My uncle had been
dead for three weeks, and buried for over two, when he walked
in from the street, hung his coat on the door under the stairs
and sat down to read by the fire. We were all having tea. No one
said a thing until he said that he’d have his now. I couldn’t
see my aunt’s face as she’d rushed to the back kitchen,
but I thought I heard her crying in the crackle of the frying
she placed a plate of sausages and black pudding on the table
before her husband, her composed, pale face betrayed little.
like sausages. And chips. And I used to love them in those days.
Even the burnt ones. Especially the burnt ones. But if you’d
seen me there that night you wouldn’t have thought so. None
of us ate much. Except my uncle. He finished his plate and topped
it off with a thick slice of pan and jam, along with two or three
cups of tea. Then he went out the back to the toilet. We all just
looked at each other. Everyone’s mouth seemed to be open.
It reminded me of when our family were visiting them and there
was storm with thunder and lightning and all the children had
run in from the street and hid huddled at the bottom of the stairs.
Nobody wanted to say anything. So no one did.
my uncle came back in he went straight up the stairs. He just
said “I feel a bit tired Nora, g’night”, and
nodded vaguely in our direction.
whole thing began on Monday evening. My mother had gone into hospital
just that morning to have my kid brother. That was a long time
ago. He has his own kids now, though we don’t see them much.
That’s life, I suppose. Anyway, I was dropped off at my
cousins’ for the week. I suppose I felt a bit lost at first,
even though the two families were very close. A week seemed like
a long time then.
once Uncle Ned walked in, that week became something special alright.
It’s funny, but in all the time since, I’ve only ever
been able to talk to one person about it. My cousin Joe and I
were inseparable in those days. We fought and hated each other
regularly, went to the pictures together, slocked apples, went
on hikes out to the country, and had a secret hideout that I’m
not even going to tell you about.
soon as my uncle was up the stairs, Joe and myself ran straight
out the front door. We didn’t stop till we were safely under
one of the big trees on the street. It was raining. Joe’s
face was wet. At first I thought he was crying. But he wasn’t.
going on, Joe? He’s dead, isn’t he? And he’s
back. Is he a vampire or the devil or what?”
Joe was shaking
a bit, but his voice was steady.
my dad alright. Did you see the limp in the left leg? But it’s
the first time I ever saw him without a fag in his hand. And I
didn’t see any Brylcream in his hair either.”
Joe fancied himself
as a spy or a detective. He had secret codes and passwords and
was always watching people. We all played “spies”
at school, and I had my “Man from Uncle” spy-set too,
but with Joe it was more serious. Everything was a mystery. And
he was going to solve it.
So we decided on
our plan of action. Joe called it Operation Stakeout. We would
“stake out” Uncle Ned, watch him every minute of the
day. By a stroke of good fortune the summer holidays had only
just begun. We had the whole day every day to watch him. The idea
of asking him straight out never once occurred to us. A lot of
times since then I’ve wondered about that.
we eventually got back inside, the house was quiet and peaceful.
Everyone seemed to have gone to bed. So did we.
the following few days we stalked my uncle like hunters their
prey. If he noticed, he never let on. One thing we noticed straightaway
was that he hadn’t changed much, except he couldn’t
stand television and preferred the radio, didn’t put oil
on his hair, didn’t smoke anymore and talked to no-one directly
except my aunt. Actually we didn’t cotton on to this last
point for a long while. I didn’t feel slighted by Uncle
Ned or anything. I don’t know. It was as if we sensed what
was going on. And that we really were only watchers.
appetite was literally enormous. And he seemed to especially delight
in what are now classified as “junk foods”: chips,
burgers, bangers, and fatty bacon, and all washed down with pints
of sweet tea. I once saw him putting sugar on the jam on his bread.
Wednesday, Joe and myself had a “conference”, and
compared our notes. Not that we had anything written down.
notice anything strange yesterday when your dad came to see you”,
Joe asked straight off.
really. I was too busy with the new fort and the soldiers”.
where was my dad? I’ll tell you. A few minutes before your
dad came he just got up and put on that coat and left. And the
same this morning when the insurance man called. Have you copped
it at all? No one except my mother, my sisters and you have seen
him. And I’m nearly certain they haven’t said anything
to anyone. He’s our secret, Dan, he’s our secret.
That’s the way he wants it.”
Like I said. Joe
was the detective and I suppose I’m his Watson. We swore
a sacred oath on the honour of our Gang not to ever ever tell
anyone ever ever of this great secret. Even if one of us was captured
and tortured. I suppose I’m breaking that oath now. But
I don’t think Joe’ll mind. I don’t think he’ll
mind at all.
one thing we both were agreed on was the strangeness and the significance
of my uncle’s visits to the bookmakers. He had always been
a gambler, in a very small way. One day a week, maybe two sometimes,
someone’d be sent to the bookies to call him for his tea.
On the Tuesday he’d gone to a bookies but not his usual
one. He went, we guessed, where he wouldn’t be recognised.
We followed him. He never once looked back or left or right, and
he always seemed to know which street would be nearly empty. Nobody
ever saluted him. It was strange. Very strange. Why wouldn’t
it be, I suppose?
first day in the bookies he just studied the papers. He didn’t
gamble. But the next day we saw him put two pounds on a “yankee”,
after just a few seconds at the papers. He was out so fast we
nearly got caught. We were more careful after that.
seemed like he knew what he was doing anyway. The next day he
collected his winnings and placed the lot on more yankees at a
couple of different bookies.
the Thursday he must have collected over two hundred pounds. Cash.
More money than a man would earn in six months. We were flabbergasted.
going on, Joe? What’s he doing? What’s the money for?
What could a dead man do with money?”
next day we didn’t follow him, but hung around the house
until everyone had gone out. We searched their room upstairs.
But there was not trace of money or of anything unusual at all.
We were still searching when we heard the lock turning in the
front door and my aunt came in, followed by Uncle Ned. We could
hear them talking plainly.
for you Nora”, he said, “take it. You’ll need
it, all right?”
Ned,” she said. I’m alright. We’ll be alright
We just stood stock
still. You can live without breathing. I learned that that day.
time to go, Nora. Are you sure you’ll be alright.”
I’ll be alright”.
be seeing you so, Nora.”
The front door
closed, and my aunty Nora came through below and went out to the
garden, crying to herself.
and myself tiptoed hurriedly downstairs and ran out the front
door and down the street after his dad. We wanted to talk to him.
To ask him. To listen to him. But he had already crossed the street
at the corner and was disappearing into his old bookies. We waited
outside. But he never came out. We looked in after an hour or
so, but it was empty.
we went into town and played runaway knock and got chased by the
gang in the Avenue and collected some more cigarette butts for
never talked much about his father again. After a few days I went
home to greet my mother and new brother from the hospital. They
called him Ned, of course.
Taken from ‘Inside Outside’
(1990), pages 48-50.