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The Stakeout

by Anthony Edwards


   
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 pan.
   
When she placed a plate of sausages and black pudding on the table before her husband, her composed, pale face betrayed little.
   
I 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.
   
When 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.
   
This 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.
   
But 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.
   
As 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.
   
“What’s 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.
   
“That’s 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.
   
When we eventually got back inside, the house was quiet and peaceful. Everyone seemed to have gone to bed. So did we.
   
Over 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.
   
His 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.
   
On Wednesday, Joe and myself had a “conference”, and compared our notes. Not that we had anything written down.
   
“Did you notice anything strange yesterday when your dad came to see you”, Joe asked straight off.
   
“No, not really. I was too busy with the new fort and the soldiers”.
   
“Yeh, but 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.
   
The 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?
   
The 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.
   
It 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.
   
On the Thursday he must have collected over two hundred pounds. Cash. More money than a man would earn in six months. We were flabbergasted.
   
“What’s going on, Joe? What’s he doing? What’s the money for? What could a dead man do with money?”
   
The 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.
   
“It’s for you Nora”, he said, “take it. You’ll need it, all right?”
   
“All right Ned,” she said. I’m alright. We’ll be alright now”.
   
We just stood stock still. You can live without breathing. I learned that that day.
   
“It’s time to go, Nora. Are you sure you’ll be alright.”
   
“Yes Ned. I’ll be alright”.
   
“I’ll 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.
   
Joe 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.
   
So we went into town and played runaway knock and got chased by the gang in the Avenue and collected some more cigarette butts for our collection.
   
We 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.

 


Anthony Edwards
 

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