I loved my uncle Robert even though – or perhaps partly because – he was an irrepressible, irrisponsible alcoholic.
I was nine the first time we sat at the mouth of a river, drinking cider that he’d hidden inside his jacket. My mother and aunt believed him when he said we were looking for shells.
In the mornings it was best to leave him sleeping until late, when he was ready to wake, to evade his ill-tempered hangovers, but the rest of the time he was endlessly entertaining to we children, even though he may irritate anyone over twenty eight or so.
I must have been eighteen when his lung cancer was diagnosed. What with his dicky heart, his schlerotic liver and other complications, his body was not strong enough to survive.
After he died, my brother’s best friend, Pete, with whom I had dallied for a while, wrote a eulogy. The guy wanted to be Bob Dylan, but couldn’t, as the post had already been taken by a better poet.
Pete’s pretentious poem was read out at the funeral, accompanied by his inflatable ego. It claimed that my uncle knew something clever about glass houses which the rest of us didn’t. It sounded good, but wasn’t true; all my uncle knew was where to get the next drink, and how to blow up balloons so children would follow him down the street, in a parody of the pied piper, but without any harm coming to them. He loved children because he never ceased being one.
They laughed as they ran, and so did I, but the laughter stopped for a time after he died.
Maybe I grew up that day, standing with my family as his coffin was lowered into its resting place. I tried to see his face through the wood; to take in the truth of what it cantained. I had seen him several hours after he stopped breathing, and yet it was difficult to understand this final leaving.
My left hand clutched a sodden tissue to wipe my stinging eyes; my right one was plunged deep inside my pocket, fingers squeezing secret balloons in the bright hues he had liked. I’d placed them there with the intention of filling them with air while the grieving trickled dirt into the horrid oblong hole, but when the moment came I thought it would appear pretentious; just as Pete’s poem bore no relation to my uncle in life, so the balloons bore no relation to him in death, and there was a risk they may upset my aunt, who already gave the impression that her face was melting.
Those balloons stayed in my pocket for months before I threw them away. Even then I wondered if, in not inflating them, I had let my uncle down.
The last wisps of resentment cling tenuously as I admit P. had previously written a bitter poem about me, making the damning claim that I was a fake (to which I would have liked, childishly, to respond, “It takes one to know one). The reason? I didn’t love him.
Maybe he thought my uncle did, but Robert was pretty indifferent to all but children, mothers, relatives and alcohol.
The one thing P. said which made sense was:
Somewhere he walks with children
I hope he does.
©Jane Paterson Basil