Chapter One                                                                                                                                                                   Posted 6th April 2014

IT IS AS IF, he would think, who I thought I was has dried up like a well and I have to find again the source of who I am.

HE WOULD REMEMBER THE JOURNEY back home from Grenoble through Heathrow Airport, the uncertainty of it, how it is better to travel in doubt than to arrive, and how every stage of his returning reminded him forcefully that the man who was going back to Graithnock was still the boy who had left it, and that the summer of the kiln continued to happen in him.

He would be puzzled by repeating moments of that summer, their small persistence, amazed at the disparity between the triviality of the incident and the longevity of its endurance, like coming upon an octogenarian mayfly. They came, it seemed, of their own volition. No doubt they were occasioned by some sequence of thoughts which he could not retrace. But they were for him not logically explicable. Whatever purpose he had been imagining himself to have in wandering whatever corridors of the mind, it seemed the purpose had been ambushed. It was as if a door, in some corridor down which he was passing, were suddenly to open for no reason, spontaneously.

And there in a long-forgotten place, lit by a long-dead sun or by a light-bulb which had burned out years ago, were places and people he had known. The places were as they had been, unchanged. The long-abandoned furniture was neatly in place. The people were still talking animatedly about problems long since resolved, still laughing, still saying words that he could hear, still brewing tea that had been drunk. They could be young who were now old. They could be alive who were now dead.

`OH, HERE,' Auntie Bella says.

She stops at the living-room door with her leather message-bag. She's so notorious for taking slow departures that nobody ever sees her to the front door any more. It can get too cold. She seems to remember everything she had originally meant to say just as she is leaving.

`Ye can watch the seasons change just listenin' to Bella sayin' cheerio,' Tam's father has said.

`Ah met Mary Boland at the shops there. She was tellin' me whidyimacallum's been in a car crash.'

Eventually, she finds the surname she is looking for. It belongs to a well-known and very right-wing politician. His name has for a long time been the equivalent of a swear-word in the house, about as pleasant to contemplate as Sir Anthony Eden's election win for the Tories in May.

`Oh, that's right,' Tam's mother says. 'It was in the six o'clock news. Wasn't it. Conn?'

`Well?' Auntie Bella is waiting. 'What's the word?'

`Said his condition was very satisfactory,' Tam's father says. So Ah'm assumin' he's dead.'

HERE HE WOULD SIT, he decided, remembering both the journey from Grenoble and the earlier summer it had reactivated, as if they were the latitude and longitude of a confused life by which he might fix where he was, beyond the physical. The physical was simple enough. It was a rented flat in Edinburgh, near the Water of Leith. The way he felt, it might as well be the Water of Lethe. For he was aging and so many of the things he dreamt would happen hadn't happened and wouldn't happen for him now. And what had happened, he still couldn't be sure. By the waters of Leith, we sat down and wept when we remembered Graithnock. Oy vey, with a Scottish accent.

`I have seen the future and it works' (Lincoln Steffens). He had seen the present and it didn't work. He looked round the apartment where he was holing up, surrounded by someone else's furniture. This was what he had achieved? He was a recluse among half a million people. He owned nothing but some books - no house, no car, no prospects. He hadn't just burned his boats, he had burnt the blueprint for them. He had stopped visiting old friends, owing to his present tendency to bleed verbally all over their carpets. He was trying to stop inhaling whisky as if it was an oxygen substitute. His finances were a shambles swiftly degenerating into a chaos. This was what he had earned? Lodgings in a stranger's place? Emotional destitution? The melodramatic possibility of suicide nipped in and out of the flat like a dubious friend wondering if he could help that day. Otherwise, things were fine.

He was trying to do that sum again, the addition and subtraction of experience - what did it come to? How did you quantify the dreams that died, the gifts you gave and were given, the promises you thought the world made and then broke, the remembered moments that still shone like pure gold, the wonderful faces, the death of the best, the laughter that turned banality into carnival, the purifying angers, the great dead minds that whispered their secrets to you in the early hours of many mornings, the bitter sweetness of family, the incorrigible contradictoriness of living? By remembering?

HE SITS UP IN BED SUDDENLY and says, 'Mahatma Gandhi.'

He is staring into a dimness delicately brushed with half-light from the greying embers of the fire. The furniture of the living‑room has a sheen of gentle aging. The sideboard could be an antique. The biscuit barrel sitting on top of it, where his mother keeps the rent money, might as well be an Etruscan vase. The clock above the fireplace is keeping a time that doesn't seem the present. He is awake in a room he cannot recognise.

He is frozen at the sound of his own voice. Where did that come from? He has been experiencing that familiar sensation of standing at the edge of a clifftop on which the ground is crumbling under his feet and he is falling when the speaking aloud of that name jerks him clear and leaves him sitting upright in his bed.

He listens. He is glad no one has heard. It's a good thing he sleeps in the fold-down bed in the living-room. He can keep his madness private. His family are sanely asleep upstairs.

Mahatma Gandhi? Where did he come from? Almost immediately Tam knows that the small, skinny man in the Indian frock has wandered out of his own most potent obsession: his wondering about ways of how people get it.

`It' - in the darkness of his head he lets that cryptic cipher open out into some of the variations he has heard it given and repeats them to himself like a satanic litany: your hole, sex, rumpy-pumpy, intercourse, making love, houghmagandie, 'you know (with a smile), a ride, a bit of the other, a shag, hi-diddle­diddle, copulation, sexual union, 'Christ, it was incredible!'

Why were there so many names for it? Were there that many different ways to do it? And if it was so various, springing up everywhere like a genus of weed with a thousand species, how come you'd managed to avoid it so far? You had heard it called about a hundred things. (You could almost bet that any euphemism you heard and didn't understand, that's what it meant.) But you'd never had it. You had read it, thought it, heard it, certainly mimed it, and once been sure you smelled it, but you had never felt it. To judge from what you'd been told, it was running amuck like the bubonic plague and you were boringly, agonisingly immune.

He can't believe it. It winks and nods at him from everywhere but won't come out to play. What is wrong with him?

He remembers having to translate The Anabasis in the Greek class. And that's another thing: Latin and Greek at school ­what does that have to do with living in Graithnock? He can't remember the woman's name now but it was someone who came to see Cyrus of Persia about something. At least he thinks it was Cyrus. It could have been Xerxes. But he had to translate the passage.
He had looked up the words. When the Greek appeared before him, he said, 'It is said he lay with her.' He got it right. He was good at translation. He could translate one word into another word. But what the hell did it mean? It is said he lay with her? All right, he was in third year at that time but he was fifteen going on five. He lay with her?

All Dusty Thomas said was, 'Well done, Docherty.' That was well done? He had translated it from one foreign language into another foreign language. He felt like screaming, 'But what did the bastard do? (He likes swearing in his head.)

He hasn't just read about it in Greek. Being so bookish, he has tracked it down in a lot of places. He has even memorised some of the references. 'His need pistoned into her.' She screamed in agonised ecstasy.' He sometimes says the words to himself like a wine-taster with no taste-buds. He follows the spoor of those references round and round without finding any corresponding reality in his own experience until he begins to think that he is tracking a beast which, perhaps only in his private world, has become extinct.

But he continues to brood on ways of how to get it. No medieval alchemist was ever more obsessive in his search for the philosopher's stone. Out there is gold - pure, undiluted sex. He has to discover the formula that will transmute the base metal of cafes and the dancing and brassieres that seem welded to the body and skirts that defy levitation into the transcendental shining of doing it.

He studies much. He will read or hear things that will stop him dead and leave him staring into space, wondering if he has come upon the key that will unlock the golden hoard. Sometimes the revelation will only come in retrospect. He will be lying, as now, in his fold-down bed in the living-room, the house quiet as a mouse's breathing, and the turmoil of his mind will become very still, transfixed. That thing he has read or heard. Of course. Is that what he has been looking for? Has he reached the culmination of his quest?

Yes. That is the news the Mahatma brings him. For he read recently of Gandhi's determined search for physical purity. Apparently he thought that intercourse with women (and, therefore, presumably with men) should be avoided because they took away a man's vital juices. (To judge by that criterion. Tam must be so full of vital juices they are coming out his ears. Purity? He sought physical purity, did he? No problem. Here was the answer in three words: be Tam Docherty.)

The person who was writing about Gandhi was full of praise for the Mahatma's constant need to prove how pure he was, how immune to temptation. In order to do this, he would take different young women to bed with him. They must sleep together without having sex. That way, he could prove his purity was still intact. The writer was in awe of such holy self-denial.

Sitting up in bed. Tam realises that his own reaction is completely different. How could he have read so carelessly as to let the writer's attitude simply become his own, without examining it? He is always doing that. He reads something in a book or a newspaper, or he listens to someone, and it may be two days later when he thinks, 'What a load of shite that was! Why did I accept it?' He feels that now.

The thought that comes to him as he sits upright on his lonely bed, bathed in illumination, is a simple one, stunningly clear. `Mahatma, you fly, old bastard.' For it was perfect, wasn't it? You had it either way. You couldn't lose. If you didn't manage to perform, your purity had triumphed. If you had sex, it was a sad lapse from your desired standards and you must try again. And again and again and again. Ya beauty. No pressure. The ultimate, self-indulgent con. The man was a genius.

Tam is staring ahead, hardly daring to breathe in case he displaces the brilliant idea that is forming in his mind. He is already calling it The Gandhi Technique. It is a marvellous way to get a woman into bed. He finds himself going through a leisurely selection process. This sustains his exhilarated optimism for fully half an hour until realism intrudes like a burglar into the privacy of his meditation.

To make the technique work, you first of all have to become more or less world-famous. It is dependent on the veneration of others, their preparedness to believe whatever you say is your motivation. That seems to let him out.

When he explains to them the lofty reasons why they must come to bed with him, his eyes brimming with religious sincerity, he can't imagine any of the girls at the dancing saying, `I hear and obey, o holy one.' No. Such divine lack of scepticism doesn't go along with a woollen sweater to accentuate your tits, a tight cotton skirt and cigarettes and matches held in one hand while you dance forehead to forehead with a plumber's mate. And there must be few people who have ever jitterbugged themselves on to a plane of metaphysical understanding. Perhaps when he is famous and revered throughout the world, the technique may provide him with a pleasant way to pass his seventies. But at the age of seventeen it's about as useful to him as a French letter to a eunuch.

The vision disperses. The embers have died in the fire. The room has lost its magic, gone grey again. This isn't the enchanted land where sex can happen. It's 14 Dawson Street, Graithnock. The drab furniture mocks him with the unchangeable ordinariness of his life. It isn't going to happen, it tells him. Whatever you thought would happen, it won't.

He huddles down in his bed, feeling suddenly cold. What's the betting even his dreams are in black and white?

THAT WOULD BE TOWARDS THE BEGINNING of the summer of the kiln, before the weather warmed. Otherwise, why would the fire have been on? He sat in his flat near the Water of Leith and he could hear a ringing phone. But he knew that it wasn't ringing here. It was ringing in Grenoble, in the darkness. Perhaps he shouldn't have answered it. But what else could you do? And that call he received led to others he must make.

`NE QUITTEZ PAS,' the woman's voice had said.

No, he wouldn't be quittez-ing. Fat chance. He was joined to whatever dull information she would give him about flights as compulsively and inexorably as he was joined to the boy thinking of Mahatma Gandhi on his bed.

They might cut the umbilicus but you carried your end of it in you everywhere, even here in Grenoble. The first place you left followed somewhere behind you always, like a lover who couldn't bear to part, so that you could spend the rest of your life going back to take repeated farewells of it and thinking, `Why the hell can't you leave me alone? It's over now. That's not who I am any more.'

But it was. It always was. You can't disown your past without becoming no one. He felt that now, holding the phone. He would go back in body now as he had gone back so often in his head. Perhaps he had never really left.

The woman told him some times of flights from Paris to London. He could busk it from there. He thanked her and the 'mere sounded ambiguous in his mouth, plea as well as thanks. Forgive me, old places, old times. I may have been untrue. For now he had to go back not just across space but across time, to the summer when, effectively, he left.

HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, even as it happened, that he would always think of that summer as one of the definitive seasons of his life, its seemingly dull colours made not less but more vivid with time, and he was someone realising in retrospect that what might have been mistaken for the ordinary was the unique travelling incognito.

He would have been inclined, for example, to think that memory had made the weather impossibly bright, like a crude restorer retouching old scenes with anachronistic new paint, except that he knew the newspapers of that time had been given to stating that this was the hottest Scottish summer since records were kept. That scientific fact was objective confirmation of something he had felt subjectively. This summer wasn't just special to him. It was special of itself.

Maybe he needed that summer to be so lambent, he would think in Edinburgh, so clear in the memory because it mattered so much to him, had become a kind of magnetic north of the mind from which he subsequently took his bearings. Maybe he had made the summer as much as the summer had made him. But, if so, it was an honest making. Being unable to remember everything, memory is obliged to edit. And even the passion with which we misremember may be a kind of truth, an error which, in pushing aside a surface fact, may admit light to the darker reaches of wish and longing where our natures most intensely live.
Then he would realise that, while all such memories were somehow about that summer, they were by no means all memories of that summer. That interested him. It was as if that summer were a kind of lodestone of his experience up to that time, drawing all previous memory towards these few warm months and defining its significance in relation to them.

The moments might seem to come back haphazardly. But no matter how aimlessly they drifted into his consciousness, he knew they related somehow to that summer. They led him to that time, pointing him - in their confused and preoccupied ways - towards the direction he had needed to take to search for himself.

The searching would probably never be over while he had breath and the wit to understand what was going on around him. But those wandering memories all seemed to converge for him, as at the cross of a ghost town, in the summer where perhaps the search had seriously begun. Before then he suspected that he had merely happened, like a series of accidents. This was the summer when he started learning to become himself.

THIS WAS 1955. This was a different time and a different place. This was when he was seventeen and experience was coming at him like flak. Everything seemed to be beginning, perhaps because there was nothing he had managed to finish yet, unless you counted school. He was such a welter of impressions, he never seemed actually to go places. He always found himself in them. Everything was an ambush - a girl's face, the shape of a tree, a film, a book that was going to change his life, a cripple seen in the street, a girl's face.

This was when he was still a virgin and determined not to be one. But he was a secret virgin. Outside, he had some of the mannerisms of a man of the world. He could smoke like Humphrey Bogart.

This wasn't too long after he had given up the compulsion to write on bits of paper: Thomas Mathieson Docherty, 1.4 Dawson Street, Longpark, Graithnock, Ayrshire, West of Scotland, Scotland, Great Britain, Europe, the Northern Hemisphere, the World, the Solar System, the Universe, the Cosmos, Eternity. Maybe he was trying to work out where he was.

This was the summer of the kiln, a ghetto in time, when rock `n' roll was just a whispered rumour of new things and divorce was something he thought people did in America and sometimes people visited a house to see a television set and post-war rationing had ended and drugs were pills you bought at the chemist and the town had seven cinemas, each showing a main feature and a supporting feature twice weekly, and sex was a fabulous mystery and radio was a major force in most households and the presence of Cran hung over his life like the coming of the Kraken and cigarettes were stylish and one of his many ambitions was to be a writer and cars were what other people had and Maddie Fitzpatrick was his unattainable ideal of what a woman should be and the world seemed as young as he was and Sammy Clegg would ask him every so often, 'Have ye done it yet?'

This was when, regardless of the weather outside, he lived in a private climate where it was always raining questions. Everything in him and around him seemed to be in doubt.

How could the Christian God be just if the ancient Greeks were born too early to know about Jesus? How can we bear to go on living if we are certain to die? Did Margaret Inglis not know that every time she stooped or leaned over, he could see, like a draped sculpture, her incredible shape, and he wanted to pull up her skirt, ease down her pants and put his hands on those bare mounds of flesh, regardless of what happened afterwards? If she found out, would she tell the police? If Alexander the Great hadn't cut the Gordian knot, would civilisation be different? Is it possible to get syphilis from a lavatory seat? If it is, will he die of a sexual disease before he manages to have sex? If he does, is there reincarnation? Why did Oscar Wilde change his name to Sebastian Melmoth? What's the point of plooks in the great scheme of things? Where is Macao? Why does he keep a secret notebook in which he writes down quotations and one-sentence reviews of books he hasn't written yet (his favourite is 'Makes Tolstoy look like a miniaturist') and thoughts about experience? What experience? Why has he started writing imaginary notes in his head to dead or fictional people? Dead letters, right enough. Is he mad? Will he ever get past being seventeen?

Seventeen - that doesn't feel like a year, it feels like a decade, one of those years you think you'll never get out of. Time doesn't seem to go forward. It seems to go round and round, an endless stationary journey in which he keeps coming back to the same places, has to wrestle with the same insoluble problems. His only chronology seems to be perpetual now, mind-shadowed by the future and the past. Now. And now. And now.

AND NOW HE IS PLAYING FOOTBALL in the Kay Park. It is late June. An empty Sunday has suddenly filled with raucous voices and the thud of foot on leather. The goalposts are discarded jackets. Sweat binds them together into a fierce intensity. Time stops. Everything contracts to reflex and instinct - move left, turn, release the ball, collect the ball. People are shapes that loom and recede, colliding energies. Nothing else matters. There is only the game. They make a small conspiracy there in the pale sunshine, twenty-odd disparate teenagers who have melted the complexity of things down into brute energy, a brief, invented passion whose relevance is consumed in its happening.

`Next goal wins,' somebody shouts.

And they score. His side has won 15-14.

They collapse on the grass and become themselves again. It was only a game of football after all and it has solved nothing for him. He is ejected suddenly out of the almost mystical completeness the game had given him into the tics and worries of his individuality. As if he has just descended from a different planetary sphere, he sees the strangeness of his fellow earthlings. Beef Bowman's attempt to grow a moustache makes his upper lip look like a caterpillar when he talks. Tommy Sutton's glass eye stares at Tam accusingly. Many years ago he pinned Tommy to the ground and wouldn't let him up until he had explained to him what was different about his eye. The thought of it now is a double scar on his memory: nobody has the right to be as insensitive as he was and no writer should be that dumb. Sammy Clegg is passing his laughter among the group as if it were an alms-cup - like me, like me. Tam does.

They are talking in a desultory way, conversational jazz, a thought thrown out, taken up, developed, moved on from. Two girls pass in the park, fifty yards away. Shouted invitations are issued. They discuss the girls' departing shapes as if they had a right to. He participates but his remarks are not really him. They are the camouflage he wears.

An altogether different conversation is taking place inside his head. It is an endless hubbub of voices in there, a talking multitude who seem to him to have been at it as long as he can remember. Will they ever agree about anything? There are countless suggestions about what he should be. For, although it was decided by someone in him when he was fourteen that he should be a writer, this is a decision which is constantly under review. There are so many other possibilities. He often wonders why that other, distant summer afternoon, when he lay on the grass of the back green, should be allowed to have such a definitive effect upon his life.

He discovered The Three Musketeers and the day fused. The sun receded to a night-light. He became D'Artagnan and Ayrshire was Gascony. Called in for a meal that had nothing to do with him, he found it awkward to sit at the table with his sword on.

He has never been the same since. His world has become interwoven with the world of books, to the frequent confusion of himself. Besides reading with manic ferocity, he has been trying to write and his mind has become a literary salon where Hemingway argues with Dickens and Dumas with one book of Jane Austen and Kafka will barely nod to anyone. And his mother keeps butting in too and his father and people he meets in the street and things he reads in the paper and everybody, all talking through one another. Its chaos in here. How is he supposed to sort things out?

Maybe he should just try and become a professional footballer. That would simplify things. The man who runs the amateur team he has played for has said he thinks Tam could do that and Smudger, the gym teacher at Graithnock Academy, told him more than once he had a natural and exceptional talent for the game. But how do you combine that with writing a masterpiece? It isn't easy.

Besides, what he gets out of playing football has no practical application that he can see. It's not about tactics and wearing down the opposition and hitting on the break. Its a feeling. Its a feeling of belonging, of things being right. He reaches a place where he just loves the sound of feet striking the ball, the hastened breathing, the shared exertion. This will do, he thinks. This will do for the time being. He doesn't want the game to end. He doesn't even care too much what the score is. He doesn't think that would go down too well with a professional team. He can imagine coming into the dressing-room after playing for Graithnock FC.

('What a feeling, eh? That was some feeling. Did you get that feeling? That sense of the rightness of things? I hope I can get that feeling again next week. And maybe we won't lose 10-0 next week as well.'

The dressing-room reverberates with delighted laughter and applause.)

That's a definite problem he has. His sense of purpose is always being waylaid by the moment for its own sake. He remembers once in an examination he was going well when he happened to glance up from the question he was answering. He saw the examination room filled with frozen sunlight. It was beautiful and the bowed heads had the dignity of statues - a boy with his hand on his neck and a girl's dark hair falling, screening her face. He knew in that instant that everybody here was their own purpose and their preoccupation with other things was missing the point. He wanted to get up and share his revelation with everyone, declare a celebration of just being there. He didn't but he must have lost at least twenty minutes in purposeless wonderment. It was lucky he passed.

Maybe that was one of the reasons he hadn't made it all the way with a girl yet. The underground oral Handbook of Machismo they passed among them might have programmed him for merciless seduction but the way she smiled would render him idiot with enjoyment or the soft flesh of her upper arm would delay him indefinitely and he would forget what he was supposed to do. Why is he like this?


GRETE TAUGHT HIM THE WORD, he would remember in Edinburgh. Never having learned German, much to his regret (Ancient Greek had much to answer for in his life), he seized on the word as if it might somehow help to plug him into German culture, rather like a day-tripper to Boulogne trying to convince himself that he has explored France. The Greeks had a word for it, they said. He would often think, with sorrow for missed opportunities: no, the Germans did. Schadenfreude. Doppelganger. Zeitgeist. Weltschmerz.

Vorfreude. 'Pre-joy', she said it meant. He didn't catch any nuances since they were both naked in a wood near Cramond at the time, and the picnic basket didn't contain a dictionary and the wine said school's out and the finer points of connotation were not their chief concern just then. But the word stayed with him and acquired in his mind the accretions of private meaning he quite wilfully gave it. Often when he thought of it, it came attended by slats of sunlight pushing through thick trees. It was the least of the gifts she gave him but, as a smoothed stone found casually on a beach may stand as cipher for a bright and happy day, it reminded him of them. And just as that stone may become something it was never intended to be, such as a paperweight, so he was never to be sure what precise relevance the word had to the use he made of it.

In his private dictionary it didn't just mean anticipation or expectation. It was a means of bringing into focus a tendency which had troubled him since childhood. It was a lens through which to see more clearly an error of which he was too guilty, an experiential tic he would have liked to cure. His Vorfreude meant the imagining of a coming intensity of experience which no actual set of circumstances could quite deliver, a kind of over-rehearsal for life.

Was this the source of his many impressive achievements in the genre of social mayhem? How often had his despondent anger turned a dinner party or a night out with friends or an arranged celebration or a conversation in a pub into the Somme in civvies and left him firing at will at any head that came above the parapet? Did the root cause lie in the fact that the event had yet again failed to live up to his overblown idea of what it should be? That seemed far too simple.

There was, for a start, the booze. When he had enough to drink, he could imagine that somebody who nodded to him was trying to put the head on him. Midges of perception developed messianic delusions. Small, slighting references inflated to amazing proportions until the air was filled with barrage balloons of insult. All you needed to do to cure that was to stop drinking as much.

And yet. Drink might render the form of expression grotesque. But sobriety didn't eradicate the content which the form had obscured with its exaggerations. After such times, he always felt guilty. But there still nearly always flickered within the guilt, a minnow in a murky pond, something of what he had felt which refused to die, refused to succumb completely to the condemnations of others. And he somehow knew that, if it did, if it finally went belly-up with the toxin of other people's idea of
him, he would lose a crucial part of his sense of himself and start to imitate who they expected him to be.

It was the extremity of the form, he kept thinking, which had been wrong - not what he saw but the way that he said it. If he thought somebody was full enough of his own shit to start a sewage farm, he could perhaps find a better way to say it. Perhaps. His intellectual and emotional antennae were preposterously sensitive. There was nothing wrong in that. What was wrong was what he did with the effects of that sensitivity. He demanded too much from people and events.

The Kiln is available from Canongate.