I must have been about thirteen when I first heard the story, and even now, at thirty two, a day barely passes without some momentary recognition of it. I, an only child visiting my mother on the mainland, was at an age when curiosity had not yet congealed into thoughts of girls and self-absorption, and I could listen with a finely attuned empathy - any story, efficiently told, be it in book, film or oral form offered escape from a workaholic father and slow-burn vodka sipping step-mother, both sitting their lives out on an island they had no feeling for.
My mother had moved to Inverness a couple of years previously and every few months I would visit her for a number of weeks. She had worked many years in retail management in the south of England, transferring north when Marks and Spencer opened their first store in the region. This was back in the late seventies, when the incentives for newcomers were deliberate: out on the north side of the River Ness, built on the hill in front of Craig Dunain, hundreds of houses were rented out to families new to the area with rents no higher than that for council property. I loved her little house, which was new, centrally heated and had no areas of darkness or secrecy. It had a sitting room large enough for both a lounge and dining area, a purpose built Formica topped kitchen, a double bedroom, bathroom and a tiny box-room which was mine when I visited. Sometimes, in the summer, when the heat became too much, I would drag my unzipped sleeping bag through to the sitting room before falling asleep on the couch; but during the winter, with the temperature in the minuses, I would feel gloriously comfortable.
These memories, though, mainly come from between the age of eleven and thirteen. After that, after the story, wary though I am to give it too much significance, something changed.
It was a melancholic summer evening, around eight o'clock, and my mother asked if I would like to go for a walk, saying we could be back in time for the Ice Cream van which arrived ceremoniously at nine thirty: a summer ritual where I would run out of the house and up to the square, ordering two double nugget wafers and two flakes, licking the melted ice-cream off each as I walked back, giving my mother a double nugget I had by that stage half-devoured.
We walked up behind the house, up round the hill as far as the mental hospital where a few of the patients could be seen wandering around with bags of stale bread, ready to feed the ducks. We stopped for a few minutes by the pond, listening to the quacking birds and the squeals of delight as the patients threw bread into the ducks' mouths, before the haze of midges started to bite, and my mother, waving them off abruptly, suggested we move on.
Though the sun had by now receded it was still clear and bright, but as we walked down the winding road in front of the hospital, the encroaching poplars, oaks and pines cast a gloomy shadow over the day and enveloped us in premature night. It was then she started to tell the story.
She explained that after the divorce, after I had moved up to the islands to start that new life, she had moved around a lot. She stayed for a while with her mother, but her mother's new husband, a man of cold comforts - a bit of money, a large house - didn't want her there, and so she moved into a number of bed and breakfasts in the city: in Bayswater, Barnet and Cricklewood, before her transfer to the Highlands. In fact, she said, the Cricklewood bed and breakfast wasn't really a bed and breakfast at all. It was a family home with a room for rent. She felt the need to describe the house in some detail; and that I remembered the details for so long afterwards suggests she was right, or wrong, to do so. The house was terraced, narrow and deep, with a bay-windowed sitting room at the front downstairs, a bay-windowed bedroom on the floor above. Behind the sitting room, lay a dining room, and behind that the kitchen. Halfway up the stairs, on a mini-landing at the back of the house was my mother's room, and up the stairs again two bedrooms and a bathroom. The family was very outgoing, constantly offering my mother food even though she was only paying for the room; and that at a reasonable rate. The father worked as a teacher at George Eliot's school in Swiss Cottage, ironically the school that I had gone to several years previously, though I had no recollection of the teacher's name, then or now. He was, she said, a stooped man in his late forties, with greying wavy hair, and a dress sense caught between smart and casual, as if a student too slowly easing his way into authority would perhaps be the best way to describe him, though that would be to project my own thoughts, and maybe my own self-appraisal, onto somebody whom I never met, and whose picture I saw just the once. His wife worked part-time at the school as a secretary in the morning, and their one daughter also attended the school. My mother said she would have been about the same age as me, though I couldn't recall her name, nor was I helped by my mother's description.
Each day the three of them and my mother would get into the tatty family Citroen and drive across the city, with my mother dropped off along Finchley High Road, where she would catch a bus to Oxford Street. She explained to me that this wasn't irrelevant to the story. Often the mother drove and my mother sat in the front while the father and daughter sat in the back. She thought little of it at the time. Nor did she make much out of the noises she often heard downstairs while she sat in her room, poring over work sheets and reports. The noises were screams and yelps, neither aggressive nor angry.
She stayed at the house in Cricklewood throughout that famously hot summer of 1976, and I suppose, looking back, her move to the Highlands may have had something to do with the smoggy heat; the disgusting details of that summer she conjured up made her shiver as she told them to me. One day, passing the neighbour's house, she saw in the garden next to the wall, a large black bin, and lining the bottom of it were thousands of wriggling maggots, the smell, stale yet indeterminate and impossible to describe, for she had never smelled anything to compare with it. On another day an old, stained mattress had been left outside in the heat, and the smell of urine made her gag.
She explained to me that all these things didn't really seem to mean very much at the time, but taken together, these images of her last few months in London all seemed to make a kind of cumulative, retrospective sense. Several months after moving to Inverness she received a letter from her mother. In the envelope there was a short article, and the letter by way of explanation.
The article came from a local newspaper, and above a picture of the teacher and his wife was a headline: wife shoots husband dead. A few circumstantial details were given, but the daughter claimed she didn't know what the argument was over and the newspaper concluded, until further information could be given, that it was a domestic disagreement which got out of hand.
The letter accompanying the article, my mother stated, was more than just a note; her mother felt implicated in the crime. The letter was an apologia for not allowing my mother to stay, for forcing her to live in bed and breakfasts after she had lost a husband and son. The tone was hyperbolic with guilt, but my mother didn't blame her mother, she blamed herself. What had been going on in that house that she wasn't aware of? She explained to me that evening, as we turned down along the thin, grassy lane that would take us round the back of the hospital and out onto the road, the daylight fading from through the trees, that the strange thing was it wasn't the murder that bothered her, it wasn't that which had given her a number of sleepless nights. She hadn't once thought about the shooting as an imagined event. No, she just couldn't get the details out of her mind, the details of the house, of the heat, of the short trips across London in the car.
On that particular evening, I couldn't quite understand what she meant. Most of what I knew of life came from movies and television, and the exciting adventure stories in Commando comics: I assumed that death was so categorical that it closed off meaning as a baddie is dispatched. But then at that age identification comes easy. Conditioning rather than moral consciousness defines the good from the bad, just as, I then believed, the patients we passed were crazy, and my mother and I sane. And yet that evening did meaning begin to collapse?
Is that my own hyperbole? How could a thirteen year old boy's life fall apart on the back of a story that his mother tells him? All I can say is that she told me my first ambivalent story, the first tale which had ever undermined the very characteristics most other stories seemed intent on upholding. And the teller of the tale was none other than my own mother, someone I would visit every few months, and whose house I found so reassuring. And the story she told me? It was about an apparently happy family whose husband presumably abuses the wife - or the daughter? - and finds himself shot dead. Not simply any father, but a teacher (a profession I had dipped in and out of), in not just any school, but the school I once attended. And there wasn't just the story itself, but how it was related to my mother through her own mother's feelings of guilt and helplessness. And, I realised, that the very telling made me aware how lonely and isolated my mother was. She had nobody else to tell. When I left her at the airport a few days later, for the first time I was thinking not of returning to the island, to my harassed father and my glass to bottle chinking stepmother. No, I was thinking of my own mother, returning to her small house and finding in it, when I had left, areas of secrecy and darkness that I could not see because I was the one who had filled them.
© Tony McKibbin