Many years ago I tried to write a story about a friend who lost his brother to a drowning accident, and perhaps stupidly showed the result to the friend not long after having written it. Now, though, I might be inclined to think the stupidity lay in writing the story at all, and I wonder now whether I am equally idiotic in trying again.
It would have been the early nineties in Inverness, and I was at the time working for a regional newspaper, commenting on the arts. It didn't pay well, but publishing three articles a week gave me enough money to get off the dole, and my parents kindly allowed my twenty year old self to continue living at home rent free. Our house was big and I had a room on the third floor, a loft conversion with a bathroom next to it. It felt more like living as a lodger than staying at home, and my parents were often away. They were both GPs, and any spare time they had would be spent skiing, hiking, camping, going for long weekends to cities abroad, or visiting my brothers and sister, all of whom were at university. Our family was probably wealthier than any of my friend's families, but I think it was not the financial comfort I took for granted then but much more my creative freedom - writing these articles for the regional newspaper gave me the confidence to call myself a writer, and while maybe I wasn't entitled to the luxuries of my parents' house, neither now do I think I was entitled to write about subjects that belonged more to others than they did to me. Yet was I not the writer, the person whose skill was to put people's stories into printed words; that I was free to appropriate the lives of others for creative ends?
Each weekend, one summer, and bored with the night life in Inverness, about a dozen of us, in usually three or four cars, would go down to Aviemore in the early afternoon, go walking through the Rothiemurchus estate, or climbing up the Cairngorms, and then in the evening get drunk in the pubs and semi-nightclubs. During that summer I knew of three people in the group who had lost brothers within the previous ten years, and yet it was only one of them whose story I attempted to tell, though the others had stories equally traumatising.
As we were walking around the estate, out past the town centre and walked for about three miles until we got to the loch, and then afterwards for another three to four miles as we walked around it, so I started talking to Bill about his life. I had known Bill for around a year, met him through playing five-asides along with some of the others, but this was the first occasion where I had talked with him about anything other than football, girls and drinking. He often looked preoccupied and restless, lost inside himself but hardly comfortable in there, and I think people would often talk to Bill about superficial things as if afraid to get caught inside his pensive mind. But this afternoon when he talked of his past, so he seemed no longer internally agitated, and was more fully present than I had previously seen him. He asked me a few questions about my family, heard my parents were well off, that we had a big house along by the river Ness. He didn't say it resentfully, but in a manner that made me aware that his own background was probably quite poor, and he went on to say that he lived at home with his dad, who used to work in a steelworks in a town outside Glasgow, but they moved up when his father was made redundant, around the same time Bill's brother had died. I said I was really sorry - Bill said it was ten years ago, a bit late for commiserations, saying it as though he wasn't chastising me for the platitude, but himself for still not having got over the loss. I pressed further, feeling that Bill would have been more irritated by my retreat than by further questions, and he said it wasn't that he felt responsible for his brother's death. He was responsible.
By now we had all arrived at the end of the road that led to the loch, and several people went into the gift shop to pick up some water and sweets; a couple of others to the toilet. Bill proposed that we keep walking; the others could catch up. He seemed to want no interruptions, almost as if he were to tell this story at all it was to be in one breath. He also of course seemed happy with the potentially increased privacy. However, I also realised as we walked that it might have been the location as much as the nature of our enquiry that led him to tell me about the events from a decade earlier.
His family, he said, would come up to the Highlands each year for their holidays: on occasion the Black Isle, sometimes Ullapool, and a couple of time to Aviemore, where they would rent a chalet near Loch Morloch, a lake a few miles away from the one we were walking around. Yet it was at this loch, Loch an Eilein, that he said his brother had died. He pointed out at the loch and said he cajoled his brother into joining him for a swim across to the ruined castle on the small island a few hundred yards from the shore. Bill swam ahead of his brother but up until reaching the island would look back every couple of minutes to see if Ally was all right. However, when Bill got onto the island he decided he would go round the side of the castle, jump into the water again, and swim round the other side and surprise his brother just before Ally himself would have reached the island. But by the time he swam round he couldn't see Ally at all. He dived under the water and looked around where he should have been, and with the water not very deep and the water quite clear, he found him on the lake bed and, putting Ally on his back, managed to swim back to the bank. He tried resuscitating him but he probably wasn't doing it properly, and by then it was probably too late. His parents were at the car park a mile away, and he ran back to where they were, leaving his brother on the side of the loch.
A year or two afterwards and his parents had split up and he moved up to Inverness when his father got a job working as a porter in a school. Bill said that after the death, his mother and father seemed to give up, or rather his mother took to going out and finding other men, and his father stayed at home, drinking and watching TV. One morning she packed and left, and came round a couple of days later when she knew his father was out and said that she had moved in with a person that she was seeing and that Bill was welcome to join them. He looked at his mother and could feel his own guilt reflected in her miserable posture and didn't know whether he was more angry with her or with himself for believing he had created the very woman in front of him for whom he could show no respect. He said he would stay with dad, and she went to hug him but he backed away. He hadn't spoken to her since.
At this moment we were more than halfway round the loch and hadn't even looked behind us to see if the others were catching up. Bill said we might as well keep walking and meet them back at the car park. I thought he suggested it because he had much more to say, but for the rest of the walk we said very little. I didn't know what to add, and he seemed to have finished saying what he wanted divulge. As we walked I remember thinking how surprised I was that he had told me so much with so little prompting. I happened to be interested, but I'm not sure if it would have made any difference if I hadn't been.
A couple of months later I wrote a story based closely on the events he described, augmenting details, fictionalising elements that made the story stronger, more purposeful. It was another Saturday when we were down in Aviemore, and as we all sat in a cafe waiting for the rain to ease off, I said to him as we sat away from the others, that I wrote a story about some of the things he told me. Again our sitting alone was contingent: there was no room at the other table, but where when we walked he took the chance to tell me about his life; now I took the chance to say to him that I thought it was important enough for me to turn it into a story. I can't recall if that is the phrase I used, but I feel shame even thinking that I might have. All I do remember is that he looked off in the direction of the others while asking what right did I think I had to tell his story. And weren't there others we knew who had stories I could have told instead? He then added he would like to read the story anyway. I would give it to him the next time we met. He gave me his number and told me to ring him.
Though there were people in the group whom I would meet up with sometimes in cafes in the town, I realised that with Bill we were only ever in contact through the others, and I felt oddly nervous phoning him at his father's house. It would have been his father who answered the phone, and I asked if Bill was available. "Available", he said as if hearing the word for the first time, and shouted into presumably another room saying there was someone on the phone for him. Bill and I arranged to meet the following afternoon. I met him after he finished college: he was doing a year's media studies course for no better reason than that it got him off the dole, but a couple of the others had seen a film he made and said it was very good. He also painted and drew, took photographs. Another in the group was doing the art course and said Bill's paintings, even though he only did art one half day a week, were the most interesting in the class. Indeed, it was only that previous Aviemore evening, after I had mentioned to Bill that I'd written a story, when the others had told me this. I wondered while waiting for him in an upstairs cafe in the town centre whether he might have been annoyed not only because it was personal information that I had divulged in story form, but that there were other art forms that he might want to have utilised to tell his own story.
When he arrived he appeared less irritated than he had been previously, and we talked for a few minutes before I handed over the piece. It was only three pages long and he asked if he could read it while we were sitting there. I said he could read it while I went and got him a cup of coffee. I wanted to leave him to read the entire story in my absence, so went up the toilets and stood in front of the mirror and burst a small spot on my chin, and as I did so thought about the many spots on Bill's face: while writing the story I had fretted over whether to include a mention of the acne. I think one reason why I have always liked writing as opposed to photography and even painting is what I'd call the freedom of exclusion, the freedom not to mention what somebody is wearing, the colour of their hair, if their parents are alive, what type of house they are living in and so on. I thought in painting and photography that power of exclusion wasn't as strong, and though I'd never theorised it very much, I think it was what made writing my natural home beyond any notion of talent or otherwise. In the story I didn't describe Bill at all. It was behaviour and psychology, not description.
I came downstairs from the toilet, queued briefly for the coffee, and brought it to the table as he finished the story. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. He said he didn't hate it as he expected, but he thought it wasn't finished. Or rather it wasn't that the story wasn't ready yet. More that I wasn't yet ready to write it. He couldn't say why he thought it but he hoped I wouldn't take it as condescending. Bill happened to be a year older than me, but I knew when he said I wasn't ready, he wouldn't have suggested he would have been either. I was relieved that he wasn't angry, and he told me that on a couple of occasions since starting the media course he cycled down to Aviemore, camped out by Loch an Eilein, and tried to paint and photograph his feelings about the place, his feelings about his brother's death and his parents' response. He didn't think he could;thought he might never be able to do so, and believed that maybe it was an issue of maturity for him too. But it was also, he recognized, a problem of form. Maybe he was angry with me the other day, he supposed, because though it was his life, it was me who had the form with which to explore his experiences. But he also added that he knew I had the form but not yet the aesthetic maturity. He meant by this no more than that the story hadn't moved him, hadn't conjured up in him any feeling of the event. But he thought some time perhaps I could, and if I ever did he would like to read it. He said it with such honesty of emotion that I knew he hoped someone would be able to write about an experience that was his, but of an emotion much more universal. He said I needed to describe loss, guilt and alienation, but find the appropriate hierarchy between the three. I hadn't managed that.
I've written many things since that failed story, including a biography of a well-known footballer, and hundreds of articles, but after Bill's comments I didn't write so called serious fiction again until a couple of years ago. By serious I mean no more than work that isn't commissioned but that still needs to be done: work that addresses the needs of the writer as much as of the publisher. When I think of the story about Bill, and perhaps also the dozen or so other pieces that I'd written that passed for the personal, they were not really personal but commissions at one remove. Didn't I think I had the right to tell Bill's story, since I was the writer of the group; when I looked recently at the fiction I was writing then I noticed it was driven by rights and obligations. I wrote about the pain of friends and stories that I thought were political, mythical or social. I wrote one story about the Brahan Seer, the mythic figure in the highlands and islands who could see into the future, another about the Iolaire that went down on New Year's Eve in Lewis at the end of WWI. I wrote about my grandfather's cancer. All seemed stories that I thought ought to be written, with a sense of imperative that I don't think I had internalised enough.
Yet two things have happened over the last couple of years where the desire to write seriously has returned. One was the death of my sister's son; the other, the other a break-up that left me inexplicably devastated. I cannot write about either at the moment except to say that sometimes when his parents would go away for a weekend to the borders where friends had a cottage, their son would stay at mine, and Caroline and I felt we had a child of our own even if it was for no more than one weekend a month. He was ten when he passed away, an only child, and I don't know whether my sister and her husband have the will to try for another one: they had tried for years before Andrew came. It was a month before Andrew died that Caroline left, saying she wanted to settle down or travel the world. I dismissed both as clichs and she said she would leave me to my originality, and left a week later for Latin America.
It is as though these two events created a void out of which all writing must come. I accept no commissions and make money teaching English, and have tried to understand a little better Bill's comment many years ago about the relationship between loss, guilt and alienation, and my own feelings about what I am entitled to write about. It was out of these thoughts and feelings that I returned to Bill's story, and then also dwelt on those other friends who had lost brothers, Pete and Michael.
Pete I'd known in my last couple of years at school. In fifth and sixth year we were in a number of classes together, and though we were never really friends, we remained in contact afterwards: he was studying at Glasgow but would be home in the Highlands a lot, and would often go out in Aviemore with the rest of us. Though I had talked to Pete about his brother's death, it always lacked the confessional dimension Bill's story possessed. Bill as far as I knew had told no one else but me of the details of his brother's demise; Pete told everyone to the point that I would never have needed to ask what happened. It was in his fourth year at school when his brother came into the sitting room where the family were watching television and his brother said he wasn't feeling very well. He crouched down on one knee, and then fell to the floor. The family were known to be very religious, and though no doubt they knew medically what had happened to him, all I heard was that the parents reckoned he was taken over by the spirit of death. They knew that he had been following a bad path; that he wasn't going to church, that he was drinking and possibly drug-taking, and while they saw their son's loss as a tragedy; they also believed it was God's work, and they oughtn't to argue with it. Some of the others in the group would say when they sometimes heard Pete tell this story he would burst out laughing, as if to say his parents were obviously talking nonsense, yet something in that laugh, they believed, contained a reaction that seemed far from benign.
By the time he went to university, he was no longer in contact with his family, and when Pete came up he would stay at his girlfriend's, who worked in the advertising department of one of the papers I would work for. They were both dark figures, I suppose - dark in the sense that they created around them in their look, demeanour and perhaps even their demonic laughter an atmosphere much darker than rebellion. It was as if they didn't rebel against this world, but that they were visiting from a graver one. He was a friend really at one remove, someone whom I would never call, and would usually only see in the context of the group. Whenever he came over to talk to me he would usually couch it in a joke or an observation. We would be in the pub and he would come back from the bar with a pint and say, "did you hear the joke about...", or call over to me across the table and say "do you think the barman's got a thing for the barmaid..." Whatever he said he would say with no sense of inquiry, and sometimes he didn't even seem to want a reaction at all. He might tell the joke and then laugh as he reached the punch-line, then walk off, or ask his question and then turn away before I had the time to answer. He seemed to be someone who wanted to violate meaning. I don't think I ever saw Pete and his girlfriend in discussion with each other, and would often see them pointing at things and laughing, sitting next to each other not in adjacent connection, but like two spectators in an audience looking for the next act of cruelty in the performance that happened to be life.
Pete would often laugh with Michael, yet though Michael was capable of callousness, he seemed to act with occasional insensitivity as if protecting his own feelings from harsher pain. Michael's brother's death was the most recent: it happened a year before Bill told me about his brother that afternoon in Aviemore, and it was a few months after it when Michael became part of the group. His brother had died while they were both studying in Edinburgh, and Michael dropped out for a year after his death, and subsequently became a regular member of our gang, incorporated into it by the person whose name I haven't mentioned because he is irrelevant to the focus of this story, no matter if he was the most interesting, most generous minded and most pro-active of us all. His name I won't even offer now; it is enough to say that he organized the nights in Aviemore, phoned around, would book the chalet we would stay in, and get the more belligerent out of fights that they managed to get themselves lazily and drunkenly into. Yet he serves no thematic purpose here and can be ignored, but I comment on him at all perhaps to make clear that though I knew three people who had lost their brother; I knew none of them directly: they were all friends of the friend who brought us together.
Michael was often uneasy in our company but only I think because he had become uneasy in his own. Though he didn't know Pete at all before being incorporated into the group, Michael said one evening, when I asked why he would hang out with him, it was as if by gravitating towards his despair it somehow saved him from dealing with his own. When he thought things were meaningless, when he pondered over how he could have died as readily as his brother, he preferred going to the pub with Pete than thinking about this on his own. Maybe he hoped that by laughing and joking with Pete about the pointlessness of everything, he didn't have to create any dark feelings himself: he could feed off the dark feelings of others and maybe, eventually, feel simply by escaping people like Pete, he could escape this sense of desolation. If he wallowed in it on his own how could he ever be released from it?
It was perhaps the moment where Michael was at his most expressive, and that evening I said perhaps he should come and talk to me sometimes if he felt bad, but I knew when I said it I had made a mistake not unlike the one where I too hastily wrote a story after Bill's recollections. Michael said that next time he needed an unharmed shoulder to cry on he would come to me: a soft pillow next to Pete's bony misanthropy. He said it half-jokingly, but as he did so I felt the spirit of Pete pass through him, and a few moments later, and without another word, he walked off.
The next morning we were eating brunch in a cafe, recovering from a hangover that the tea and sausage, eggs, bacon and beans were slowly curing, when Michael, who was sitting across from me, said that he'd been a bit sharp the previous night. He said he might some time take up my offer. Pete, who was sitting next to him, wondered what offer that happened to be. Michael laughed and said that we were thinking of going scuba diving in the air. Pete looked curious. Well, Michael said, we get into a plane, jump out with a small parachute, release it, then, shortly before hitting the water, divest ourselves of the parachute and freefall into the water, afterwards calmly watching the tropical fish. Everyone laughed and said that Michael was in danger of ending up with the DTs - he clearly had the imagination for it. Bill said he hoped Michael's hallucinations would disappear with the last bean on the plate.
Sometimes I wondered whether we would go drinking as much for the morning after as the night before. Even when someone occasionally managed to sleep with a woman, the next morning he would usually be there at brunch determined once again to be part of the gang. It was if we were all addicted to the laughter that the group of us would generate, laughter much more resonant and absurd than it would usually be on the night of our drinking. There the purpose was to get drunk, dance and find somebody we could sleep with or at least kiss. Most of us were during these drinking nights isolated in our own bubbles of yearning and desire, and would talk the next day almost the way one might of dreams one had during sleep. It was as if each of us had not quite been privy to the others' experience, and we talked about our own night out with the enthusiasm of children coming home from school and telling their parents what they had done all day.
I suppose now, I might wonder, if we shared our experiences as if they were exclusively our own even when we all happened to be together on nights out, what chance did I have of making sense of those events to which I was not at all privy? What arrogance did I possess at the time that made me think I could write about Bill's brother's death, and what even greater arrogance might be at work now that I am attempting to write about three brothers who lost their siblings? Perhaps I do so because I am trying to write not from descriptive assumption, but tentative loss: I am trying to find in my own feelings of sadness the grief in others. Before when I tried to write about Bill I think I did so for no better or worse reason than that I was a writer and was entitled to commandeer the events of other people's lives because I could use words better than those around me. Yet even that I might doubt: Bill especially, and on occasion Michael, showed they could use language with great nuance.
Now I am more likely to believe in a different sense of creative entitlement, and one that must be based on a coincidence of feeling; that it is only if I believe that I share an element of the feeling I can create a story out of this emotion, so that it isn't the descriptive competence that counts, but descriptive compassion. When Bill was angry that I had written about his brother, was it that he believed the writing lacked this element? As I embellished the story he told me with probably a few too many dramatic high points, exaggerated emotion and careful use of metaphor and simile, he probably thought I had done no more than create a piece of literature, when perhaps he saw the point of writing being closer to what his favourite writer Kafka thought it should aspire to: the possible exchange of truthful words from person to person. Did Bill feel alienated from me and even from his own story by the literary tone? I might have ended the story with Bill less implicated than he felt he happened to be, but even this I would now think was part of a literature that wanted cathartic release when it was clear Bill hadn't yet forgiven himself. What right did I have to give him this release in a piece of fiction? When I gave him a copy of the story I thought I was offering a gift; it was received instead as an insult.
Yet here I am trying again, and I am doing so with I hope more tentativeness than the previous attempt, but also with a feeling in my body that was not there when I wrote the earlier version. I am not now twenty, living at home and pregnant with future, but instead thirty nine, living in a bedsit in Edinburgh and still tender after Caroline left our flat many months ago, and a publisher that looked like they were going to publish what would have been my first novel, folding. Caroline was thirty seven and wanted children, and she said she didn't mind if I never made much more money than I was making now as a freelance journalist, but she wanted to know that I would be committed to having a child. She said that with her salary as a child psychologist, and my intermittent pay, we could find a way of bringing another person into the world. I said my priority had to be the writing of a novel, and an eight year relationship ended, that's when she went off to visit friends in Chile and to travel around Latin America. My parents are no longer well, perhaps partly through the loss of their grandson, and my sister and her husband are thinking of moving south or abroad, perhaps joining my brother who is based in London, or my other brother who is in New York. I might soon move back up north, to my parent's house, and live once again in the room in which I was staying almost twenty years earlier, but with a very different perspective. It is this outlook that I am writing from, and hoping that within it I can comprehend an element of Bill, Michael and Peter's pain.
Indeed it was a few weeks ago when I last visited my parents that I cycled around the town, also took the bike on the train and went down to Aviemore, and along to, and around, Loch an Eilein. My memories were of the time the group of us would walk around the loch, but also of one occasion when Caroline and I camped out next to it for a weekend. It was around twenty four degrees and the water was warm and Caroline decided that she wanted to swim. As she was already stripped down to her underwear and in the water before I could say anything, I took off my jeans, sandals and T-shirt and waded in too. We swam out to the ruin of a castle, and lay for half an hour on the island as I told her for the first time about Bill, and the story that I had written about him. I said I hadn't been in contact for years: that after the summer he went to university and this was before email would have inevitably kept us in touch. As I told her about Bill, so Caroline, after we swam back and walked around the loch, told me more about her job than she ever had before or after, and as she talked I felt increasingly ashamed that I could have written about Bill and his brother as I had.
It was while cycling around the loch that day a few weeks ago when I thought I would try again and write about Bill, and also say a little about the two other acquaintances who had lost their siblings. I cannot claim to know where any of them are now, and of the three Bill was the only one I would have called a friend anyway, but I do wonder whether all of them were introduced to a feeling that most of us do not need to confront till later stages of our lives. Death is a fact of existence we are often told, but perhaps there are two faces to a fact: one lies in the detail and the other in the feeling, and while my literary talent such as it was could write about the details of Bill's loss, I couldn't access the feelings that were attached to it except by using the conventions of literature: identification, sympathy, catharsis. I'm not sure finally though whether it is death that makes us feel this loss, or whether it is some vague, yearning notion of time that death makes us aware of more conclusively than any other event, though numerous events in our life potentially contain it: a child's birth, a lover's leaving, a place returned to, a regular cafe closing, even a sense of obsoleteness as one's work no longer becomes a viable profession as I increasingly realise in my own journalistic employment. And of course, then there would be the death of one's child.
It was maybe that when I originally wrote about Bill I had no sense of time as irrecoverably in the past, and now I wonder whether it would have been easier to have written about Pete, possibly Michael. When I think back to Pete's reaction to his brother's death it seemed as though he was refusing to confront it, and perhaps my sense of obliviousness could have captured his sense of denial. Michael's willingness to go along with Pete's perspective might have also met with elements of my own obliviousness: I could have written about the details of a life given over to drinking and occasional drug-taking, to sleeping with women they didn't much like (Pete would often talk about finishing with his girlfriend), and parents they would take for granted. Most of the details in their lives weren't very different from mine, and the loss could have been absorbed into sub-text.
But with Bill there seemed to be no way of writing superficially about him, and amongst the group he was always described as 'deep', and it was those depths I tried naively to access. If I am better qualified to do so now it lies in no more than having time pass through me also, even if at a much slower, perhaps more optimistic pace than it passed through Bill.
After getting the train back to Inverness, I was going to cycle up past the castle and down along Island Bank Road to my parents' house, when I instead crossed the river Ness and up in the direction of where Craig Dunain Hospital used to be, a hospital where the region's mentally ill had been housed. The house Bill used to share with his father was a little down the hill from it, in Kinmylies, and as it was only eight thirty at night and still not yet dark, I decided I would cycle up past the estate, through the hospital site, and back into town. I had no idea which house would have been Bill's, since though he would come to my place with the others to parties we would have that summer when my parents were away, I had never been to his home, and knew only roughly where it was. But as I cycled round the estate before carrying on up the road to the hospital site, I didn't think of Bill but more of his father whom I'd never met, and how much of a loss it must have been not only to lose his job and his son, but then also his wife as she left him, and finally Bill when he went off to university that September. I wondered if Bill's father may have moved slightly further up the hill to the hospital after so much loss, and knew also that if Caroline, talking about her work in child psychology, left me feeling inadequate when thinking about how I had tried to write about Bill, I could not even begin to comprehend how I would ever be able to write about someone like Bill's father. Therein, perhaps, lay my optimism, as I knew I had maybe somehow earned the right to tell Bill's story, and to say a little about Pete and Michael, but could not even attempt in good faith to write about such a man. Nor even, and strangely, and almost in parenthesis, about my own sister's dead child.
© Tony McKibbin