When I was around fourteen my father still had a taxi firm on a Hebridean Island and my involvement with this small business was twofold: I would frequently clean the taxis in return for small recompense from the drivers, and occasionally I would join them in long drives into the countryside when they had to deliver a carry-out. A carry-out was delivered where someone in a place with no pubs for many miles wanted a couple of bottles of whisky, half a dozen cans and sometimes a few boxes of cigarettes, and where the taxi would deliver them and then return back to the town centre. The only passenger would be the carrier bag full of drink and smokes; so sometimes the drivers, looking for a bit of company, would ask if I wanted to come along.
I often said yes, and I think they liked my company because I was always a bit of a talker: politics, gossip, dissecting people's attitudes and feelings, all these engaged me even at that age, and, with a couple of drivers in particular, we would always have interesting conversations. I often felt in these discussions like a grown-up. One of the drivers was quite conservative, and I suspect my father employed him because his values resembled his own: Bill had moved up the previous year from the south of England, saying he wasn't sure whether he wanted to escape Thatcherism or bring it to the island. My father claimed he'd been trying to do the latter for a number of years. The islanders weren't for budging. If Bill offered a similar political perspective to my father, it was without the fatherly expectation that I should agree with what he said. But it was the other driver, Ally, with whom I felt a closer affinity - or maybe it was just that in his low-key, thoughtful political way, he allowed me to find my own position on life and politics without the badgering demands my father would often insist upon, and the other driver would offer cogently but, somehow, in a way I couldn't quite locate, still disagreeably. I believe now my liking for Ally, and my reservations towards Bill, had finally to do with the way Ally would tell me anecdotes about his travelling experiences that made me aware less of the political than the humanity which underpinned it. With Bill I thought his personal experience was used to exemplify the politics; with Ally it was the other way round.
It was late one winter afternoon and I was cleaning the inside of one of the taxis outside the office when Ally came out of the building and asked me how long I was going to be. I told him another five minutes - even with a woolly hat, gloves and scarf, two layers of clothing and a jacket, I'd barely warmed up in the fifteen minutes of work. The outside would have to wait for a warmer day - it must have been close to the minuses. He said he would wait for me - he'd turn the engine on so that the car would be nice and warm by the time I had finished.
It was his last hire and he was taking a carry-out to a place in the very south of the island, and, because it was the Sabbath, there would be nowhere else alcohol could be bought on the day of rest. Even the very cleaning of a car could raise a few frowns from locals on their way to church, which was why on Sunday I used a dustpan and brush rather than a Hoover. Maybe it was because we had moved up to the island from London, and yet that the family was from the island, that made my father, my mother, my grandmother, my older brother and older sister and I impervious to such looks despite minor compromises like forgoing the vacuum cleaner: we felt enough of outsiders not to feel the shame of local approbation; local enough to feel that we weren't simply ignoramuses oblivious to island mores. Ally, who was very much from the island, and whose parents regularly attended church, was neither blas nor kow-towing either; but I'm not sure if he ever felt entirely comfortable working on Sundays, taking alcohol from one end of the island to the other. This was one area in which I felt strangely mature; that Ally was somehow less developed than I was when it came to casual indifference towards local custom.
But he also knew that there was plenty of money in these carry-outs. What my father would do was always have dozens of bottles of whisky and beer in the office and would use them for the carry-outs on Sunday. I guess Ally was ambivalent about this beyond the religious - he once told me his father was a drinker. But Ally also liked to travel, and had been doing so, he said, every year since he had left university - and so during the few years he had worked for my father he would save for about nine months and take off for two or three, sometimes longer. I remember him telling me a few months before that he first left the island when he was sixteen, but that was an occasion where it was less for the travel experience, than another experience altogether - and that was no further than the south of England. He didn't say much more about it than that, and I never asked him, though, as this story makes clear, I was certainly tempted.
It was on this outing to the very south of the island that he first told me about his trip to Mumbai the previous year, where he taught English in a language school for four months. We had been talking for a while about politics in Britain, and this would have been during the mid-eighties, at the time Thatcher was busy crushing unions. I wondered what all the post-war attempts to give power to the people were about if only forty years later the government wanted to remove that sense of community and self-reliance from these very people. Ally said he had mixed feelings about this; that he believed in workers' rights, of course, but was unsure about the sense of entitlement he thought many British people took for granted in their lives.
And so he started talking about Mumbai. He said the moment he walked off the train at four in the morning, he just started passing bodies. At first he thought they were people sleeping on the platforms, and in the station generally because they were waiting for the morning train. But then as he came out of the station he found an equal number of bodies lining the street, and this continued until he got to his hotel about half a mile from Victoria Station. Over the next few days, before his teaching job started on the outskirts of the city, and where his in-house accommodation was, he stayed at The Residency, and wandered round the centre of the metropolis, around the Fort area in which he was staying, Colaba to the South, and up as far as Chowpatty beach in the north. What he saw was an astonishingly vivid street-life, with whole families under cardboard, where meals were constantly being cooked on the pavements, and where camaraderie seemed to stem not from social inclusion but as much from social exclusion: from people uniting under their shared difficulties. Yet in many instances difficulties seemed too strong a word - many seemed contented, even happy. Now he didn't think he was simply oblivious - there were numerous people that he saw who were in absolutely desperate straits. He remembered one blind man waiting for several minutes before, with much trepidation, crossing a busy road. At one street corner another man, apparently afflicted with leprosy, had gnarled hands and legs, and was frustratingly trying to light a match to turn on the little gas stove he was cooking from. There were many lives like these, and so when he returned to Britain he found himself doing what many people do: he wondered whether Britons just happened to be spoiled, and that the post-war cosseting had gone on long enough. Yet he offered it as a strange, wistful observation; not with the righteous indignation my father or Bill would have lent it.
As we drove over the mountainous hill that took us into the south of the island, he said that he believed, though, that politics didn't come from the abstraction of facts and figures, but from the immediacy of land and landscape. He explained that instead of comparing Yorkshire coalminers and Indians, he had found himself looking into the Island's own history. He looked at the Islanders life and diet in the 18th and 19th century. He noticed how important staples were: like porridge, which would often be eaten twice a day, and, later, the potato. The potato would be eaten usually more than once a day and often with fish. So with a general diet of porridge, potatoes, some meat and big pots of broth, the Islander could keep well and work hard when necessary. He wondered now what people were really striking for. People might be talking about community, but everywhere supermarkets were opening up, pubs were owned by a chain, and more and more people were reliant on government help either to top up their income or to have any income at all. He insisted he didn't agree with my father or Bill's politics, but somehow he thought there wasn't enough belief underpinning the Left.
As he drove, looking carefully out at the windy road as the day turned to night, I told him what he was saying reminded me of some of my father's arguments. He said the difference was that my father wanted the supermarkets and the chains; he wanted greater autonomy for the people. He said you only had to look at the Island diet with all its frozen food and fish and chips and sweets and crisps to see that the Island had hardly made improvements. This is what he meant about land and landscape: what makes a people inimitable. Thus he said sometimes when travelling he would search out small villages and towns, and see how people on tiny incomes nevertheless managed to keep their health. Even in little villages in Goa, in probably the most touristic part of India, you could still see people preparing traditional dishes, and retaining their links with previous generations. Often there is nothing people eat today that links them to anything their forefathers ate: this is history at its most fundamental, he insisted.
We arrived at the coastal village just after this last statement, and it gave the delivery of the carry-out a moral significance that would usually have remained latent. As we lifted it out of the boot it felt like we were removing a body. Ally looked sheepishly at me; and I looked ironically at the sheep, baaaing all around us. The house was one where we had never delivered a carry-out before, and so I watched Ally make his way up the path with a mixture of wariness and excitement. On occasion Ally or one of the others drivers would get the wrong house; and someone would shout at them for doing the devil's work on the Sabbath. This time however we seemed to have got it right: waiting for Ally as he went up the gravel path was a smiling man with a heavy thickset build. The house was situated up a hill and faced out on to the sea a few hundred yards away. It had solar panels and looked recently built, with lots of windows. As Ally greeted him the man's voice, which was bellowing and which I could just about make out from the bottom of the path, didn't sound entirely local. While Ally prepared to hand over the carry-out, the man looked like he was saying that Ally should come in, and Ally waved down to me and made a gesture to suggest that I should join them. I'd been leaning against the car, looking up at the house and turned around to look across at the bay. I had never been to this small coastal spot before. Allowing my head to pan across the view, I felt the sweep of permanence - the sand and the sea, though barely distinguishable in the darkness.
As I walked through the door I could see that the house didn't seem to belong to the dishevelled drinkers I would often imagine living in the houses of those who would generally get carry-outs, and I wondered, as I was ushered in by a woman in probably her late sixties, whether this was no more than an ignorant and empty prejudice - after all I'd never been invited in to a house on one of these trips before. The taxi driver would usually take the carry-out to the threshold, and money and booze and cigarettes would change hands.
The floors were wooden throughout, and there were many pictures - photos and paintings - on the walls, and book shelves in the hall, and many hundreds of books in the sitting room, the room that we were ushered in to. The couple who seemed to own the house were both around the same age, and they wore clothes that suggested they were dressed for the island weather without themselves being islanders. He wore slacks and a red, blue and white fair-isle sweater that looked hand-knitted. His wife wore a thick woollen skirt, a blouse and a possibly self-knitted cardigan: the whole effect gave off a similarly primary coloured impression. In terms of the colours they wore they could have been aging hippies. But he was clean-shaven and with shortish light brown hair; she wore her hair in a polite bun. Neither of them looked especially like drinkers. I wondered what the vast carry-out was for: it consisted of four bottles of whisky and two dozen cans of beer. They were waiting for friends to arrive, she said - that it was her husband's birthday.
As Ally and I sat on the sitting room couch, the wife went into the kitchen and the husband, who sat in a chair near the settee, asked what I wanted to be when I was a little older, and I answered by saying my father thought I should be a welder: there was good money to be made on and offshore through the oil boom, and he thought I should capitalise on it. I'm not sure why I said this - after all I didn't really want to become a welder, and I disagreed with my father so often that it was hardly as if I was likely to agree with him on so big an issue as my own career path. Yet I wasn't really doing very well at school, and, apart from English, the only subject I had shown any real competence in was metalwork. Why not, I thought? If not, maybe I'll drive taxis I said.
At this I believed I could trace a thought crossing his mind that might have been voiced were it not for Ally: a thought that seemed to say you can do better than that. But immediately after whatever thought it happened to be, he glanced at Ally and asked him if it paid well. The man offered his questions with a booming authority, his accent hard to place but clearly Scottish, firm and educated, and Ally's voice, always hesitant and searching, suddenly sounded very small. I said, half with pride, half in alibi, that he drove taxis to pay for his travels - he'd been all over the world. The man, who insisted we call him Don, smiled half-admiringly at this and asked Ally where he'd been. Ally offered a few countries - India, Morocco, the US and Turkey - and Don launched into a story about his own travels.
Once when he'd been to Morocco many years earlier, Don said he'd travelled back to Edinburgh - where he was then living - with a huge stash of hash in his rucksack. He had picked up the dope in Marrakech, and thought it would last him for the best part of a year in Edinburgh - he smoked frequently but far from every day - and still be able to sell some of it on. But he thought the main reason was that there he was well into his thirties, feeling once again the thrill of youth and the sheer sense of risk. Sentences were harsh, he insisted, but, and he glanced across at his wife, as she came into the sitting room and placed some nibbles onto the table, he said he had recently split up with his French girlfriend at the time, the very girlfriend he had started travelling with the previous year, and with whom he had hoped to settle down. They had considered buying a caf or restaurant or Pension in the coastal fortress town of Essaouira, but then one day she befriended someone else, and a few weeks after that she told him it was over. He shrugged his shoulders and looked again across at his wife, who had taken a seat, this time offering her a warm smile that she returned. So he was reckless, felt his life had little meaning, and so what he did was pump it full of not so much meaning as adrenaline. Maybe it's the best way, he said, to get over something. I caught a look on Ally's face at that moment which was strangely distraught. Though I'd never thought about it before, there was often something in Ally's face which suggested a loss, a pain, an ongoing sense of distress. I wondered if Ally would talk about any of his own travel experiences. He didn't.
Don insisted that we stay. Don and his wife had recently moved back to the island permanently (they'd both been brought up here, they said, but left to go to university many years ago, and for years had only come during the summer) and they were celebrating the evening with a few friends both their homecoming and also, of course, his birthday. They were going to have a bit of a ceilidh.
I said I would love to stay, and I reminded Ally that he didn't need to be back; it was after all his last hire of the evening. I expected a resolute no, but he surprisingly acquiesced, and asked if I was sure my parents wouldn't mind. I said I was sure they wouldn't - but I asked Don's wife if it would be okay to make a quick call. I phoned and promised my mother we would back for midnight.
By then it was around seven o'clock and the visitors started arriving, and by eight there were more than fifteen people in the snug yet expansive sitting room, and Don's wife had brought through numerous dishes with home-made food on them: there were salmon sandwiches, the salmon freshly caught, there was potato salad, made from the potatoes from the garden, and there was a large, birthday carrot cake, made from the carrots out the front, and a butter icing from the cow belonging to a neighbour's byre. I was starving and as soon as I saw someone else take some food I filled one of the china plates that she'd left stacked on the table. Ally was engaged in a conversation with Don's wife, and was asking her if they had any kids and where they happened to be. Don was talking to an English couple who, I managed to glean, had moved to the island a couple of years previously: they all agreed that it was so good to be living away from the cities. For a while I wasn't really talking to anybody, just eating and listening, and feeling that this was what I always imagined island life should be like, but very rarely was back home in the town centre.
Later in the evening I found myself feeling a bit drunk - I'd had a beer and a couple of whiskies - and wandered into the kitchen where Don was getting more ice. He asked if this was the first time I'd drank - I said it was. He told me a story about his own daughter - now thoroughly grown up - and how some years ago when they would come up to the island for their holidays, they stayed in a friend's house in the town while he would go and stay in theirs in a place near Sherborne in the south of England. Anyway she must have been no more than sixteen, and she came home one evening at about eleven, obviously drunk, and said that she had fallen in love with a local boy. He was the sweetest, most sensitive human being she'd ever met or would ever be likely to meet, and that she'd told him so. Don said he asked her how old the boy was - and she said her own age. He didn't think much about it, he supposed, and the family left to go back home a couple of days after that. But a few weeks afterwards a note appeared through the door addressed to his daughter. His daughter by this stage was back at her private school, and so he phoned her, telling her about it. She asked him to open the note, believing it wouldn't be anything too personal, and it happened to be a letter from this boy. She asked him then to read it out loud over the phone, and it explained how the boy had come to Sherborne, was waiting for her, and he would wait for ten days until she came. By the end of the note - which was a few hundred words long and barely a love letter - she was in tears. Don said he had no idea whether she ever saw him again.
He looked at me curiously, as if he were wondering why he'd just told me the story - and then shrugged, saying: so beware the dangers of alcohol.
It was, by then, shortly before eleven O'clock, and when I went back through to the sitting room, Ally said he thought it was time for us to leave. He'd allowed himself a half pint earlier in the evening, but had been on Don's wife's home-made ginger beer since. It was to her that he had spent most of the evening talking.
On the long drive back, I asked Ally what he and Don's wife talked about. He said they discussed families...and, laughing wryly, lost opportunities. I wanted to ask him whether he was that boy who once went down to Sherborne for the love of a girl, and whether she ever did meet him there. But it somehow felt too absurd a long shot, or really none of my business. I instead asked him once again about island life and diet, and whether he thought you had to move away or be an incomer to appreciate the life for the first time or once again. Had Don and his wife managed to combine lifestyle and landscape, I wondered? Earlier in the evening I think he would have replied with a certain passion; now, though, he replied with a tone of melancholy, saying we all have to do our best to get in touch with what matters in our lives. It was so vague and allusive and I suddenly felt so young and uncomprehending that I didn't say anything else for the rest of the journey. Neither did Ally. When we arrived back at the office which was next to the house, I saw Bill sitting there, primed for the next hire and happy to work as many hours as my father provided him with. I looked back at Ally, and felt money was never going to be much of a motivation for him.
Ally left the taxi firm and the island a couple of months after that, and travelled; where I don't know. It was also the last time I ever went with a driver to drop off a carry-out, though I sometimes wondered if we ever delivered another one to that house facing out onto the sea in a small village in the very south of the island. A year or so later my father sold on the firm and we all moved back to the mainland, and I haven't returned to the island since. Sometimes, now, many years later, I wonder if the house, the elderly couple, and sometimes even Ally, ever actually existed, so vague are the memories. Yet the feeling remains inside me of that day we went to drop off a carry-out and in my shrunken youthfulness I found myself feeling strangely very young and uncannily grown up at the same time.
© Tony McKibbin