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Lost

 

 

1

Between the age of twelve and fifteen, each Saturday I would work all day on a milk round, and while I can’t forget the coldness of the winters, on that outer Hebridean island, nor the cruel comments of the boss for whom I worked, I cannot help but recall now, more than fifteen years later, an elderly man who lived alone in an isolated cottage in an already isolated part of this west coast Scottish island. The boss once said to me when I was delivering milk to the house that I should watch myself, that the man had lost it years ago. Lost what I thought, knowing well enough the idiom but constantly wondering to what it pertained? I had an especial fondness for the man, knowing not what misdemeanours he had committed in the past. He always tipped me twenty pence out of the change, and it was one of the last houses of the day. My body tired with honest work felt its reward lay especially in the two ten pences he would put in my hand. The boss may have paid me four pounds for a day’s labour, but the twenty pence seemed much more an acknowledgment of me more than my work.

While I never crossed the threshold of his house, the doorway was inviting enough, the inside of the house was warm and cosily lit in the winter, and in the summer sunlight would often light up the bookshelves I could see covering a wall in the sitting room. With his twenty pence my tips would usually make about two pounds, and I liked feeling that half my wage again was earned not from the frequently cold sweat off my own back, but the warmth of other people’s generosity. I have forgotten completely numerous other tippers, some of whom were occasionally even more generous, as though all of them have been obliterated by the convenience of memory, and all that is left is one man: an archetype of generosity. Is this how myths are made I would sometimes wonder?

2

During these years I was never very good at school; except for English, the subjects always interested me less than the behaviour of those around me. I could have easily passed an exam about two girls who would always sit in front of me in the English class, and could even have done well if I had to write an essay on the teacher’s accent, his dress sense and his walk, which I sometimes observed from along the street, where he lived not far from my parents. He was another that had supposedly lost it, according to my father, and I wondered once again what it happened to be that he had lost. He had no family that I could discern: had his wife and children left him, as I would later discover? Is that what losing it meant? The isolated man seemed to have no wife or kids either, though in every other way appeared to have nothing in common with the teacher that I could see.

Though what I also noticed about the teacher was that he never lost it in terms of his temper, whereas there were other teachers at the school often would, and both my father and the milkman could also get irate without much provocation. There was even one teacher whose afternoon activity people would take for the opportunity to get belted, or watch others receiving a belting. This was on a Friday, where teachers offered the kids activities, usually in relation to their own areas of interest. A biology teacher would take the class on nature walks, a geography teacher who also played for a local team arranged football games, an art teacher would take people into the town or out into nature to sketch, an English teacher put on a play. Our history teacher, though, would simply sit in a classroom all afternoon and let people play board games: Monopoly, Cluedo, draughts, chess, and other ones whose names I no longer remember. He would never play the games himself, but would hover over us sometimes and point out when we had made a silly move in chess, or a stupid purchase in Monopoly. Often he just sat on his chair with his feet up on the teacher’s desk and read a book. When doing so he would insist that we play the games quietly, and that he wouldn’t countenance any disturbances. Occasionally someone would get excited when they landed on Mayfair, or exclamatory when they found out the killer in Cluedo, and the teacher would say the next person to speak would get a belting. The place would go silent for ten minutes, but then someone else would let out a yelp of excitement and receive the strap. It was perhaps perversely part of the pleasure of the subject: who would be caught out and get belted – it even gave a frisson to the very game we were playing.

One day, however, one of the kids, who was fifteen and one of the strongest yet not the most troublesome in the school, refused to accept his punishment, grabbed the belt off the teacher and simply walked out of the classroom. The boy, whose name was Jamie, hadn’t lost his temper, but was simply standing his ground. The teacher told us to stay in our seats and followed him out; there was a tussle in the playground that we could see from the window. The boy threw the teacher to the ground. The teacher returned a few minutes later, his trousers scuffed and torn at the knee, with a small stain of blood. He said he had seen us all at the window and that we had been told to remain seated. He gave everyone in the class two of the belt.

3

I would have been fourteen that term, and generally assumed authority was manifested in the ability to lose one’s temper without reaction from the person without any authority. When Jamie reacted I suppose many people would feel he had lost it, that as he took the belt off the teacher and left the building, even as he floored the teacher not even with a punch but with a firm push, he was no longer in control. After the incident, Jamie was expelled from the school, yet it was the only secondary school on the island. He wasn’t a bad pupil I had heard others say; and maybe he could have gone on to university, though his parents, brothers and sisters were far from the university type I overheard my father mention when he had been told several days later of what had happened. After that Jamie would usually go to the arcade or to the Coffee Pot café next door to it. He would while away his days, people said, and where before the incident there were no fewer rumours of Jamie, they were always of his potential prowess, the strength that other kids would see in the gym or on the football field. Now he had asserted himself the authority had gone, it seemed, and so with it my own ideas of what authority happened to be. It was as if authority was about power that never manifested itself in an incident. I am not sure if the teacher lost his power also that day.

Had I lost a role model, I mused, when I heard of the rumours about Jamie, and it may have been around this time that I became increasingly interested in the man living on his own in that house out of town furnished with books, an open fire and where I would often hear a record playing; either classical, jazz or occasionally sixties songs by people like Dylan, Cohen or Cat Stevens. Perhaps today I would find his life a cliché, yet at the time, and the feeling is always of its time, I looked forward to going to the house and for no more than a minute standing by the door, trying to gather warmth from the house as much as from the man who would offer me the tip. I was always disappointed if he came to the door with the right money; I hoped that he would have to go off and look for his wallet, and let me stand there as I waited, trying to memorize enough of the space so that when I went back to the van I wouldn’t be thinking of the diesel engine and the smell of stale milk on our clothes, of the Condor tobacco that the boss smoked out of his pipe, nor of the talk of getting drunk that evening as one of the others, who was seventeen, and worked full time, opened a quarter bottle of whisky and started drinking from it.

4

I left the milk round about a year later, taking a job in the sweet shop round the corner. My father knew the owner, and he said it would be a better job to be doing after I left school. There was of course no talk of university, though I started to do well at a few other subjects, and no reason why there should have been. No member of my family had ever gone, and there was no university on the island, nor even in the Highlands: the nearest being in Aberdeen. Occasionally, though, the English teacher would say to me I could write, and that if I got the grades I could go to university and end up as a journalist in Glasgow or Edinburgh, maybe even London. He said it with a sense of yearning, as though this was the career that he had longed to pursue, but maybe the wife, and the two kids, all of whom had moved back to the mainland, were what made him originally take a teaching job rather than a more potentially creative vocation.

By the time I had taken the job in the sweet shop I had another English teacher, but I would see Mr Rogers most days as he came into the shop and bought himself a packet of pan drops, and a Kit-Kat. The Kit-Kat was for his tea-break, he said, and the sweets for watching a film after dinner. I wondered whether this was how he lost power, in little exchanges where he gave more information than necessary. My father said that people only talk to get what they want, and I wondered when the teacher made a comment like the one about the sweets, or when he said his favourite food was Lorne sausage, that he was trying to gain my confidence. That was what my father believed; whenever someone told you things you didn’t need to know he was suspicious – they wanted to know you in ways that were none of their business; and gave you information about themselves that was none of yours.

But what might Rogers have wanted, I wondered, and over the next few months I believed it was to alleviate his loneliness and help me overcome mine.

5

Sometime Rogers would come into the shop shortly before closing time, and dawdle until I closed up. He proposed on a few occasions that we go for a walk, and three times I did so. Maybe he had homosexual inclinations; I never found out, and as we walked he seemed happy telling me about his university days, how he met his wife, and where she and the kids were now living. I told him about the milk round I used to do, and also of the man who lived in the house we delivered milk to at the end of the day. He said he knew who I was talking of, that the man had been his teacher many years before, that his name was Mr Gray, and that he left the school quite suddenly, at around thirty five, a couple of years after his mother died. She lived in the house he must be living in now, he said, and the very house years before Gray’s father had bought with his mother, at the time she was pregnant with their first child, namely Gray.

I asked how he knew all this and he said that this was a small island, and, smiling, said everybody knew nobody, but everyone knew nobody’s business. He was obviously right, because a week or so later, after another walk through the park that lay on the other side of the town, across the bay, my mother asked who it was that I was seen walking the streets with. Had it been many years later I would have replied that I was a flâneur: that I walked the streets not as though a delinquent, or to walk them like a prostitute, but to make them one’s own through an aimlessness of perambulatory purpose allied with keen discussion. That is exactly what those walks were, but when my mother hectored me to stop talking to strangers, and that she didn’t care if he had been one of my teachers, I mumbled out a reply that indicated I wouldn’t be seen wandering around the town with an older man again. So at that time I didn’t find out from Rogers what happened to Gray, though occasionally when he was in the shop I would ask him questions that illuminated me slightly. Though maybe my reluctance to ask him questions about Gray came from his comment on everybody knowing nobody, and I believe now, and would have half-thought then, that to ask questions too directly, too curiously may have been violating: that he might have taken it as a question on Gray, but intrusive to  himself.

I wouldn’t want to credit my youthful mind with too much acuity, but we can often sense things we don’t understand, and act accordingly. I wanted to know more about Gray, but didn’t want to show signs of nosiness that could have indicated no less intrusive an interest in Rogers. He asked me only once more if I wanted to go for a walk after work, and my reply was such that he didn’t ask again, saying only that if I ever wanted to go for a wander I only had to say.

Yet as I’ve said, I went for a walk three times with Rogers, and the third was the summer just after I left school. I was working in the shop full time, and there was talk that when the old man who ran it died, then I might be able to take it over. I had said this casually to Rogers when he came into the shop and he thought it was a loss that I had left school. I was the one who was asked most often to read out in class, and though my critical interpretation marks were never great, I always did well in freer, creative work. When Rogers heard the most I could look forward to was running a sweet shop he looked at me with dismay, and I almost asked what had his life become. I told him English was the only subject I passed easily; all the others were b and c grades. He said we should go for a walk and he would advise me on my future by telling me about his past.

6

It was eight o’clock when I closed the shop, but there would still be light for at least another two hours, and I had said we should walk round the park grounds across the bay, as far as the little island by a river where you could see salmon jumping. Once, a couple of years before, I had slipped out of the house of a summer’s evening, with the flask that I used on Saturdays for the tomato soup I had for lunch during the milk round, and filled it with  tea. I took a blanket from my bed, a torch, and some biscuits, and sneaked out the back door at around nine and reached the island before it was dark. I stupidly forgot though that the tide would come in much earlier, and that you could only reach the island during the day, so I instead slept across from it, on the mainland, and woke up noticing the tide was out again. I told Rogers the story that evening as we walked, and said I hadn’t told anybody else, and he replied that he supposed what he had been telling me he hadn’t shared with anyone either, or not really.

He had told me that when he was at school his favourite teacher was Mr Gray, and indeed he was probably everybody’s favourite. He supposedly decided to become a teacher so that he could come and live on the island permanently: his parent were of course from the island, but it was assumed that Gray would do great things on the mainland. Gray studied at Glasgow and edited the university paper. He was also good at sport and won various athletic trophies, including cross country races, an activity he had still been involved in while he was teaching at the school. At university people thought he would become a newspaper editor, or a major figure in Academia. His dissertation was on Beckett, and he was also involved in radical theatre productions in the city, even occasionally, Rogers had heard, appearing in a couple of plays. Certainly he directed some, Rogers insisted.

It was at university that he met Meg, and not long after that they had the first of two children, and a couple of years after that, after teacher training college and teaching in a school in Glasgow, that he moved back up to the island. I asked him how he knew all this, and he said much of it he didn’t know until he became a teacher at the school himself, and it was told to him in not quite the way he was telling it to me. Various teachers around Gray’s own age had told him, but often as if to say don’t think you are special here: look what happened to Gray.

What happened to Gray though was that his mother died, which was inevitable, but also that his wife died not long afterwards, which was not. This was when Rogers was in his fifth year at school, Rogers said, and it was at the end of that term when Gray stopped teaching, and also sent his children back to the mainland, where they supposedly lived with their maternal grandparents: Meg’s family was from Edinburgh. The children were twins, and still infants, and Rogers supposed Gray wanted to protect them from his grief, though no doubt Meg’s parents were also immensely shocked by their daughter’s death. Perhaps the children sometimes came back, but nobody at school knew whether they did, and it was increasingly assumed that Gray had gone mad. He occasionally came into the town centre, and while he was always well enough attired, he would walk straight past people that years before he would have stopped and talked to at length. Rogers said he remembered coming back during a university break, and waved at Gray as he was crossing the street, but the former teacher seemed to be looking at the wall and not at Rogers. He didn’t seem to be ignoring me, Rogers insisted, he was oblivious to my presence.

As Rogers talked, I tried to match his perception of Gray with the man who would always give me a twenty pence tip, and who I felt recognized me as I’ve proposed in fundamental ways: in a manner that made the work I did seem more than labour. I wondered whether the passage of time had made him more amenable to others’ company, and Rogers said he couldn’t say, but that around four years ago he saw Gray in town and Gray hadn’t acknowledged him at all, even when, as they passed in the street, Rogers asked how he was. Gray said he was fine as he kept walking, as though a thought process had been interrupted.

7

At that moment I said he had told me much about Gray but nothing of himself. Why was he teaching on the island; no matter if he was from the place? By then we had reached the small island where I had intended to sleep years before, and it was then I told him the story, as if it might allow him to talk about his own. Afterwards as we walked back the two or three miles to the town centre, he started telling me his. He married young, he said, while still at university, and his wife, who was from Edinburgh, where he had studied, gave birth shortly before he graduated. He went to teacher training at Moray House the following year, and the year after that he managed to get work on the island. His wife wanted to stay in Edinburgh. She had only visited the island once, the summer before she became pregnant and had put her degree aside. They would often go on walks round the grounds just as we were now doing, he said, and he even recalled then a melancholic sense of loss: that she would eventually leave him. She said on these summer walks, even when the weather was as clear as it happened to be that night we were walking, that she couldn’t live on the island. It somehow scared her, the sparseness of everything: the houses scattered, the papers arriving a day late, the language spoken that no one else seemed to speak anywhere else.

Yet when he applied for a job and got it she came with him, and shortly after arriving on the island she became pregnant again. He bought the house he was still living in, the one along the road from my parents’, on the other side, and yet he knew she wasn’t happy, and would often wonder how or when she would leave him. She rarely said anything, and didn’t even show resentment. But he remembered what she had said that summer, and recalled especially one moment when they had walked back from the island and were approaching the town centre on the other side of the bay. She hugged him and said the place frightened her, and here she was in love with the man who was from this place. He had hugged her back and said that they would find a home in Edinburgh. But the only place that offered him a job after he had graduated was on the island, and they agreed they would live there for a while. Maybe buying the house on the island was economically sensible – they didn’t want to keep paying rent – but it also made their lives more permanent. Did they really want to move to the mainland with two kids, and buy another house? He applied occasionally for jobs, but wasn’t surprised when he didn’t get them, and he hoped that the security of the house and his job, was countering any fear she still had concerning the island itself.

But after five years another teacher came to the school on a short-term contract, and within six months Rogers knew he and his wife were having an affair, and within three months after that she left with the new man and the kids. Rogers had nobody else to whom he could turn for affection. His father had passed away when he was ten; his mother during his first year at university. He had no brothers and sisters, and he knew he might slowly, or quickly, go mad. He saw a solicitor about access to the children, but didn’t pursue it, and hadn’t seen his kids since the day they left, which was, he said, four years ago. He told me his story didn’t make much sense, even to him, but what had stopped him going mad, he hoped, was trying to do what Gray couldn’t. He tried to teach out of loss, not escape from teaching because of it.

8

Over the next couple of years Rogers would still come into the shop, but we never talked for long and he never proposed we again go for a walk. By then I was going out with someone who was still at school, in her sixth year, and waiting to find out where she would go to university. We would often take walks around the park grounds, and she would often say the opposite of what Rogers’ wife had said. She didn’t want to leave this place, she liked that the papers arrived a day late, that the houses were scattered around the island with no sense of social coherence, that the thought of going to Glasgow, or even Edinburgh, scared her. She nevertheless went when Glasgow offered her a place, but after one year she returned and said she wouldn’t be going away again. We were both nineteen and decided to get married, and it was also the moment when the owner said he wanted to retire. He wouldn’t sell me the shop – he knew I couldn’t have afforded it – and he knew his own children who lived and worked on the mainland wouldn’t want to take it over, but he said he wanted no more active involvement in it, and in time it would be mine. All he asked was ten per cent of the profits in lieu of rent. So the shop was basically mine before I turned twenty, and Meg and I rented a flat along the road, about halfway between my parents’ house and the shop.

The two of us worked alongside an assistant and the shop was open from eight in the morning through till eight at night, and it was during the quiet periods that I would read many of the books I may have read had I gone to university. Rogers almost never came in now, and when he did he simply said hello and left. He was never rude but always preoccupied, and I occasionally heard rumours that he was becoming increasingly strange at school. I had no idea whether he was back in touch with his ex and his children, but I assumed it was not so. While I would sometimes think of those walks we did, and the consolation I perhaps provided, I was so contented in my own life it was as though I didn’t have the very faculties to observe the misery in others.

The shop was doing better than it had ever done before, my father who believed I would turn into nothing very much was constantly telling everyone how much of a business head I possessed, and even the milkman would sometimes come into the shop and ask for some Condor for his pipe. He did so with a look of admiration and even a tone indicative of humility, as if he regretted all those remarks he had made when I would deliver his milk: I remember him calling me a little pansy, a hopeless deliverer and a person not worth peeling off the bottom of his shoe. Everybody of course got the end of his tongue, and yet here he was in the shop no doubt as frustrated now with his life as he was then, but clearly unwilling any longer to take those frustrations out on me. I often wondered if the two pounds of tips strangers had given me had been for recognizing something human in me then the four pounds from the boss wasn’t only for labour: it was also for receiving abuse, like a carthorse who can’t reply.

9

I would have been twenty two when my father told me that Rogers had moved away: he hadn’t sold his house but he had rented it. Where did he go, I enquired, and my father said he didn’t know.  Next time one of the teachers in Rogers’ department came into the shop I asked if he knew where Rogers had gone. To the mainland, he said. To another job? He doubted it. I assumed he had been removed from the one he had, but what was he now doing? I remember him saying on one of our walks that sometimes he thought he would give up teaching and devote his time to climbing mountains, doing all the Munros in Scotland, and then started tackling bigger mountains when he was abroad. At university he had belonged to the mountaineering club, and regretted that there weren’t proper mountains on the island that he could climb.

It would have been maybe a few months after I had heard of Rogers leaving the island that Gray came into the shop. I found this unusual, for if he came into town occasionally to pick up his groceries, there was no reason for him to come to the shop that was half a mile from the town centre. But in he came, and he ordered a variety of sweets that I couldn’t believe that he himself would be eating. He didn’t seem to recognize me, and I chose not to remind him that I had stood at the threshold of his door for several years every Saturday. Yet as he left he did something very strange: he left twenty pence on the counter.

Over the next few years he came in on several other occasions, but usually Meg was on, or our assistant, and I knew that he had been in the shop because they told me of the twenty pence he had left as a curious tip.

10

It was when I was twenty nine, now the owner of the shop, and also the father of a young daughter, that as I was putting out the morning papers that were now no longer a day late, I saw in the headline of a regional daily one March morning that a forty four year old man had been found dead on a mountainside. His name was Bill Rogers, and his address was given as no fixed abode. The article did add that he was for a number of years a teacher on this very island, and that he left a wife and two children, from whom he had long been estranged. The paper said the death was an accident, and perhaps it was. But there are accidents and then there are certain choices we make where the intentional and the accidental cannot easily be separated. I suspected it wasn’t a suicide, in any strict sense, but probably a recklessness that made death likely. I wondered whether he was properly equipped, or whether he knew the conditions were dangerous.

A week or so later I received a letter from his solicitor saying that he had left me a note. As I opened it I saw that it was dated two years earlier, and it said he had always respected me for taking those walks with him. He was fragile even then, and even more so now, but a teenage boy seemed to understand him better than anybody else on that island, maybe on the mainland also. He said he thought all that mattered was art and nature and the humanity that came out of them. Sometimes he knew at school when I would read out loud that I was no longer in the class but in the text, just as when he climbed mountains he would sometimes come across people who weren’t simply trying out their new gear and preparing the anecdotes for when they returned to the city. I assumed then that there were probably a couple of other people who had received letters and I had it in my mind that one of those might just have been Gray.

All afternoon I was preoccupied by the idea of who we might send letters to if we knew that sometime soon we may die, and if we knew also that somehow most of society had scorned us. There I was at only twenty nine now owning the shop, also with a house that Meg and I had bought a couple of years earlier along the same street, and also sponsoring one of the local football teams, with the shop’s name emblazoned on the back of the strips. I recalled that moment when Meg and I walked along by the park and looked across the town on the other side, and Meg saying she knew she would miss the island if she moved away, and I allowed it to mingle with my memories of Rogers telling me his partner said the exact opposite.

11

The following day was a Saturday, and I asked Meg if I could leave her in charge in the afternoon even though I knew it would be busy, and our assistant usually only helped in the morning. She understandably asked why, and I said I would tell her when I got back: she knew nothing about Rogers, nothing about Gray.

It was around four o’clock in the afternoon as I pulled up next to Gray’s house, and saw up along the road the milk van with my former boss inside still smoking his pipe. I impulsively went not in the direction of Gray’s house but in the direction of the milk van and told the young boy, who was around the age I would have been fifteen years earlier, that I would take the milk up myself, and left in his hand a fifty pence tip. I assumed it would be the sum Gray would have given taking into account inflation. I took the three bottles in my fingers in a manner that I still remembered, and walked briskly up to the front door. I knocked, and a moment later Gray opened it, smiled as if he were expecting me, and asked me to wait a moment.  He came back as usual with the right money, and also twenty pence extra as a tip. I had planned to ask if I could come in, if he had received a letter from Rogers, but instead I thanked him and headed back in the direction of the van.

My old milkman boss looked baffled as I handed him the money, and I smiled as if to say there were mysteries that he would never know, and I asked the boy who was standing on the ledge at the back of the van how much of a tip he would usually receive. He said fifty pence, and I said I suppose I had guessed right. As the van pulled away and I walked back to the car, I looked up at the house, and could see a silhouetted figure by the window, the lighting as I remembered it when the day was dull or dark. I started the car and wondered whether I would tell Meg the whole story, and then, realized, with a strange sadness, that I probably wouldn’t, as I also found myself wondering about Jamie, someone whom I had barely thought about at all, someone who also had years before left the island, and not so long after the fight with the history teacher, and about whom I had no news. The mind moves in mysterious ways, I thought, looking in the rear-view mirror at the milk van in the distance.

 

©Tony McKibbin