If it weren't for a casual remark my brother offered to me a month or so ago, some of the subtleties of this story would forever have gone uncommented upon. However there are also plenty happy and unhappy contingencies to the events that have taken place over a number of years, the equal contingency of my brother's off the cuff comment, and the sense of family resolution that seems to be continuing partly because of the chain of events I aim to describe. I hope this gives the story a sense of optimism to family life too rarely offered in print. But of course family life is only ever part of the story; what about our relationships with others?
Now my sister, who is ten years older than me, and five years older than my brother, became our unofficial mother fifteen years ago when our parents were killed in a car crash. They were returning from a conference in the South of England, and it was the first time we were left in the care of ourselves; or more especially my sister was left to care for her two younger brothers. That night she couldn't have realized it would be for much longer than an evening. She was seventeen, finishing off her Highers, and looking forward to going off to university, where she had a provisional place to do English at York. A cruel twist of fate, as they say, robbed us all of our parents, but also my sister of her education, and yet my sister initially dealt with the loss best of all. Even as a child she possessed a spiritual side that accepted events not as driven by reason, but vaguer, higher causes. She may never have become Christian, nor quite New Age, and yet superstition didn't quite cover her position either.
She never did go to York and study English; she instead stayed in Edinburgh, in our four bedroom house in the New Town, and brought my brother and me up as if she were both our mother and our father. Luckily our prudent parents had paid off much of the house's mortgage, and the rest was covered by an insurance policy on their death. Out of the insurance money there was still enough left over for us to survive comfortably with my sister working in various menial and semi-skilled jobs, and some money was also put aside for our respective educations. My sister would take jobs as varied as working as a waitress, to employment as a care worker with the physically and mentally disabled.
By the time my brother was old enough to go to university, my sister was in her early twenties, with a regular partner several years older than she was, who had graduated in law, who worked for a solicitors dealing mainly in property, and who moved into the house and very much helped us all out. My brother went on to study engineering, graduating the year before I went off to study English at the university here in Edinburgh. When my sister saw the reading list I noticed a slightly stricken look on her face that was explained a couple of days later. She bought me one of the books from the list, namely Jude the Obscure, and wrote on the title page of the book an inscription saying that education was too often in history a privilege and rarely a right - and never had there been a better book than Jude on the subject. She signed it, simply, with love from a loved one.
Even at the age of seventeen, and before dawdling over sub-texts would become a preoccupation, I couldn't help but read into my sister's comments a wistful sense of envy. It was an accurate interpretation: for the rest of the summer she seemed to become increasingly moody and resentful, and on several occasions would remind me how lucky I was.
For the first few months into my degree I found any time not spent working on it would make my sister irritable, and so when I would be going out with friends for a few drinks, or going off for a game of football, she couldn't stop herself from asking whether I shouldn't be concentrating on the work. I would often just shrug and slope out the door. By the end of that first year the situation became intolerable, and I took two part time jobs so that I could afford to rent a room with friends on the other side of town, over in Marchmont. My sister and I kept in touch for a few months not directly, but through our brother, who was still living in the city, though he often worked off-shore, and still stayed in the family home while in Edinburgh. One early, lovely and relatively warm spring afternoon when we met up for a pint in a pub with a beer garden, he said my sister wanted to sell the house. She reckoned with the money left over from the insurance, and the money that could be made on the property, we could each afford if not to buy a small flat outright, then at least the money would go most of the way towards doing so. I felt a momentary sense of loss as I thought about the house as a concrete metaphor for the parents we had lost: would my sister have managed quite as well were it not for at least the felt absence of our parents in the house to make up for their lack of physical presence? But I also knew that if anybody had the right to make the choice to sell, it was surely my sister. I said I would go along with any decision she took, and that maybe we could communicate through e-mail. I said he could pass my new e-mail address on to her; ever since my brother started working offshore it was our own chosen method of contact.
So the house was sold, and I put my hundred and twenty thousand pounds in a high interest account while I decided what to do with the money. By this stage I was into my second year, and for some reason it was during that period of time I found I couldn't sleep properly, and thoughts kept drifting back to my parents' lives and their sudden death. I was only seven when they died, and somehow their absence was contained by my sister's soothing presence and the permanence of the house that had been bought long before I was born. Now that I had no contact with my sister, and with the house no longer in the family, it was as if the combination of these emotional and material losses, alongside my own developed consciousness, created in me a delayed but very real sense of mourning. How could I escape this feeling, I wondered? Certainly I would like to have seen my sister again, but somehow I felt that she didn't want to see me; that my pursuing a degree mocked her own lost opportunities.
But what I did do was start looking at flats. I knew I couldn't afford anything in the New Town, nor anything in the area in which I was then living. But I would often notice for-sale signs outside flats around the university area, and started looking at them, with the idea of buying a place for the start of the following term. If I could find a flat for about 110,000 and furnish it with the remaining amount, I would then only need to earn enough money in a part-time job to keep me in food, clothing and bills. So the first thing I had to do though was to find some work. so that I wouldn't spend even the interest on the sum of the money in the bank, and, secondly, to scour the city, and especially the university area, looking for a nice but affordable flat.
The part-time job I found was as a helper to people with learning difficulties, and the hourly rate meant that doing fourteen hours a week I could afford to pay my rent and cover all the bills - just. With a flat I could probably work for just ten. After taking the job I would still spend several hours a week looking for and at flats. With this dual sense of purpose, as well as the degree I was enjoying, I found I was no longer sleeping badly, and would think of my parents usually only in practical terms. Some of the items from our house had been put in storage, and I realised that I wouldn't only be holding on to their memory by taking a bed, couch and few other items, but also saving money on furnishing the flat.
I found a place I liked after a couple of months, and it was a top floor one-bedroom abode with a box-room off the small sitting room - which was perfect as a study - and a kitchen unfortunately devoid of any natural light; it had no windows. But the flat had plenty of light, generally, with the front facing out onto Arthur's seat, and the back out onto the Meadows Park nearby. I bought it relatively cheaply, partly because I bought it mid-term rather than closer to the new term, and immediately started decorating the flat, took my parents' things out of storage, and cut my working hours down to just ten a week. I felt an overwhelming sense of well-being - except for one thing. As I put my numerous books up on the shelves, I noticed a couple had gone missing, and one of them, I realised, was the very book my sister had inscribed. I didn't notice straight away, and it wasn't until I had been in the new flat for several weeks that I became aware it was gone. I recalled I had left a bundle of items that my ex-flat mates could either keep, or hand over to a charity shop - maybe the book could still be in the old apartment.
I gave them a ring and was told they'd given the items away to a charity shop somewhere along Clerk Street, a road with a large number of charity outlets, and so I asked which one. Milena, who answered the phone, and who in fact had helped me pack up, said she wasn't sure. It was at night a few days before and she had dumped the bag outside the shop door - possibly Oxfam, but maybe Cancer Research. I said I would just look along the row of shops there and hope to find the book that way. She apologised, saying she didn't realise there was anything of import in the bag; and I said it was of course my own fault, not hers. I mentioned that I would pop round if and when I found it and we could celebrate with a cup of Earl Grey tea - her favourite drink. Whenever we drank something stronger than tea we would end up in a situation that neither of us really quite wanted to continue...or at least that it what I thought. Our bond didn't really seem to go much further than sharing the loss of our parents at a young age, and when we would get drunk that was the subject we would often address.
Maybe I suggested the weakness of the substance not only because it was Milena's favourite drink, and the dangers when we imbibed a stronger substance, but also because I thought there wouldn't be much to celebrate: after all I was just going to salvage a book from a nearby shop. But as I went into some dozen charity shops and couldn't find it on the shelves, and as I asked members of staff whether they had any copies of the book, I saw that the task was going to become an endeavour indeed. A number of the charity shops said that often when books came to the store, if they already had plenty they would pass them on to another branch. This could have been what happened to Jude; then again, it could still be in one of the piles of bags they had in the backroom.
I was a keen second-hand book buyer anyway, and so it wasn't entirely a chore to scour the city looking for Jude the increasingly obscure; but even this book was trying my patience. Or was it? How important was the book? It was obviously of significance because my sister had signed it, and I felt almost as if I unconsciously had lost it as some sort of act of revenge. I say almost; for usually I would think such thoughts nonsense - less Freudian profundity, than superficial mysticism. However something was really nagging me about this; how could I have left it in the flat? Add to this low-key fret the determined quest to find it, and the book was taking on proportions of surprising magnitude. For the first week I devoted a couple of hours a day to searching around Edinburgh's charity shops on Clerk Street, Marchmont, Stockbridge and a couple of other parts of town, but with no luck. I eased off over the next couple of weeks, devoting only an afternoon or so looking around - the sort of time I would spend on the lookout for second-hand books anyway. But every time my eye caught a spine saying Jude The Obscure my body tensed and flushed in a way I had only experienced with one or two girls, and in a couple of instances of shoplifting.
It was about a six weeks after I had moved into my new flat, in the middle of March, that my brother told me that our sister was going to return to university, that she would be studying English at Edinburgh that coming autumn. As I would be going into third year; she would be going into her first, and I wondered how she might feel seeing her younger brother two years ahead of her. My brother said that he sensed no resentment on her part; merely relief that she was finally able to pursue her studies.
This piece of news seemed to remove the nagging sense that I ought to go out of my way to find the book, and it was with a sense of wonderful surprise that I came across the novel in one of the first bookshops that I had been to after Milena said she handed the parcel of items over to a shop on Clerk Street. It was the Oxfam bookshop, and presumably they had left it lying with loads of other books in the back of the shop until some stock had been cleared.
It was a week or so afterwards that my brother invited my sister, her husband and me around for a meal at his new place, a flat he had bought in Marchmont, quite near where I had been sharing with others. My sister had also bought - back in the New Town, where the money her husband earned as a solicitor, and her own share of the inheritance, meant they could afford, supposedly a smaller version of the house we were brought up in. But still, so my brother insisted when he mentioned its compactness next to the family home, a lovely house nevertheless.
So with the three of us happily ensconced in our own properties, and my brother and my sister's husband in jobs they enjoyed, and my sister going to university, and with me happily finishing off my second year, where could tension possibly arise during the meal? Perhaps as I've noted it was feasible that my sister might be a little jealous I was two years ahead of her, but surely the knowledge that she was at last pursuing an English degree would easily compensate.
Yet from the moment I entered the flat, with my sister and her partner already at the table, drinking a glass of wine, I knew something had been said that related to me, and my presence was, if not unwelcome, as such, at least a presence that had arrived a few minutes too early. Or perhaps it was no more than the inevitable awkwardness when a brother and sister who had not talked for more than year were once again in contact. My brother, and my sister's partner, seemed to over-compensate, commenting on the wine, before my sister's partner elaborately explained all that he knew about wines generally, while my brother told us where he bought the various ingredients for the vegetarian lasagne he had cooked up. (Both my sister and I didn't eat meat.) But as the evening continued, as my brother served up the salad and lasagne, the tension was still there. Even over a pudding of Apple Crumble and cream my sister talked little, and offered comments as if they were social observations made rather than a thought conveyed. It was as though she had one thought on her mind all evening, and held onto it no matter the conversation that would pop out of her mouth.
When my sister and her partner left, I just flopped into the chair in the sitting room and said thank goodness that was over. After a minute, though, curiosity got the better of relaxation and I asked my brother whether I had arrived at an inopportune moment. He said that everything was fine; it was inevitable there would be some tension considering she and I hadn't seen each other for so long. I was sure it was more than that, and so he admitted that I had arrived at a bad moment, but that what they were talking about was hardly going to be alleviated by my turning up later rather than sooner. He said that a couple of weeks ago she had been wandering around second-hand book shops and charity shops looking for books for her course, and she came across the copy of Jude the Obscureshe had given me a couple of years before. She was livid, but put the book back on the shelf and said to herself, he said, that she would having nothing to do with me again. I asked why she came round for dinner, knowing I was going to be there. Well, my brother explained, he hadn't told them I was coming: that was the surprise, and of course it wasn't till shortly before I arrived that he knew the story about Jude the Obscure.
I then told him what had happened with the book, and that I had spent weeks scouring the shops looking for it before all but accidentally coming across it, ironically, only a few days before the dinner. How could I make amends, I wondered, now that I did actually have the book in my possession once again? He proposed that I could do one of two things. Simply get on the phone and explain the whole situation, or instead make a grander gesture of it than that and invite her round for dinner and have the very book sitting on the table, or somewhere where she could unmistakeably see it, and still have the opportunity to look inside it and notice that it was the copy she gave to me. It may prove a reminder of the little miracles she used to believe in, he said, or she would at least accept the lengths I must have gone to in finding it. I said the idea of the meal with the book left lying around seemed needlessly elaborate, and yet the whole significance now attached to the book appeared to require a bigger gesture than just phoning to explain what happened.
So I asked my brother to invite my sister and her partner over, saying I felt that the situation last time was a little tense and that I thought I had found a way to make things work more successfully this time. A couple of days later my brother phoned to say that they could make that Saturday night; and I phoned Milena, whom I'd promised to invite over to my place for a meal anyway, and asked if she would like to join us. She said yes. Milena remained the only one of my four former flat mates that I kept in touch with, and was, if I thought about it, alongside two friends from school, one of only three people in the city to whom I felt remotely close.
I not only tidied up the flat, I also got round to buying some items of furniture I would need if I were to have people round. I bought a dining table which nestled neatly next to the window in the sitting room, and also bought a sofa to go with the easy chair from the old house which had, up until that point, been my only piece of furniture in the sitting room. For dinner I made up a vegetarian chilli, with lentils, kidney beans and loads of vegetables: a favourite dish of my sister's. For dessert I was going to try and make a cheesecake, based on a recipe my sister had given me several years before, a cheesecake she used often to make for us all when we were younger.
Everybody arrived within fifteen minutes of each other, and the small flat felt almost cramped. I had to move the book from the table to create space for setting out the knives and forks, placing the plates, and for the wine and glasses. My brother noticed and put it in no less conspicuous a place than the mantelpiece, next to, but deliberately apart from, a row of books that I had placed there. I noticed not my sister but Milena glancing at it, and realised of course that it was the very book I'd discussed with Milena that day on the phone, and felt certain that she was about to say something about its presence. Instead she looked down, with a curiously deflated demeanour, while my brother looked to see if my sister's eye would fall on the book. Throughout the entire meal it failed to do so, even though her mood seemed much more cheerful than during the meal at my brother's. It was as if she had forgotten the very book at the moment we were trying to remind her of it.
Milena, however seemed utterly subdued, and this usually lively conversationalist and hearty eater managed to say only a few words through the starter and the main course, and ate only half the starter and very much picked her way round the chilli. The cheesecake Milena chose to forgo, and though it wasn't anywhere near as tasty as my sister's, my sister ate it without a hint of complaint and even offered a mild compliment: saying that it looked like I had increased my menu range over the last couple of years.
After the meal my brother and my sister's partner went out onto the landing for a cigarette, and my sister insisted helping me in the kitchen as we piled up the dishes. When I came back into the sitting room I could see Milena looking more distraught still, and noticed the book had moved slightly. She said she thought she better go, and I asked her what was wrong. She said it was nothing, and that she had a sore stomach. I said I would ring her in the morning and see how she was feeling, and saw her to the door. After she left my sister asked me a few questions about Milena, and I said that she was an ex-flatmate, and that we remained friends. My sister suggested that she seemed to want to be more than a friend, and I explained that I didn't think so - she still had a boyfriend in Prague, and I had occasionally taken girls back to the old flat after a night out. My sister was sure Milena was in love with me. I half-laughed, but it stuck in my throat as a thought came into my mind; but I let it go when my sister changed the subject and said that she heard I had found the copy of Jude that she had given me several years before. I asked how she knew, and she said our loyal brother had told her loyal partner, who told her. It was the only way her partner could persuade her to come to dinner: she had been really annoyed finding the book in a second-hand store; thought that it mocked her gesture, and her own attempt to pursue an education a couple of years later. It was almost as if, she proposed, you had put it there deliberately knowing I would be searching through second-hand book shops and charity shops looking for books for university. I looked at her, surprised, and she said of course it wasn't a rational thought - but that was how she felt.
At that moment I was thinking how Milena felt, and found myself wondering whether she had left a short while before less because of a sore stomach, than because of a broken heart - melodramatic perhaps, but not according to my sister. I surmised that she had looked into the book and seen the inscription and then left, leaving because the inscription, of course, could have been from anyone. It was signed merely with love from a loved one. This of course led me to hypothesise on the events not just of this evening, but also several months before. Did Milena deliberately put the book in with the pile of other items so that it would be left for a charity shop, and did she not tell me which charity shop she had given it to knowing that I would simply go along and fetch it back? Now I've said that Milena had a boyfriend in Prague, but I've also mentioned in passing that we would have our dangerous moments when we occasionally got drunk together in the flat. Now nothing really happened, but sometimes we would sit together on the couch, close enough to pass ostensibly for a couple, and just laugh and talk. I always liked Milena, but the idea of a boyfriend quickly quelled any hint of emotional crystallization, but did my absence of a girlfriend not have the opposite effect on her?
I guess the question I needed to ask myself, though, was not only whether my sister is right that Milena has strong feelings for me, and whether I have strong feelings for her, but whether if those strong feelings in her might repel whatever feelings I may find myself having for Milena. I have a sense that any feelings might be very quickly weakened by the possibility that she not only misinterpreted the inscription in the book, but also acted upon that misinterpretation. Some might believe that alludes to the depth of her feelings for me; others might propose it's a depth that lies somewhere else, in her past. Others might wonder whether my blindness to such feelings, however stable or otherwise, could suggest a depth of feeling in me also; but a depth never really accessed and dealt with, but constantly buried over with a coldness I may prefer to call self-sufficiency. I sometimes wonder whether I've ever really grieved for my own parents, and that very lack of emotion might be why I paid so little attention to Milena's feelings for me. I may have dismissed thinking too much about her because she had a boyfriend in Prague; but maybe she thought a great deal of me because we both shared the grief of losing parents at an early age. If perhaps my own grief were closer to consciousness; so maybe I would have also noticed Milena's apparent love for me. I realized that whatever emotional complications there had been in the two recent meetings with my sister, the next time I saw Milena there would probably be more convoluted feelings still. And how many of these feelings that others were accessing, were somehow because I had been unwilling to draw upon some of my own?
© Tony McKibbin