Sunday, 28 February 2016

A Memory

Bowls of strawberries glazed with sugar, cucumber sandwiches and various other quaint refreshments were set upon a checked tablecloth adorned table. Lots of people I didn't know were in attendance, friends and acquaintances of my late uncle. They were brightly dressed and the invitation was clear on this; it was to be a celebration of life party as opposed to any kind of traditional wake. A large, jovial black woman in a yellow blouse sipped coffee and grinned at mum and I. Dad nibbled at a cucumber sandwich, one hand casually in the pocket of his khaki trousers. I marvelled at the eclectic, multicultural, bohemian circle of friends my uncle had kept. And then of course it seemed to be in keeping with his progressive lifestyle as a gay man in London. How unknowable he seemed to me in that moment! What little I knew of him was half-remembered from the few times I'd actually met him on his infrequent visits back to Edinburgh, his home town.
Dad finished his sandwich and then stood behind me and made a pantomime of pretending to strangle me, a weird kind of jape. It was clear he didn't know how to behave in these circumstances. Gatherings made him uneasy, even more so when he was some sort of focus of attention as the brother of the deceased. For my part I wasn't quite sure how to behave or what to feel. I seemed to be experiencing everything at a remove, as if from a distant viewing platform. Mum seemed reserved and somehow stoically cheerful in her shades and elaborate hat. My aunt, my uncle's younger sister, was tearful. Thinking back on it now I suppose a drink of alcohol might have helped me relax a bit and process what was going on. But I didn't really know what alcohol was as a seven year old boy. Perhaps I sipped a carbonated beverage although even that seems unlikely as the first time I tried Lilt around that age it had made me sob. Almost twenty years later I would pour grandpa a glass of coke and he'd tear up trying to drink it - “it's difficult to drink,” he would wince. I would watch with amusement and mild embarrassment on his behalf. Which, come to think of it, is how I observed many events and spectacles throughout my life. Removed, ready to dash away and hide. I remember deciding at one point during my teenage years that I'd like to “hide in the empty spaces of this life.” I think it was a Pere Ubu lyric or something.

They cremated my uncle on a sunny afternoon in London and, at the end of the service, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin was played. Perhaps this was in accordance with his wishes. I remember Granny saying she was prepared to leave before the rocky bit kicked it, fearing it would all be too much. Granny was also reserved, rarely emotional or tearful. Once, many years after the funeral, maybe five or six years later, or more than that, she was talking about my uncle and she seemed to be on the verge of tearing up. And mum had noticed and later brought it up with dad when they were alone, and dad had said that maybe that's what needed to happen, she needed to “have a good greet.” But emotion or confrontation were not valid behaviours within dad's family; “you all bury your heads and avoid these things,” as mum helpfully liked to point out. If we were irritated or upset we affected nonchalance. If we were annoyed with someone we'd indicate it in a subtle, passive-aggressive manner.

The sugared strawberries were delicious. I'd never tried them prepared this way before. Afterwards I went and played out in the back garden of whoever's house we were in with some other kids, my younger brother would have inevitably been amongst them. So surreal to be in this strange city, in this strange house after this strange life event, my uncle no longer living. My brother a couple years younger than me, I wonder how much he remembers or understood at the time. If memory accurately serves, we all stayed overnight in a hotel and me and my brother shared a room with mum and our auntie. When we got back to Scotland and I was back at school, my teacher asked about my trip to London, commenting on the sadness of the occasion for my visit. And there was almost something there, but it was behind a wall of ice, or it was like there was something that was defined only by its absence, like a negative or a mould where there should've been something fierce and real and three-dimensional and emotional.
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