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Perhaps I would have almost forgotten about this brief, traumatic episode in my life were it not for a conversation with someone several years after it, and a recent meeting that made me realise my stressful feelings at that time were not only because of over-sensitivity on my part, but maybe a strange reaction to grief that led to an overly tough insensitivity on the part of another.

It was some years ago, I had finished university a few weeks before and returned back up north to my parents’ home. I was wondering what I should do with myself when I saw an advert in a paper offering work at an adventure centre for kids not far from Perth, where they were urgently looking for summer staff. I sent off a CV and a covering letter and several days later received a phone call saying I had the job and asking when I could start. I said straightaway, and the next morning took the train down south from Inverness, and someone picked me up from the local station.

In the van I asked the driver what he liked about working at the centre; he said he enjoyed the camaraderie, saying this was his third year in a row. I said I thought I wanted to do it because I would like to work with kids. He smiled back at me, saying the idealism would probably last a week. The smile was countered by the tone; and this burly six foot plus abseiling instructor, Dan, made me feel rather like what I assumed the kids under his care would often feel: small and humiliated. As we drove along a narrow, single lane road and then into the tree-lined driveway that led up to the large house that possessed the scope and magnitude of a castle, with grounds to equal the magnificence of the building, I sensed instead of its splendour its isolation; instead of excitement, a vague sense of terror.

As we pulled up outside the main entrance and I got out of the van a swarm of people rushed out of the house with buckets in their hands and threw water all over me. Dan looked across and offered a shrug: it was the staff introduction. Several of the perpetrators came afterwards and slapped me on my soaking wet back, a gesture of conviviality that nevertheless still seemed to me to contain more pain than comfort. Indeed, when I arrived at the cottage I was staying in a hundred yards from the main building, and stripped off my wet clothes, I saw in the mirror that my back was red from the slapping.

It was by now eight thirty, and though Dan had proposed the chef would have some left-overs available for me, I stayed in my room and fell asleep. I must have slept deeply, for the next morning when I awoke I heard snoring from the bunk-bed on the other side of the room. I looked across and noticed both the top and bottom bunks were occupied. When speaking to the secretary on the phone I had asked if I could have a room to myself. She said that could easily be arranged: obviously not so easily that it had been.

My job was as one of the group leaders, and in the van Dan had mentioned that a new group of children would be arriving the following afternoon, namely after lunch that day. I showered, got dressed and went over to the main building, and then up to the secretary’s office, which turned out to be less an office than a desk in front of the manager’s. I knocked on the door and a voice boomed back that I should come in. The accent was hard to place and today I would be unable to mimic it, yet the body accompanying that voice I will never forget. He was around six foot five and so broadly built that when he stood up he filled the room and shrunk your presence. Do sit down he said, offering me the chair in front of the desk as he sat down again. Bruce was around thirty five, I later found out, and he would have been described as in good shape, though the coarseness of his skin, the hollows round the eyes and the crevices on his forehead made him look older than his years. He had a face that looked like it had seen a great deal, and hadn’t been moved by what he saw, but exhausted by it. Perhaps I am projecting too strongly after the event, knowing a little about what he had seen and what he had done, but I think what I read in his face that morning was a combination of no more than my own low-key feelings of brutalization and violation after the water incident, waking up with a couple of other bodies in my room, and, at that moment, looking at a face across from me that looked like it had burnt holes through the souls of people.

Maybe I offer myself up here as a hyper-sensitive figure incapable of the rough and tumble of group situations, but my years at university were not without initiation rites and riotous drinking evenings where everyone would occasionally be stripped of their dignity, as well as their clothing. At the camp though I sensed that dignity was only a quality a few were entitled to possess; the rest, whether children or staff, were there to be quietly humiliated. As I left the manager’s office, after he told me what I would need to do before the kids arrived, I thought I would leave the office and keep walking, back along the driveway, out onto the single lane road, and try and hitch back to the village station. Such a thought came to mind chiefly after his comment about the kids: they were little shits, he believed. They think they are here for a good time; we’re here to show them there is no such thing.

Later that morning and into the early afternoon everybody mucked in, making sure the rooms were clean and tidy for the newcomers. As I cleaned out the bathrooms one of the people I was doing it with noticed some skid marks in the toilet pan and swore grimly saying the kids couldn’t even flush properly. I left him to it and went off and helped someone with one of the other toilets. As we cleaned out the showers and washed down the floor, we got talking, and I asked if this was Mike’s first year. It was his second, and he only came back because he couldn’t find a job back home in Preston. After working all of the previous summer he thought he wouldn’t return, but all the bad things faded from memory, the amazing landscapes, some of the kids’ smiles, and the occasional laugh he would have with other members of staff, would come to mind. Since he had nothing else to do, why not come back to the centre?

I asked him about the other staff members. Mike said he didn’t know much about the manager, but had got to know Dan a little in the last few weeks of the season. Dan had barely talked to him since he had arrived a few weeks ago at the start of this one though. I wondered why he was so open at the end of the last season, and Mike thought it was impending loneliness. Dan worked at the centre all year round: he was the winter night porter and would spend months all by himself, doing the odd repair that was required, and guarding the property along with a couple of dogs. I expressed surprise that Dan hadn’t mentioned this to me in the van. Mike simply shrugged. As we talked a little longer, I noticed that Mike talked rather than answered questions, as though he was wary of my probes, and preferred to offer safe details. Did he not know anything about Bruce or Dan, I found myself wondering but didn’t ask. Perhaps he had his own pain to keep to himself, and didn’t want to expose the pain of others.

The kids who arrived later that day stayed for four nights, and they were boisterous, funny and usually pleasant. I found them almost all adorable, and couldn’t understand why the others would often be short tempered and cold towards them. Maybe, as Dan had said, a few weeks into the job and my attitude might change, but while I stayed for five weeks at the centre, my leaving had nothing to do with the children. Indeed what usually happened was that there was so little warmth emanating from almost all the other members of staff, that each new batch of kids offered me emotional sustenance, even though it was the kids who thought I so often offered it to them.

That is at least what one teacher, or rather priest, proposed one evening after we had put on a disco for the children, and one of the kids who was round eleven had come up to me during the disco and offered me a big hug saying that he wished I was his father. I stood there visibly moved, and caught the priest looking in my direction with an expression that I should give the boy a big hug back – that he very much needed it. As I hugged this soft, heavy child, a few of the other children came over and, while the chef, who also doubled up as the DJ, continued playing James’ ‘Sit Down’, it seemed as if I was asking them instead to come up and hug themselves to me.

Later that evening as I sat outside the house on a picnic bench talking to the priest, I asked why he had looked at me the way he had, and he replied that some months before the boy had lost his father to a car crash, and his mother to an institution after she couldn’t cope with the loss of her husband. He believed I may have been the first person the boy had expressed affection towards since his father’s death, and certainly the first he had hugged out of happiness. He wondered why I happened to be the person the boy had hugged, and especially so, the priest said, since he thought I gave the impression of aloofness. He recalled the first evening after the kids had gone to bed, that some of the staff were sitting out on the benches, and the teachers from the various schools were doing the same. The teachers were mingling with other teachers; and the staff with other staff, but I was sitting on my own reading a book in the half light. He wondered if it was this type of aloneness the boy sensed: that night the priest asked whether I had suffered a loss of my own. I joked about confessing to priests, but then added that though it was true I could be distant, I wasn’t one for secrets: anything I happened to tell him couldn’t be construed as much of a confession.

I said to him that I had finished university not long before, and while I thought of staying in Stirling, where I had studied, the town brought to mind memories that I didn’t want to confront. The previous year, all through my third year at Uni, I went out with a German girl who was studying English as a foreign language. It was while she was living in Stirling that her schoolteacher father had taken his life . Her father and mother had split up several years before, and while she was at school and also at University in Berlin, she lived with her father, in their flat not far from the city centre in what used to be the old western part of the city. Her mother left her father not for another man, but a year or so after they split up she started seeing someone else. It was when he found out that her mother had a new lover that he started to slide into depression. He was still very unhappy when his daughter made the decision to spend a year in Stirling: she wanted to escape and yet at the same time was worried that he wouldn’t cope alone. It was about four months after she left, in January, and after I had been seeing Famke for several months, that her father killed himself. Famke went back for the funeral, left her mother in charge of her father’s estate – there was only really the house, which was put onto the market – and then returned to Stirling. She was inconsolable for the remaining months of her stay, and believed that she was responsible for her father’s death. After her course she returned to Germany, and rented a flat in Berlin with the money that she was left from the house and her father’s estate, and while we were still in touch through e-mail, and occasionally on the phone, she had not returned to Britain since, and I hadn’t been invited to go to Germany.

After I had finished he asked if I completed my fourth year at university in Stirling. I had, but was relieved to have left the town as quickly as possible. He said what was unusual in what I was saying was that she had gone back to Berlin, but I couldn’t stay in Stirling. For some reason this anomaly hadn’t occurred to me: why should Stirling have been so despairing for me if Berlin was tolerable for her?

The following morning, the kids left and as they did so the one I had hugged came over and offered no more than a hand-shake. In the gesture one might have seen a retreat from the emotion he had shown the previous evening, but I believed he offered it as a sign of his now general well-being: that the hug had really helped. The priest, however, who was the last to get on the bus, gave me a hug as though to thank me for the hug I had given the boy the previous day, but perhaps also, I suspected, because he needed one himself.

I found out later that Bruce had seen all this from his window, and told Dan to tell me that I shouldn’t be getting too close to the visitors – it showed a misplaced sense of priorities. Dan said this as we were pulling the sheets off the beds, preparing for the new group, and added that after all the kids were here only for a few days, the rest of us should be the ones getting close.

He offered this statement with such a sense of menace on the one hand and yet in a beseeching tone on the other, that I didn’t know how to respond. I thought of Bruce watching earlier from the window, the conversation Bruce and Dan must have had, and Dan’s strange combination of brutality and the imploring that only made sense to me years afterwards.

The next group of children arrived at about seven o’clock that evening and as always it was the group leaders’ job to meet them off the bus, show them around the buildings and make sure they were settling in. Before applying for the job I never really thought why I wanted to be a group leader rather than an instructor, for there were several activities the kids did with the instructors that I was equally well-qualified to teach: including abseiling and kayaking. But at the centre it felt important for me to be responsible for the children sensitively, not practically, and, well aware that the other people in the centre regarded the kids as nuisances, I wanted to make it clear to them that for me they could be as warm, emotional and loving as they needed to be. Obviously most weren’t and didn’t care to be: they were here for an adventure, but for many it was the first time they had been away from their parents for a number of days, and for those who felt lost, lonely and confused, I would be there asking them if they were alright.

I have already said that I wouldn’t always act so sensitively at university but all the drinking games and raucous behaviour came in the first year or two. After I met Famke I seemed to enter into her emotional space, into the sensitivity of her feelings, rather as we might enter a church or a library. Maybe it was that during our very first evening together we talked of her father, and her father’s depression, that I always felt the despair residually coming off Famke. It set the hushed tones for the relationship, and I often thought that our love needed quiet. This might have explained why I couldn’t stay in Stirling after she left; it felt too out of season, with all the students away the hush we had created in our relationship was added to by the quiet of all the students going home as well, and I felt her absence too strongly. I stayed for a month in Stirling after Famke returned to Germany, then went to Inverness for the summer. I returned to Stirling to complete the final year, but on going up north again the following summer I decided I needed to be around people – and thus thought there would be a lively environment at the centre.

But the liveliness constantly seemed instead to be simply insensitivity, and so what I found myself doing was compensating for this by searching out any child who may have felt as emotionally dislocated as Famke had been when she was in Scotland. As I made up the kids’ certificates that they would receive at the end of their stay at the centre, so I would wonder if this token of their achievements managed to generate a well-being in them greater than the tangible sensitivity I offered them during their visit. It was with perhaps the sixth group that arrived, about three weeks into working at the centre, that I had once again a meaningful exchange.

One of the teachers asked me the evening before they were all leaving, whether it was more important to be a role model of the emotions or of actions. I had noticed Eva when I welcomed the kids off the bus four days before, or rather noticed that she possessed an attentiveness towards the kids that I had seen only in the priest, not in any of the other teachers over the past three weeks. It was however generally not a tactile sensitivity – I never saw her hug any of the children, nor hold their hand – but an attention of the eye as she would constantly look to see if they were alright, to observe how they would climb up the abseiling tower, or play football in the garden. Yet at the same time it was never a worried, anxious gaze, and so as we sat on one of the benches in the gardens, shrouded by a large oak, I said I thought she was probably a very specific type of role model. I mentioned that many people like to be role models by their actions, by the way they would act and expect others to imitate their own deeds: I was thinking of football stars, pop singers, actors and those who in their actions allowed others to aspire to imitate them. But what I noticed was that Eva somehow guided them in such a way that they need not imitate anyone, but discover their own direction with confidence: with the aid of watchful eyes. Would the world be a healthier place if it had fewer role models and more empathic observers?

It would have been about a week after this conversation that I left the centre, and perhaps not least because of it. What I noticed was that all the instructors were offering was their prowess, as they showed the kids how to master the activities, but rarely did so with any feeling for the children’s own vulnerabilities. One day I was watching my group abseiling off the high tower when one of the kids got entangled in the rope, and Dan seemed more worried about the ropes than he was about the child who looked petrified. Afterwards I mentioned to him that he should have been more sympathetic to the poor child. He glared at me and asked what did I know about feelings, and his face turned from anger to pain.

Perhaps I offer this now less as fact than retrospective interpretation; for at the time I responded chiefly to the boy’s helplessness, and Dan’s irritated reaction when I asked him about it and why he was so unsympathetic towards the boy maybe angered me so much that I actually saw no pain on his visage at all. A couple of days after the incident I said I was leaving the centre, and Bruce said it was probably for the best: I didn’t seem to fit in.

It was several years after that, having become a secondary school teacher, that I was at an educational conference and met the very woman with whom I’d had the conversation about role models: namely Eva. We talked about the centre and she said that she had returned a couple of years previously, and some of the same instructors were still there. I asked about Dan, describing him to her, and she said that not only was he still there, but that she had also had a lengthy conversation with him. I looked at her with surprise and wondered what the most sensitive person I had met during my time there had to say to the person whom I assumed was the least sensitive.

She said to me that maybe I recalled that not only was he the instructor but that he also was the porter who would look after the building during the winter. He had first taken the job, she said, after he had split up with his girlfriend, and that the split came about because she had lost their child during childbirth. He couldn’t help but feel it was her fault, and while he knew his response was irrational, it clung to him, and permeated so much else in his life. That is why he took the job at the centre: he didn’t initially intend to stay beyond the winter, but as the spring came he had nowhere else to go, had always been interested in adventure activities, and thought he might as well stay where he was and become an instructor. Also he got to know Bruce, quite well. Most people didn’t much like him, but when you knew what he’d been through, that he’d fought in the Falklands War and seen men die in battle and other colleagues commit suicide in the wake of it, one could more readily understand his belligerence. Dan not only understood it, she supposed – he related to it.

I expressed surprise that he had told her all this; and she expressed surprise that I hadn’t already known it: it wasn’t as though he was resistant when they started to talk. I wondered how much he had changed, or whether during my stay there I was so wrapped up in my own feelings towards Famke’s loss that I couldn’t see not so much other people’s, but of different ways of dealing with it. Eva said that for all his out-pouring to her he was still the same with the kids, brusque and practical, and that he seemed almost to offer his personal tragedy as a means of justifying his tough attitude. Whilst talking to him she remembered our conversation – which had seemed as meaningful to her as it was to me – and thought that as I had noticed different approaches to the idea of the role model, so she perhaps noticed different methods of dealing with loss. During that conversation with Eva several years before I had never told her about Famke, and so when she mentioned this notion of dealing with emotional pain, I explained to her my own approach to coping with it when I was at the centre.

It wasn’t until afterwards, really several days later, that I wondered why I hadn’t asked her whether there might have been a loss she had suffered, a loss that also reflected on her own behaviour. I’m sure though I didn’t give it very much more thought until a couple of months ago. By this stage I had been teaching for a number of years, and was now the assistant head of an English department in a school in Edinburgh, and the headmaster decided he would like to offer the kids the opportunity to go on an adventure break shortly before the end of the school year. He said he had been looking through the website of an adventure organisation near Perth, and as he asked the heads of the departments for their views, I realised that I didn’t actually have any concrete reason why the children shouldn’t go. The instructors were always professional, and even when I recalled the incident with Dan and the child stuck in the ropes, there was nothing in his behaviour that could be deemed unprofessional; merely unsympathetic. I even wondered as the headmaster asked if any of us had any objections whether I had been overly sensitive at the time, or whether knowing that Dan was still working through his own demons meant that I now saw his behaviour differently.

So it was that a few weeks later I found myself one of the teachers taking the kids to the adventure school. This time as the coach drove up to the house I didn’t feel the atmosphere at all menacing, and the main building as it came into view was simply magnificent. It wasn’t as if the weather was very different: when I first arrived there many all those years ago it was late May, the day was sunny and the main difference was that this time it was the early afternoon rather than the early evening. As we got off the bus, several group leaders showed us around the building in an efficient but hardly dismissive manner, and I began to wonder how much the place had changed or how much I had.

Later that evening we were in the dining room and I noticed someone come in who looked familiar. It was definitely Dan, though he would now have been around forty. His hair was quite grey, and no longer in a pony-tail, but cropped. His body was still lean and he had aged in a manner that became him: he had grown into himself, where before he seemed more gangly, uncomfortable and severe. Here as he said hello to various people while making his way to his seat after ordering at the canteen counter, he appeared to be much more comfortable in his own body – perhaps, I mused, because he was happier in his own mind. There was no suggestion that he recognised me, though he looked over at the table I was sitting on with the other teachers.

Had I changed so much I wondered? I was now thirty four, with a few grey hairs of my own, but people claimed I still had a youthful face, and I exercised enough and ate well enough to keep off the flab. Indeed, a year ago, I had met up with Famke for the first time since she had left Stirling, and as we sat in a bar in Berlin, where she was still living, she told me that I hadn’t changed at all. No, if he didn’t recognise me it was that I had made no impression upon him, and there was really no reason why I should have done so.

But would he have remembered Eva I mused? It was the following evening when I had the opportunity to find out, as a few of us were sitting outside. I was alone reading a book on the very same bench where Eva and I had talked that evening some years before, and Dan came over and asked whether the kids were enjoying themselves. I said I thought they were, and as he stood there I said he might not remember me but that I remembered him. He looked at me properly for the first time, and then asked if I had ever been an instructor or group leader in the centre. I explained that I had been, but more than a decade before, and as he sat down he explained how it was probably in the first two or three years when he was there. He said he didn’t really register people back then – everybody was rather like the activity: an obstacle to be overcome. I asked what changed. He shrugged and said he wasn’t sure; and then said that he simply started talking to people. He would find out that other people’s life stories were as complicated, as full of pain, as his own had been. He went silent for a moment, as though he was wondering whether he should say more. I sensed from him that he was the sort of person who wasn’t afraid now to express himself, but if self-revelation meant anything it still needed to be a very occasional release. I asked him if he remembered a woman called Eva, probably around his own age. I described her to him and said that she had been at the centre the time that I was there. As I described her he looked surprised, saying he knew someone who fitted the description exactly, but not from a decade ago but from around maybe five years ago. I found it interesting that Eva had not told him that she had been at the centre before, and I did not tell Dan that I had met her more recently and that she had talked about him.

I didn’t want to tell Dan of this meeting, as though it would be too perverse to say that in another time and another place two people whom he barely knew, and one of whom he couldn’t even remember, had talked about him. Yet what he then revealed about Eva was equivalent to what she had revealed about him. He said that she perhaps more than any of the other guests he had talked to, helped him escape his own funk, his own self-absorption. I asked him how, and he said that she had said to him that several years before, probably I surmised to myself around the very time that she had first come to the centre, she had, as I no doubt knew, he said, lost her father: that he had committed suicide a year or two after her mother had left.

As he said it a peculiar feeling passed through my body, a feeling that contained within it many thoughts, thoughts about Famke, thoughts about the conversation Eva and I had concerning role models and attentiveness. I found myself thinking as I sat there with Dan as the night encroached, and as we could hear the wind rustling the trees, but also very faintly the sound of children chatting and laughing, whether it would have made any difference all those years ago if I had known that Dan’s belligerence lay in his loss, and Eva’s sensitivity resided in hers. Strictly speaking I had no loss of my own, or certainly none to match theirs. But I also thought of how one can be utterly ignorant of the specifics and still create the space for a feeling that is greater than our understanding. In some way I felt silly not knowing that all those years ago at the centre there were two people at the same time feeling an immense loss or pain (not only Dan but also of course Bruce), while I was projecting onto others my own minor despair. However, just as Eva and I proposed role models of doing and role models of feeling and attention, I wondered if all Famke did was create in me a space not only for sympathy, which seems to be too close perhaps to a feeling in relation to a given situation, but empathy, a permeating feeling that somehow goes beyond the immediacies of time and space for a sense of someone’s pain.

If I should feel any sense of shame at all now it should probably reside not in my not knowing of Eva’s pain, but missing the tortuousness of Dan’s. Perhaps this is what maturity is, I surmised, to myself, before getting up and shaking Dan’s hand. It is time for my bed, I said. Dan smiled and said he didn’t sleep that much, maybe he couldn’t get used to the relative noise in the summer months next to the winter silence. Perhaps, I replied, knowing within his statement, and my own reply, there once again lay a world of unexplored feeling.

©Tony McKibbin