10 March 2023

A bed is laid in a secret corner
For the three agonies – love, birth, death –
That are made beautiful with ceremony.
— from The Finished House, George Mackay Brown

My dad would have been 89 today. I don’t know that I miss him any less or any more than any other day since his death in September. But there’s an increased focus on this first absent birthday, I think, which makes me recall all the more acutely the decades when he—and my mum—were everything in my world.

This photograph of him and me is probably from mid to late 1975 or perhaps early 1976. I’m the one on the right. Look at his hair-and-cardigan combo; look at my red shoes; look at those vertiginous stairs. I’ve no idea what colour his shoes were, because as is customary my mum has cut his feet off in the photograph.

This was taken in our first house where we lived until I was 13, and which I loved. It had been my dad’s parents’ house. It had curious angles and sometimes even more curious angels in its architecture of happiness and security. Love is everywhere in this photograph, in every fibre of the stair carpet, in our smiles, in the way my dad’s hand holds me close.

And even though I don’t miss him any less or any more than any other day, I still miss him in a way that’s impossible for me to express, and which I don’t even want to put into words. It’s love which causes the most pain, but that pain, which diminishes, is worth enduring, as the by-product of that love, which will never diminish.

Time is not a conflagration

Time is not a conflagration; it is a slow grave sequence of grassblade, fish, apple, star, snowflake.

George Mackay Brown, Greenvoe (1972)

Recently, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Or perhaps not about time as an idea, but its passage, the inexorable ebb and flow, sands trickling through the glass, itself a pure form of sand. Time as a flat circle, the clockface without hands. Life as the Great Repetition.

The photograph that opens this post was taken probably around the summer of 1976. Decades and lifetimes ago, anyway. This is the snaking, single-track road that leads from the town of Duirinish to the small crofting village of Drumbuie in the Scottish Highlands. You can barely make us out, but my mum holds me by the hand walking us down the road. I am three years old, nearly four: we are on holiday in the village. My sister Clare is yet to be born. My dad hangs back, taking the photograph as we amble on towards that simple settlement of whitewashed crofters’ cottages and into this future that we’ve fashioned for ourselves. At that very moment, I imagine I am my parents’ world and they are certainly mine alone. The smallest universe encased in an hourglass, where the upper measure of sand seems infinitely plentiful.

This scene on that road has stayed with me for such a long time. It carries the weight of so much personal meaning, and causes a lump in my throat whenever I see it now, whenever I think about its myriad implications. My parents were considerably younger then I am currently, my mum by some margin. And yet, as I edge unnervingly close to being 50, I don’t feel I will ever possess their grace or their wisdom or their settled outlook on life. That world, that black and white film world of the road to Drumbuie, might as well exist in imagination alone. What is there now to compare with how simple life must have been? What have I actually achieved in this endlessly burning building that is the third decade of the twenty first century? I can’t answer either question.

I’m not with my mum and dad today, of course. I will see them soon and we will talk, but not—probably—about what really matters: about what an inspiration they are, these wonderful, kind, gentle people who have made me who I am, and who I don’t tell often enough this one simple and unbreakable truth: I love you.