Adjacencies

17/11/2019

My aunt picked me up from the station in Inverness even though I’d arranged originally to cycle through from the Highland capital to my parents’ place a few miles from Dingwall. That is why I took the mountain bike with me, expecting bad enough weather for the racer to prove useless. I thought there might be a bit of snow but by the time the train arrived in Inverness, two hours late (it was four o’clock on Christmas Eve and now dark), the snow had fallen heavily and it would be reckless to cycle. But I had good tyres, a decent set of lights and a high vis jacket. It would be a little rash yet not completely incautious. However, when I arrived at the station there my aunt was saying that she had it on strict orders from my mother that I must come with her. She offered it in her usually ironic and imaginative way, presenting it as an MI5 comment that must be obeyed. I locked the bike to a railing in the station and accepted my fate. As I got into the car, I asked if she wasn’t being reckless by driving in this weather. My aunt replied that her tyres were better than the bike’s and if we did get stuck a car roof over our heads would be better than a helmet on mine. I was pleased she was still able to joke; it had only been six months since her husband died. 

As we drove she asked me a few questions about my work, how Marion was (she was spending Christmas with her mother, who hadn’t been well) and whether I’d transfer to Germany (if my German improved and I could one day get a post there).  As I answered I thought that the minor problems in my life seemed so inconsequential (even if Marion and I had argued before she left) next to her loss and yet I didn’t quite know how to ask, to enquire how she was coping with my uncle’s absence.  I had asked many awkward questions of her and others in the past, and yet found that I didn’t need to do so this time as she explained why it was especially important she pick me up from the station rather than let me recklessly cycle through. She told me that a couple of weeks before, her nearby neighbour in Inverness saw her at the bus stop (my aunt's car was in for repair) next to the post office and pulled in, suggesting she could give her a lift. The moment my aunt got in the car the bus pulled in behind them and pressed firmly on the horn to indicate cars had no right parking there however momentarily. My aunt was visibly shaken, she said, but anything at all in recent months had made her nervous; she was surprised that May happened to be no less so. As they drove out of town while the snow began to fall, and out to Culloden where they both lived, May asked how she had been getting on. Over the previous five months, every time someone asked her the question she burst into tears, yet for some reason as May enquired she didn’t feel the need to cry at all. My aunt said that she missed him whenever she had not so much a moment to herself but when she felt alone in company, or when she came across something of his surprisingly. She then felt an immense solitude or broke down. But the worst moments were when someone asked in a tender and considerate tone how she happened to be. The tears would come and she found herself apologizing. Yet more tears came as the person showed still further consideration while they said there was nothing to be sorry for at all. It was good to cry they said, but for how long, and how often my aunt thought. 

Yet here she was asked by May about how she happened to be and in a tone that meant no tears were forthcoming. She suspected she understood why a couple of minutes later when May said that there had been a recent loss in her family too, that her son-in-law had died in a car accident in October. He was twenty-two she said, and she often warned him that he drove too fast, that she had a daughter to worry about and he promised after one particular near miss with another vehicle when May was in the car that he wouldn’t drive carelessly again as long as anybody else was beside him. As he drove away from the van he almost rammed into, he was profusely apologetic and never allowed the car to go over fifty. As he dropped her off he apologised once more but May vowed to herself that she would never get into a car with him again. 

She held to that promise until the day he died, but she wondered if she might have been responsible for killing him. It sounded to my aunt like one of those hyperbolic statements people offer when grieving; she had pronounced a few of her own since my uncle’s death. I remember at the wake after the funeral her saying that she was never really there for him -even though she often forwent the holidays she wished to go on for him; and sometimes would go on trips that couldn’t have been much fun for her because he wished to go: once I remember she went to an anthropological conference in Mexico City, hoping to at least see the Pacific Ocean afterwards. The conference went on for five days and they never did, on that occasion, see the ocean. 

I am sure you are exaggerating my aunt said in a manner that conveyed her own capacity to do the same, but May thought not. May and her husband were visiting her daughter and son-in-law over at their place. They’d been invited for dinner and when May and her husband arrived they expected that if the dinner wouldn’t be on the table then at least it would be in the process of being prepared. But no, her daughter and her son-in-law hadn’t even yet gone shopping - indeed they had forgotten they had invited them round at all. May wasn’t too happy about this, expressed irritation aggravated by growing hunger and an awareness that by the time the shopping had been bought and even a hasty dish made it would be another hour before food was inside them. She said they could get a take-away, tried to give her son-in-law fifty pounds that he refused to accept, saying he knew a good Indian place a couple of miles away and he would be back in no time. He proposed that May come along knowing how choosy she could be when it came to food, and May said there was no way she was getting in a car with him and he could go as fast as he liked: she wouldn’t be in the passenger seat but she was very hungry. 

As he hadn’t returned within half an hour, instead of getting concerned May became irate, asking her daughter where the heck he happened to be - that he couldn’t drive fast enough most of the time; here she was famished and he decided to dawdle. An hour later they got a phone call, explaining the details of the accident. He had died instantly, no doubt the carry-out an incidental mess next to the bone, brain and metal they would have found entangled after the head-on collision. I didn’t doubt these weren’t May’s words and was a little surprised to hear them from my aunt’s mouth, but in a couple of phone calls with my mother in the last three months she said that sometimes my aunt came out with some very dark observations. My aunt continued saying that all May could think about was of the hour where she denigrated her son-in-law in front of her daughter and there he would have been already dead. She was insulting a dead man. And if she had gone and picked the take away up with him he’d have driven less recklessly and her daughter’s life wouldn’t be over as well as her son-in-law’s. My aunt asked May about her daughter, saying that she saw her a few weeks earlier and noticed as she said hello that she looked very tired, but they didn’t talk and she assumed it was work or money worries. May said that she wasn’t coping at all and couldn’t stop blaming May for her husband’s death. At that moment, May said, they weren’t talking.

As my aunt drove cautiously out to my parents’ place from Inverness I didn’t know whether she was driving so slowly because the road was treacherous, that she had the accident May told her about in mind, or that she had an idea of just how long her story would take and that to drive at even standard speed might mean that we’d arrive at the house before she had finished narrating her tale. While car after car overtook us, I offered this latter proposition to her and she said it was funny - she had the same feeling when she had been talking to May; May seemed to be driving too slowly, but she didn’t know whether it was out of meteorological considerations, a basic respect for the dangers of speed, or that she had a story to tell and didn’t want to rush it. What my aunt did believe that late afternoon was that May needed to speak to someone who knew what suffering was. She didn’t want anyone to offer condolences, didn’t wish to be alone in her grief and guilt with a concerned onlooker. No, she wanted a woman who shared that pain so that the story didn’t have an audience and a teller, but two people who could give perspective to each other’s misfortunes. 

I asked her if she had seen May since; my aunt said she had popped round twice. It seemed that not only was her own daughter angry with her, the son-in-law’s parents had sent her a detailed and despairing letter, one full of acrimony and accusation saying that May had killed their only child. Obviously, her daughter had spoken to them about what had happened, told his parents how she wouldn’t get in the car and yet nevertheless told him to speed off as quickly as he could. How could she get her daughter to forgive her and the son-in-law’s parents to accept she wasn’t responsible? She asked it knowing there was no answer and that if she had eschewed her words and acted on a deed none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t feel terrible about what she said and she would have got in the car and saved a young man’s life instead of having feared for her own. There was no angle by which she could look at it which didn’t implicate her in the deed, though she killed no one nor even wished someone dead. 

I didn’t know how much of what my aunt was saying were May’s formulations or my aunt’s, and even offering the name May as if I know her creates a further distance in this story that made it resemble the sort of ethical dilemmas I sometimes explored in the first year philosophy courses I taught. And I wasn’t so sure if my aunt (who herself taught literature for many years), wasn’t offering the story to me aware that it might become an example I might give of moral quandaries. I asked her how she tried to assuage May’s guilt and my aunt said by trying to talk a bit about her own, and also recommending to her a couple of books. One was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee and another A Child in Time by Ian McEwan. I’d read neither but had another by Coetzee on my shelf that I’d been meaning to read for a while, knowing that a philosopher I sometimes used, Peter Singer, had engaged with the book. I couldn’t remember its title but it had the word animals in it.  As my aunt explained that Disgrace looked at a man who slept with a student in the first half of the book and whose daughter is raped in the second while he is held back by the perpetrators of the act, and that the latter focused on a couple whose only child gets snatched away at a supermarket, so she said to May the books might give context to her feelings. She had read both in recent months, she told May, and if they hadn’t quite provided the solace she sought they nevertheless were amongst the few things that had distracted her from her own preoccupations. 

I asked my aunt what May’s job happened to be. She was a social worker, someone who worked with teenagers who had been in front of a children’s tribunal for relatively minor misdemeanours: stealing, small-scale pyromania, driving their dad’s car accidentally into a wall after deciding they would take their friends out for a drive. It was partly why May had said, she spoke to her son-in-law as she had - with the exasperated tone of a person used to dealing with similar behaviour but from people ten years younger.  

I recalled my own brief interaction with a social worker when I was thirteen. A friend had set fire to a wood out behind Craig Dunain hospital and while I hadn’t started the fire, and discouraged the friend from starting it, I was there at the time and when he was caught they asked to speak to me as well. I remember the social worker as someone who talked to me frankly and insistently, just as I could imagine May talking to her son-in-law. The woman had told me that many teenagers think they are having a bit of fun but before they know it everything becomes serious. Instead of just hanging out with people they are part of a gang; instead of getting a bit drunk, they start taking drugs; instead of stealing a few quid from their mother’s purse they are breaking into somebody’s house. If I didn’t wise up soon I’d be looking at a life she was seeing on a daily basis: people in and out of poorly paid jobs, in and out of prison, in and out of relationships they can’t hold on to even when children were involved. 

It was a moralising lecture but it worked on me: the social worker combined an imaginative story of my future life with moral through lines for emphasis, and I was easily dissuaded from pursuing the crooked path. I told the friend that if he started another fire in my company I’d tell the police; if I’d heard he stole from his mother’s purse I’d tell her; if he wanted to get drunk that was his business but if he expected me to take him to hospital to have his stomach pumped the friendship would be over. He didn’t need my pep talk it turned out: the social worker had worked on him too but there were a  couple of months where we didn’t talk and I told him I regretted my righteous tone, perhaps because a couple of nuanced novels my parents gave me that Christmas, not long after the incident, allowed me to see things from a less morally adamant perspective. We are still friends, and while maybe my parents’ background suggested at least statistically that I was unlikely to become a member of the criminal classes, he was the more likely candidate. His parents were low-paid workers and the family lived on a housing estate in Inverness where police officers and social workers paid regular visits. If I had become a criminal it would have been against expectation; if he had become so it would have been to confirm it. 

He teaches too, in a secondary school in Edinburgh that no doubt has its delinquents but isn’t expected to produce them. I told my auntie this and she said she knew she’d been told of my burgeoning criminal life. Those books I was given that Christmas were her own suggestions; my parent had asked what books she might recommend a boy tempted by a life of criminality. My aunt and uncle had been living abroad at the time but she recalled the phone calls she and my mother would have during that period. She was glad the books were of use; she hoped May might be able soon to say the same. 

She said that May’s son-in-law supposedly had no incidence of bad behaviour in his past but it was well-known that when he got his driving licence days after his seventeenth birthday he loved to take the car out on dirt roads and drive as fast as he could. He was always tinkering with the engine, putting on new exhausts and trying to get the car to accelerate ever more quickly and May’s daughter would sometimes joke with her mother saying that he loved the car more than her. May was tempted to say she didn’t doubt it, she told my aunt, and indeed if we love the things we are willing to die for, then it seemed he loved his car. 

I asked my aunt how things stood the last time she saw May. It was a few days ago, she said, and May was hoping for some sort of reconciliation with her daughter over the Christmas period. She had invited her over for a drink on New Year’s Eve. She hoped May had some good news. I said maybe she could tell me how it went. I was in the Highlands till the 2nd of January I said as the car pulled into my parents’ inclined driveway, as my aunt accelerated while the wheels spun on the snow. We managed to get up close to the side of the house and she turned the engine off as we were about to get out. She turned to me and said it was great to talk.

When we got into the house my sister, her husband and their two kids were there, having travelled up from Aviemore before the snow started to fall, and my sister said she was a bit worried we wouldn’t make it, and my mother was relieved to see that I’d arrived with her sister rather than treacherously taking goodness knows how many hours to get there on the bike. I put everyone’s presents under the tree and my aunt did likewise while my father started to serve up a dish of grilled trout, with lemon and parsley, sweet potato wedges and some greens. A healthy dinner my parents proclaimed before the artery-blocking dish the following day. My sister, a nutritionist, smiled, aware that such remarks were made at her expense but also in acknowledgement of how much more food conscious they had become thanks to her in recent years. My aunt momentarily looked sad, as though wondering if she had been more insistent over her husband’s diet whether he might still have been alive: he died of coronary heart disease. My mother noticed her sadness too and I looked at her suggesting that maybe the joke, well-meant, had indeed left a bad taste in someone’s mouth. My mother asked her sister if she was ok, went over to her and put her hand on her shoulder as my aunt looked about to cry. She instead looked at me and thanked me for getting in the car. It was no less ambiguous a remark than her earlier one suggesting it was great to talk, but I assumed she was just pleased that we hadn’t talked about her husband’s death or suffered through lengthy silences as I might have tried not to do so.  

The next couple of days Gerry was an absent presence that was only once accidentally evoked when one of my sister’s daughters said it was such a pity Uncle Gerry wasn’t here anymore —he alway gave her amazing presents. This was before we opened them on Christmas morning, and my aunt hoped her great-niece wouldn’t be too disappointed. They weren’t at all and my aunt said maybe Gerry had advised her in mysterious ways. Everybody chuckled at that, a mild joke in a non-religious family getting a bigger laugh than the joke deserved. 

She returned on Boxing Day and said before going if I wanted a lift back on the  2nd she would happily oblige. I said I’d probably get the train in but asked if it would be okay to stay at hers on the night of the 1st. Of course, she said. She planned to invite May round for Hogmanay, so my aunt apologized in advance just in case she would be a bit hung-over. I had an early train the next morning. It would be a pleasure she said in the same tone that she offered her remark about the great conversation. Everybody else said goodbye to her in the warmth of the house; I helped take her stuff out to the car, including a bagful of presents that of course, her husband in previous years had carried. She said as I put the bags into the boot that it was at times like this she realised she should have had children. I couldn’t work out whether the remark was made in jest (that children have their uses), or in sorrow (that they might have helped her with her grief) but as her countenance was light and the latter suggestion too dark to contemplate, I took it to mean the former while I stood for a moment and waved her off as the car pulled out of the driveway. Luckily the drizzle on Christmas Day had dissolved the snow and though it was an icy day several degrees colder than Christmas Eve, the roads needn’t have been treacherous.

That evening as the others were through in the living room warming themselves by the fire and watching a repeated Christmas episode of a favourite TV show, and as I helped my mother wash the dishes, I asked her why her sister never had children. She looked surprised when I enquired, perhaps because she knew that I, at thirty-eight, had shown no interest in having kids either. I offered to her my aunt’s closing remark before she got in the car and said perhaps she was joking but possibly not. It wasn’t Joan who didn’t want children she said, it was Gerry. He always wanted to travel whenever they could and reckoned they had the best of both worlds. They were both teachers surrounded by kids from Monday to Friday during term time, who could constantly go away at weekends and during the holidays. Over the years they hadn’t only lived abroad for several years, they had travelled properly the length and breadth of Britain - from Plockton on the west coast of Scotland to Dunbar on the East. They knew most of the historic towns and cities in England, including York, Durham, Bath, Canterbury and of course Oxford and Cambridge. During the summer holidays they had travelled throughout Europe, often by camper van, and over the years I had heard stories mainly from my uncle about places I would then later go to myself: Granada, Berlin, Montpellier, Athens, Venice, Split. During the Christmas break they would often go even further: for three weeks in Mexico (where she eventually saw the Pacific), or India, or the US. As a child, our parents mainly took us on camping holidays in the south of France, not too far from Montpellier. I felt a curious envy towards my aunt and uncle when I was young, and a strange type of disdain for my parents that if I thought about it could only manifest itself as self-hatred. How could I despise my parents’ choices when I was   a product of them? 

I asked my mother if her sister had been happy childless and she said it was that she had been ambivalent. While my uncle seemed very clear that childlessness was freedom, she sometimes thought her sister saw it as freedom at a price. My mother had always thought this because of how attached she would sometimes get to her students; even how attached she seemed to me. My mother offered it as a fact yet I received it as a shock. Obviously, I’d felt close to my aunt but I’d never heard it articulated before, and it seemed all the more strange coming out of my mother’s mouth — as though she knew that I had often felt closer to her sister than to her. What I can say is I’ve always found it much easier to talk to my aunt than to my mother. My mother talked about things but my aunt enquired into them. After twenty minutes my mother and I had nothing to discuss; with my aunt after twenty minutes we had only got started.

I took a train back to Inverness on the 1st, and walked with my rucksack the half-mile to my aunt’s place along Island Bank Road. It was the first time I’d been back there since my uncle died, and while it was a house most would deem too big for the pair of them, I expected it to seem enormous in his absence. Yet when I arrived, leaving my rucksack in the vestibule, and shouting up the stairs and hearing no reply, before finding my aunt in wellies in the garden, I didn’t have a sense of emptiness, as if, over all those years when they had dinner parties, student nights where sixth formers came over and drank a little and talked a lot, had filled the house with an atmosphere even death couldn’t remove. The books were still tumbling off shelves, the artworks by friends were still on the walls, and the photographs going back many years (many of my uncle but numerous others of my sister and I, my parents, and no doubt many unfamiliar ones that were of students), made the house seem impregnable to loss. I could have spent hours talking to my aunt just about the things she and my uncle had bought over the years from their travels. As I said hello, saying that I’d dumped my back-pack inside the front door, I felt my aunt’s presence before I saw her. Personal places have always had that effect on me: I feel I know the person if I have a sense of their space, and never felt that more than with my aunt and uncle. My parents’ home was impressive, one of the many imposing 19th century Victorian houses built in my parents’ village when it was a famous spa town, but I reckoned they could have lived in any number of others, as if the only operative word needed to be imposing. There were a few books in the house, some paintings on the wall, but I wouldn’t really have known from wandering through it how my parents had lived their lives. 

After we went for a walk, she prepared dinner (a vegetarian Moroccan stew) and talked more as we ate it, drank some mint tea afterwards, and insisted we have it with some Baklava she had made the previous day, for May’s visit. I had asked her earlier how they had spent Hogmanay and if there had been any more developments, if May’s daughter had been back in touch. Not only were they again in contact - her daughter had joined May and my aunt for New Year’s Eve. It would be erroneous to assume they enjoyed themselves. How could they celebrate a new year when the old one had been so cruel. Yet the evening had been meaningful my aunt believed. May’s daughter managed to acknowledge that it might have been her as readily as her mother who could have been so irritated with her husband: she just wasn’t quite as hungry. She often told him to be more careful, had said on several occasions she wouldn’t have been surprised if he killed himself in that car, and a couple of times insisted on getting the bus back home instead of going back in the car with him, leaving him with a trolley full of shopping bags and said she would meet him back there. Everybody had a problem with his driving and expressed it. May just happened to express it most vociferously the day he lost his life. 

Listening to my aunt tell me this I wondered whose formulation it happened to be — the daughter’s, May’s, my aunt’s? Maybe a combination.  Perhaps it wasn’t so important to individuate one from the other; that they had found the means by which grief can be expressed. That the important thing isn’t who is grieving but that grief is released at all. That is perhaps what I found so pleasing about passing through the house: there was no sense of grief within it but instead a continuity of things of which my auntie just happened to be one. I had for a long time wished to write something about the stickiness of loss, about people grieving for things ever since Marion told me a couple of years ago that after her father died, her mother had no problem going to the graveside regularly to lay flowers, but found it very difficult to go into the shed where for years he had made his own furniture,  even on occasion bursting into tears when a visitor commented on the lovely sideboard, chair or table. In my aunt’s house I had no sense that grief was sticking to anything; her grief was her own and she was coping with it without contaminating the things themselves. As she said, it only happened when something surprised her.

I suspected this sense of the house and my aunt's well-being happened to be what May and her daughter felt too when they had visited on Hogmanay and I tried to suggest this to my auntie as I asked her a few questions about how the evening went. She said they arrived about eight, the three of them had an aperitif, had dinner around nine and sat at the table chatting for a couple of hours before my aunt made some coffee and took it out to the conservatory that she had warmed up earlier that evening with the wood-burning stove. From there they watched the fireworks across the river from Bught park, and May and her daughter left before one. 

She described it initially in a matter of fact way, in a manner that left me at first wondering whether there was either complicity in their grief that she didn’t want to share with me, or an acceptance that she couldn’t share it unless I asked the right questions in approaching it. A couple of years ago, long before her husband's death, my aunt said I asked good questions — she supposed that such questions had been useful for a book I was soon to publish and that has since come out and which helped me get the post I happen to be in. I interviewed people from various sides in two conflicts: Northern Ireland and the war in the former Yugoslavia.  It was book on the question of moral dilemmas, based partly on investigating questions addressed by a British philosopher in a book about saving lives and accepting deaths, but with the emphasis less on abstract philosophising and more on concrete experience. I asked a philosophically inflected question but wished for an experiential response. I asked one Croatian man, now living in Split, who admitted he had helped oust Serbs from Vukovar after they had taken over the town, if he felt guilt towards the older Serbian people who had been killed after the takeover. One man in Belgrade wondered how Nato could devastate his city as they had and I said that whether I agreed with the Nato bombing or not, I found it surprising that he thought it inexplicable. Hadn’t atrocities been done in his name, and ordered from Belgrade? In Belfast, a protestant man now in his seventies called the IRA thugs and opportunists and I asked whether it was fair that they wished for the right to vote and to share in some of the comforts Protestants took for granted. I wasn’t afraid to ask awkward questions and as I sat in the kitchen eating a slice of homemade cheesecake that May and her daughter had brought the previous evening,  I said to my aunt that I supposed that for other people to ask more specifically, about how three grieving people coped with the passing of a terrible year and with perhaps few hopes for the new one, might seem impertinent. But I’ve long since believed that most of what passes for intelligent conversation, meaningful interaction, hovers close to impertinence. Is it not often in the search for pertinence that the impertinent manifests itself? 

So I asked her whether they all fell into their grief or found a means by which to communicate it and thus began, just a little, to alleviate it. She looked at me with shrewdness yet not without humour and said that was a journalist’s question — the sort of inquiry someone offers when they are in a given political situation that has less to do with the individual’s grief than the broader social circumstances of which they are a minor representative. I said the way she framed it sounded an awful like the tone of the book I’d written. I know, she replied, saying she’d read it. I was surprised she hadn’t told me before. I’d sent her the book after it was published but not long before my uncle’s death and assumed she hadn’t yet opened it at all. She had read it right through, she said, and one of the things that interested her about it, one of the things that she even envied about those grieving in these two headline wars, if wars they were and where one was regarded as such and the other not, then it was the idea that grief was inevitably shared. People might suffer appallingly together but they needn’t grieve alone. My aunt added rather redundantly that Hogmanay from a certain perspective was happy — it alleviated the envy she felt reading about other lives that had from almost any angle been much, much worse than hers. There they were, one woman in her late sixties, another in her mid-fifties and a third around twenty-five, all coming together and cocooned in a grief that somehow seemed warmer than it had in the prior months. 

Was that my aunt’s words or mine imposing themselves upon hers, trying to share in a loss to which I can only be at worst a voyeur or at best her confessor? When I asked her whether I was one or the other she said that people who ask questions tend to be confessors; those who look on however sympathetically can seem closer to voyeurs. It isn’t that they don’t care. They probably do, and maybe more than those who ask questions. But the sympathetic look leaves you in your own grieving solitude; the confessor asks at least what your grief consists of. To explain is to share it; even if the confessor is outside that process they at least acknowledge that reality and try to get closer to the griever. In her darker moments, ones that would turn all that she observed into people’s cynicism, selfishness and hypocrisy, she saw people looking sympathetically at her from a careful vantage point: the look that said I now have to acknowledge your situation but please don’t engage me in it. How are you, they would say — and then be in too much of a hurry to hear a proper answer. When she wasn’t thinking so darkly she saw the pragmatics of it: they were leading lives, getting things done; not trawling the sea bed of their own thoughts. May, her daughter and my aunt doing exactly that on New Year’s Eve made for as good an evening as she could have hoped for, and somehow itself generated hope. 

By the time I was ready to leave the next day the heavy snow that had fallen on Christmas Eve, cleared by Boxing Day, and fallen intermittently again over the following week, had all but disappeared. There was still the odd pocket of thickly dense snow people had pushed up against the side in clearing a path, but the morning sun would dissolve that. My aunt offered to give me a lift to the station but I insisted a fifteen minute walk with a rucksack on my back was exactly what I needed after a week where I managed to get in a few walks but where I missed long cycles on the bike. And yet then she looked at me as if I would be doing her a favour in her doing me a favour and so I said it was very kind of her. I had more than an hour until the train and she asked if I wouldn’t mind going for a short drive. I’d assumed she was going to take me to see her husband’s grave even though we’d walked over there the previous evening before dinner. Instead she drove me a few miles out to Loch Ness, parked the car and said she just wanted to do it with someone and look out at the river. She often did this with my uncle, sitting there with a flask of tea, joking that they were waiting for the monster to appear. When she thought about it she would sometimes cry, and now here she was with me and feeling that I understood why this might be meaningful for her. I said I thought I did as she pulled out a flask and we shared tea from the same cup. I supposed as she did so she was thinking of Gerry, but I was also thinking how often Marion wished we would spend more time together and how she might have somehow envied this moment I was having with Joan.

She dropped me off at the station and as I moved towards my bike it seemed to me a strangely forlorn object, left alone for a week and unused, chained to a railing but at least left inside the station so that it needn’t show any signs of corrosion after the snowy weather. I thought also about the importance of cars and how for all their destructive power, for all the resources they use up and the people they have killed, unlike the bicycle they provide moments where they bring people together as a bike cannot. I was unlikely to ditch it any time soon for a motor car but I wasn’t unhappy that the snow had forced me to get in my aunt’s on Christmas Eve. Car journeys were strange indeed, bringing people together, but occasionally literally tearing them apart, yet this was the first time I looked at my bike as I walked it along the platform, seeing it as an oddly selfish thing and wondered in looking at it how it might reflect too the possible selfishness of its owner. 

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Adjacencies

My aunt picked me up from the station in Inverness even though I'd arranged originally to cycle through from the Highland capital to my parents' place a few miles from Dingwall. That is why I took the mountain bike with me, expecting bad enough weather for the racer to prove useless. I thought there might be a bit of snow but by the time the train arrived in Inverness, two hours late (it was four o'clock on Christmas Eve and now dark), the snow had fallen heavily and it would be reckless to cycle. But I had good tyres, a decent set of lights and a high vis jacket. It would be a little rash yet not completely incautious. However, when I arrived at the station there my aunt was saying that she had it on strict orders from my mother that I must come with her. She offered it in her usually ironic and imaginative way, presenting it as an MI5 comment that must be obeyed. I locked the bike to a railing in the station and accepted my fate. As I got into the car, I asked if she wasn't being reckless by driving in this weather. My aunt replied that her tyres were better than the bike's and if we did get stuck a car roof over our heads would be better than a helmet on mine. I was pleased she was still able to joke; it had only been six months since her husband died.

As we drove she asked me a few questions about my work, how Marion was (she was spending Christmas with her mother, who hadn't been well) and whether I'd transfer to Germany (if my German improved and I could one day get a post there). As I answered I thought that the minor problems in my life seemed so inconsequential (even if Marion and I had argued before she left) next to her loss and yet I didn't quite know how to ask, to enquire how she was coping with my uncle's absence. I had asked many awkward questions of her and others in the past, and yet found that I didn't need to do so this time as she explained why it was especially important she pick me up from the station rather than let me recklessly cycle through. She told me that a couple of weeks before, her nearby neighbour in Inverness saw her at the bus stop (my aunt's car was in for repair) next to the post office and pulled in, suggesting she could give her a lift. The moment my aunt got in the car the bus pulled in behind them and pressed firmly on the horn to indicate cars had no right parking there however momentarily. My aunt was visibly shaken, she said, but anything at all in recent months had made her nervous; she was surprised that May happened to be no less so. As they drove out of town while the snow began to fall, and out to Culloden where they both lived, May asked how she had been getting on. Over the previous five months, every time someone asked her the question she burst into tears, yet for some reason as May enquired she didn't feel the need to cry at all. My aunt said that she missed him whenever she had not so much a moment to herself but when she felt alone in company, or when she came across something of his surprisingly. She then felt an immense solitude or broke down. But the worst moments were when someone asked in a tender and considerate tone how she happened to be. The tears would come and she found herself apologizing. Yet more tears came as the person showed still further consideration while they said there was nothing to be sorry for at all. It was good to cry they said, but for how long, and how often my aunt thought.

Yet here she was asked by May about how she happened to be and in a tone that meant no tears were forthcoming. She suspected she understood why a couple of minutes later when May said that there had been a recent loss in her family too, that her son-in-law had died in a car accident in October. He was twenty-two she said, and she often warned him that he drove too fast, that she had a daughter to worry about and he promised after one particular near miss with another vehicle when May was in the car that he wouldn't drive carelessly again as long as anybody else was beside him. As he drove away from the van he almost rammed into, he was profusely apologetic and never allowed the car to go over fifty. As he dropped her off he apologised once more but May vowed to herself that she would never get into a car with him again.

She held to that promise until the day he died, but she wondered if she might have been responsible for killing him. It sounded to my aunt like one of those hyperbolic statements people offer when grieving; she had pronounced a few of her own since my uncle's death. I remember at the wake after the funeral her saying that she was never really there for him -even though she often forwent the holidays she wished to go on for him; and sometimes would go on trips that couldn't have been much fun for her because he wished to go: once I remember she went to an anthropological conference in Mexico City, hoping to at least see the Pacific Ocean afterwards. The conference went on for five days and they never did, on that occasion, see the ocean.

I am sure you are exaggerating my aunt said in a manner that conveyed her own capacity to do the same, but May thought not. May and her husband were visiting her daughter and son-in-law over at their place. They'd been invited for dinner and when May and her husband arrived they expected that if the dinner wouldn't be on the table then at least it would be in the process of being prepared. But no, her daughter and her son-in-law hadn't even yet gone shopping - indeed they had forgotten they had invited them round at all. May wasn't too happy about this, expressed irritation aggravated by growing hunger and an awareness that by the time the shopping had been bought and even a hasty dish made it would be another hour before food was inside them. She said they could get a take-away, tried to give her son-in-law fifty pounds that he refused to accept, saying he knew a good Indian place a couple of miles away and he would be back in no time. He proposed that May come along knowing how choosy she could be when it came to food, and May said there was no way she was getting in a car with him and he could go as fast as he liked: she wouldn't be in the passenger seat but she was very hungry.

As he hadn't returned within half an hour, instead of getting concerned May became irate, asking her daughter where the heck he happened to be - that he couldn't drive fast enough most of the time; here she was famished and he decided to dawdle. An hour later they got a phone call, explaining the details of the accident. He had died instantly, no doubt the carry-out an incidental mess next to the bone, brain and metal they would have found entangled after the head-on collision. I didn't doubt these weren't May's words and was a little surprised to hear them from my aunt's mouth, but in a couple of phone calls with my mother in the last three months she said that sometimes my aunt came out with some very dark observations. My aunt continued saying that all May could think about was of the hour where she denigrated her son-in-law in front of her daughter and there he would have been already dead. She was insulting a dead man. And if she had gone and picked the take away up with him he'd have driven less recklessly and her daughter's life wouldn't be over as well as her son-in-law's. My aunt asked May about her daughter, saying that she saw her a few weeks earlier and noticed as she said hello that she looked very tired, but they didn't talk and she assumed it was work or money worries. May said that she wasn't coping at all and couldn't stop blaming May for her husband's death. At that moment, May said, they weren't talking.

As my aunt drove cautiously out to my parents' place from Inverness I didn't know whether she was driving so slowly because the road was treacherous, that she had the accident May told her about in mind, or that she had an idea of just how long her story would take and that to drive at even standard speed might mean that we'd arrive at the house before she had finished narrating her tale. While car after car overtook us, I offered this latter proposition to her and she said it was funny - she had the same feeling when she had been talking to May; May seemed to be driving too slowly, but she didn't know whether it was out of meteorological considerations, a basic respect for the dangers of speed, or that she had a story to tell and didn't want to rush it. What my aunt did believe that late afternoon was that May needed to speak to someone who knew what suffering was. She didn't want anyone to offer condolences, didn't wish to be alone in her grief and guilt with a concerned onlooker. No, she wanted a woman who shared that pain so that the story didn't have an audience and a teller, but two people who could give perspective to each other's misfortunes.

I asked her if she had seen May since; my aunt said she had popped round twice. It seemed that not only was her own daughter angry with her, the son-in-law's parents had sent her a detailed and despairing letter, one full of acrimony and accusation saying that May had killed their only child. Obviously, her daughter had spoken to them about what had happened, told his parents how she wouldn't get in the car and yet nevertheless told him to speed off as quickly as he could. How could she get her daughter to forgive her and the son-in-law's parents to accept she wasn't responsible? She asked it knowing there was no answer and that if she had eschewed her words and acted on a deed none of this would have happened. She wouldn't feel terrible about what she said and she would have got in the car and saved a young man's life instead of having feared for her own. There was no angle by which she could look at it which didn't implicate her in the deed, though she killed no one nor even wished someone dead.

I didn't know how much of what my aunt was saying were May's formulations or my aunt's, and even offering the name May as if I know her creates a further distance in this story that made it resemble the sort of ethical dilemmas I sometimes explored in the first year philosophy courses I taught. And I wasn't so sure if my aunt (who herself taught literature for many years), wasn't offering the story to me aware that it might become an example I might give of moral quandaries. I asked her how she tried to assuage May's guilt and my aunt said by trying to talk a bit about her own, and also recommending to her a couple of books. One was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee and another A Child in Time by Ian McEwan. I'd read neither but had another by Coetzee on my shelf that I'd been meaning to read for a while, knowing that a philosopher I sometimes used, Peter Singer, had engaged with the book. I couldn't remember its title but it had the word animals in it. As my aunt explained that Disgrace looked at a man who slept with a student in the first half of the book and whose daughter is raped in the second while he is held back by the perpetrators of the act, and that the latter focused on a couple whose only child gets snatched away at a supermarket, so she said to May the books might give context to her feelings. She had read both in recent months, she told May, and if they hadn't quite provided the solace she sought they nevertheless were amongst the few things that had distracted her from her own preoccupations.

I asked my aunt what May's job happened to be. She was a social worker, someone who worked with teenagers who had been in front of a children's tribunal for relatively minor misdemeanours: stealing, small-scale pyromania, driving their dad's car accidentally into a wall after deciding they would take their friends out for a drive. It was partly why May had said, she spoke to her son-in-law as she had - with the exasperated tone of a person used to dealing with similar behaviour but from people ten years younger.

I recalled my own brief interaction with a social worker when I was thirteen. A friend had set fire to a wood out behind Craig Dunain hospital and while I hadn't started the fire, and discouraged the friend from starting it, I was there at the time and when he was caught they asked to speak to me as well. I remember the social worker as someone who talked to me frankly and insistently, just as I could imagine May talking to her son-in-law. The woman had told me that many teenagers think they are having a bit of fun but before they know it everything becomes serious. Instead of just hanging out with people they are part of a gang; instead of getting a bit drunk, they start taking drugs; instead of stealing a few quid from their mother's purse they are breaking into somebody's house. If I didn't wise up soon I'd be looking at a life she was seeing on a daily basis: people in and out of poorly paid jobs, in and out of prison, in and out of relationships they can't hold on to even when children were involved.

It was a moralising lecture but it worked on me: the social worker combined an imaginative story of my future life with moral through lines for emphasis, and I was easily dissuaded from pursuing the crooked path. I told the friend that if he started another fire in my company I'd tell the police; if I'd heard he stole from his mother's purse I'd tell her; if he wanted to get drunk that was his business but if he expected me to take him to hospital to have his stomach pumped the friendship would be over. He didn't need my pep talk it turned out: the social worker had worked on him too but there were a couple of months where we didn't talk and I told him I regretted my righteous tone, perhaps because a couple of nuanced novels my parents gave me that Christmas, not long after the incident, allowed me to see things from a less morally adamant perspective. We are still friends, and while maybe my parents' background suggested at least statistically that I was unlikely to become a member of the criminal classes, he was the more likely candidate. His parents were low-paid workers and the family lived on a housing estate in Inverness where police officers and social workers paid regular visits. If I had become a criminal it would have been against expectation; if he had become so it would have been to confirm it.

He teaches too, in a secondary school in Edinburgh that no doubt has its delinquents but isn't expected to produce them. I told my auntie this and she said she knew she'd been told of my burgeoning criminal life. Those books I was given that Christmas were her own suggestions; my parent had asked what books she might recommend a boy tempted by a life of criminality. My aunt and uncle had been living abroad at the time but she recalled the phone calls she and my mother would have during that period. She was glad the books were of use; she hoped May might be able soon to say the same.

She said that May's son-in-law supposedly had no incidence of bad behaviour in his past but it was well-known that when he got his driving licence days after his seventeenth birthday he loved to take the car out on dirt roads and drive as fast as he could. He was always tinkering with the engine, putting on new exhausts and trying to get the car to accelerate ever more quickly and May's daughter would sometimes joke with her mother saying that he loved the car more than her. May was tempted to say she didn't doubt it, she told my aunt, and indeed if we love the things we are willing to die for, then it seemed he loved his car.

I asked my aunt how things stood the last time she saw May. It was a few days ago, she said, and May was hoping for some sort of reconciliation with her daughter over the Christmas period. She had invited her over for a drink on New Year's Eve. She hoped May had some good news. I said maybe she could tell me how it went. I was in the Highlands till the 2nd of January I said as the car pulled into my parents' inclined driveway, as my aunt accelerated while the wheels spun on the snow. We managed to get up close to the side of the house and she turned the engine off as we were about to get out. She turned to me and said it was great to talk.

When we got into the house my sister, her husband and their two kids were there, having travelled up from Aviemore before the snow started to fall, and my sister said she was a bit worried we wouldn't make it, and my mother was relieved to see that I'd arrived with her sister rather than treacherously taking goodness knows how many hours to get there on the bike. I put everyone's presents under the tree and my aunt did likewise while my father started to serve up a dish of grilled trout, with lemon and parsley, sweet potato wedges and some greens. A healthy dinner my parents proclaimed before the artery-blocking dish the following day. My sister, a nutritionist, smiled, aware that such remarks were made at her expense but also in acknowledgement of how much more food conscious they had become thanks to her in recent years. My aunt momentarily looked sad, as though wondering if she had been more insistent over her husband's diet whether he might still have been alive: he died of coronary heart disease. My mother noticed her sadness too and I looked at her suggesting that maybe the joke, well-meant, had indeed left a bad taste in someone's mouth. My mother asked her sister if she was ok, went over to her and put her hand on her shoulder as my aunt looked about to cry. She instead looked at me and thanked me for getting in the car. It was no less ambiguous a remark than her earlier one suggesting it was great to talk, but I assumed she was just pleased that we hadn't talked about her husband's death or suffered through lengthy silences as I might have tried not to do so.

The next couple of days Gerry was an absent presence that was only once accidentally evoked when one of my sister's daughters said it was such a pity Uncle Gerry wasn't here anymore he alway gave her amazing presents. This was before we opened them on Christmas morning, and my aunt hoped her great-niece wouldn't be too disappointed. They weren't at all and my aunt said maybe Gerry had advised her in mysterious ways. Everybody chuckled at that, a mild joke in a non-religious family getting a bigger laugh than the joke deserved.

She returned on Boxing Day and said before going if I wanted a lift back on the 2nd she would happily oblige. I said I'd probably get the train in but asked if it would be okay to stay at hers on the night of the 1st. Of course, she said. She planned to invite May round for Hogmanay, so my aunt apologized in advance just in case she would be a bit hung-over. I had an early train the next morning. It would be a pleasure she said in the same tone that she offered her remark about the great conversation. Everybody else said goodbye to her in the warmth of the house; I helped take her stuff out to the car, including a bagful of presents that of course, her husband in previous years had carried. She said as I put the bags into the boot that it was at times like this she realised she should have had children. I couldn't work out whether the remark was made in jest (that children have their uses), or in sorrow (that they might have helped her with her grief) but as her countenance was light and the latter suggestion too dark to contemplate, I took it to mean the former while I stood for a moment and waved her off as the car pulled out of the driveway. Luckily the drizzle on Christmas Day had dissolved the snow and though it was an icy day several degrees colder than Christmas Eve, the roads needn't have been treacherous.

That evening as the others were through in the living room warming themselves by the fire and watching a repeated Christmas episode of a favourite TV show, and as I helped my mother wash the dishes, I asked her why her sister never had children. She looked surprised when I enquired, perhaps because she knew that I, at thirty-eight, had shown no interest in having kids either. I offered to her my aunt's closing remark before she got in the car and said perhaps she was joking but possibly not. It wasn't Joan who didn't want children she said, it was Gerry. He always wanted to travel whenever they could and reckoned they had the best of both worlds. They were both teachers surrounded by kids from Monday to Friday during term time, who could constantly go away at weekends and during the holidays. Over the years they hadn't only lived abroad for several years, they had travelled properly the length and breadth of Britain - from Plockton on the west coast of Scotland to Dunbar on the East. They knew most of the historic towns and cities in England, including York, Durham, Bath, Canterbury and of course Oxford and Cambridge. During the summer holidays they had travelled throughout Europe, often by camper van, and over the years I had heard stories mainly from my uncle about places I would then later go to myself: Granada, Berlin, Montpellier, Athens, Venice, Split. During the Christmas break they would often go even further: for three weeks in Mexico (where she eventually saw the Pacific), or India, or the US. As a child, our parents mainly took us on camping holidays in the south of France, not too far from Montpellier. I felt a curious envy towards my aunt and uncle when I was young, and a strange type of disdain for my parents that if I thought about it could only manifest itself as self-hatred. How could I despise my parents' choices when I was a product of them?

I asked my mother if her sister had been happy childless and she said it was that she had been ambivalent. While my uncle seemed very clear that childlessness was freedom, she sometimes thought her sister saw it as freedom at a price. My mother had always thought this because of how attached she would sometimes get to her students; even how attached she seemed to me. My mother offered it as a fact yet I received it as a shock. Obviously, I'd felt close to my aunt but I'd never heard it articulated before, and it seemed all the more strange coming out of my mother's mouth as though she knew that I had often felt closer to her sister than to her. What I can say is I've always found it much easier to talk to my aunt than to my mother. My mother talked about things but my aunt enquired into them. After twenty minutes my mother and I had nothing to discuss; with my aunt after twenty minutes we had only got started.

I took a train back to Inverness on the 1st, and walked with my rucksack the half-mile to my aunt's place along Island Bank Road. It was the first time I'd been back there since my uncle died, and while it was a house most would deem too big for the pair of them, I expected it to seem enormous in his absence. Yet when I arrived, leaving my rucksack in the vestibule, and shouting up the stairs and hearing no reply, before finding my aunt in wellies in the garden, I didn't have a sense of emptiness, as if, over all those years when they had dinner parties, student nights where sixth formers came over and drank a little and talked a lot, had filled the house with an atmosphere even death couldn't remove. The books were still tumbling off shelves, the artworks by friends were still on the walls, and the photographs going back many years (many of my uncle but numerous others of my sister and I, my parents, and no doubt many unfamiliar ones that were of students), made the house seem impregnable to loss. I could have spent hours talking to my aunt just about the things she and my uncle had bought over the years from their travels. As I said hello, saying that I'd dumped my back-pack inside the front door, I felt my aunt's presence before I saw her. Personal places have always had that effect on me: I feel I know the person if I have a sense of their space, and never felt that more than with my aunt and uncle. My parents' home was impressive, one of the many imposing 19th century Victorian houses built in my parents' village when it was a famous spa town, but I reckoned they could have lived in any number of others, as if the only operative word needed to be imposing. There were a few books in the house, some paintings on the wall, but I wouldn't really have known from wandering through it how my parents had lived their lives.

After we went for a walk, she prepared dinner (a vegetarian Moroccan stew) and talked more as we ate it, drank some mint tea afterwards, and insisted we have it with some Baklava she had made the previous day, for May's visit. I had asked her earlier how they had spent Hogmanay and if there had been any more developments, if May's daughter had been back in touch. Not only were they again in contact - her daughter had joined May and my aunt for New Year's Eve. It would be erroneous to assume they enjoyed themselves. How could they celebrate a new year when the old one had been so cruel. Yet the evening had been meaningful my aunt believed. May's daughter managed to acknowledge that it might have been her as readily as her mother who could have been so irritated with her husband: she just wasn't quite as hungry. She often told him to be more careful, had said on several occasions she wouldn't have been surprised if he killed himself in that car, and a couple of times insisted on getting the bus back home instead of going back in the car with him, leaving him with a trolley full of shopping bags and said she would meet him back there. Everybody had a problem with his driving and expressed it. May just happened to express it most vociferously the day he lost his life.

Listening to my aunt tell me this I wondered whose formulation it happened to be the daughter's, May's, my aunt's? Maybe a combination. Perhaps it wasn't so important to individuate one from the other; that they had found the means by which grief can be expressed. That the important thing isn't who is grieving but that grief is released at all. That is perhaps what I found so pleasing about passing through the house: there was no sense of grief within it but instead a continuity of things of which my auntie just happened to be one. I had for a long time wished to write something about the stickiness of loss, about people grieving for things ever since Marion told me a couple of years ago that after her father died, her mother had no problem going to the graveside regularly to lay flowers, but found it very difficult to go into the shed where for years he had made his own furniture, even on occasion bursting into tears when a visitor commented on the lovely sideboard, chair or table. In my aunt's house I had no sense that grief was sticking to anything; her grief was her own and she was coping with it without contaminating the things themselves. As she said, it only happened when something surprised her.

I suspected this sense of the house and my aunt's well-being happened to be what May and her daughter felt too when they had visited on Hogmanay and I tried to suggest this to my auntie as I asked her a few questions about how the evening went. She said they arrived about eight, the three of them had an aperitif, had dinner around nine and sat at the table chatting for a couple of hours before my aunt made some coffee and took it out to the conservatory that she had warmed up earlier that evening with the wood-burning stove. From there they watched the fireworks across the river from Bught park, and May and her daughter left before one.

She described it initially in a matter of fact way, in a manner that left me at first wondering whether there was either complicity in their grief that she didn't want to share with me, or an acceptance that she couldn't share it unless I asked the right questions in approaching it. A couple of years ago, long before her husband's death, my aunt said I asked good questions she supposed that such questions had been useful for a book I was soon to publish and that has since come out and which helped me get the post I happen to be in. I interviewed people from various sides in two conflicts: Northern Ireland and the war in the former Yugoslavia. It was book on the question of moral dilemmas, based partly on investigating questions addressed by a British philosopher in a book about saving lives and accepting deaths, but with the emphasis less on abstract philosophising and more on concrete experience. I asked a philosophically inflected question but wished for an experiential response. I asked one Croatian man, now living in Split, who admitted he had helped oust Serbs from Vukovar after they had taken over the town, if he felt guilt towards the older Serbian people who had been killed after the takeover. One man in Belgrade wondered how Nato could devastate his city as they had and I said that whether I agreed with the Nato bombing or not, I found it surprising that he thought it inexplicable. Hadn't atrocities been done in his name, and ordered from Belgrade? In Belfast, a protestant man now in his seventies called the IRA thugs and opportunists and I asked whether it was fair that they wished for the right to vote and to share in some of the comforts Protestants took for granted. I wasn't afraid to ask awkward questions and as I sat in the kitchen eating a slice of homemade cheesecake that May and her daughter had brought the previous evening, I said to my aunt that I supposed that for other people to ask more specifically, about how three grieving people coped with the passing of a terrible year and with perhaps few hopes for the new one, might seem impertinent. But I've long since believed that most of what passes for intelligent conversation, meaningful interaction, hovers close to impertinence. Is it not often in the search for pertinence that the impertinent manifests itself?

So I asked her whether they all fell into their grief or found a means by which to communicate it and thus began, just a little, to alleviate it. She looked at me with shrewdness yet not without humour and said that was a journalist's question the sort of inquiry someone offers when they are in a given political situation that has less to do with the individual's grief than the broader social circumstances of which they are a minor representative. I said the way she framed it sounded an awful like the tone of the book I'd written. I know, she replied, saying she'd read it. I was surprised she hadn't told me before. I'd sent her the book after it was published but not long before my uncle's death and assumed she hadn't yet opened it at all. She had read it right through, she said, and one of the things that interested her about it, one of the things that she even envied about those grieving in these two headline wars, if wars they were and where one was regarded as such and the other not, then it was the idea that grief was inevitably shared. People might suffer appallingly together but they needn't grieve alone. My aunt added rather redundantly that Hogmanay from a certain perspective was happy it alleviated the envy she felt reading about other lives that had from almost any angle been much, much worse than hers. There they were, one woman in her late sixties, another in her mid-fifties and a third around twenty-five, all coming together and cocooned in a grief that somehow seemed warmer than it had in the prior months.

Was that my aunt's words or mine imposing themselves upon hers, trying to share in a loss to which I can only be at worst a voyeur or at best her confessor? When I asked her whether I was one or the other she said that people who ask questions tend to be confessors; those who look on however sympathetically can seem closer to voyeurs. It isn't that they don't care. They probably do, and maybe more than those who ask questions. But the sympathetic look leaves you in your own grieving solitude; the confessor asks at least what your grief consists of. To explain is to share it; even if the confessor is outside that process they at least acknowledge that reality and try to get closer to the griever. In her darker moments, ones that would turn all that she observed into people's cynicism, selfishness and hypocrisy, she saw people looking sympathetically at her from a careful vantage point: the look that said I now have to acknowledge your situation but please don't engage me in it. How are you, they would say and then be in too much of a hurry to hear a proper answer. When she wasn't thinking so darkly she saw the pragmatics of it: they were leading lives, getting things done; not trawling the sea bed of their own thoughts. May, her daughter and my aunt doing exactly that on New Year's Eve made for as good an evening as she could have hoped for, and somehow itself generated hope.

By the time I was ready to leave the next day the heavy snow that had fallen on Christmas Eve, cleared by Boxing Day, and fallen intermittently again over the following week, had all but disappeared. There was still the odd pocket of thickly dense snow people had pushed up against the side in clearing a path, but the morning sun would dissolve that. My aunt offered to give me a lift to the station but I insisted a fifteen minute walk with a rucksack on my back was exactly what I needed after a week where I managed to get in a few walks but where I missed long cycles on the bike. And yet then she looked at me as if I would be doing her a favour in her doing me a favour and so I said it was very kind of her. I had more than an hour until the train and she asked if I wouldn't mind going for a short drive. I'd assumed she was going to take me to see her husband's grave even though we'd walked over there the previous evening before dinner. Instead she drove me a few miles out to Loch Ness, parked the car and said she just wanted to do it with someone and look out at the river. She often did this with my uncle, sitting there with a flask of tea, joking that they were waiting for the monster to appear. When she thought about it she would sometimes cry, and now here she was with me and feeling that I understood why this might be meaningful for her. I said I thought I did as she pulled out a flask and we shared tea from the same cup. I supposed as she did so she was thinking of Gerry, but I was also thinking how often Marion wished we would spend more time together and how she might have somehow envied this moment I was having with Joan.

She dropped me off at the station and as I moved towards my bike it seemed to me a strangely forlorn object, left alone for a week and unused, chained to a railing but at least left inside the station so that it needn't show any signs of corrosion after the snowy weather. I thought also about the importance of cars and how for all their destructive power, for all the resources they use up and the people they have killed, unlike the bicycle they provide moments where they bring people together as a bike cannot. I was unlikely to ditch it any time soon for a motor car but I wasn't unhappy that the snow had forced me to get in my aunt's on Christmas Eve. Car journeys were strange indeed, bringing people together, but occasionally literally tearing them apart, yet this was the first time I looked at my bike as I walked it along the platform, seeing it as an oddly selfish thing and wondered in looking at it how it might reflect too the possible selfishness of its owner.


© Tony McKibbin