Cycling past a homeless shelter a year ago, I saw outside it a woman who didn't quite herself look homeless. I wondered what allowed for such an instant judgement, while also still thinking for some time afterwards about this particular figure who stood as if waiting to get in. Perhaps she was a social worker accidentally locked out, maybe a woman who had recently lost her job and her home - someone whose life had only just fallen apart. I remember a few years earlier talking to someone who owns a cafe here in Edinburgh and who has always been more sympathetic than most proprietors to those on the streets. He told me that the life expectancy of a homeless person was around five years; from losing their home to losing their life they could expect to live no more than half a decade. If we can talk of dog years and cat years what about homeless years he said? If he could help extend that life by even a few days, then it was worth the occasional dismayed glance from the Cappuccino customers. The cafe went by that very name, I had just finished a cappuccino myself, and he after all had made it for me: we were all implicated, he acknowledged.
But implicated in what? As I saw the woman that day on a dry, dull mid-spring morning dressed in a black jacket, black knee-length skirt, heels and a beige blouse, I thought that was surely not the attire of a long-term homeless person. How difficult would it be to traipse around the city in heels, and to keep those clothes clean? They were surely images of neatness: many of the homeless people I would see were dressed in ill-fitting jeans found in the bin bags outside charity shops, in scuffed trainers, baggy jumpers and jackets that they seemed to shelter in rather than wear.
I didn't see the woman again until a couple of months later, and again she was waiting outside the homeless hostel, dressed similarly but without a jacket in what was a warm summer's day with dashes of cloud. There were no signs of sartorial deterioration, and I assumed at first that, as I walked down the other side of the road from the hostel, that she must have been an employee. But as I passed crossing the road, I saw, exiting the building, a burly, bearded figure in worn clothes and watched as they firmly kissed. I crossed back again a minute or two later: the language school at which I taught was further down on the other side from the hostel.
Teaching that morning an advanced English class I looked at the various students from Argentina, Italy, France, Bulgaria, Taiwan and China, and witnessed what I found myself calling sartorial homeness. If there is such a thing as sartorial homelessness, what was the opposite? Perhaps some of the students came from wealthy families, but not all of them: I knew two of the French students were working more than forty hours a week in a restaurant to pay for the school fees, the Bulgarian girl's parents had taken a loan out to send her over to Scotland. Yet everyone dressed like they had a home with a wardrobe, a washing machine and an iron. Some might have been scruffy and others well turned-out, but nothing they wore looked like it had been worn for more than a couple of days. At lunchtime I looked in the two-thirds length mirror in the men's toilets, and I didn't look homeless either. I looked like a man in his mid-thirties who taught English as a foreign language and did it with enthusiasm but not ambition. My T-shirt, my jeans and my plimsols suggested someone far more inclined to ingratiate himself with students rather than senior management.
That afternoon I gave an intermediate class as a project something I'd found on the internet while eating lunch: it was a website called The Sartorial, and the site showed numerous people from around the world dressed in slightly eccentric and at least singular fashion. I put the stills up as a slideshow and asked them to describe what the people were wearing, trying to get them to expand their vocabulary as they would discuss the colour and style of the clothing. They could use the thesaurus I proposed. As they set to work I somehow believed that although the woman outside the hostel was too well-dressed to be homeless, she was also too conventionally attired to appear on a website like the Sartorial. Yet even though I glimpsed the man she was kissing for only a few seconds, I thought it might have been possible that, if the Sartorialist had come to Edinburgh, he would have photographed her apparent lover.
This idea came to me on the seventh slide. The photo was of a man perhaps in his mid-to-late fifties, who had shoulder-length grey hair, a thick beard of the same colour, a blue turtleneck sweater with a beige-white shirt hanging out, and faded blue jeans of modest tightness that gathered indiscriminately around ankle-high boots: a bit of the trouser leg was tucked in; the rest not. Most of the other people I showed them looked like they were either figures of high fashion or possessed a deliberate street style that seemed to say that while they didn't have much money they had more than a little contemporaneous cred. I looked at the students while they were scribbling in their notebooks, scrambling through their thesaurus, and saw that while the Taiwanese and Chinese students were mainly wearing designer labels, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Paul Smith, the European students dressed down but more personally, even personably.
It would have been a few weeks later while sitting in the Cappuccino drinking an Earl Grey tea, that I noticed coming in the woman and the bearded man. She looked as spruce as on the two previous occasions; he was unkempt and muddy. His rucksack was spattered with what looked like mud from a dirt track, and his hair was knotted and caked. The beard was speckled with grey hairs and a few streaks could be found in his hair too. She was wearing a bottle green skirt with matching jacket, and a white blouse. Her hair looked freshly cut, and the corn blonde colour perhaps suggested it was lightly dyed. As they talked they looked as though they hadn't seen each other for a while; the woman kept grasping the man's hand, putting a hand on his knee, even playing a little with the man's hair.
After reading through the Saturday papers I saw that my notebook wasn't in my bag; that I'd left it in my pannier. The man and the woman were sitting by the window at what wasn't so much a table but an old work bench, the sort you find in woodwork classes, complete with a vice. As I passed he had put his finger into the vice and was tightening it while she was trying to persuade him to take it out. He was obviously mad, I thought, but when looking directly at his face when I came back into the cafe I couldn't help noticing immense health: his eyes were hazel and flashed light as he flicked them in one direction or another, his skin smoothly olive and his hair more shiny than greasy. His clothes looked unwashed, and his left boot, I had earlier noticed, had a gaping hole that made it look as if it were yapping away as he played with his toes in it.
They left after about an hour and a half. I stayed a while longer, and when the lunchtime staff arrived and the manager made himself an espresso, grabbed a paper and sat at the table next to me, I asked him if he knew the odd couple who had recently left. He did indeed, and if he weren't so busy he'd be happy to tell me about them. I'd known Robin ever since coming into the Cappuccino around seven years earlier, and while I had never once met him outside the cafe for a drink, on a quiet afternoon we would sometimes chat as he told me about his customers. One of the main reasons to open a cafe he believed was so that you could observe your clientele. It was like TV but where the customers came and went rather than you having to switch channels. On one of those occasions, (of course), he had told me about the average life expectancy of a homeless person.
I didn't have time to visit the cafe for the next few days even though I was very intrigued to find out more about the homeless man, and when I did go in the following Saturday, Robin wasn't there. His wife was on duty and I knew that it was rare for them both to be working in the cafe at the same time; I assumed he was on a day off. I watched her work and noticed that she was somehow similar to the woman with the homeless man. She was more casually dressed in a navy blue tux wrap dress, with its belt high on the waist and the sleeves coming in above the tricep, with the arms suggesting a woman who regularly exercised, possibly doing pilates. She was wearing flat sandals and was a woman who had no need to augment her height. It wasn't that she was tall; more that she walked straight. It gave her an impression of grandeur that she would probably have been capable of achieving even if she had been diminutive. As I watched her work, I thought there was a woman who was homeful. She owned a washing machine, a cooker, a fridge, an ironing board: her homefulness appeared evident in so many gestures that reflected these material items, and so it was with most people. Just some more than others.
I thought again of the figure from the magazine The Sartorial. I wouldn't have been so sure if he owned a washing machine and ironing board. The shirt that poked out of his jumper was crumpled and his jeans creased, and I could imagine an artist in his studio with a two ring cooker in one corner, a bed in the other, and a toilet off the main room. He would wash in the sink, and take the occasional shower at his friend's house. He wasn't quite homeless but neither homeful. He seemed to have an image that could have accommodated, so to speak, homelessness. It was a decadent thought, I supposed, but believed it came to me chiefly through thinking of the homeless man: did he not also have a style that indicated a certain homeless cache? My thoughts were becoming more obnoxious still, but then were these thoughts not originally instincts of perception; immediate responses to the woman standing outside the hostel whom I thought couldn't possibly be on the street? When I saw the man outside the hostel and in the cafe I knew he could easily have been, just as I wouldn't entirely have ruled out the possibility that the man in The Sartorial was living if not a homeless life, then rather less than a homeful one.
Over the the next few days while at work and while walking on the street, I started to view people as if by the degree of their homefulness. I watched one woman daintily extricate herself from her low slung Lamborghini and go into a beauty salon. She was dressed in a sunflower yellow dress above the knee, and wore heels of a matching colour. In her arm was a chihuahua dog who appeared as well looked after as she happened to be. A man along the same street was coming out of a dry cleaners, three suits in his hand and wearing one that might have been cleaned the day before. At work most of my colleagues were dressed as if somewhere between homeless and homeful, perhaps reflecting the precariousness of a job that was temporary and irregular, with work often available but never guaranteed more than a few weeks in advance. One teacher would always dress in walking gear. He generally worked from around ten to twelve and two till five. During his two hour break he would almost every day walk round by the long inactive volcano near the city centre. It took about forty minutes to get there from the college, and up at the top he would have soup from a flask, a homemade sandwich, and coffee from a second flask.
On a couple of occasions I had walked with him, and while sitting at the top eating my takeaway egg roll and sharing his coffee I asked him why this need to walk everyday. He was in his early fifties, with strong crow's feet and creases concertined into his forehead, thick, dry grey hair that hardly moved in the blustery wind, and a smile that you felt you earned if you received it. I knew from others that he was divorced, had a grown-up daughter and that he'd taught in more countries than I'd visited. He said he walked because it made him feel at home in the world and not just in his house. Dan added maybe he walked because he felt he didn't always feel at home in his house, and then smiled. I hadn't made him laugh but I had made him think, and I always felt he was the sort of man more likely to do so if you helped a thought cross his mind rather cracked a joke in his presence.
That would have been a couple of years ago, and I haven't walked up to Arthur's Seat with him since. But a few times, when for various reasons he has eaten lunch in the canteen, we had sat together and chatted. Even on these days, however, he was always dressed in walking gear: Meindl Bhutan boots, North Face windcheater, Berghaus fleece and a pair of craghoppers. I know the makes because I sometimes walk myself, but usually only throw on the gear when walking through the Pentlands, or taking a trip up to the Highlands.
For some reason Dan, the figure in The Sartorial and the man from the homeless hostel were all twinned in my mind - all seemed to possess an essence of homelessness that I couldn't quite explain and yet which I wouldn't quite call pejorative. Is homelessness a perceptual positive or negative, or just a fact? How can we think of it aesthetically if Robin was right that a homeless person couldn't expect to live for more than five years? If I'd never quite felt comfortable with Robin's wife did it reside in feeling that she was too at home in her own home? When I saw the woman with the chihuahua going into the hairdresser's and the man coming out of the dry cleaners, did I instinctively feel they were too comfortably ensconced in their own lives? If it was envy that I was expressing then it was ontological more than material: it could have been a vague belief that they trusted in the security of the world much more than I did. What seemed so odd about the image of the woman outside the hostel was that in her appearance she also looked assured in her homefulness, but there she was standing outside the place as if waiting to get in. It was as though the aesthetic question was serving another: it wasn't that I was interested in the glamour of homelessness, more that I was drawn to the health of people who were capable of living unconventionally, perhaps because as a child I could never quite forgive my father for allowing us to live in a mobile home when all the other children at school had houses, bedrooms, gardens.
I would have been six when my father told me of my mother's death. My father was working as an English teacher in a Glasgow secondary school at the time, and we lived in our two floor tenement flat for about six months after the announcement. Most days he would come home from school, hug me as if to give me the care I needed but that I would now believe was the human warmth he required, and go upstairs for the rest of the evening, coming down only to cook dinner. One afternoon he asked me if I would like to live in a van, travelling around the country. He presented it to me as an adventure and I received it initially as a threat. I'd made a few friends at school, my paternal grandparents lived in the city (my mother's parents were dead) and I wouldn't be able to stay over with them. I also liked the park near the flat, with its swings, its slide and merry-go-round. My father agreed to a compromise. He would buy a van, kit it out and we could use it for holidays. If I enjoyed it, then we could give up the flat and live in it. He would have proposed this to me around October, and the following Easter and summer we toured the Highlands in the van. It was a converted removal van, with a kitchen area at the rear on one side, a toilet opposite, and further in two couches that doubled up as beds, with space underneath for storage. There was a fold down table in between the sofas, and a small ladder next to one of them which led up to a mezzanine that was above the cabin in the front. I would sleep in the mezzanine, with a curtain pulled across to offer privacy, and perhaps to give my father some of his own too. Every time we returned home from the trips around the Highlands I would feel much more strongly the absence of my mother than I had over the winter before we started using the van. I said to my father I wanted to live in it, as though I knew only a strong feeling of her absence could be found in the house, and perhaps a new presence could be discovered on the road.
For five years we lived in the van, travelling through the Highlands and spending weeks at a time in small villages like Plockton, Uig and Contin, initially, and then staying in Croy, Nairn, and Elgin. I remember nights when the wind whipped around us in Uig, and days watching as the ferry would come in from Harris on the other side of the Minch. In Plockton there were palm trees and lots of houses with tiny windows, and little doors, and my father said it was a fishing village. For a long time I thought people who fished must somehow have been smaller than those who worked in mines, steelworks and shipyards. My youthful reasoning wondered whether it was because it was better for the fishing boats to have smaller people so that the boat needn't be so big, and thus the houses would only accommodate small people too. But what about miners? Shouldn't they have small houses also since they had to work in confined spaces? I didn't ask my father about these things, but wondered whether if I had gone to school I would have received this information as part of my education. My father of course taught me for several hours a day, but also tutored children in the places where we found ourselves, and sometimes we would stay there for the length of time that the children wanted tuition. He didn't make very much money, I suppose, but he had sold the house in Glasgow, and must have had cash from the sale.
After the highlands we lived for a few months in the Borders, and then travelled around England for a couple of years, much of the time in the west of the country, mainly Dorset and Devon. I would make temporary friends and then we would move on, but I didn't miss the friends I had made; I seemed to have found the skill to make new ones constantly. I think it was my father who was far more lonely than I happened to be during those years, and it was as if the very thing he couldn't talk about - the loss of my mother - made it difficult to talk to people at all. Occasionally he mentioned that many of the places we had travelled to were places he had once been to with her.
When I was ten he said we would travel around Europe, but that I should also think of going to school when we got back. He had travelled through France and Spain after he finished university, told me he met my mother during the trip, and he remembered just enough of both languages to possess the confidence to try and survive there for a couple years. It was also, he admitted to me, because he wanted to earn more money: that he had used up some of the savings; more than he would have wished. He thought he could earn a proper wage working for a language school, perhaps teaching a few private lessons. I think, even then, at that age, I believed he wanted to meet people, and a work environment was the best way to do so. I would ask him sometimes if he missed mum, and he managed a smile, saying he should be doing the asking.
Before returning to Edinburgh my father said he still didn't want too much permanence, but knew that I should nevertheless feel settled. He didn't want to drag me out of school and around the country again. Would I want to live on a houseboat? We managed to hire one on our return, living along the canal, by an area called Shandon. It felt expansive after the van, and instead of having merely a curtain separating my high-perched space from the rest of the rear interior, I had a separate cabin, with my own door. The kitchen area was bigger and made it easier to cook, and the table didn't need to be put away so that we could move around more easily. It was probably up to four times bigger than the van. And could we still travel in it I said? Yes my father replied, adding that he had no intention of selling the van anyway. For money he did what he was doing in France. He got a part-time job teaching English as a foreign language, and taught private lessons as well - mainly secondary school children studying for O grades and Highers. In France at the language school in which he taught, he never did make any friends, and he returned home each evening as if more lonely than before the job. In Edinburgh it was the same: he would usually be at the boat when I got back and he would ask me about my day as if he hadn't had one of his own. It was as though he hadn't been out at all, no human encounter seemed to cling to him as we would sit and eat dinner together, while I talked as if with a cluster of companions in my head.
Why do I think of my father now while thinking so much of homelessness? I suppose he lost his homefulness when he announced my mother had gone, and he never regained it, and yet there was another reason why I was thinking of him too: that I was also musing over my mother. I have very little memory of her as a presence in my life, but instead as an absence. It was an absence occasionally made present as a remark made by my father or a picture in an album that my father showed me only once, but which I looked at when I was alone numerous times. In photos she dressed not unlike the woman standing outside the homeless hostel, and perhaps this is why I first noticed her, seeing the woman, I believed, out of the corner of my eye, but maybe half-thinking of my mother at the back of my mind.
At that moment, a few days after first seeing the woman at the hostel, a thought occurred to me that my mother might not have died at all. I never attended any funeral, and the only acknowledgment of her death, for me, was when my father and I threw her ashes into the water at a beach on that first trip to the highlands. None of the pictures indicated signs of ill health. My father described her illness as an incurable disease, as though to ask further would have been, I always thought, a sign of insensitivity, while his reticence might well have been hiding a complicated truth. My father was now in his seventies, and was it possible that my mother could still be alive - that she had left us but that she hadn't left the world - If she was still living, how hard would it be to find her, how difficult to trace her in the immensity of the world: was this what my father was really trying to do when we travelled in the van?
If he had kept this secret from me for over thirty years, whatever difficulties I would have getting him to tell me the truth about my mother's disappearance would be minor next to the dementia that had robbed him of much of his mind and some of the shared memories I have no more than alluded to thus far: our travels. On a recent visit to the retirement home in Morningside, I asked him if he could remember arriving in Granada and parking the camper van in a square in front of a church and looking across at the Alhambra on the other side of the valley. I recalled him saying that it was the most magnificent building he had seen in his life, and when I reminded him now of that early evening, with the palace brick orange against the soft light, he looked at me as if the memory were of a person he had once met but couldn't quite place. After leaving him I sat on a bench in the Links. I pretended to read a newspaper while I let my body shake with a pain that was greater even than the awareness that my father couldn't remember experiences that were supposed to be, in common parlance, unforgettable. I was scared that soon enough he wouldn't even remember the person sitting opposite him, the son who was trying to nudge his memories back into co-existence.
I was due to visit him on a Friday, but that Wednesday, after teaching all morning and with the afternoon off, I ravenously ate a tuna sandwich I had made instead of breakfast, then began the twenty five minute walk from the class to the cafe. It was a direct route passing from Holyrood Rd, through the Cowgate, up into the Grassmarket and on to West Port. Although the sun was out the Cowgate seemed like a tunnel of shade, with tall buildings on either side until I came out at the Grassmarket. I sat for ten minutes on a bench and allowed the sun to play on my face through the semi-shade of the poplar trees that were soon to be removed. They would be doing renovation work in the area I had read, and amongst the victims would be the tree half-shielding me from the rays.
The cafe was busy when I arrived, but Robin saw me coming in and pointed at a high seat in the corner by the window. I sat down and ordered a tea ((I'd already had two strong coffees that morning)) and while I wanted to talk to Robin about the homeless man, it lacked the urgency it would have possessed several days earlier. But as I sat and read a novel that I could only concentrate on because it shared some of the preoccupations with memories that I had on my own mind at that moment, so the cafe began to thin out. It was by then around half two and I knew that Robin usually took a coffee break then. He shouted across to me saying I should find a more comfortable seat; I sat by a table near the cafe entrance. The sun was still at the front of the building, and it came in sharply through the windows that covered most of the cafe's facade. I've always felt the desire to be near the sun: a consequence I suppose of a childhood with no conventional roof over my head. I had no room to retreat to and now feel that staying in my flat when the sun shines outside is almost a sign of moral failure. A disrespect for the Sun God.
I remember offering exactly the above to Robin one afternoon several years ago, and what I had noticed in our chats was that I would often speak about my feelings, my affairs; Robin usually about his clients. Sure, I sometimes mentioned the students, but generally I did so through my impressions rather through anecdote. It was as if after we talked, I'd divulged and he had gossiped. Yet his gossip was never cruel, dismissive or cynical: he was just given to telling stories rather than offering impressions. Over the years I felt I knew various people who would frequent the cafe, but knew them as a series of vignettes. Harry, for example, who for years had been coming in almost every afternoon since his wife had passed away five years before, and who said that it was sad that it took his spouse's death for him to discover what good coffee happened to be. Another, much younger man, Graham, would come in a couple of times a week: it made him nostalgic for the time before the wife and the kids and felt in the taste of the espresso the freedom of his youth. I would sometimes see in the cafe the people he would have talked about, but felt in knowing an aspect of their life nothing I knew nothing that would have embarrassed them - simply details that made them more comprehensible, more, somehow, themselves.
However, with the homeless man and the woman I felt I was starting from the incomprehensible; that I wanted to know more about them the way we want to know how a story ends when we understand that the suspense resides in the beginning. Robin said that as I probably knew the cafe had been open for more than twenty years, and it was about fifteen years ago that the homeless man, whose name is Richard, he said, and the woman, whose name is Samantha, first came in. There was a gang of around eight to ten students who would hang out sometimes during the afternoon, often in the evening. The cafe closed at around midnight then, and although it had never sold alcohol, it had still been a popular place for students from the nearby art college. They came in throughout their degree, and afterwards Samantha was the only one whom he would see regularly. Then she stopped coming too, and he didn't see her at all for around eighteen months. When he saw her again he asked her where she had been; working, travelling? She burst into tears and said she had been travelling with Richard, but after six months he went off with another woman they had met when staying at a retreat in France. She woke up to find a note saying that he needed to be alone, but over the next couple of days had noticed that one of the young women had left also. She was the sort of woman, Samantha supposed, whom a man would follow to the ends of the earth, a woman who seemed diaphanous as she passed through the centre with her long, straight blonde hair and her tall thin figure exemplified, somehow, by her long thin fingers. She was a beauty, and if people didn't say so they would at least acknowledge it in their deference - in surreptitious, admiring looks. Richard had offered a few of those, and so for Samantha there was little doubt they had left together. Nobody else appeared to be missing, and after two days of feeling that madness would overcome her if she stayed in an environment that felt like a prison after feeling like a haven, she decided to leave. She asked around, and heard that the young woman had planned to continue further south, to Montpellier.
She found him there after about a week. He was sleeping in the park across from the railway station, the beard and long hair he had grown since leaving Scotland messier and more entangled than only ten days before. The girl had gone he said, not even attempting to hide from Samantha the betrayal. It was as though she was no longer even an ex-girlfriend he needed to be sensitive towards; merely a shoulder he needed to cry on. Over the following year she stayed with Richard in his parents' place in the north of England. It was a mansion that three or four generations ago would have been elegant and staffed; now the family could hardly afford the heating. His parents and a brother lived in one wing of the house; Richard and Samantha lived in the other. She had never lived in such ostensible luxury before, and yet it felt as if she were homeless. There was often no hot water, the electricity that was powered by a generator would often cut out, and they lived on a mattress on the floor. Sometimes in his sleep he would mutter the name of the other woman, and beside Richard Samantha would be crying herself to the sleep she couldn't quite find.
So she left, and there she was, in the cafe, in quite a state. She got a job with the homeless charity Shelter, and had been working for them ever since. She would occasionally come in on a weekend afternoon with friends, one or two Robin recognized from the group years before, and then about four of five years ago she would arrive, often during the week, with Richard, who had returned to the city and certainly to her life. Yet he had come back into it oddly. One late afternoon she was walking through Nicholson Square and saw sleeping on the bench a figure who looked familiar. She moved closer, half scared, and saw that it was Richard. She shook him gently and as he opened his eyes she looked at his face and saw that it had hardly changed at all. The clothes looked caked and unwashed, but his face was unlined and his hair and beard thick and healthy. She sat with him on the bench for half an hour and they talked. He told her that for several years he had lived in hostels, retreats, camping, or on the street. He said he was staying out at Bilston Glen. There were tree houses out there and she should come and visit him some time. They had electricity from a generator; they would make big, open fires, and the tree houses were often well insulated from the cold.
Robin said this was what Samantha had told him a couple of years earlier and he assumed the situation remained the same now. I said to him that I had seen Samantha waiting outside a homeless shelter a couple of times, and had guessed that Richard was staying there. Robin replied that sometimes when he was in town he would stay the night: he would never stay at Samantha's. As far as Robin could see, they were now no longer lovers, just friends. I thought of the kiss that I saw as I passed; or was it just a hug?
I asked Robin if he knew why Richard chose to live without a permanent roof over his head, and yet in the asking I wondered whether I might not have been better qualified than Robin to answer the question. Robin replied saying that he knew that unlike the others in the course all those years back, Richard always had a feral quality, and on a couple of occasions told Robin that he was brought up by his parents in the highlands at the Findhorn foundation. Many people there built firm houses and solid lives, but his parents didn't do that. They lived nearby in a camper van and could never quite commit to the community, feeling that there was something fraudulent in communal living. Richard had told Robin this as if to say it wasn't only about the suspect nature of Findhorn, more the dubious nature of trying to share our lives with others. Even then he seemed like a young man who wanted to live provisionally. Robin supposed that was exactly what he had been doing now for years. He said it with a shrug, as though he had nothing more to add, and as if thinking of his wife who seemed to me to be as antithetical to Richard as anybody whom I could claim to know.
Would she have been as sympathetic to the homeless who occasionally visited the cafe had she owned it alone? I don't know, but she appeared to be someone who was more homeful than her husband, and whose homefulness I sometimes thought was why the cafe had such a warm feel to it, even if it was Robin whom I always found the warmer person.
On the Friday I visited my father in the care home, cycling along a winding gravel path that slowed the bike down, as I heard the crunching sound underneath the tyres. It was as though everything was expected to slow down there, with the movements of only the care workers allowed to be brisk and efficient. Walking into the entrance I saw in both visiting rooms, one on each side of the main door, various people sitting with their relatives, copying the slowness of their gestures. I asked at reception if I could see my father and they said they would phone him, though he might be napping. It was around two in the afternoon, and for the last ten years, even in the last three or four on the barge, he would fall asleep for a couple of hours during the day. He was awake, the receptionist said, and he would be down in a minute. They were glad to hear that he was in the room: yesterday, she said, they found him wandering along the street nearby, looking like he wanted to find something or somebody.
I watched him take the steps one by one, with his right hand holding onto the railing, and knew that, however frail his body, his mind was more fragile still. It wasn't only whether he might not be able to recall exactly what happened to my mother, whether she passed away or walked away, but what pain I might cause him, what further brittleness I might create, in enquiring at all. Did I have more right to ask him about my past than he had protecting himself to live perhaps a few more years into the future? As we sat in the lounge looking out onto a birch tree that had lost the first of its leaves, all I asked was whether or not he missed mum. He glanced back at me, smiling, while his eyes suggested pain. I couldn't quite know whether he was telling me that of course he missed the woman who had left us through her demise, or if at last he had been rumbled but was now under no obligation to reveal the truth to me. Perhaps thirty five years ago he lied to protect me from a harsh reality that he didn't think I could have coped with, and now here he was all these years later perhaps asking me to protect him as he had become as vulnerable as I had been then. Maybe, again, she died of that incurable disease, and my restlessness, and my recent fascination with this restlessness in various manifestations, has nothing to do with my mother's wanderlust which might have been similar to Richard's when he initially left Samantha, but no more than the feelings of someone whose past remains a mystery, and who perhaps even wishes it to be that way. Maybe that ought to be our true human condition, and everything else a luxury that a proper humanity would acknowledge as such. That I would soon inherit the boat and the van, might make me go wandering, but for what reason and to seek what exactly I wouldn't know.
© Tony McKibbin