60. “Homecoming” (novel extract featuring strong language)

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Mr and Mrs Rutter lived at the end of the avenue in a top-heavy, ramshackle wooden house that appeared to be staggering forward into the road to welcome arrivals or block departures from the deserted neighbourhood.

As they pulled up outside, a large pot-bellied bird vacated the top of the family pile with a disgruntled cawing. Patrick watched as it leavened itself over their neighbours’ roof tiles, almost colliding with a weathervane shaped like blades of grass blowing in the wind. Meanwhile Julie had opened her door and spilled out of the van with a ‘what a fucking journey’. Mrs Rutter quit her gardening and hurried out through a lopsided front gate to meet them.

‘Mum,’ said Patrick, his cramped legs limping towards her.

‘Julie,’ said Mrs Rutter, a woman of formidable proportions with fierce green eyes and a stiff lick of immovable grey hair. ‘You came all this way to see us.’

The women embraced. Patrick squinted towards the doorway but there was no sign of his father. Eventually the women parted and Mrs Rutter regarded her son.

‘You’ve had an accident I hear?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Fighting again, was it?’

‘Artistic differences.’

‘Bollocks. He’d probably had enough of your bull.’

Mrs Rutter swung her considerable bulk in her son’s direction. Patrick braced himself for some delayed affection but instead got a whack round the ear.

‘Don’t worry, Paddy,’ she laughed. ‘We’ll soon get that brain working again.’

She hurried them off the road and up the dusty path beside the rockery where she had just downed tools. An extended family of tiny black spiders scaled a mini-mountain of hand-painted pebbles. Beside the path eight individual stones had each been given their own letter and arranged to spell out WELLCOME.

‘Looks nice, Mum,’ said Patrick, for which he received another whack.

‘That hurt,’ he told her, remembering another report he and Julie had watched on the TV news.

‘Have you not heard about the revised state ordinance on parent-child -?’

Julie kneed him in the thigh.

‘Fuck, why the aggression?’

‘Don’t be such a baby,’ said Mrs Rutter, showing them into the front sitting room.

Patrick sank into a mushroom-coloured couch while Julie perched on a sponge toadstool.

‘I’ll put the lights on,’ their host announced, as if this was something saved for special occasions. ‘Air?’

‘Yes please,’ Julie croaked politely.

The electric candles fixed to the walls and atop the brooding television offered precious little illumination but the air conditioner was game, rattling into life and releasing into the large, dank room a welcome trickle of freshness. With enough imagination its timbre – rich, warm and repetitive – could have been mistaken for that of a long-lost uncle, recounting his tales on loop to no one in particular while giving the rest of the household permission to parlay.

Certainly it seemed to help Julie and Mrs Rutter overcome the niceties that threatened to prevent the travellers from obtaining refreshments, as Julie’s apologies for failing to bring any supplies from the city were countered by Mrs Rutter’s unconvincing insistence that they had plenty in the pantry.

‘I’ll give you a hand,’ said Julie, and the two left the room to see what they could find.

Patrick waited for the stinging in his ear to die down. He clung to the hope that his father might make a suitable ally against these brutal women. But there was no sign he was on his way as the seconds passed on a mantel clock made from another colourfully painted stone. He decided to get up and seek inspiration. A vase of plastic flowers near the lace-curtained window caught his eye and he went over to investigate.

It was a shrine of sorts. Beside the vase was a copper dish containing several decomposing spheres of unidentifiable fruit – their spores speared with the wooden butts of incense sticks. Pinned to the wall above the offerings were a series of crinkled colour photographs of variable quality. One was of a blonde-haired boy blurred in motion, too busy growing up to sit still; another showed a dark-haired young man in starched uniform propped up for the camera. The final in the series was by far the most surprising. Here was the same man smiling with his comrades. Most were dressed in black body stockings, or some part thereof; a couple were holding machine guns. All were crouched around the oversized head of a smiling foam policeman.

‘My…brother…’

Why hadn’t Julie told him he had a brother? Because she was too busy getting him here so he could experience this kind of revelation. Why hadn’t he asked her about siblings? It hadn’t crossed his mind, any more than consideration of his parents had. What kind of a person was he? The women returned with snacks and drinks on trays.

‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your own brother, Paddy?’

‘Of course not,’ he hoped the chill in his heart hadn’t spread to his voice. ‘How could I forget about old…young…’

He read the inscription.

‘Sam.’

Only 24 when he lost his life, according to the dates. Three years his junior.

‘It’s those that killed him you should be fighting,’ his mother explained. ‘Not your workmates.’

‘Come and get some water,’ Julie told him.

‘And then you can go and find your father,’ Mrs Rutter added.

The interior of the house was dark and musty with unaccountable shadows in the armpits of stairwells and in corners where home improvement projects appeared to have been angrily abandoned. The main staircase, almost as steep as a ladder, began towards the rear of the house and ran diagonally back to front. This contrivance could not have been part of the original layout, suggesting the stairs had been clumsily reversed.

Who would have engaged in such a mad restructuring? Why would anyone put their stairs so far from the lounge, leaving a hallway chasm of crooked space below them from which cobwebs could survive untouched at vertiginous heights? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. He began to climb.

Kill the bastards
Kills the bastards
Kill the lazy rebel bastards

Where had that come from? He paused for breath halfway up the stairs, recovering on a shallow step while gripping the iron balustrade. Closing his eyes he saw his brother’s face again. Yes, they had run up here together. When the air was clearer. When ideas were clearer. What did they do to you Sam?

Make the state
Good and great
Tie your fate
To the state

‘Who’s that singing?’

The voice came from near the top of the house. There was still another staircase to go.

‘It’s me, Dad – your son.’

‘Sam?’

‘No, it’s Patrick – I’ve come home to see you.’

Silence.

More strange design choices on the middle landing of the house. Foam was taped to the fixtures and fittings; dirty pillows were assembled at the foot of the stairs going up to the attic rooms. A figure shuffled into Patrick’s vision as he took stock. His father was past his prime. His slack jaw was silver with roughage and his hand trembled on the bannister as he looked down with a mixture of defiance and trepidation.

‘What’s with all the insulation?’ Patrick called up.

‘Damn son fitted it.’

‘Sam?’

‘No – the other one, says it’s cheaper this way if I have another fall. Cheaper than calling a doctor.’

‘What a prick,’ Patrick smiled. So his father had lost his mind as well. Perhaps they could give each other solace.

‘Oh he wasn’t all bad,’ the head of the family continued. ‘Loyal patriot. Got a bunch of awards. Come on up and I’ll show you what he made me for a retirement present.’

Patrick took the last staircase and entered the spacious attic studio. A hatch perpendicular to the sloping roof was open to the elements. The sky was less soupy now and a slight breeze spun the various model aeroplanes and spacecraft that hung on wires from the slatted wooden ceiling of his father’s den. Below them the room was dominated by a large rectangle of board from which rose a magnificent papier-mâché representation of lush hills and spindly skyscrapers; hand-painted and with a to-scale railway track running along the edge of the model world.

‘Seaport,’ Patrick said.

‘Where else?’ his father replied crankily.

‘What a fantastic gift.’

‘This isn’t my gift,’ the old man barked, sitting down heavily at a roll-top bureau beside the skylight.

Patrick ran a finger through the hills, into the town; skimmed the coastal train track that finished at Casio. When he looked up he found his father staring at him, the bureau rolled halfway up. Rutter senior had a wild, vulnerable look in his eyes.

‘Who are you anyway?’ he asked. ‘Friend of my son’s?’

‘That’s right,’ Patrick assured him. ‘We’re close.’

‘Okay,’ Rutter’s growl returned. ‘Guess I can trust you then.’

He finished rolling up the bureau and Patrick saw that a control panel lay behind it. There were lights and buttons and taped instructions, ‘UP’, ‘DOWN’ and ‘HOVER’ amongst them. There was a thorough amateurishness to it that Patrick admired. Men had built this for themselves – with care and attention – rather than it having been mass-produced by and for the state. Mr Rutter clicked and punched some buttons and the panel started vibrating violently. The good thing with state products, Patrick reflected, was they were safety-tested before being used. He let his eyes wander back to their slice of sky.

‘What the hell is that?’

‘Don’t mind him,’ said Rutter without looking up. ‘He just likes to play.’

The pot-bellied bird blinked its red eyes twice at Patrick. It didn’t seem to mind him but nor did it look like it wanted to play. The thing seemed to have hair in place of feathers and its bony wings, dripping with extraneous skin, were folded firmly across its breast.

‘Here we go.’

His father had switched to a hand-held device with two antennae. He got up and attempted to shoo the bird away from the hatch. It reluctantly heaved its weight to one side, allowing Mr Rutter to see what was happening beyond. Patrick joined him. Towards them, stuttering out of the milky canopy came a drone unlike any Patrick had seen before. It was round and squat; and its patchwork panelling appeared to consist of three different types of metal. Extending from its rotund form were several spindly grabbers as well as two silvery stabilisers that slimmed to a point from its flanks. Maybe it was these wing-like appendages that spurred the pot-bellied bird into action. As soon as the drone appeared it toppled off its perch and began to swoop below and around it with surprising grace.

© Peter Humphreys

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57. Philatering to deceive

smoking-jacketThere was no such thing as middle-aged when I was a kid. Humans were either young or old. Had I been forced to make the distinction and recognise the semi-greys in my midst, I would probably have muttered something about how they were only interested in trainspotting, golf and stamp collecting before taking off on another charity shop run, praying there might be a suitable smoking jacket available at the Cottage Hospital Shop this time round. Youth is truly wasted on the young Oscar Wilde devotee.

Never a fan of hobbies that didn’t involve the pub or football pitch, I’ve recently found myself drawn to some of the activities that once made me shudder. In Yangon over Christmas, while my energetic paramour was busy capturing the street life around dusty Insein station, I was stopped in my tracks by an ancient British steam train, which I proceeded to stalk, pet and document as if it were a great white rhino and I was a flying vet.
IMG_7289.JPGFortunately, my left-handedness (and an imagined shortage of suitable clubs) has long provided me with a ready excuse for avoiding golf, meaning I needn’t reveal the real reason why I must avoid this game at all costs: I have an apocalyptic temper when it comes to putting small balls in holes and am only a marginally better loser than the President Elect. However, as I queued to post items back to the UK recently, I found myself supping from another holy grail of the middle-aged – philately.
hk-new-stampsEntranced by an advert for a new set of stamps sporting pencil drawings of Hong Kong by a Mr Kong Kar-ming, I began daydreaming about using them to begin my own modest but meaningful collection. Yet far from making my smug purchase and sliding contentedly into metaphorical slippers back home, my thought process then accelerated towards some of the more reckless actions of my unthinking youth. Soon I wasn’t in a very comfortable place at all.

When my grandfather, Les, died in the mid-1980s, death was a remote concept. I was too busy coming to terms with my own awkward identity to fully imagine someone else’s. Les had been suffering for months. It was his time. End of story. But that sense of remove wasn’t to last long. I inherited some items from Les, including his electric razor. Fiddling with the head some months after his death, I managed to send hundreds and thousands of salt-and-pepper stubble flecks into the sink. Horrified by this visceral reminder of his being, I was forced to confront the truth: I hadn’t simply lost a relative, I’d lost a living, breathing person – and before I’d come to know him properly.

My reaction to this injustice was as mature as you might expect from an undiagnosed child prodigy with a thing for second-hand smoking jackets. I turned to something else I’d inherited. Les had asked friends and colleagues to post him matchbooks from wherever they travelled. Some of them were pretty cool. Pretty soon I was using these matches to light my Camel cigarettes. Why not? Life was short and unfair. It could all go up in smoke as far as I was concerned. After the shaver had been abandoned, and most of the matches used up, my attention finally turned to Les’ stamp collection.

Unfortunately, rather than learning my lesson from recent conflagrations and recognising the stories behind the hordes of miniature images, I merely saw the stamps as another means of funding my teenage lifestyle. A friend and I took Les’ stamps to Birkenhead indoor market, then a den of iniquity populated by intergalactic bounty hunters, spice traders and chippies. On the way to the stamp dealer we passed a stall selling unused matchbooks commemorating recent weddings: ‘Dave and Emma, 15.12.88’, ‘Sammy & Sheila Forever’ etc. A misprint or mismatch – what did it matter to us? We snapped up a few to calm our nerves.

I can picture the specialist stamp stall – how a sliver of outdoor light pierced the unflappable sheets of stuck-fast goodies – but not the dealer’s face. Possibly it was too middle-aged for me to process. Or perhaps I was too nervous, or guilty, to look him in the eye. The transaction itself was quick and merciless. We were told the stamps were nothing special, that he’d be doing us a favour if he gave us a few quid for them. Lies, most likely, but we’d come all this way so…the deal was done.

The money we made soon vanished, leaving me feeling angry and ashamed. What would Les have thought about our loss? A scientist, a man of numbers – it was one thing to jettison a family heirloom, but to get so little remuneration in return?

Years later, my uncle told me that the biggest danger Les faced during the war while spotting for enemy planes was an ARP colleague with an itchy trigger finger and penchant for whisky. He had a cigar every Christmas but was otherwise no fan of smoking either. In retrospect, I think Les would have been happy that we made so little to squander from his stamps. He might even have reminded me that what goes around comes around (provided sufficient postage has been paid). Either way, this post is my apology to him, coupled with an acceptance that one Christmas soon those left-handed gold clubs are coming my way.

Griefcast, Cariad Lloyd’s funny and poignant podcast about grief and grieving is well worth a listen: https://soundcloud.com/griefcast

52. We need to talk about…Uncles

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A typically dashing Uncle

What could be better than being an Uncle? Impossibly exotic bearer of unusual gifts and stories; freewheeling our way in and out of young lives minus parental baggage and devoid of black bags beneath the eyes, unless self-inflicted via some unimaginable adventures in the place where Uncles congregate to lounge, wax, sip Martinis and fly light aircraft.

Childless Uncles are a particularly funny breed in that we will never be worn down in the same way as parents. By which I don’t just mean exhausted; more that we will never be honed, shaped and crafted into different human beings in the way that parents are by their children. In our relationships we remain naturally selfish. Which is fine, so do kids. But our contrariness means we are always at as much risk of losing our beloved nieces and nephews’ attention as they are of losing ours.

A couple of examples from childhood.

A Great Uncle I loved dearly was a fan of all things practical. I vividly recall the day when midway through an age-inappropriate anecdote about steam power or cuckoo clocks or traction engines, which his captive audience may or may not have heard before, I asserted my teenage right to get up off the sofa and leave the room. Despite being in thrall to the impetuousness I was trialling so defiantly, I couldn’t help notice his face fall as I left him in the company of my loyal but uncomprehending younger brother.

What he must have thought of me doesn’t matter here. I never sensed anything but the same warm and generous acceptance of my brattishness whenever he came to other family parties in the years that followed. What I fear now is that after this innocuous-seeming incident he began to examine his own life in more detail and thereafter suspected himself of having become the archetypical boring relation – the unspoken fear of all in our position. Looking back, I realise he was simply being an Uncle: strange, independent and ultimately dispensable; something now he’s gone I ache to remedy.

Another Uncle, much closer to my age, was a pop star in the ‘80s and gloried in the hard work and rewards that came with that profession. His home was usually LA but when he was in England we were guaranteed a visit. The thrill of stealing cigarettes from the packs he’d carelessly leave at my parents’ house is one hard to match to this day. That he noticed us at all was beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t just hang onto his every word, as kids we breathed in his magical scent – of leather, tobacco, expensive aftershave. Every promise of the unknown world lingered long after his BMW had departed our suburban stasis.

My Uncle became a parent too but, before we got to know her, the distant presence of a vivacious Californian cousin seemed like yet another example of his shameless dream weaving. His fame made him available, his relative proximity made him ours.

As you can imagine, this led to difficulties beyond geography when it came to our adult relationship. In my twenties and thirties I could never see him as anything other than a superstar, and once I developed ambitions of my own I found it hard not to consider him a rival. When his reaction to my artistic efforts was encouraging but lukewarm, I took more offence than was warranted, displaying an arrogance I hoped would impress him more than my talent, or lack of, could.

Now older and wiser, I realize he was simply being an Uncle: aloof, distracted, infused with otherness, but ultimately just a man, just an Uncle. It’s a relationship I wish to restore and nurture. Perhaps now I’m an Uncle too I’ll be given that chance.

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Me & My Uncle – a gift in vinyl from Hong Kong mates