If we can choose our friends but can't choose our family, at least we can choose to give our inheritance to those we care about over those we might share a couple of features with. What we have in common with our brothers and sisters, mother and father, is often no more than a nose or a skin tone, hair colouring or a similar jawline. I would notice some of these features were present and correct whenever I would visit my mother, in her Black Isle cottage. and noticed them still more pertinently as we travelled with a friend of hers further north recently. I had a few months before bought a four-wheel drive jeep after moving out of the central belt and buying a place with my partner near Aviemore and in the Cairngorm hills. She managed to find work in the primary school in the village, and I made a few thousand a year selling portraits for a living. I would do around twenty or thirty over twelve months, and charge about five to seven hundred pounds for each. The rest of the time I kept a sketchpad where I would allow myself the freedom the oil paintings denied me. I never did anything with this work, yet I knew it was important to do it. I would sketch in pencil or use watercolours or acrylics, and the sketch pads were of three sizes: A3, A4 and A5. Usually, the portraits were about six to eight times A3. I would sometimes in the sketchpads redo the paintings in a form that wasn't concerned with flattering the subjects who would sit for me, finding in their features a fascination that had little to do with verisimilitude. I would exaggerate the nose of the son and see how much like his father he now happened to be. I would shrink the jaw inherited from a mother and see how much prettier her daughter would now seem. It means that over the years I have become perhaps hyper-sensitive to the physiognomy of family resemblance, seeing beauty in the eye of the beholder but also in the genetic makeup. It has given my approach to beauty an aspect of the objective - or perhaps a subjectivity so strenuously applied that it can hardly pass for the conventional approach to beauty at all.
Jenny and I would visit my mother every other week and often stayed over, occasionally staying for a full weekend. Ever since my father died three years earlier I wanted to live a little closer to her, and Jenny's parents were fifteen years younger than my mother, still in good health and living in the south of England. If we were going to move to be closer to a loved one, better it be my mother she insisted. However on this particular occasion I visited my mother alone: she had little need of my company, she admitted, but she could really make use of me and my four-wheel-drive as she explained that since the weather had been terrible, it hadn't been easy for a friend of hers to get over to her brother's place during the last few days. It was urgent, my mother said, because a friend of the brother's was trying to get power of attorney, which she seemed to think would mean the farmhouse, livestock and land would go to the stranger and not to my mother's friend when the brother passed away. As she went into the details the night before on the phone, my mind tried to make sense of the intricacies of the situation, but what I did understand clearly was that she wanted me to drive the forty miles north, pick her and her friend up, and drive another fifteen miles north and along various small roads and tracks that could only be negotiated with a vehicle like my own. The signing was going to take place the following day: could I get to hers before lunchtime, so they could arrive before the solicitor and the brother's friend would get there?
That evening telling Jenny about my mother's request we both mused over the oddness of the situation: that a lawyer and the friend would be going out to the farmhouse to sign a document, and there my mother, her friend and I would be trying to stop it happening. It sounded exciting to me and frightening to Jenny. Don't get hurt she said, having envisaged a Western scenario about homesteaders and cattle barons. I smiled and said neither the homesteaders nor the barons had four-wheel drives.
Setting off at nine the next morning, the snow had gathered again overnight and it was still snowing lightly. I started the car to warm it up, pushed off the toupee of snow on top of the jeep with a plastic spade, and used the metal one to scrape snow from around and under the wheels. I jumped in and started driving towards the A9, seeing no cars on a road that had yet to be gritted, and very few on the earlier gritted A9. I'd bought the jeep in the summer and the last few days had been the first decent fall of snow. The feeling I had when I saw it falling was I suppose a childish one. I would want to go out and play in it, and the excitement I felt driving along treacherous roads and intricate slippery lanes reminded me of my early teens when I would rush out and go sledging. I arrived at my mother's home an hour later, the vehicle managing to negotiate roads that, literally left other cars in their wake as I drove past vehicles entombed in snow. I got out of the car, hopped into the house and the kitchen was as warm as the car, with the woodburning stove flickering by the far wall and my mother insisting as I asked if they were ready that I take a few minutes to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate she had made for us all. It was something she would do when my sister and I were children, made with cocoa powder, milk, a little honey, and with blocks of milk chocolate thrown in. I couldn't resist and it gave the three of us the chance to discuss what to say to the brother when we would have a few minutes to speak to him on our own. I'd never met this friend of my mother's before. As Muriel started to talk I realised that I didn't like her. It wasn't just that at one moment she got up and helped herself to the biscuit tin with a blank request, and a little while after that handed my mother her mug so that my mother could put it in the sink. It wasn't only that she introduced herself to me as though she was paying me for my services and expected me to attend to her demands, it was also. or maybe chiefly, that her face didn't move and thus was responsible for the apparent rudeness elsewhere. For the briefest of moments I felt pity and wondered if it had been the result of a stroke, but very soon I saw that she had plastic surgery, leaving her face incapable of nuance or immediate reaction. As she talked it was as though the surgery reflected well her insistent need not to give an inch as she explained that as far as she was concerned the money belonged to her if it belonged to anyone other than her brother. He had no other brothers and sisters, apart from Muriel, no children and no wife. Why should this stranger get the inheritance? How come my mother had chosen this woman as her friend, I wondered, sipping the hot chocolate and allowing the pleasurable sensation on my taste buds to counter the irritation I was feeling as she spoke.
It was ten thirty when we left and I reckoned it would take us at most forty minutes to get to the remote farmhouse, though I didn't mind if it would take us longer. The snow had continued falling, but lightly, and I no longer had any desire to allow this woman plenty time to convince her brother to give the money to her if he died before she did, and thus had no need to drive recklessly so that we wouldn't be late. My four-wheel drive had so far negotiated the roads well, but though the roads were unlikely to get much worse, the mission had become less worthy: I wanted to play it safe because I believed this woman was unlikely to play fair. As Muriel excused herself for a minute to go to the bathroom, I looked at my mother as if to say where did she find her, and my mother whispered back, she was having a difficult time, I shouldn't judge her too harshly. A difficult time under the knife, I suggested, and my mother's face looked blankly back as I wasn't sure if she failed to understand the expression, or hadn't at all noticed what I thought was unequivocal: that Muriel wanted her brother's money for further surgical procedures.
As I found the narrow roads leading to the brother's farmhouse more precarious than the one leading to my mother's, I wondered what vehicle the lawyer and the cousin's friend would be driving to arrive at this remotest of locales, and found out when we got there. Sitting outside the derelict farmhouse was a jeep a little like my own, but newer, probably even more effective at grinding its way through snow. Not only had they got there first, but after a few minutes in the company of the friend and the lawyer, I believed without much doubt that the money should go to this relative stranger rather than to Muriel. I could see that the friend who would have been probably in his early sixties and thus around ten years younger than the brother, was more attentive to the brothers needs and his failing health, both mental and physical, than Muriel, who no sooner had we walked through the door was addressing Adrian a bit too bluntly. Instead of showing any sign of initial affection she instead asked him what the hell these people were doing there, adding that he looked like he had just got out of bed. Shouldn't he smarten himself up, she told him, as he dutifully left the kitchen and went upstairs. The friend, whose name was Richard, looked on, dismayed, perhaps even hurt, and it occurred to me they had been lovers; that they had known each for some years, and long before as sexual partners. It was a perceptual flash with no more for evidence than the look on Richard's face, and yet I also felt I would have been able at some moment to ask Richard about that look and get an honest answer. When I looked at Muriel's visage I could see without hesitation a woman whose face had been tampered with by a surgeon, and yet would be very surprised if she'd admit to this fact. When Adrian came back down the stairs, no longer wearing a jumper full of holes but a shirt and tie that seemed to me to suit the occasion more than it suited the temperature, I couldn't even see in his features a resemblance to Muriel's: she had obliterated the best argument she possessed for indicating that she should. Look at me, she might have said, are we not obviously of the same blood, the same bones? And nobody would look back and say yes. Instead, they would see Richard's face and witness a mobility of gesture and a look of concern that suggested he cared about his friend in ways that Muriel might never understand.
Over the next hour, the lawyer explained that there was nothing Muriel could do, that Adrian wished to sign over to Richard power of attorney and also include him in the will, and that he had been adamant about this for some time. It was a gesture of fairness on Richard's part that they hadn't yet gone ahead and signed it. While the lawyer talked, Adrian fidgeted with his tie and with his collar as Muriel insisted he sit still and realise what he was giving away. On several occasions, Muriel said he was making a mistake, and did he realise exactly what he was doing? Adrian nodded without looking in Muriel's direction. I wasn't sure if he did understand quite what was going on. At one moment he started dribbling at the mouth, his motor facilities now too impaired in this area to control it. Richard got up and returned from the other side of this large kitchen with a few tissues that he initially handed to Adrian but, seeing that Adrian was oblivious to what had happened, wiped away the saliva himself. Muriel looked on with what I would have liked to call disgust but was probably closer to dismay herself, and I think I saw in that look a realisation that she would not wish to be in Richard's place, taking responsibility for Adrian might have required attending to a steady erosion of his faculties. Could she have provided that care? I think she recognised she couldn't.
As we left with the documents signed, Muriel acquiescing, and the snow n longer falling, I started to wonder what my mother saw in this woman she had several times referred to as her friend, and a friend enough to ask me to drive along treacherous roads to try and help her wrestle an inheritance from someone who seemed to be much more deserving of it. Yet on the way back in the car, with Muriel in the back seat as we all conversed together, I sensed a woman who, though she was probably intolerant and not always capable of being honest about her motives, could at the same time regale people with stories that I had to admit were interesting. Returning to my mother's and over lunch, Muriel told us various anecdotes, some of which were familiar to my mother, others that were new as I could see that this initially irritating old woman had both lived and knew how to narrate that living.
I had asked her if she had been in the Highlands most of her life; she said she had spent most of her life out of it, living for a few years in London, then for a couple of years in India and Morocco, and a few years in France before living in Newcastle for a few more, and then returning to the Highlands. I sensed straight away that she had stories to tell about wherever she had been and that she was a good enough teller to dip in and out of her life story without feeling obliged to be chronological. I asked her about India and she said she would have been around twenty-six and free perhaps as only a person of her generation at that age could have been. It was the early seventies, she went with a couple of female friends and looked for what they would have then called adventure. She had saved money from a secretarial job in London and worked out she could live for six months in India without doing anything at all, and that is exactly what she did. They would go along to the various beaches in Goa, staying in tents or in cheap rooms, meeting so many people who would be passing through in search of a self-discovery she never felt obliged to embark upon. She was taken by the smells of cardamom and cinnamon, of the sweet, sweet smells of the succulent mangos, by the warmth of the water that you could swim in without initially feeling goosebumps on the skin. She would watch Indians in their sixties, perhaps even seventies, both male and female, with their narrow ankles, thin calves and straight backs, and would go through phases of loving the spices in the food and wishing occasionally for meat and two veg or some pasta, a need she would occasionally manage to satisfy. She didn't need to discover herself she supposed, a new sensorium had opened up, and subsequently a new self.
During this trip, she met a German traveller who hired a moped and they drove all the way from Goa to Mumbai, stopping off in various villages along the way. It was a love affair that had less an end date than a concluding destination. A some-time lover was visiting her from London. She would meet him at the airport and they would get the train down from Mumbai back to Goa. He had always wanted to travel by train in India, he had said. But over the two weeks, as she and her German lover travelled together, the casual feelings she thought were there initially, became those of impending loss as they approached the city. She didn't want to leave Gunther and didn't really wish to see Matthew, definitely knowing she couldn't sleep with him.
By this stage of the telling, we were still in the jeep, the snow had started again, and I managed to concentrate on the road while also engaging with the story. What I couldn't do was see Muriel's face as she talked (I could see only the eyebrows and the forehead in the rearview mirror), nor my mother as she listened. It was as though I was no longer the adult son sitting with my mum and her friend, but that we were three contemporaries in a time removed, the story the thing.
I was intrigued by how she would get out of this emotional conundrum, and she said each day with Gunther was unusual, an experience she had never had before or since. While initially, she liked him but no more than three or four other men she had met on a Goa beach in the preceding month and a half, each day of their trip she would feel closer and closer to him. He didn't talk very much but he would often point at something, saying look, and then fall into silence again. It might have been a person on the pavement trying to cross a busy street, with one leg missing, a make-shift crutch propping him up, while he carried several items under his other arm. The traffic would show no sympathy and he negotiated his way across the street in a manner that gave credence to the phrase taking his life into his hands. She noticed during those two weeks that while Gunther spoke little, what he managed to do like no one else was to give images to the idioms we use and then offer the idiom to explain that image. Another moment, they were in a cafe drinking a milky chai when he looked out of the window, saw a beggar on the pavement and someone else who had dropped a loaf of bread. The person picked it up and then gave it to a beggar rather than putting it into the bin. Gunther pointed at the beggar eating the loaf of bread and explained what had just happened, and then offered the idiom that beggars can't be choosers. It was as if he could give back to the idiom the force it would have possessed when first used by finding an incident that would reflect it. It might sound as though he did it as a game, she said, but he appeared to find in these idioms the dignity of the people he would watch.
By the time she reached Mumbai she felt she knew him well even if he had talked so little. She didn't expect to see him again - he was flying from Mumbai to Tehran, and from there planned to make his way back through Europe by train, walking, hitching and perhaps on occasion hiring a motorbike. She yearned to continue on his adventure and over the next couple of months, though they exchanged no postcards, she would imagine each stage of his journey. She did not say anything to Matthew about Gunther, feeling she owed Matthew her company during the three weeks of his stay, but neither did she have sex with him, and was relieved that it seemed Matthew did not want to have sex with her, she said, chuckling as though she was caught somewhere between the young woman no longer interested and the older woman surprised she was offering such details. What he did seem to want and that she was happy to provide was a body to hug at night as she assumed he had been hurt by someone back in London, and that he was being as loyal to his feelings for this other woman as she was being loyal to her feelings for Gunther. They would lie at night hugging each other, a gesture of respect for both of them she believed, while not at all betraying their feelings for someone else. She never did see Gunther again, but she remained friends with Matthew for years afterwards. She didn't think this would have been possible had she slept with him during that trip.
As she talked, the person who had been so dismissive of her brother had faded away, or rather that person had become far more nuanced, as I could see that here was a woman I could only describe as having a code. As we all fell into silence for a while as we approached my mother's house, I realised that while most people have a moral system that they live up to or fail to abide by, Muriel appeared instead to have a code of conduct. What I meant by this, I found myself thinking, was that a code is harder to ascertain; that we have to know something about a person's thinking and not only their behaviour. When I saw her with her brother all I saw was a woman behaving badly, but when she told the story I could see that such notions of behaviour for her were contained by a notion of a code that was quite particular. When she could see how attentive his friend was to her brother I think she didn't just say to herself that here was a man who would look after him, but also that here was a man who would look after her brother as she would not. It wasn't just that Adrian was a kind and generous man; it was even more that he was a man who could do things she couldn't. He should get the inheritance not first and foremost because he was good but that he was better: a more appropriate person for staying in an isolated farmhouse looking after someone. Yet I also wondered how Muriel's plastic surgery fitted into this code, as I couldn't deny that part of my initial dislike for this woman rested on facial gestures that were absent. As she had told the story I could see at most part of a cheek or an eyebrow, and I could listen to a voice that was inflected and amused without at all being scornful. Her accent sounded like it had a soft Irish intonation that I guessed had nothing to do with Ireland but was a voice constantly modified by numerous encounters with people from many different places. The accent suggested years of adventurous experiences aurally that visually the plastic surgery denied.
When we got back to my mother's, she heated up a soup that she had made early that morning and served it with some wholegrain and sunflower seed bread she had put in the bread maker overnight. As we ate, I asked Muriel about her accent and she told me that to explain that wouldn't be to tell a story but to tell several of them. I said I was interested to hear them and so over the next hour she talked about her first and second marriages, the former to a person whose employment she never quite ascertained but knew was suspect, and the second to a street painter who in the spring and autumn would paint and then sell the paintings around Montmartre, and in the summer months would do the same in St Tropez. With her first husband, she would go to Morocco, Turkey and, before the Russian invasion, Afghanistan, and, before the revolution, Iran. He would superficially be selling scarves and rugs, but she knew there was little likelihood that this was where the money came from. Though she did most of the work, selling the rugs and scarves, she never complained aware that the relatively lavish lifestyle they enjoyed must have been funded from elsewhere. They were together for five years and she would accept that sometimes he would sneak out in the night and she asked no questions less because he would probably be forced to lie than perhaps to protect herself from a reality that would have frightened her. They would often smoke hash together but she suspected it was stronger stuff he was selling and didn't realise how relieved she felt when they broke up and quickly divorced not so long after the Iranian revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan. Throughout the eighties, she was with her second husband and while there was far less money, she would feel far more safe, and free. That earlier freedom always had a prison sentence or a beating hanging over it, she believed; with Bob, she would take waitressing jobs and he would paint, and they would mainly live in the flat he owned with money left to him by his grandmother. It was a flat that had been many years earlier separate chambres de bonne but the previous owner had knocked a wall in and turned it into a flat that perhaps possessed more charm than it allowed for practicality. Bob's flat had a long, open plan living room/kitchen and a bedroom on one side of the entrance and a shower room with a toilet on the other side. People would usually arrive and say how picturesque the apartment happened to be as they would go over to the patio windows that opened onto a balcony wide enough for a couple of chairs and the smallest of tables. But living there she understood what living on top of each other was. Yet when Bob died, and she moved back to the UK, staying with a friend from London who had moved to Newcastle, and where she had a terraced house, she missed not only Bob, of course, and Paris, but also the small quarters she shared with him in the French capital. She didn't say how Bob died and I didn't ask, but I assumed when she said it, and not before, that he had been quite a few years older than her.
I left the cottage in the mid-afternoon, relieved that my mother had found a friend with whom she could feel close, as I worried initially while we drove out and met with the lawyer that Muriel was merely a reflection of my mother's loneliness since my father died. Instead I now saw a woman my mother might holiday with in ways she never could with my father, who insisted on visiting countries where he could guarantee the food would be similar to that served up at home on a daily basis, and where he would never be too far from the airport that would take him back home. For the last three years of his life he was ill and this isn't the place to go into that protracted and painful period where my mother attended to his medical ailments and was constantly assailed by anxious feelings. She would be worried that at any moment he could pass away in front of her eyes, or worse, behind her back, and all the while she would still try and have an active life playing badminton, going for Saturday night drinks with friends. Perhaps witnessing at one remove my mother's life attending to my father made me more immediately sympathetic to Muriel even if I felt disturbed by the way she had spoken to her brother. There needs to be immense love, a love within fortitude that has nothing to do with romance, to look after a person whose motor functions have semi-ceased, whose many demands must be met and whose temper tantrums you must receive in good cheer. That is what I remembered about my mother's care and consideration for my dad. But I also found myself admiring Muriel for the experiences in her life that my mother had denied herself and wondered if just a little bit of edge to our personality is needed for such an adventurous existence.
It is I suppose this harshness I have insisted upon in my own life, especially as I knew Muriel, like Jenny and I, had no children, and that I had moved up to the Highlands only after my father's death. I am not sure if I would have reacted very differently to Muriel's response to her brother. She had got more used to her independence than to money, and I do now believe that she went over to see Adrian and Richard chiefly to find out who this other person happened to be: whether he really did seem to care about Adrian.
It was around four when I got back to the cottage and Jenny had left a message on the table saying that she wouldn't be back before seven. It was a school event. I liked these little notes she would leave, so much more personal than a text message, and I must have kept over the years more than a hundred of them. She would write in a careful, concentrated hand-writing that had won her competitions when she was a schoolgirl. It was the sort of now useless skill that nevertheless contained within it a gesture of both the past and an emotional present. I was always happy receiving them, no matter if at the same time there was the disappointment of waiting for two or three more hours to be in her company.
It was now dark and as I went up to the studio, I put on the overhead light that mimicked as closely as any the light of the day, and started work on what I could only call a very rare example of non-commissioned work in oils. I wanted to paint my mother, and find in her features what were also in my own, and did it wondering if I was doing so because I, like Muriel with her brother, might not wish to look after her when she would no longer be fit and able to look after herself. When I would view great art, what I would often see was the helpless gap between compassion and coldness, the need to paint pain but not share it. To see it as a technical problem rather than an emotional reality. I think many an artist has protected themselves from the world this way, and perhaps also from their obligations. Muriel seemed not to need that sort of protection, as she would tell stories without it seemed writing them down, admit to feelings that others might deny, or sublimate. As I worked on my mother's jawline, her nose and her brow, I thought too about my own features and what we shared, knowing that I could not do this with Muriel and her brother, wondering what those surgically tampered features hid. She had a code it seemed but hid her genetic one behind a surgeon's knife. I perhaps wanted to make clear my own in painting my mother's features but thought I perhaps shared with Muriel other features that I would be less keen than her to admit to possessing.
© Tony McKibbin