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Surrogates

 

1

It was about twenty years ago, less than a couple of years after my father had died, that another man came into my mother’s still youthful life. He did not stay for very long – about nine months – but for six of those he lived in our messy, sprawling detached house in The Grange, here in Edinburgh. Taking into account his own compact frame, and the space the house provided, he never felt to me like an intruder, and I was surprised at how comfortable it was having this stranger in the house so relatively soon after my father’s death. It is only recently, taking into account some convoluted thoughts over the last few months, some very vague memories from many years ago, and a very recent event, that I have come to some realisations that might allow me to make sense not so much of my past, as the moves I need to make into the future.

My mother met him, she said, when we talked about this a few months ago, at an evening class. It was the first class of a ten week course and he was teaching it. It was on Herbal Medicines and wholefoods, and my mother had become fixated, after my father died of cancer, with alternative health care. My father, a GP, had decided to go the conventional route towards a return to the health he had always previously taken for granted; a health that led him to win a number of regional awards playing football and for athletics when they lived in the Highlands after their degrees and before moving back to Edinburgh. My mother, also a doctor, determined never to see someone else die with so little dignity and so little final hope. In the months after his death I think she researched into alternative medicines as a mode of grieving, as she spent as much time trying to research ways in which she could have kept him alive as dwell on the memories she conjured up of him. This allowed her to do what many people who grieve do: hypothesise all the alternatives, all the ‘what ifs’ in a life removed, but to do so in a way that also allowed her to move on with her own.

She started doing yoga, and, there, met a young Indian woman whose mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and who had apparently cured herself with a complete change of diet and lifestyle. The woman’s mother had become a yoga teacher herself, and managed a retreat in Goa, where the strict regime of diet and exercise was combined with plenty of opportunities to read, lie on the nearby beach, and chat with other participants. My mother became fascinated, and went off for three weeks, leaving me in the hands of my dedicated but decidedly unholistic maternal grandmother. Before going away, my mother bought loads of health food for me to consume during those three weeks. My grandmother, who thought nothing of eating grizzle on meat, nevertheless, I guess, believed all the healthy food, the yoga, the retreat in India, was part of a protracted grieving process, and acquiesced.

It was shortly after she returned from India that my mother embarked on the evening class, and it would have been probably around the end of it that I first met Joe. I remember one evening a knock on the door and my mother asked if I would open it. I came back into the kitchen with a man trailing behind me, who had just introduced himself. As I conjure him up from memory and from photos, and a little more than that, I can safely say he was of wiry build, with sandy coloured straight hair that was long enough to frame his face and cover his ears but not long enough to pass for shoulder length. He had good teeth and an eager smile and I suppose he looked like what he was: a healthy Australian from Melbourne. My mother announced he was our new lodger (occasionally my parents would put people up, people they had met and were new to the city and looking for a place to stay short term) and sure enough great play was made of him staying in a spare ground-floor bedroom at the back of house, and that was the room in which, I think, he generally did stay. But I would often hear my mother creeping down the creaky stairs late at night, and gently tapping on his door. I recall never being angry at this subterfuge, and perhaps would have found it quite touching the way she seemed to respect me, and also my father’s memory.

But then maybe it would have been very different if I simply hadn’t liked Joe. During the next six months he seemed a man who became both surrogate father and decidedly older brother. I would have been thirteen at the time. Joe must have been in his early thirties, and he was one of those older figures who don’t want to become again children themselves, but want to drag children into healthy adulthood. He treated me very maturely, and I would always go to him if I had a problem at school: once, for example, when I was being bullied and on another occasion, when I was struggling in history. Over the first he took me outside and showed me a couple of karate moves that I could master very quickly; moves, he said, that would illustrate my strength without demanding I descend to violence. Basically he showed me how to break an object in two. In school a week or two later when someone started bullying me, I asked the boy to wait a minute; I would come back and fight him. I sneaked into the woodwork class, came out with a thick piece of wood, and said instead of hitting each other we should prove our strength by trying to break the piece of wood. He tried and obviously failed; I tried and succeeded. The bullying stopped, and a number of boys over the next few weeks would ask me how I did it. I said it was just a fluke, but nobody quite believed me and people briefly credited me with some vague, superhuman power.

Concerning history, Joe said that I should try and imagine the events as they really took place. Imagine he said, The Battle of Trafalgar, or the Battle of Waterloo, and fill the facts full of tension, suspense and fear. Don’t see it as dry history, but just remember these were people who were very much alive, only a long time ago. It didn’t help very much, actually, but I found myself writing history essays like short stories, which meant my history grades barely improved but my English grades got ever better. Joe had opened something up in me, the capacity, the daring of the imagination, and it wasn’t until years afterwards that it occurred to me that when he was talking about bringing the dead back to life, in relation to history, whether he was allowing me to work on a form of grieving myself. That just as my mother perhaps lost herself in alternative health after my father’s death, so I, in history or English, seemed to want to resurrect the dead: so many of my stories were about lost family members, friends who’d moved away, the odd historical re-enactment.

Of course I’m making Joe into a paragon, but that’s the only way I myself now can return to past events and give them life, because though I’m sure a more mature and sceptical mind would have noticed in Joe traits and characteristics that were perhaps exploitative (how much did he pay my mother in rent?), overly-ingratiating (he seemed so keen that I would warm to him), and finally uncommitted (he left my mother ‘as if they had been no more than casual friends’, as my mother recently pronounced). However, that wasn’t at all what I perceived then.

2

But here I am twenty years later, as fascinated by Joe’s existence now as I was at the time, though for many of these intervening years, days, weeks, perhaps even months, I never thought about Joe at all. Why does he return so persistently to my consciousness now?

Perhaps because I see many similarities between what he was then and what I have become. I feel also that I am a drifter with a casual sense of purpose, a decent human being with an indecent need to escape certain situations that I create. And sometimes, when I feel a vague sense of unease, I’m not sure whether it is because my life is amoral, my life finally selfishly purposeful, or that I just know while this life works very well for me now, will it be feasible to pursue it for another twenty or thirty years? What I do is teach English as a foreign language and write book reviews; a combination I’ve been practising for about ten years, and which seems to give me a pleasure that hasn’t been diluted by the notion that both activities would appear to many as interim jobs. Wouldn’t teaching English as a foreign language lead to running a language school, to a secondary school teaching career, to a PhD in linguistics, followed by a move into academia? And the book reviewing, should that not demand a proper move into publishing, into editing, or becoming a novelist?

There was also another reason I’d been thinking a lot about Joe lately. A few months ago I became involved with a woman also in her early thirties; a divorced mother with a young daughter, Hannah, who recently suggested I move in with her. I don’t own a flat of my own, though the one I rent is cosy and comfortable, top floor and near the centre of the city. So I’m reluctant to move out of my present accommodation; and also reluctant to move into hers; thinking that if I do, what exactly would my impact on her daughter be? Joe’s influence on me seemed almost entirely favourable, but that may simply have been my disposition at the time, and some might claim that retrospectively his effect was problematic. If I’m a dilettante, as some have insisted, do I have Joe’s casual approach to life to thank for that?

It was as if I couldn’t quite make a decision without seeing Joe again, and not so much to ask him for advice, but to see what had happened to him over the last twenty years of his life. I would sometimes wonder if I knew how to live till my mid-thirties because I could see Joe up until that stage of his life but not beyond. I hadn’t told Hannah the reason for my reluctance to move in with her; indeed I hadn’t even told her I wouldn’t, but I knew that I needed time to think and perhaps even to explore my past so that I could consider my future.

I decided to search out the past initially, and that’s when for the first time in many years I mentioned Joe to my mother, the time I’ve already alluded to in this story. Her comment about him leaving as if they were no more than casual friends came out of that conversation, and I couldn’t help but think there was some bitterness there when she uttered the line, even if she generally spoke of Joe not only with fondness but even admiration. There were certain questions I would have liked to ask (like whether he paid her a proper rent), but that somehow felt too violating, and would look as if I were determined to judge him. Instead I asked very few questions at all and allowed her to reminisce.

3

She said he’d spent two or three years travelling before arriving in Edinburgh. He was different from a lot of Australians, because he had travelled very little in his twenties: after university he became a primary school teacher, and would spend his lengthy holidays exploring Australia. It wasn’t until he was thirty one that he first left the country, and that was to go, briefly, to New Zealand. A year later he gave up his job and decided to travel indefinitely, moving from Japan, to Goa to New York to London and then on to Edinburgh, Now he had devoted a lot of his time to yoga and other alternative activities in Australia, and continued to do so in Japan, and with friends in a retreat he helped set up in Goa. Indeed, one reason why he had travelled so little before was because he wondered whether travelling was a violation of his environmental ethics and his need for a kind of karmic stillness. He said that he only decided to travel further than Australia and New Zealand after an acrid break-up with the woman whom he thought he was going to marry. He never explained what happened, but if there is such a thing as a love of one’s life, my mother believed that was what the girlfriend had been to him. Maybe, she said, Joe never explained because it would have hurt him too much to do so, or because it might, he would have believed, hurt her too much to tell her what had happened. After all, when he was explaining his reasons for travelling, my mother and Joe had already become close. It was at this moment my mother’s eyes looked down, and I hesitated: I wanted to know whether they had been in love; but I decided to give her that moment to herself, even though for me it would hardly have been an idle question.

I was asking myself often enough whether I was in love with the person whom I was seeing. Could I claim Hannah was the love of my life, or just another person with whom I’d fallen into habit with? I think what I wanted my mother to tell me about was whether her feelings for Joe were more than habitual feelings of affection; or rather whether Joe’s feelings for her were more than habitual feelings of affection. When I looked back and thought of Joe, I wanted to know whether I should have been thinking of him as an exploratory person who would travel from place to place having intense, meaningful flings, or a pragmatist who would move from woman to woman, to women who could provide him with creature comforts and the continuation of his habits. This was something I very much wanted to ask my mother; but how could I do so without potentially wounding, at the very least, her pride?

After Joe, I’m sure she had the occasional lover, but nobody ever again moved into our house (we moved into a smaller one a couple of years after Joe left); however neither did Joe ever again come and visit us. He may have kept in touch with my mother, but he certainly never sent me any birthday or Christmas cards after he moved away. It seems to me, though, that if he failed to do so because he simply moved from one intense encounter to another, that was acceptable, but if he moved from one habitual affair to the next, that would have given me cause, perhaps, for resentment.

And possibly a resentment that would dangerously rebound back on me and become a form of self-hatred. It’s as though my fascination with Joe also lay in a dubious sense of my self and my own motives, my own feeling that perhaps I had moved from relationship to relationship with habitual rather than passionate desire; that I gravitated towards convenience over real feeling.  But if Joe had at least done so after being messily hurt; what was my excuse?

4

It was several weeks after talking to my mother, and a couple of weeks after working many of the above thoughts through, that I told Hannah I needed to get away. She asked where I wanted to go, and I said probably India, maybe Australia. At that moment I didn’t really know whether I wanted to search Joe out – my mother had said he would probably have gone back to Australia or settled in India, and named the retreat he had helped start – or just break my own sense of habit. I’d never travelled outside of Europe, and with the casual teaching hours I had, there was no reason why I couldn’t take off for much of the spring: I had another couple of weeks of guaranteed work and then I was free. I arranged my Visa with the Indian consulate, managed to get a late flight for five hundred pounds, and off I went.

I returned six weeks later, after spending most of the time cycling around Goa and swimming and sunbathing on its many beautiful beaches. I gave up searching for Joe after the first couple of days, after, at the retreat my mother named, the bearded western owner in his mid-fifties told me that yes he knew Joe.  Joe would still come over every year or eighteen months, but that he now lived in the South of England, that he was with someone and that they had two children. Or at least that was what he surmised: Joe on one occasion had come with the whole family; though usually he came on his own. I asked how old the children were. He said they would now be about ten. They were twins he insisted.  For a while this was all I needed to know about Joe’s life; in the sense that I could no longer see Joe as some glorious, existential wanderer, someone whose peripatetic footsteps I could follow in, but someone who’d adjusted, apparently like everybody else, to normal life. I wondered when I got back whether I would believe the India trip was my last act of freedom, my last gesture of cosy solitude. It wasn’t even as if, really, I’d broken any of my habits whilst away. I would get up at about eight or nine each morning, have muesli and a paratha for breakfast at a nearby café, return to my room and write for a couple of hours, and then spend the afternoon swimming or cycling. Certainly the activities were slightly different from those I would pursue in the often wet and windy climate of Scotland, but the underlying routine still seemed to be there.

When I returned to Edinburgh I didn’t see Hannah straight away: I’d sent her a postcard from Goa, saying I would get in touch after I got back. I didn’t say exactly how long after I got back that I would want to get in touch, and so maybe managed to eradicate any feelings of guilt by that postcard gesture. For a week or so after my return I thought a lot about Joe’s commitment, a commitment I presumed he would have made in his early forties if his children were ten. He would still have had – after leaving us – a few years on his own before settling down, I guessed, and for a while this somehow made me feel more comfortable with myself – even with the fact that I had still to phone Hannah and tell her I was back in Scotland. I left that for another week, and when I did see her it was to say I wanted to be on my own. I explained, as she sat on the couch, and I, initially, on a chair opposite, that I still had this sense of solitude that couldn’t allow me to commit to being with another person, at least not at that moment. And yet something in my gesture then might have contradicted my statement: as I saw her hands lightly tremble, I went over and held them. I ended up staying the night, but left before breakfast the next morning.

5

I did not phone Hannah for several weeks after that, and only replied by e-mail after she’d left a number of messages on my answering machine. What could I say, I thought? So I spent most of my remaining holiday time (I decided not to start teaching again for another couple of weeks), writing in the morning, watching some films at a film festival in the afternoon and evening, and meeting with the occasional friend who would wonder about my preoccupied state. If they knew Hannah, they would finally sympathise with her, and if they were my friends, claim, I thought, a half-hearted sympathy for me. It was one evening after watching a film with a friend, a film about someone grieving for their lost husband and who could not confront their loss, that I decided I would search Joe out again. When the friend and I discussed the film he said at one stage that maybe most of our grieving is neurotic, because we never accept the dead as dead: we don’t live in a culture of finality. He’d lost his own mother the previous year, and said that there were so many pictures of her, so many wedding videos and holiday videos, that though he’d never actually watched any of the videos, and only occasionally looked at old photos, there was no sense of categorical mortality.

Now I should say that his comments struck me especially forcefully because of something very strange. My father, my mother told me when I was about fourteen after I had asked to look at some pictures of him, had insisted that all his photos be burned along with his cremated body. He supposedly didn’t want us to be stalling our lives by keeping him in our minds: he wanted us to move on and love other people as much as we had loved him. But of course what we did was probably just transfer the love onto something or somebody else: my mother onto the whole health kick and then onto Joe; and for me directly onto a living role model, Joe also. Perhaps, finally, I loved Joe more than my mother did. For I recall that for months after my father died I felt for a long time that he would come back, and that my mother wasn’t just busying herself in wholefoods to escape from grieving, and create a subjunctive, what if, existence (that thought would come much later), but that she would actually conjure my father back to life out of this curious, almost religious practice.

It was then, in the days following the film and the conversation with the friend, that I gave much thought to the prayers I would recite every night after my father died and that I hoped would bring him back. And I remember I stopped praying shortly after Joe came to stay. Now of course Joe only stayed for a number of months, and it might seem surprising that after he left I neither prayed again for his or my father’s return, nor did I feel especially sad about his leaving. After all he’d neither died, nor did he choose to leave no trace of himself: there were plenty of pictures of Joe if and when I wanted to access them.

6

I hadn’t looked at a picture of him for years, and on one visit to my mother’s (I would usually pop in for dinner about once a week). I asked if I could see some pictures of Joe. She looked at me sceptically but seemed to know better than me why I wanted to look at those pictures. What I saw in them was a man who would have been then roughly the age I am now. I would hold one or two of them up to the mirror and see how much or how little he looked like me. I realized, though, as I’ve noted, I hadn’t seen a picture of him for a very long time; that it was almost as if I had modelled myself on his general style.

It was after looking at those pictures two urgent issues forced themselves upon me. One was still this desire to see Joe. The other, and perhaps the stronger of the two, was to find, somehow, somewhere, a picture of my father. I felt at that moment curiously orphaned, and wondered where I might find a photo of him. I also wanted very much to find out where Joe lived. I wondered whether these actions might help me get over what increasingly seemed to be becoming a crisis. It was now early July, and I would be teaching once again in a week’s time and hadn’t given it any thought at all. I seemed also to want to put off even talking to Hannah until I’d resolved this internal chaos first.

It was a twofold process. First I phoned the retreat in India where Joe would sometimes stay. I spoke to the same man I had talked to in person a couple of months before, and asked if he could give me Joe’s address. He acquiesced too readily for the safety of his guests, but maybe he judged people on first appearances, and that mine had been acceptable: ironically so if I looked like Joe had looked twenty years previously. Did he look now just like an older version of me? The second was to look through every regional newspaper from the three year period when my parents lived in the Highlands. I looked through every issue of the Highland News and the Inverness Courier, searching for my father’s name, since I could barely recall his face. I found a total of three pictures: two for football (they were team shots) and one for coming second in a half marathon. They weren’t of an especially good quality, but they allowed me to recognize nothing in common in terms of style, but one or two similar aspects in the features. He had very dark hair, like my own, and a petite nose and eyes that were maybe ever so slightly too close to the centre of the face. He was probably quite good looking, maybe more so than Joe, but had none of Joe’s openness to the world. My father’s face seemed closed-off, slightly clenched and as if already stoically accepting some imminent fate.

7

I started teaching before I had the opportunity to arrange to go and see Joe, but I decided to visit him that first free weekend. I didn’t phone him, didn’t say I was coming: I didn’t even know that if I saw him I would tell him who I was. It was possible I would sit in the car and watch to see him and his family coming out of the house. I drove down on the Friday night and didn’t arrive in Salisbury until the next afternoon. I’d got a few hours sleep in the car at  between about two and seven, but still felt tired and so booked into a Bed and Breakfast not far from his flat. I rested for another hour, then showered and ate at a nearby café. It would have been about four thirty when I went along to his flat by foot and decided I would see if he was in. There was no answer, so I returned to my room, lay restlessly on the bed trying to read a book I had just started and needed to read for the course I was teaching, and then gave up. I went along to his flat and tried calling again. The boldness of the gesture was not matched by any real thought, and so when someone answered the door, I said that I was awfully sorry but a friend had given me his address and number and said that he gave private yoga lessons. I’d lost the number but still had the address and, as I was staying nearby, I thought I would try the buzzer. He said that yes he did teach yoga, and asked if I would like to come in for a cup of tea, and perhaps we could arrange a session for the following day. I said thank you and walked into the flat in front of him, and he closed the door behind us.

It was obviously Joe, but I got the impression, from a certain ascetic décor, that he lived alone. The flat was on the ground floor with a small garden out the back. It seemed to have a back bedroom – I could see through an open door a bed – and a front room that I could see was used as a space for yoga. The bathroom was in between the two rooms. On the other side lay the sitting room and kitchen, where we had tea. The kitchen had patio doors that led into the garden, and the sitting room area was made up of low seating, with an equally low-slung, wooden coffee table in the middle. On the walls were paintings, hangings and a few shelves of books. I of course didn’t ask whether he lived alone, and what was interesting was that Joe asked me no personal questions either: not even about the curious Scottish accent that must have been quite rare in a smallish, south westerly English town. All we talked about was yoga and health, and the way that for Joe the body was not so much a temple as a wonderfully malleable object full of possibilities. He asked one or two questions, about my past yoga training, my general health and diet, but that was all, and we arranged to meet at ten o’clock the next morning.

I turned up at ten and the session lasted an hour and a half. I had been doing yoga on and off for the previous ten years, so my ruse was hardly readily identifiable, but as Joe and I practised a particular form of yoga, very strenuous but curiously unenergetic, I felt I was getting to know him all over again. I suspected he might have known who I was, but he never, at any stage, even after the class where we sat and talked and had tea in his dining room, asked me any questions that would lead me to reveal my identity. As I left, satisfied in body and mind, I promised that the next time I was down – I had work to do back in Edinburgh – I would seek him out again. He looked at me with too little surprise on his face, I believed, not to know I was someone for whom he’d been a father figure many years before. But then I suppose I finally never knew to how many he’d been a father figure: including those kids he’d taken to Goa, and who others had assumed were his own.

8

Driving back up the road I resolved that I wouldn’t continue seeing Hannah, and that, for the moment, I would put all I had to give to people into my teaching. If Joe was finally the best father figure I’d known, I couldn’t help but feel it had nothing to do with the way he personally affected my life, but much more how he impersonally influenced it. It made sense that we didn’t talk about ourselves; what was there to say, except a catch-up that would have grounded both of us, trapped us in what we too often call real life, when instead we had two cups of tea, an intense yoga session and then parted company. I sometimes now think, provocatively, going against so many tenets in psychology, that our problem is not with parents divorcing or dying, but the petrified role models that encase us in our names, where we’re from, and the parental obligations that role models, like charity, should begin at home. Maybe, as with charity, that’s where obligation begins, and never quite ends. Yet I couldn’t deny either that I wanted to return back up the road, eat at my mother’s place that evening, and somehow find a way of talking to her. To tell her earlier that morning I had a yoga session with a man she had known and perhaps loved twenty years before, and whom in recent months she had probably given far less thought to than I had.

 

 

©Tony McKibbin