What exactly is it to fantasise? It was a few years ago, when I was thirteen, and a few of us were playing in the castle grounds, pretty much the only green area on the whole of the island of Lewis, when in the thicket of the woods a friend pulled out from his bag an adult magazine he had stolen from under his brother's bed. It was a well-worn edition of Club International, and as we all gathered round him as he looked at the mag, there was one woman I found especially appealing, and I asked him to go back a couple of pages as he too quickly leafed through the magazine. As I said this they all laughed and jeered; less it seemed because they thought I was a pervert wanting a second look - all of them I'm sure would loved to have taken the magazine home themselves - but instead with the sort of response kids offer when they believe one of their friends is soft on a girl in the class.
Later, on our way home, after the others had gone in their respective directions, Mark, who lived near me, said that I could have the magazine if I liked - his brother was away on the boats, and wouldn't be back for several days. I would need to return it to him before the weekend, though, he said. There was such tenderness in the gesture over what was basically the temporary offloading of a dirty magazine, that I'm not so sure whether it secured more deeply my friendship with Mark, or exacerbated the feelings I had for this naked woman I looked longingly at over each of the next three nights.
The woman called herself Mandy, and perhaps the 'biography' accompanying the photographs contributed to my feeling that this was a woman of both my sexual fantasies and my vague hopes: she was living in London, studying at university, and aspired to be a writer; aspirations almost identical to my own. As I looked at the pictures, from the ones on the first page where Mandy was fully dressed, to the last where she lay with her legs splayed in one photo, on all fours with her bum in the air in another, I wondered how far away from me socially this woman happened to be. The bed she was photographed on was a four-poster, the bedroom wood-panelled and the general interiors of the house, evident in a couple of shots of Mandy leaning over a banister, a country home. This was admittedly one of the more upmarket shoots, and contrasted greatly with the reader's wives section at the beginning of the magazine. While some of the women in the Polaroids that were sent in looked attractive enough, the mediocre technical quality, and the domestic background that resembled too readily the council house I lived in with my parents, offered little room for projection.
When handing the magazine back to Mark it was almost as though I was saying goodbye to someone who had visited me for a weekend and with whom I had become quite attached. I jokingly said that I hoped the magazine had provided equally good company for his brother in the past and would also do so in the future. He laughed and said everyone knew his brother was not short of women, and he didn't only mean of the paper variety: Peter was well known in the small town for his conquests. He earned very good money on the fishing boats, and would spend most of it in the pubs when he came on shore, and his time in various beds other than his own.
Yet I never recall looking up to Pete, the way Mark and many of our other friends would. He was nineteen, and had left school at sixteen despite doing well: he wanted to earn money straight away, and after a couple of years working on shore at a fish factory, at eighteen he got a job on the boats - where he could earn sometimes hundreds of pounds a week. All my friends wanted to become fishermen and womanizers, and I wondered whether my ambitions were greater or more puny than their hopes: to get away from the island not for a few days and to fish in often ferocious conditions, but to go further afield and sit in tranquil libraries reading books and hopefully writing one of own.
Only Mark knew anything of this ambition, perhaps because more than any of our other friends he if not quite shared it then he at least understood it. He somehow knew that the magazine he gave me was not only for vicarious pleasure, but equally fulfilled a strange yearning. I never asked him for another magazine, but about a year later, after his brother had moved out and got a flat for himself, Mark said he had left the magazines under the bed, saying to Mark that he might have more use of them. Mark handed me the issue of Club International and said, laughing, it was now mine for life.
This was in some way truer than we could possibly have believed, but to explain why now would be to jump ahead of myself.
Over the following four years at school I became less interested in the group and more focused on my own needs. I would still see Mark occasionally, but though he shared with me many interests in that he liked to read, watch birds and fish down by the pier, he was also the leader of our little gang, perhaps almost by virtue of being Pete's younger brother. Sometimes when we would meet up we would go for a walk round the Castle Grounds, past Cuddy Point and onto the River Creed where we would watch the salmon jump. He once explained that he felt somehow mature beyond his years yet unable to grow up. He felt that the gang relied upon him, but believed they did so because he was the younger brother of Pete the Fisherman, the womanizer and occasional bar brawler. Whenever Pete got into a fight, which he would invariably win, Mark's reputation went up also. Though he hadn't fought since the first year at secondary school, here he was, he said, at fifteen, working out with weights in his own bedroom for an hour every day making sure he was in shape just in case he needed to defend himself. So far, he laughed, his brother's brawn was like some protective carapace, more useful than his own bulked up physique.
I had been exercising as hard as Mark, but not in my room using weights, but going on cross-country runs through the moor-land, thinking though my future, mulling over my past, and often creating stories that I hoped eventually to publish. I wasn't so much day-dreaming as run-dreaming, and the runs would give flight to thoughts that somehow seemed cramped by my parents' house. We had been living in it since I was born, and my father, who drove a taxi for a living, and my mother, who worked at our school cafeteria, loved their council house, regularly trimming the lawn, making sure the house was always spick and span, and insisting that the idea of having a house for life was not something any government was going to take off them, no matter that Thatcher was in power and offering them the right to buy. My parents didn't see this as an opportunity for moving up in the world, but a sly gesture on the part of a right-wing party to remove the sort of rights their own fathers had fought a world war to have.
I always admired my parents' position, but I knew it wasn't quite mine. Not that I wanted to get on the property ladder; more that I wanted a more nomadic life than theirs, and much of my thoughts were already about university, and the inter-rail card I would be able to get as a student as I hoped to travel to numerous parts of Europe. Perhaps one reason why I envied Pete so little was that I knew he had never been anywhere else; that though he would frequently leave the island, he would go no further than it took to trawl for fish. He had rarely if ever been to the mainland, and not since before he left school. At least Mark had been a couple of times with his parents, visiting their daughter and his sister in Glasgow where she was studying at art college.
I had been on the mainland numerous times - my parents were from Glasgow and would regularly go back - but I had never been outside Britain. When I looked at the pictures in the adult magazine it was not just the pictures that aroused me, I was equally intrigued by the story accompanying the pictures where Mandy said she liked to travel, and listed some of the countries to which she had been: including Morocco, India and Mexico. It didn't say whether they were picture shoots, holidays, or travel trips. I would imagine they were the latter, no matter how improbable, considering Mandy claimed to be so young and was supposed to be studying, but one of the joys of youthful fancy is that there is no reality to show up contradictions.
I would sometimes also wonder why this need to think more of fantasy than reality meant I had never projected onto Mark's sister. Maggie would have been seventeen when I first looked at the magazine, and was pretty, gifted and sensitive. Yet as she would come back to the island during her holidays, as it looked like she would marry one of Pete's friends with whom she had been going out since she was fifteen, I saw her life still too shrunken to offer a model for mine. Why, I wondered, on the few occasions I gave her any thought at all, didn't she finish with her partner and, instead of coming back to the island, go off to exotic places like Mandy?
Indeed Maggie returned to the island to live; it was the summer after her course finished, and I left a couple of months later to go to Edinburgh University. She was about to marry her long term boyfriend; I was hoping to meet new people who would take me very far from the island in mind, body and spirit. Like me, Mark had stayed on at school and got the necessary qualifications to go to university if he wished, but he decided to stay, having failed to get his Ucas form off in time. He thought he might apply for the following year. He never did.
I studied English literature and philosophy, and though too many of the writers were classical or traditional rather than modern, and too much of the philosophy analytic rather than continental, I managed to pass everything, though much of my time I gave over to reading writers in translation: Tolstoy, Proust, Lampedusa and Borges in fiction; Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Bergson and of course Nietzsche in philosophy. I never really made many friends at university, and though I managed to get a grant I also worked part time so that I could live alone, though the place I found wasn't very much more expensive than university accommodation. It was actually in a bed-sit on the other side of the park, The Meadows, and only about a ten minute walk from the university. It was an attic room, and the only window was a slanting one which allowed me to see daylight but no view beyond the sky. The flat itself was on two floors and I shared it with about six others, and each floor had its own bathroom and toilet. Though it was an attic room it was quite large, and apart from a bed settee, there was space enough for an easy chair, a desk, and a semi-separate kitchen area that had a fridge, cooker and washing machine, as well as a small table with a couple of chairs round it. I was the only student living in the flat; the other people tended to be older, working long hours in low-paid jobs, and often, over the years, I got to know some of them as they came and went.
I got to know one particularly well in the first couple of years I was there, and the way he described his earlier years reminded me a great deal of Pete. Bill was around forty five and from Dingwall, which was few miles north of Inverness. He said he was seen as always clever at school, but no one expected him to do anything with that cleverness except go off and get a job that would pay a wage.
So that is exactly what he did, initially doing odd jobs, before working in a fish factory that he said was owned by a member of the band, Jethro Tull, and after that, after the daily smell of fish that took hours he believed to get out of his skin, he started working on building sites. In the first job the finicky work of gutting fish left his fingers sore; and after years of working on building sites, his back and shoulders were strong but often aching. It was a job he was still doing, but for how much longer he wondered. I looked at his worn face, the forehead creased, the cheeks wind-worn and the broken veins on his nose suggestive of years of drinking, and yet the eyes were blue and clear, and his body was lean apart from the breadth of his shoulders. I asked him if he had ever been married, had kids, and he said he had never found the right woman, never really looked for one. He believed it might have been the same with jobs: he worked on building sites because no other work had suggested itself to him. He knew of others in the fish factory, no better qualified than he was, who nevertheless left the job and went off to study. He supposed they now had decent jobs, a wife, kids, a mortgage. He shrugged his shoulders and looked around the room that he would sometimes invite me into for cup of tea, though his cup would often contain a dram. His was the room next to mine and slightly smaller, and what would strike any visitor going into it after seeing his work boots sitting outside, was both how crammed and neat it was. It was full of books and records, and he would sometimes joke that since he hadn't attended too much to his outer life then at least he'd given time and energy to the inner one.
He said this the first time I was in the room, about eight weeks after I'd moved into the flat. Occasionally over those first two months I would hear him coming back late at night, whispering to someone as he unlocked the door, and sometimes from within the room I would hear the sound of lovemaking. When I asked him if he had a regular girlfriend that first evening in his room, he said he hadn't. I'd asked in response to his question whether I had a woman tucked away anywhere, and I said no I didn't as I gave no more than a passing thought to Marie, the girl I had been seeing on the island for about nine months before coming to Edinburgh.
It was often something that troubled me; why someone who should have little place in my mind emotionally should be more present than many people with whom I had shared moments of great warmth and love. Over the months I would think quite a lot of Bill, just as years before, though for very different reasons, I had given much thought to Mandy in the magazine. Indeed though I would occasionally talk to Marie on the phone, I had no great wish to see her, and it was the same with my parents. That first Christmas at university I didn't go back to the island, claiming I had too much work to do and that I would try to make it instead at Easter. It was a white lie but contained within it I suspected a black truth: why was I so often interested in people who were peripheral to my life rather than central to it?
Other examples included one of my lecturers at university, and also a fellow student. The first was someone who was supposed to teach classic and analytic philosophy, but would often instead photocopy a passage from a book, show a clip from a film or a slide from an art work and we would spend an hour discussing it. He would say he had no idea whether we would pass the exams, and didn't really care if we did or didn't. He did say if we cared enough to do so we should read the recommended text-books, and if we had any questions to knock on his office door and he would try to answer them. I would hear some of the students before or after the class saying that his wife had left him a couple of years before and that he was well on his way to a nervous breakdown. But it seemed to me he was searching out a new kind of health. I sensed that he wanted not to explain categorical reasoning procedures but muse over what gives us belief in the world and instincts to justify these beliefs. If all the other teachers gave the impression that we were inadequate beings next to the rigorous demands of logic, he made me feel that logic was inadequate next to the complexity of our being. This was in my second year at university, and while I would still occasionally talk to Bill, he was working longer hours than usual, drinking less and saving money with the idea that he wanted to emigrate to somewhere hot. I knew his mother had died a few months earlier, and left him and his sister an ex-council house that they intended to sell.
The other person I became interested in was a student in the very philosophy class that I've already mentioned, a young woman who I always believed was more interesting to look at than to talk to, not least as she seemed to show almost no interest in the class and yet possessed some gestures that reminded me of Mandy in the magazine. Often the teacher would go round the class after showing a clip from the film, read out the passage of the book or put up the slide of a painting and ask the students what they thought. Each week I hoped she would offer an interesting comment, but she never did, and sometimes muttered that she couldn't possibly say anything interesting because the teacher hadn't provided her with any context in the first place. She would answer his question in such a way that her ignorance wasn't the problem but his teaching method: shouldn't she only be expected to answer questions to which at an earlier stage she had been given the answer? Indeed on one occasion I overheard her saying this outside the classroom and, it was after another of the students proposed the tutor was heading for the breakdown. I felt she wasn't so much defending herself in this moment, but joining in a general attack - as though they wanted to drive him to that collapse.
Yet she nevertheless fascinated me, and I despised myself for frequently looking across at her in the classroom, and when on occasion she would catch my glance she wouldn't meet it so much as smirk at it. How could I tell her though that it wasn't her I was looking at, but through her, at a memory of pictures from long ago, where I could idealise a pretty face and no matter how explicit the pictures, create round them thoughts that weren't only sexual? Indeed so keen was I to work out why this girl fascinated me without herself being the subject of that fascination, that one night I talked to Bill for several hours about it. Not only about the girl in the class, but the girl in the picture, the magazine and my ongoing curiosity with some element of yearning it released in me. It was probably the last time we properly talked. It was as if, though I was talking about myself, I could also have been talking about Bill.
I never did complete my university degree, or rather I completed three years but chose not to stay on for the almost mandatory Honours. Nor did I go back to the island at all during my last two years at university. My parents sometimes visited me; Marie and I simply lost touch. Instead of finishing the fourth year I travelled to India, spending the money I had saved up over the previous nine months teaching English as a foreign language in the evenings. I was most of the time in Mumbai and Goa, and while I was in the South of Goa, in a place called Palolem, I stayed for a few weeks with Bill, who had emigrated there at the end of the previous year. The last time I had seen him he was moving out of his room in Edinburgh and staying in his late mother's house until he could sell it. I had heard no more news from him until a postcard came through the letterbox a few months later explaining that he had sold the house and was moving to Goa. He left the address of the place he would be staying in, and indeed hoping to buy, and said I should pay him a visit. I'd been thinking of going to India for a long time, though never really of visiting the south, but when I got his postcard I thought why not - would I not be in India for quite a few months?
As I walked down a narrow alley and came upon it, I saw him sitting there working on what I assumed were the accounts. It was clear that he had already bought the place he had been staying in. He explained he owned the vegetarian cafe and also a few rooms behind it.
That evening as we talked at a bar along the sea front he said how he ended up there, and he explained that when he was around twenty, the summer before he started in the fish factory, he was employed as a farmhand near Tain, where he worked alongside some locals and some foreigners. One of the girls was from the US, and she was working in Britain for a few months before going off to India. At that time none of this would have been here he said, offering a panoramic of the bay, with its many cabin hotels, bars and restaurants. Before there were really only the palm trees we could see above our heads and that leaned diagonally in the direction of the beach. What was interesting at the time was that the postcard he received, he was convinced, had nothing to do with his reality. It was as though the girl could pass through his life as a reality only within his real life - working hard that summer on the farm - but he couldn't conceive of ever seeing her again on the other side of the world. Her reality seemed to encompass so much more than his; that he was no more than a cameo role in her existence. It would take him a long time to work out why he felt this, and perhaps not without the aid of certain writers, certain political thinkers. At that time, however, when the postcard came through the letterbox at his mum's house, he felt moved. He couldn't stop sobbing as he read over those few lines from the sweet, young American whom he had slept with a couple of times, and whom he knew had slept with a number of other people in the course of her travels. Yet he felt he was the only one who had received a postcard from her as she travelled around India. She had said on the card that more than anybody she had met he had made the trip 'real', and slowly, over the years, as if in homage to a relative stranger, he had the idea that he would visit and perhaps even live there one day.
I had known from our conversations in his bed-sit that he'd already been to India, but then that was part of a one year long trip round the world about ten years earlier, and I couldn't recall him talking specifically about the country he was now living in. When I asked him why he hadn't talked much about India, he said that perhaps it was a secret - sometimes we need to keep a thought to ourselves until we can turn it into a reality. He said that now all this was in front of him, as we looked out to the sea and heard the waves lapping against the shore: fantasy was made flesh, he said. The very phrasing reminded me of course of my own fantasies years before, and my own revelation to Bill. I asked him if he remembered our last proper conversation, and he replied that indeed he did. He even wondered whether the very woman I had been talking of hadn't stayed at the hotel. I looked at him with an amazed, yet sceptical look, and he put up his hands and admitted it was unlikely but not impossible. He said one evening he was talking to a woman in her early thirties and that she talked to him about her life. At one moment she said that when she was younger she was glamour modelling, and it paid for a couple of exciting trips she made in her late teens and early twenties. He couldn't remember the name of the magazine that the girl I was fascinated by happened to be in, but he did wonder whether it might have been her.
My own period of travelling lasted much more than a year. After six months in India I taught English for a while in Japan, and then reversed back for a few months in Thailand, stayed a year doing odd jobs in Australia, and then went onto South America, staying for six months in Buenos Aires and Patagonia and several months on the coast near Mar Del Plata, teaching English to rich kids developing their tans and their language skills. I then stayed six months in Mexico before returning to Britain. I lived cheaply wherever I stayed, renting rudimentary, clean rooms, and using a camp stove. I would often eat pasta or rice dishes, cooking off the Pasta or rice first, then making up a sauce, before boiling some water and re-heating the rice by pouring boiling water over it. Occasionally when I would invite someone for dinner to my room, they would marvel over the fact that I had been cooking like this for so long, that the hassle of using only one flame and one pan would have driven them crazy - or at least out to a restaurant at every opportunity. I joked that I supposed this trip around the world was based more on reality principles than fantasy ones. I hadn't used a credit card throughout the trip, and whenever I was running short of money I found work somehow, somewhere.
After I flew into Britain I didn't immediately return to Scotland. I didn't seem to want to see my parents, certainly didn't want to return to the island, and so I signed on in London, put most of the remaining money I had into renting a room for a month, and looked for work in the city. I found employment in a second hand book shop in Camden, and it paid enough for me to sign off, though I still needed a little help from the government for my rent. After about six months, at the end of the summer, I flew back up to the island for a week. I went to my parents' house, and as I went up to my bedroom, laid my rucksack onto the bed, and could hear my mother shuffling around downstairs preparing dinner in the small kitchen, I found myself thinking of Bill and how he had spent his half of his mother's council house sale on his India dream. My parents of course had no interest in buying, so would not leave me with the opportunity, after they had gone, of selling, but I wondered if such an opportunity would have satisfied my needs in quite the same way that Bill had managed to satisfy his. I opened the wardrobe and took down from the shelf a couple of dozen magazines, on football, film and the one porn magazine that was ever in my possession. As I looked through it, and especially at the pictures of Mandy, I felt neither yearning nor desire, but a curious feeling of deflation as I suspected for the first time that Mandy was not a university student, that she had never been to the countries that she claimed, that perhaps this photo-shoot had been the high-point of a humdrum life, or perhaps the initial stage in a pornographic descent. I use the term descent not especially morally; more in terms of opportunities created or dashed. Did she move on and up and visit the places she proclaimed she had already been to through the various shoots that glamour modelling could have offered, or did she find herself in draughty basement flats with men prodding and poking at her orifices? But then, was there not the possibility that Mandy was also the woman whom Bill had met in Palolem?
What I found myself thinking most of all however as I took the pile of magazines and went down stairs, walked out of the house and plonked them in the rubbish bin, was not so much how impoverished Mandy's life finally was, but how unrealised my own must have felt to me if I could so strongly have projected my fantasies onto her. As I turned to go back into the house I thought of Bill and how the woman if not of his dreams but the creator of them had left him looking out on the Arabian sea; while the woman too readily of mine saw me looking into the bottom of a bin. As I opened the front door to go back inside I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye Pete, Mark's brother, swaying along the road, presumably on the way to his parents' house, as I wondered where Mark and Maggie might be now.
© Tony McKibbin