I had always insisted that I would never want children, but what happens when an accident forces upon us the necessity of parenthood? For many years and with several girlfriends I was always worried about the possibility that our moments of recklessness would bring into the world someone for whom I suspected I would feel more resentment than love, but it was an irony that came out of an undeniable tragedy that turned me into a father.
Throughout my twenties and into my thirties I would say to whomever I was seeing that I didn’t want children, and I’m not so sure if all my relationships were finally tentative and non-committal because of this belief that I wanted to go through life fatherless, to remain imperviously connected to the genealogy of the unavoidable past, to my own parents, but wary of taking that genealogy into the future. This may have been because my own childhood was blighted with unhappiness, and my early adult years too, but I think it resided much more in a feeling that I was simply too fragile a human being to offer a robust value system to a growing child. I also knew, from a moment in my own childhood, that somehow the blood-bond doesn’t always give us the emotional security we need and, unless I believed completely in the bond between father and child, I had no right to bring another being into the world.
So for many years I made a precarious living working as a freelance journalist and teaching some English classes, determined to live what one famous writer would have called my ‘non-fate’. I saw myself moving towards forty with no regular salary, no permanent attachments, and no desire to become a man of character, a man of responsibility. My one element of security was the flat I owned: a compact, top floor one-bedroomed flat with a box-room, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a comfortably sized living room. Since putting the deposit down on it fifteen years ago after my granny left me money when she died, and miraculously securing a mortgage despite my haphazard income, it had proved the one constant in my life. But could it accommodate another person?
My brother Brian married very young, as soon as he graduated from agricultural college in Aberdeen, and he and Susan had a baby two years after that. They were living in Inverness, where he worked for the Forestry Commission, and they bought a flat with his share of my grandmother’s money. After several years, with the house prices increasing, he managed to buy a house in the attractive area of Crown, and within five minutes walking distance of the high street. I would visit them three or four times a year, and, when they moved into the Crown house, I would often stay with them rather than with my parents who lived on the other side of town and quite far from its centre. But I would never stay for long, feeling that after about three days the domestic situation somehow possessed a rhythm stronger than my own, or rather that I couldn’t find my rhythm no matter how I would try to counter theirs.
I would get up around the same time as they would, at about seven thirty, but while they would busy themselves showering and eating breakfast, I would sit and write for a couple of hours on some impending article until after my brother had gone to work, and my sister-in-law had taken James to school, and then she would go off for coffee afterwards with one or two of the other parents. It was only then that I would have my breakfast, and after that return to writing for another hour before meeting up with Susan for a tea or a light lunch in town. In the afternoon I would usually go for a walk on my own, and then spend a couple of hours reading in a café. When James got back from school we would play for a while. Obviously this pattern that was close to my routine in Edinburgh could only work during the week, and so I would usually arrive on a Tuesday or Wednesday and leave by Saturday lunchtime. I would usually stay for the Friday night because Brian and Susan would be able to unwind, and Susan would make up a large dinner, with plenty of wine accompanying it, and then we would talk late into the night after eating. But I always felt a sense of relief when getting on the train, as if I was escaping a life of domesticity that, if I were to stay for a day or two longer, would ensnare me.
As I left I would feel some guilt, knowing that my nephew would so look forward to my visits that his parents would tell me he could barely sleep the night before I arrived, and I could tell he felt a curious sense of loss when I would leave. He would always wave ferociously as he saw me off at the train station, and I sometimes noticed a stricken look on his face, a face that probably resembled my own so long ago when a friend moved away after alleviating my loneliness for a year. Did I somehow do the same for young James, offering some strange affinity for which no parental love can compensate?
These were perhaps selfish, neurotic feelings, but I possessed them, and I often wondered how I could incorporate any form of family life into my own when this anti-domestic urge was so strong. I knew from various experiences in my life where I had become too close to other people – whether in, especially, a friendship when I was around twelve, and in tentative curiously devastating unrequited love when I was twenty one – that I found myself shrinking back into my own subjectivity, but was this need to see the world in my own way, and generate a rhythm consistent with this way of looking at the world, making me more and more isolated?
Sometimes when writing articles on actors of the past, I found myself wondering how they managed to live with so much chaos and disorganization in their lives. I remembered writing on so apparently placid an actor as Henry Fonda and noted that he’d married five times, and that his second wife, the mother of two of his children, Jane and Peter, committed suicide in a rest home in 1950. He’d also enlisted in the navy in the early forties, and served in the pacific, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. In another profile I wrote, during the research I noticed that Richard Burton was from a family of thirteen, had various tempestuous relationships including two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, and of course was famous for his drinking.
After writing one of these profiles I got into a conversation with someone in a café one afternoon in Edinburgh – a man in his late sixties – and found myself talking about the lives of some of the actors I was writing on, and wanted to know whether this just happened to be celebrity living, or did it say something about the times. He knew that I was asking him to tell me his life story, and so he divulged that he did his national service in the early fifties, that he married shortly afterwards, had two kids, divorced in the mid-sixties, re-married by the end of the decade, had another daughter with his second wife, divorced by the mid-seventies, and remarried for a third time in the early eighties. His third wife, who was a few years younger than him when they married, had died, childless, a couple of years ago he said. He was still in touch with one daughter, from his second marriage, but his daughters from the first held him responsible for their parents’ divorce, and he hadn’t seen them in many years. I wanted to ask him how he had coped with so much life – he had also talked about various jobs overseas earning good money, and periods of long-term unemployment where he’d felt completely devoid of self-respect. But my own life experience seemed so non-existent next to his I didn’t even feel entitled to ask such a question.
But it did make me think of my own family, less of my own parents, who had stayed together for more than thirty five years, than of an uncle, my father’s brother, who married four times, and was into his third marriage, and had four kids, by the time he was my age. Where I would often overhear my mother saying he was irresponsible, my father defended him saying he really knew how to live, how to let reality happen to him. When I would sometimes hear these conversations, I wondered how much regret there was in my father’s voice, and when I looked back I would wonder how much I resembled my mother, how much I seemed to want to control life.
But of course that control came to an end not so long ago, or rather almost four years ago, when my brother and my sister-in-law were returning from my parents’ house after dropping their son off at his grandparents. It was an icy early evening, yet already very dark, and the car skidded on a sharp bend, colliding with an oncoming truck. They both died instantly. At first my parents looked after James; they lived near enough for James to continue his schooling at the same primary school, and it wasn’t until a year after the deaths, and with James becoming increasingly lost in his own thoughts and still clearly grieving for his parents, that they suggested it might be better if he moved away from the Highlands altogether and lived with me.
They proposed it one evening after, for the first time ever, we managed to talk about my own sense of isolation and loss many years before when I went through a mini-grieving process after a friend simply moved away. They said they had never talked about it before because they didn’t really understand it at the time, and it was perhaps only with James’ distress that they began to comprehend something of mine all those years ago. As my mother served up the main course, my father said that he knew he had been working too hard, that he wasn’t attending to his children’s needs, and wondered if it would have made any difference if he had been home more often. As my mother sat down and put a hand on his; she added that they were both working too hard, that they both paid too little attention to their kids. I asked them if they really thought that was the problem. Hadn’t my brother always been happy, and was James, albeit very understandably, not still unhappy despite their constant presence?
I proffered that maybe it needn’t be an issue of guilt and blame – what mattered was much more a coincidence of feeling. It was then I talked about a friendship from many years before, where actually it wasn’t especially family neglect that made me depressed, but the absence, before the friend arrived and after he left, of someone with whom I could communicate. This wasn’t at all an attack on them, I insisted; it concerned very much me and my own feelings at the time. Who knows who and what we need at certain moments in our lives – sometimes it is our parents; often it isn’t.
It was during this conversation that they wondered whether it would be better if James moved down to Edinburgh with me. He was starting secondary school in a few months, they said, and since there was going to be a major change in his life anyway, then if he were to move at all it should be before he went to the secondary. They insisted that I wouldn’t need to worry about money – they knew I had little – James’s needs would be met by them. They said that James would often talk about his uncle, and that he always seemed brighter and more relaxed when I would come up and visit.
So almost three years ago James moved down to Edinburgh and into my cosy but hardly capacious flat. Luckily since it was top floor the boxroom at least had a skylight. Before I’d used it as a study, but I only had about half a dozen shelves put up for books, with most of the books in bookcases in the sitting room, so all I really needed to do was find space in my bedroom for the desk and chair, and put the shelves up in there. I knew that if I were to accept James on my own terms, then these terms would somehow have to be consistent with feeling that the general sense of space was still my own. An apparently trivial point, perhaps, but one that I knew had caused me problems with a couple of girlfriends in the past: when they had stayed over for a few days, I felt their ‘touches’ encroaching on my space. Sometimes it would be the way an object had been moved, the way they filled the washing machine up with their clothes, or the way that their perfume became the predominant smell in the flat: an olfactory intrusion that I could never quite tolerate.
Bachelor habits some would no doubt say; and that would be a partial truth, along with my own belief that tenuously painful moments in my past led to this strange emotional impasse as an adult. Yet the problem of space never really arose with James, and when he moved into the flat he seemed to be happy with a space that was about a third of that he had at my parents’. He started school a week after moving in, so my morning routine of writing till about one was only briefly disturbed, and at weekends, after the first three of four weeks where I would entertain him, take him to the Meadows for a game of football, or go for a walk around Arthur’s Seat, he’d found friends and would spend most of the weekend with them, sometimes staying overnight, which meant that I could also sometimes have someone staying over with me when he was elsewhere. I’m not so sure if I didn’t occasionally use James as an excuse, saying on more than one occasion that I wouldn’t be sure the next time I could see them because I had adopted my late brother’s son.
James was not an especially picky eater, and had no problem eating most of the health-oriented food that I would cook up, saying that it was better than the food he used to get at his grandparents (who after years of working hard had never developed the habit of seeing food as much more than sustenance), and that it resembled the food his mother used to cook for him. He was also, equally surprisingly, happy to watch many of the films that I put on in the evening, and if he wasn’t, then he had the internet in his room to occupy himself with. I had no aerial so therefore no TV, but again that seemed to cause him little bother.
Of course there were problems; I knew that my evening movements were generally restricted, and there were occasions when there were friends I wanted to see, or films or plays I wanted to catch, that I had to miss. But I often saw films in the afternoon anyway. One of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t be home for James after he came back from school, as I would recall my own feelings of loneliness at about James’ age when I would come home in London and find nobody there, but I always said if he wasn’t playing late with friends, and didn’t want to be alone in the flat, he could find me in one of my two regular cafés. Sometimes he would pop along and after a brief chat I would continue reading my book, and he would start doing his homework. As we would sit next to each other working on our own particular projects, I thought that I would one day tell him about the friend I briefly had when I was his age, and the idea that bereavement takes many forms.
But it would have also been around this time, after about a year living with me, that James became close friends with a boy near his own age. Bill was a year older than James, and they met playing football on the Meadows near the flat. With the other boys James knew, it seemed to be no more than a friendship, no matter that James would sometimes stay over at the other child’s house. With Bill though there was clearly a sense of affinity, and a common ground that might have been because Bill had also lost his father several years previously, or perhaps because James found what I had found many years before: a soul mate, a friend that alleviated loneliness and loss.
Bill’s family owned a large house not far from where I lived, and James would spend most of his late afternoons there, sometimes staying for dinner, and, frequently, also all weekend. I thought that this would be an ideal situation, giving me the time to pursue one or two semi-relationships left mainly dangling since James had moved in with me, whilst still giving me the useful alibi of James’ presence when I wanted time to myself. But that wasn’t quite how it worked out. I actually found myself missing James when he stayed for dinner at his friend’s place, and weekends became curiously desolate experiences when I knew he would be spending the entire time elsewhere.
It was a few months after this friendship with Bill had commenced that one afternoon I received a phone call from Bill’s stepfather asking if we could talk. I was surprised, wondering what it might concern, but promptly said yes, and we arranged to meet at one of my regular cafes.
He would have been several year older than me, and as he walked in I sensed that this man had the gravitas not only that I didn’t possess, but that I had never wanted to possess. His family consisted of himself, his wife and also a son and daughter, as James had once told me when I enquired how large Bill’s family was. Roger, for that was the stepfather’s name, explained that James occasionally seemed reluctant to go back home, and this had nothing to do with his unwillingness to come back and stay with me, of course, just a keenness it seemed to stay with Bill and his family. Roger asked me to tell me more about James, and so I told him some things he already knew and others that he didn’t, and after we had talked for a couple of hours, he said that it was probably just the replication of conventional family life that made him feel so secure at their house. Perhaps it was on that day I felt I’d lost my nephew to Roger’s family.
However, over the next eighteen months James would still often stay at my flat, where I kept his room as his, refusing to turn it back into my study, and he would still sometimes pop into one of the cafes where he knew he could find me reading in the late afternoons. I frequently missed him when he would stay for days at Bill’s house, but it still seemed tolerable.
However, one afternoon he came into the café, sat down and said that Bill’s family were going to move away; Bill’s stepfather had been offered another academic post in California and they had asked him if he would like to go with them. Up until then James had always been an adjunct to my life, but at that moment I realized he was much more than that, and the space that had opened up many years before when a school friend had moved away, and years after that when an unrequited love proved almost equally devastating, lay in front of me. I briefly felt that this wasn’t so much another hole in my life as the final act of perforation; and yet how could I explain it? It was as if in each stage of my existence I was taken by surprise by a feeling that is hardly socially sanctioned, and yet perhaps it was in that very obscure space that the loss without name could create so much damage. If I had been orphaned at a young age instead of responding so despairingly to a friend leaving when I was a boy; if only I had had a brief affair with a woman in the town in which I lived when I was twenty one, then my sorrow would have felt justified. And now, with James leaving, if only I had been his parent, and for some inexplicable reason he was being taken away from me. But it seemed I was destined to fall not just emotionally, but almost between the spaces in which we’re allowed to grieve. To grieve without the ready noun upon which to grieve may alleviate that feeling of grief for some, but exacerbate it for others.
So James left, with my grandparents initial reluctance but with their final acceptance, and now he is part of a family on the other side of the world and I’m once again the bachelor in his flat that I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve converted James’ room back into my study, and I’m no nearer the desire to marry and have children of my own. James sends me the occasional postcard, and promises to visit me sometime soon, but while I will of course be happy to see him, he won’t be able to alleviate the loss I felt after his departure, and nor would I expect him to do so. Loss is my love I often think, and it seems that the reason I write, when I do, is to find in the writing process the tragedy of the ridiculous man that I happen to be, and to leave to the reader – that stranger as far from a parent, a wife or a sibling as one can get – to judge to what degree the tragic or the ridiculous takes precedence.