Dispossessions

12/05/2022

1

Usually, I would spend Christmas with my twin sister and her family but that year she told me, in the middle of November, that for the first time since we were eighteen, we would spend it apart: that a close friend of hers would have her last Christmas with her. The friend was diagnosed with a tumour in the brain. After the doctor suspected it was serious, as a scan revealed that it was, the friend was rushed to hospital in the closest city capable of doing the operation and many miles from the village where she lived. In Aberdeen, the surgeon removed as much of the tumour as they possibly could. 95% was taken out but 5% remained, and the surgeon admitted to her friend before the procedure, and again after it, that they would probably only be able to prolong life, not prevent her impending death. They said she probably wouldn’t live for much more than six months. Only three years before her two children, now sixteen and eighteen, were left without a father when he died after his truck skidded on black ice. Now the boys would lose their mother too. This was how my sister’s friend, Jenny, offered it to my sister, and Gillian in turn to me. I didn’t know Jenny very well and saw the children only once: they were sitting in the car the previous Christmas when Jenny popped round to drop off some Christmas presents. My sister said she must stop for at least a coffee (my sister’s place was in Aviemore, a few miles from where Jenny lived in Carrbridge,) but she said the boys were in the car. My sister said she should invite them in but Jenny insisted they were playing games on their phones: they would probably prefer to stay in the car than listen to Jenny and my sister’s chatter. Jenny stayed for half an hour before the older child, Ewan, knocked on the patio door and with an angry expression indicated he was getting bored and wanted to go home. My sister had hardly seen them since their father had died; whenever she visited they were out or in their room, and Jenny said she wasn’t sure how much of it was typical teenage truculence or grieving for their dad. It made her often feel alone in her loss, Jenny would say, and Gillian thought about losses of her own, and the presence of her family. 

I of course accepted my sister’s decision and saw in it the chance to invite to Edinburgh a friend from London I’d known for more than a decade who in recent years usually come up each Hogmanay. With a couple of other friends, we celebrated the new year as they all stayed over for two or three days at my place. Simon had divorced five years earlier, had no children and said he liked to feel a young man again as we all went out, got a bit drunk and reminisced. All of us were single, separated or divorced or in relationships that didn’t last or didn’t become significant. The friendship was the thing. 

But this particular year, Simon had lost both his mother and father and fallen out with both his brother and sister. The parents had long since been divorced but died within six months of each other. The brother accused the sister of neglect over the mother, and the sister blamed the brother for neglect over the father. Simon refused to take sides and both fell out with him. He had tried to talk to his brother and his sister, sent them several texts, but he hadn’t heard from either of them since their father’s funeral in July. I knew in previous years he had gone one year to his father’s place; the next to his mother’s, and this year I proposed he join me for Christmas and stay as long as he wished.  

About a fortnight before Christmas I travelled up to my sister’s for a long weekend, to drop off presents, see the kids and wonder how my sister was coping with the impending loss of her friend. She had known Jenny over twenty years and though Jenny was only five years older than Gillian, my sister saw a parental figure she could trust. They had met when Gillian was only nineteen; they both worked in a hotel bar in Inverness, and my sister, looking for a person she could admire, found in Jenny all the qualities she was looking for in a friend who would also be an older sister, perhaps even a mother. They had been best friends to each other ever since and no occasion was missed: birthday parties, hen nights, weddings, births and deaths (my sister attended Jenny’s mother’s funeral) were all acknowledged and they had never lived more than thirty miles from each other. During the three days I was there, my sister burst into tears several times and I sensed that no matter how important the friend’s illness happened to be, it was as though it had generated in Gillian reflections beyond Jenny’s imminent demise. 

During that weekend, I spoke to my sister very little but to her children, Will and Ben, quite a lot. They were around the same age as Jenny’s boys and when they were younger often my sister and Jenny’s children all played together but hardly at all since their father died. On the Saturday afternoon, while my sister was visiting Jenny, I went for a walk with my sister’s older son. Will was home from his first term at university and surprised me by asking if I wanted to go for a wander. The weather was around 3 degrees and the sky was blue, and after a fall of snow the night before the light was brilliant and strong. Reason enough to get out and walk but what surprised me was the assertiveness of the gesture: Will had never proposed it before and I saw in the request a grown-up confidence that the walk confirmed. We walked for over two hours, out behind the back of the village where they lived, along by the Rothiemurchus estate, and out as far as Loch an Eilein. Initially, we talked about his degree and I asked him a couple of questions when he told me he had a girlfriend. About half an hour into our walk he said that a couple of days ago he tried to contact Jenny’s older son, Ewan. He still hadn’t received a reply and Will had asked his mother to say to Jenny that her son should contact him. I’ve often thought that maturity resides in our capacity for rejection, that the grown-up person knows that any perceived rebuff will concern the other person; the best way to make sense of such a ‘snub’ is to try and understand the other person’s predicament rather than focus on their rejection of us. 

As Will talked about his early teenage years when he and Ewan went swimming in the very loch we were approaching, he said that before Ewan’s father died, Ewan was always the one who liked taking risks. Sometimes they cycled all the way to Feshiebridge and it was Ewan who insisted that they jump off high rocks and into the stream below. Will would ask how did Ewan know it was deep enough and Ewan said he didn’t but he remembered the year before watching boys jump in around the spot they were standing and they seemed okay. Will wasn’t sure and Ewan jumped in three times, crawling his way back around the rock after each jump, before Will felt secure enough to leap into the water himself. They went several times that summer, cycling the fifteen miles there and back. Ewan always wanted to take risks and now he won’t even leave his room most of the time, Will said. 

I asked about the younger brother. Will said from what he’d heard Fergus was rarely home, that he seemed to have reacted in the opposite way to Ewan, and maybe close to how his brother was before his father died but much more recklessly still. He was often in trouble at school, had formed a gang, according to Ben, and took risks less to show his bravery than to play up the pointlessness of life. Is that your formulation, Ben’s or Fergus’s I asked Will. I wondered if he’d given it an articulation Fergus himself might have been looking to find. I asked perhaps with a hint of envy, recalling how when I was Fergus’s age and even Will’s, I was stranded in the inarticulate, finding in futile gestures what I couldn’t put into words.

The next day I went on a shorter walk with Will, and Ben joined us. We said a few words about Jenny, Ewan and Fergus but Ben didn’t seem to want to talk about it and instead discussed a football game he played the day before, while Will and I had been walking. The pitch had been cleared of snow but they were playing in mud so dense that the ball kept getting stuck and it looked as though at a certain point the game was going to be abandoned: the players couldn’t stop laughing when one shot of the ball, which in normal circumstances would have had no problem crossing the line, got stuck on the line itself. Instead of arguing over whether it was a goal or not, both teams couldn’t stop laughing at the stupidity of it all. I asked if Fergus was playing. No, Ben said: he thinks everything is stupid. 

Over dinner that evening I watched my sister and her husband as I hadn’t before: as two people not just busying themselves with getting dinner ready or chopping wood for the fire but as people holding together the meaning of their children’s lives. As I helped get the fire going, as Will prepared the table and Ben emptied the dishwasher, I observed a functioning family at work and wondered what was happening thirteen miles away in Carrbridge. Was Jenny able to do everything and were the children willing to do anything? My sister said that she had been in again that afternoon to tidy up a bit but the way she said it indicated that a whole lot more tidying was required. I thought too over dinner about the boys as they bickered lightly and fought over who was getting the last slice of a cake my sister had made that morning. They had already eaten a huge slice at lunch and now they wondered who would get the final piece after having had a further chunk for dessert. My sister interjected and wondered if I might like a second slice. I said that would be lovely and as she put it on my plate I watched them look aghast, as though I happened to be too old for the self-interest they practised. I handed it back to them with a smile, and Will then insisted Ben have it. He was full anyway.  

3

On the train down, I kept turning away from my book and thinking about the trip, aware that even though my sister and her husband were attentive parents, they almost needn’t have been; that they were present at all constituted attentiveness enough. I sometimes thought that as I backed out of relationships or partners retreated from me, I did so aware I would be an inadequate father, too focused on my own preoccupations to focus on the needs of my imaginary children. One girlfriend laughed loudly at my claim, seeing in my remark nothing more than an excuse but unaware what sat behind such a comment since I had told her so little about my childhood. All she knew was that I was brought up in a different household from my sister, assumed our parents had new partners, and that was why we were raised in separate places. I didn’t tell her otherwise and maybe if I had done so she would have offered more than a laugh and not left a few weeks after the conversation. But then I haven’t told anybody I’ve been seeing about my early years, accepting that their resentment and frustration was easier to entertain than telling them that my sister and I were separated at birth because our father wouldn’t take responsibility for the pregnancy, and our mother couldn’t face, at the age of eighteen, bringing up two children. Had we not been twins, had only my sister or I been born, would our mother have believed she might have coped? 

For several years, probably from the age of seven to fourteen, I wished my sister had died at birth, sure that if I had been an only child I would have had at least one parent. During those years I saw my sister only very occasionally and had no contact at all with my mother. When she put us up for adoption she not only relinquished all rights, she left us with no way of contacting her. As I moved from one foster parent to another, aware that they received money for accepting me into their home, and as I was unable to trust anyone enough to accept adoption, I knew that my sister was the only person in the world who I could claim to belong to and who belonged to me, but I couldn’t forgive her for that existence. When we would meet up very occasionally during those years, I never directly expressed my resentment but I had no sense that she felt it towards me. In time, it dissipated and by sixteen there was nobody I wished to see more than her. 

When she was thirteen, she was adopted and her parents convinced her of the importance of education. While she has admitted she never felt close to them, she continues to be grateful to them. They persuaded her to go to university and she left with a degree that has always earned her a professional salary, and left also with a boyfriend who became her husband, a man whose earning capacity was slightly lower than hers but who had no problem with becoming a house husband when the task was required. 

I left school at sixteen and have lived from my wits and off the state, moving between various jobs that seemed to promise freedom and in between relying on government money that appeared to make me free next to the job I managed to be sacked from. Then I would be harassed back into employment as the thought of work seemed less onerous than trying constantly to explain myself to a job-centre advisor. And back and forth I went, all the while playing music, sometimes in bands and sometimes on the street, on my own, making occasionally several hundred pounds a day. It was a good feeling to go into the job-centre and allow them to propose jobs that I turned down, and the advisor threatening me with the withdrawal of my benefits if I wouldn’t at least entertain an interview. Stop the money, I would say, aware that I could, after a few days of successful busking, survive for a couple of months. Over the last five years I have managed to make enough from playing in a couple of bands and by busking around Christmas and during the summer months, sometimes doing so in other cities, other countries. 

But when I found myself thinking about how reluctant I had been to say anything about my childhood status to anybody I would go out with, I was aware too of course that I had never talked to anybody else about it either — not even my sister. I didn’t doubt that she had discussed it with her husband, and with Jenny, and perhaps others as well. Had she and I never brought it up because we didn’t need to do so — there was no secret there; only a past buried? That I didn’t seem to have a problem with it having been exposed to others, why couldn’t I talk about it myself with people I knew? As I thought about Ewan and Fergus, I wondered if they too might go through life determined not to speak about something others would have spoken about in their absence, and perhaps this is where I see maturity and was already beginning to see it in Will. He maybe had nothing to hide but like everyone else he had an ego to protect and in so simple a gesture as asking if I wanted to go for a walk it was as if he were willing to expose himself. 

It may seem like I am making much of very little but since I have so often been guarded in the most absurd way I am astute to the nuances of self-protection. I don’t think I’ve ever directly asked anybody out and all of my encounters have come through the music. After a gig, sometimes people have been tipsy, flattering and flirty and a moment of admiration on their part becomes a three-month affair between us. I’ve often been busking and someone sits and listens for an hour. I say she must like music and we go for a drink. She says she liked me as well as the music and again an affair starts. If I make this sound like women find me irresistible then that is to misconstrue what I am saying. I think instead they see in me such pathetic and useless fragility that they know they must act first and use the music as the premise. Without the music, I am not sure how that would happen and usually, after a few months, the music isn’t enough. They leave, aware that my initial failure to ask them out, to compliment them, to open up, wasn’t shyness but a deeper resistance. 

I wasn’t surprised when Will and I walked and he told me he had a girlfriend, and a casual question about how they met carried for me a more pressing one. Had he at the age of nineteen already conquered insecurities I am still living with at more than twice his age? He said they met when she visited a friend of hers who shared with Will the same kitchen in the halls of residence. She had visited several times before and, when the friend left the kitchen for a few minutes, he asked whether she wanted to see a film at the university film society. He was a member and he could get a guest in if she wished to see something. He told her of a film that Wednesday, she said she would like to see it and afterwards they went for a drink and that was really that. I wanted to enquire further but how can an uncle ask his nephew about how smoothly the young manage to accomplish the task of seduction when his uncle had over the years relied on women to take the initiative? We changed the subject and that was when Will started discussing Ewan and Fergus.

4

In the flat I rented on the winding street that worked its way down the Grassmarket, I hadn’t put up any decorations but with Simon visiting I thought I should make an attempt at Christmas cheer. I bought a small tree to put next to a lamp in the sitting room, and two sets of fairy lights, a small set which I wrapped around the tree and another larger one I hung in the kitchen. The decorations weren’t exactly pronounced but they were evident and it was more than I had managed before in the five years I had been living in the place. It was probably originally owned by the council and the person renting it to me bought it cheaply, left for India five years earlier and hadn’t yet come back. It was a modest rent by Edinburgh standards but no doubt proved a useful income for my landlord over in Goa. He set up a stall there and sold various goods but I suspect it was my rent money that gave him the security to stay as I sometimes wished I too could fall back on something, a phrase I would think about as both emotional and economic. 

When Simon arrived and saw the decorations he expressed surprise and wondered if each year I did this but removed the signs of Christmas before he and other friends came for New Year. I said no — this was especially for him. It was a joke containing a sentiment and while I expected him to respond to the joke, he instead was visibly moved by the gesture. As he removed his rucksack and put it beside the couch, it appeared as if he was looking for any excuse to hide his emotion for a moment, finding it rummaging around in the bag. By the time he discovered what he was looking for, the awkward moment seemed to have passed even if what he took out of the bag might have exacerbated it. He handed me a jumper he thought might be my size as I momentarily wondered if he had bought something for himself and noting it was too small, thought it might fit me, or whether it was a thoughtful gift for a friend after his own parents had died and his sister and brother wished to avoid contact with him. Had I thought too much about the latter, and not almost simultaneously allowed myself to think it might have been the former, that sentimental moment might have been extended and the two of us would have been standing in my sitting room, hugging and crying. But while I was pleased both of us managed to retain our equilibrium, I suspect the consequence of our almost tearful moment came the following night, after an afternoon walk and a Christmas dinner that we both decided was best cooked by a chef in an Indian restaurant: we had a takeaway, accompanied by several beers, and after that moved onto a bottle of whisky I had bought during a summer visit to Skye.

That evening I expected we would talk about his parents’ death but I was surprised to find myself talking too to him about my childhood for the first time. As he spoke about how he felt when he arrived at the hospital to be told his father had passed away, his sister glaring at him as though it had been his absence that killed him, so I found a space opening up in him, one accidentally present the previous evening. It was as though it remained open and maybe had been since his parents’ death but this was the first time I’d seen him since they died and he seemed much more tender, even tenderised, than around the time of his divorce. I asked him about this and he said that breaking up with his wife was like losing an arm but this was like losing your legs — something crumbled beneath him and he couldn’t stand up straight anymore. When his sister looked at him with contempt that day at the hospital he wasn’t so bothered: he had crossed the city from his flat in Southgate to the hospital near where his dad lived in Bromley. It took him over an hour and a half each day and he had been doing it every day all of that last week. He was exhausted, went for a nap when his sister phoned him, and woke up to hear a message saying that she didn’t think their father would live for many hours more. He knew he did what he could and didn’t feel the guilt his sister tried to thrust upon him, and when his mother died a few months later, in a hospital in the north of London, only a mile or so from where he stayed, he was there far more often than his sister, who lived in the south of the city, and his brother, who lived in Brighton. It was right and proper he said: he was the one closest to her literally. 

Thus what he felt since they died wasn’t guilt but a loss he couldn’t name, a feeling that suggested to him he was alone in the world because nothing was underneath him even if there were things all around him. When he and his wife were divorced, he acknowledged he lost a very important person next to him but it was as if he knew there would be others able to occupy a space of adjacency again. Losing his parents wasn’t like that. Even though they’d divorced when he was in his teens, they were still there and now they weren’t. 

It might seem odd that I had never talked to this close friend about never knowing my parents. How close could he be if I’d not divulged such a fundamental fact about myself? It wasn’t even that I had lied to him about them. It was more that I had created around myself a space into which people felt they couldn’t enquire. Perhaps too, by sometimes talking to people about my sister, I gave the impression of family without offering the details behind it. Yet that evening as he talked about his parents how could I not talk about mine? I’ve often thought I haven’t discussed them with others since there was nothing to talk about. I didn’t know their names, their family histories, or the jobs they did. Most of the time when others discussed their parents they talked about their presence and I had nothing to add. However that evening, Simon was talking about absence; maybe it made sense that this was the first time we would talk about my parents — it was the moment where we shared a parental reality. There he was losing his parents into his forties, and after years where they held his hand as he crossed the road, helped him with his homework, watched him score his first goal in a school football match, and attended his university graduation, so he had all these memories to work through. He had an emotional conurbation and I had a desert. But they were both somehow deserts now and I said he had never really asked me about my family. 

He said he didn’t feel the need or didn’t know if I wanted to talk about it. So much of our friendship he admitted had been based on not talking about things and it was true that while I had often thought that I needed to talk to partners even in brief relationships about my childhood, with friends I seemed to exist from the age eighteen onwards. Any aspect of our lives before then seemed little more than anecdotal, a story thrown in rather than a feeling explored. Even Simon’s divorce however felt a bit like that: as if it were an opportunity to once again devote more time to his friends, to football and to the pub than he had hitherto been able during his three years of marriage. But that night he needed to talk, and hadn’t I predicated his Christmas visit on the basis of his familial life, on Simon losing both his parents? When I have suggested there was a need sometimes to talk about my orphan status with girlfriends, maybe need wasn’t quite the word. There we were lying in bed talking about her family and there I was next to them nodding and asking questions: a curiosity that was genuine enough but that was also deflecting: a useful way of avoiding questions from them. On occasion, I knew so much about a girlfriend’s life that I could have written out the family tree but I wouldn’t want to suggest that they showed no curiosity towards my life — I just made sure that I appeared to answer questions that gave the impression of revelation. I discussed the schools I went to, the friends I made, the teachers I liked and didn’t like. I covered the absence with a presence that gave the impression of honesty and vulnerability. But not once did I discuss my biological parents even I did on occasion mention a foster parent as if they were my own. I never lied about it but understandably she would assume that when I said “there were problems at home. I didn’t get on with them”, my present partner had no reason to assume I was talking about anyone but my mother and father.

5

That evening as Simon discussed his parents I did what I don’t recall ever doing before. I asked him a question about me. It is common enough I suppose for people to ask us questions and for us to ask people questions but rather less frequent for someone to ask others a question about ourselves. It often takes the form of mild narcissism when we ask others what they make of our hair or our clothes. Unwilling to wait for the compliment, we seek it, risking from our friend insult or dishonesty in turn. Yes, they think our new haircut looks great (but we might wonder if it was so great why didn’t they say so immediately and so on). I don’t think I’ve ever asked such a question but there I was that night asking what I felt was a much bigger one. I asked him whether he was surprised I’d never discussed my parents. He looked at me with less surprise than I might have imagined and said that he always assumed that there was a secret there and didn’t think it was his place to nosy around. He did say that once in the pub with one of the others a couple of New Years’ ago, one of the gang asked him if he knew anything about my family background and he said no, and in such a way, he hoped, that it was none of his or the friend’s business. 

I said I didn’t know why I asked, but over the next few hours I discussed for the first time to another person about never having known my parents, of never knowing what it was like to have a world under my feet. It was as if Simon’s bewilderment allowed me to acknowledge my own, to see that though he lost his parents after many years of their existence, and I lost mine with no knowledge of their existence at all, the freshness of his pain and the longevity of my own allowed for not so much common ground but common groundlessness. Was this what I was seeking with girlfriends too but was unable to find no matter how much they talked about their past? It was in the very talking about that past and all its myriad details, that I was silenced. They would discuss holidays with their parents when they were children, Christmases and birthdays, and they even talked about difficult moments with their parents. A couple of them mentioned that their parents divorced, and yet it was still a past that was full while all I saw in my own was an emptiness. 

I tried to describe this to Simon while navigating the loss that was recently his, as I said that it was maybe in the obviousness of his loss that I could find the obscurity of mine. As Simon described an ache that was also a chasm I knew I couldn’t identify with the emotion of his claim; that whatever feeling I may have had about my parentlessness, was so irrelevant to the moment and yet could, I hoped, somehow take advantage of it. Inviting Simon to join me for Christmas was because he had lost his parents not because I had never known mine, but as we talked that evening I saw in it a chance, almost literally. It was as if I had earned the right statistically to talk about the subject, feeling that the odds of losing both parents in the same year, as Simon did, and that Ewan and Fergus would lose theirs in a similar time-span, gave me the right to speak about the exception that I’d often felt myself to be: exceptional in my inadequacy.

I have read that around one in a thousand children are in foster care and I don’t know what the statistics happen to be when it comes to losing two parents close together but I sensed that while Simon was unfortunate in his loss, that to use such an adjective to describe Ewan and Fergus’s would be far too weak. Yet it wasn’t only the loss that seemed important, it was also the unlikelihood they would ever meet anyone else who had lost both their parents at a young age so unluckily. I wondered whether they might ever find a way to talk about it just as they would be lying in bed with a partner and, as they told them about their lives, their statistically ordinary existence, there the boys would be, unable surely to relate their experiences to another because contained within it was a revelation that couldn’t fall under the term sharing. They would have to meet a divulgence with silence or with a story that would demand from the other person a different magnitude of sympathy. I have assumed when people share their pasts that they can be divided up equally, with a greater emphasis here or there but with the assumption that both can claim roughly the same number of difficulties and hardships. It is an absurd idea no doubt but one I would feel when lying in bed with a partner, almost hoping that as they told me about their childhoods they would reveal something that could match my own. And so there I was that night, sharing it with Simon, aware that I was doing so because of contingent circumstances; that he had lost his mum and dad that year and had never felt so abandoned, and I had invited him up from London since I wasn’t able to go to my sister’s as she prioritised her friend and her friend’s children — who would soon enough feel still more abandoned than either the grown men that Simon and I were supposed to be. 

6

Simon stayed on right through to the 2nd of January. The others arrived on the 31st and while Simon continued staying in the boxroom with a skylight, the two other friends slept on the couch and on the floor. They had sleeping bags and camp mats and while they had money enough to book into a hotel, tradition demanded that they rough it in my place all the better to maximise the camaraderie. There seemed during those days with the others a complicity between Simon and myself that we didn’t quite share with the two of them, but it didn’t appear to get in the way of the banter and the boozing. On New Year’s Eve, we watched the fireworks from the Bridges, as we mingled with what seemed like many thousands and it was there I wished a happy Hogmanay to a woman who was with her ten-year-old son, who was excited that he was allowed to stay up so late. I was sure I’d seen her and the boy earlier in the day at a cafe in the Grassmarket and sometimes it is the weakest of premises that allow you, if the feelings are strong, to introduce yourself. It was also the manner in which the boy gripped his mother’s hand somehow moved me and without it I am not sure if I would have left the others to their boozy cheering and walked a few yards to where she and the boy were standing. I said to her that I’d seen them earlier in a cafe, and she told me they were staying in a hotel on the corner by the Grassmarket on a street she couldn’t quite remember, a steep, winding street with lots of shops with different coloured facades. 

It was on the other end of the Grassmarket from my flat and I asked what brought them to Edinburgh. She said her son loved to watch fireworks and he had heard that the ones here were spectacular. She looked at her son when she said this and while it was a big word for a young boy his response suggested that was exactly the word he used. He’s had to grow up fast she said, without adding anything more: as if the non sequitur offered within it a world of anguish however far removed. We talked for ten minutes and I didn’t see her again over the next few days though she was staying in Edinburgh until the 3rd. I expected to see her in a cafe, on the streets of the city centre, and walked those streets alone on the 2nd after the others left. I thought of asking at the hotel but didn’t know her name and couldn’t have expected they would give it to me anyway. I sat outside for a couple of hours at a cafe not far from where they were staying, and watched the hotel where I would see people enter and exit but never saw them. 

I thought more about them over the next couple of weeks and didn’t quite separate the mother from the boy as I wondered whether I was so attracted to her or to the dynamic that I saw between the two of them. That afternoon when I first saw them in the cafe I witnessed a bond I rarely see no matter the blood that people share. They appeared to be sharing something more than blood, though I didn’t doubt the woman was the boy’s biological mother. What did they share I must have thought that day and later that night, just after the fireworks, and in that question believed I had earned the right to talk to them. But I never asked them their names and they didn’t ask for mine either. They remain as if dreamt, with no consequence except in my imagination.  

7

It was at the beginning of the summer Jenny died. She said she wanted to see spring, wanted to celebrate her older son’s birthday in March and her younger son’s in April but survived to have one more birthday of her own in May. All the birthdays were supposedly quiet affairs, a trio of events with a triumvirate of people: the two boys and their mother on each occasion celebrating a birthday when they knew it was death they were acknowledging. The funeral however was hectic with friends and family, as though the many people Jenny shielded from her illness she couldn’t shield from her death. I thought for a while about going, undecided whether I had the right to commemorate a person I only ever knew through my sister, and when my sister said she expected many people at the funeral I wondered too if this was what Jenny would have wished for and what the boys could handle. Yet it was thinking of Ewan and Fergus that allowed me to go, to see in their eyes a look that may have been and might still be in mine, to look at them with a gaze that indicated I didn’t only feel compassion but that I shared their pain, a pain I knew could not easily be unburdened or understood. I had nothing more than the wisdom of loss, which all humans going through life experience accumulate, but which few start with from the very beginning, and not many expect to experience it so brutally as they had before their proper entrance into adulthood. 

The funeral was in Inverness, at Tomnahurich cemetery. It seemed an anomalous occasion, as if all funerals should be in autumn or winter just as we expect weddings in the summer or the spring. But people die according to cycles other than the seasons, and the cemetery, near the canal, and situated on and at the bottom of a hill, did not seem that day funereal. The trees were green and the flowers in bloom, scattered patches of yellow, blue, red and purple. It was a heat wave by Highland standards and I felt sticky and formal in my shirt, suit and tie. I wanted to loosen the tie and open a button but standing there looking at all those grave faces, which seemed an accurate description and an atrocious pun, the gesture would have appeared rude, giving a sense of hastiness to an event that had its own temporal gravity. I looked across at Ewan and Fergus and their youth itself seemed anomalous: that there are people too young for funerals, and surely too young to attend those of their parents. I am sure many of the people there had been to the boys’ father’s funeral as well, and were wearing the same suits they wore that day. But the boys of course would have grown since then and it must be terrible to have to wear a new funeral suit because you are now too big for the previous one as you deposit your second parent to the ground. 

I tried to think harsh thoughts to hide the softness that I felt when thinking of them and thinking of myself. I thought I might start sobbing and didn’t know whether such tears would be viewed as ridiculous or selfish: that I never knew Jenny well enough to cry; or that I was in my own private sorrow that the funeral was no more than augmenting, like a weepie film that reminds you of your failed loves. I think though that if the tears were to come they would have been not for Jenny nor even for me but for the two boys whose pain I found myself occupying and that wasn’t quite my own. I’d had forty years to recover from the loss of people I didn’t know. They had thus far no more than a week to recover from someone they called mum for more than a decade and a half, after calling their father dad for close to that. I thought of going up to them afterwards and saying that I too had lost my parents, but if for years I found that the gap between a girlfriend and I was too great to communicate across, that day I believed the evident proximity would nevertheless have felt false. I thought too that I might have been able to tell them about a friend of mine, who had lost both his parents within six months of each other and that I’d been with him over Christmas and New Year. But it’s not that there aren’t words for these things; it is often that there are occasions for them. While a funeral might apparently be the place for such words, and surely the appropriate occasion, that was not what I believed. 

Yet later on, at the wake, I was sitting there on my own after the person I was chatting with was now in a conversation with someone at the bar, and Ewan came over. He sat down and looked older than his years but this wasn’t in a face that I might have expected to be tired with fret and worry, though there were no signs of that in a visage that was only nineteen, it was in a bodily disposition that looked like it wanted to assume a role, one acknowledging that he was the older brother and, prematurely, the new generation taking over from the previous one. His tie was loosened and I saw it as a chance to loosen my own. He stayed with me for half an hour, which is an odd way of putting it since it suggests that I was the one in need of succour. Perhaps I was. During that time, he told me he knew that I had never known my parents and he at least had. He said his mother told them I would never talk about it, even though my sister sometimes did, and of course that is how he knew. My sister had said that she believed I had never found anybody I could discuss it with and Jenny said to him that after she died he should find a way to do so. Jenny didn’t know whether it would be good for me or for him, both or neither, but it was one of a number of her dying wishes. She seemed in the certitude of her own end to wish to set as many things right as she could, even those that didn’t always concern her. He said it with a smile and I thought back to the moment when Will asked me out for that walk at the end of the previous year, seeing in the gesture confidence I couldn’t have begun to match. But I thought too of Ewan banging on the patio door the Christmas before that and saw in the gesture a petulant youth who had a lot of growing up to do. It seemed that he had done it in the shadow of his mother’s illness. 

I would have liked to stay longer but had a train back to Edinburgh at five. I felt in that moment I was abandoning him but he shook my hand and thanked me for coming as he smoothly crossed the room and mingled with others, thanking them too for attending the funeral as it looked like they also were about to leave. I said goodbye to my sister, her husband and the kids, and to a couple of other people. On the way out I saw Fergus standing there. He didn’t ignore me; he seemed not to notice me. He had his head down and was smoking a cigarette, lost in the sort of thought perhaps that it might take him years to come out of. I hoped not but even then, even there, I didn’t have the wherewithal to approach him. Such a gesture, it seemed, was still beyond me but as I turned around he looked up, and we shared a brief gaze that might have been more telling than any words either could have offered. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Dispossessions

1

Usually, I would spend Christmas with my twin sister and her family but that year she told me, in the middle of November, that for the first time since we were eighteen, we would spend it apart: that a close friend of hers would have her last Christmas with her. The friend was diagnosed with a tumour in the brain. After the doctor suspected it was serious, as a scan revealed that it was, the friend was rushed to hospital in the closest city capable of doing the operation and many miles from the village where she lived. In Aberdeen, the surgeon removed as much of the tumour as they possibly could. 95% was taken out but 5% remained, and the surgeon admitted to her friend before the procedure, and again after it, that they would probably only be able to prolong life, not prevent her impending death. They said she probably wouldn't live for much more than six months. Only three years before her two children, now sixteen and eighteen, were left without a father when he died after his truck skidded on black ice. Now the boys would lose their mother too. This was how my sister's friend, Jenny, offered it to my sister, and Gillian in turn to me. I didn't know Jenny very well and saw the children only once: they were sitting in the car the previous Christmas when Jenny popped round to drop off some Christmas presents. My sister said she must stop for at least a coffee (my sister's place was in Aviemore, a few miles from where Jenny lived in Carrbridge,) but she said the boys were in the car. My sister said she should invite them in but Jenny insisted they were playing games on their phones: they would probably prefer to stay in the car than listen to Jenny and my sister's chatter. Jenny stayed for half an hour before the older child, Ewan, knocked on the patio door and with an angry expression indicated he was getting bored and wanted to go home. My sister had hardly seen them since their father had died; whenever she visited they were out or in their room, and Jenny said she wasn't sure how much of it was typical teenage truculence or grieving for their dad. It made her often feel alone in her loss, Jenny would say, and Gillian thought about losses of her own, and the presence of her family.

I of course accepted my sister's decision and saw in it the chance to invite to Edinburgh a friend from London I'd known for more than a decade who in recent years usually come up each Hogmanay. With a couple of other friends, we celebrated the new year as they all stayed over for two or three days at my place. Simon had divorced five years earlier, had no children and said he liked to feel a young man again as we all went out, got a bit drunk and reminisced. All of us were single, separated or divorced or in relationships that didn't last or didn't become significant. The friendship was the thing.

But this particular year, Simon had lost both his mother and father and fallen out with both his brother and sister. The parents had long since been divorced but died within six months of each other. The brother accused the sister of neglect over the mother, and the sister blamed the brother for neglect over the father. Simon refused to take sides and both fell out with him. He had tried to talk to his brother and his sister, sent them several texts, but he hadn't heard from either of them since their father's funeral in July. I knew in previous years he had gone one year to his father's place; the next to his mother's, and this year I proposed he join me for Christmas and stay as long as he wished.

2

About a fortnight before Christmas I travelled up to my sister's for a long weekend, to drop off presents, see the kids and wonder how my sister was coping with the impending loss of her friend. She had known Jenny over twenty years and though Jenny was only five years older than Gillian, my sister saw a parental figure she could trust. They had met when Gillian was only nineteen; they both worked in a hotel bar in Inverness, and my sister, looking for a person she could admire, found in Jenny all the qualities she was looking for in a friend who would also be an older sister, perhaps even a mother. They had been best friends to each other ever since and no occasion was missed: birthday parties, hen nights, weddings, births and deaths (my sister attended Jenny's mother's funeral) were all acknowledged and they had never lived more than thirty miles from each other. During the three days I was there, my sister burst into tears several times and I sensed that no matter how important the friend's illness happened to be, it was as though it had generated in Gillian reflections beyond Jenny's imminent demise.

During that weekend, I spoke to my sister very little but to her children, Will and Ben, quite a lot. They were around the same age as Jenny's boys and when they were younger often my sister and Jenny's children all played together but hardly at all since their father died. On the Saturday afternoon, while my sister was visiting Jenny, I went for a walk with my sister's older son. Will was home from his first term at university and surprised me by asking if I wanted to go for a wander. The weather was around 3 degrees and the sky was blue, and after a fall of snow the night before the light was brilliant and strong. Reason enough to get out and walk but what surprised me was the assertiveness of the gesture: Will had never proposed it before and I saw in the request a grown-up confidence that the walk confirmed. We walked for over two hours, out behind the back of the village where they lived, along by the Rothiemurchus estate, and out as far as Loch an Eilein. Initially, we talked about his degree and I asked him a couple of questions when he told me he had a girlfriend. About half an hour into our walk he said that a couple of days ago he tried to contact Jenny's older son, Ewan. He still hadn't received a reply and Will had asked his mother to say to Jenny that her son should contact him. I've often thought that maturity resides in our capacity for rejection, that the grown-up person knows that any perceived rebuff will concern the other person; the best way to make sense of such a 'snub' is to try and understand the other person's predicament rather than focus on their rejection of us.

As Will talked about his early teenage years when he and Ewan went swimming in the very loch we were approaching, he said that before Ewan's father died, Ewan was always the one who liked taking risks. Sometimes they cycled all the way to Feshiebridge and it was Ewan who insisted that they jump off high rocks and into the stream below. Will would ask how did Ewan know it was deep enough and Ewan said he didn't but he remembered the year before watching boys jump in around the spot they were standing and they seemed okay. Will wasn't sure and Ewan jumped in three times, crawling his way back around the rock after each jump, before Will felt secure enough to leap into the water himself. They went several times that summer, cycling the fifteen miles there and back. Ewan always wanted to take risks and now he won't even leave his room most of the time, Will said.

I asked about the younger brother. Will said from what he'd heard Fergus was rarely home, that he seemed to have reacted in the opposite way to Ewan, and maybe close to how his brother was before his father died but much more recklessly still. He was often in trouble at school, had formed a gang, according to Ben, and took risks less to show his bravery than to play up the pointlessness of life. Is that your formulation, Ben's or Fergus's I asked Will. I wondered if he'd given it an articulation Fergus himself might have been looking to find. I asked perhaps with a hint of envy, recalling how when I was Fergus's age and even Will's, I was stranded in the inarticulate, finding in futile gestures what I couldn't put into words.

The next day I went on a shorter walk with Will, and Ben joined us. We said a few words about Jenny, Ewan and Fergus but Ben didn't seem to want to talk about it and instead discussed a football game he played the day before, while Will and I had been walking. The pitch had been cleared of snow but they were playing in mud so dense that the ball kept getting stuck and it looked as though at a certain point the game was going to be abandoned: the players couldn't stop laughing when one shot of the ball, which in normal circumstances would have had no problem crossing the line, got stuck on the line itself. Instead of arguing over whether it was a goal or not, both teams couldn't stop laughing at the stupidity of it all. I asked if Fergus was playing. No, Ben said: he thinks everything is stupid.

Over dinner that evening I watched my sister and her husband as I hadn't before: as two people not just busying themselves with getting dinner ready or chopping wood for the fire but as people holding together the meaning of their children's lives. As I helped get the fire going, as Will prepared the table and Ben emptied the dishwasher, I observed a functioning family at work and wondered what was happening thirteen miles away in Carrbridge. Was Jenny able to do everything and were the children willing to do anything? My sister said that she had been in again that afternoon to tidy up a bit but the way she said it indicated that a whole lot more tidying was required. I thought too over dinner about the boys as they bickered lightly and fought over who was getting the last slice of a cake my sister had made that morning. They had already eaten a huge slice at lunch and now they wondered who would get the final piece after having had a further chunk for dessert. My sister interjected and wondered if I might like a second slice. I said that would be lovely and as she put it on my plate I watched them look aghast, as though I happened to be too old for the self-interest they practised. I handed it back to them with a smile, and Will then insisted Ben have it. He was full anyway.

3

On the train down, I kept turning away from my book and thinking about the trip, aware that even though my sister and her husband were attentive parents, they almost needn't have been; that they were present at all constituted attentiveness enough. I sometimes thought that as I backed out of relationships or partners retreated from me, I did so aware I would be an inadequate father, too focused on my own preoccupations to focus on the needs of my imaginary children. One girlfriend laughed loudly at my claim, seeing in my remark nothing more than an excuse but unaware what sat behind such a comment since I had told her so little about my childhood. All she knew was that I was brought up in a different household from my sister, assumed our parents had new partners, and that was why we were raised in separate places. I didn't tell her otherwise and maybe if I had done so she would have offered more than a laugh and not left a few weeks after the conversation. But then I haven't told anybody I've been seeing about my early years, accepting that their resentment and frustration was easier to entertain than telling them that my sister and I were separated at birth because our father wouldn't take responsibility for the pregnancy, and our mother couldn't face, at the age of eighteen, bringing up two children. Had we not been twins, had only my sister or I been born, would our mother have believed she might have coped?

For several years, probably from the age of seven to fourteen, I wished my sister had died at birth, sure that if I had been an only child I would have had at least one parent. During those years I saw my sister only very occasionally and had no contact at all with my mother. When she put us up for adoption she not only relinquished all rights, she left us with no way of contacting her. As I moved from one foster parent to another, aware that they received money for accepting me into their home, and as I was unable to trust anyone enough to accept adoption, I knew that my sister was the only person in the world who I could claim to belong to and who belonged to me, but I couldn't forgive her for that existence. When we would meet up very occasionally during those years, I never directly expressed my resentment but I had no sense that she felt it towards me. In time, it dissipated and by sixteen there was nobody I wished to see more than her.

When she was thirteen, she was adopted and her parents convinced her of the importance of education. While she has admitted she never felt close to them, she continues to be grateful to them. They persuaded her to go to university and she left with a degree that has always earned her a professional salary, and left also with a boyfriend who became her husband, a man whose earning capacity was slightly lower than hers but who had no problem with becoming a house husband when the task was required.

I left school at sixteen and have lived from my wits and off the state, moving between various jobs that seemed to promise freedom and in between relying on government money that appeared to make me free next to the job I managed to be sacked from. Then I would be harassed back into employment as the thought of work seemed less onerous than trying constantly to explain myself to a job-centre advisor. And back and forth I went, all the while playing music, sometimes in bands and sometimes on the street, on my own, making occasionally several hundred pounds a day. It was a good feeling to go into the job-centre and allow them to propose jobs that I turned down, and the advisor threatening me with the withdrawal of my benefits if I wouldn't at least entertain an interview. Stop the money, I would say, aware that I could, after a few days of successful busking, survive for a couple of months. Over the last five years I have managed to make enough from playing in a couple of bands and by busking around Christmas and during the summer months, sometimes doing so in other cities, other countries.

But when I found myself thinking about how reluctant I had been to say anything about my childhood status to anybody I would go out with, I was aware too of course that I had never talked to anybody else about it either not even my sister. I didn't doubt that she had discussed it with her husband, and with Jenny, and perhaps others as well. Had she and I never brought it up because we didn't need to do so there was no secret there; only a past buried? That I didn't seem to have a problem with it having been exposed to others, why couldn't I talk about it myself with people I knew? As I thought about Ewan and Fergus, I wondered if they too might go through life determined not to speak about something others would have spoken about in their absence, and perhaps this is where I see maturity and was already beginning to see it in Will. He maybe had nothing to hide but like everyone else he had an ego to protect and in so simple a gesture as asking if I wanted to go for a walk it was as if he were willing to expose himself.

It may seem like I am making much of very little but since I have so often been guarded in the most absurd way I am astute to the nuances of self-protection. I don't think I've ever directly asked anybody out and all of my encounters have come through the music. After a gig, sometimes people have been tipsy, flattering and flirty and a moment of admiration on their part becomes a three-month affair between us. I've often been busking and someone sits and listens for an hour. I say she must like music and we go for a drink. She says she liked me as well as the music and again an affair starts. If I make this sound like women find me irresistible then that is to misconstrue what I am saying. I think instead they see in me such pathetic and useless fragility that they know they must act first and use the music as the premise. Without the music, I am not sure how that would happen and usually, after a few months, the music isn't enough. They leave, aware that my initial failure to ask them out, to compliment them, to open up, wasn't shyness but a deeper resistance.

I wasn't surprised when Will and I walked and he told me he had a girlfriend, and a casual question about how they met carried for me a more pressing one. Had he at the age of nineteen already conquered insecurities I am still living with at more than twice his age? He said they met when she visited a friend of hers who shared with Will the same kitchen in the halls of residence. She had visited several times before and, when the friend left the kitchen for a few minutes, he asked whether she wanted to see a film at the university film society. He was a member and he could get a guest in if she wished to see something. He told her of a film that Wednesday, she said she would like to see it and afterwards they went for a drink and that was really that. I wanted to enquire further but how can an uncle ask his nephew about how smoothly the young manage to accomplish the task of seduction when his uncle had over the years relied on women to take the initiative? We changed the subject and that was when Will started discussing Ewan and Fergus.

4

In the flat I rented on the winding street that worked its way down the Grassmarket, I hadn't put up any decorations but with Simon visiting I thought I should make an attempt at Christmas cheer. I bought a small tree to put next to a lamp in the sitting room, and two sets of fairy lights, a small set which I wrapped around the tree and another larger one I hung in the kitchen. The decorations weren't exactly pronounced but they were evident and it was more than I had managed before in the five years I had been living in the place. It was probably originally owned by the council and the person renting it to me bought it cheaply, left for India five years earlier and hadn't yet come back. It was a modest rent by Edinburgh standards but no doubt proved a useful income for my landlord over in Goa. He set up a stall there and sold various goods but I suspect it was my rent money that gave him the security to stay as I sometimes wished I too could fall back on something, a phrase I would think about as both emotional and economic.

When Simon arrived and saw the decorations he expressed surprise and wondered if each year I did this but removed the signs of Christmas before he and other friends came for New Year. I said no this was especially for him. It was a joke containing a sentiment and while I expected him to respond to the joke, he instead was visibly moved by the gesture. As he removed his rucksack and put it beside the couch, it appeared as if he was looking for any excuse to hide his emotion for a moment, finding it rummaging around in the bag. By the time he discovered what he was looking for, the awkward moment seemed to have passed even if what he took out of the bag might have exacerbated it. He handed me a jumper he thought might be my size as I momentarily wondered if he had bought something for himself and noting it was too small, thought it might fit me, or whether it was a thoughtful gift for a friend after his own parents had died and his sister and brother wished to avoid contact with him. Had I thought too much about the latter, and not almost simultaneously allowed myself to think it might have been the former, that sentimental moment might have been extended and the two of us would have been standing in my sitting room, hugging and crying. But while I was pleased both of us managed to retain our equilibrium, I suspect the consequence of our almost tearful moment came the following night, after an afternoon walk and a Christmas dinner that we both decided was best cooked by a chef in an Indian restaurant: we had a takeaway, accompanied by several beers, and after that moved onto a bottle of whisky I had bought during a summer visit to Skye.

That evening I expected we would talk about his parents' death but I was surprised to find myself talking too to him about my childhood for the first time. As he spoke about how he felt when he arrived at the hospital to be told his father had passed away, his sister glaring at him as though it had been his absence that killed him, so I found a space opening up in him, one accidentally present the previous evening. It was as though it remained open and maybe had been since his parents' death but this was the first time I'd seen him since they died and he seemed much more tender, even tenderised, than around the time of his divorce. I asked him about this and he said that breaking up with his wife was like losing an arm but this was like losing your legs something crumbled beneath him and he couldn't stand up straight anymore. When his sister looked at him with contempt that day at the hospital he wasn't so bothered: he had crossed the city from his flat in Southgate to the hospital near where his dad lived in Bromley. It took him over an hour and a half each day and he had been doing it every day all of that last week. He was exhausted, went for a nap when his sister phoned him, and woke up to hear a message saying that she didn't think their father would live for many hours more. He knew he did what he could and didn't feel the guilt his sister tried to thrust upon him, and when his mother died a few months later, in a hospital in the north of London, only a mile or so from where he stayed, he was there far more often than his sister, who lived in the south of the city, and his brother, who lived in Brighton. It was right and proper he said: he was the one closest to her literally.

Thus what he felt since they died wasn't guilt but a loss he couldn't name, a feeling that suggested to him he was alone in the world because nothing was underneath him even if there were things all around him. When he and his wife were divorced, he acknowledged he lost a very important person next to him but it was as if he knew there would be others able to occupy a space of adjacency again. Losing his parents wasn't like that. Even though they'd divorced when he was in his teens, they were still there and now they weren't.

It might seem odd that I had never talked to this close friend about never knowing my parents. How close could he be if I'd not divulged such a fundamental fact about myself? It wasn't even that I had lied to him about them. It was more that I had created around myself a space into which people felt they couldn't enquire. Perhaps too, by sometimes talking to people about my sister, I gave the impression of family without offering the details behind it. Yet that evening as he talked about his parents how could I not talk about mine? I've often thought I haven't discussed them with others since there was nothing to talk about. I didn't know their names, their family histories, or the jobs they did. Most of the time when others discussed their parents they talked about their presence and I had nothing to add. However that evening, Simon was talking about absence; maybe it made sense that this was the first time we would talk about my parents it was the moment where we shared a parental reality. There he was losing his parents into his forties, and after years where they held his hand as he crossed the road, helped him with his homework, watched him score his first goal in a school football match, and attended his university graduation, so he had all these memories to work through. He had an emotional conurbation and I had a desert. But they were both somehow deserts now and I said he had never really asked me about my family.

He said he didn't feel the need or didn't know if I wanted to talk about it. So much of our friendship he admitted had been based on not talking about things and it was true that while I had often thought that I needed to talk to partners even in brief relationships about my childhood, with friends I seemed to exist from the age eighteen onwards. Any aspect of our lives before then seemed little more than anecdotal, a story thrown in rather than a feeling explored. Even Simon's divorce however felt a bit like that: as if it were an opportunity to once again devote more time to his friends, to football and to the pub than he had hitherto been able during his three years of marriage. But that night he needed to talk, and hadn't I predicated his Christmas visit on the basis of his familial life, on Simon losing both his parents? When I have suggested there was a need sometimes to talk about my orphan status with girlfriends, maybe need wasn't quite the word. There we were lying in bed talking about her family and there I was next to them nodding and asking questions: a curiosity that was genuine enough but that was also deflecting: a useful way of avoiding questions from them. On occasion, I knew so much about a girlfriend's life that I could have written out the family tree but I wouldn't want to suggest that they showed no curiosity towards my life I just made sure that I appeared to answer questions that gave the impression of revelation. I discussed the schools I went to, the friends I made, the teachers I liked and didn't like. I covered the absence with a presence that gave the impression of honesty and vulnerability. But not once did I discuss my biological parents even I did on occasion mention a foster parent as if they were my own. I never lied about it but understandably she would assume that when I said "there were problems at home. I didn't get on with them", my present partner had no reason to assume I was talking about anyone but my mother and father.

5

That evening as Simon discussed his parents I did what I don't recall ever doing before. I asked him a question about me. It is common enough I suppose for people to ask us questions and for us to ask people questions but rather less frequent for someone to ask others a question about ourselves. It often takes the form of mild narcissism when we ask others what they make of our hair or our clothes. Unwilling to wait for the compliment, we seek it, risking from our friend insult or dishonesty in turn. Yes, they think our new haircut looks great (but we might wonder if it was so great why didn't they say so immediately and so on). I don't think I've ever asked such a question but there I was that night asking what I felt was a much bigger one. I asked him whether he was surprised I'd never discussed my parents. He looked at me with less surprise than I might have imagined and said that he always assumed that there was a secret there and didn't think it was his place to nosy around. He did say that once in the pub with one of the others a couple of New Years' ago, one of the gang asked him if he knew anything about my family background and he said no, and in such a way, he hoped, that it was none of his or the friend's business.

I said I didn't know why I asked, but over the next few hours I discussed for the first time to another person about never having known my parents, of never knowing what it was like to have a world under my feet. It was as if Simon's bewilderment allowed me to acknowledge my own, to see that though he lost his parents after many years of their existence, and I lost mine with no knowledge of their existence at all, the freshness of his pain and the longevity of my own allowed for not so much common ground but common groundlessness. Was this what I was seeking with girlfriends too but was unable to find no matter how much they talked about their past? It was in the very talking about that past and all its myriad details, that I was silenced. They would discuss holidays with their parents when they were children, Christmases and birthdays, and they even talked about difficult moments with their parents. A couple of them mentioned that their parents divorced, and yet it was still a past that was full while all I saw in my own was an emptiness.

I tried to describe this to Simon while navigating the loss that was recently his, as I said that it was maybe in the obviousness of his loss that I could find the obscurity of mine. As Simon described an ache that was also a chasm I knew I couldn't identify with the emotion of his claim; that whatever feeling I may have had about my parentlessness, was so irrelevant to the moment and yet could, I hoped, somehow take advantage of it. Inviting Simon to join me for Christmas was because he had lost his parents not because I had never known mine, but as we talked that evening I saw in it a chance, almost literally. It was as if I had earned the right statistically to talk about the subject, feeling that the odds of losing both parents in the same year, as Simon did, and that Ewan and Fergus would lose theirs in a similar time-span, gave me the right to speak about the exception that I'd often felt myself to be: exceptional in my inadequacy.

I have read that around one in a thousand children are in foster care and I don't know what the statistics happen to be when it comes to losing two parents close together but I sensed that while Simon was unfortunate in his loss, that to use such an adjective to describe Ewan and Fergus's would be far too weak. Yet it wasn't only the loss that seemed important, it was also the unlikelihood they would ever meet anyone else who had lost both their parents at a young age so unluckily. I wondered whether they might ever find a way to talk about it just as they would be lying in bed with a partner and, as they told them about their lives, their statistically ordinary existence, there the boys would be, unable surely to relate their experiences to another because contained within it was a revelation that couldn't fall under the term sharing. They would have to meet a divulgence with silence or with a story that would demand from the other person a different magnitude of sympathy. I have assumed when people share their pasts that they can be divided up equally, with a greater emphasis here or there but with the assumption that both can claim roughly the same number of difficulties and hardships. It is an absurd idea no doubt but one I would feel when lying in bed with a partner, almost hoping that as they told me about their childhoods they would reveal something that could match my own. And so there I was that night, sharing it with Simon, aware that I was doing so because of contingent circumstances; that he had lost his mum and dad that year and had never felt so abandoned, and I had invited him up from London since I wasn't able to go to my sister's as she prioritised her friend and her friend's children who would soon enough feel still more abandoned than either the grown men that Simon and I were supposed to be.

6

Simon stayed on right through to the 2nd of January. The others arrived on the 31st and while Simon continued staying in the boxroom with a skylight, the two other friends slept on the couch and on the floor. They had sleeping bags and camp mats and while they had money enough to book into a hotel, tradition demanded that they rough it in my place all the better to maximise the camaraderie. There seemed during those days with the others a complicity between Simon and myself that we didn't quite share with the two of them, but it didn't appear to get in the way of the banter and the boozing. On New Year's Eve, we watched the fireworks from the Bridges, as we mingled with what seemed like many thousands and it was there I wished a happy Hogmanay to a woman who was with her ten-year-old son, who was excited that he was allowed to stay up so late. I was sure I'd seen her and the boy earlier in the day at a cafe in the Grassmarket and sometimes it is the weakest of premises that allow you, if the feelings are strong, to introduce yourself. It was also the manner in which the boy gripped his mother's hand somehow moved me and without it I am not sure if I would have left the others to their boozy cheering and walked a few yards to where she and the boy were standing. I said to her that I'd seen them earlier in a cafe, and she told me they were staying in a hotel on the corner by the Grassmarket on a street she couldn't quite remember, a steep, winding street with lots of shops with different coloured facades.

It was on the other end of the Grassmarket from my flat and I asked what brought them to Edinburgh. She said her son loved to watch fireworks and he had heard that the ones here were spectacular. She looked at her son when she said this and while it was a big word for a young boy his response suggested that was exactly the word he used. He's had to grow up fast she said, without adding anything more: as if the non sequitur offered within it a world of anguish however far removed. We talked for ten minutes and I didn't see her again over the next few days though she was staying in Edinburgh until the 3rd. I expected to see her in a cafe, on the streets of the city centre, and walked those streets alone on the 2nd after the others left. I thought of asking at the hotel but didn't know her name and couldn't have expected they would give it to me anyway. I sat outside for a couple of hours at a cafe not far from where they were staying, and watched the hotel where I would see people enter and exit but never saw them.

I thought more about them over the next couple of weeks and didn't quite separate the mother from the boy as I wondered whether I was so attracted to her or to the dynamic that I saw between the two of them. That afternoon when I first saw them in the cafe I witnessed a bond I rarely see no matter the blood that people share. They appeared to be sharing something more than blood, though I didn't doubt the woman was the boy's biological mother. What did they share I must have thought that day and later that night, just after the fireworks, and in that question believed I had earned the right to talk to them. But I never asked them their names and they didn't ask for mine either. They remain as if dreamt, with no consequence except in my imagination.

7

It was at the beginning of the summer Jenny died. She said she wanted to see spring, wanted to celebrate her older son's birthday in March and her younger son's in April but survived to have one more birthday of her own in May. All the birthdays were supposedly quiet affairs, a trio of events with a triumvirate of people: the two boys and their mother on each occasion celebrating a birthday when they knew it was death they were acknowledging. The funeral however was hectic with friends and family, as though the many people Jenny shielded from her illness she couldn't shield from her death. I thought for a while about going, undecided whether I had the right to commemorate a person I only ever knew through my sister, and when my sister said she expected many people at the funeral I wondered too if this was what Jenny would have wished for and what the boys could handle. Yet it was thinking of Ewan and Fergus that allowed me to go, to see in their eyes a look that may have been and might still be in mine, to look at them with a gaze that indicated I didn't only feel compassion but that I shared their pain, a pain I knew could not easily be unburdened or understood. I had nothing more than the wisdom of loss, which all humans going through life experience accumulate, but which few start with from the very beginning, and not many expect to experience it so brutally as they had before their proper entrance into adulthood.

The funeral was in Inverness, at Tomnahurich cemetery. It seemed an anomalous occasion, as if all funerals should be in autumn or winter just as we expect weddings in the summer or the spring. But people die according to cycles other than the seasons, and the cemetery, near the canal, and situated on and at the bottom of a hill, did not seem that day funereal. The trees were green and the flowers in bloom, scattered patches of yellow, blue, red and purple. It was a heat wave by Highland standards and I felt sticky and formal in my shirt, suit and tie. I wanted to loosen the tie and open a button but standing there looking at all those grave faces, which seemed an accurate description and an atrocious pun, the gesture would have appeared rude, giving a sense of hastiness to an event that had its own temporal gravity. I looked across at Ewan and Fergus and their youth itself seemed anomalous: that there are people too young for funerals, and surely too young to attend those of their parents. I am sure many of the people there had been to the boys' father's funeral as well, and were wearing the same suits they wore that day. But the boys of course would have grown since then and it must be terrible to have to wear a new funeral suit because you are now too big for the previous one as you deposit your second parent to the ground.

I tried to think harsh thoughts to hide the softness that I felt when thinking of them and thinking of myself. I thought I might start sobbing and didn't know whether such tears would be viewed as ridiculous or selfish: that I never knew Jenny well enough to cry; or that I was in my own private sorrow that the funeral was no more than augmenting, like a weepie film that reminds you of your failed loves. I think though that if the tears were to come they would have been not for Jenny nor even for me but for the two boys whose pain I found myself occupying and that wasn't quite my own. I'd had forty years to recover from the loss of people I didn't know. They had thus far no more than a week to recover from someone they called mum for more than a decade and a half, after calling their father dad for close to that. I thought of going up to them afterwards and saying that I too had lost my parents, but if for years I found that the gap between a girlfriend and I was too great to communicate across, that day I believed the evident proximity would nevertheless have felt false. I thought too that I might have been able to tell them about a friend of mine, who had lost both his parents within six months of each other and that I'd been with him over Christmas and New Year. But it's not that there aren't words for these things; it is often that there are occasions for them. While a funeral might apparently be the place for such words, and surely the appropriate occasion, that was not what I believed.

Yet later on, at the wake, I was sitting there on my own after the person I was chatting with was now in a conversation with someone at the bar, and Ewan came over. He sat down and looked older than his years but this wasn't in a face that I might have expected to be tired with fret and worry, though there were no signs of that in a visage that was only nineteen, it was in a bodily disposition that looked like it wanted to assume a role, one acknowledging that he was the older brother and, prematurely, the new generation taking over from the previous one. His tie was loosened and I saw it as a chance to loosen my own. He stayed with me for half an hour, which is an odd way of putting it since it suggests that I was the one in need of succour. Perhaps I was. During that time, he told me he knew that I had never known my parents and he at least had. He said his mother told them I would never talk about it, even though my sister sometimes did, and of course that is how he knew. My sister had said that she believed I had never found anybody I could discuss it with and Jenny said to him that after she died he should find a way to do so. Jenny didn't know whether it would be good for me or for him, both or neither, but it was one of a number of her dying wishes. She seemed in the certitude of her own end to wish to set as many things right as she could, even those that didn't always concern her. He said it with a smile and I thought back to the moment when Will asked me out for that walk at the end of the previous year, seeing in the gesture confidence I couldn't have begun to match. But I thought too of Ewan banging on the patio door the Christmas before that and saw in the gesture a petulant youth who had a lot of growing up to do. It seemed that he had done it in the shadow of his mother's illness.

I would have liked to stay longer but had a train back to Edinburgh at five. I felt in that moment I was abandoning him but he shook my hand and thanked me for coming as he smoothly crossed the room and mingled with others, thanking them too for attending the funeral as it looked like they also were about to leave. I said goodbye to my sister, her husband and the kids, and to a couple of other people. On the way out I saw Fergus standing there. He didn't ignore me; he seemed not to notice me. He had his head down and was smoking a cigarette, lost in the sort of thought perhaps that it might take him years to come out of. I hoped not but even then, even there, I didn't have the wherewithal to approach him. Such a gesture, it seemed, was still beyond me but as I turned around he looked up, and we shared a brief gaze that might have been more telling than any words either could have offered.


© Tony McKibbin