A short story by M S Clements
My Uncle Sam is a bastard. An utter bastard. He turns up, unannounced, demands bed and supper while Nan flies around the house like a clichéd thing possessed. Nothing is too much bother when it comes to our Uncle Sammy.
Christmas is the worst. There we are, helping out as best as we can. Wrapping presents in last year’s paper. Cassie ironing out the creases and Jason getting Sellotape on every available surface. Some not so available. He won’t stick it to his head anymore. Of course, it isn’t real Sellotape, we just call it that. It’s the cheap stuff, the one where you can never find the end and, if by some miracle you do, then you get a one centimetre triangle. A patchwork quilt of the gift wrap variety. No doubt, somewhere in Shoreditch, a hipster nods his head, thinks it would be a great USP for the shop; patchwork wrapping, so responsible, so sustainable. Jason does it because there’s nothing else to do.
Nan lived alone until we arrived, dishevelled and lost. Mum says the court order means we won’t be disturbed. I never met Grandad. Grandad wanted to discover himself. He discovered himself at the bottom of a lake after the husband discovered him under the bed. Mum used to say of her father, ‘That man was so dim he’d use a chocolate teapot for the tea.’ All in all, not having that grandad is a blessing. One gift less to wrap. There’s a picture of him on the sideboard, a bit blurred and very dusty. It not in a frame, just propped up against one of Nan’s china cats. The one with the scary eyes and chipped ear. That wasn’t my fault, it just fell. Grandad is standing in a park with Sam, a bandstand behind them. They are grinning, and Sam has an ice-cream. ‘Lucky bastard.’ Mum says, moving the picture so she can wipe the dust off the cat. Mum doesn’t eat ice-cream now. It makes her sad.
November is the month for fasting. Nan makes out it is some sort of religious obligation. A bit like Lent, except without the fish. A month of baked beans. Our house fumigated by the stench of five stomachs, each reacting badly to the sudden pulse rich diet. We pray fervently every night to be allowed to survive the night time gassing from our siblings, just so we can get to December and Operation Reduced Basket. Nan, being the senior member of the family gets the choicest of picks, Waitrose. Mum and I do Sainsbury’s, Cassie, Tesco and Jason gets Lidl. The attack always begins precisely one hour before closing. Not in Cassie’s case though. Tesco is a twenty-four hour store, so she does the nine at night slot. We stalk the staff who are armed with the reducing gun, hovering just close enough to pounce on the smoky bacon but not so close to be considered a nuisance. Cassie works her charms on the lad in the fish department. We do well there.
Nan’s old freezer, the one she liberated from the forgetful neighbour, is switched on, and cooking begins. All day, the oven has to earn it’s keep. No shelf left empty. Nan turns down the thermostat, ‘No point heating the house twice.’ We cram into the kitchen, fearing frostbite on the trips to the loo. The previous month’s malodour replaced with spices and the mouth-watering aroma of sheer pleasure. I can feel the calories piling on just taking in a deep breath. There will be enough to eat. And that’s the point, enough for two adults and three children to eat. It’s not like Nan wouldn’t ring and check if Uncle Sam intended to visit. She would, and he’d say ‘Nah, not this year, Mum. Got an invite to Dave’s. He’s got a party going at the villa. It will be fun. Maybe next year, I’ll let you know.’ He never does, the bastard. He just stands there in the doorway, grinning inanely. A silhouetted bulk blocking out the winter morning. In one hand is bag of washing, in the other a bottle of cheap whisky. Barrelling his way past, he hands the washing to Nan and the whisky to mum on his way to the sitting room, ‘Got you a present, Sis. Hey, Jason get some glasses, would you?’ Not sure he ever notices that Mum and Nan don’t drink.
He lies across the sofa and tell us about his trips. We sit on the itchy carpet, our legs entwined, trying to find meagre space for our ever growing limbs. Uncle Sam drives a coach for a tour company. Best job in the world, he says. Tells us we should travel, see the world, just like him. Go to all those European cities, Prague, Rome, Venice and Barcelona.
‘What was the Sagrada Familia like?’ asks Cassie, expecting a vicarious tour.
‘Nah, didn’t do it. They charge you to go in, it’s not even finished. Bloody cheek.’ He then told her about the girl on the beach that wanted to practise her English. The bars and restaurants she took him to and the nightclubs where they danced. He laughs, ‘There’s always an opportunity for a free meal and a bed for a handsome chap like me.’ I wonder if they need opticians in those foreign cities.
Upstairs, Mum moves a mattress into our room. Her own bedroom commandeered for the prodigal son. Cassie irons out the creases on the best bed linen, while Jason fetches another bowl of crisps.
We open our presents, carefully. That paper could stand another year. A book on art for Cassie, a model plane kit for Jason. I get a Spirograph. Mum spotted it in Oxfam back in the summer. I kiss her and pretend to be thrilled. We all get new underwear, the annual tradition. Nan apologises throughout the performance of gift opening, ‘Sorry, Son. I would have got you a present if I had known you were coming.’
She opens her purse and pulls out a little piece of paper. Her treasure, replaced each week. Blush pink and fingers crossed, a row of numbers that never changes, 17, Mum’s birthday, 25, 16, 08, Cassie, Jason and me, 28, Uncle Sam and 12, the day Grandad died. She hands it to Uncle Sam, ‘Here, take this, it might be lucky.’
‘No, Mum. The lottery is a tax on the poor and stupid. You keep it.’
She replaces it back into her empty purse, ‘One day.’ she said, ‘One day.’
We squeeze around the table, Uncle Sam’s plate barely big enough for the portions piled high. Nan gives us the side plates, it makes our portions look generous. We clear our plates and watch Uncle Sam as he boasts about his life, his mate Dave is going to give him a promotion. More money, more holidays, ‘There’s no such thing as luck, kids. Just right time, right place.’ Uncle Sam strikes me as someone who’d buy that chocolate teapot. His father’s son. His plate finally wiped clean, he drinks another glass of whisky and takes out his smokes.
Two days of disruption, silence in the sitting room so he can watch his stale comedies in peace. Cassie shivers under a pile of blankets in the bedroom, admiring distant works of art. Jason reads the instructions for his model aeroplane. He won’t start it now, not while Uncle Sam is in the house, not after last time. I sit crossed legged and stare at him while he gobbles my chocolate raisins. Mrs Cordwell gave a bag to everyone in the class. Nan cooks and cleans. Mum cries. And then he’s gone. No more Uncle Sam. Peace and austerity reigning over our house once more.
When the police arrive, we hide at the top of the stairs. We wait, the door to the sitting room shut. Jason lays on the floor, his ear to an upturned glass. ‘It’s Uncle Sam. He’s dead. A coach rolled backwards and squished him flat.’ I don’t think that’s the policeman’s words, but that’s what happened all the same.
Uncle Sam is front page news. He’d have been so chuffed. Dave’s to blame, apparently. Skimped on maintenance to pay for his villa in Spain. Forgot about the European Arrest Warrant too.
A quiet man from the tour company visits. He sits in the sitting room and drinks tea. Nan offers him cake and listens to the prepared speech of condolence. They do not want a fight in court, compensation is available. Dave’s case is still pending.
The lawyer explains about the life insurance and the compensation scheme. Nan continues to tap his hand and offers him another slice of cherry cake. Reduced to 29 pence, the night before. Waitrose no less.
‘He died doing what he loved. Just wrong time, wrong place.’ she said, before biting into her generous portion of cake.
November will be fast free this year, and our letters to Santa will not be burnt and forgotten. I will eat chocolate raisins until my tummy hurts and remember that lucky bastard, Sam.