Poor, Dear Uncle William

So, where did this little story come from? Firstly I should say that I was not, as far as I can remember, abused in this way as a child. It came from many places, as stories tend to do. Firstly there was something that suddenly popped back into my mind whilst writing a previous post – that blind Devon Uncle (my Dad’s sister’s husband) had a tendency to put his hand on my knee, which I didn’t like. Also, that he would insist in blundering towards me, arms flailing, for a hug and I had embarrassed my parents at one point by ducking those outstretched arms. Now, I know Devon Uncle was not the abusing sort. He was a naïve, affectionate, childless man and I was a weird child of a type he had probably never encountered before, who couldn’t cope with being manhandled.

And that reminded me that I had another blind uncle, or rather blind great uncle, or possibly great, great uncle – someone can probably tell me – he was one of my grandmother’s brothers. This great or great-great uncle, whose real name wasn’t William by the way, had been blinded as a soldier in the First World War. Nan said little about him, apart from that he had been taught to weave seats for footstools as a kind of therapy, and possibly small source of income; that he lived with them and sat in a corner all day; that one of her sisters mocked him by putting a hair on his plate at dinner, and was ferociously told off by their mother, who saw her do it.

As a child I felt very sorry for Uncle William. I knew what it was like to be lonely, an outsider. I wondered if he was bored, weaving foot-stools all day. Did he live somewhere in his imagination? Had he been an intelligent man before blindness took away any individual identity? How did it feel to be left in a corner, and mocked by children? How did it feel to go away a young man and come back a blind man with no chance – in those days – of earning a man’s wage or being able to marry? I never met Uncle William but I always had it in mind to write a story about him – just not this one, in which he seems to have become the villain rather than the hero.

So I wasn’t abused by Uncle William either. Two innocent, disabled and long dead uncles have here been melded into one scary, sinister and rather modern creature. Writers are cruel.

But there was a story Mum once told me (and probably immediately wished she hadn’t) of something that happened to her as a child when she was evacuated to a cottage in some remote part of Wales, of how a miner had insisted on bouncing her on his knee, and that as he did so something horrible had happened…

And then there were Nan’s amber hatpins, which lived on the dressing table in a strange art deco object made of brass – a long, narrow tray intended for pens (the old-fashioned dip in sort) with an inkwell at the end upon which, entwined in brass creeper and vegetation, sat a little fairy. To open the inkwell, you grasped the fairy by her pointy hat and tipped her up. Amber held a special fascination for me. I had heard that sometimes flies or other small insects were found entombed in it; things that had been alive in prehistoric times. Amber held memories; clues to the past.

 

POOR, DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM

Part of me was relieved, because it seemed that I would not have to marry blind Uncle William after all, and part of me was enraged that all this distasteful bouncing on the knee, the inexplicable fondling, the private leer that crept across his face, had been for nothing. Soon, as he had just pointed out to me with a jolly, sneering laugh, I would become too much of a lump to bounce upon his knee and then he would have to look out for another little girl to have fun with.

At the same time part of me was angry that in some subtle sort of way he had deceived my parents. You see, I had been intended for Uncle William’s consolation. Out of thirteen children I was the gangling, ugly one; the one who would never otherwise find a husband. Uncle William would be happier if he had a wife to keep him warm on long winter nights. After all, he couldn’t see what I looked like so that wouldn’t trouble him. No need to look at the mantel when stoking the fire, as my father once remarked when he thought I wasn’t listening. Conversely, I would have had more of a husband than a disastrously plain young woman might have expected, after a four year war from which so few young men of marriageable age had returned. We would be trapped at home together, like flies in amber. I could take over from mother some of the burden of looking after him. I could look after my parents too, as they got older. I would be earning my keep at last.

I should mention that Uncle William was not a blood relation. The Bible forbids that sort of thing, doesn’t it? And rightly so, otherwise you end up with mutants. There’s a long list in the Bible – can’t remember exactly where – of people you are not permitted to marry. As I recall you can marry a cousin but not a second cousin: never really understood that. However, I could have married Uncle William because he was just someone we had adopted after the war, a soldier in my father’s regiment whom my father had brought home with him. That sort of thing happened in those days. Families were big and strays were taken in. It was not unknown, for example, for illegitimate babies to be adopted by their grandmothers or childless aunts. People kind of knew but nothing was ever said, just as nothing was ever said about the bouncing on the knee, the ill-stifled and increasingly heavy breathing, his occasional wheedling requests to have me share his narrow bed; the stains on the sheets in the morning.

And it had all been for nothing, this sacrifice of me. I could see the pair of us lingering on at home, unable to avoid each other – I the silent family drudge and he the blind uncle in his corner, leering sightlessly, weaving seats to cane footstools for little reward and groping for any female child that strayed within his reach. Mother’s apron was already on the rise. Nothing was ever said about such things but it was clear she was expecting her fourteenth; and since she was not yet forty there could, and probably would, be more. A woman in the next village had had seventeen infants, one for every year since her marriage. Then she had another. She named him Coronation Finisher, determined that he would be the last infant she ever had to have – he was in my class at school, was Finn. But he wasn’t the last. There was at least one more after that. In those days you had no choice. So, it was likely I would have to watch Uncle William start up his tricks all over again.

Then one day my father brought a newspaper home and left it lying on his chair, folded open at the article he happened to have been reading. It showed an engraving of a man in a cloth cap coming up behind a well-dressed woman in a fancy hat with feathers. He had laid his rough and sinister hands on her shoulders, but she was reaching up towards her hat. Underneath, in italics, it said The Hat Pin Defence.

hatpin-defence

It was then that I thought about my mother’s amber hatpins.

Being a Beastly Sister

In my parents’ bungalow the door-handles were made of Bakelite. Indeed, in those far-off days almost everything was made of this hideous proto-plastic – radios, telephones, pipe-stems, toys…

Bakelite was always brown, at least in my experience, and there was something threatening about it. That was why my little sister believed me when I informed her in a scary kind of hiss that all the handles in the passage were actually radios, and if you touched one you would almost certainly be electrocuted, or else the handle/radio would send a signal to spies to come and get you. For a long time she would sit crying under one or other of the seven Bakelite door-handles in the passage, unable to let herself in, even to her own bedroom. Eventually, of course, she blabbed to Mum and I got punished – that time by Mum rather than Dad.

I was always getting punished by Dad. I got punished for things I had done to my three-year-old sister – like telling her the passage was also full of dragons. Ragonies, she would bleat, tearfully. Ragonies in the passage!

Yes, I would say, GREAT BIG RAGONIES. The red ones breathe fire and scorch you to bits, the blue ones just EAT you…

I was horrible to her. I hit her when no one was looking. I dragged her along the passage (the passage seemed to feature in most of our episodes) by her long hair. I laughed when she made a mess eating her food and had to have her face wiped with a flannel. That chubby, innocent little face irritated the bejesus out of me. I just wanted to… I just wanted to…

And yet I loved her, and she loved me, and she’s now all I have left in the way of family, emotionally if not in fact.

Later in life, having digested far too many self-help paperbacks and psychology manuals, I have come to understand why I was such a Beastly Big Sister – possibly.

I think it may have been the thing with Dad – unless I was just born spiteful, which is also a possibility. I was his first child and I was weird – long, sulky silences alternating with day-long howling tantrums. I would barricade myself in my bedroom – or the toilet, if he was chased me. This annoyed everyone, since there was only one toilet in the bungalow and I could be in there for a day at a time, huddled on the floor, hiccupping, drying my eyes, crying again, hiccupping… I remember thinking, I have no food and I have no water but I can spend a penny if I want to, and blow my nose on the loo-paper. Though it was Izal in those days. A sheet of Izal was akin to a sheet of glass as far as bottoms, or sensitive, swollen noses, were concerned.

He punished me with slaps – ferocious slaps around the face and legs and any other bit of me he could happen to reach – because his father had punished him that way, and probably the Army or Air Force or whatever it was he was forcibly conscripted into had also treated him that way, for years. He had a knack for backing me into small corners, against a wall or a door, say, thus combining the slaps with bangs to the head.

The wrong thing might be contradicting him (because he was wrong – I was a persistently, foolishly argumentative and logical child) or answering back (because he was wrong).

A bad thing might be elbows on the table at mealtimes, and reading (which he did all the time, but apparently this was a rule only for children – illogical).

A bad thing might be my sister spraying the living room wallpaper (every single wall) with ink from a fountain-pen but since I was the oldest I should have stopped her. She and I were both clumsy and disaster-prone.

A bad thing might be picking up a cactus and getting a palm-full of prickles or falling on a glass shelf and breaking it.

A bad thing might be throwing an apple through a window, in one of my rages.

A bad thing might be putting my own fist through the garage window, where he had locked me for some earlier misdemeanour, and cutting my wrist in the process.

Trouble was, I had a goldfish-like short term memory. By the time he had found out and worked up a head of steam to come after me, I had forgotten.

He also had a way with words. Anger seemed to release this gift in him and I would be on the receiving end of a stream of steaming vitriol. He knew me so well that he could take me to pieces. And he did take me to pieces. I swiftly forgot/forgave the slaps and the bangs on the head but I never did forgive the words.

And so I suppose, when you are a child you don’t know why you’re being Beastly. Nobody’s yet explained to you about Kicking the Cat. You only know you’re angry and you want to oppress someone. I inherited his height, his physical power, his intelligence and his verbal facility and I did what he did with those thing – I hurt a helpless child; I used words to make pretty lies, and monsters to scare her. Because I could.

In a drawer in my kitchen cabinet I have a treasured possession. It’s a dark green wooden coaster, a gift from my little sister, who now lives in Canada. She has probably forgotten it. A worn away label on the back says Cedar Mountain… something, Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. It says:

SISTERS

by chance

FRIENDS

by choice