Some years ago I wrote a short story that was accepted in a small literary magazine a year or two after the writing of it, and before it went to print I showed it to my father one evening when he visited me in Edinburgh from his home in the Highlands. The pair of us were eating in a restaurant that he would always suggest when visiting the city, seeing not only me when he came to stay in Edinburgh, but also the daughter of his second wife, a woman whom he divorced only several years before I showed him the story. He would usually stay in Edinburgh for several days, spending some money (he always paid for the meal), and also the first evening in my company, before presumably giving the rest of his time to this young woman whom I had actually never met, and where he had never suggested that we should. My father was a wealthy man, and the meal always included a very expensive bottle of wine, and afterwards we would go to a pub and drink several good whiskies, often many years old. As we parted, usually both a little drunk, he would slip me money the way other parents might offer a hug. It wasn't a substantial sum for someone who had by then made a million in Stocks and Shares, but it would buy me food for a couple of months. I would sometimes wonder over the next few days after we had parted, and where he was still perhaps in the city, whether I would ever meet by chance my father walking along the street with his other child, this step-daughter about seven years younger than me, and who was doing post-graduate work at the university. It never did happen, and after showing him the story if we had met on the street the moment would have been awkward not only because he would have to introduce me to this young woman, but also acknowledge a son that he had decided to disown. His response to the story was an act of excommunication.
For on that particular evening, though as with all the others before it there was the good food and the fine wine, no whisky was bought and no money offered. We parted over the pudding, and it was the first meal whereby my father expected me to pay. Though the story was mainly about my mother, and only tangentially about my father and his second-wife, as my father read through the story that was around two thousand words long, he showed what seemed like pained irritation over the story's first paragraph, and held the same expression on his face through the entire reading of it until the very end, where his face became even more tense. He put the story down and said he was going to the bathroom and didn't return. I waited for fifteen minutes, went into the toilets, then went outside the restaurant and assumed he had gone. I went back inside, paid the bill with my credit card, and left also. I reread the story when I got back home and no doubt the offending lines concerned the implication at the beginning and end of the story that his second wife was an alcoholic.
The story was partly based on fact. I did live for a couple of years with my father and his wife on a Hebridean island, but in the tale there was no mention of my half-sister, who would have been six or seven at the time when the story was set. After that I lived on the mainland with my mother, in a house not unlike the council property in Inverness that I describe in some detail in the piece. After I moved down to the mainland I never once again returned to the island, and I would always see my father in the highland capital or the Scottish one after I had moved there to go to university. The gist of the story concerned a young man who visits at regular intervals his mother on the mainland, and on one of these visits she tells him about an incident from several years before when she was still living in London, shortly after my father, his new wife and I had left to move to the Hebrides. I believed the reference to my step-mother almost incidental; but obviously not for my father.
Why he chose to remove me from his life after the story I couldn't quite say, since he was no longer with the woman about whom I had offered, for him, such disparaging remarks, and that I knew she left him after taking up with, in my father's words, a fellow lush. However I suppose it is one thing for my father to dismiss a woman after she has left him for someone else; quite another for his son to write negatively about her when they were near the beginning of their relationship: and she was after all also the mother of a daughter he seemed to love perhaps more than his own actual son. Also, while it wasn't the first story of mine that he had read that was partly about him, it was the first to be published.
Over the following few months I tried calling several times but would only get the answering machine, and he never called me back after I left a message. I spoke to my mother about this, but she could offer me no advice in the present since she had not been in touch with my father since he had left her for the very lush who would years later leave him for another man. She insisted my father was never very good at self-confrontation, never one for examining either his life or his conscience, and no doubt the story (which she had also read), was a threat to his fragile personality. She offered it with a bitterness unusual for a woman who was an optimist by nature but entirely in keeping with the fact that she was a pessimist when it came to men, and though I was looking for a more balanced account of my father, any thoughts she had on their time together, the type of man she happened to think he was, were useful to me. It was then for the first time that she told me how they had split up, and it seemed indeed to have strange inverted echoes of my step-mother leaving my father.
She said that the three of us were living in a council flat in Swiss Cottage in the centre of London, and the accountancy office where my father's worked was not far away in Cricklewood. He would work very hard, she admitted, intending for the three of them to move up to Scotland, to buy a bed and breakfast perhaps, she said, smiling ironically as she sat in the kitchen of her own Inverness B and B. However sometimes she wondered whether these late nights where he would come home after eleven were really about working hard on sorting out people's accounts, whether he was indeed seeing another woman, or going for a drink with friends, as he would sometimes claim - insisting he needed to unwind after work. Could he not have unwound at home, my mother said, half-talking to me and half-returning to the arguments she would have with him after he would get back to the flat. She never knew whether these rows they were having would have caused my father to find another lover, or whether he had found one anyway and my mother was trying to justify her instincts by constantly asking why he was often so late.
One day he came home and said that he was seeing someone else, that he couldn't stand her nagging any longer, and that it could all be sorted out in court: he wanted a divorce. Over the next couple of months my mother said she couldn't cope: her family were in what was then called Rhodesia, and she had no close friends in the city. The only person who she loved and trusted was me: a six year old child. She managed to find a part-time job while I was at school, but the pay was poor. When my father said that he was moving back to the Hebrides, where a cottage was empty and where he knew he could open up his own accountancy firm with help from his relatives, and the money from the house that his new lover was selling, she thought that I would be better off with my father.
She might have thought she was more astutely looking after me by letting me go, but I know she could not have thought I believed that when it came to the day that we parted. Earlier in the afternoon she had taken me to the cinema, and then on for some ice cream in a park not far from the Odeon on Finchley Road. As we sat there my mother explained to me that I wouldn't be coming home with her this Saturday, but that my father would pick me up - I would be staying with him and his new partner for a few weeks before they had to move out of the house they had sold, and then my father and his partner would move up to the island. I remember the ice cream melting as if a pathetic fallacy; my own tears refusing to come, but my sorrow evident as I let the ice-cream melt without any attempt to lick at it again. The cone went soggy in my hand and my mother took it from me and placed it in a nearby bin. When she came back she asked if I realised what she was saying, and no doubt knew precisely; not in what I managed to say but in my inability to finish an ice-cream that she had just deposited.
A few hours later, I was sitting with my father and his partner, staying with them not for the weekend, but, it seemed, for the rest of my childhood. I had been to the island once before, and though it had been in the summer I remembered it as wet and windy, with rain that seemed to come off the sea rather than from the air, and often appeared more diagonal than vertical. The wind was blustery and temperamental, and I thought how much more so it would be in the winter months.
And so I moved up to the island with them, and several years after that, and after a story my mother told me that revealed she was as lonely as I was, I moved in with her in the small house she rented from the council in Inverness, a town in the highlands that she had moved to so that she could be closer to me, and where she had taken a supervisor's job in Marks and Spencer. It was shortly after this that my stepmother's daughter, Amanda, moved to the island to live with her mother and my father, and consequently why I had never met her: for several years she had been living with her own father in India, where he had been working.
Or had I met her, I would sometimes wonder? I knew my father said that she was doing a PhD in English literature, and I knew a couple of people in the department, and had occasionally been invited along to social events they had put on at the university. I taught English in a secondary school in Marchmont, and often mused over whether I would do a PhD myself, thinking that it might be more relaxing teaching a few hours a week instead of the twenty plus hours I was presently doing, and that had forced me over the years to take lengthy time out to travel and do other jobs I found less stressful. It was at one of these events, about nine months after the last time I talked to my father, some time in April, and a few months after I had published the story, that I met a young woman who went by the name of Amanda, who must have been around seven years younger than I was, and who was doing her PhD on three island writers: George MacKay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean. I said I knew two of the writers she mentioned quite well but had only heard of the third. She announced that was better than most; and wondered if I were acquainted with any of the islands: Crichton Smith and MacLean were from Lewis, and Brown from Orkney. As we sipped on cheap red wine that was a conference norm, as I tasted the vinegary sharpness and listened to her soft voice strangely accented between Indian English and a highland twang, I noticed as well that even physically she seemed someone whose looks were caught between the local and exotic: she had a slightly olive skin tone, and yet eyes that were blue and lips that were a crimson red. As we talked she slowly worked out what I had known almost as soon as we had started talking: that she was my father's step-daughter, and I was her mother's step-son. We talked as if we were strangers who knew each other, as she talked about my father, and I offered a few comments about her mother.
The conference cocktail party finished around seven and I asked her if she was hungry, and we went to an Indian restaurant not far from the university that I liked. As we walked in and sat down she said it was one of the restaurants to which my father would occasionally take her, and as I said hello to the staff whom I knew quite well, so they acknowledged her also, though it could have only been in the context, she said, of my father's invites because she had never been to the restaurant otherwise.
As we ate dinner so we talked more about our parents; but we became especially animated when she talked of my father and I talked about her mother. She told me one story of how my father would take her out on Sundays to one of two beaches north of Stornoway, to Coll or Tolsta. It was the first summer she arrived, when she was eight, and she recalled that there were a number of weekends where the weather was sunny, if windy, and the pair of them would walk up and down the beach, talking like a pair of adults. My father wanted to know all about India, all about the culture and how she felt trying to fit into a school where of course everybody spoke English, but where they were also of a very different religion. How did she feel moving to a small island where English was again the language people were expected to speak, but where Gaelic was indigenous, and again where religion was so paramount? I asked Amanda whether her mum would join them, and she said that she never did, that by then her mother was so disillusioned with the island that she would nevertheless live on for many more years, that she would prefer to sit in the house and watch television. She would sit there staring at the TV as though she hadn't turned it on, watching whatever programme happened to be showing, and would rarely get out of the chair to change the channel. My father, Amanda believed, was working so hard that he didn't notice that she was getting drunk on Vodka each night, and of course she didn't know her own mother was drunk either: if she hid it well from her grown up partner, then how could a young girl notice?
As she told me about her mother and my father, I could recall no occasion when my father walked along one of the island beaches with me, but I did remember a few occasions in London, in the period before we moved up to the Hebrides, where her mother would take me to the cinema, for walks in Hyde park and over to a fairground in Battersea. This would have been before the day when I would be separated from my mother, and it was as though for a few weeks I had two mothers. When we walked around the park I didn't feel I was at all betraying my own mum; merely enjoying having someone who seemed to me less like a mother than an older sister, a sibling to do things with.
However, as we talked of my walks with her mother, and hers with my father, so we could not quite see our own parents as the person the other one described. She remembered her mother abandoning her at three when her mum moved back to London from India, and then again as the disconsolate figure wasting away on the island; while I remembered my father as a person who was always working and emotionally absent - he would often come home from work, in both London and in Stornoway, with both his first and second wives, after I had gone to bed. When I thought of my father's presence, I told Amanda, it was as if he occupied what in film they called off-screen space: someone who I would hear coughing lightly in the kitchen, pulling the chain in the bathroom, speaking to people on the phone. She said that of course when I had moved away from the island and she was living with her mother and my father, so he was frequently busy, and this was no doubt partly why her mother was as unhappy as she seemed to be. But Amanda never felt my father was unavailable or unapproachable, and sometimes she would go along after school to his accountancy firm and wait for him until he would take a break at about four thirty. The firm was on the way home from school and next door to one of the three at the time Italian-owned cafes in the town, and she always knew she could persuade my father to take a break for half an hour while he had a coffee and she had an ice cream. The weather might have been rarely conducive to it, but she was so surprised that this small island would have real Italian ice cream that she would eat it even in winter.
It is funny, she said, as we were talking over pudding, that here she was in Edinburgh eating an ice cream she would have in Mumbai, kasa kulfi, while thinking of the Italian ice cream she would eat in Stornoway. As she said this I was thinking that I did not once go and visit my father while he was at work, and couldn't decide whether I hadn't done so because I would have been too intimidated, or whether I couldn't be bothered, and wondered also whether if I thought it was the former over the latter that it was possibly a self-justification after the event, after many events. That I could express such a thought to Amanda, about someone she knew perhaps even better than I did, even though he was my father and she was not my sister, created an unusual complicity. Some might even say perversity after we left the restaurant, went to my flat and went to bed.
We were together for six months, in an affair that seemed at the same time incestuous, psychoanalytic and emotionally fragile, as if the Freud comment about sleeping not only with each other but also with the parents had been as literalised as I offer it now in this story: it was a relationship without sub-text, with so many gestures, attitudes and comments that we would not only credit to the person making them, but also to the mother or father that we knew.
It is often enough said that couples are inseparable initially, and it was so with Amanda and me as we fell into each other's lives, and yet interestingly perhaps not into each other's friendships. I never knew well any of Amanda's friends; and she didn't get to know any of mine. It was as though we disappeared inside each other's pasts more than we existed in each other's present, and many of the conversations we would have if not directly on the subject of our parents seemed to allude to them. We would often go for walks all around a small city surrounded by hills and parks, and would often cook for each other or eat out, watch films and go to galleries. But there seemed a melancholic tone to our affair, as if every word we offered were whispered, and when I think back to it I always believe the word affair seems more apt than relationship, even if throughout it I always knew we were not betraying another partner. Amanda had been single she said for six months before me; I had been alone for a year.
Perhaps I should have known it couldn't continue after an event when we had been together for about three months. One afternoon we walked through the town, along the stream by Dean Village and out by the galleries. It was now late August and this walk that we had done several times in our first few weeks together had been quiet, week-day strolls, without the heavy human traffic of the weekends. But now it was during the festival, there were exhibitions on at the gallery connected to it, and as we walked underneath Dean Bridge we saw not the melancholic quiet that seemed to echo our own private affair, a melancholy encapsulated in the stream below us, the bridge above us, the path we would walk along, and the light-half lost underneath the bridge and behind the trees, but the exposure of too many people walking along and constantly interrupting an affair that never could countenance the public. As we arrived at the gallery and tried to find the space between numerous other people to view the paintings, so we became irritated with each other: two more people amongst the many. When we talked about it later that evening, Amanda admitted that she too, earlier that day, felt for the first time that we had lost our sense of intimacy. No doubt many relationships - including those I have had in the past - have had numerous moments where the closeness towards each other has been diluted by social circumstances, but ours did not at all have this public dimension, and it seemed it couldn't countenance its presence.
Over the following months Amanda and I hardly went out at all, and in September and October the weather was wet, windy and chilly, and the nights were closing in even earlier than usual because of the weather. It was as though in this claustrophobic environment, many of the characteristics that created intimacy, initially, were now creating irritation; that we couldn't quite stand the habits that we would see in each other that we had experienced in someone else many years earlier. I noticed that she drank too much, and she would increasingly say that though I might not care for my father, I was walking around with a number of his character traits. She noticed that I would breathe and clear my throat as my father would; see that though I didn't want to make a fortune as my father had, I was equally careful when it came to expenditure.
However, what concluded the affair was probably a visit my father made to Edinburgh for the first time in almost a year. Amanda insisted that she wanted to see him, and that she knew also that she didn't want to tell him that we were going out together, but didn't want to lie to him either. In fact neither her mother nor my mother knew about this affair, though I talked to Amanda a few times about wanting to tell mine. I took her reluctance to tell my father to mean that she wanted to call an end to the situation, and I walked out of her flat that evening with the desire neither to see Amanda nor my father again. My life felt strangely soiled; and since my father had made no attempt to be in touch for over a year, and Amanda seemed to want to break up with me anyway, I felt cleansed by the decision, no matter that Amanda had copies of a couple of stories I had written during our time together, stories that were about my past and hers, joined together to create perhaps a less jaundiced perspective than in the story that had caused my father so many problems.
Yet over the following couple of months, and into the next year, I felt dislocated and gutted, a word I would hear people use often enough but had never understood what it meant except hyperbolically. However, after breaking up with Amanda, knowing I might never again be in touch with my father, aware that I had been in what was tantamount to an incestuous affair for six months, it was as if my stomach had been removed. I ate to avoid losing weight, slept out of restless necessity without any desire for slumber, and would walk every day for miles, often on the outskirts of the city in fear of seeing people in the city centre who would ask how I was. During those months I spotted Amanda three times, and on one of these occasions with none other than my own father. On the first two occasions I saw her near the university talking to friends, but the third time was as I walked past the restaurant Amanda and I ate in the first night we had met, and at the window she was sitting there with my father at the very same table we had been sitting at months before. I don't think they saw me; but it was after seeing them there that I decided I wanted to get out of Edinburgh, and sub-let my flat for six months and moved back up to the highlands.
It was now the region in which my father lived, but it was also where my mother resided also; though where he lived in Fortrose on the Black Isle, my mother lived in Inverness. It was not so far away; but she insisted she never once came across him in the town, though perhaps that was because she would no longer recognize a man she hadn't seen for over thirty years. I stayed in Inverness for the full six months, but the move from Edinburgh to the highlands was augmented by numerous conversations with my mother about my childhood, about my father, even about what else she knew about my father before she met him. I didn't tell her anything of my relationship with Amanda; although I did tell her that after a difficult failed love affair I needed time away from the city. She never enquired much beyond that, as if our dynamic were based on me asking her questions that she would parry or choose to answer. As I wondered whether any other member of the family talked to her about my father when they were together - a cousin, an uncle and aunt - she told me a couple of stories: perhaps true, perhaps not.
The first tale concerned a first cousin of my father's who was several years younger than he was, and who said that my father always fancied her, especially when she was a little girl. My mother took this to mean no more than that they played children's games; but a few months after that, at my parents' wedding, she came over to a table at which my mother was sitting and drunkenly told her that if she hadn't been his first cousin she might have been the one wearing the white dress that day, before adding that maybe she would now be too old, and was surprised he was marrying my mother. "He likes the young ones", she said. Over the next few years of their marriage she felt the cousin's comment compounded as my father would always flirt with young women, and be much more kind and affectionate with little girls. As she saw that my expression suggested I had just been told my father was a paedophile, she smiled and reassured me - my father, she insisted, liked grown women, except perhaps when he was a child, and then he liked children too, like his cousin.
Yet instead of reassuring me her comment frightened me even more as I couldn't stop wondering whether my father and Amanda had ever been lovers; that he might not have slept with her when she was young, but did he sometimes sleep with her when she would visit him in Edinburgh? It was around this time, and partly for this reason, that I started seeing a therapist in the highland town. It wasn't so much that I believed they had an affair; more that I could think it at all. However, what was perhaps most interesting was that the therapist would have been one of the very doctors who looked after the patients I described in the story I had published. It was a couple of weeks into our therapy and I was telling him that I had fallen out with my father, and so I described how it happened, and also the story that I had written. As I said to him that it was partly set in Craig Dunain, he said he would have been a young therapist there at the time, and would no doubt have known the patients feeding the ducks I described in the story.
I went to visit him once a week for three months, and it was near the end of the visits, when I thought I would soon be ready to move back to Edinburgh, that I saw my father and Amanda in a supermarket on the edge of the town. I was about to turn down an aisle when I saw the two of them at the fruit and veg section. I turned down the next one and then tried to watch them from a distance without either of them recognizing me. As I did so what I noticed were two things that I think helped explain the difficult relationship I had with my father. The first is that he so clearly had always wanted a daughter and the second that the last thing he would have wanted was a writer as a son. I am not sure if I can explain this adequately, and I would be wary of saying that both insights came to me watching them walking along a few aisles in a highland supermarket; it was no doubt crystallising in my many therapy sessions, and became clear in his very presence some metres away from me.
As I watched him move down the aisles it was as though he possessed the items he picked off the shelves and also the daughter that was not his. I noticed how submissive Amanda seemed to be in his company, and recalled how assertive she would often be in mine. Yet I was never so subservient with my father, and this wasn't because I argued with him, or disagreed with him; more that I always felt he believed I would not automatically respond to anything he said or did, but wait before acting. It was I think this waiting that caused him so much irritation when I was younger, and perhaps consternation when he knew I had become a writer. What would I fill these spaces with; all those spaces where I seemed not to act but observe.
It would have been several months after seeing them in the supermarket, after I had moved back to Edinburgh, when I received an email from Amanda, saying that my father would be visiting the city in a week and would I like to meet up with the pair of them for a drink or for dinner. I thought about it for a day or two and then emailed back saying that I would like it very much, and suggested that we all eat in the restaurant that both my father and I had taken Amanda to. I expected her to reply saying that somehow seemed too perverse, but instead she replied mentioning that she had talked to my father and he thought it was a good idea as well. However, before the meeting Amanda thought it might be sensible for the two of us to see each other beforehand; to go for a drink and then meet my father at the restaurant.
As we met up in a bar in between the restaurant and my flat, we greeted each other more like brother and sister than ex-lovers, as if perhaps getting in character to meet what amounted to our father, even if he were biologically mine and adoptively hers, and that she had probably seen a great deal of him in the last year and I hadn't seen him at all. What was perhaps especially odd was that I felt no desire for Amanda as we sat and had a drink, and I suspected she felt no desire towards me either. Indeed what most fascinated me was why my father had agreed to a meeting with the three of us at all. She explained, and she hoped I didn't mind, that she had shown him the stories I had written and that she had copies of. A couple of months after she and I split up she said she was reading through them and realised how much more sympathetic were my portrayals of my father than in earlier stories that I had shown her, and that had been written when my father and I were still in contact. So, the next time she saw him she insisted that he ought to read the stories I had written; and on doing so she noticed that he was close to tears and as she went over to him and asked if he was okay, he said that it was as if his son had returned to him, and he had returned to his son. I am sure he knew, she said, that he had probably been a better father to her than he had been to me, but he didn't believe he could have been as awful as some of my stories had portrayed him. Perhaps, she thought, the story that I published was a problem not especially in itself, but because it was one of several negative ones he felt I would have written about him, and the first to be put into print. That, she assumed, was why he didn't want to be in touch any more. These were all suppositions, but perhaps they were useful ones, because an hour and a half later, and after Amanda and I had drunk a bottle of wine between us, I entered the restaurant with more goodwill for my father than ever before.
As I saw him sitting alone in the corner I saw a man smaller than I could remember, and older than I could recall. He seemed far more intimidated meeting me again than I felt intimated meeting him. Yet when I came towards the table and noticed the tears in the eyes that Amanda said she saw after he read my story, I found tears forming in my own also. It might be said that our lives flash before us the moment before we die, but I think at certain emotional moments, in certain quiet places within us, our emotional history travels so fast we cannot even call them memories, but merely feelings so rapid they gather up into a lachrymose lucidity, equal perhaps to the most beautifully constructed sentence. I thought at that moment also of the ducks being fed all those years ago, of the story I wrote partly about the patients feeding them, and the therapist who had treated both them and me.
© Tony McKibbin