A friend explained to me a few weeks ago what he called the ridiculousness of his childhood. I have heard many descriptions of a troublesome youth. I have heard people talk of the emotional unavailability of their parents, the insecurity of their secondary school years, the inadequacy of their bodies. Yet there was in this word ridiculous nothing less than a certain type of worldview that I wouldn't have been able to articulate were it not for his...confession.
Why would this interest me one may ask, and my reply would be twofold. Firstly my background is in philosophy and literature: I wrote my dissertation on the Absurd in modern fiction; secondly, I am a therapist. After finishing my thesis I worked in a few jobs, writing the occasional essay for journals, offering a few hours in the faculty, and mainly teaching English as a foreign language. Yet I sensed my life was going nowhere, and I offer this remark without the assumption that a life ought to go anywhere in particular; merely that mine felt moorless - emotionally set adrift by social wind shifts. I would be talking to someone and they would tell me there was a teaching post advertised in Auckland, or in Boston, or in San Francisco or Melbourne, and my mind and body would feel as though it was moving towards this new city where my future would become settled. However, this didn't at all generate hope but instead a vertiginous fret. I was moved from a hardly stable position as a part-time worker in Glasgow, to a vast chasm. If I should have been thinking of the light at the end of the tunnel, all I would see was the tunnel. Unlike Bill, however, I don't think I was ever ridiculous: I instead retrained and became a therapist. I could see much that was without meaning, but instead of incrementally trying to generate it in ever more miniscule doses as Bill explained that he happened to do, I helped others to find meaning as I found meaning also. I might have been offering therapy to others, but any well-being they felt seemed to augment my own.
Perhaps also what so surprised me in Bill's comment is that he is one of the least ridiculous people I know. He works as a safety engineer, checking the security mechanisms in place before a building is put up, and checking again on its completion. He is married with two kids, and lives in a village around twenty five miles north of Inverness. He didn't build the house he lives in, which is more than two hundred years old, but he did do all the renovation work himself, and also the extension that matches the original building. It is like the work of a grand forger; imperceptible to the untrained eye. I offer the house as both a work of perfectionism and practicality: that everything about the dwelling is precise, but that for Bill central to this precision were the pragmatic choices required to achieve the perfect home. The windows are double-glazed but based on specifications consistent with the old, single pane types; they aren't simply new Georgian style windows. The roof tiles were specially sourced from a particular quarry so that they would match as closely as possible the original ones, and the fireplace was as old as the house, with tiles found that were from the period replacing more modern ones the previous owners had put in.
Bill had also built a small house at the bottom of the hundred and fifty foot garden, and it was on the roof of which he put the solar panels. He had cleared out the disused well too, and this was now where they got all their drinking water. I have visited his place on more than a few occasions when up seeing my parents who live in nearby Dingwall, and it was a friendship that developed around four years ago out of a train journey from Glasgow to Inverness. We were seated opposite each other and I suppose I should have noticed a trace of his particular personality when he asked if it would be okay if we swapped places. My seat was forward facing and he said he never quite felt comfortable looking into the past rather than into the future. He offered it as a joke, and I said that of course I didn't mind. Shortly afterwards he went to get something off the buffet car and asked if I needed anything: he said the very least he could do was buy me a coffee. I said if he would get me a tea that would be very nice of him, and went into my pockets for some change. He insisted the tea was on him, and he returned ten minutes later with two teas, and some shortbread.
We talked for most of the journey, and I would say now that he gave me the official version of his life; one that wasn't a lie, but contained within it a plausible biography that we often accept even if we assume the truth of a life resides elsewhere. Is there not in most lives the logic of someone's existence and then its truth? Most of us tell our life story as something that merely has to add up, an arithmetic tale that gives the impression of sanity and well-being, of consistency achieved. As he told me he was born in Cheadle Hulme near Manchester, brought up from the age of three in Aviemore, moved to Edinburgh when he was ten, went off to study engineering at Edinburgh University, and became a safety engineer which would take him all over the country, there was nothing in the telling which lacked coherence. There was nothing to indicate the wish to sit forward facing was anything more than a quirk. I told him of my own background and noticed in the telling that I too offered an account suggesting more consistency than was justifiable: when I told him about my degree and then my interest in becoming a therapist I did so as if one was the logical outcome of the other; I didn't at all explain the chaos between the moment of giving up philosophy and becoming a therapist. But perhaps the friendship developed out of this implicit feeling that our lives were not quite as coherently put together as we both proposed.
I had told him I was visiting my parents in Dingwall. It was early December, and as we passed Aviemore there was snow settling on the pavement and lightly floating through the night air, and he asked how I was going to get home from Inverness. I said that I would be getting a train on from the highland capital. He insisted that he would give me a lift. His car was parked near the station, and he could easily drive through Dingwall on his way to Strathpeffer. When I asked him to let me out at the large supermarket just off the town centre, he suggested we should swap emails.
Whenever I would visit my parents I would also arrange to meet Bill. If it were in the winter months we would meet up in a pub in Dingwall and have a couple of pints, watching the flickering flames of an open fire and supping gently on the beer as though playing at the old men we were yet to become. When visiting in spring, summer or early autumn I usually took the bike up on the train, and would cycle through from Inverness to Dingwall. It was only another six miles to Strathpeffer, and though I had the choice between the high road and the low road, there was the devil of a hill on the quiet lane that overlooked Dingwall and the "Strath", or the deep blue sea of the traffic-heavy low road that was easy on the legs but hard on the nerves. If I had the energy I always took the high one, and would then arrive at Bill's feeling a younger man than I happened to be. Often we ventured around Kinellan or up by Knockfarrel, down through the woods to Contin. Though he frequently walked with his wife and kids, our walks we usually did alone, arriving back at the house in the late afternoon. Susan insisted that I should stay for dinner, and I would help her prepare the food or play outside with the children while Bill attended to some work.
I probably felt more comfortable in their house than at my parents' place, and never seemed to be intruding. In Dingwall, it wasn't as though I was an intrusive presence; simply that I was a presence at all. My father with his dull, stiff movements through the house that turned a toilet visit into an epic journey, and my mother, fussily busy keeping the house clean and tidy, the garden well-kept and the dinner in the oven, had routines that complemented each other. My father would get out of his chair with forebearance, muttering over the missing TV controls or wondering where one of the newspaper supplements had gone, while my mother would sit in hers as if with a sense of great reward, an occasional treat that never lasted for more than a few minutes. I often felt either under my mother's feet or on my father's nerves, and would stay in my room or stay out of the house: a child once again.
At Bill's I felt like a guest, someone who whether I was cutting vegetables for Susan or cutting wood for the fire, felt useful; and when playing with the kids would feel child-like yet not at all childish. After dinner they would insist that I couldn't cycle back in the dark, and so I stayed the night in the guest bungalow, and cycled off again after breakfast. These meetings with Bill and the visits to his home meant that I no longer thought of Highland trips as dutiful. Within the obligation there was a kernel of satisfaction. I was reminded of those hard boiled nutty sweets that contained within them an actual peanut: you sucked on them for a couple of minutes before reaching the inner sanctum of the nut itself.
Occasionally I would see Bill in Glasgow too, but usually for a lunch hastily consumed because one or both of us (usually Bill) was in a hurry, and perhaps one reason why he had never talked to me about his ridiculous early life was that he never quite found the grounds upon which to premise such a confession. In the Highlands we walked alone for several hours, but we always returned to Susan and the kids. In Glasgow we never got the opportunity to talk for much more than an hour. It gave the friendship an asymmetrical bias, with Bill over the years privy to my past failings and present problems. During the time I had known him I went through two relationships. Martha was from Germany and came to Glasgow for her Masters, thought of staying on to do a PhD but, when funding was unlikely, and her mother became ill, returned to Germany. I thought we could continue; she looked at me firmly and I knew what she was about to say. Martha had left a boyfriend behind in Germany promising that they could continue in separate countries, and look how that had turned out: within a month she met me. The ex received a phone call that she turned over in her mind for much of the year, and tossed and turned occasionally at night fretting over how he must be feeling. Clean breaks and clean consciences, I muttered resentfully when we discussed what we should do not long before she left. But she was right; and as though to confirm it, less than three months after she was back in Germany I met Beth, and felt relief that no letters needed to be written, phone calls made, and explanations offered. Of course I occasionally wondered whether Martha returned to her ex, thought that perhaps she knew she that would when she suggested we break-up, but if in the first couple of months the thought was frequent and perhaps paranoid, on meeting Beth it was ventured with a quiet hope.
I would explain such thoughts and feelings to Bill even if he never met either of them. As I said, we would see each other only briefly in Glasgow; and since I wasn't quite prepared for a girlfriend to meet my parents, so they never came north with me. I might have been a man in my mid-thirties, but no affair had lasted more than eighteen months, and I sometimes mused over whether this was why no one had ever met my parents; or whether the fact they never met my parents was why the relationships did not extend beyond a year and a half. He would laugh at the justifications, explanations, rationales. So there was an odd contrast between my divulgences with no evidence - he hadn't even met my parents - and the little I knew of Bill's life was the immediate reality of it. More than we know of most.
Yet he should have met Beth, and we even arranged it. Bill knew that I didn't want my lover to see my parents not only due the hint of commitment it would have suggested both to the woman I was seeing and to my mother and father, but also because my parents' lives embarrassed me, or rather I felt embarrassed within the life I would lead in my parents' house. I couldn't imagine a situation where I could be the self with them that I happened to be with a lover and vice versa. My mother still asked me to disappear if she was tidying up while I was in the sitting room armchair reading, and my father would tell me to get myself something with four wheels instead of acting like a teenager with that damned silly bicycle. They hadn't been south for years, and so didn't have much of a context for this other life that I lead, and the job that I did. It was perhaps the moment when I told Bill I would like to take Beth north but wasn't quite sure if I wanted her to meet my parents that Bill thought of telling me more about his own childhood and teenage years, but instead spoke practically. He suggested I should come up to the Highlands with Beth one weekend and stay with them. Wasn't that partly why they had the guest house?
He proposed the idea in late February, and I said that I would talk to Beth about it and we would try to visit around Easter. Beth was working for a marketing firm, and she had mentioned the project she was involved in should be finished before the holidays. Several people in the firm were determined to have it completed by then; they had booked vacations around Easter, and knew the firm would be unlikely to agree to the holiday allocation unless the work was done. It was ironic, she told me, since the campaign was for a package holiday firm, and apt: one of the perks of the project was a free week in a Turkish resort around the Easter holidays. The condition inherent in this free trip was that the campaign had to be finished on time.
Beth was Australian and liked a challenge, and I met her in circumstances that were familiar to her and unlikely for me: on a half-marathon. I'd been running a few miles a week for years while never considering it anything competitive, but a friend was doing it for charity and asked if I would join him. His enthusiasm was not matched by his stamina, and he fell behind while I fell into step with a woman whose pace matched mine. Beth had only been running for six months (she was more interested in rock climbing and wind-surfing) but she had already ran two half-marathons and wanted to beat her previous times. I was happy running at the pace I would usually run: the distance was greater than normal, but I had no interest in my time. As we talked a little as we ran, and then some more as we crossed the finishing line, she said she had beaten her previous time by more than a minute and would like to thank me for the progress she had made. There were moments when she was struggling to keep up, but there she was at the finishing line, a minute faster than ever before.
She said we could run together if I liked, and so after a couple of weeks running around the city's West end, up along Kelvingrove, through the park, along Great Western Road, around by the busier Byres Road, and showering afterwards at her flat, we became intimate. This was only two and a half months after Martha left (perhaps I agreed to the charity run partly to try and sweat Martha out of my system) and traces of her body remained in the contours of Beth's. It was as though her body ghosted like an image on a TV screen, and there was also something so hard and firm about Beth's that I initially yearned for Martha's softer folds. Yet Beth knew her body so well that she seemed to know everybody else's also, and within a couple of weeks her body was a wish I couldn't resist, even if the menu was constantly changing.
I didn't offer this image to Bill that afternoon when he asked if I wanted to stay over at Easter; it was only when he came down to visit me not long afterwards, not long after Beth and I hadn't gone, and I tried to explain in more detail the reason for cancelling only a few days before. As we were sitting in the cafe where we would usually get lunch when he was in the city, I suppose I needed to give Bill reasons why I had stayed for almost six months with a woman who hadn't so much ended the affair, but had embarked on a holiday with another man. The project had been finished on time, and there were still places available for the trip to Turkey. At first I thought she meant for the pair of us, and remonstrated with her saying that we had arranged to go up to the Highlands. You can still go to the Highlands, she said, before adding that perhaps it would even be for the best. It was after all supposed to be a work affair, she said, and I asked her whether that was a slip of the tongue or a pointed remark. After about ten minutes she admitted that yes she was seeing someone else, and what sort of commitment had we made to each other anyway. It was a sexual adventure more than a love affair, I admitted to Bill, and she was the one person I had invited north, and the one who had no particular interest in going. I laughed, saying I thought my life sounded ridiculous.
I had always assumed that our chats when he happened to be down in Glasgow lasted rarely longer than an hour because he had work commitments, but, after that afternoon where we talked for over three hours, I think while he was in the city because of his job, his schedule was more relaxed than he would acknowledge; that he rushed back to work as if escaping the possibility of personal revelation. It was as though while in the Highlands after we walked and talked we would be returning to his wife and children, here in Glasgow there was no sense that he had to worry about saying anything that might make the return home seem odd. Anyway, that afternoon he said he didn't think he had ever heard me use the word ridiculous before. Absurd yes. Silly certainly. The first I would occasionally use in the philosophical sense; the latter as a general remark. But ridiculous I had never uttered, and I said it seemed astonishingly perceptive of him to have noticed that of all the words I had utilised, I had never offered this particular one. He said maybe not especially astute; he merely knew it wasn't a word I had used because it was one he for a number of years couldn't escape from applying to himself.
He supposed it started when he was eleven and in his final year at primary school. This was in Edinburgh. He was unhappy at the local comprehensive in the well-off Marchmont area of town and the parents were thinking of sending him to a private school quite nearby, off Morningside: either the Steiner institution in the area, or the private school a little further up the road on the other side. His elder brother and sister had both gone to the high achieving local comprehensive, and yet so unhappy was Bill in the primary, they wondered how he would cope in the secondary of the same name where most of his schoolmates would be also. Bill said he didn't want them to spend money on his education, and instead asked if he could be educated from home for the last six months of that final year. His father was an engineer; his mother a social worker. They had the basics required to teach him from home and that was what they did. The reasons why he wasn't happy at school were predictable: he was overweight and under-stimulated, wore glasses and his hair in an unfashionable style. He wasn't interested in games - in football, rugby or athletics - and people weren't interested in him except as an occasional opportunity for mockery. Only a few months before leaving he had become fascinated by a girl in the class who was his antithesis, but who had shown moments of concern, even pity, and that he mistakenly took to be affection and interest. He would try and speak to her, and once asked her if he could walk her home. She smiled the smile of someone who didn't have the heart to be cruel but neither the inclination to spend time in his company. She said he should ask someone else. She probably didn't speak to her friends about what in primary seven constitutes a pass, but he wanted to wriggle himself out his body every day thereafter, and it wasn't till his parents agreed that they would allow him to stay at home that he felt he wanted to return to it.
Yet this was a body he knew he wouldn't be happy with socially unless he changed it. From January through to August, when he would start going to the secondary comprehensive, he exercised almost every day. One day he would swim at the nearby pool early in the morning, and on the next run for up to three miles. He also started wearing contact lenses, apparently for exercising; more personally because it was part of the transformation. His lank, longish hair he also had cut into a shorter style that meant it didn't get in the way when he ran, and was easy to dry after a swim. He noticed that in many areas he could offer a reason that contained within it another reason, and it was as though he wasn't only changing his appearance, but also his mind and its capacity to create within himself what he would years later think of as his text and his subtext. Before he felt the inside and outside were all one; that he had no way of protecting himself from others' looks and comments; that his plumpish shape and hesitant walk, his hair falling into his eyes and the glasses that allowed him to see but that left him, he believed, so vulnerable to attack, could be taken in with no more than a sneer. During those few months he wanted to create an outer appearance that would receive glances that were less scathing, but found that he could also protect himself by having a thought process running contrary to whatever motive he could claim for his action.
His parents were no longer the loving people to whom he would go for a hug or for affirmation; they were the first victims of his burgeoning, complicated personality. He started to go to them instead to see how easy it was to say one thing and to think another. Once he wondered if they would give him money for the cinema, saying there was a film he wanted to see that was playing only in a movie house on the outskirts of the city. Could he have money for the film, the bus rides and also for some food since he would have to leave before lunch? They gave him twenty pounds and he put it into a drawer, and over the next few months added a couple of hundred pounds to the sum as he told his parents about various films he wanted to see, even a football game he decided to attend.
By the time he entered secondary school that August, he was an undeniably changed man, and he used the phrase to me deliberately: the combination of deceit and bodily transformation had made him a man in his own eyes, he said, and he also saw it in those of others. The flab around his midriff that meant he always wore shirts and T-shirts far too big for him was replaced by a slim waist that demanded clothes of equal tightness. Though he knew he shouldn't wear his lenses too often, he wore them during public hours and wore glasses whenever he was in the house. On the first day in the secondary school he recognized numerous people from the primary, but hardly anybody initially knew who he was. It gave him yet another layer of duplicity, he believed, and didn't speak to anybody at all during the first day, though some must have remembered him when in class he was asked to put up his hand as his name was read out from the register.
But to recognize somebody and acknowledge them is not one and the same thing, and for the first few days his former acquaintances didn't know how to say hello to this person who before they would have belittled by way of an introduction. The friends he made were people new to the school, and these were the ones with whom he would remain close throughout his school years. Yet they were always on one side of his personality; they were those who knew him as a new person and not someone contained by an earlier one. He sometimes wondered whether if any of those who had bullied him when he was younger had tried to recognize his new persona, and their own earlier behaviour, the gap between the two would have been closed. But nobody did, and while of course in secondary school he sometimes sat and talked to the kids from his primary years, they never commented on the abuses they administered.
Again, this contributed to his feeling that existence was easily demarcated; that he had power not only in his own life, but in some ways over the lives of others also. He noticed when he talked with the kids who had bullied him that he thought of them still as children, and knew that they would never mention the past because he was much stronger now. He also found the class work easy, passed all his O grades with As, and though working little on his Highers he did well enough to get into university. It was there, in his first year, that he realized the ridiculousness of his life.
Up until this point in the telling, Bill's recollections indicated less confession than self-aggrandizement. There seemed to be nothing ridiculous about his early teen years; only a frostiness indicative of an aloof, superior personality. Yet as he started to talk about his first year at university, he folded back towards those earlier years again, and said that a number of his habits which gave him control over his life at school, were also habits that gained control over him at home. He would have to run or swim every day, and did so every morning before breakfast. He also insisted in going to bed every night at nine, no matter if there was a programme that interested him on television, a football game he was watching that had moved into extra time, or a friend who had come round to chat and play a video game. He often fake yawned at around 830 if in company, and said he should be getting ready for bed. But there he would often be at 10 at night with the light off looking up at the ceiling and wishing the friend was still around. When he was sixteen and seventeen he would get invited to parties but would never go. They started around the time he would be going to bed, and of course sometimes there were girls who might be there whom he would have liked to see.
Yet breaking his routine was more troublesome than the possible pleasures available at a friend's place. Bill had also never drank any alcohol, and ate a diet that was based on fish and lean meats, salad and vegetables, cereals, plain yogurt, nuts and dried fruit. By the time he went to university he was six foot three, and broad like a tanker, a description more or less redundant since I was sitting opposite him, but perhaps not as I tried to imagine how impressive a size that must have been whilst he was still at school. I had been a late developer, and though I grew to above average height by the time I was twenty, I think I still carry myself like a much smaller man.
He paused for a moment and asked if I was I surprised that the girl he mentioned earlier, the one in primary school, the one he had wanted to walk home with, he hadn't invoked again. I admitted I hadn't really thought about it, and he folded back once more and said that while at school he had heard her parents had moved out the Marchmont area and to Juniper Green. She had gone to Currie High: perhaps had he gone to any of those parties he might have seen her. He always wondered whether his transformation had been for her, and also whether he could have sustained it in her presence. Would he have promptly turned back into the boy who couldn't walk alongside her?
However, in his first few weeks at university he saw her several times, and on each occasion there was no sign of recognition on her face, though his stomach plunged with instant acknowledgement. She had changed, of course, but the hair was of a similar length, the smile and laugh easy and ready, the slight features in a small, roundish face still showing the young girl in the woman's figure. While he wanted to go up to her and tell her who he was, he knew that he had never done that before: he had never consciously announced to anyone that he was the same person in that primary school past as he was in secondary school and now university. Yet he wanted to introduce himself, and about three months into his degree, he was working in the library when she came and sat at a nearby table. She took out of her bag several books indicating that she was studying English. He was in a state as he attempted to read stress-strain analysis, as he tried to focus on the maths behind load-bearing bridges and water pressure placed upon undersea tunnels.
After fifteen minutes he gave up and went over to her table. He realized as he got there that she flinched slightly, and he quickly allowed words to tumble out of his mouth as much to placate her as to explain himself. He said that he knew her back in primary school, that he wondered if she remembered him, though he had changed a lot and she hadn't changed very much at all. She offered a look that might have been equally uncomprehending had he just talked to her about the structural engineering tome he had been reading. After a moment, though, she seemed to remember, and asked how he was. He replied that he was fine, and she replied that she was pleased to hear it, as though she was slowly remembering that he was the boy who had left the school and stayed at home for a few months in that last year.
He had nothing more to add, and said he needed to be going. He returned to his desk, put his books in his bag and left the library. Over the next few weeks before and during the exams he saw her a couple of times, and felt no different than he did seven years earlier: the strictness of his routine, the physical transformation, and the sense that he was now in charge of his life meant little. Walking past her he was again shrunken and shrivelled: his now large frame a carapace with a crack in it. He passed his exams easily enough, but he hardly left his room (the same room at his parents') after returning to university in January, and once again there he was a creature unable to face people in his present incarnation. If he had ridiculously created for himself a way of life that had denied him a childhood, there he was returning to the earlier stages of it as a six foot three adolescent.
He dropped out of his degree course after that first year, and lived for some time away from whoever he believed could judge him, and in their judgement make him not only look ridiculous, but that could make him absorb that ridiculousness into his inner behaviour - in what he would eat, what he would think, how he would look after his body. He travelled mainly around Scotland, staying in a tent, sometimes in a bothy; occasionally when it was very cold he slept in summer holiday homes that were obviously empty. He was goldilocks as locksmith, fiddling the front doors open and staying for several nights, using none of the electricity but only the open fire, and buying his own food. His maternal grandparents had both passed away before his degree, and though the money they left was for his education, he used some of it sparingly during this time. Perhaps he was ridiculous during this period also, but he believed that he had conquered the ridiculous within him.
When he returned to Edinburgh a couple of years afterwards, he also continued his degree. His parents were of course relieved. He had sent them the occasional postcard saying he was okay - but he never saw them during that time, or rather they had never seen him. Once, he was camping out behind Blackford Hill a few miles from a large supermarket on the outskirts of the city, and he emptied his rucksack and went to pick up various items that he would need for the following weeks. While wandering around the shop he could see his parents doing their shopping and he viewed them as familiar strangers. They would touch each other delicately on the shoulder, walk in unison unless one of them dashed off to pick up an item they had forgotten, and bicker warmly over whether something was an un-needed luxury or detrimental to their health. All lives, he supposed, looked ridiculous from a certain angle, but some less ridiculous than others.
Returning to university, he saw once again (or rather twice) the young woman who had set in motion his initial crisis, and also proved in that first year that he hadn't resolved it. She would have then been in her fourth year, and the first time she hadn't appeared to have noticed him. It was in the library cafeteria and he watched as she took her food over to the table and he saw in her movements across the room that she seemed hesitant and indecisive. As she sat down she started to get up again, turned to look at her plate, before then going over by the cutlery tray and then returning with nothing in her hand. She then sat alone eating with her head down. The next time he saw her she was again alone, and she was reading in a cafe but clearly unable to concentrate on her book. She devoted as much time to chewing her fingernails as eating the scone she had ordered. When she looked up it wasn't to observe people but as though to peer through them, at some obscure object in the distance. He was sitting about three tables from her and he glanced in her direction several times and once she looked back and smiled. He didn't think she was looking at him with a smile of recognition, however, but with obliviousness, and he didn't go over and explain who he was. He could have claimed, to himself, that he didn't want to humiliate himself again, or that she wouldn't have recognized him. But he didn't do so, he supposed, because she was not ridiculous like he had been, but perhaps a little crazy.
He looked at me as though embarrassed both by the weakness of his definition and the feebleness of his character in such a moment. He insisted that of course he hadn't been mad all those years, merely ridiculous. But what he saw in this woman was a failure to see reality, not the need to control it obsessively. He never found out what had happened, and never saw her again, but he did wonder if his ridiculous approach to life protected him from a madness much more extreme. Was this just a rationale for his years of advanced eccentricity? Perhaps. But there he was, I knew, with a lovely house in the Highlands, a wife both pretty and apparently understanding, and two children lively and open to strangers. Yet I also knew the next time I would visit that I would be playing with the kids in the garden, or helping Susan prepare dinner, and wondering what fragility all this was based upon. I might also think of the young girl, the teenager, the now older woman, and be well aware that whatever consideration Bill had for others, it could not go so far as to care for the mentally ill; only give space for the mildly ridiculous.
Of course, there are people I see regularly in my office who are ill in ways that Bill couldn't countenance, people whose lives are unmade beds rather than ones too carefully tucked in. I get paid to listen to them and perhaps this is why their lives, for all their mess, never quite feel as if they are intruding on my own. However Bill's story, for all the orderliness of his obsessions, somehow spilled over into mine. Yet I feel neither quite ridiculous, nor remotely mad, and might even wonder whether my precarious and provisional approach to life hasn't been much saner than most. But I also felt that in Bill's telling he was offering a moment of complicity, one that perhaps was asking me to examine my own oddities and subtle extremities. With my clients there was a clear dividing line created by the profession: I was the therapist, they were the patients. I received payment; they offered it. But Bill's confession seemed to me to contain within it an assumption about my own ridiculousness that no patient consultation would have implied. It was still light outside that night as we parted, but the early evening felt darker than it happened to be as I wished for a moment that Bill wasn't a friend but a paying customer, and that he could have made a cheque out in my name.
© Tony McKibbin