Doubting Gilgamesh, Doubting Thomas
In that Summer when I was Endiku, and my younger brother was Gilgamesh, school holidays were a time, partly to be enjoyed but mostly to be endured. School holidays for a child in rural Scotland when you have no television or radio can be an adventure or, like it was more often than not for me, a sentence.
“Life’s what you make it, son,” my dad would say when I was inclined to moan about being bored. Then he’d sit right back and carry on reading the paper. Life like work, for him was a punishment to be suffered, something that had to be tolerated. Work was only necessary as far it put food on our plates. That was his role and his only role. He was the hunter gatherer. That was his contribution. He never helped with the dishes or brushing the carpets, and God help you if you ever mentioned the ironing!
My younger brother Tom, was the most popular kid at school. All the boys wanted to be his best friend but none were; a few of the girls wanted to be his girl-friend but none were. He was captain of the football team and had been the highest goal scorer in the district last year. That won him the notable accolade of a mention by Mr Archer the Headmaster, at the morning assembly at school. Tom walked around like the Cheshire cat that whole day. He rarely achieved any recognition at school.
At our school, the kids who were singled out for particular attention were not the ones who excelled at sports. No, Mr Archer, ‘though a footballer himself in a previous life, was not given to sporting activity, not since he discovered Jesus. “It’s no kickin’ a ba’ that’ll get ye past the Pearly Gates, m’ lad,” was his perennial response to anyone who dared to suggest that “fittie” was anything of which a boy could be proud. “Awa’ an’ read the Gid Book, or Burns, or better still, wit aboot a wee bit o’ English Literature!” He would howl with laughter as the boys scattered at the very thought of having to speak, let alone read a foreign language.
My mother didn’t just tolerate life; she tolerated my father and her boys, which was worse than anything life should throw at anyone. Like every mother she cooked and cleaned. She washed our clothes by hand every weekend. We were the only family in the village without a washing machine. She brushed the carpets every day. We were the only family without a vacuum cleaner. In short, she had to make do with every hardship in life; no luxuries for her and even less thanks for anything she ever did, least of all from my father.
All that mattered to my mother was that her boys were educated so that they could leave the village and earn enough to free themselves from this life of misery.
If my mother’s ambitions fell on my brother’s deaf ears, they resonated with me. I was well aware from the dreadful literacy levels of my school peers and my 10 years of life in the village, that to escape the affliction of unfulfilled lives it was imperative to have a college, or better still, a university education from which to launch into a career. Most of the kids in the village were the children of farm workers. Few, had any ambition other than to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Most were destined to be farmers, or farm workers.
A few although different were not sufficiently so. Ian Rennie wanted to be a postman like his mother – his father having died or left home long before, possibly before he was even born; John Skilling was going to take over his father’s butcher’s shop; John Cumming lived for the day he would inherit his father’s chimney sweep business …. And so I could go on and on. These kids’ ambitions were as predictable as their test grades in arithmetic. Their vision of the future stretched no further than the boundaries of the village.
For me, school was the answer to the boredom of the holidays. Every Christmas and Easter, the school breaks were a tiresome period I had to trudge through like wading through a river of treacle. Those festive holidays were bad enough but at least they were bearable because they lasted only two weeks or so. The daylight hours were short over Christmas and New Year so more time was spent sleeping. The Church and Sunday School services broke the monotony of my many unoccupied weekend hours. Similarly for the Easter break, Sunday School and Church brought some relief to my wearisome existence. The Summer holiday however was almost beyond my ability to bear. Those months of emptiness, like staring into a night sky with no stars or planets, only deepest blackness, stretching on forever, were almost beyond human tolerance.
The Summer holidays might have broken my spirit had it not been for three great developments in my life. The first was learning to read. I can’t remember exactly when and how I learned to read, but I am so glad I did. I can only remember reading every book on which I could lay my hands. From early in my first year at Primary School I was bringing home picture books which I devoured, nourishing my starving mind, learning more and more and wanting more and more; the more I read the better I read and the better I read the more I wanted to read. As the second year progressed I began digesting adventure stories and encyclopedias. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven were a godsend. I read a book each night. When I finished them all, I read them all over again.
By the time the second school year was over I had read every book in the Primary School library including the complete works of Shakespeare, not one word of which I understood. Nevertheless, it kept the boredom at bay and filled the hours between reaching home after school and bedtime. However, the problem then was what to read after the library had yielded it’s full harvest?
The second factor addressed this issue. Mr Hendry, who owned the village grocery store, also ran the local Gospel Hall meetings. I had been accustomed to attending Church every Sunday at lunchtime, not because I had any great calling from God, but because it too helped to fill in an hour or so of an otherwise uneventful Sunday. Mr Hendry’s Gospel Hall also staved the boredom of Sunday afternoons. Even if I was learning about people and events which barely seemed credible to me, attending these institutions brought some colour to my otherwise bland weekend.
Besides, when Mr Hendry learned my fimaily had no television or radio, he gave me my first Bible, an old worn out book with thin, creased pages. Whatever its aesthetic flaws, I treasured that book. It was my ally in the continuing battle against drudgery and tedium. Over the next year, I read it from cover to cover, three times.
Mr Hendry’s motive in giving me that Bible was not entirely altruistic or merely to compensate me for the lack of electronic entertainment to which all my friends would succumb in the long Winter months or at weekends when it was raining too hard to play outside. No, his reason was more subtle and ingenious than that.
The week after he gave me the Bible, Mr Hendry asked what I had read. The beginning, of course, I had replied not quite understanding the meaning of his question. Where else would anyone start reading any book? It hadn’t occurred to me then that not all books were written purely to tell a story and entertain. Although I had read reference books in the course of reading the Junior School Library, I had not learned what function they served. For me, Encyclopedias had the odd kernel of wonder in the form of stories about Ancient Greek and Roman heroes, hidden in their midst. I lived for those paragraphs, carefully inserting little scraps of chocolate bar wrappings to mark them, visiting and reading them over and over again.
“Aye, that’s the right place to start,” he said. “And how far did you get with it?”
I explained that, I had read the first seven books – one for each day of the week. I hadn’t quite understood it all because bits of it were beyond my understanding and parts were boring. I left out the bit about reading only because we had no TV or radio; he knew that already.
“So, you think it’s a bit complicated do you?” I nodded not quite comprehending where the conversation was going. “Well, we can do something about that.”
The following week he presented me with a small, light blue covered notebook. Inside, every page contained questions and quizes, written in his beautiful, script-like handwriting. Every one caringly and lovingly crafted from his own pure, selfless heart, designed to make me read the Bible more earnestly in order to find the answers to the questions he had conceived and in so doing have a better understanding of the God he had come to love and cherish so much. Sadly, ‘though it broke his heart, I could never bring myself to lie to him or his God, by accepting the latter as my “Lord and Saviour.” Telling him the truth was more important than keeping him happy.
Thereafter, every week at the end of the meeting, Mr Hendry would give me a new notebook and take the one he had given me the previous week. We would spend a few minutes after the other children had left to go over my answers and make any corrections that were necessary. I didn’t realize it then of course, but in those moments I think I came as close to a Saint as anyone ever had.
The third event that prevented me losing my mind from utter ennui that Summer was the discovery of the Quarry. It was not so much a discovery, as a re-discovery of the place. We had known about the Quarry for as long as we had lived in the village of course, but until that Summer we had not really tapped it’s full potential for daring and adventure.
The Quarry was on McQuillan ground and was about a mile beyond the village. The McQuillans owned the largest arable farm in the area. All three sons had outgrown the usefulness of school and had done what village tradition demanded of them – they joined the family business. Truth be told, we were all a bit scared of the McQuillan boys. I myself had never seen any of them but it was said they had a massive black dog on the farm. Apparently, a young boy had once tried to pet it and the dog had savaged him horribly, tearing him limb from limb and devouring his innards. The boy’s screams could be heard all the way back in the village I had been told. The image of that dog had often haunted my nightmares.
Tom, my older brother, had often chided me about this. “Why are ye scared o’ somethin’ ye havny even seen, ye daft thing!” he would say. I would respond by protesting my courage, my denial of any fear whatsoever. Although Tom was not shy about teasing me and even occasionally blaming me for wrong-doing to save his own skin from my father, he never to my knowledge, mentioned me screaming in my nightmares.
Tom was my younger brother, younger by about three minutes that is. We were twins. I was born first and I would regularly remind him of this especially when we fought over the distribution of sweeties. I was the first-born and therefore I should have the lion’s share.
Being a leader came naturally to Tom. ‘Though we were twins and shared the same birthday and had black hair and brown eyes, that’s where the similarities ended. Where I was small for my age, he was tall. He was a full six inches taller than me. Where he was strong, I was a weakling. Where I was an ugly duckling he was a veritable swan.
But where he was lacking, I excelled. Unlike me, Tom never won any prizes at Day School, Sunday School or Gospel Hall or, at least not any that were given for excellence in subjects like arithmetic, science or writing. He did have two prize books from his first two years at Sunday School – but then, we all had those.
If Tom’s teasing occasionally crossed a line I would retaliate by asking him a sum or a question about measuring temperature or a science or history question. That stopped his teasing quickly enough. His face would puff up and turn red, (once it turned purple), he would clench and unclench his fists and after a few moments of angry silence he would let out a long, slow breath, quietly turn around and walk off, sometimes muttering profanities under his breath.
In all the years we shared a room and a bed, in all our shared Summers, Autumns, Winters and Springs, and in all the times I exasperated him, he never once laid an angry hand on me. That was to his credit, because I could be cruel with my words. I knew from a very young age that the spoken word coupled to a quick wit was more powerful than the keenest and sturdiest fist. A cutting remark could reduce any thug to a whimpering mass of nothingness more efficiently than any beating.
Tom, while maintaining complete restraint towards me was not so controlled when it came to others. He was not slow to assert his dominance when occasion demanded. Once Tod Loch from Sun Street, called my mother a rude name, a word I had never heard before. Tom demanded a retraction and an apology. When it was not forthcoming, Tom launched at him. Tod soon left nursing his left eye. “You say anything and I’ll gie ye anither batterin’!” Tom shouted after him. The next day at school Tod’s eye was black, swollen and almost closed. None but the three of us ever knew what had really happened. I don’t recall Tod ever saying anything remotely nasty about my mother after that but I feared his bitter resentment might one day find some expression.
I was dreading the Summer that year. Even before school ended I was wondering how I would pass the days without lessons and homework to fill my mind. I had borrowed some books from the library but those would not keep me occupied for more than a week or so. Mr Hendry’s quizzes kept me going from week to week, but soon even those would end for the Summer.
Luckily, Tom and his friends had made the Quarry a new adventure playground. The area had been mined years before as source of slate which had covered and protected the houses of countless buildings around the country. It had provided work for many families for many years. But those families had all left the area now that the slate had been exhausted. The plant was rarely ever visited now, except for dogs running wild from their owners or the odd deer from the nearby wood.
From the McQuillan’s farmhouse, the ground gently fell away over the length of half a mile or so, their well manicured lawn at the back of the house replaced initially by fields of green where cattle grazed in the warmer months. Beyond that, the pines and other evergreens took over covering the ground with a lush, verdant canopy which was home to birds and woodland creatures. I had often walked in the wood, fascinated by the clumps of snowdrops in the Spring and the carpet of bluebells in the early Summer, looking for birds’ nests.
One Summer when I was climbing trees I had stumbled across a curious bird’s nest. It had four small, perfectly formed eggs, cream coloured with light brown spots. I had seen many wild birds’ eggs over the years but this I had never before seen. I told my friend, Stuart McDowell, about it. That had been a mistake. I normally shared most secrets with Stuart and had never, until then, had any reason to regret it. He insisted I show him the nest. I was given an assurance that he wouldn’t take any of the eggs.
When we reached the tree and climbed it to the nest, Stuart carefully took one and placed it gingerly in his mouth. “Don’t worry,” he said later. “The mother’ll never ken. Birds cannae count o’er two. I need this yin fur ma collection.”
I didn’t challenge that. However, over the coming days when I revisited the nest, the egg count had fallen to two and then to one and then to none. I asked Stuart what he knew. Stuart was vociferous in his denials. He had not taken any of the remaining eggs nor had he told anyone else about the nest. “Ah swear oan my mother’s life, it wisnae me. I told ye it wis oor secrit. Anyway, the eggs probably hatched and the weans huv flown awa’.”
I knew this couldn’t be true. I returned to the nest and carefully examined its contents; there were no broken shells in the nest or on the ground in the area below. Besides, in the few days that had passed, the chicks could hardly have grown enough to acquire the skill of flight.
For days I felt like an accomplice to murder. That was the last time I told anyone about any nests I had discovered.
At some point, the quarrying of slate had caused the side of the hill where the plant was situated, to collapse. No lives were lost and to my knowledge no-one was injured, but it was clear that the ground had no more to give and had simply given up. This collapse had left a sheer cliff face near the bottom of a gentle undulation in the land. The ground around the quarry buildings, about an acre or so, was now covered in rubble and broken slates. No grass or plants grew around, except for one single sycamore tree.
‘Though young in tree terms, the sycamore’s seed had somehow defied the circumstances in which it’s small helicopter rotory blade had found itself. Left alone and sheltered from the elements by the surrounding stones, it had gripped and held vigorously onto the small area of rich soil into which it had happened to fall. Slowly and resolutely, it had germinated and pushed it’s way upwards towards the welcoming light and sky. Sheltered by the cliff face it had established itself and grown to a height greater than the cliff itself. One of its main branches was now just below the level of the top of the cliff, running parallel to it before it branched off at a right angle.
Now in Summer, its numerous, glorious emerald leaves could almost be grasped by anyone standing at the cliff’s edge by reaching out, the main branch itself being only a matter of two yards or so from the cliff and perhaps half a yard below. This proximity of the branch to the cliff had led Tom and his friends to invent a new game of daring and courage. Initially, they had simply climbed the tree from ground level, gained the branch in question, and tied a long rope to it. They used this as a make-shift swing and had spent many hours simply swinging back and forward.
Tom had taken me to see the swing early in the Summer. “C’mon,” he said excitedly. “It’s brilliant. Jist wait and see how far ah cin swing oan it!” So off we had set. I put my book – the Epic of Gilgamesh – aside and followed him out of the house. “Dinnae you tell the ithers ah’ve took ye there mind,” he lectured me as we walked. “They dinnae want folks tae know aboot it, right?” I held my silence, not knowing what all the fuss was about. It was only a swing, after all. It was hardly the key to Fort Knox or the cure for cancer.
When we arrived, Tod and six others were there already. Tod was indignant. “Whit’s he doin’?” he demanded thrusting his finger in my direction. “Ah thought we wis keepin’ this a secrit?”
“He’s ma brither,” Tom justified. “He’s aw right. He’ll no tell nobody.” He turned to look at me. I could see he was embarrassed to have been caught out, and by Tod Loch of all people! “Will ye?” he asked looking straight at me.
I assured them all they could count on me. I could keep a secret as well as any of them and better than most, because most folks (except Mr Hendry and my school teachers) had little or no interest in anything I had to say. The group reluctantly accepted me and one by one we took turns to try the swing. I realised that by climbing a short way up the cliff face with rope in hand, the speed and arc of swinging could be increased. Tod was irritated by my suggestion, not because it was a bad one, but because he hadn’t thought of it. He insisted he be the first to try.
He grasped the rope in both hands and passed them up its length, taking up the slack as he climbed a few feet up the cliff face. “Push hard wi’ yer feet and legs when ye tak aff!” shouted one of the boys.
Just as I was about to advise against this, Tod hurled himself into the air and swung in an arc towards the ground. He felt his hand slip a little as he rose up into the air. Slowly he came to a halt seeing the tree tops ahead before he began the slow descent backwards towards the ground. He felt his stomach ache again and the weight of his body seemingly concentrate on both his hands, now gripping the rope with fear more than exhilaration as he gained speed, rushing backwards towards the ground. Momentarily he thought about releasing his grip as his speed of descent increased but that momentary delay had cost him dear. His acceleration increased so much that he dared not do anything other than grip the rope with all his might.
We could all see the fear in his face, especially when he shut his eyes tight and hugged the rope like it was the Lord Jesus Himself on Judgment Day. Tom and the others laughed. I didn’t. I held my breath. I knew what was going to happen.
Back he swung – to Tod it must have seemed a minor eternity, but to us it was a fleeting moment. It was inevitable. Before the velocity of his body’s descent was fully spent, he crashed into the cliff. Luckily his head was bent forward as he held onto the rope for dear life because this meant his chest hit the rock face, winding him. He collapsed onto the ground.
The others laughed as Tom ran over to him. I watched in horror thinking he was dead. Luckily I was wrong. Just as Tom reached him, Tod began breathing.
“It’s no funny!” he said weakly after a minute or so, trying to rub his back. This made the others laugh even more. Tom began to smile. “It’s no funny, di ye hear me?” Tod snarled after a few moments, getting to his feet and slowly regaining his composure. His breathing returned to normal. The others stopped laughing.
Looking in my direction, he made a few determined steps towards me. “You! You think it’s funny dae ye! Havin’ a gid laugh are ye?” I took a few steps backwards. “Ah’ll show ye whit’s funny.”
I knew there was no point in protesting. He was determined to vent his anger on the weakest person there and by doing so, salvage his dignity. I waited, mouth dry, for the inevitable punch to my face.
“There’s no need fir any o’ that!” said Tom holding Tod back. “He wisnae laughing. It wis them eegits.” Tod stopped but he was not done. He wanted revenge. He wanted blood. My blood.
“Right! It’s like that then, is it?” he snarled at Tom
“Cannae fight his ain battles, cannae no?”
“Naw! It’s no like that,” explained Tom. “He wisnae laughing. He’s no like that. He’s a’ books and poetry an’ that. He’s jist a daft wee thing; no wirth botherin’ aboot.”
“A’ the same, ah’ll no be having him or ainybody laughin’ at me, right?” Tod looked around at the others, knowing his quest to pummel me into an early, rocky grave was at an end. The others lowered their eyes to the ground in trepidation. They had often felt the force of Tod Loch’s fist in their faces.
“Look,” said Tom. “There’s naebody laughin’ at naebody here. At least no noo. No ainy mair. C’mon. Let’s swing.” And with that he took a running jump and grabbed the rope.
“No. Ah’m no fir swingin’,” said Tod, staring intently at me. I could feel my mouth beginning to dry again. I took a few unsteady steps backwards. “Ah’ve had enough o’ that fir noo. Let’s try somethin’ else.”
I could see that some despicable plan was hatching in his mind. If he couldn’t beat me to death, he would contrive some other way of harming me. All I wanted to do was run, run as fast as I could and read the end of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” safe in my home. I couldn’t die without knowing how the story ended.
However, Tod was not having any of that. “You feart?” he said looking all the while at me, advancing towards me, step by step. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer, my mouth was a dry, barren desert, bereft of any word. “Bloody right tae be feart! You and yer poofy books! Let’s see whit ye cin dae. You!” He spat the word at me. “You go up tae the tap there an’ jump on tae the branch. Dae that an’ ye cin be in oor gang. Right! Got it?”
I tried to find some excuse to decline his kind invitation to join his exclusive club, but my tongue was stuck fast to the roof of my mouth.
“Lae h’m alain!” said Tom, still holding the rope. “I telt ye afore, he’s jist a daft wee thing. No worth botherin’ aboot.”
“Ah’m no throwing this wee tiddler back in the watter,” said Tod slowly. “Ah’m havin’ him.”
I had never before been so afraid. I could feel my legs tremble, I thought I would pass out. One of the boys, Frank, Tod’s younger brother by a year, had managed to get behind me. I could feel him pushing me forward, reversing my retreat.
“You, Tam! Leave well alone!” Tod threw the words over his shoulder, sensing Tom walking towards him. Tod returned his attention to me. “Now, you. What are you goin’ tae do? Are ye goin’ tae jump or am ah goin’ tae huv tae batter ye!”
I searched desperately for the words, anything, an apology, some way of begging him to let me go, a plea to Tom to rescue me as he had done so often before…… But my mouth remained resolutely silent. I must have cut a sorry if not stupid figure, mouth opening and closing but no words issuing forth.
Tod lifted his fist and shook it in my face. “Get!” he hissed. “Get up there an’ dae it!”
“Right yous!” said Tom, walking up to Tod and pushing him aside. “That’s enough o’ that. Have ah no telt you before? Lae him alain or ah’ll be gain you the same lesson ah gave ye before!”
The others crowded round. They sensed a fight and they wanted front seats.
Knowing that even Tom could not fend off so many of them, if it came to a fight, I felt compelled to say something. I put up my hands in a gesture of surrender to buy some time. My fear dissipated somewhat as my mouth regained its wetness. My powers of speech slowly returned. I explained that I was no coward and could do anything any one of them could. I regretted it even as I said it.
“So?” remarked Tod. “So bloody what? That disnae get ye up there ‘though, dis it? Ye’er still a wee pee-in-the-pants feertie aren’t ye!”
As calmly as I could, I told them that I would be more than happy to emulate anything they did. If he, Tod, were to demonstrate how it could and should be done, I would gladly do the same. I was quietly proud of having out-maneuvered him, ‘though to be honest winning a game of wits against Tod Loch was no great accomplishment.
To my dismay and returning fear, Tod snarled, “Ye’er feart! Dinae deny it. Anybody could dae that. It’s so easy I could dae it wi’ ma een clawsed. I didnae need tae dae it just so’s you cin copy me. So, get yer baby backside up there and dae it! Now! Ye’er big brither’s no gannae save ye.”
I looked at Tom. He looked back at me. “Listen you Tod Loch. Naebody’s gan tae dae anthin’. It’s stupit! Bloody stupit! An’ you’re the maist stupit fir suggestin’ it! So lae him alain. No you, no him, naebody’s dain anthin’ cos we’er fed up o’ ye, an’ yer daft notions. Bad enough ye git the wind knocked out o’ ye, but ye’ll no let go ‘til somebody’s hurt awfy bad. Or worse!”
“Right big Tam,” said Tod turning his back on us and walking slowly away. He knew he had us on the ropes. It was a matter of honour now. Our pride was at stake. Did I have what it took to make the jump? It was only a short distance after all. Any 10 year old could do that. But the height of it – that made all the difference. On the other hand, it was all in the mind I told myself. What did it matter if the jump was 30 feet up in the air? It was still only a couple of yards. All I had to do was put the fact that it was so high out of my mind and the jump would be easy peasy.
I was about to announce my intention to jump, when, “Right, if ye’ll no do it,” I heard Tom say to Tod, “Ah’ll dae it ma’sel and that’ll be that. Right?” Silence. “Ah’ll go first, and then you Loch, got it? An’ then, the rest o’ ye afore he dis,” nodding at me.
The others looked to Tod, too frightened to say anything. Tod looked at Tom and then at me. I couldn’t figure what was going through his head. He knew he could beat Tom in a one on one fight – everyone there knew that. Nevertheless, not even Tom could fight off seven lads if they chose to attack him at the same time. I wanted to protest, to stop Tom from jumping. It was foolhardy. It was madness. But, whatever my previous hyperbole, for every ounce of courage Tom had, I had ten of cowardice. I stood rooted to the spot as I watched my brother walk up the slope of ground to the top of the cliff.
Even then I had half a thought that he might just turn and run to the McQuillan farm and seek refuge there. But then I saw him take careful stock of the distances. The others too stood in awed admiration, all except Tod. “He’ll no dae it,” he said. “He’s a pansy like his brither.”
“Aye he wull,” said Frank. “Look, he’s goin’ ……”
I looked up. Tom had taken a good few paces back from the cliff’s edge. He ran making a huge effort to leap just before he reached the edge. As he soared majestically through the air towards the tree, his legs frantically pushing the pedals of an invisible bicycle, his cheeks puffed out holding his breath, his eyes bulging, I thought I was dreaming. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. For those few seconds I heard nothing, saw nothing, knew nothing but my brother flying through the air to the tree, to the branch …… to his death. Slowly, slowly, slowly and yet so quickly, legs pedalling, arms outstretched he pulled the branch almost with the strength of his will, through the air towards him.
In fact, he had almost over-judged the distance. He slammed into the branch, almost doubling and summersaulting over it. Up went his heels, down went his head. For a moment I thought he would roll right over and tumble to the ground, breaking other branches on the way down. I held my breath.
Fortunately, he held on, steadied himself and grinned, breathlessly down at me. He shuffled along the branch to the rope and slid to the ground. “Right Loch, up ye go.” He said casually. Tod said nothing. He took a few steps towards the slope. He stopped. “Whit’s wrang Lochie? Peein’ yer pants?” shouted Tom. Silently Tod walked up and made his way slowly to the edge. He took one look at the gap and stepped back immediately.
“Ah huv tae gae hame. It’s past ma supper time,” he shouted and that was the last we saw of him that day.
On the way home, I asked Tom what it had been like to make the jump. First he feigned disinterest, but I could tell he was desperate to talk about it. Then he tried to be nonchalant about it. “Och, it wisnae that hard. But don’t you be tryin’ it. Only dafties dae things like that. Dafties like me! You jist huv tae mak sure ye have the run-up right. Ye dinae want to jump oan the edge, ye need tae jump jist afour it. Nae problem.” He rolled out the ‘r’ to make the point. I threw him a look of disbelief. “Whit!” he exclaimed. “Dae ye no believe me?”
I told him he wasn’t a very good liar – I knew he was being economical with the truth.
“Eco – whit? You read that in that book?” he asked. “Ah doan’t see whits in a’ them flippin’ books. You’re goin tae turn intae a book yin day if ye’er no careful. Whit are ye reading anyhow?”
I told him about the Great Gilgamesh and his friend Endiku, how they had met and become friends, how Gilgamesh had helped Endiku in his time of trouble and how together, they battled the elements, the land and even the Gods.
“Is that what ye think ah am? Gilgamesh?” he asked. I told him perhaps. “Aye, I think I like that name. Gilgamesh.”
The next day Tod was sick and stayed off school for the rest of the week. When we eventually saw him again, he tried assiduously to avoid the subject of the jump. This ruffled Tom’s feathers. I was all for leaving well alone. We had, after all, made our point which had not been lost on the other boys. But Tom wasn’t going to let Lochie off that easily.
After school Tom ambushed him by hiding behind the bike shed. “Did ye pee yer pants up there Lochie? Did yer mammy no ask ye why yer breeks were soakin’ when ye got hame?”
“Naw,” protested Tod. “It’s no like that. I wisnae scared. I wis goin tae dae it but I just remembered my auld man hid telt me no tae be late fir my tea. He’s a awfy bad temper on him he hus, an’ ah didnae want a leatherin’ fae ‘im.”
“Well, Toddy ma lad,” said Tom, “ye’ll no mind showin’ us how brave ye are the nicht then. Ye can mak the jump the night.”
“Sorry, Chief, no can dae. I’m no better fae my belly yet. Ma ma says I huv tae take things easy. Ah’ve no tae get excited or anythin’ like that. Besides I dinae like the swing anyway. It’s fur kids. No fur the likes o’ me.” He looked at Tom as he spoke and seeing his excuses garnered no sympathy, turned his eyes to me.
No longer was there any disdain in those eyes, no more did he look like he was going to pummel me into the middle of next week, no threat, no promise …… But there was instead something I had not before associated with the loutish Tod Loch. There was pleading. His look to me was a plea for understanding and for possibly, possibly, I thought, for forgiveness.
Tod Loch and I were never destined to be friends in this life, but I simply could not ignore this. I put my hand on Tom’s arm and told him the jump was a daft idea, he had been right about that after all, and that it was just as daft to pursue the matter. Somewhat surprised and, I thought, a little disappointed, Tom said no more. We never saw Tod or any of the others at the swing after that. We had it all to ourselves for the entire Summer.
That very next Saturday, Tom and I went back to the swing. We took crisps and a bottle of ginger each and spent the morning together. We went up the cliff and looked down at the branch that still bore a few broken twigs where Tom had landed. I asked Tom if he would do it again.
“No bloody likely!” he squeeled. “Dae ye think I’m as daft as that Tod Loch? Ah might be green but ah’m no a cabbage! I wis lucky tae get away wi’ it wance. Daein’ it again wid be pushing yer luck. I was peeing masel’ as it wis!” He looked at me and we both fell about laughing. I laughed so hard, I think I did pee my pants … just a little.
The next day at Gospel Hall, I duly gave my completed notebook to Mr Hendry and he, in exchange, gave me a new one. “Now, young lad. What have you been up to this week? Learn anything good at school?”
I told him about the Epic of Gilgamesh and some other books I had read. I didn’t mention the swing. “Good. What about the Bible I gave you? I hope you’re reading that.” I assured him I was. I had to in order to complete the quizzes he gave me. “And what bit of the Bible have you been reading?” I told him about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. “Ah then you’ll know all about the twin.” I was utterly flabbergasted. What twin? There were twins in the Old Testament – Esau and Jacob – I knew about them, but there were no twins in the New Testament. Had I misread it or had I missed a bit?
Mr Hendry saw the confusion in my face and chuckled. “Aye, I thought as much,” he said. “You know the bit where Thomas has to put his ……” I finished the story for him, just to prove I had read it. The Apostle Thomas had refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, after being crucified. He insisted on putting his fingers into the holes in Jesus’ hands where the nails had pinned Him to the cross and putting his fist into the hole in His side where the Centurion had stabbed Him with a spear to make sure He was dead, before he would believe.
“Very good,” Mr Hendry said, looking pleased that I had learned so well. “And do you know what he was called because of that?” I shook my head. “Doubting Thomas.” Oh yes, I exclaimed. I remembered the bit when after Jesus had shown him His wounds he chastised him for needing to see before believing. But what, I wondered, was the stuff about the twin? “Och aye. I almost forgot about that,” he said rubbing the side of his face. “Well, Thomas’ real name was Didymus.” I almost giggled but managed to remain composed. In my circles the term “Diddy” had derisory connotations such as might be applied to someone like Tod Loch.
What did that mean I asked. “Didymus means ‘twin’,” explained Mr Hendry. I now knew what “Didymus” meant, but I was none the wiser. We left it at that.
Every night that week I could not rid my mind of the jump. I even dreamed about it. Tom had managed it. Why then couldn’t I? Perhaps it was because Tom had always been my better at everything requiring physical strength. He could lift heavier weights than I and he could run much faster. But there was surely more to the jump than strength alone? If he could make the jump, why couldn’t I?
One night when these thoughts were particularly worrying, preventing me from sleeping, I climbed out of bed. “What are ye doin’? asked Tom, sleepily. Nothing I assured him. I was thirsty and was going to fetch a drink. “Well dinae be long. Ah’ve tae get ma beauty sleep ye ken. It no easy being this handsome.” I didn’t laugh. He was fast asleep before I even closed the bedroom door.
“And, just what do you think you’re doing young laddie?” asked my mother when she saw me at the kitchen door. “Your father’s already in bed and so’s your brother I hope.” Yes I told her. He was fast asleep. “So let me repeat myself,” she continued. “What great matter brings you here now? I was just about to go to bed myself.” I told her about being thirsty and needing a drink. I wasn’t tired and wondered if I might read for a bit before going back to bed. I would be quiet and wouldn’t disturb anyone. Promise.
I sipped a glass of water and began reading about Gilgamesh again. I had finished the book earlier in the week but was drawn to it. Flicking through the pages I speed read again the great heroic exploits of my hero, the words on the pages resurrecting the images they had conjured in my mind the first time I had read them. But try as I might, that sycamore branch kept invading my thoughts, taunting me, daring me to jump.
Being Summer it was still light outside, even ‘though it was late. The house was quiet. I could hear my father snoring. Good. That meant my mother was fast asleep as well. My father never really fell into a deep sleep until my mother was beside him.
I put my overcoat and shoes on and carefully opened the back door.
I can’t remember any of the journey there or back. I just remember leaving the door on the latch and then suddenly standing in my pyjamas at the top of the cliff looking down at the branch, my overcoat neatly folded on the grass.
There was enough light to see, the sun had dropped in the sky but was still above the horizon behind me. I was strangely calm, despite knowing full well what I intended to do. It was like being in a dream you’ve already dreamt, where you can’t stop something awful about to happen. The only difference was, I couldn’t remember how this dream ended.
I took a dozen or so steps back, braced myself, took a few deep breaths, exhaled slowly and ran for all my might. I imagined the McQuillan dog chasing me. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest … I felt every thud of my feet as they dug into the firm earth under me … I felt the air in my face. As I reached the edge of the cliff I gave an almighty heave and launched myself into the air. For a few seconds of eternity I felt nothing. There was no air, no sky, no ground. All I was aware of was the blood rushing in my ears drowning everything and anything.
Then, I felt a sickening thud in my chest and felt leaves in my face. I reached frantically in front of me and wrapped my arms around the smooth bark of the branch. I held on for dear life. My feet dangled in the air. I tried to lift one up, to hook it around the branch but I was too weak. I tried to slow my breathing. Gradually it did. The volume of blood rushing past and through my ears lessened and my heart rate subsided. Slowly the world came into focus. Only then did I become fully aware of what I had done.
Climbing trees was one thing I could do as well as Tom. First I encircled the branch with my arms; that made me more secure. Next I managed to shuffle along the branch to the rope and then easily slid down.
I sat on the ground, my head swimming. I was scared; I was elated. I had done it!
“Och, I asked ye no tae make a noise!” Tom complained sleepily when I climbed into bed beside him. In hushed tones I told him what I had done. I couldn’t stop myself. I had done it! I had faced my fear and, just like Gilgamesh, I had conquered it. “Ye’ve done whit?” Tom exclaimed, through half-closed eyes. I told him again. “Awa’ and bile yer heed. Them books huv got ye a’ cufuffled. Ye cannae tell stories fae real life.” But, I protested, I really had made the jump. Just like he had done. I really had. “I dinnae believe ye. Now just go tae sleep, it’s no easy bein’ this good lookin’ an’ ah’ve tae get ma beauty sleep yet ……”
I whispered goodnight to him. “Awe right wee man,” Tom murmured. “I thought you wis Endiku and ah wis Gilgamesh.” Almost immediately, I heard him give a long sigh and settle into a deeper, more regular breathing pattern.
I turned away from him and snuggled my head into the edge of the pillow. No, you’re not Gilgamesh, I thought. You’re my twin brother, Thomas. In the morning I’ll show you the green marks from the leaves on my pyjamas and take you to see where I mistakenly left my overcoat tonight.