I suppose I never really knew him, though he knew my younger brother quite well. He also went out with a friend's sister and I worked with him for a number of weeks in a pizza restaurant in Inverness during my summer holidays after finishing my first year at university: he was chefing, and I worked as a kitchen porter. He was always smiling, joking and playing in the kitchen, and this was supposedly also, my brother would say, the way he had been at school. But sometimes we feel for people less on the basis of knowing them, or even enjoying their company especially, than on some more obscure notion of empathy based, perhaps, on a coincidence of feeling. But what still troubles me is where that co-feeling with him lay.
Phil - who was often known by his nickname, Smiler - would have been a couple of years younger than me, but maybe because he left school early and I went to university late, and that when I worked with him during the summer, I was technically his subordinate, I felt in some ways the younger of the two in his presence. His parents had a house on the north side of town, in an estate near the town centre not far from the canal locks that separated the council area in which I lived - an estate called Kinmylies - from the Dalneigh scheme where he usually stayed when he wasn't sleeping over at his girlfriend's.
Of course these details might seem creepily observant, or just plain irrelevant, but their significance lies in the wake of a specific incident, and the details themselves culled from various sources in the wake of it, and in the wake of my own realizations concerning the action, Phil himself, and my own life.
Phil's girlfriend, Susan, was also on her summer holidays from university, and was staying with her parents on the south side of the town, over the River Ness and along Island Bank Road, in a part of the town one would have little reason to pass along unless visiting the banks of Loch Ness. Occasionally I'd bump into him at the house while I was visiting Susan's brother Mark, and I recall one day as he came out of Susan's bedroom and as I reached the top of the stairs going to Mark's room, that he said he wondered whether we were 'taking over.' He didn't say anything else. At the time I took it to mean nothing more than that there were as many visitors in this large, six-bedroomed house as there were family members. But now, after what so categorically happened to him, and what more subtly happened to me, I'm likely to see it differently.
It would have been almost three years ago when Phil and a few of his friends went into a bar and half an hour later left a pub drunk lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood. He had been glassed by Phil and his mates. The man lying on the floor had a knife in his hand so was hardly the innocent party, but the wounds he received suggested more than that he'd been the victim of somebody else's self-defence.
The court case obviously made the papers, but I gleaned most of the information from friends and acquaintances that had been in the pub, or had heard about the event from Phil and his friends directly. The generally accepted version was that Phil and his friends went up to the bar, ordered their drinks and, whilst ordering them, were hassled by someone who lived in Dalneigh, along the road from Phil's parents. He had said something about Phil's girlfriend, and people heard the sound of glass breaking and some shouting. Then the man was lying on the floor with Phil ferociously kicking him, before Phil's friends tried to pull him away and eventually dragged him out of the bar. It was generally accepted that the person pulled a knife only after he'd been glassed, and that it was after he pulled the knife that Phil punched him to the floor and kicked him a number of times while he was still down.
What nobody managed to work out, though, was what he had said, and during the court case Phil claimed he couldn't remember the line that had so enraged him. The man who offered the line said he was far too drunk even to remember half of the incident, let alone the line that caused so much insult.
Yet while nobody could claim to know what was said, I suspected there was a context that could have revealed the reason for Phil's explosion without knowing the very comment uttered, and, if knowing something of this context so fascinated me, it lay in simultaneously the indefatigability I was willing to bring to comprehending the situation, and the empathy that was this fellow-feeling. Yet I'm not so sure at the time if it wasn't curiosity rather than empathy that made me intrigued by the nature of events; where now it would surely be the reverse.
Phil was given three months in Porterfield, but was he not given a much tougher sentence when, on his release, Susan announced that their relationship was over? She hadn't visited him once when he was in prison, I had heard, and this was as much because of her own desire to finish the affair as parental pressure. For though Phil may have believed he was protecting Susan's honour - after all, whatever led to the glassing stemmed from a comment about Susan - the glassing itself undeniably went against the very values Susan held. At least that's what Mark said, as if offering not just Susan's value system, but also his own and also his parents'.
At the time I knew I didn't really agree with Mark; but on what grounds could I disagree? I didn't want to defend the atrocity of the action, and couldn't think of another example, less severe, that could equate with Phil's indignation but negate the extremity of the deed. Yet in some obscure way I knew I was more on Phil's side than Mark and his family's, though it wasn't until a couple of years later, quite recently in fact, that I had some idea why.
It was during the term, the term before the summer break - that summer when I worked with Phil in the pizza restaurant - that I started going out with Rachel. She was from a place on the outskirts of London called Amersham, and was generally described by friends as 'pure Home Counties': a comment that was usually offered as somewhere between a compliment and an insult. At Edinburgh Uni many of the people were from that part of the country, and many were also private school educated, while others just happened to be southern English or Home Counties, and had gone to a successful, or desirably located, comprehensive. Rachel was one of the latter, and yet a couple of my friends in the Highlands who met her briefly - the ones from Kinmylies - seemed to see her as someone from another country, another class. Perhaps because we found in each other the assuagement of our insecurities we didn't feel this social aspect: love might not conquer all but for a period of time it can mask differences, and during the first two years we seemed oblivious to seeing ourselves much beyond the relationship and our contact with a few friends. Yes, we'd met each others' parents, though never at their houses but always in Edinburgh, where they would come to pick up our stuff at the end of each year and take it back up north in my case and down south in hers. She visited the Highlands only once, and that was to see not just Inverness, but Loch Ness, Aviemore, Pitlochry and as far across as Aberdeen, The one night we stayed in my home town we booked into a bed and breakfast along by the shores of Loch Ness. At the time I would have said it was a romantic act, and maybe it was, but was I not also a little ashamed of my parents' two bedroom bungalow in a housing estate that was bland, even a little distasteful? Was that trip round the Highlands which was so happy, as we walked along the shores of that huge fresh water loch, or along the beaches next to little villages along the Morayshire coastline, masking as readily as revealing who I was?
I'm not so sure now if our whole relationship wasn't a process of masking over revealing; that whatever love we felt for each other manifested itself in acts of escape more than discovery. We travelled a lot in those three years - going to Barcelona, to Amsterdam, to Paris, to Berlin and to Dublin. We walked through St Stephen's Green in July, Jardin du Luxembourg in August and Tiergarten in September. But we never once walked through the Islands, the small clumps of land that crossed the River Ness, nor did I ever see her parents' own garden, which she often talked about effusively, and where her family grew their own organic fruit and veg.
So it's as if our relationship, if based on discovery at all, was one of shared sharing into the future over sharing and discovering each other's pasts. Whatever we said about our pasts could have been fictional - we too rarely or never met the people who could verify or deny what was fact or fiction - and I suppose what interests me most now that it's over, is whether this refusal to confront each other's pasts should anger me or leave me feeling relieved.
For it was not so long ago, in our fourth year, that Rachel decided it would be best if we stopped seeing each other. She said that ours was a university relationship, but somehow artificial. She believed the emotions we felt for each other had been real enough, but hadn't we created an unreal context in which to contain them? She said she wanted the real feelings but within a real context - a context that would include her family and mine. She said she always respected my reluctance to allow her to visit my parents' home; and respected it by never inviting me to hers. I asked her whether that was an act of respect or convenience.
A couple of months later, shortly before the end of that final year, I started seeing Rachel walking around with another young man. He was doing the same degree as we were - English - and I recalled he'd been in some of my classes in the first year. Maybe I should have been more jealous than I was, yet it wasn't until a couple of months afterwards, when my feelings for Rachel really had, I believed, receded, and by which time I had started seeing someone else, that a feeling of jealousy welled up inside me. It was the evening of our graduation ceremony, and Rachel drunkenly came over and asked how I was doing. I, equally drunk, said I was fine, and she suggested she introduce me to Martin, her new boyfriend. I joined her over at their table, and as the three of us were sitting there, talking lightly, Martin said something about Rachel's parents' wonderful garden. I nodded, Rachel looked away, and Martin continued obliviously.
It was in that instance as I nodded that I located the co-feeling, that fellow feeling of blind anger I instinctively felt I knew I could have shared with Phil almost three years before, after he'd glassed that man in the bar. And maybe, I wonder, if I hadn't thought at that moment of Phil's response, perhaps my own reaction might not have been very different from his. For is it not so often in the inexplicable that anger announces itself, and thus dictates our actions? Yet there I was, anger undeniably rising inside me, and managing to rationalize my passion the moment it manifested itself, and perhaps doing so only because of Phil's inability to do the same in that bar several years previously.
I got up and left not just the table, but also the building, and loosened my bow-tie as I walked past the stewards who were standing at the front entrance. As I did so I thought about the Enlightenment elements of a university education; and realized that if I rationalized my passion this had little to do with the specifics of university - and no matter if I had done philosophy courses on ethics, and studied the idea of literature creating morally superior men - but with the notion I'd generated enough distance within the relationship from whatever social self I was deemed to possess, and learnt enough from another who, in being on so many levels immersed in an intertwined social self with Susan, acted in blind anger. After all, there he was living in a small town where his class status was well-known, his social identity imposed (he was often called by his nickname), and his job adequate but hardly full of expansive possibilities. But I often think that were it not for Phil, and the cautionary tale that he offered (for was my life not in many ways like his?) would I also now have a criminal record, a broken heart and - if I had had one at all - a nickname that would no longer have felt quite so appropriate? Or is that my own curious and irrelevant sense of guilt coming through? For now I have a university degree, no criminal record, no broken heart and have always been fortunate never to have been bestowed with a nickname that was deemed to define me. Phil, however, is doing the very job I did, washing dishes, reputedly still pines after Susan, and has a nomenclature that is now often uttered with an unavoidable sense of irony.
© Tony McKibbin