I divide my friends

I divide my friends into two groups. Friends and ex-friends I suppose I should say but that would be telling the end before telling the story.

So. When I was very ill, I gave all my books away. Hundreds of them. Many hundreds. Previous to the dark time I had never felt able to or wanted to because who knows when I would want to come back and reread them and when I was not working so hard I would have much more time and I would just sit and… you know.

But when you are given a few months to live, perhaps a very few, perhaps one, you realise you don’t really have enough time to read the pile of new books next to your bed or the others in the hallway, let alone ones you have read before.

And perhaps rereading an old friend would bring some comfort and some escape but there is still so much new to read to learn to experience….

I was lucky I had no pain now I had drugs, just tiredness and sleepiness and lack of focus like in the months before the diagnosis but heavier. So though I was not working my reading opportunities were limited. My reading window I used to call it, when my head and my eyes were clear enough and I had enough strength in my arms to hold a book up.

And don’t talk to me about those e-books. I know that a lot of people like them – and they’re light – but they’re not for me. They weren’t for me. A book is a book is a book, not just a collection of words behind a screen, no matter how well connected the words are.

So I decided to give my words away, hoping to avoid unseemliness when I was gone. At first people said no, what if the doctors and the scans and the other doctors are wrong and anyway you’ve got time to read them or some of them at least and what if I take the one you really want to read. Then they said well ok then but it feels a bit odd which ones would you recommend I really should read. One said have you got any signed by the author but without your name in it but he was a bit like that.

And eventually they were gone, except for the ones nobody had wanted, which I found slightly hurtful to tell you the truth. So every time someone dropped round I got them to schlep a carrier bag full to the hospice shop around the corner. I mean, I would not get the benefit, but you know.

And then I started to feel better. At first I thought it was my mind calming my body, reassuring that everything was going to be alright, that the next blank page was nothing to be feared. But it went on, two days, three, so I went back to the doctor’s – it’s still not easy to get an appointment, even when you’re terminal or perhaps it was because I said I thought I might be getting better. But when I got to the doctor’s and she looked surprised and sent me off for all the checks again and then we waited – I waited – for the checks to be checked and then I was better. I was a miracle. A one in a million. A special special person with another chance. But no books.

It is easy now to wonder what I should have done. But I did what I felt and asked my friends for my books back. Not the ones that were funding the hospice, clearly, though if someone had offered to go and buy some of them back, well, why not. Two birds. But no-one did.

I did not expect all of them back, not immediately at least. Some of them would be partway read, others would have been lent to partners or colleagues or friends. Though I found it strange they should lend out the books that they had wanted, that they had chosen themselves. I had thought it some sort of permanent gift, a constant and continuing connection. Once borrowed, always theirs. When I was dust, something of me – of mine – would be on their shelf. But I suppose gifts should be given with an open heart; so be it.

I asked for them back. With all the caveats and provisos or whatever that the case demanded. And some came back, often in the same torn white plastic bags they had been taken away in. The shelves started to fill again. Then the trickle halted and I noticed some friends had not been round at all since I had had my good news and made my request for restitution Or rather, they had been round when we had quietly celebrated but not since my thoughtful, very polite, message.

So I followed up. And was part of some of the most bizarre (to my mind) conversations I have ever had. Here is an example. I will call my friend, my friend at the time, Kevin. His name is Kevin. Here are snippets of the email conversations we had. I know that history is written by the history book writers and all that but why should I lie?

Me: Hi Kevin. Just a reminder about my books.
Kevin: …
Me: Hi Kevin. Just a reminder about my books.
Kevin: Hi. I was just thinking about you. So glad you’re well. You’re a great person. You deserve it.
Me: Cheers, man. Don’t get me going though. Do you want to drop round with my books or shall we meet somewhere?
Kevin …
Me: Can meet somewhere if you like or you can come round.
Kevin: Yeah, let’s do that. Soon. Very soon.
Me: That’s great.

And then nothing so I phoned and the conversation was so excruciating I do not even want to remember it here. So the friend – ex-friend – I am calling Kevin – his name was Kevin – is no longer my friend.

And this happened with others too, though perhaps not so awkwardly – more subtly silent in fact. They just faded away or dropped out of sight and are now ex-friends.

I never thought of killing them or harming them or their families though, of course not, what sort of person do you think I am? Some of them may have had tragic accidents, some involving torn white plastic bags, but accidents is what they were and I do not know any more than is on the news sites. Nothing at all.

And now I’d like to take a break, if that’s ok. I think I can hear my lawyer’s voice outside.

Home is where

When I told my friends I was going home, they knew the house I meant; the house I had been born in seven or eight years before. You can never play for long enough but I knew it was time to go home if my da wasn’t to come looking for me with the dog. So I went home, to the house I had been born in, the only home I’d known or would know for twenty years.

When my friends asked me where I was going on holiday, I’d say I was going home and they’d laugh. But that’s what my ma called the island, that’s where she called home. She’d been away ten years now, and would be away for forty more, but every summer she took us all home to granda’s on the island.

I was at home there too, and my brothers, when we went out on our granda’s boat or watched him watching the tide against the light, eyes slits of green. It was my home as much as it was ma’s, it was home as much as the house I’d been born in. Aunts visited every day and ma’s friends we called Auntie, hair ruffling, old chocolate gifting. Then one summer the curtains were closed for a year when nanna left us.

In my twenties my home was in the deep sky-blue south, sun and sea, friends and just enough. My da said I made my home there. But it takes more than making to make a home. A home needs to be, to become and be. And once it is, it always will be. Now when I go back to visit where was my home on the sea, in the sun, I am at home with my friends. As soon as we arrive I breathe deep the air of home, I feel the calm warm quiet in the eye of the world’s storms, and our home here, our home in the city, is out of mind until we return.

When we are in the south, home is where our friends are, home is how we feel, not where we are. At home on the sand, at home asleep under the pines, at home late at night round the fire on the roof.

Back in the north, we watch from the top of the worn mountain as crystal light streams into the melting haar. We can see our house from here, now the mist has drawn back to the sea. Our house, our home, where many have been and many have gone. Home where our families became family, where our friends became family, where the heart is.

I have been to many places and have lived in many. Home is the magnet that pulls our hearts, circles become spirals and funnel slowly to the centre of our world. Years ago I saw a poem that said that home is with you, breathing slow beneath the skins. And now I know it is.

First published as part of Scotland’s Stories of Home April 2014