By Sophie Klimt
Every year around Christmas Uncle Ike would show upon our doorstep, wheezingly drunk, with his sleeping bag on his shoulder. In the morning we would wander downstairs to the frying smell of bacon and eggs and a clap on the shoulder from his large, meaty hand. If he tried to cook us breakfast our mother would primly shake her head behind his back and mouth “butter!” – Uncle Ike was not one for moderation. His plate dripped with grease. We felt sick.
We remembered Aunt Helen as a sighing blonde blur, though the time we caught sight of her at the supermarket she didn’t seem to remember us. We trailed her for a couple of aisles with our breath held until she turned around, but her milky blue eyes looked through us to the display beyond. We were supposed to be buying mince pies but had been unduly excited by promotional ice cream which was melting, drip by drop, in a sticky trail behind Aunt Helen’s inexplicable high heels.
It was the first year “without Grandpa” and Uncle Ike was later than usual. He had usually shown up by the 21st, in time to eat the remaining chocolates in our advent calendars and carefully replace them with their balled up foil. The first year “without Grandpa” we waited up for him (we were old enough now, though not quite old enough to grasp the concept of cancer. Cancer was ungraspable until Grandma, too, succumbed) with The Vicar of Dibley playing on the TV, but when we woke up in the morning there was only the vague smell of boiled eggs and toast and our doors for the 22nd remained sealed. We ate the chocolate with no small amount of disappointment and washed it down with breakfast.
Although Uncle Ike was our father’s brother – they were twins, in fact, like us – there would have been no way of telling. On his ‘tall days’ our skinny father hit five foot seven, whereas Uncle Ike towered somewhere above the six foot mark, bellied with butter and bottles of beer. He spoke like that too, loud and emphatic, exploding with every consonant, while our father’s voice rarely rose above a perpetually apologetic whisper. And our skinny, five-foot-six-really, breakable father would sometimes ruffle our hair in a restrained show of affection, whilst we could always count on a bone-crushing hug from our sturdy Uncle Ike.
After “Grandpa” (he soon became disassociated from the corduroyed, soap-smelling memory and became an event, 14th June, to be observed like a Bank Holiday or a dull Remembrance Day) time passed exactly as it had before, and the days without Uncle Ike died painfully slowly until we found ourselves folding festive napkins on Christmas morning. We were old enough now to scorn Father Christmas, though not quite old enough that we didn’t still keep our eyelids open and trained on the bedroom door until midnight just in case, but Christmas eve had been unexciting without Uncle Ike to send us off to bed with a sneaked slug of brandy and the incredibly exciting, incredibly adult and incredibly sour taste of a chocolate liqueur.
Our mother was laying the table in vicious, short strokes, and when we asked her why she sighed auntheleny. – Your Uncle Ike’s coming today.
Our napkins unfolded. – We thought he was dead!
- Like Grandpa
- Yeah, like Grandpa!
Our mother’s eyes started swimming like they did whenever he was mentioned. Sometimes we had to pinch ourselves to remember what 14th June stood for. Was it… or… that day…? We bruised ourselves for forgetting but our mother never forgot.
- When’s he coming?
- Where’s he been?
Our mother started to lay Grandpa’s old place and stopped with her hand on his chair.
- Get dressed, boys. I’ll finish.
When the doorbell rang and our parents stood to welcome we didn’t recognise the couple in our hallway. She was a stranger and he was tall and grey-blond and almost skinny in a boring striped shirt. It was when he grabbed us in one of those hugs that we remembered. Uncle Ike stood three stone lighter on the floor he used to sleep on and held the hand of the woman all the way to the lunch table. She smiled tersely when introduced as Erica and tightened her grip on his arm when the wine went around. She called him Isaac even when we explained that it could never be his name.
- No roast potatoes for us. No thanks.
- No butter, Ike?
- Not for me.
We took an extra helping of potatoes and spooned too much butter on top that morning, in mourning. Our shrunken Uncle Ike’s plate bloomed with vegetables. The adults spoke in low voices as if we couldn’t hear.
- Been sober for ten months.
- Met at – church.
- Turned my life around.
A squeeze of the hand. – Getting married.
There weren’t any laughs and we finished early after scraping our oily plates, asking to be excused. Uncle Ike smiled absently at us from across the waste of ages and we looked for something we recognised in his newly placid eyes, in his Aunt Helen eyes. Our mother was smiling broadly, genuinely, throwing out empty compliments along with dessert. She loved Erica’s bracelet, she loved Uncle Ike’s new look, she thought his hair gave him gravitas (whatever that meant), they suited each other so well, when was the wedding, were they sure they didn’t want cake, but she’d chosen ginger especially – Uncle Ike’s favourite was ginger – didn’t we boys think we’d had enough, too much cream, boys, too much cream. Her smile lost its feeling and stayed pinned on her face as the two visitors asked for skimmed milk and politely rose to their feet, hand in hand.
- Lovely, lovely.
- Lovely to see you.
- Lovely lunch.
The newly staid Uncle Ike let Erica drive. We watched them round the corner and felt ourselves grow up just a little bit more.