Sunday, December 11, 2011
It had been the worst day ever! It had gone well beyond the category of 'bad day' to a new, unknown-to-me-before level of terrible. Uncle George was there when I woke up. I knew he was there before I was even properly awake cos I could smell the kippers frying. We only ever have kippers when Uncle George comes. The strong, smoky whiff pervaded the room and I wrinkled my nose in distaste. I could tell football practice wasn't going to get priority, but nevertheless I pulled on my shorts and jersey, and packed my gearbag.
'Hello Uncle George', I acted surprised to see him.
'Well, if it isn't Rasher!' he predictably replied, ruffling my hair in that annoying way grown-ups do.
He always called me Rasher cos I was a bit chubby, like. Mum called it 'big-boned'. Mum could dress anything up.
'Uncle George ain't the worst', Mum would insist, when I would protest at his proposed visits. 'It'll be nice to have 'im for Christmas dinner, eh?' She would nudge me into reluctant acquiescence.
''spose', I would mutter in grim reply.
I sat down by the range, as Uncle George took up all of my side of the table. He wasn't even that big, just sprawling in that way that made him seem really big. Just after nine, I noted. Training was at ten. I sat limply kicking my gearbag in front of me, hoping Mum would remember.
'You'll not be going to training today, lad', Dad said, gently. 'We've 'ad a bit of news'.
Mum turned from the table to face me. Her hand clenched the handle of the frying pan, and she had a pained expression. This isn't Mum, I thought. Mum's the cheerful, bouncy one. What's going on?
'Wh..whats going on?' I ventured. It came out as a half laugh, nervous, like how I answer Mr. Peters, the maths teacher in school, when he pounces on me with a problem. Maths isn't my subject.
Dad heaved himself up from the table, and drew a stool beside me, two big wellies stopping the swinging of my gearbag. He slapped a hand heavily on my shoulder, and I could see the intention behind this gruff and awkward gesture. Mum was sitting at the table now, cheek resting on her hand, her back to me.
'Son, you're going on an 'oliday. With Georgie 'ere. Just for a while like'.
He withdrew his hand, and clapped his hands together, as if to say 'job done'. I didn't get it. Why was Dad sitting here, talking to me? Dad should be out on the farm, in his shed, doing stuff. Dad's always doing something.
'Tell 'im Bill', came Mum's voice. 'Tell 'im the reason 'e's going'. Mum's voice seemed angry, urgent. My mind raced to remember some wrong I may have done, for which I was being punished. There was Grandad's watch I thought, in a moment of panic. They've finally discovered it!
'Your ol' Mum is sick', Uncle George said, looking at her all the while. 'She's going to have to rest up for a few months, and can't be looking after you'. Uncle George's voice was hard, and his narrow eyes were judging.
'Mum, what's wrong?' I asked, pleadingly. I wanted to rush to her, throw my arms around her, but I thought better of it.
Mum looked at me, helplessly. I was afraid she would cry. Mum...the cheerful one.
'It's true, love. I'm going to have to take some time to recover. But I'll be fine, and you'll be back again before you know it.'
'You'll be living with me, up in Yorkshire. Plenty of work on the farm, keep you out of trouble. make a man out of you, eh?' Uncle George shovelled a forkful of kipper into his mouth, tore hungrily into a crust of bread and noisily slugged down the remaining tea in his cup, promptly holding up his cup for more.
Mum duly responded, drawing the teapot back and forth as she poured, to allow the tea to pass through the clogged spout.
'For how long? When will I be home again?' I wheedled. 'I don't want to go. I'm staying', I said hotly, my voice sounding like Danny's little sister when she's throwing one of her tantrums.
I raced out of the room, stamped loudly up the stairs and jumped face down onto my bed, the rough wool of the blanket scraping my flushed skin. I was vaguely aware of the raised voices downstairs. Dad was shouting something, though I couldn't make out the words. A door banged. I reckon that was Dad leaving. I never heard Dad shout before. In fact, I've never even seen him really angry before. He's just...well...Dad. Goes about his jobs on the farm every day, and has the same, placid manner as all them cows he milks.
I strained to hear what would follow, but could hear nothing, except for the geese outside.
I knew Mum didn't like Uncle George any more than I did and only put up with him cos he's Dad's brother. All he did was eat up the nice food without so much as a 'thank you' and make cruel comments about me that he thought were funny. 'Cept no one laughed.
I heard approaching steps on the stairs and sat up in bed quickly, wiping my eyes with the sleeve of my jersey.
'John?' Mum's voice was gentle as she closed the door behind her and came to sit on the edge of the bed. I refused to look at her, focusing instead on a fraying hole on the blanket by my crossed leg.
'John, love. I'm sorry.' Her voice wavered and I knew if I met her eyes I'd start crying.
'Why can't I stay here, Mum? I'll mind you. Or I can help Dad. I won't be in the way. I don't like Uncle George...'
'I know, love. If there was any other way. It'll be only a few months.'
'Months?' I was horrified. Days would have been too much in Yorkshire. I vaguely recalled the time we went up for Grandad's funeral. We had to stay in George's empty, dark old house. I remember the steps on the stairs were so tiny, even I had to put my feet sideways to fit on each step. There were two slop buckets on the concrete floor in the kitchen where all the waste was thrown for the pigs. They looked and smelled like vomit. I couldn't go. I wouldn't!
'I'll explain to you when you're a little older why we have to do this, but it's my only chance'. Her hands were pressing on mine, urging me to understand, to say it's alright.
I was visibly sobbing by then and Mum drew me into her warm embrace. I didn't usually let her hug me so easily, but now I didn't want her to let me go.
'Will you be ok Mum? Promise you'll be ok'. I realised I had only been upset cos of having to go with Uncle George, and didn't even think of Mum.
'I have a very good chance now. But it is costing a lot of money and will take a lot of time. We didn't have the money so Uncle George is helping us out'.
'And I've to work for him!' The words were out before I knew it.
'No, John. It's not like that. It's just...' Her voice went all squeaky at the end and the silence hung in the room like a delicate, wavering cobweb whose spun threads were soon to be snapped.
I knew at that moment things would never be the same.
The next day, despite the heavy fall of snow, Uncle George and me set off. Dad was silently watchful all morning and Mum was acting like nothing was happening. The kippers were on the go again. I was growing to hate the smell. I acted like I wasn't about to burst with fear and misery, and like I was perfectly ok. It occurred to me we were all just playing a game, like 'school', or 'shop' or something. And soon we'd stop all pretending and be normal again.
I was good at pretending. Still am, in fact. I became so good, that soon I forgot what 'normal' was.
Uncle George was the best at the game and came up with some right good stories. I knew they weren't true, but I understood the rules of the game and knew I had to play along. Else, I'd lose.
As we drove past Danny's red house, I imagined him out the back, building a snowman, chasing his little brother and sister around. I longed to be there, playing around with them, part of the fun.
'So. Your old mum is sick'. Uncle George said evenly. ''Appen she's always been sick. Never knew a good thing, your mum. And now look where it's ended. I'll bet she wishes she never made off with that pitiful excuse of a brother of mine. Your mum's a whore, she is. And now look where it's got 'em', he finished with a self-satisfied grunt.
I didn't know what a whore was, but I guessed it was something bad. I wasn't going to ask Uncle George, so I just said 'hmm'.
The car jilted along, the soft scraping of the snow the soundtrack to my transition from home to Uncle George's, from Cotswold to Yorkshire, from boyhood to manhood. Things would never be the same.