key, un-stressful way, whether I shouldn’t have been more ambitious in my career, more insistently trying to be with women whose company I have enjoyed, and even whether I should have invested my money wisely in a property as so many other people do: including of course my brother and my sister.

No, if this story is about anything, it is about the shattering of other lives, and how that impacts on my own existence, perhaps rather like a glass on a coffee table no more than registering the effect of an earthquake that collapses buildings some distance away. For over the last three years both my brother and my sister’s lives have come close to being ruined.

My brother, as I’ve suggested, moved towards material success; but our older sister inched more towards familial well-being. She married young after leaving teacher training college in London, and then when her teacher husband got a job in Salisbury they both moved there, and she managed to get a teaching post the following year. A few years after that, she had the first of her two children, and when she was left with the inheritance, not long before the birth of her second child, she and Roger bought a house. I would visit them a couple of times a year; and I would look at their compact, efficient and emotionally full life and wonder whether I might be missing out. Yet after around three or four days I would want to leave. Certainly their house in Sherborne, about twenty to twenty five miles from Salisbury, was roomy, and had a big enough garden that I could disappear into, where I would sit on a bench and read under a tree without being disturbed. But the tick-tock domesticity disturbed me more fundamentally.

So I offer up our three lives several years ago. My brother hadn’t a serious girlfriend since the one he had when he moved up to the Highlands, as he instead busily accumulated money. My sister moved towards having a secure family, and was financially comfortably off within that life: she wasn’t making money, especially, but she was spending it wisely as she determined to create for her kids what would make them happy in the present and resilient in the future. Before my parents died I had enough money to buy a few second-hand books, travel moderately, money to go out with friends. After the windfall, I bought more books, and sometimes new ones, travelled for the first time outside Europe to Mexico, Morocco, India and the States, and would go more often to restaurants rather than simply meeting friends for drinks. However I always saw the inheritance as somehow not quite my own: that my parents were treating me to a travel trip, buying me new books, inviting me out to a restaurant, or at least giving me money so that I could go to one.

As I lived a reasonably contented existence I did feel as though I lacked a sense of commitment. Where my brother had his businesses and my sister her family, what did I have? I wasn’t even very political, and though I would always buy the Big Issue, give money to homeless people and tried to shop as ethically as possible, any bigger political gesture was beyond me. As with other areas of my life I felt a vague sense of unease, a feeling that I was incapable of committing to anything. Yet was I at the same time, I would sometimes wonder, insulating myself from collapse? That, for all my brother’s ambitions, and my sister’s determination to make life safe, was I coping better by never really trying to cope at all? And is this story about maybe finding a hint of commitment out of this resilient refusal?

Over three years ago my brother, in his mid-thirties, started seeing a young woman twelve years his junior. I met her once when I visited while she was working in the Uig pub. She was the local beauty: raven-haired, pale skinned, willowy without quite being skinny, and had large eyes spread wide apart in her broad but not at all full face. My brother knew as soon as he employed her she was an asset – she gave the pub a freshness and at the same time drew in many a punter who could sit at the bar and look longingly at Helen’s wonderful face, at her slim-waisted body and observe her delicate gestures, expecting nothing more from her than the capacity to daydream. At the time of my visit my brother had only recently employed her, and no relationship had started, but as I watched him fuss around her, watched how the pub seemed less important than the bar-maid occupying it, I knew that he would at the very least be one of those daydreamers.

About four months later I got the first of many phone-calls that I would receive over the following two years. Generally we would be in touch rarely: every three months or so. But as he phoned me one evening and said that he had a problem, that he’d fallen in love with a woman he knew wasn’t good for him, I had a feeling I would be getting called on a more regular basis. He was close to tears as he explained to me first of all that he had started seeing Helen a couple of months before, and secondly that he believed she had already started to cheat on him. I asked if he had any evidence, and he said not really: it was more of a feeling. I asked as politely as I could whether it was simply that he was insecure with a much younger and very beautiful woman. He thought it was possible; but the sense of suspicion was very strong. I asked him if he had anybody in mind that she was being unfaithful with, and he said there was somebody in the town, a young artist whom she had known before she met him. She would sometimes meet up with this person, and once, passing a café next to the Portree town square, he saw them laughing across a table from each other in a way that suggested to him intimacy. I asked if he went in, or said anything to her later. He said he hadn’t gone in; he hadn’t confronted her.

I reassured him and said there seemed to be nothing to worry about, and yet as I got off the phone I thought even if there was nothing to worry about concerning whether she was having an affair, I nevertheless began to worry about him. It wasn’t only that this was one of the first telephone calls in years where he hadn’t talked at all about business, it wasn’t even that he was showing signs of jealousy, and it wasn’t even that the jealous signs he showed were extreme and yet the justification for them apparently almost non-existent. No, it was not least that he was phoning me to talk through these concerns. Wasn’t he usually someone who kept his feelings to himself, and even if he did choose to express them, didn’t he have friends with whom he could talk? There were several reasons then why this phone call worried me – and the least of the problems was the one that he phoned me over.

It was a couple of months after he first phoned me over Helen that I got a call from my sister: her husband had been diagnosed with cancer; it was terminal and he didn’t have long to live. That was the core of a twenty minute phone call that consisted mainly of my sister crying, and of my inadequate response. She said she had spoken to our brother but he seemed to be in a bad way himself, and though of course he understood the magnitude of her impending loss, he couldn’t, she thought, quite extricate himself from his own problems. Nevertheless he was obviously going to be around to help look after the kids, to make sure their life seemed as normal as possible. But she told him it was impractical, he was a thousand miles away, and he was entering the busy season. I said I would pop down at the weekends and help to look after the boys.

I phoned my brother, whom I hadn’t spoken to for a number of weeks, and once again the symptomatic seemed more worrying than the justification. My brother said that it was over between him and the local beauty, and that he was ready to help our sister cope. But I felt this may have been what he was saying, but wasn’t quite how my sister believed he had responded on the phone. As she had told him of her husband’s illness, she said he replied with concern and yet at the same time she thought the emotion in his voice had more to do with his own life than with hers. When she asked how things were with his girlfriend, his voice broke a little and he said he didn’t want to talk about it: it wasn’t important next to her problems. Obviously though, my sister said, that his voice was straining with emotion made it clear that it was. That strain was still there when I talked to him, and I couldn’t believe it was simply due to Roger’s illness.

Three months later Roger died, and within two years after, and quite recently, my sister remarried. As she was recovering from the loss of her husband she was often subdued, would frequently cry, and vacillated between loving her children so intensely that they must have felt suffocated, and occasional moments where she wondered if it would have been better not to have children that so obviously reminded her of Roger’s absence. The children seemed to accept the death of their father, and accepted also the presence of a new man in their mother’s life. Indeed, I am not so sure if my sister married the new man for his resemblance to her late husband. Dependable, caring, good around the house, and diffident without being overly shy, he seemed to slot into place and within a year of his moving in I suspect a stranger would have thought he was the father the boys had always had, and the person my sister had married more than a dozen years before.

I offer so brief a summary of my sister’s life in relation to her husband’s illness and death perhaps to register her capacity for functioning healthily yet not at all disrespectfully after Roger’s demise: she still talks about him and remembers him so vividly whilst also loving the new man. If I more slowly unravel my brother’s existence over the same period it is clearly because it suggests the opposite.

During those months when my sister’s husband was dying, my brother visited two or three times, but I sensed he would give the impression the pub was busier than it was so that he could go back to it as soon as possible. Helen was still working there, and though both my sister and I said that he should probably find a way of laying her off, he said that he wanted her around. Even if she wanted nothing emotionally to do with him, he needed at the very least to see her on a daily basis.

Over the next couple of years, as my sister got on with her life, my brother seemed singularly to be failing to get on with his. My brother never did lay Helen off; though she went away to study at Inverness college, she would sometimes be home at the weekends and during the holidays, and whenever she wanted a shift my brother would provide it.

So around the same time that my sister had remarried, my brother was still besotted by a woman with whom he hadn’t slept for over two years. She now supposedly had a boyfriend from college in Inverness, and one evening I received a phone call from my brother saying that he had got into an altercation with him one night when the boyfriend came into the pub during Helen’s shift. At one moment while my brother was picking up glasses off the table he looked across and noticed the boyfriend giving her a quick peck on the cheek just as he was leaving, and my brother said he rushed across the bar and grabbed the boyfriend off the bar stool and threw him out of the nearby side door. The boyfriend landed on the gravel face down, and my brother told him he shouldn’t come back. Helen looked aghast, and walked out after him, leaving my brother and one other bar member on duty. She hadn’t returned.

My brother told me the story not as someone who had lost his head, but with the righteousness of one who believed he had acted appropriately. Once again I felt it wasn’t only in what he did that suggested the problem, but also in the way he explained it to me. Was he not going a little crazy?

It was the following weekend, indeed only a few weeks ago, when I decided I would go up and visit him; the first visit I had made, I admit, since that time when I saw Helen working in the bar shortly after he had first employed her. I could justify this absence by saying I decided to be much more there for my grieving sister, but that sounds like an excuse rather than a reason. I flew up to Inverness with the person I had recently started seeing, who had taken a week off work so that we could visit a bit of the Highlands, and I asked if it would be all right to get the difficult task out of the way first. I had told Anna about my brother and his problems, and she wondered if it might be best if she stayed in Inverness while I went to Skye on my own. I said that she had to see Skye – was it not the very quintessence of Scotland, an isolated place in a generally isolating country? – but that maybe we could book into a B&B in Portree; and I could drive on to Uig and spend the afternoon with him.

As I curved down the hill and looked at the sweep of the bay below me, I wondered how much of my brother’s mindset owed itself to the isolation of the place.

I arrived in the early afternoon and asked the barman where my brother happened to be, and he pointed out that I would find him not far from the pub, in a caravan. My sister had mentioned that he moved out of the studio flat he’d had within the accommodation adjoining the pub, since he wanted to rent it out, and that he was staying in a room at a friend’s house in the village. But the acquaintance had found his behaviour erratic and his music-playing too loud and asked him to leave.. This was what my brother had told my sister, and that he seemed to have no qualms about being thrown out, again alarmed me. Shouldn’t he at least have tried to make an excuse that would make him look the wronged party? Or did he actually think within the story that he told he was wronged; just as he seemed to feel he was in the right over hitting Helen’s boyfriend?

I found him lying asleep in a caravan that looked over the bay, after being given directions by the barman in the pub. I knocked on the door and entered, finding bottles of beer littering the floor – a late night binge with friends or an accumulation of a drink habit? As I sat down on the end of the bed that he was still in, I said I thought we needed to talk. I started by asking him some practical questions. When did he last shower? He smelt of stale sweat and his usually clean shaven face was sporting an uneven beard. When did he last have a day without drinking I enquired as sensitively as I could. I asked him with whether he had been in any more trouble, and what his regulars thought of the incident not so long ago in the bar.

He sat up and listened to my questions, and I was surprised that he didn’t respond. I expected each question to be met with an insistence that it was not my business, but instead he absorbed them with a series of shrugs. I then looked at him directly and said that I was there because I cared; that maybe I hadn’t cared enough and left him too alone, too isolated. But I was here now.

As I said this, the shoulders no longer shrugged; instead the body heaved, and my brother started sobbing. All he could say was that he was so alone, so very alone. For the first time in my life I gave him a hug and said he needed to look after himself a little better. That afternoon we talked about many of the things that I’ve already mentioned in this story.

As I drove back to Portree several hours later, I looked around me at the desolate landscape and believed that this was an island that seemed almost designed to make or break the spirit, and there was something curious about my brother trying to make his fortune on so small a piece of land, and at the same time, and perhaps as a consequence, to isolate himself from other people. Though for many years our family would take summer holidays on the still more northern island of Lewis, none of us ever lived there, and the family all resided in the south of England. What my brother hoped to achieve living so far away from the rest of us I couldn’t quite work out, since he had little interest in the spiritual side of rural life and the friends he had on the island were fishermen and crofters who barely made enough to sustain themselves, or their families. Even the pub regulars would spend their last pennies on a pint and a whisky chaser, and I would wonder if part of my brother’s feelings of loneliness was seeing so many wile away their days sitting by the bar, looking through the window at the ferry coming in and going out.

Anna and I had agreed to meet at the pub in Portree’s town square that my brother owned but much more rarely worked in, and as I went in and saw her sitting there reading a book, with a half pint of Guinness in front of her, I found tears welling up in my own eyes. I didn’t quite know whether these were feelings of love for someone to whom I was getting increasingly close, maybe closer than to anybody for years, perhaps even in my whole life, or pity for my brother who had nobody waiting for him in that other pub at the pier on the edge of this island. As I hugged her I couldn’t help but think at the same time of my brother. There he would be, if had pulled himself together, pulling his first pint of the evening, looking out of the window and seeing the ferry that would soon be leaving for the island on which we would, as an extended family, spend our holidays, and where his flushed young face would shout house. I even hoped that when he looked out of the window he would once again be seeing the ferry and that his daydreams would be taking him back to the island home, and thinking neither of the fortune that Donald Trump made on the other side of the Atlantic, nor of the young woman to whom he had too strongly projected his accumulated loneliness. But was that not what I was doing, projecting perhaps my own loneliness, perhaps my brother’s, perhaps loneliness more generally, as I held Anna for longer than an afternoon’s absence could justify?

©Tony McKibbin