Traps

08/07/2024

      1

Perhaps in a very different way from my brother, it was always a question of power. How to enjoy the game without getting caught in the competition? I wouldn’t say I was impervious to the desire to win but it always seemed to me that the victory had to be one’s own no matter if I was playing with teammates, for the clubeven for the town. My footballing career never went further than playing occasionally for the university firsts but it isn’t a sense of failure that motivates recalling these events. I always felt happier playing for the B-team at school and the second team at university. I believed that freedom never lay in success but in a careful retreat from it, and I think I first became aware of this in primary 7. Yet how far should one retreat from succeeding and does it lead inevitably, and logically, to failure?

I’d arrived new to the small Scottish town from the south of England, the son of a Scot who made far more money than he might have expected: in a short period while working in the city he made more than a million when a million meant a great deal. He didn’t quite retire but he knew that he could continue with careful investments from the Scottish Borders without any longer getting embroiled in the hectic activities of his business colleagues. I overheard my mother say to him once in the kitchen of our Swiss Cottage home that he had a drink problem, or at least a marriage problem. It was a few months after that when we moved to the town on the Borders, and it was there I went school at the start of primary 7 and played for the first of my B-teams. I think I was good enough for the A-Team but the boy who captained it, Ally, may have seen competition that he thought best be oppositional rather than adjacent: better he try taking me out with firm tackles as an opponent rather than trying to find ways to compete with me as a colleague. I say this with no more cynicism than they adopted when playing against us in a mini-league with other teams from nearby towns and villages. There were sixteen six-a-aside teams in total, from eight schools, and we would play each other twice during the season. In the first game against the A-Team in October, they won 3-1; in the second team they won 3-2, scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the game after being 2-1 down for about fifteen minutes. During those fifteen minutes, they took every advantage of the ref’s absent-mindedness to hack, scratch, grab and even punch our players into defeat. It worked since they scored two late goals but I knew then that if victory was of any value it had to be one I could call my own. What I saw on the A-team’s faces wasn’t only impending loss but also terror.       2

I have since read philosophers who have tried to give metaphysical weight to those who seem doomed to fail no matter the success within their grasp, and we of course have the phrase that someone snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. I am not unsympathetic to such philosophical musings and have always wondered about that phrase; how much unreflected cynicism often rests in it, and how many who use it think of the jaws involved in that victoriousness. One philosopher I read listed a series of defeats. A French 400 metre runner who was so far in front of the field after 300 metres he finished third. The French tennis player who was two sets ahead playing someone who looked defeated and yet still the French player managed to lose. One might think too of Josee-Maree Perec, who, instead of running at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, ran away. Numerous newspapers wrote articles investigating her disappearance. 

Each act of refusal, each inexplicable defeat, will have its own reasons behind it — and that might be the very point. While winning seems merely the accomplishment of a deed, defeat can be a revelation of a perspective upon the act itself, and revealing the person behind it. In an interview long after her retirement, Perec said “Of course it is all right not be no. 1. For me, what is interesting is that you start from point A and get to another point. It is the journey you take.” But if victory can seem like a straight line, defeat, or the refusal of victory, can appear like a zigzag. I remember reading about Perec at the time, reading newspaper articles that based their headlines on the inexplicability of her action. “Enigmatic Perec leaves only questions” as she was nicknamed the Garbo of the tracks, Another: “Why Did French Runner Run Away?” Such headlines are much more interesting than Gold Medal for Perec, or Perec powers to victory. The retreat or defeat becomes the news story as the win merely becomes a news item. In the latter instance, Perec would have only been a name that one fills in, the Gold Medal Winner. In retreating, she creates a story that is her own, generating a new set of rules around the singularity of her behaviour rather than the general nature of her talent — a talent that would be much like every other athlete’s, only more accomplished.

I have never possessed such talent, never found myself in the jaws of victory as so many great athletes have, and yet equally I didn't envy others their greatness either. To admire it I’ve often felt would be a failure of empathy for the acknowledgement only of the athlete’s ego. Many a fan thus has the advantage of glorying in the sportsperson’s achievements while being themselves, albeit an envious self, while the mere athlete has to accommodate within themselves the awareness of their eventually failing powers, the defeat that awaits them which can only be avoided by announcing retirement. However, even retirement represents a defeat of sorts, an official awareness that others younger than them will be better. 

        3

Near the end of primary 7, one of the players in the A-team, Don, moved away, in what seemed a reversal of my father’s decision to live in Scotland. The boy’s father was working at Bilston Glen before the mine closed down and, over the preceding years, his dad had moved from one colliery to another as they were shut. He said his family was going to move to Yorkshire where a few mines were still open, and I am not sure if anyone in the town would have seen that my father’s success was replicated in another person’s failure. But it may have explained the resentment several people felt towards me that I assumed was based not on my father’s success but on my relative failure: that they had lost an A-team player and then had to welcome someone from the B-team. Now I’d be inclined to think otherwise not just because I have a better understanding of socio-economics than I had then but also a clearer understanding of my own abilities that needn’t be hampered by primary school insecurity. I was a decent player and scored in most of the remaining matches, yet what I think went beyond those schoolboy insecurities was an awareness that any goal I scored was only a means by which to alleviate the general anxiety everyone felt about the possibility of losing. When playing for the B-team there had been no such expectation, and I believed that we played for each other rather than for a victory; for the A-team those jaws had teeth. The B-team’s expectant failure that was sometimes countered allowed us to offer each other smiles without a grimace.

During one game I missed what seemed like an open goal when the goalkeeper lunged and parried my shot around the goalpost. We gained a corner but missed an opportunity and while I could admire the achievement of the goalkeeper, all a couple of my teammates saw was a weak shot. Why didn’t I put more power in the finish they insisted and perhaps they were right. But it seemed to me what was obvious was the impressiveness of the save and not the incompetence of the shot. By the end of the year, I had scored eight goals in seven games and we came third in the league and won the regional cup. I always sensed however that even when we won that cup final, and I scored the second of the three goals in a 3-1 win, the anxiety of defeat was more present than the moment of winning. When I looked back on the game that night, I couldn’t sleep as I thought of a couple of misses that drew ferocious looks; a pass I failed to make which led a teammate to cuss under his breath. Throughout these games, Ally would cajole and insult everyone on the team but most especially me. I was half the player Don was, too much luxury and too little hardship he would say when we weren’t winning, and even if I scored a goal I supposed he wished it had been someone else. He must have missed those hard tackles, the way he had tried to push me off the ball when I was playing for the B-team. During those weeks I never socialised with the other players, and even on the night of our cup victory I celebrated with my former team-mates. I invited them round to the house where we played pool and darts in the games room, my mum having bought loads of crisps, coke and chocolate bars for us all. I knew that if we had been even half as successful, if we had made it into the final, or even the semi-final, it would have been more meaningful than winning with a team with which I had no affinity.

4

Yet some might wonder whether this affinity had anything to do with whether people were from the poorer or better-off neighbourhoods. I don’t think so; if I remember, Ally’s father worked in oil and their house was not much smaller than ours, though on the other side of the town. A couple of my closest friends lived on the council estate a few streets from our house. It seemed to me that what mattered more than the money we as friends did or didn’t have was a belief in a value greater than achievement. All of us went on to university after attending the same secondary school but none of us were top of the class or close to it, always doing enough to stay ahead and all aware that we wanted to go to a city and enjoy student life. The grades were no more than a key to entry.    

Some might say that my inclination towards mediocrity rested in having an older brother who would have made any notion of success irrelevant. He was five years older than I was and went through secondary school not only the best in the class in science and maths but also as the fastest runner in his year (and the year above, usually). He also did well in English, French, German, geography, history and art. I am not sure if he worked so much harder than everybody else but he seemed in a constant state of anxiety, as though he was occupying his body for the purposes of pushing from one achievement to the next.  He never appeared at rest and sleep came to him only out of exhaustion, never mere tiredness. During this time we were still in London and I wondered if, though our father never pushed us into success (he was too busy succeeding himself for that), my brother saw in my father’s work habits a life he ought to emulate. Yet while I sensed, and since discovered, that my father did it to make enough money to make the difficult life he was leading easier once he escaped from the city, and where he used some of his money to help his new community, my brother had internalised a competitive streak so completely that he wasn’t really in competition with anything at all — and seemed not even to have any goal in mind either. He gained no pleasure from victory but anything resembling loss left him despondent for days. Once, when he came second in a race against others years older than himself he didn’t speak to anyone for seventy-two hours. When my mother said that the boys were older and bigger than he was, that everybody loses sometimes, he couldn’t see the kindness and concern but only the platitude. If the look he gave my mother then could have been turned into words they would have told her that she was a woman who needn’t have existed; that her role in the world had been used up giving birth to two children and the rest was waiting for her end. Her job as a secondary school English teacher he wouldn’t have regarded of much value and only saw my father’s work of consequence because of the money he earned, though there was no sense my brother wished to make a fortune. It may have been my mother who persuaded us to move to Scotland, it may have been our mother who made the house we had in London and the one we lived in on the Borders so inhabitable, but how could my brother have seen this when he could hardly even inhabit his own body?

Many of my thoughts about my father, mother and Benjamin have come retrospectively, after the event of the feeling, but whatever thoughts I find here are chiefly based on burgeoning insights at the time no matter how coloured now by the future the past cannot yet contain. This can create a double problem when trying to write about it. That house in London is now a vague memory while my parents are still living in the house we moved into when we moved to Scotland. I can walk around it and describe it in detail. The house in London is made now not out of bricks and mortar but fragments of the senses, as if the places we live and to which we cannot return are blown up when we absent them and are then put together again through the rubble of memory. They don’t exist any longer in space but are makeshift mental locales and even returning to them years later, even if I were to find myself once again in that Swiss Cottage house in which we lived, would it not be partly unrecognisable because the re-cognition has been taking place in the mind, making the original unfamiliar? I don’t wish to make this story any more obscure than it needs to be but if I am to understand my supposed lack of ambition, against my brother’s obscure aspirations, I know that time and space have much to do with it.

Benjamin would have been 16 when we moved to Scotland but he left two years later. He went to study PPE at Oxford, a degree I suspect he chose since it produced more significant people than any other single course of study. It gave the UK Prime Ministers and chancellors of the exchequer, heads of think tanks and government advisors. He visited us during the holidays but rarely left his room or rarely stayed in the house. The common denominator it seemed was that he wanted to avoid people, and sometimes I didn’t know if he was in his bedroom or walking out on the hills. What I didn’t doubt was that he was alone. The house is on four floors, with a toilet and an unused utility room in the basement; the kitchen, the dining room and the drawing room were on the ground floor, with two toilets and four bedrooms on the floor above, with a large bathroom. One of those bedrooms was converted into a games room, and another for my father’s study. On the floor above that were two bedrooms and a bathroom, and it was in one of these bedrooms where my brother had his room, hiding out on a floor that I never ventured up to when he was there. Yet when he returned at the end of his second year he insisted that he make the basement his bedroom even though we also had in the garden a small studio with a kitchen area and a toilet and shower. 

     My father helped build it when we moved in and hoped that former work colleagues would come and visit but they never did. I overheard him once say to my mother that a small town on the Scottish border wouldn’t match these colleagues’ self-image and why go up north when they could fly for a long weekend to Cancun? He said it without bitterness but with a rueful tone that suggested a few years before he too might have thought the same. I remember him mentioning to her a passage from Conrad, a book my mother taught and which now he had time to read. The book is still on the shelf in the house so it is easy to find the passage. The narrator describes a City man who has a clear, pale face and the overbearing brutality of someone who excels in “a game, or in the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men.” My father said the pale men are no longer so pale; they take their holidays in exotic places. He escaped from that game even if he didn’t resist completely making money in finance. A friend of his created a company around the same time my father left London; an equity fund that offered good, low-risk returns rather than huge financial bonanzas that were highly volatile. The companies were usually established and the sort of firms that you could see justified their stock market prices; they weren’t products of a rumour or a fad. My father had made a lot of money on those rumours and fads, investing other people’s cash and taking his percentage, aware that the shares could plummet quickly but that wouldn’t be his concern; that would be for the investors. He had easy mastery over animals and needy men. But with his own money, he wanted safety and investments that needn’t lose him sleep. He said all this to me one night when I was around seventeen and studying economics at Higher level. But I think he was also trying to understand my brother and me. The house we lived in may have been one of the grandest in the village, but it nevertheless represented a reckoning, a winnowing of ambition for him.  

        5

During these years, from when I moved to Scotland until I finished university, any ambivalence I had towards success was contained easily enough: I never showed signs of brilliance or failure. I passed all the exams without much anxiety, aware that I was unlikely to fail and didn’t need to be more than competent at subjects which didn’t attract my fascination. As long as I retained enthusiasm for English, art, history and modern studies, I knew I would get into university and sure enough I did. Throughout secondary school, I played mainly for the second team, scoring enough goals to keep my teammates happy and finding enough excuses to avoid playing for the first team that wouldn’t reveal my reservations about competing with others. On the various occasions I was asked I usually said I had other commitments and only played for them when they lost a player to injury, or someone had moved away, and I was the best person to fill their position until the player recovered or someone new arrived. I would fulfil a role without quite meeting an expectation and perhaps that became a motto for my life, and one that I could keep to myself since I had never tried to meet an expectation that I then retreated from achieving. 

     It is when I read about Perec and others, and read certain philosophers at university, that I thought about my brother, or rather formulated some ideas about my brother’s life which hadn’t quite occurred to me before then and which helped a little to make sense of some of my own choices. My brother may never have become as successful as Perec but his failures were public, nevertheless. After that second year at university, after he came home for the summer and insisted in moving into the basement, he stayed there for a year, putting off finishing his degree until he felt ready to complete it. But instead of returning the year after, he moved into the studio, a move my parents didn’t know whether to take as a good or a bad sign. They were disappointed that he wasn’t ready to return to Oxford but happy that he no longer wished to live semi-underground. During that initial year, he went out rarely, would pop up to the ground floor to use the kitchen and occasionally to shower but most of the time stayed where he was, sleeping on a bed settee, working at a desk, if he worked at all, and using the toilet next door. He never quite smelled but he was stale and scruffy during this time, and if Benjamin was never an especially attractive man during his teen years, he was always well put together, physically, mentally, and sartorially

He was nevertheless, during this time, still fit and active; when he did leave the house he usually walked for hours and occasionally left with a tent, coming back a couple of days later. My parents never knew what he ate during this time but it was usually in the warmer months and they assumed he survived off berries and apples and whatever he had taken from the fridge. They were more pleased that he had gone out than they were worried he might not return and he was never gone for more than a couple of days. Nobody who knew him at sixteen would have recognised the same person he had become in his early twenties. Yet after he moved into the studio, he appeared to shower more often, shaved regularly and even occasionally went into the village, where he shopped in the whole food store, bought various ordered volumes from the small independent bookshop, and even on occasion had a haircut. Though my brother never invited me on any of his long walks, occasionally he allowed me to sit with him in the studio. If one can gauge happiness based on how permanent one makes the space one occupies, then I would have said my brother was as happy in the studio as he had been unhappy in the basement. It was as if there he had absorbed a sense of failure that a success couldn’t countenance, while in the studio it was more that he had found a different notion of how to exist that made success or failure irrelevant to another pursuance. I noticed the books he bought included works by spiritual philosophers and existential writers, but while I had little interest in the former and only a mild interest in the latter (my enthusiasm was for American fiction that emphasised the comic over the Europeans who searched out the grim), I wondered whether I might have needed a heavier dose of fictional despair if I hadn’t been able to calibrate my relationship with success and failure less egoistically. 

     I sensed my brother’s life had shattered; that he predicated his self on a success he couldn’t attain, for whatever reason, and instead needed to find a radically different value system by which to live. I only needed to clear the low hurdles I thought were mine to jump. If I played badly for the second team I was disappointed but I think that was because I didn’t want to let people down based on a perception I had of myself that my teammates had of me. I knew in the context of the team I was the player who was expected to control the game, to score some goals from the attacking midfield position, and to be the first line of defence as I scrambled back after a shot saved by the keeper. I always had the feeling that I mattered to the team and that if I failed to take charge of the game I was failing in a duty that never felt like an obligation. Playing for the first team it would have, even if the need to win was much greater since they were expected to do so and we were not, even if we often won. Playing for the first team in secondary schooI, I would have been another player pursuing a victory that didn’t mean very much to me, while for the seconds I was playing for a side whose every victory contained an element of surprise and yet also relied strongly on me for that possibility to happen. 

I sometimes wondered if this was sour grapes or a specific type of egotism. The first seemed unlikely; I really didn’t want to play for the first team; and the latter was only valid if I were to accept that my egotism lay in having value within the community, a different egoism from my brother’s, at least. I didn’t think the bookstore owner in the village was egotistical; nor the baker, nor the hairdresser, nor the coffee shop owner. They could have presumably opened a shop in a big city and potentially made far more money but they would have found it harder I suppose to claim they were communally vital. When I realised that this was what seemed to motivate my actions it allowed me to formulate a value system that I’ve managed to maintain, passing through school, university and now to my job as a community centre manager in a part of Edinburgh that is both traditionally impoverished and, more recently, socially varied. Whether managing the football team, putting on film screenings a couple of times a week, making sure the cafe is fairtrade or locally supplied, creating a library based on people in the vicinity donating books, I believe that I have always tried to be at the centre of things that have made me useful. Perhaps others might see that I wish to be important, and I may not be the best person to judge such a claim, but if I think not it rests on the difference between a verb and a superlative: between valuing things that are done rather than attaining the best possible result. When a while back someone wished to nominate the centre for an award I tried as politely as I could to indicate that, while such a suggestion was very kind, what mattered was that the community found it important to their lives; not that strangers needed to grade it next to other community centres around the city and the country. It simply had to be useful for the community; it didn’t need to be better or worse than others. 

          6

I don’t think this was something my brother would ever have understood. While initially he was so ambitious that he couldn’t see how anybody might live without competition, after he lived first in the basement and then in the studio he wished to seek a value that I might cruelly suggest was the useless next to my usefulness. But if I make such a claim it is only to explain a notion that I think might appear otherwise inexplicable, and uselessness after all was my brother's word. 

My brother half-explained it to me one evening in the studio. I’d been out with the other players in the team, we were then seventeen and had all got drunk together. That afternoon we beat a team who expected to win easily and it was a warm April evening that allowed us to sit without fear of cold or midges and so we got drunk on two boxes of wine one of the others had stolen from the garage at home. His father would never miss them he said; he bought a bootful and a back seat full of booze every few months in Edinburgh and stored them. He would only have shown concern if the crates and boxes of wine, the bottles of whisky and vodka, the cans of beer and the bottles of ale, had shown clear signs of diminishment. Someone who didn’t know his father might have felt that he was saving his father from a bad habit but he was just the most gregarious of the dads and often liked to have people around after a game of golf. Anyway, it was the easiest way to get alcohol in a village that would have known our age and wouldn't have served us. I was a bit worried that our mother or father could smell the alcohol off me as I went in, so when I saw the light on in the studio I tapped gently on the door, explained my predicament and my brother let me to enter.  

I hoped I hadn’t disturbed his reading as he put down the book he still had in his hand, and he said no — it was fine. I asked what it was about, as though the very things my friends and I had discussed earlier in the evening would have been impossible for someone who was living so reclusively. While we could all talk about school grades, the football game we’d played, girls we were going out with or attracted to, teachers we liked and others we loathed, what we’d heard about the team we were playing that day and how much money the fees at the school happened to be, what did my brother have to talk about? He discussed what was in the book. He described it as a sort of self-help book in reverse, without quite being a tome full of Eastern promise. It wasn’t a book that emphasised the need to slow down, to absorb the minutiae of life, and so on. It instead proposed that we need neither become much more ambitious and get so many more things done (and hence all those motivational tomes), nor slow right down and contemplate life (hence all the meditational tomes), but to take the constant movement of life, and the static energy that forms into habits, traditions, duties, and shape a life we can call our own. Even if we risk being of no use at all to others, if we create something out of ourselves that is surely achievement enough. We are so busy making things, he added, that we don’t know what to make of ourselves. People go to therapy to find out — all that living, competing and making things and we forget all about our own being. He didn’t blame anyone in particular but school hadn’t been an opportunity to better himself; it had been to best others, and there he had been for years getting further and further away from knowing anything about himself. Then he was at university not knowing really why he was there. 

Only several years earlier my brother when asked a question about the book would have given a very detailed and very elaborate account. He could explain the plot or describe the idea but I might think now that it was if he had chewed the food and knew what it tasted like. But he hadn’t swallowed it so that it might have any nutritional value. When I talked to him that evening it seemed that what he wanted from it was nutrients, as though school had wished him to do no more than to taste the food but would never allow it to become a source of energy. 

I asked him about university, what it was like, but he didn’t want to talk about that, said only that it made him realise a few things. I suppose at the time I might not have articulated it as such, but even to hear my brother talk about books as he encountered them was a move back towards himself. I recall looking around the studio and seeing that it felt like a home he had made permanently his own. While the basement was little more than a bed settee, a desk, a chair, a kettle and a toilet, here he put his hundred or so books on the two shelves above his desk, which was below the raised bed, had various food items in his kitchen cupboard, had bought a rug for the floor and matching throws for the couch he was sitting on and the chair I was sitting in. It was a home and I wondered how long he would stay there. 

As he spoke more about the book he said that it predicated itself on the useless, on finding a first principle that suggested as long as we insist that our existence resides in competition, and even usefulness, we are doomed to wander the earth alienated from our souls. Only when we accept our right to be useless, without point and purpose to others, we could claim to exist. That didn’t mean, he insisted, we must remain useless; perhaps we will; perhaps we won’t — but the harrying of the soul through education and employment must stop. A sturdier moralist than I might have said to him that this was all very well as an ethos but there he was living in a studio flat in the garden of a five-bedroom house, with a mother who taught and father who made large sums of money in finance. The needs of his soul had a price that was to be paid by others. But to do so wouldn’t only have been to undermine my brother, it would also have undermined the notion behind it. He might have had the luxury to attend to his soul but the problem lay in it as a luxury. He saw it as a necessity, no less important than electricity or a computer, and around for much longer

Before Ieft, about two hours later with the alcohol no longer strongly on my breath after chewing gum throughout a conversation that demanded that I chew also on some thoughts, he did say a few words about Oxford. He said people might have thought he left because he couldn’t succeed. Perhaps. But he knew too that he no longer believed in success, that competing with others, getting better grades, winning a cross-country run, no longer had any value. He had felt that no matter how successful he became he would always be behind: no matter how fast he ran, no matter how good his degree would be, how well paid he would be in his job, he would always remain somehow trying to catch up. He told me then the well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles and the tortoise start the race and the tortoise is given a head start. Achilles may be far faster but he can never catch up because when Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have inched ahead, and then at the next point where Achilles arrives where the tortoise was, the tortoise has inched ahead once more. Achilles will always remain fractionally behind the tortoise. He can keep reducing the gap from 1/10th to 1/5th but the fraction will become ever more fractional without Achilles ever getting ahead of his rival. He said he had increasingly felt like that; he could never reach the point where he’d be in a place that he might call a victory. It wasn’t that he felt like a failure. He instead felt the impossibility of success.

              7

My brother remained in the studio through the remainder of my time at school, and through my university years too. He never returned to Oxford. My own success was always modest, the university I went to (Glasgow) accepted me but I got in only because others took places elsewhere, and in my degree in psychology and sociology I wasn’t interested in how others were doing as long as I passed the courses I needed for the degree I required for the job that I hoped to take. I knew, by the end of my first year, that I had no interest in research and wished to work in the community, and I suspect part of that desire rested on happy memories of playing football with the teams that weren’t expected to win. I could see myself working within a community where a football result, a father getting a new job, a family getting a new home, could be meaningful victories. I think I had long been aware that any quantitative result was only as good as the qualitative aspect that it contained. Central to that quality was being helpful, to feel useful and needed. 

After university, I got a job as a community social worker based around a council estate in the north-east of Edinburgh, near the sea.  I rented a flat halfway between the city and the estate, and cycled each day along the path which offered a pleasant contrast to the concrete buildings I would work in and work around. I might have felt as though I were cheating, unwilling to live within the community I hoped to help; a feeling exacerbated when I read about a sociologist in Glasgow who in the 80s had given up a professorship in the west of England to set up a centre in one of the Scottish city’s outlying housing estates. But I also read he was a religious man and though that might sound like an excuse for my unwillingness to offer such commitment, I also believe he possessed a moral faith I couldn’t match. I had little interest in personal progress but I had no need either of personal salvation: I wanted a job that would somehow remind me of the victories playing for those teams that would occasionally beat the odds. The flat I bought with a small deposit and a low mortgage rate wasn’t luxurious and wasn’t that much bigger than the studio in which my brother was living. But it was near numerous pubs, shop and cafes and, while a basement apartment, had direct access to the garden. It was amongst the least impressive of dwellings in a comfortable district but the gap between me and the neighbours many of whom had four-bedroom apartments with large, wide windows and winding internal staircases, taking them up to the next floor, appeared less great than that between myself and those living in flats no more cramped than mine but with lives that often seemed so. Yet when I looked at these large flats and the owners’ children that would leave them going off to school, I could sometimes see in their faces a sense of expectation placed upon them, or placed upon themselves, that indicated a different type of oppression.

     The people I worked with were not the happy poor any more than the people living above me were the miserable rich. I often wondered, though, whether what I saw as a human ideal resided in managing to live without the least or the greatest expectations placed upon us. The expectation to fail was always more agreeable to me than the expectation to win but perhaps I could say that with a sense of choice that was missing from many of those that I worked with on the estate. Yet it also gave to any victory, to a child doing well at school, to a team doing well on the field, a feeling of purpose and progress I don’t think I would have encountered had I been teaching in the schools my upstairs neighbours’ children were attending. 

It was after a couple of years in the post, and quite recently, I met a senior manager, only several years older than I was, someone who happened to be from the same Borders town and was considering me for promotion. I explained to him how happy I was working in the job that allowed me to be actively involved in the community rather than making decisions about it. James visited me at the centre a couple of months later and joined me for tea. He said most of the people involved in community work were, if professionally oriented, inclined to seek career progress if for no other reason than better wages. He wanted to see what was so appealing about the job I already had.  Looking around the centre, he wouldn’t have seen much that would have appealed. He would have seen food items that had been donated by the local supermarkets, food members of the community would access when their money had run out; he would have seen an indoor play area for the kids and may have wondered if those playing there who were loud and sometimes aggressive had been given far too much sugar. James may have noticed that the dad, standing around with his hands in his pocket, was as disconsolate and dejected as his son was excitable and boisterous, had a scar alongside one side of his face. He may have had various prejudices confirmed and wondered why I wouldn’t wish to escape the ongoing misery of many people’s lives and seek the trajectory of career advancement. 

                                                           8

Instead, he told me that he had known my brother. They had been in the same year at school and if he came second to him he regarded it as a success. Everybody measured themselves against him, he said, but there was in my brother, he added, a quality that resisted any form of praise, while always at the same time insisting on being the best. He remembered once when he came second to my brother in a fifteen-mile cross-country race. When he finished, ecstatic with his time, exhausted by the distance and feeling like he had won since he never expected any more than to come second, he saw my brother sitting nearby, despondent and alone. It seemed that no victory could console him was how James put it, and I didn’t add that perhaps only defeat might have been able to do so. He asked me what my brother was doing now; the last he heard he went off to Oxford. I didn’t want to say more; didn’t feel it was for me to say that he dropped out and was living in my parents’ garden; less because I thought it unfair to convey to another my brother’s failure — more that in offering the facts I would be unfair to my brother’s beliefs. I couldn’t claim even after various conversations over the years with him to know what these were, but I knew that to tell this person those facts would be a betrayal. 

Maybe James already knew, and instead of expecting me to answer, continued. He said that I might not want to hear this and he couldn’t quite explain why he was telling me, but it might have been based on no more than recalling my brother’s face that day after winning.  He said a few months before that afternoon, he had been walking through the woods not far from our town and he saw in the distance standing over something a boy who looked around his age. The woods were dense and James found it easy to get closer, hiding behind a series of trees. As he heard a bird craw he moved closer, when he heard a noise in the bush he moved on to the next tree. He found it fascinating as nature was dictating his movements and there were sometimes several minutes before he heard a sound loud enough and sustained enough for him to move to the next tree. When he was quite close he recognised it was my brother, and James stood and watched as he appeared to be standing over something. Benjamin seemed to be musing less over what he should do about it than fascinated by what he was seeing. Eventually, my brother moved on, and James waited for ten minutes before going to see what my brother had been looking at. He saw in a trap, a dead bird but had no idea if the bird had been dead when my brother first saw it or if he was waiting for it to die before leaving. There was no sense he said that my brother wanted it to die, no sense in which he tried to save its life either. He hadn’t thought about this for years and didn’t now know what to make of it. We both went silent and looked around the community cafe. He watched a young boy clambering around the small sandpit; I watched the father who was looking glumly on. 

      9

When James told me the story my brother was still living in the studio. My parents gave him a sum of money each month and while they sometimes expressed to me concerns about his life, and also how he would cope when they were no longer around to look after him, they couldn’t quite claim he was unhappy, or at least no more so than he had been when he was doing so well at school and after he went to university. If my parents were not comfortably off I supposed he would have been harassed into work or onto medication, but my parents’ money protected him from societal demand. I think he knew this was a luxury others couldn’t afford but knew too that it was a luxury my parents could afford. There was no need to feel any guilt over what they were providing. 

About three weeks after the conversation with James, I visited my parents and my brother back in the Borders. When I arrived on a cold but sunny late March afternoon my mother was in the kitchen, sitting in a chair next to the wood-burning stove, reading; my father, she said after greeting me and putting on the kettle, was out fishing, and my brother left the previous day and hadn’t been back. I asked her about these long walks he had been taking for years, thinking of James’ comment, and she said though he never stayed out all night during the winter months, as soon as spring arrived he sometimes was away for two or three evenings. I wanted to talk to her about what James had said but I realised that I had a certain loyalty to my brother evident when speaking to James. Equally, it seemed, I didn’t want to tell my mother that someone many years earlier had seen him watch an animal die, if that is what my brother did. Yet I wanted to talk to both my parents about him, to try and understand why he was still living in the studio and walking out into the woods for walks so long they often kept him away for days. 

I was only back at the Borders for the weekend and my brother returned late on Saturday afternoon. The rain had started as a spit an hour earlier and it was now a downpour. I saw him coming into the back garden as though oblivious to the rain, his wet hair, his drenched, only semi-waterproof, jacket and his muddy boots suggesting a torrent. He waved as he saw me looking out the window and I waved back, expecting to see him in the kitchen shortly afterwards. While in the first couple of years in the studio he rarely ventured into the house, now he even occasionally ate with my parents. I expected him to do so this evening but he never came out of the studio at all. My mother said that sometimes when he had been walking and camping he returned and slept from the moment he arrived back, until the next morning. 

I left the following lunchtime, talked briefly to my brother at the door of the studio and I didn’t return until the summer. This time I had a plan, and would stay as long as it would take to execute it. I  took a week off work and my parents were pleased but surprised I intended to stay for so long. I said I wanted to do some cycling, as they saw I’d taken my bike. This time, when I arrived my brother wasn’t away and that evening he did join us all for dinner. My brother spoke about the environment, initially predicating the discussion on trees that were getting cut down in the nearby woods, and an article that both he and my mother had read, the content of which they summarised for my father and me. But I knew the article was merely a precursor to a preoccupation; that on the last few occasions I’d talked to my brother he wanted to discuss how, when we speak of saving the planet, what we are unwilling to talk about is how the most successful way of doing so would be to rid it of humanity itself. How, he wondered, can we go on living, knowing that we are detrimental to life more generally? A belief in God can suggest that we are the centre of the world but what happens when we are no longer even peripheral but actively detrimental? None of us had much of an answer to that but I suppose our purpose wasn’t to counter his argument but to understand the choices he had made for himself. If he was right that we were damaging the planet, then all we could do if we wished to stay alive was damage it as little as possible. My brother made his life as small as he could; he hadn’t been on a bus, in a car, on a train or on a plane, since he started living in the basement. He walked and cycled everywhere, and had in recent years taken over the garden around the studio to grow vegetables. All other items he bought from the whole-food shop in the village. He never shopped online; never ventured into a supermarket. I suspected this insistence wasn’t based on saving the planet but on saving his soul, a term that had little meaning for me but that I was increasingly sure was of fundamental value to him.

The next morning I looked down from the attic bedroom and saw him preparing for what appeared like a long walk. I checked my phone and it said it would be dry and sunny for three days. I quickly showered, went down to the kitchen and made a flask of tea, took some oatcakes, a slab of cheese, some grapes and a cereal bar, filled a 1.5 litre bottle of water, and put everything in my rucksack. I had a glass of water, a bowl of cereal and a banana while I waited for my brother to leave, then grabbed the bike and followed far behind him on the street. He walked for twenty minutes until he arrived at an entrance to the forest car park where three or four vehicles were parked. I locked my bike against some railings. The woods were vast and it would be easy to lose sight of him if he got too far ahead, but I also knew that I didn’t want to be too close, as I recalled how James relied on the sound of nature to dictate his movements when observing my brother. I was luckier than James, as I heard in the distance the sound of whirring chainsaws and wondered for a moment if my brother was going into the woods to confront the foresters, to tell them that they were decapitating nature, as my brother phrased it over dinner. Of course, it was more than that he added: they were being cut off at the knee, huge bodies swaying briefly and then landing with a thud. He offered the remark as though describing a slaughter and there he was going into the forest where trees were again being felled. 

      10

But he didn’t appear to be moving in the direction of the lumberjacks but took a path to the left instead of the one on the right. I followed about thirty yards behind but moved amongst the trees, and wondered how far he would walk away from the sound of the loggers, and how much I would soon have to rely on the sound of nature rather than the noise of the chainsaws. After twenty minutes, and with the saws a very distant whirr, he stopped suddenly and appeared to be staring at something in front of him. He looked around but I was still too far away and behind a tree for him to notice me standing there. Out of his rucksack, he took what looked like a pair of wirecutters and, as he crouched down, I moved a few feet closer to see what he was doing. It looked like he was releasing a long, thin animal that I guessed was a stoat and that seemed to be moving in his arms. I came a bit closer, hoping the sound of the saws was still louder than my movements and saw him apply what appeared to be some ointment to a part of the animal’s body.  

After a few minutes, he left the animal where it was and started walking again, further to the right as I wondered if I could find my way back to the car park. I didn’t doubt that my brother knew every path for miles around, but I didn’t. Yet I was willing to lose my bearings if I could discover something about him. Maybe I had found all I needed to know and could extrapolate from this deed what my brother’s purpose in life had become. Yet it felt the mystery was still incomplete and I continued to follow. It was an hour later and he stopped again, took his wire cutters out again and snipped at what I assumed was a trap, though there was no sign of an animal inside it. If this was what he was doing regularly why had nobody stopped him; or was the person doing it in possession of no more authority than my brother — one, who would try and ensnare animals; the other, my brother, trying to release them and destroy the traps that were set? 

I wondered if what James had witnessed that day many years ago was my brother not only looking at an animal in distress but that my brother may have been the perpetrator of the original deed, of setting the trap himself. I recalled during the conversation we had the evening I came home drunk a remark I didn’t know what to make of at the time but that seemed to make more sense now in the context of what James saw and what I was observing. My brother said that people live as though their existence is a good thing, that being alive is positive and that all we have to do is get on and live it and we will be useful to those around us. He supposed that one of the advantages of being told he was exceptional, was that it allowed him to see that such a claim where we just have to live isn’t true. People treated him differently based on his achievements and he noticed, when he was accepted to Oxford, teachers at school sometimes used his success to signify the failures of others. One teacher said to another pupil in front of my brother that, if the boy had a brain like my brother’s, he wouldn’t have been sitting in a classroom with a useless hangover. On another occasion, a teacher told my brother he was in Edinburgh for a night out with friends who he had known since teacher training college, and who were teaching in various comprehensives in the city. He asked if any of them managed to get anybody into Oxford that year and boasted that he had. 

My brother said to me that evening his sense of self had been built not on living but succeeding. When he accepted that he knew that living wasn’t a fact but a choice, then it became a question of how to live. At the time I reckoned my brother wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t sensed a few years before him. Wasn’t it why I wished to play for B-teams rather than A-teams; why I knew even as an early teenager that I wanted to be useful? 

But as I followed my brother through the woods, as I knew that without his help I wouldn’t be able to make my way back unless whatever he was doing led to a main road, I believed what he was saying that night wasn’t naive at all, and part of that sophistication came from a tension within his own body that he had spent years trying to resolve. I knew he was often cruel when he was younger but I always assumed that it would be no more than in a casual remark, calling someone stupid when they didn’t understand something, sometimes showing irritation towards my mother when he said that, for all she knew about literature, she could have done a better job of educating herself in economics. He often showed annoyance that may have been a product of his nerves but found its authority in his intelligence. How far did that cruelty go I thought as I imagined him killing animals in the past and saving them in the present, determined to be their saviour after being their executioner. I thought then of my father, who made a ‘killing’ on the stock exchange and then “gave something back” in charitable donations. It probably led to some of the same sycophancy my brother was offered too, but that needn’t have caused my father the same problems. I suspect my father never believed he did anything “wicked”; I increasingly believed my brother had and that his life had become a penance. 

By now I must have been following him for over three hours and had no idea whether we had folded back close to where we had come from or if we were deep into the forest with no road for miles. What I did know was that the lumberjacks had stopped working or we were very far away from where they were felling trees. My brother stopped again and disappeared into a small clearing. I followed and saw him walking towards a dwelling that looked like it had been left empty for many years until my brother started occupying it. It appeared to have everything for his needs and it would have been about the same size as the studio. There was a chimney suggesting it had a functioning fireplace, and an outside tap, and I am sure nature proved an adequate means of sanitation. Did he intend to move here permanently I thought; that his long term plan hadn’t been to return to the social world but to retreat further? 

     If this is what he intended to do I knew that announcing my presence would have been a violation of the peace he was seeking, and yet I didn’t know if I could return to the car park on my own. It was now 230 in the afternoon and it would be light until 9. That would be plenty of time to find my way back but only if I had at least some notion of which direction I should take. Nobody had crossed our paths since the beginning of the walk and it would be unlikely I would pass anybody returning who could help me. I watched Benjamin a hundred yards away, wondering what I should do. According to my beliefs, I would have asked for his help. But according to what I supposed were now his, I should remain silent. I wasn't an animal caught in a trap but a person whose curiosity wasn’t likely to kill yet whose interest had left him stranded. I knew I relied on others and others had relied on me and had always done so. My brother competed with others and then retreated from the competition into what some might see as my parents' charity, but which he probably saw as a move towards self-reliance. 

I turned away and started walking in what I assumed was the right direction home. I still had a litre of water left, food to stave off hunger and a few hours of daylight. I never saw myself as much of a survivalist, though I supposed I would eventually arrive back at the village. Yet as I walked I could see the appeal of a life that requires almost all our instincts going into the most basic questions of living rather than the complicated ones that ask us to rely on others or, much worse, compete with them.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Traps

1

Perhaps in a very different way from my brother, it was always a question of power. How to enjoy the game without getting caught in the competition? I wouldn't say I was impervious to the desire to win but it always seemed to me that the victory had to be one's own no matter if I was playing with teammates, for the club, even for the town. My footballing career never went further than playing occasionally for the university firsts but it isn't a sense of failure that motivates recalling these events. I always felt happier playing for the B-team at school and the second team at university. I believed that freedom never lay in success but in a careful retreat from it, and I think I first became aware of this in primary 7. Yet how far should one retreat from succeeding and does it lead inevitably, and logically, to failure?

I'd arrived new to the small Scottish town from the south of England, the son of a Scot who made far more money than he might have expected: in a short period while working in the city he made more than a million when a million meant a great deal. He didn't quite retire but he knew that he could continue with careful investments from the Scottish Borders without any longer getting embroiled in the hectic activities of his business colleagues. I overheard my mother say to him once in the kitchen of our Swiss Cottage home that he had a drink problem, or at least a marriage problem. It was a few months after that when we moved to the town on the Borders, and it was there I went school at the start of primary 7 and played for the first of my B-teams. I think I was good enough for the A-Team but the boy who captained it, Ally, may have seen competition that he thought best be oppositional rather than adjacent: better he try taking me out with firm tackles as an opponent rather than trying to find ways to compete with me as a colleague. I say this with no more cynicism than they adopted when playing against us in a mini-league with other teams from nearby towns and villages. There were sixteen six-a-aside teams in total, from eight schools, and we would play each other twice during the season. In the first game against the A-Team in October, they won 3-1; in the second team they won 3-2, scoring two goals in the last three minutes of the game after being 2-1 down for about fifteen minutes. During those fifteen minutes, they took every advantage of the ref's absent-mindedness to hack, scratch, grab and even punch our players into defeat. It worked since they scored two late goals but I knew then that if victory was of any value it had to be one I could call my own. What I saw on the A-team's faces wasn't only impending loss but also terror. 2

I have since read philosophers who have tried to give metaphysical weight to those who seem doomed to fail no matter the success within their grasp, and we of course have the phrase that someone snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. I am not unsympathetic to such philosophical musings and have always wondered about that phrase; how much unreflected cynicism often rests in it, and how many who use it think of the jaws involved in that victoriousness. One philosopher I read listed a series of defeats. A French 400 metre runner who was so far in front of the field after 300 metres he finished third. The French tennis player who was two sets ahead playing someone who looked defeated and yet still the French player managed to lose. One might think too of Josee-Maree Perec, who, instead of running at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, ran away. Numerous newspapers wrote articles investigating her disappearance.

Each act of refusal, each inexplicable defeat, will have its own reasons behind it and that might be the very point. While winning seems merely the accomplishment of a deed, defeat can be a revelation of a perspective upon the act itself, and revealing the person behind it. In an interview long after her retirement, Perec said "Of course it is all right not be no. 1. For me, what is interesting is that you start from point A and get to another point. It is the journey you take." But if victory can seem like a straight line, defeat, or the refusal of victory, can appear like a zigzag. I remember reading about Perec at the time, reading newspaper articles that based their headlines on the inexplicability of her action. "Enigmatic Perec leaves only questions" as she was nicknamed the Garbo of the tracks, Another: "Why Did French Runner Run Away?" Such headlines are much more interesting than Gold Medal for Perec, or Perec powers to victory. The retreat or defeat becomes the news story as the win merely becomes a news item. In the latter instance, Perec would have only been a name that one fills in, the Gold Medal Winner. In retreating, she creates a story that is her own, generating a new set of rules around the singularity of her behaviour rather than the general nature of her talent a talent that would be much like every other athlete's, only more accomplished.

I have never possessed such talent, never found myself in the jaws of victory as so many great athletes have, and yet equally I didn't envy others their greatness either. To admire it I've often felt would be a failure of empathy for the acknowledgement only of the athlete's ego. Many a fan thus has the advantage of glorying in the sportsperson's achievements while being themselves, albeit an envious self, while the mere athlete has to accommodate within themselves the awareness of their eventually failing powers, the defeat that awaits them which can only be avoided by announcing retirement. However, even retirement represents a defeat of sorts, an official awareness that others younger than them will be better.

3

Near the end of primary 7, one of the players in the A-team, Don, moved away, in what seemed a reversal of my father's decision to live in Scotland. The boy's father was working at Bilston Glen before the mine closed down and, over the preceding years, his dad had moved from one colliery to another as they were shut. He said his family was going to move to Yorkshire where a few mines were still open, and I am not sure if anyone in the town would have seen that my father's success was replicated in another person's failure. But it may have explained the resentment several people felt towards me that I assumed was based not on my father's success but on my relative failure: that they had lost an A-team player and then had to welcome someone from the B-team. Now I'd be inclined to think otherwise not just because I have a better understanding of socio-economics than I had then but also a clearer understanding of my own abilities that needn't be hampered by primary school insecurity. I was a decent player and scored in most of the remaining matches, yet what I think went beyond those schoolboy insecurities was an awareness that any goal I scored was only a means by which to alleviate the general anxiety everyone felt about the possibility of losing. When playing for the B-team there had been no such expectation, and I believed that we played for each other rather than for a victory; for the A-team those jaws had teeth. The B-team's expectant failure that was sometimes countered allowed us to offer each other smiles without a grimace.

During one game I missed what seemed like an open goal when the goalkeeper lunged and parried my shot around the goalpost. We gained a corner but missed an opportunity and while I could admire the achievement of the goalkeeper, all a couple of my teammates saw was a weak shot. Why didn't I put more power in the finish they insisted and perhaps they were right. But it seemed to me what was obvious was the impressiveness of the save and not the incompetence of the shot. By the end of the year, I had scored eight goals in seven games and we came third in the league and won the regional cup. I always sensed however that even when we won that cup final, and I scored the second of the three goals in a 3-1 win, the anxiety of defeat was more present than the moment of winning. When I looked back on the game that night, I couldn't sleep as I thought of a couple of misses that drew ferocious looks; a pass I failed to make which led a teammate to cuss under his breath. Throughout these games, Ally would cajole and insult everyone on the team but most especially me. I was half the player Don was, too much luxury and too little hardship he would say when we weren't winning, and even if I scored a goal I supposed he wished it had been someone else. He must have missed those hard tackles, the way he had tried to push me off the ball when I was playing for the B-team. During those weeks I never socialised with the other players, and even on the night of our cup victory I celebrated with my former team-mates. I invited them round to the house where we played pool and darts in the games room, my mum having bought loads of crisps, coke and chocolate bars for us all. I knew that if we had been even half as successful, if we had made it into the final, or even the semi-final, it would have been more meaningful than winning with a team with which I had no affinity.

4

Yet some might wonder whether this affinity had anything to do with whether people were from the poorer or better-off neighbourhoods. I don't think so; if I remember, Ally's father worked in oil and their house was not much smaller than ours, though on the other side of the town. A couple of my closest friends lived on the council estate a few streets from our house. It seemed to me that what mattered more than the money we as friends did or didn't have was a belief in a value greater than achievement. All of us went on to university after attending the same secondary school but none of us were top of the class or close to it, always doing enough to stay ahead and all aware that we wanted to go to a city and enjoy student life. The grades were no more than a key to entry.

Some might say that my inclination towards mediocrity rested in having an older brother who would have made any notion of success irrelevant. He was five years older than I was and went through secondary school not only the best in the class in science and maths but also as the fastest runner in his year (and the year above, usually). He also did well in English, French, German, geography, history and art. I am not sure if he worked so much harder than everybody else but he seemed in a constant state of anxiety, as though he was occupying his body for the purposes of pushing from one achievement to the next. He never appeared at rest and sleep came to him only out of exhaustion, never mere tiredness. During this time we were still in London and I wondered if, though our father never pushed us into success (he was too busy succeeding himself for that), my brother saw in my father's work habits a life he ought to emulate. Yet while I sensed, and since discovered, that my father did it to make enough money to make the difficult life he was leading easier once he escaped from the city, and where he used some of his money to help his new community, my brother had internalised a competitive streak so completely that he wasn't really in competition with anything at all and seemed not even to have any goal in mind either. He gained no pleasure from victory but anything resembling loss left him despondent for days. Once, when he came second in a race against others years older than himself he didn't speak to anyone for seventy-two hours. When my mother said that the boys were older and bigger than he was, that everybody loses sometimes, he couldn't see the kindness and concern but only the platitude. If the look he gave my mother then could have been turned into words they would have told her that she was a woman who needn't have existed; that her role in the world had been used up giving birth to two children and the rest was waiting for her end. Her job as a secondary school English teacher he wouldn't have regarded of much value and only saw my father's work of consequence because of the money he earned, though there was no sense my brother wished to make a fortune. It may have been my mother who persuaded us to move to Scotland, it may have been our mother who made the house we had in London and the one we lived in on the Borders so inhabitable, but how could my brother have seen this when he could hardly even inhabit his own body?

Many of my thoughts about my father, mother and Benjamin have come retrospectively, after the event of the feeling, but whatever thoughts I find here are chiefly based on burgeoning insights at the time no matter how coloured now by the future the past cannot yet contain. This can create a double problem when trying to write about it. That house in London is now a vague memory while my parents are still living in the house we moved into when we moved to Scotland. I can walk around it and describe it in detail. The house in London is made now not out of bricks and mortar but fragments of the senses, as if the places we live and to which we cannot return are blown up when we absent them and are then put together again through the rubble of memory. They don't exist any longer in space but are makeshift mental locales and even returning to them years later, even if I were to find myself once again in that Swiss Cottage house in which we lived, would it not be partly unrecognisable because the re-cognition has been taking place in the mind, making the original unfamiliar? I don't wish to make this story any more obscure than it needs to be but if I am to understand my supposed lack of ambition, against my brother's obscure aspirations, I know that time and space have much to do with it.

Benjamin would have been 16 when we moved to Scotland but he left two years later. He went to study PPE at Oxford, a degree I suspect he chose since it produced more significant people than any other single course of study. It gave the UK Prime Ministers and chancellors of the exchequer, heads of think tanks and government advisors. He visited us during the holidays but rarely left his room or rarely stayed in the house. The common denominator it seemed was that he wanted to avoid people, and sometimes I didn't know if he was in his bedroom or walking out on the hills. What I didn't doubt was that he was alone. The house is on four floors, with a toilet and an unused utility room in the basement; the kitchen, the dining room and the drawing room were on the ground floor, with two toilets and four bedrooms on the floor above, with a large bathroom. One of those bedrooms was converted into a games room, and another for my father's study. On the floor above that were two bedrooms and a bathroom, and it was in one of these bedrooms where my brother had his room, hiding out on a floor that I never ventured up to when he was there. Yet when he returned at the end of his second year he insisted that he make the basement his bedroom even though we also had in the garden a small studio with a kitchen area and a toilet and shower.

My father helped build it when we moved in and hoped that former work colleagues would come and visit but they never did. I overheard him once say to my mother that a small town on the Scottish border wouldn't match these colleagues' self-image and why go up north when they could fly for a long weekend to Cancun? He said it without bitterness but with a rueful tone that suggested a few years before he too might have thought the same. I remember him mentioning to her a passage from Conrad, a book my mother taught and which now he had time to read. The book is still on the shelf in the house so it is easy to find the passage. The narrator describes a City man who has a clear, pale face and the overbearing brutality of someone who excels in "a game, or in the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men." My father said the pale men are no longer so pale; they take their holidays in exotic places. He escaped from that game even if he didn't resist completely making money in finance. A friend of his created a company around the same time my father left London; an equity fund that offered good, low-risk returns rather than huge financial bonanzas that were highly volatile. The companies were usually established and the sort of firms that you could see justified their stock market prices; they weren't products of a rumour or a fad. My father had made a lot of money on those rumours and fads, investing other people's cash and taking his percentage, aware that the shares could plummet quickly but that wouldn't be his concern; that would be for the investors. He had easy mastery over animals and needy men. But with his own money, he wanted safety and investments that needn't lose him sleep. He said all this to me one night when I was around seventeen and studying economics at Higher level. But I think he was also trying to understand my brother and me. The house we lived in may have been one of the grandest in the village, but it nevertheless represented a reckoning, a winnowing of ambition for him.

5

During these years, from when I moved to Scotland until I finished university, any ambivalence I had towards success was contained easily enough: I never showed signs of brilliance or failure. I passed all the exams without much anxiety, aware that I was unlikely to fail and didn't need to be more than competent at subjects which didn't attract my fascination. As long as I retained enthusiasm for English, art, history and modern studies, I knew I would get into university and sure enough I did. Throughout secondary school, I played mainly for the second team, scoring enough goals to keep my teammates happy and finding enough excuses to avoid playing for the first team that wouldn't reveal my reservations about competing with others. On the various occasions I was asked I usually said I had other commitments and only played for them when they lost a player to injury, or someone had moved away, and I was the best person to fill their position until the player recovered or someone new arrived. I would fulfil a role without quite meeting an expectation and perhaps that became a motto for my life, and one that I could keep to myself since I had never tried to meet an expectation that I then retreated from achieving.

It is when I read about Perec and others, and read certain philosophers at university, that I thought about my brother, or rather formulated some ideas about my brother's life which hadn't quite occurred to me before then and which helped a little to make sense of some of my own choices. My brother may never have become as successful as Perec but his failures were public, nevertheless. After that second year at university, after he came home for the summer and insisted in moving into the basement, he stayed there for a year, putting off finishing his degree until he felt ready to complete it. But instead of returning the year after, he moved into the studio, a move my parents didn't know whether to take as a good or a bad sign. They were disappointed that he wasn't ready to return to Oxford but happy that he no longer wished to live semi-underground. During that initial year, he went out rarely, would pop up to the ground floor to use the kitchen and occasionally to shower but most of the time stayed where he was, sleeping on a bed settee, working at a desk, if he worked at all, and using the toilet next door. He never quite smelled but he was stale and scruffy during this time, and if Benjamin was never an especially attractive man during his teen years, he was always well put together, physically, mentally, and sartorially.

He was nevertheless, during this time, still fit and active; when he did leave the house he usually walked for hours and occasionally left with a tent, coming back a couple of days later. My parents never knew what he ate during this time but it was usually in the warmer months and they assumed he survived off berries and apples and whatever he had taken from the fridge. They were more pleased that he had gone out than they were worried he might not return and he was never gone for more than a couple of days. Nobody who knew him at sixteen would have recognised the same person he had become in his early twenties. Yet after he moved into the studio, he appeared to shower more often, shaved regularly and even occasionally went into the village, where he shopped in the whole food store, bought various ordered volumes from the small independent bookshop, and even on occasion had a haircut. Though my brother never invited me on any of his long walks, occasionally he allowed me to sit with him in the studio. If one can gauge happiness based on how permanent one makes the space one occupies, then I would have said my brother was as happy in the studio as he had been unhappy in the basement. It was as if there he had absorbed a sense of failure that a success couldn't countenance, while in the studio it was more that he had found a different notion of how to exist that made success or failure irrelevant to another pursuance. I noticed the books he bought included works by spiritual philosophers and existential writers, but while I had little interest in the former and only a mild interest in the latter (my enthusiasm was for American fiction that emphasised the comic over the Europeans who searched out the grim), I wondered whether I might have needed a heavier dose of fictional despair if I hadn't been able to calibrate my relationship with success and failure less egoistically.

I sensed my brother's life had shattered; that he predicated his self on a success he couldn't attain, for whatever reason, and instead needed to find a radically different value system by which to live. I only needed to clear the low hurdles I thought were mine to jump. If I played badly for the second team I was disappointed but I think that was because I didn't want to let people down based on a perception I had of myself that my teammates had of me. I knew in the context of the team I was the player who was expected to control the game, to score some goals from the attacking midfield position, and to be the first line of defence as I scrambled back after a shot saved by the keeper. I always had the feeling that I mattered to the team and that if I failed to take charge of the game I was failing in a duty that never felt like an obligation. Playing for the first team it would have, even if the need to win was much greater since they were expected to do so and we were not, even if we often won. Playing for the first team in secondary schooI, I would have been another player pursuing a victory that didn't mean very much to me, while for the seconds I was playing for a side whose every victory contained an element of surprise and yet also relied strongly on me for that possibility to happen.

I sometimes wondered if this was sour grapes or a specific type of egotism. The first seemed unlikely; I really didn't want to play for the first team; and the latter was only valid if I were to accept that my egotism lay in having value within the community, a different egoism from my brother's, at least. I didn't think the bookstore owner in the village was egotistical; nor the baker, nor the hairdresser, nor the coffee shop owner. They could have presumably opened a shop in a big city and potentially made far more money but they would have found it harder I suppose to claim they were communally vital. When I realised that this was what seemed to motivate my actions it allowed me to formulate a value system that I've managed to maintain, passing through school, university and now to my job as a community centre manager in a part of Edinburgh that is both traditionally impoverished and, more recently, socially varied. Whether managing the football team, putting on film screenings a couple of times a week, making sure the cafe is fairtrade or locally supplied, creating a library based on people in the vicinity donating books, I believe that I have always tried to be at the centre of things that have made me useful. Perhaps others might see that I wish to be important, and I may not be the best person to judge such a claim, but if I think not it rests on the difference between a verb and a superlative: between valuing things that are done rather than attaining the best possible result. When a while back someone wished to nominate the centre for an award I tried as politely as I could to indicate that, while such a suggestion was very kind, what mattered was that the community found it important to their lives; not that strangers needed to grade it next to other community centres around the city and the country. It simply had to be useful for the community; it didn't need to be better or worse than others.

6

I don't think this was something my brother would ever have understood. While initially he was so ambitious that he couldn't see how anybody might live without competition, after he lived first in the basement and then in the studio he wished to seek a value that I might cruelly suggest was the useless next to my usefulness. But if I make such a claim it is only to explain a notion that I think might appear otherwise inexplicable, and uselessness after all was my brother's word.

My brother half-explained it to me one evening in the studio. I'd been out with the other players in the team, we were then seventeen and had all got drunk together. That afternoon we beat a team who expected to win easily and it was a warm April evening that allowed us to sit without fear of cold or midges and so we got drunk on two boxes of wine one of the others had stolen from the garage at home. His father would never miss them he said; he bought a bootful and a back seat full of booze every few months in Edinburgh and stored them. He would only have shown concern if the crates and boxes of wine, the bottles of whisky and vodka, the cans of beer and the bottles of ale, had shown clear signs of diminishment. Someone who didn't know his father might have felt that he was saving his father from a bad habit but he was just the most gregarious of the dads and often liked to have people around after a game of golf. Anyway, it was the easiest way to get alcohol in a village that would have known our age and wouldn't have served us. I was a bit worried that our mother or father could smell the alcohol off me as I went in, so when I saw the light on in the studio I tapped gently on the door, explained my predicament and my brother let me to enter.

I hoped I hadn't disturbed his reading as he put down the book he still had in his hand, and he said no it was fine. I asked what it was about, as though the very things my friends and I had discussed earlier in the evening would have been impossible for someone who was living so reclusively. While we could all talk about school grades, the football game we'd played, girls we were going out with or attracted to, teachers we liked and others we loathed, what we'd heard about the team we were playing that day and how much money the fees at the school happened to be, what did my brother have to talk about? He discussed what was in the book. He described it as a sort of self-help book in reverse, without quite being a tome full of Eastern promise. It wasn't a book that emphasised the need to slow down, to absorb the minutiae of life, and so on. It instead proposed that we need neither become much more ambitious and get so many more things done (and hence all those motivational tomes), nor slow right down and contemplate life (hence all the meditational tomes), but to take the constant movement of life, and the static energy that forms into habits, traditions, duties, and shape a life we can call our own. Even if we risk being of no use at all to others, if we create something out of ourselves that is surely achievement enough. We are so busy making things, he added, that we don't know what to make of ourselves. People go to therapy to find out all that living, competing and making things and we forget all about our own being. He didn't blame anyone in particular but school hadn't been an opportunity to better himself; it had been to best others, and there he had been for years getting further and further away from knowing anything about himself. Then he was at university not knowing really why he was there.

Only several years earlier my brother when asked a question about the book would have given a very detailed and very elaborate account. He could explain the plot or describe the idea but I might think now that it was if he had chewed the food and knew what it tasted like. But he hadn't swallowed it so that it might have any nutritional value. When I talked to him that evening it seemed that what he wanted from it was nutrients, as though school had wished him to do no more than to taste the food but would never allow it to become a source of energy.

I asked him about university, what it was like, but he didn't want to talk about that, said only that it made him realise a few things. I suppose at the time I might not have articulated it as such, but even to hear my brother talk about books as he encountered them was a move back towards himself. I recall looking around the studio and seeing that it felt like a home he had made permanently his own. While the basement was little more than a bed settee, a desk, a chair, a kettle and a toilet, here he put his hundred or so books on the two shelves above his desk, which was below the raised bed, had various food items in his kitchen cupboard, had bought a rug for the floor and matching throws for the couch he was sitting on and the chair I was sitting in. It was a home and I wondered how long he would stay there.

As he spoke more about the book he said that it predicated itself on the useless, on finding a first principle that suggested as long as we insist that our existence resides in competition, and even usefulness, we are doomed to wander the earth alienated from our souls. Only when we accept our right to be useless, without point and purpose to others, we could claim to exist. That didn't mean, he insisted, we must remain useless; perhaps we will; perhaps we won't but the harrying of the soul through education and employment must stop. A sturdier moralist than I might have said to him that this was all very well as an ethos but there he was living in a studio flat in the garden of a five-bedroom house, with a mother who taught and father who made large sums of money in finance. The needs of his soul had a price that was to be paid by others. But to do so wouldn't only have been to undermine my brother, it would also have undermined the notion behind it. He might have had the luxury to attend to his soul but the problem lay in it as a luxury. He saw it as a necessity, no less important than electricity or a computer, and around for much longer.

Before Ieft, about two hours later with the alcohol no longer strongly on my breath after chewing gum throughout a conversation that demanded that I chew also on some thoughts, he did say a few words about Oxford. He said people might have thought he left because he couldn't succeed. Perhaps. But he knew too that he no longer believed in success, that competing with others, getting better grades, winning a cross-country run, no longer had any value. He had felt that no matter how successful he became he would always be behind: no matter how fast he ran, no matter how good his degree would be, how well paid he would be in his job, he would always remain somehow trying to catch up. He told me then the well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles and the tortoise start the race and the tortoise is given a head start. Achilles may be far faster but he can never catch up because when Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have inched ahead, and then at the next point where Achilles arrives where the tortoise was, the tortoise has inched ahead once more. Achilles will always remain fractionally behind the tortoise. He can keep reducing the gap from 1/10th to 1/5th but the fraction will become ever more fractional without Achilles ever getting ahead of his rival. He said he had increasingly felt like that; he could never reach the point where he'd be in a place that he might call a victory. It wasn't that he felt like a failure. He instead felt the impossibility of success.

7

My brother remained in the studio through the remainder of my time at school, and through my university years too. He never returned to Oxford. My own success was always modest, the university I went to (Glasgow) accepted me but I got in only because others took places elsewhere, and in my degree in psychology and sociology I wasn't interested in how others were doing as long as I passed the courses I needed for the degree I required for the job that I hoped to take. I knew, by the end of my first year, that I had no interest in research and wished to work in the community, and I suspect part of that desire rested on happy memories of playing football with the teams that weren't expected to win. I could see myself working within a community where a football result, a father getting a new job, a family getting a new home, could be meaningful victories. I think I had long been aware that any quantitative result was only as good as the qualitative aspect that it contained. Central to that quality was being helpful, to feel useful and needed.

After university, I got a job as a community social worker based around a council estate in the north-east of Edinburgh, near the sea. I rented a flat halfway between the city and the estate, and cycled each day along the path which offered a pleasant contrast to the concrete buildings I would work in and work around. I might have felt as though I were cheating, unwilling to live within the community I hoped to help; a feeling exacerbated when I read about a sociologist in Glasgow who in the 80s had given up a professorship in the west of England to set up a centre in one of the Scottish city's outlying housing estates. But I also read he was a religious man and though that might sound like an excuse for my unwillingness to offer such commitment, I also believe he possessed a moral faith I couldn't match. I had little interest in personal progress but I had no need either of personal salvation: I wanted a job that would somehow remind me of the victories playing for those teams that would occasionally beat the odds. The flat I bought with a small deposit and a low mortgage rate wasn't luxurious and wasn't that much bigger than the studio in which my brother was living. But it was near numerous pubs, shop and cafes and, while a basement apartment, had direct access to the garden. It was amongst the least impressive of dwellings in a comfortable district but the gap between me and the neighbours many of whom had four-bedroom apartments with large, wide windows and winding internal staircases, taking them up to the next floor, appeared less great than that between myself and those living in flats no more cramped than mine but with lives that often seemed so. Yet when I looked at these large flats and the owners' children that would leave them going off to school, I could sometimes see in their faces a sense of expectation placed upon them, or placed upon themselves, that indicated a different type of oppression.

The people I worked with were not the happy poor any more than the people living above me were the miserable rich. I often wondered, though, whether what I saw as a human ideal resided in managing to live without the least or the greatest expectations placed upon us. The expectation to fail was always more agreeable to me than the expectation to win but perhaps I could say that with a sense of choice that was missing from many of those that I worked with on the estate. Yet it also gave to any victory, to a child doing well at school, to a team doing well on the field, a feeling of purpose and progress I don't think I would have encountered had I been teaching in the schools my upstairs neighbours' children were attending.

It was after a couple of years in the post, and quite recently, I met a senior manager, only several years older than I was, someone who happened to be from the same Borders town and was considering me for promotion. I explained to him how happy I was working in the job that allowed me to be actively involved in the community rather than making decisions about it. James visited me at the centre a couple of months later and joined me for tea. He said most of the people involved in community work were, if professionally oriented, inclined to seek career progress if for no other reason than better wages. He wanted to see what was so appealing about the job I already had. Looking around the centre, he wouldn't have seen much that would have appealed. He would have seen food items that had been donated by the local supermarkets, food members of the community would access when their money had run out; he would have seen an indoor play area for the kids and may have wondered if those playing there who were loud and sometimes aggressive had been given far too much sugar. James may have noticed that the dad, standing around with his hands in his pocket, was as disconsolate and dejected as his son was excitable and boisterous, had a scar alongside one side of his face. He may have had various prejudices confirmed and wondered why I wouldn't wish to escape the ongoing misery of many people's lives and seek the trajectory of career advancement.

8

Instead, he told me that he had known my brother. They had been in the same year at school and if he came second to him he regarded it as a success. Everybody measured themselves against him, he said, but there was in my brother, he added, a quality that resisted any form of praise, while always at the same time insisting on being the best. He remembered once when he came second to my brother in a fifteen-mile cross-country race. When he finished, ecstatic with his time, exhausted by the distance and feeling like he had won since he never expected any more than to come second, he saw my brother sitting nearby, despondent and alone. It seemed that no victory could console him was how James put it, and I didn't add that perhaps only defeat might have been able to do so. He asked me what my brother was doing now; the last he heard he went off to Oxford. I didn't want to say more; didn't feel it was for me to say that he dropped out and was living in my parents' garden; less because I thought it unfair to convey to another my brother's failure more that in offering the facts I would be unfair to my brother's beliefs. I couldn't claim even after various conversations over the years with him to know what these were, but I knew that to tell this person those facts would be a betrayal.

Maybe James already knew, and instead of expecting me to answer, continued. He said that I might not want to hear this and he couldn't quite explain why he was telling me, but it might have been based on no more than recalling my brother's face that day after winning. He said a few months before that afternoon, he had been walking through the woods not far from our town and he saw in the distance standing over something a boy who looked around his age. The woods were dense and James found it easy to get closer, hiding behind a series of trees. As he heard a bird craw he moved closer, when he heard a noise in the bush he moved on to the next tree. He found it fascinating as nature was dictating his movements and there were sometimes several minutes before he heard a sound loud enough and sustained enough for him to move to the next tree. When he was quite close he recognised it was my brother, and James stood and watched as he appeared to be standing over something. Benjamin seemed to be musing less over what he should do about it than fascinated by what he was seeing. Eventually, my brother moved on, and James waited for ten minutes before going to see what my brother had been looking at. He saw in a trap, a dead bird but had no idea if the bird had been dead when my brother first saw it or if he was waiting for it to die before leaving. There was no sense he said that my brother wanted it to die, no sense in which he tried to save its life either. He hadn't thought about this for years and didn't now know what to make of it. We both went silent and looked around the community cafe. He watched a young boy clambering around the small sandpit; I watched the father who was looking glumly on.

9

When James told me the story my brother was still living in the studio. My parents gave him a sum of money each month and while they sometimes expressed to me concerns about his life, and also how he would cope when they were no longer around to look after him, they couldn't quite claim he was unhappy, or at least no more so than he had been when he was doing so well at school and after he went to university. If my parents were not comfortably off I supposed he would have been harassed into work or onto medication, but my parents' money protected him from societal demand. I think he knew this was a luxury others couldn't afford but knew too that it was a luxury my parents could afford. There was no need to feel any guilt over what they were providing.

About three weeks after the conversation with James, I visited my parents and my brother back in the Borders. When I arrived on a cold but sunny late March afternoon my mother was in the kitchen, sitting in a chair next to the wood-burning stove, reading; my father, she said after greeting me and putting on the kettle, was out fishing, and my brother left the previous day and hadn't been back. I asked her about these long walks he had been taking for years, thinking of James' comment, and she said though he never stayed out all night during the winter months, as soon as spring arrived he sometimes was away for two or three evenings. I wanted to talk to her about what James had said but I realised that I had a certain loyalty to my brother evident when speaking to James. Equally, it seemed, I didn't want to tell my mother that someone many years earlier had seen him watch an animal die, if that is what my brother did. Yet I wanted to talk to both my parents about him, to try and understand why he was still living in the studio and walking out into the woods for walks so long they often kept him away for days.

I was only back at the Borders for the weekend and my brother returned late on Saturday afternoon. The rain had started as a spit an hour earlier and it was now a downpour. I saw him coming into the back garden as though oblivious to the rain, his wet hair, his drenched, only semi-waterproof, jacket and his muddy boots suggesting a torrent. He waved as he saw me looking out the window and I waved back, expecting to see him in the kitchen shortly afterwards. While in the first couple of years in the studio he rarely ventured into the house, now he even occasionally ate with my parents. I expected him to do so this evening but he never came out of the studio at all. My mother said that sometimes when he had been walking and camping he returned and slept from the moment he arrived back, until the next morning.

I left the following lunchtime, talked briefly to my brother at the door of the studio and I didn't return until the summer. This time I had a plan, and would stay as long as it would take to execute it. I took a week off work and my parents were pleased but surprised I intended to stay for so long. I said I wanted to do some cycling, as they saw I'd taken my bike. This time, when I arrived my brother wasn't away and that evening he did join us all for dinner. My brother spoke about the environment, initially predicating the discussion on trees that were getting cut down in the nearby woods, and an article that both he and my mother had read, the content of which they summarised for my father and me. But I knew the article was merely a precursor to a preoccupation; that on the last few occasions I'd talked to my brother he wanted to discuss how, when we speak of saving the planet, what we are unwilling to talk about is how the most successful way of doing so would be to rid it of humanity itself. How, he wondered, can we go on living, knowing that we are detrimental to life more generally? A belief in God can suggest that we are the centre of the world but what happens when we are no longer even peripheral but actively detrimental? None of us had much of an answer to that but I suppose our purpose wasn't to counter his argument but to understand the choices he had made for himself. If he was right that we were damaging the planet, then all we could do if we wished to stay alive was damage it as little as possible. My brother made his life as small as he could; he hadn't been on a bus, in a car, on a train or on a plane, since he started living in the basement. He walked and cycled everywhere, and had in recent years taken over the garden around the studio to grow vegetables. All other items he bought from the whole-food shop in the village. He never shopped online; never ventured into a supermarket. I suspected this insistence wasn't based on saving the planet but on saving his soul, a term that had little meaning for me but that I was increasingly sure was of fundamental value to him.

The next morning I looked down from the attic bedroom and saw him preparing for what appeared like a long walk. I checked my phone and it said it would be dry and sunny for three days. I quickly showered, went down to the kitchen and made a flask of tea, took some oatcakes, a slab of cheese, some grapes and a cereal bar, filled a 1.5 litre bottle of water, and put everything in my rucksack. I had a glass of water, a bowl of cereal and a banana while I waited for my brother to leave, then grabbed the bike and followed far behind him on the street. He walked for twenty minutes until he arrived at an entrance to the forest car park where three or four vehicles were parked. I locked my bike against some railings. The woods were vast and it would be easy to lose sight of him if he got too far ahead, but I also knew that I didn't want to be too close, as I recalled how James relied on the sound of nature to dictate his movements when observing my brother. I was luckier than James, as I heard in the distance the sound of whirring chainsaws and wondered for a moment if my brother was going into the woods to confront the foresters, to tell them that they were decapitating nature, as my brother phrased it over dinner. Of course, it was more than that he added: they were being cut off at the knee, huge bodies swaying briefly and then landing with a thud. He offered the remark as though describing a slaughter and there he was going into the forest where trees were again being felled.

10

But he didn't appear to be moving in the direction of the lumberjacks but took a path to the left instead of the one on the right. I followed about thirty yards behind but moved amongst the trees, and wondered how far he would walk away from the sound of the loggers, and how much I would soon have to rely on the sound of nature rather than the noise of the chainsaws. After twenty minutes, and with the saws a very distant whirr, he stopped suddenly and appeared to be staring at something in front of him. He looked around but I was still too far away and behind a tree for him to notice me standing there. Out of his rucksack, he took what looked like a pair of wirecutters and, as he crouched down, I moved a few feet closer to see what he was doing. It looked like he was releasing a long, thin animal that I guessed was a stoat and that seemed to be moving in his arms. I came a bit closer, hoping the sound of the saws was still louder than my movements and saw him apply what appeared to be some ointment to a part of the animal's body.

After a few minutes, he left the animal where it was and started walking again, further to the right as I wondered if I could find my way back to the car park. I didn't doubt that my brother knew every path for miles around, but I didn't. Yet I was willing to lose my bearings if I could discover something about him. Maybe I had found all I needed to know and could extrapolate from this deed what my brother's purpose in life had become. Yet it felt the mystery was still incomplete and I continued to follow. It was an hour later and he stopped again, took his wire cutters out again and snipped at what I assumed was a trap, though there was no sign of an animal inside it. If this was what he was doing regularly why had nobody stopped him; or was the person doing it in possession of no more authority than my brother one, who would try and ensnare animals; the other, my brother, trying to release them and destroy the traps that were set?

I wondered if what James had witnessed that day many years ago was my brother not only looking at an animal in distress but that my brother may have been the perpetrator of the original deed, of setting the trap himself. I recalled during the conversation we had the evening I came home drunk a remark I didn't know what to make of at the time but that seemed to make more sense now in the context of what James saw and what I was observing. My brother said that people live as though their existence is a good thing, that being alive is positive and that all we have to do is get on and live it and we will be useful to those around us. He supposed that one of the advantages of being told he was exceptional, was that it allowed him to see that such a claim where we just have to live isn't true. People treated him differently based on his achievements and he noticed, when he was accepted to Oxford, teachers at school sometimes used his success to signify the failures of others. One teacher said to another pupil in front of my brother that, if the boy had a brain like my brother's, he wouldn't have been sitting in a classroom with a useless hangover. On another occasion, a teacher told my brother he was in Edinburgh for a night out with friends who he had known since teacher training college, and who were teaching in various comprehensives in the city. He asked if any of them managed to get anybody into Oxford that year and boasted that he had.

My brother said to me that evening his sense of self had been built not on living but succeeding. When he accepted that he knew that living wasn't a fact but a choice, then it became a question of how to live. At the time I reckoned my brother wasn't saying anything I hadn't sensed a few years before him. Wasn't it why I wished to play for B-teams rather than A-teams; why I knew even as an early teenager that I wanted to be useful?

But as I followed my brother through the woods, as I knew that without his help I wouldn't be able to make my way back unless whatever he was doing led to a main road, I believed what he was saying that night wasn't naive at all, and part of that sophistication came from a tension within his own body that he had spent years trying to resolve. I knew he was often cruel when he was younger but I always assumed that it would be no more than in a casual remark, calling someone stupid when they didn't understand something, sometimes showing irritation towards my mother when he said that, for all she knew about literature, she could have done a better job of educating herself in economics. He often showed annoyance that may have been a product of his nerves but found its authority in his intelligence. How far did that cruelty go I thought as I imagined him killing animals in the past and saving them in the present, determined to be their saviour after being their executioner. I thought then of my father, who made a 'killing' on the stock exchange and then "gave something back" in charitable donations. It probably led to some of the same sycophancy my brother was offered too, but that needn't have caused my father the same problems. I suspect my father never believed he did anything "wicked"; I increasingly believed my brother had and that his life had become a penance.

By now I must have been following him for over three hours and had no idea whether we had folded back close to where we had come from or if we were deep into the forest with no road for miles. What I did know was that the lumberjacks had stopped working or we were very far away from where they were felling trees. My brother stopped again and disappeared into a small clearing. I followed and saw him walking towards a dwelling that looked like it had been left empty for many years until my brother started occupying it. It appeared to have everything for his needs and it would have been about the same size as the studio. There was a chimney suggesting it had a functioning fireplace, and an outside tap, and I am sure nature proved an adequate means of sanitation. Did he intend to move here permanently I thought; that his long term plan hadn't been to return to the social world but to retreat further?

If this is what he intended to do I knew that announcing my presence would have been a violation of the peace he was seeking, and yet I didn't know if I could return to the car park on my own. It was now 230 in the afternoon and it would be light until 9. That would be plenty of time to find my way back but only if I had at least some notion of which direction I should take. Nobody had crossed our paths since the beginning of the walk and it would be unlikely I would pass anybody returning who could help me. I watched Benjamin a hundred yards away, wondering what I should do. According to my beliefs, I would have asked for his help. But according to what I supposed were now his, I should remain silent. I wasn't an animal caught in a trap but a person whose curiosity wasn't likely to kill yet whose interest had left him stranded. I knew I relied on others and others had relied on me and had always done so. My brother competed with others and then retreated from the competition into what some might see as my parents' charity, but which he probably saw as a move towards self-reliance.

I turned away and started walking in what I assumed was the right direction home. I still had a litre of water left, food to stave off hunger and a few hours of daylight. I never saw myself as much of a survivalist, though I supposed I would eventually arrive back at the village. Yet as I walked I could see the appeal of a life that requires almost all our instincts going into the most basic questions of living rather than the complicated ones that ask us to rely on others or, much worse, compete with them.


© Tony McKibbin