The house is always warm. When the sun makes an appearance it stretches its rays right through the rooms. The carpet still feels luxurious underfoot, even though it is looking a little worn.The old clock stands at the heart of it all, the steady tick reverberating through the quiet. The chime marks the passing of the hours, and the progression through a reassuring routine of habits that have formed over the decades.
This was my uncle and aunt’s first house after moving from a small apartment in the city. It was a brand new development with fresh lawns, built around a string of ponds and nestled against the big forest. They had their first washing machine and television set, and the children had their own bedrooms. The first of two dogs came shortly afterwards, one of whom my uncle remembers as being very intelligent.Their neighbourhood was called the Paradise quarter. At the time there was little else other than fields and the old farm where you could get fresh warm milk.
They will probably be the only occupants the house has known. As the other original houses in the development come up for sale they are demolished and replaced with larger, grander things of glass, wooden floors, and openness to cater for contemporary tastes.
My uncle feared that he would die young like his father. He was worried about making it to 50. When an opportunity presented itself he took early retirement just in case. He then made plans for his life up to 60, then 70, then 80, and finally he stopped planning. Worried that he could not manage alone, he made an agreement with his wife that she should out live him.
The kitchen is the original. Once the height of domestic practicality it is now a shadow of its former glory. It was my aunt’s domain, and witness to her production line of three course meals and afternoon cakes. Hidden corners still deliver a faint smell of cinnamon.
My uncle went through a period of throwing things out, until his daughter complained that there was no longer anything to cook with. It takes the opening and closing of several drawers and cupboards to find anything. The knives are blunt, their tips chipped, and the pan sticks. The few herbs are odourless, and the jars of condiments are sticky. Presents brought back by the grandchildren from their travels to far away places linger untouched.For a while there was a good sherry that made cooking more enjoyable and the eating tastier, but that has long since gone. After the sherry had dried up I decided to try out a bottle of vodka that had lurked full and inviting on the top shelf as the last remnant of a drinks cabinet. I made us both a vodka and orange using the plentiful ice I had made in a moment of optimism last time I visited. It tasted only of orange juice so I added another healthy dose of vodka. No change. I took an apprehensive swig from the bottle. A full bottle of lukewarm, stale, water.
When I was a child, and long after, my aunt would always encourage me to eat more. Just like my mother, everything had to be finished.Now it is I who gently encourage my uncle to do the same. With company he does, he enjoys the wine, and his sparkle returns.There is a contented silence while we eat. I am busy chewing. My uncle has been through the regular questions he wants to check up on, although they may well return shortly.Not yet adjusted to the pace and the silence I try to say something. In my haste I have not finished chewing, and an already garbled language is rendered unintelligible. I look at my uncle watching me quizzically. I cover my mouth and finish chewing.
‘Birch trees like mushrooms,’ I offer as a comment as we survey the swaying trees.
He looks at me curiously. I cannot tell whether it is my language or his hearing. I practice saying the words in my head as clearly as possible before trying once more.
‘Birch trees really like to live in mushrooms.’
It is obviously not his hearing as he looks at me as if to say what is he trying to say. I try to expand.
‘Like the forests of Eastern Europe.’
His eyes light up, a big grin comes across his face.
‘Of course, swamps.’
With early retirement my uncle took on hobbies. He collected stamps. I remember him showing me, with great pride, volumes of carefully ordered stamps, the misfits being the treasures of his collection. In the end only a few stamps eluded him.His grandchildren were not interested so he auctioned them off. He tells me he was lucky with his timing, as now there is little appetite for such old pastimes.
My uncle introduced me to fishing. We went pike fishing, and he warned me not to let my fingers trail in the water as the fish would bite them clean off. He pointed to the ducks nearby,‘Many of them have lost a foot to the pike.’I still hear his words, and hesitate a moment before swimming in such waters.I remember one of our catches, the largest, leaping straight out of its container, high over the edge of the boat to freedom. There is a photograph of me with my broken arm and two big fish. We took them home in a bin liner, but no one in the family knew how to cook them, until a neighbour kindly volunteered.Years later with arm repaired and still keen to fish we went salmon fishing in a cold fast river. I caught one but I could barely bring it in. My uncle came to my rescue to reel in the fish. I tried to plead with him to let it go but in one clean strike that was that. Later he said that he did not hear me. We ate salmon for three days.
As an adult I have tried to fish with him again but with little success. Either the weather has not proved favourable, or the joints too stiff. So one summer’s evening we practiced fly-fishing in the garden, casting line across the still air amidst the butterflies and bees.Although he loved to fish, my uncle nearly always turns his nose up at the prospect of eating it, but with age, certain species, and specific recipes are considered tolerable.Recently he told me that his father did not like fish either.
Buzzards roam beyond the edges of the beech forest. They stalk the streets. Their cries echo over the empty houses whose occupants are at work in the city. The other birds are unsettled. They flutter about in all directions and fill the air with their calls. Moments later a rustle in some trees and a buzzard flies off with its victim.Most people in the neighbourhood leave their shiny barbeques and their elaborate loungers on their curated terraces. My uncle carefully packs away his weathered chairs and modest barbeque as his trust for the surrounding world retreats.
A bird’s leg with a long curved toe lies dry on the patio. The invading plants are taking over. The gaps in between the paving stones were perfect for digging up for trench warfare between my toy soldiers.
When I was a teenager I came to visit once wearing a German iron cross on my jean jacket. My uncle asked me why. Maybe I said because I like it, but I remember I did not really have an answer.
Around the terrace lies a ring of bits of bread. Either too stale for elderly teeth, or left a moment too long on the toaster.
We are eating strawberries with generous helpings of cream. Two kids ride by on bikes, they only just appear above the hedge. They cannot be more than eleven.“We will, we will, fuck you.” They scream to the tune of Queen’s ‘We will rock you.’My uncle continues to smile.‘Sometimes they ride by talking on their mobile phones and you think there is a whole gang of them.’
After the war my uncle sailed across the oceans as a marine engineer. He is fond of recollecting that they used to play cards, always for money, and he was often the winner.He went to visit his uncle in Manila. I ask him what he remembers of Manila.‘They had a day when it was the custom to throw water at cars. I was driving with my aunt and her window was open. Someone threw a bucket of water and we were both soaked.’The thought crosses my mind that it must be the other uncle who was rumoured to be gay.‘And of course Manila was famous for its beautiful girls.’
My uncle flicks through the TV channels. Dissatisfied with what he sees he says he is going to bed and offers me the remote. ‘Maybe you can find something interesting.’The remote is worn down and many of the buttons are indistinguishable. I realise that I am pointing it towards myself.
Somehow I always seem to time my visits with when the lawn needs to be cut. For some reason the strong grandsons always manage to duck out of it.
It was hot. I was wearing an old pair of my uncle’s loafers that were split at the sides and a few sizes too big. My feet roamed about in their smooth interiors. I had on his work corduroys as I battled with the machine and a couple of extensions. The machine was old and heavy. It sprayed grass everywhere so there was raking to be done as well.Covered in grass, blistered and hot, I was finally finished. I went straight to the fridge. There was a half bottle of cold proper lemonade. I drank it straight from the bottle in hard, thirsty gulps. I threw it straight back up. Luckily in the sink that was right there. I don’t know what it was, and never found out, but it was industrial and toxic. I hung over the sink retching.My uncle came to see what was causing all the noise. He stood at the steps and looked at me buried in the sink. I pointed at the bottle. He picked it up and ran his finger under a small label stuck on top of the original label.‘You should have read the label.’I glanced at the tight wriggly old person’s writing. It was helpfully underlined, but completely unintelligible. I pointed to the fridge.‘You should always read the label before drinking from the bottle,’ and he left.Later he said that he left to phone his cousin who had been a doctor, and who said I would be fine.The grandsons could not resist a smile when I told them I had to mow the lawn again.
Under a blue sky the trees are as still as the surface of the water on the pond. We are sitting on the terrace, the heat all enveloping though the sun lies behind a solitary cloud.‘It is fine it is not blowing,’ says my uncle.We eat our lunch and drink our beer in silence. Our gazes roam from the plates, across the freshly mown lawn, to the pond and the forest beyond. I watch time pass. Sixteen minutes later.‘There is no wind at all today,’ he observes.
A neighbour trims his hedge in swimming shorts. His shoulders are red, and his breasts larger than they should be.I ask my uncle who it is.‘The chemist,’ he replies, adding after a moment ‘One of the few people I recognise around here anymore.’
My aunt used to love the sun, and would take any opportunity to soak up its rays. At their summerhouse my uncle dug a pit in the ground so that she could sunbathe. He would remain in the shade under his cap.
Walking to the shops earlier to buy some food I came across strange looking twigs on the pavement. It took me a moment to realise that they were dried out earthworms.
‘It is warm, really warm,’ my uncle continues.I have never known the air to be so warm here. I ask him if he has ever experienced such a summer of heat and dryness.‘No,’ he pauses, ‘this was once under two or three kilometres of ice.’The retreating ice left behind the ponds that are now drying out. A heron stalks the shallows and the ducks complain amid a home that has turned to mud.
The trees tower over me as I walk through the forest laden with food, wine and treats. The air is mild and the forest inviting. The canopy speckled with yellow and orange. I pause on a tree stump and watch the leaves dance their long awaited descent.
I ring the doorbell. My uncle calls that the door is open. Leaves have blown in on the carpet. He is happy to see me and in good spirits, but he remains in his chair.My cousin had warned me, as did my other cousin, although my mother had said nothing. There is an acidity that lingers in the nostrils if one breathes in too deeply. The carpets are more stained, and the walls reveal new markings as their surrounding camouflage fades. There are more gaps on the bookshelves.
We sit in silence, watching the approaching storm come in from the west. It is the weather front that I have flown through a few hours earlier. My uncle has rigged up an assorted collection of heaters on the wall. The warmth feels good on my back.The wind picks up, the clouds darken and there is a distant streak of lightening. I can never remember what to do if caught out in the open by lightening. I ask my uncle, as it is the kind of thing he would know.‘Lie on your stomach.’‘What about the trees?’ I am not sure if I am to avoid the trees or seek them out.‘If there is one stay well away, that is very dangerous. But if there are many you can go amongst them. That is okay.’ I am telling myself that I must make an effort to remember.The canopy flies up, more lightening and then silence before an enormous roll of thunder. I try to count the seconds.
My uncle says that the problem with getting old is that there is little you can do about your troubles. There are no means to avoid what is unfolding.Looking at me he says when you are young, whether they are physical or mental, you can do something about it.
My uncle is of a generation of men who are not known for their domestic prowess. He can make breakfast, boil an egg, and do the washing.However he has a perfectly equipped and immaculately organised workroom. It is still there, though a few items are missing, and the spider carcasses proliferate. Things stack up on the work surfaces, no longer put away on their assigned hooks, or in their labelled drawers.
I try to find things in my luggage that my uncle can fix. In a world of disposability, things are quick to fall apart, but are not to be repaired.
There is a small apron with the words ‘Bella Italia,’ in red on the front. I think I am the only one who uses it. The ties are short and the material cheap. I always remember to put it on at the last minute. In my haste I tie it far too tight.
My uncle likes to come and inspect what I am cooking. Maybe I spend too long in the kitchen. I hear his stick thumping along the hall and across the dining room. There is a pause before the kitchen as he adjusts his weight before dramatically swinging open the door with his stick. You can see the enjoyment in his eyes as he stands there announcing his presence. He was never one to knock.‘What a mess,’ he says.He stands by my side at the stove looking excitedly at the sausage sizzling in the pan. I ask him how do you tell when a sausage is cooked.‘When it is brown!’ he replies.He points to a lit hob with nothing on it, from which I had just removed the browning onions.‘Why is that ring on?’
When the food is ready I try to undo my apron, but I quickly give up. I bend my head under the strap and push the apron down my legs before stepping out of it. This happens every time.
The clock ticks away. As a child I always used to watch the pendulum, fascinated by its predictable swing. I wanted to put my finger in the way. I never dared.
As we sit at the table my thoughts meander through my range of vocabulary, mulling over words that I could combine into potential sentences. With limited ambition, I settle on, ‘Politicians are dumb.’I know I am in rich territory. My uncle loves this topic. You can see his eyes light up as he turns to me and sees a kindred spirit.‘We have some pretty dumb ones here, but we have just heard on the television, that they are also dumb where you come from. They are dumb all around.’My uncle reels off all the culprits;‘The Dutch, the Belgians, the Italians. And what about the French!’There is strangely no mention of the Germans.
There is a rumour in the family that my uncle was a Communist when he was younger.‘No,’ he says, ‘When I was voting I just made a mistake on the form. I meant to tick Conservative Youth, but I ticked Communist instead.’‘But you were a bit of an anarchist?’ I say.‘What do you mean I was?’ he laughs.
There is a painting in the house that I am always drawn back to.It is of the rolling sand dunes of the west coast with a shiny sea in the distance. Large white clouds race across the sky framing patches of sunlight on the sand. I imagine being there, not quite warm enough, but ever hopeful, the sand cool and the sound of the sea ringing in my ears.
In this landscape there is a famous giant of a sand dune that is making its way from one side of the country to the other, from one sea to the next. So far it has taken over a century and consumes anything in its path, spitting out the crushed ruins decades later.
Above the painting, out of reach of ageing limbs and weakening eyesight, two spiders are squaring up for a duel. They are evenly matched and cautiously probe each other with extended limbs. In this barren, dark hallway, starvation will lead to one of them making a wrong move.As I watch, nothing and yet everything is happening. I wait, straining my neck and shifting my weight from one leg to the other, just as the delicate pointed legs of the spiders stretch out and hover over their opponent. It would only take one move.
Later as I brush my teeth, I check them once again, but as far as I can see nothing has changed.
It is a beautiful day full of sunshine. My uncle pushes open the door onto the terrace with his foot. He comes back in to collect a cushion for one of the chairs outside. The fresh air sweeps across the warm room. Moments later he returns with the cushion and closes the door.‘It is too cold. It is not summer anymore.’
A ladybird lands on my blue shirt, searching out some warmth as the days shorten.Across the street a woman sits outside her new home smoking a cigarette in the sun. Children run around her and the birthday party is in full swing. She hugs her body close against the autumn chill.
My uncle loves pancakes. So I offer to make them. I propose savoury ones as a way of making it a meal. Only I don’t know the word for savoury so I ask if he likes pancakes and mushrooms.‘Chanterelle!’He offers in way of a response, saying nothing about the pancakes.
Later on I put a stuffed pancake before him, but he is clearly not too impressed. ‘Could I have some jam on top?’ he asks looking at the mushrooms poking out.It takes quite some encouragement just to get him to try a mouthful. I bribe him with promises of ice cream for the next ones.
There is batter left over and thinking it might be a treat, I propose pancakes for breakfast, sweet ones that is.‘No, no, that is not possible. You don’t eat pancakes for breakfast,’ comes the reply.
In the evening, my uncle pauses his flicking through the channels to settle momentarily on a foreign thriller. It is dark and hard to follow. The volume is up loud. After a long chase the hero confronts a shadowy figure in the distance, and advances with his pistol ready.My uncle turns to me,‘That is a very difficult shot.’With his long forefinger he illustrates how minimal the barrel is in assisting the aim, and wags his finger across the room.‘Very difficult,’ he repeats, ‘have you ever fired a pistol?’I am a little taken aback.‘No, I have never even held a pistol.’ I think for a second of the fun of paintball, but assume he would think it stupid even if I could find the words to explain it.He looks at me a little surprised.‘What was your pistol?’ I ask.He pauses, looking upwards as he strokes his chin.‘A Walther pistol, a special customised one I stole from a German officer.’
A younger version of my cat, so familiar in colours and markings, with the same movements and hesitations, prowls the garden. Moving through nooks and crannies I used to love exploring as a child.I almost call her name.
Like my cat, my uncle naps regularly. The pose remains the same, upright in his chair, but his eyes close and his breathing deepens, the page of the newspaper remaining unturned.When he falls asleep, and if I can no longer hear the deep rustling breaths, every now and then, I pause what I am doing to check that there is still movement.
I make us some coffee.‘Good strong coffee,’ my uncle says as he devours his biscuit and eyes mine.‘Good strong coffee to wake us up.’
We look out at the overgrown garden and the bright red leaves of the maple tree. The rain begins to fall.‘I need to get someone to cut the bushes before the garden disappears,’ sighs my uncle.
One of the last things my uncle says before I leave is that I should hurry up and get married and have a family.‘It is a disappointment to your mother that she has not got any grandchildren.’To make clear that I understand how he feels about something affecting his little sister he repeats, ‘She is disappointed.’He says this every time.I used to try and answer, but I quickly gave up. It does not really seem worth it.
My uncle has taken to having fires once more. Although nothing of the roaring splendour that I dream of, but tentative affairs, barely alight between two logs. I offer to put on another log, to which he says no that is plenty it just needs a little blow. I pick up the bellows and begin vigorously.‘No, no let me show you.’ He slowly lifts his large frame stiffened with the years and takes the bellows from me.I remember him coming to pick up my mother and I at the airport, in the days when it was easy to do such a thing, and my uncle leaping over any inconvenient barriers. As a child I would marvel at how he would catch wasps with his bare hands, and crush beer cans in his palms. I still do.He bends down gingerly before the fire, and encourages it into life with the most tender of puffs. Forever when I pick up a pair of bellows and face the fire I will remember that gentleness.
The keyhole to the bathroom door has been jammed with toilet paper. The great grandchildren have grown, and it must have been a source of endless amusement.My uncle was always telling me that I must put the toilet lid down as well as the seat. ‘After all that is what it is there for.’I wonder if he has much luck with his grandchildren.
I ask my uncle.‘In your life, do you remember mainly the good things or the bad?’
‘Only the good,’ he answers.
There is a pause before he continues,‘I did not do anything bad in my life.’
He pauses again, and looks at me.‘There was this lovely girl in Hong Kong. A Chinese, Suzy.’
‘Did she speak good English?’’ I ask innocently.
He responds with raised eyebrows and a telling laugh.
My uncle met Suzy in the Old Red Lion pub in Hong Kong. All these years later when so much else has been forgotten, her memory glows in his eyes. The years fall away and the youthful charm and vigour return to his face.We both drift in the following silence.
Young spiders have taken up residence in the corners of the bath. The jets of the shower are few and hard, but with time thankfully warm.
The bubble bath has moved. It now sits alongside the almond oil and a can of hairspray on the shelf below the rainbow coloured curtain, and above the drawing of a blue zebra. For years the bubble bath sat beside the sponges on the edge of the bath.
A big spider lurks under the towels. It is missing one leg.
The next morning the air is crisp. I follow my favourite winding trails through a still and frozen forest, bending round white ponds and dipping through silent vales. I pass trees whose bark I have traced my fingers over for years, and fallen trunks that I have watched slowly disappear.
I hear a woodpecker in the distance. I try a trick I learned from watching television with my uncle. I tap firmly on a tree with a coin. Within moments a woodpecker flies towards me and perches on the branch above and cocks its head at me.
At the edge of the forest a knotted little black bag swings from a branch.
A single giant brewing empire dominates this small country. The story is that the son fell out with his father who was the founder. He stole his father’s recipe and started out on his own, and made quite a success of it. Years later, after they had both died, the father’s company bought the son’s brewery. Recently my mother told me that the father was famous for stealing his yeast from another country’s brewer. The two brands of beer remain the country’s favourites. My uncle only drinks the beer of the son, while his younger brother always drank the beer of the father. I think it takes a lifetime of drinking the beers to tell the difference.
The younger brother moved almost as far away as possible to work as a doctor among the farmers. He died some years ago and I ask my uncle whether he has much contact with his sister in law.‘No, not anymore. She thought I was too dominant over my brother, so we were never really friends.’I ask him if that was true to which he shrugs his shoulders.
The sister in law was my mother’s best friend at school, until she became more interested in my mother’s brother.My mother tells the story that during the war the brothers were firing guns in the basement with their cousin. I imagine my uncle may have been showing off. The younger brother got a little too close, and lost his hearing in one ear.
We continue with our lunch.I ask my uncle once again whether it is true that he dominated his brother.‘Of course, he was my little brother.’
The doorbell goes. My uncle wakes from his post lunch snores. A young mother and daughter are collecting for charity. The mother manoeuvres her little girl forward to say her lines.
The snoring quickly returns. My uncle says that he finds it hard to sleep at night, but he has no problems during the day. He is often troubled by nightmares. When he says that he has not slept well I wonder if that is the reason.
I ask my uncle if he would like a piece of cake with his coffee.‘No thanks I do not want anything.’I cut myself a piece. I look at him. I cannot eat it alone. I move my plate towards him.‘Are you sure?’‘Oh well okay,’ he laughs.
In his study my uncle has the stuffed head of the largest salmon that he caught. It was impressive, so much so that the cat attacked his prize trophy. The brightly restored head now stares down at us.
I have been neglectful about calling my mother.My uncle suggests we call.I hand him the phone, he puts the volume up as far as it will go.‘Hello,’‘I cannot hear you.’ He looks at the phone again. ‘Can you speak up?’Clearly my mother cannot hear him either, other than enough to work out that it is her brother on the phone. ‘My mouth is full of cake,’ my uncle says and hands the phone to me.
My uncle no longer comes to inspect what I am cooking. His appetite is much diminished, although the suggestion of pancakes always brings out a smile.
While I prepare the batter, my uncle organises the dry washing and sorts a new load. As I walk by I see him taking a turn on his exercise bike.‘Tour de France,’ he says.
I tell my uncle that we have a big spider in the bathroom. He is very pleased. He says they are our good friends and we must look after them.He comes to take a look. He leans his stick against the sink and gets down on his hands and knees to inspect the spider.‘That is not big,’ he says.
My uncle says that now is the time to ask him any questions, as he will soon forget the answers.I try to think of questions. I struggle to come up with anything. So much seems to be left unsaid that it is hard to know where to start. When I was younger I wanted to know all about his secretive years in the resistance. Then watching a family member quiz him one drunken night, I questioned my reasons for wanting to know.
I ask about the uncle who travelled the world, who spied on the Japanese during the war, and was rumoured to be gay. I am not sure what the word is for gay. My uncle looks at me. Maybe he does not have the slightest idea what I am talking about, or he understands perfectly, but just thinks that the idea is ridiculous.After a few mouthfuls of beer, and a gentle silence I try again. I ask if he remembered anything about when their mother had a breakdown after the birth of her last child, my mother, and had to leave home. As far as I know it was not for the first time.He just shakes his head.I carry on eating and watch the birds darting about the feeder. I realise that it is not necessary to ask him anything in particular.
Early Friday evenings there is a cartoon hour that my uncle looks forward to. Although he mutters that the new ones are rubbish compared to the classics. Otherwise my uncle seems to be flicking through the TV channels faster and faster. The volume creeps up. While I am cooking I can hear that he is watching the repeat of a programme we saw the night before. It is an American crime scene investigation about a brutal murder in a petrol station. I thought once was disturbing enough. It seems to have no affect on my uncle, who sits in silence and watches, twice over. I wonder if he made up his mind about the world long ago.
I serve a last supper of sausages and chips. My enthusiasm for preparing meals has faded. The sausages are boiled in a pan and the chips frozen. I make some roast courgettes as a token to healthiness. They get no further than my uncle asking what they are, quickly followed by him saying that he does not like them. The sausages and chips, aided by plenty of condiments, are a big success.
My uncle hands me an album of photographs he has been looking through.‘Here is a good one.’It is of my father laughing. The lunch is in full flow. The long table is busy with people, and cluttered with slim summer wine bottles. In the next one he is wagging his finger at someone while deep in a boisterous conversation. It is not a gesture I recognise of him.
I look at another photograph of my mother smiling at the camera while unashamedly filling her mouth with cake. This seems slightly more familiar.‘You were good at holding parties.’ I offer.‘Yes, but they are all gone,’ my uncle replies.I photograph the photographs in order to try to hold onto the expressions they reveal. I hand the album back to him and drink my coffee.He drinks his.We both slept badly, as we have already discussed, twice. Time passes.He picks up the album once more and looks through it again.‘We were good at holding parties,’ he says, ‘but too many of them are gone.’
My uncle rubs his nose between his forefinger and his second finger while doing his crossword. I have seen this elsewhere. My mother, I think, while she is doing her Sudoko.Sometimes when I am alone I mimic the gesture and look out the window and let my thoughts drift to them.
My uncle is not one for displays of affection. I have never dared to give him a hug. I could only watch on with envy when my cousin’s Thai wife went straight up to him one day and gave him a huge embrace. His smile widened.At family gatherings she has more energy and exuberance than all of us. Once she explained with great pleasure how she enjoyed chilli two times. The first was the eating, and the second came sometime later, and although related was quite different.
But my uncle could elevate a handshake to another level. Being a man who expresses few emotions overtly, he has refined his sense of gesture to convey as much richness and affection as anyone. Often more.
Leaving today he clasped my hand, placing his other hand on top and held it tight. He looked me in the eyes.‘You be well, and I will see you soon.’Maybe he sensed something unsettled in me. The warmth and strong tenderness in his handshake, and his caring gaze has stayed with me ever since.
It has been a long, dark winter since I was last here. First impressions after a period of absence are always a bit of a shock. My uncle looks older, and appears slower. ‘Rubbish,’ is his response to my asking how he is.
Rain pitter-patters on the canopy. The ponds have replenished, and are now a carpet of green. Three ducks fly over in the midst of a loud squabble, two return shortly afterwards and land untidily on the water.
The breeze is cool on my neck.I ask about the family and the state of lives, and progression along career paths. It seems that my uncle cannot understand the way his grandchildren speak. He complains that they mumble, and how much language has changed since when he was young.
A dour looking woman walks by under an umbrella wearing socks and sandals.“Who is that?’ I ask.‘The chemists wife,’ comes the reply.
On my parents wall there is a photo of my uncle and his older brother. The two brothers stand slightly apart and take the process of being photographed very seriously. My uncle is wearing a bulky coat with his hands stuffed in his pockets. There is no brotherly embrace, or cracking of jokes.During the war my uncle went into hiding, fleeing across the sea. His mother did not know his whereabouts. His brother just happened to bump into him on the street. He was only in town for a few hours.My uncle thought it was too dangerous to go and see their mother. So the older brother proposed a quick portrait shoot, so that he could show their mother that her son was well. No one realised that my uncle was carrying guns under his big coat.My uncle says that in those days, when one is young, things are black and white. As you get older they become greyer.
I ask my uncle about his travels to New York. In my imagination it must have been an amazing city after the war.‘Too big,’ he says.I try and push him further but he says it was not for him.‘What about China?’‘That was much more interesting. I went there a couple of times.’I pause. I know what is coming.‘There was this Chinese woman, Suzy.’‘Did you meet her a few times?’He points to his wrist. ‘She had a tattoo of a fish. That was how I recognised her.’I was just about to ask if he had fallen for her.
I look out the window at the Japanese inspired house opposite, with its wooden panels and miniature Zen garden with clumps of bamboo. It was the prized house in the development, but now looks dated and tired.A ghost like figure appears absorbed by the screen that illuminates her face. I imagine her being in the room once occupied by the children who have grown up and left home.
We sit down to dinner. The pendulum no longer swings and the chime is silent.In the dining room there is a photograph of a young romantic adventurer in aviator shades. The grandson has beads around his neck and grins at the camera with his blonde hair and the blue sea in the background. That evening he was mugged and left in his underpants, unharmed but a long way from home.
My uncle asks me to pull the curtains all the way. His place at the table has a dishcloth for a placemat. The carpet around his chair has suffered badly.
I now make pancakes every evening. It seems wrong not to.Once satisfied with the proportion of ice cream and jam my uncle speeds through his first pancake. He does not seem entirely convinced. I begin my defence.
‘I only ever make pancakes when I am here,’
‘They are not thin enough,’ he says tucking into his second.
‘Not like your mother made?’ I reply.
‘And of course not like my aunt.’
After the war ended, my uncle went on a road trip with one of his fellow resistance fighters, in a car they stole from the Germans. I knew about this story, but was a little surprised to hear it was a Fiat 500. I had imagined something grander.‘We had false papers, but they were for a car with four doors, and ours only had two, but no one noticed.’ He recalls with a laugh.
It was on this trip that my uncle met my aunt who was working abroad as a nurse. There is a picture of the young couple. It is clearly in the early days of their romance. My uncle stands tall and broad with his big arms wrapped around his sweetheart. She smiles and wriggles, an uncertainty flickers across her timid expression.
I used to look on in wonder at how after half a century of marriage they would often hold hands. Maybe it was not something I noticed when I was younger, but I think it more likely that they were not in the habit of doing it.
My uncle and I are drinking coffee on the terrace. The bright sunlight dazzles off the trees. He stands up and points. A doe and her two young are casually walking down the road towards us. She stops with her fawn clustered about her, and six dark eyes stare at us.After a moment the mother turns around and trots back the way she came, her young skipping along behind her.
My uncle breaks off our conversation. He says that he needs to phone a friend and make sure he is still alive. They have a daily pact to make contact and to ensure that neither is forgotten.
‘How is everything with you?’
‘Okay and you?’
‘Are you doing anything tomorrow?’
‘No, not that I know of, other than phoning you.’
‘Good. Speak to you tomorrow’
‘Speak to you tomorrow.’
The old soap dish with the naked cavorting couple, all seventies long hair, limbs, and smiles has disappeared. I miss the warm enthusiasm of their embrace.The small spiders are back in the bath, occupying the same corners. I use the old sponge to lift them out. I think it is the first time it has moved in years.
I have slept on all the different sofas of the house, on air mattresses that threatened to bounce you off, on camp beds that creaked and sagged, and many a time on thin mattresses on the floor.Once when I was a child I slept with a string tied around my big toe. It went out the window and was attached to a bone. There was a fox that came to visit at night, and this way I would be awoken when it came to eat. In the morning I was woken by my uncle prodding my outstretched limbs, the string remained tied around my toe, but the bone had gone.
We eat a late brunch of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. I say it is a Sunday treat.‘Is it Sunday?’ he says in surprise.It is the third time today that he has been surprised that it is Sunday. We have already joked about going to church. He is proud that he is the only one of his siblings that was not christened.
We watch the birds bustle about the feeder, grabbing some seeds before disappearing back into the bushes.
‘There are not so many as there used to be,’ my uncle says, ‘and they are not as colourful.’
Just as he says this one appears with a rich sunset breast to which my uncle suddenly rhythms in English.
‘The robin shot the sparrow, with his bow and arrow.’
‘Where did you learn that? I have not heard you say it before.’
I ask him what has changed the most since his days in kindergarten. He pauses before answering.
‘Too much asphalt over everything.’
‘And we have cut down too many trees.’
He tells me that his first car was gold, and laughs at the thought. His father never owned a car. He died too young and before such luxuries were affordable. The only people to have cars in the village when he was growing up were the priest, the doctor and the vet.
My uncle often says that there are too many people in the world, and that we have destroyed everything.I ask him how many grandchildren and great grandchildren he has. He looks at me, and strokes his chin. It is clear he does not remember.‘Twelve,’ I say.He looks at me surprised.‘Really?’‘And more are on the way.’
My uncle stands at the door to the workroom and throws the empty beer cans towards the recycling bin. It is a good few metres but he gets both of them in.He turns to me beaming with satisfaction, and glad that I was on hand as a witness.
We play cards in the evening. My uncle is to deal.
‘Sex cards,’ I say, meaning to say ‘six cards.’
‘Sex,’ my uncle repeats.
The words for six and sex sound pretty indistinguishable to me.
‘Sex’ I say.
‘That is something I cannot remember anything about,’ he replies.
Four decanters sit dustily on the sideboard, helpfully labelled with little necklaces, port, cognac, whisky and port again. This was the room for social gatherings when drinks would be offered.
The formality lingers in the placing of the sofas and their chairs, with Persian carpets on the floors and embroidered covers on the accompanying tables. This was where people sat, my uncles study was where we relaxed.
On the wall there is a painting that my mother has written my name on the back of. It is of a handsome young boy in collar and necktie gazing thoughtfully. He was my grandmother’s younger brother who tragically drowned in a fishing accident. They could not find the body, so the devastated parents consulted an oracle. She told them exactly where they could find their son floating amongst the reeds.Below it a colourful shawl has been thrown over the corner of a sofa. On this sofa, below the painting, and under the shawl, my aunt used to curl up for her afternoon nap.
The next day my uncle rings his friend again.
‘Did I remember to ring you today?
Without pause he adds.
‘I got another day.’
My uncle says that he is no longer reflecting on his life. He is passed waiting.
An interrupted night of storms and lightning. I propose a final coffee before I have to leave. My uncle offers me one of the chocolates I have bought. He uses the name it had in his lifetime, but is no longer considered acceptable.
He says my mother must come and visit him before it is too late. He has something to show her and points with his stick towards his desk. It is the old guestbook from their childhood home. The first entry is 1927, two years after he was born. It is the carbon copy of the ones my mother has for us.The last entry is hers. The year is 1982. Her mother has just died and she has returned to her family for an extended stay with a nine year old me.
I remember so clearly being in the room and watching my mother on the phone as she got the news of her mother’s death. I can picture the bright African light in the window behind my mother, and the shadowy outlines of her friends as they gathered close around. I could sense a complete and indescribable transformation happening on my mother’s face and feeling it in her being.
She writes that she hopes we can share memories of her homeland, her family and their mother.