A short story by Alexander McCall Smith of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, exclusive to the New Statesman.
This is the story of a friendship. It takes place over a number of years, starting when the two people involved were eight and ending when they were twenty-nine. It starts in Scotland and ends there, although part of it takes place in Australia. It is all about separation and the desire not to be separated from one’s friend. There are so many forms of pain that love can bring. One of those is that pain which arises when one person attempts to direct the life of his friend – to make of him something that the friend might not be or even just to help him in some way. We do not always want the help of our friends, no matter that the popular song says that this is how we get by. Popular songs are often simply wrong.
The story is told in very short chapters, as if it were a novel. Short stories can, in fact, say as much as any novel can – sometimes rather more. A short story may be a novel that has been left on the hot plate to reduce. It boils down. Facts, descriptions, dialogue: a great deal boils off and what is left is the humanity of the characters – the spare flesh of their life. Perhaps it is a little like minimalist music – only a very few notes are needed. Listen to Arvo Pärt. He says everything in a very spare way, but nothing more is required.
Two boys met when they were eight. One was called Bruce and the other was Will. They both lived in Edinburgh and met as pupils at the school they both attended. This was on the south side of the city and had a reputation for music and drama. It was a happy place; not a place in which there was any real pressure on the pupils to do better than others. The parents of the children who attended this school were, by and large, pleased with it.
Bruce’s father worked for a company that dealt in barley and other cereals. They lived in a house in Craiglockhart, from the garden of which there was a view over the city and across the Firth of Forth to Fife. In summer, the hills of Fife bore patches of yellow made by ripening crops. At other times these hills were pale blue, washed by shifting veils of rain. Bruce had a tree house in the garden from which he could look out and see ships in the Forth with his father’s binoculars. He was an only child.
The other boy, Will, was the child of a chemist and a university professor. The mother wasthe professor; she was an economist who specialised in economic modelling and the analysis of economic cycles. They had two other children, a girl and a boy who was two years younger than Will.
Will was an inventive child. He read voraciously and was always making up stories. By the age of eight he had already read much of Stevenson and had even embarked on Walter Scott. But his real passion, it emerged, was writing short plays. He never acted in these but instead got Bruce to play all the parts, switching from one role to another as required.
Bruce’s mother noticed this, and was amused by it. She started to call Will the Director – not to his face, of course, but when she talked about him with her husband. She noticed, too, that when Will and Bruce were playing, it was always Will who seemed to tell her son what to do. Bruce did not appear to mind. “You should ask Will if you can choose what to play,” she once said to him. “Don’t you think?” He had shrugged. “I don’t mind,” he said. “He always tells me what to do. I don’t mind.” “Do you think it makes him happy?” she asked gently. He thought for a moment. “Yes, I think it does.”
The two boys became inseparable friends. They spent a great deal of time in each other’s company in school and out of school. They did not seem to need other boys to join them in their games. Two was enough for football, after all; more players than that complicated matters unduly. In general, Bruce was better at physical things. The Director came into his own with board games and imaginative conversations. Bruce thought him very funny: the Director had so many jokes and stories. He could go on for hours and never repeat himself.
The friendship survived their move to senior school, although now tensions made an appearance. Bruce was more popular than the
Director, largely because of his greater sporting ability. He was also noticed more by the opposite sex, although the Director was appreciated by girls, too.
The school arranged a skiing trip to the French Alps. Both boys, now fifteen, went and took lessons in the same class. Bruce was a natural skier, though, and was able to attempt runs that the Director could never contemplate. The Director felt left out, struggling on the tamer blue runs while his friend graduated to reds.
He felt that Bruce was deliberately excluding him. He could have stayed on the blue runs; there was no need for him to go on the reds. Why? Just to go faster? What was the point of that?
“Sorry,” said Bruce. “You just don’t get skiing. The whole point is to go fast.” I hate you, the Director said under his breath. But then he thought: I don’t. Of course I don’t.
When the time came for them to leave school, Bruce went on to St Andrews University. The Director very much wanted to do the same,
because it seemed only natural that he should go to the same university as his friend. How was Bruce going to cope without him, he wondered, if he went to another university? It did not really occur to him that Bruce could lead a life in which he made his own decisionswithout any contribution from him. That, in a curious way, was simply his job: to tell Bruce what to do. He hadn’t asked for this role in life: it just existed, it was just there.
Under pressure from his academically ambitious mother, the Director applied to Cambridge and was accepted. He went to St John’s College, where he studied philosophy. His real interest, though, was drama, and he became a leading light of a college dramatic society. He directed plays, and even wrote one or two.
They saw one another in university vacations, when they were both back in Edinburgh. From time to time, the Director wrote a letter to Bruce or sent him a postcard. Bruce never wrote back, but phoned the Director occasionally and told him what he was doing.
At the end of the Director’s second year at Cambridge, he brought a play up to the Edinburgh Fringe, with him as director. Bruce, who was in Edinburgh at the time, was in the audience on the opening night. Afterwards, the Director invited Bruce to join him and some members of the cast for a drink in a pub in the Grassmarket.
It was in the pub that the Director introduced Bruce to the young woman who did the lighting for the show. Bruce had the distinct impression that the Director was matchmaking. There was no chemistry between Bruce and this young woman. She said to him later on in the evening, “Will has been trying to get me and you together. You know that?”
Bruce laughed. “He’s always told me what to do,” he said.
"He talks about you a lot,” said the young woman.
After university, the Director found a job in London with a firm of public project consultants. Bruce, who had met Lizzie, an Australian girl, at St Andrews, went to live in Melbourne. Her parents had a string of cafés in the Melbourne suburbs and offered him a job. He accepted, but he had developed an interest in photography and decided that this was how he wanted to earn his living. He enrolled in a night course and after two years had a diploma that entitled him to call himself a professional photographer.
The Director came out to see him. He was accompanied by the young woman, with whom he was now living in London. She was an actress, but seemed to get very little work. “It’s only a question of time,” the Director said to Bruce. “She’s going to be spotted. She’s something really special, you see.”
Bruce smiled at this, and the Director noticed. He looked away, hurt. Bruce said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest . . .” He did not continue.
Bruce spent five years in Australia. Towards the end of this period he was earning enough as a photographer to give up other work. He had
a small exhibition that attracted a complimentary review in The Age. He went off on a long trip round the Outback, following the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks, photographing the tough, resilient people who lived in those parts. One of his photographs – of a herd of horses into which a single camel had inserted itself – was widely published, along with the story behind it. Originally there had been two half-tamed camels that grazed on a wide cattle property. A hunter came and shot one, for no reason other than that it was a camel. Bereft, the survivor joined the rancher’s herd of horses. Bruce received letters about this photograph from all over Australia. It seemed that there were many people who had great wells of grief within them, and this gave them the opportunity to express it.
The relationship with Lizzie broke down. They parted amicably, though, and he returned to Scotland. The Director wrote to him and said, “I’m sorry about that. I thought that she suited you very well.”
He had saved a bit in Australia and was able to set himself up as a photographer in Scotland. He did the usual things – weddings and the like – but he also liked to do photographic essays. There was one called Fragments of a Culture, which was about the life in the few remaining Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland. There was another one called Damp, which was about life in a Glasgow high-rise. These attracted some attention; his reputation grew.
The Director came up to Edinburgh quite frequently, and he always told Bruce when he would be there. On one of these visits, he asked Bruce to join him and some friends for dinner in a fish restaurant in Leith. One of these friends was a woman called Claire. The Director seated people at the table: he put Bruce and Claire together. She was an anaesthetist.
They saw one another again. Ten months later, they were married. Bruce did not invite the Director to be his best man, but chose a cousin from Aberdeen instead. The Director said nothing about this, but again he was hurt. “I introduced them,” he said to one of the guests. “I’m rather pleased with the result.”
The guest nodded. He knew about their friendship. He said: “I rather thought you’d be the best man today.”
Bruce’s career as a photographer seemed to stall. Offers of exhibitions dried up, and he found it increasingly difficult to have his photographs accepted by magazines. He decided that this would all change if he could have his book of photographs The Face of Scotland published. He tried various Scottish publishers, but none felt that publication would be commercially viable. He talked to the Director about it, who listened intently before saying, “It’s a great pity that work as good as yours can’t get into the public eye. It’s a real shame.”
Some weeks later, one of the publishers who had rejected Bruce’s book proposal got in touch with him and said that they had re-examined the figures and would be happy to publish The Face of Scotland after all. Bruce wrote to the Director and told him about this piece of good news. “Merit,” said the Director.
The publisher himself had been sworn to secrecy, but one of his staff, unaware of the confidence, said to Bruce, “It was very good of your friend to give us that publication grant for your book. We were very pleased.” The Director had spare money – a legacy from an aunt.
At the launch, Bruce said to his wife, “I’ll come home for dinner later on. I want to go to the pub with the Director. He’s come all the way up from London for this.” She said, “That’s fine.” She knew that they were childhood friends and that it would be easier for them to talk by themselves. Will, who had married the actress, had come up to Edinburgh by himself. He would stay the night with his parents and then go back to London the next day.
“I really like the book,” the Director said as they stood in the bar. It was almost empty – it never did good business on a Tuesday night. The Director raised his glass: “To its success!”
Bruce looked at his friend. For a moment he saw them as they were all those years ago, acting out one of the Director’s little plays – a version of Kidnapped, perhaps, or Rob Roy, with Bruce as the hero; he was always the hero; he always did great things in the Director’s plays.
He looked at his friend, and the Director knew. “Will,” he said. “I appreciate what you do for me. I always have.” The Director said nothing.
“But you have to let me go.”
The Director looked into his glass, then stared out of the window.
Bruce continued: “Why do you do it?”
The Director shifted on his feet. “You know something?” he said quietly. “Sometimes people are born the wrong person. They’re not the person they want to be. And they meet a person who is that person, if you see what I mean. And all their life they think: I wish that I were him.” He paused. “I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth. Because most of us want friends, and life is tough and it’s lonely, and things are never quite as you’d like them to be. And so you want to make sure that somebody else’s life is not like yours. You want to make a life for them, which I know you can’t do. But you try. You try to help. That’s all.”
“Yes,” said Bruce. “I understand all that. But you have to let me go.”
Bruce moved forward and put his arm around the Director, his hand resting upon his shoulder. He heard the Director’s breathing; he felt the beating of his heart. They were quite still, and it seemed to him that for the moment everything that had been between them, right from the
beginning, came home; all those years of their friendship, all those years, made everything still; and the very laws of physics themselves were suspended, so that when the Director moved away from him now, turned away and walked off, the space that he had occupied was still filled; that he was still there.
This is an original story for the New Statesman by Alexander McCall Smith.