We of course often feel we can at least half-comprehend the predicament of a child who loses his parents, and we even have a word readily to hand: the orphan. But what happens if a child loses no more than a childhood friend, and loses him not to some definitive tragedy, but through the boy's parents relocating to another part of the world?
When I was eleven I developed a close friendship with Paul, a boy my own age, who had moved to London from Aberdeen, when his father switched from a job offshore to a job working for a major oil company in the city. Paul and I both attended the same school in Swiss Cottage, and, perhaps because we were both from the Highlands - I was born in Inverness - our friendship developed out of quite literally common ground. We even shared a semi-religious up-bringing, both of us had grandparents who were strict Presbyterians. But I'm not so sure if the friendship didn't develop out of a decidedly uncommon ground, a constantly shifting sense of mutual perspective that allowed us to build a world that felt very much our own, and seemed, finally, to have little to do with the common ground of the Highlands, or the increasingly common ground of the salubrious part of London in which we both lived.
This lack of common ground may even have lay partly in the fact that though we both lived in the same area, and went to the same school, Paul lived a few hundred yards south of the school, and I lived about a hundred yards to the left of it. The distance might have been minimal, but the socio-economic differences were huge: any common ground lay elsewhere. I lived with my mother, father and brother in a ground floor flat in what was called Sherlock Court, a four floor council block where the rent I imagine was inexpensive, and where my father's work as a television repair man would not have allowed us to occupy a more palatial dwelling. Possessed of two bedrooms, a compact kitchen and a comfortable but hardly large sitting room, and a garden big enough for a couple of deck chairs and a few plants, it was less cosy than cramped. So usually we would play at Paul's house, a three floor property with a large, messy back garden where we could easily disappear and feel we weren't in London at all. Was this our common ground, I might have wondered, a place where we could pretend to be whoever we wanted to be and not merely two socially divided kids who simply happened to go to the same school? As we used to play hide and seek in the garden, or monopoly in one of the attic rooms, or just make ourselves cocoa or homemade lemonade in the ground floor kitchen, we created for ourselves so many identities, that our actual names became almost irrelevant. Sometimes, when Paul's parents would call us and ask if we wanted something to eat, we would laugh and say who's Paul, who's Peter?
This would have been the first stage of our friendship I suppose. The second stage started when we would hop on the number six bus and go into Oxford Street, or walk along to Finchley High Road and wander around the shops. Initially it was fun looking through the stores and seeing what we could imagine buying, but after a month or so we started stealing the items that we had previously only imagined having, initially sweets, later, and occasionally, toys and books. Most of the sweets we initially stole we would eat, but even a child of eleven can consume only so many bars of chocolates and packets of pastels, and with all the spare Nutty bars, Creme Eggs, Maltesers, Mars bars and Marathons we had, we started to sell them at school to people in our year. They would ask us where we got them from, and we said that my uncle owned a sweetie shop; not the most plausible reason for an adult, perhaps, but one that worked with eleven year old kids who wanted to ask very few questions and enjoy the pleasure of a Mars bar at half the price.
I've often wondered that if there is an age of initial reason at around five, where a child starts to work out the cause and effect relationships in the world, where a child knows that when an usher at the cinema rips up the ticket as someone goes into the film, that this is not an act of cruel vandalism, but the simplest way to prove the person has a ticket, and that the usher has seen it, at what age does moral reason impose itself, for it would perhaps have required some moral reasoning beyond immediate culinary satisfaction to convince the other children that they should be buying what could only be stolen goods? Why, because I claimed to have an uncle who owned a sweet shop, would I have lots of sweets to give away at half price? Perhaps if the sweets had been out of date it would have made sense, but they clearly were well within their sell by mark. Usually Paul and I would sell them in the afternoon break, and set up a mini-stall under the main tree in the playground. We would lay out some twenty or thirty bars of chocolate or tubes of sweets, or packets of gum, and would have them sold well within the fifteen minute slot. We should probably have feared the teachers, but they would rarely come into the playground, and if they did we would of course say that my uncle gave them to me, and I couldn't eat them all, so sold them half price to the other kids. Even if they had the moral intelligence I've proposed the children lacked, or refused to confront, now as an adult I can see that with inevitably many hassles, stresses and strains in their own life, a few sweets sold at half price would hardly be their priority.
However, this was nevertheless a thought that would often arise, this sense of being found out and chastised by my parents. But it was always in this instance quashed by a feeling of immense security that came from being around Paul. If the first stage of our friendship lay in creating a private world in his garden and his house, the second stage was one of complicity; if anything were to happen to me it would also happen to Paul, and that usually dissolved any anxiety I felt.
Now the complicity really lay in the stealing rather than in the selling, and so perhaps the third stage of our friendship was more public than the first two, and it was where our private world became accepted publicly by those around us. As we sold our sweets at half price we became like small town businessmen, respected and liked by all the other kids our age, and even by the couple of bullies who would sometimes, in the previous year, harass the other kids into giving them sweets, and when shown signs of reluctance would push them to the ground and rifle through their pockets. Now with the sweets half the price, the kids would sometimes offer the bullies a bar of chocolate or a packet of Treats for nothing, and the playground terrorism came to an end. The other children generally liked us whether they were the terrorised or the terrorisers, since the innocents would have more sweets to give away, and the bullies didn't even have to cause too much trouble to get what they wanted.
Of course in a different school, perhaps our venture would not have turned out so well; the bullies could have turned on us and insisted on getting a share of the profits, but that didn't happen, and even if it had, I am not so sure if Paul and I wouldn't have stood up against them, for around the time that we were stealing sweets, we also stole a couple of martial arts books, and were learning some basic karate movies. How efficiently we mastered them I have no idea, but they undeniably gave us a social confidence based on the assumption that we could disarm someone given the opportunity. When we would act out the moves I would easily sweep Paul's legs out from under him; but then he offered little resistance. Would the bullies have fallen with such alacrity? These questions were the sort that, during this stage of our friendship, I would never have concerned myself with; yet they were questions that would become a preoccupation a year later.
It may have seemed during this period that Paul and I were becoming delinquents, and yet that really wasn't the case. We were both doing well at school, and the confidence we had gained by being respected by the other children also manifested itself in the class room where when we said something; we knew not only the teachers would listen, but the other pupils also. We would both often put our hands up when the teacher asked if anybody wanted to read aloud, and we both enjoyed working out arithmetic problems that the teacher would write out on the blackboard. We rarely missed school; partly because we enjoyed it, and also because our stealing would usually get done at weekends, when the shops were swarming with people and a couple of eleven year old children were inconspicuous next to the hordes out shopping on Saturday mornings and afternoons. We never got especially greedy: after we started selling the sweets in the playground we almost stole to order, working out how many sweets we wanted for ourselves, and how much extra we would steal for our classmates: one day's activity a week was enough. In the mornings we would usually go along Finchley High Road and steal the equivalent of a rucksack of sweets each, go back and empty them into the box-room off Paul's bedroom, and then in the afternoon go back out, usually to Oxford Street and around the city centre. Sometimes we would be more adventurous and go out to Camden, or if we wanted to avoid getting on a bus, just walk over to Kilborn High Road, which wasn't too far from our homes. I'm not so sure if that year wasn't the one in which I possessed the greatest sense of purpose, and so the term delinquency, which has connotations of laziness and torpor, certainly wouldn't fit.
And yet before Paul arrived I felt dislocated, lethargic and hemmed in. After all, my family had moved from life in Strathpeffer, a small town north of Inverness, and we lived in a house almost as large and sprawling as the one Paul's family occupied, a house my father was very attached to: it was the family home before his parents passed away when he was in his mid-twenties, and they handed it down to him. They both died within six months of each other, and he was without brothers or sisters. Before he'd moved back up north, and before he'd had a family, he'd lived in a tiny flat in London for several years, and the move back up, was, he always said, like being able to breathe again. But the television repair shop he opened was never really very successful. Hence, when an aunt passed away in London, my father somehow managed to rent her council property as a member of the family, and he decided to try to make a living in London again. He returned not just because his aunt died, which freed up a reasonably inexpensive place in which to live, but more especially because his old boss from fifteen years before had passed away too. He had a shop in Kilburn, and, whilst ill and aware of his own impending death, had offered it to my father. As his aunt slipped out of life before his former boss did, my father made the commitment that he could afford to take over the premises, and that my mother would work there also. I remember when we all returned from my aunt's funeral in London, and after he must have given his pledge to his former boss, my father said to my mother and me, that we would be moving to a much smaller house in the city, but that we would not sell the house, just rent it out. He reassured us the move would be only as permanent as the comfort we felt in living in London.
Even so, I knew that after the first few months in the city and in the school my unhappiness would be credited to settling down, and that it would only be after a couple of years of unhappiness that my father might say that the move was not working for at least one of us, and move back up. So throughout that first year I moped around, kept my Scottish accent as muted as possible, and smiled my way through friendships that were never more than acquaintanceships. My grades were far worse than they were in the Highlands, and the only subject that engaged me was English. It seemed the subject I felt I could immerse myself in without needing others, and that was the year I first read for pleasure, or at least to escape the low-key pain of my isolation. It wasn't so much that when Paul arrived that I had found a friend it was much more that within that friendship I found a place for that year of isolation to reside.
So when Paul came to the school that following August, and after the first few days in class, after we had talked in the playground about our common Highland backgrounds, he invited me round to his parents' house, His mother thought it so nice a coincidence that Paul had found a Scottish friend in his very own class that she half adopted me, I felt the fresh air my father had talked about when moving back up north. I felt a sense of almost miraculous relief - deeper in many ways than what people call love. Whenever we would go to Paul's after school, his mother would make up milk-shakes and sandwiches for the pair of us, and for those first few weeks, for the rest of August and through September, with the warm weather and the late summer garden, with its copious plant life, leafy trees and flowers in full bloom, I found myself not so much dislocated as relocated - it reminded me so much of our Highland garden transposed to London.
I would think of our own cramped garden at the back of the flat in Sherlock Court, and was relieved that my mother often worked till six o'clock and did not expect me to be home straight after school. During that first year, when I went back to the flat, with its anomalous grandfather clock that my aunt had taken from her Hebridean home many years before, it would tick-tock in mocking accompaniment to my loneliness as I would sit in the sitting room and read, waiting for someone to come through the door. I remember merely the key turning in the door filled me with delight, as any bodily presence alleviated my own aloneness and somehow silenced that ticking clock, but sometimes the key didn't turn until much, much later.
After Paul joined the school, though, I would usually arrive home at about six thirty, sometimes much later, and it didn't seem to matter that no one was there.
But if there was always a sense of loss within my newfound happiness that year it lay in the possibility that Paul and his family could leave any time. His father's job was one of those precariously comfortable positions that people of wealth would sometimes attain: employment with immense job security but very little geographical stability. I knew Paul could leave the school with little notice - my happiness was more euphoric than stabilizing, and so it shouldn't have surprised anyone that if Paul were to move on, my own tentative happiness would disappear. I believe my parents didn't think this; they thought that Paul allowed me an increasingly solid identity of my own by being in the company of someone who understood it. Our friendship, I suppose they surmised, benefited us mutually, so that at school jokes or observations we might have been reluctant to make on our own, would at least have one person comprehending them.
And it was true at school both Paul and I joked with the other kids, and it was true that after a while the other children looked up to us or, in the bullies' case, didn't look down on us, but this was not enough. I knew that often the other children laughed at something I said because we seemed confident, and that we supplied half price sweets. I felt that next to the security of being good at sport, or strong, or especially clever, my abilities were meagre and unstable. Was it not inevitable that when left on my own again I would also feel meagre and unstable? Would I not once more be left to play out on the veranda, to disappear back into books, and hear again the lonely tick-tock of the clock?
Perhaps if I could have grounded my friendship with Paul in the qualities that others perceived in me through our friendship, instead often dreading the day he would leave and when the loneliness would return, then I could have moved towards what in common parlance is called confidence. But to me such an attempt, even then, would have been nothing more than a confidence trick, an underpinned sense of identity gain that would have been imposing itself upon a sense of unlocateable loss. I don't want to suggest I was ever really happy, for even in the Highlands, it was the landscape and the air, the sounds of the birds and the sheep, that gave me meaning. I always felt people were too amorphic, too permeable, too fundamentally unreliable in their thoughts and their feelings to be trusted. I wanted to trust in the sights and sounds of a world that wanted to take nothing and give nothing, that would simply be. No such sounds or sights were offered to me in London.
But why someone might ask, the friendship with Paul: how did I manage to share with him common ground? I think after a year in London, deprived of the sound, sight and also smells of the countryside, I needed to connect with something, and I am not so sure if initially that connection lay less with Paul than with his family's garden. When he first invited me to visit his home, and we sat drinking the milkshakes his mother had made for us, I had a sense of place: I was no longer exiled in a city of concrete, but present to the possibilities of an urban life that could accommodate the natural. Then that sense of not being alone, led to communication with a fellow young Scot, to spending time creating a private world, to deepening that private world by shoplifting, and to having that world acknowledged and accepted at school when we sold the sweets in the playground.
This is of course my retrospective analysis of a burgeoning friendship, and it carries no doubt too much hindsight to have the quality of honest reflection. Much has happened since to exacerbate my sense of jaundice, but that is for another tale, another day.
It was in late May of that school year when Paul told me that his father would be taking another job, that he'd been offered work in Africa, and that they would be leaving before the next school year. I took it with initial equanimity, but I also lost interest in school and also in shoplifting. We would still play in his garden after school, as the trees were leafy and the flowers were by now blossoming, but all of nature carried once again a sense of impermanence. As we lay in the grass, talking about what we would do when we grew up, Paul talked like a boy already looking forward to his next adventure, to the next stage of his becoming a man. He wondered whether he would follow his father into the oil industry. I said I didn't know what I wanted to become, but thought to myself that whatever it was, I hoped it would allow me to still memories, to remind myself of this moment in this garden even if while the moment was taking place I could feel nothing but loss, knowing Paul would soon leave and this garden would no longer be accessible to me.
It may seem odd that throughout that year I felt almost no anxiety over the shop-lifting and whether we would be caught, and considering how many people knew about our selling sweets at half price, it seems retrospectively close to a miracle that we weren't.
Thus we were never found out, and I'm not so sure if I didn't allow my own conscience to intrude in its immature form. I've often thought that religion is morality for those who haven't evolved an awareness of the complex nature of cause and effect; and that it serves as an interim phase between the childish lack of consequences I've already talked about, and the maturity of making sense of the world's complexities. After Paul moved away, as I once again would sit at home and listen to the endless tick-tock of the clock, I wondered if this was some higher being's punishment for our shop-lifting: that I wasn't removed from my home and put into a remand centre, but that Paul had been removed from my life and transported to a different continent altogether. It seemed to make sense that if I saw Paul's arrival as some sort of miracle, was it not almost inevitable that I would see his leaving as some form of divine retribution?
Over the next few years I somehow managed to get through school, getting passable grades but excelling in nothing but English and art. I made no new friends, and became increasingly emotionally isolated. In the first few months Paul and I would write to each other, but after that the letters stopped, and I knew that whatever malaise was overcoming me Paul was merely the catalyst. Even if he seemed somebody who stop-gapped the aloneness I felt, eventually, whether Paul had stayed or not, something would eventually over take me. But why this low-key very personal sense of religion, I might have wondered, and my answer would be perhaps it was because I had relatives who were very religious; though more pertinent, I think, was just that sense of requiring an ethical conscience at an age when I couldn't yet understand the complexity of life. If Paul was one stop gap, did religion prove another?
I didn't start to go to church or anything; it was much more personal and manifested itself in struggling to believe in the causal in life, in trying not to believe I was being pupeteered by a higher being. I never tried to give this higher being a name or form. It was simply that I stopped acting, refusing to give my life self-motivated momentum, and waited. Waited for what I'm not quite sure, but waited and waited and waited. After six years in London, and after my Highers, we all moved back up north, but by then we'd long since sold our house in Strathpeffer, and my parents decided that they would buy in Inverness. It was then, for some reason, the fullness of the crisis struck me, or rather, finally incapacitated me, and left me wondering, perhaps, if the puppeteering was finally my parents' doing, or that they at least were responsible for the causes and effects that left me so lost. In their new Inverness home I allowed myself to sink into what could only be described as a much delayed and curiously relieving breakdown.
I didn't leave the house probably for almost a year, and while the garden was bigger than the small patch of ground at the back of the flat in London, it was not like Paul's garden, nor the one we had in Strathpeffer, and so I rarely went out. Yet of course my parents did, and it was one winter evening when they were coming back from a dinner with friends (since they always had many, both in London and in the Highlands), that the car slid off the road and into a tree. They both died instantly, which of course should have added immensely to my sense of loneliness, but instead, over the next few weeks and months, had the opposite effect. I knew they would leave me money enough to purchase, once again, when it became available, the house we owned years before in Strathpeffer, or at least to buy another one nearby. I imagined our old house and once more I found a place to house my memories, memories that seemed to have been homeless for years. As I proposed at the beginning of this story, I was not an orphan, but by my late teens, when the term would have little meaning, I became one with the demise of my parents. But at the same time I felt no longer emotionally homeless, and the loss of my parents seemed strangely and perhaps horribly weak next to the chance to re-house my memories in the abode from which they were evacuated.
I sometimes wonder now, years after re-buying the house in Strathpeffer, and living there with my partner whom I love so deeply I don't think I could even begin to write about it, where Paul is. I wonder whether he followed his father into the oil industry and decided to extract from nature rather than commune with it. Our ground could perhaps, all these years on, have become very uncommon indeed.
© Tony McKibbin