Life and art borrow from each other. I’ve written some characters whose personalities and idiosyncrasies were based on real people. Art often imitates life but recently I experienced the converse in a way that was nothing short of spooky.
While working on a story that revolves around witchcraft in Scotland and the horrific fates once dealt to alleged witches here, I created a character in the image of one of my primary-school teachers. I’ll abbreviate his name to Mr C. He was an excellent educator: a perfect combination of wisdom, savvy, knowledge, compassion and inspiration, all rounded off by a temper that could, when necessary, explode with enough ferocity to bring transgressions under control. Also, he had a ridiculous amount of coolness for a teacher. Aged ten, when I became immersed in rock and metal music, I scrawled intricate band logos on the covers of my school jotters. Rather than making a fuss about this, Mr C gave me leads to follow, such as, “I see you have an ELP logo on there. If you don’t have their Tarkus album, save up your pocket money and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.” My respect for Mr C grew as he nodded his approval of my rock artwork and I gave him my feedback on the music he had recommended. The only time he ever seemed worried by my direction was when, for one art project, I created a bust of Motörhead’s Lemmy with cigarette hanging from his mouth and Ace-of-Spades-shaped badge (featuring the words With Dope You Hope, With Booze You Lose) on his jacket. Mr C took me aside and said, “You haven’t started smoking dope, have you?” I explained that I’d seen the slogan graffitied on a wall and thought it possessed a certain je ne sais quoi, adding that I’d never dabbled in dope. Happy with my explanation, Mr C nodded.
A few years later Mr C left his job without warning, apparently under a cloud. He left town and wasn’t heard from again. There were rumours, but I never paid attention to the Chinese-whispered gossip. I looked for definitive evidence of his whereabouts. Nothing. Not so much as a whiff. Like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, Mr C seemed to have disappeared into thin air. With the advent of the Internet, I looked for details of the disappearing man. Nada. Not a phone-book entry, employment history or link of any kind.
The mystery of Mr C had long troubled me, which explains how his alter ego found his way into my fiction. I created that character to highlight the fragility of the human psyche. In the story a teacher is fired from his job. Devastated by the loss of the career he found so rewarding, the man shuts himself off from the outside world and drinks himself into oblivion, pissing away self-worth and lifeforce. In real life Mr C had enjoyed a drink but hadn’t been an alcoholic (unless he was a functional alky whose daytime activities didn’t suffer as a result). In my story of Scottish witchcraft, his character’s self-destructive arc was something I felt. So I wrote it. This proved to be a double-edged sword: my intuition had sensed the answer to a nagging question, but this made me all the more determined to find out what had really happened to Mr C. He was impulsive and had been known to wade into dangerous situations with questionable people, but he was also streetwise enough to have extricated himself from those scenarios before things went south. Although the mystery remained officially unsolved, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had tapped into some universal consciousness and that Mr C was, somewhere, drinking himself senseless.
Then, after an archery session in 2012, I went to a pub called The Crooked Lum with my coach and a fellow archer. As I stepped into the interior’s warmth I saw him. Mr C. He was seated alone, back to the wall, eyes glazed, staring over his pint of Guinness. If this had been a cartoon I’d have balled my fists and rubbed my eyes in astonishment, sure they were deceiving me. I stood rooted to the spot. My coach said, “What’s the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Unable to tear my gaze away from Mr C, I replied, “Ah did. Ah still am. You two go and get your drinks. There’s somethin’ Ah have tae do.”
I approached Mr C’s table. He appeared not to have aged. Pickled, perhaps. Preserved by alcohol? His chestnut hair was brushed in the same wavy side shed I remembered from childhood. The granite jaw looked as resolute as ever, his expression drunken but determined. He looked up at me through dark eyes which – despite being coated with the glassy sheen of inebriation – sparkled with intelligence. My presence seemed to make him uneasy. I addressed him by his full name. That put him even more on edge. I didn’t understand why. Then I realised that I’d changed substantially since the last time he’d seen me: bigger, hairier, some would say scarier. He asked, “Who are you?” His body language told that he was ready to dash for the door.
When I replied, “Mark Rice,” the tension left Mr C’s body. Eyes like polished onyx gazed at me, seeing beyond my unshaven face and unkempt hair. I saw recognition in those eyes as they identified the boy within the man.
What Mr C said next was light years away from what I’d have predicted. “Mark Rice – you used to live on beans.” It seemed as though I’d wandered into a Douglas Adams novel, such was the preposterous nature of the proclamation. Then memories came flooding back. My father used to buy certain foods in bulk. Baked beans were one such commodity. I had developed a bean fetish (not a sexual one, I should stress), devouring them tirelessly, sometimes even running home to make beans on toast straight after eating lunch in school. Mr C had once paired off the children in his class and set us the task of making clay sculptures. I convinced my art partner Iain that we should create a sculpture of beans on toast. We threw ourselves into the task. Sculpting toast out of clay was easy but rolling individual beans was a fiddly job. Nevertheless, we hurtled onwards with our intricate project as if possessed, pouring thick orange paint over the finished article. It was a masterpiece. We thought so. Mr C thought so. The headmaster thought so too, so much so that he put our sculpture in a glass cabinet just inside the school’s main entrance. When visitors came to the school, the headmaster’s sweeping hand gestures would draw their attention to the cabinets full of gleaming sports trophies and…beans on toast. There was a wonderful eccentricity about my primary school. I loved the way teachers there encouraged creativity and free thinking, even wildly lateral thinking. Meanwhile in The Crooked Lum I experienced a chain reaction of memories, taking me back to a time when every day felt profound. As if sensing my temporal trip, Mr C said, “You were a great kid – a joy to teach.”
“You were an excellent teacher.”
“Aye, really. Surely you know that? You had the perfect blend o’ characteristics for someone whose job was tae teach a bunch o’ savages like me and ma classmates. You were intelligent enough tae gain oor admiration, compassionate enough tae earn oor trust, and terrifyin’ enough tae stop us from runnin’ riot in the classroom.”
“I’ve often wondered if I made any difference at all,” he said. “It’s good to hear that I did. I’m happy to see you wearing a Rush T-shirt. Do you remember who introduced you to Rush?”
“Of course. You did. Ah listened tae Rush more than any other band while Ah was writin’ ma first novel. How’s that for you makin’ a difference?”
Mr C tilted his head, weighing up what he’d just heard. “I knew you’d write a book. That was always going to happen. Let me guess – it’s full of otherworldly fantasy, heavy metal, women and beans?”
“Pretty close. Beans don’t feature in it, though.”
“Oh? Are you saving them for the sequel?”
I chuckled at Mr C’s quick wit. My archery coach brought over a mug of coffee then left me and my erstwhile teacher to our conversation.
Then things turned eerie. Mr C told me he was back in East Kilbride to visit his father, who was at death’s door. In between sups of Guinness, he revealed that his own health was in almost as bad a state as his dad’s. He had drunk his way to severe liver cirrhosis. Sitting across the table from this man I so admired, and looking into his mirror-reflective eyes, I felt the hair rise on my arms and neck. Pressure built in my eyes until tears pooled. I wondered what I had tapped into while writing my story about the witches. The infinite energy latticework known as the Zero Point Field? Jung’s Collective Unconscious? Or had I picked up a psychic distress call from this man who had been ever supportive of my childhood endeavours? A few months earlier I’d created a character based on Mr C and written about how he drank himself into oblivion. Now the real man sat before me, one step away from the oblivion I’d described. He didn’t seem sad or worried. In fact, his attitude was upbeat. He asked more questions about the years when he’d taught me. Do you think I made a difference to other children too? Have you carried any of my lessons with you into the world? What are your favourite memories of those years? Then more questions. Which is your favourite Rush album? What gigs have you attended since your first (Iron Maiden, Glasgow Apollo, the same year I was in Mr C’s primary-six class)? That one took a long time to answer. What’s the summarised plot of your novel? I guzzled coffee after coffee, answering every question Mr C threw at me, feeling that somehow my presence was providing him with a temporary lifeline to a time when he was an unshakable force of nature. Yet that momentary silver lining seemed destined to be engulfed by dark clouds. So I stayed longer, hoping to reinforce in Mr C that he had every reason to feel a sense of self-worth. I had to let him know he wasn’t just admired and respected as a teacher…he was loved.
His right hand began fiddling with a mobile phone while his left gripped a pint of Guinness as if it were a lifebuoy keeping him afloat at sea. “May I take your photo?” he asked. “I forget things sometimes. If I take your picture I’ll know this wasn’t a dream.”
Pondering the idea, I saw a hole in its logic and so suggested a better alternative. “You didnae recognise me at first tonight. If you wake up tomorrow and this whole night’s a blank, you might see a photo o’ me on your phone and wonder, ‘Who’s that hairy basturt and what’s he doin’ on ma phone?’ Tell me your number. Ah’ll send you a text that leaves no room for confusion.” The text I sent said that Mr C was a great teacher and an inspiration. It went on to say how happy I was to once again meet the man who had played such a pivotal role in my early development: the teacher whose belief in me had been unflinching. I put my name at the end of the message.
At closing time, as pub patrons filtered out into the darkness, a feeling of helplessness flooded into me. I wanted to take this man – who would have faced Hell for me all those years ago – under a protective wing to heal his hurt. The demon on my left shoulder growled, “You fuckin’ did this. You wrote it and it’s unfoldin’ as you described. Happy?” Perched on my opposite shoulder, a kilted Faerie chieftain said, “Don’t listen tae that infernal fuckwit’s far-fetched fiction. This has been happenin’ for decades. Your mind simply tuned in tae your teacher’s frequency and sensed what he was goin’ through.” I believed the Faerie warrior, as I always do, yet I couldn’t help feeling unnerved on a monumental scale.
Mr C and I shook hands under the night’s blue-black blanket of weeping clouds. My last words to him: “You were an amazin’ teacher. You still are a great man. Remember that.” As we parted, my heart boomed a collision of past, present and future. I felt in my soul the ripples that every action sends out into the world and wider Universe. An epiphany? That’d be an understatement. It was what Zen monks call a moment of satori. Even in his drunken state and on a seemingly inexorable journey of self-destruction, Mr C was still leading me to greater understanding. For that, and for every moment I was blessed to spend with this man, I feel gratitude.
Mr C, you were loved. You still are. You always will be. The difference you made will ripple forever.