Just before beginning his medical studies at Oxford, M suffered terrible brain injuries in a motorbike accident, from which he would never recover. He ended up, a few years later, living in the caravan behind our cottage and working on woodcarving in my dad’s workshop. Although I remember some massive lumpen figures, his passion and his nemesis was his Welsh love spoons, which he would spend hours carving: a single lump of wood produces two spoons, which are interlinked by a loop at the end, so the wood must remain unbroken, and time after time, as he painstakingly whittled away, the spoons would break at the weakest point and he would have to begin again.
M loved Bob Dylan and used to sit in his favourite patchwork chair in our living room, right by the blazing fire, reeking pipe in hand, listening to Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again) and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right , tapping his feet and gazing into the distance. He was a very tall man, with a large head, always crowned with a black beret, and a big beard; a gentle, dazed character, unable to retain memories of either the recent or the distant past. Of course we children were slightly frightened of him but also found him amusing, in our cruel and careless way; fond of a drink, he used to walk down to the local pub, the Winton Arms, and stumble back up the road completely trashed, swaying and smiling, as we followed mockingly in his wake. I know we used to upset and anger him sometimes.
From this distance M’s story is unutterably sad; I remember him coming home from the pub once and crying helplessly, repeating the words of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart: “Once upon a time I was falling in love/Now I’m only falling apart…”, because it had been playing on the jukebox and something in the words suddenly hit him very hard. He sometimes seemed to be very aware of what he had lost in his accident; at other times there was a kind of happy innocence about him. He was almost sucked in, as a lot of my parents’ friends were, by the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but he came back from Poona, where Bagwhan had his ashram at the time, saying he “refused to be Bagwhashed”. He was half in love with my sister and wrote letters to her. He had a harrowing appearance at Haddington Sheriff Court: someone had been stealing money from the till at the pub and they set a trap which caught M, guilelessly leaning over the bar to take the cash while the barman’s back was turned.
M had The Mass of St Francis of Assisi (“where there is…let me bring”, forever besmirched by being presumptuously arrogated by Thatcher on her election day) and this quote pinned up in his caravan:
“The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly”. (Richard Bach)
M now lives in Wales with his brother. He’s old and very frail and recently had a leg amputated because he had diabetes. My brother, who went through some troubles of his own, spent some time with him recently and said he seemed happy. I like to think of him still carving love spoons, though I doubt he does it any more, and listening to his favourite Dylan line: "Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want".