Friday, October 29, 2004


Another tale? Perhaps I have been avoiding something.

I had not seen my uncle for six years until six weeks ago. Slimmer than before, dapper, too, and no longer smoking. I know this about him:

As a boy, he once threw his younger brother into a canal. And he once in the backgarden tied his younger brother up, neck to foot, in rope. And then prodded my father’s shoulder ever so gently – just to watch him fall, ever so slowly, and ever so inevitably. Then he left school, an unqualified bully, and joined the merchant navy. He cooked all over the oceans of the world, fighting and screwing in how many ports. At some point he ended up living again on the south coast of England. Marriage, two kids, a job doing computers at the local Coastguard centre. Even after she left him and the kids moved away, I think he was happy: canoeing to work, windsurfing at lunch, the sheer fact of the beach, visiting relatives on the weekend. Lots of romantic dalliances: He has a photo album of different bikini-clad, posing women that proves it.

And what has happened in the last six years? His job moved to the regional HQ miles away: now he catches the train, now he wears a pin-stripe, now he sits in a grey cubicle, now he battles a war of attrition with clueless IT guys and a distant, sluggish management. On the day he became a grandfather a few years ago, he saw in a little burst of excitement and happiness that he had been depressed for so long a time. (Perhaps from before his brother’s death, even.) Before the birth he had watched TV only for the majesty in nature documentaries, which he stored on a library of videotapes. Now he watched for clues... He decided upon a diet to help him out... Eventually, he picked up the phone to the family whose Christmas cards he’d not replied to for years. And he realised he had to end his latest romance: Beth, all garden centres and weekend papers, made him feel old. And cigarettes had to go: he needed his lungs back to start windsurfing again. And...

And there he sat in mother’s lounge, spouting off about office frustrations half-amused, half telling himself not to take it seriously. There he sat, alert and jovial, advocating a life of fruit and vegetables (except potatoes) and fish and sea sports, like a pastor at peace in the little garden that was all his own idea. Youth once more? The return of spring? That must be some kind of victory for a man nearing sixty, so long tossed around uncertainly on changeful seas. At last, at last, a home of sorts – little, but as solid as a continent. Either that, or some kind of comment about the confusions of this world: that the elixir of knowing what to wish for, and knowing how to make it work, took all of this time.