“Life,” my uncle said, “Is not my area of expertise.” “Oh, it’s complex. Complex indeed, but not something I can fathom I confess.” He said this to me as he bent over his desk, trying to build a radio transmitter with the aid of some poorly scripted magazine.
After a while he looked up at me again and said, “Enthusiasm is no substitute for knowledge young William. Never get swept into the delusion that you know what you are doing. No one does really.” I nodded as wisely as I could, and then took another bite out of the chocolate bar which he had given me as payment for listening to this conversation. At the age of eight I was not qualified to offer an opinion of note, but my presence and a supply of head nodding seemed to do the trick.
My uncle was my mother’s older brother, would-be academic, inventor and now school teacher specialising in maths. “`Numbers you see William. Two and two always make four regardless of the weather, and as you go on through life, that’s quite a cheering in its own way.” To emphasise the importance of this statement he looked up from the desk and smiled at me, a man searching for his own value, though I was too young to know that then.
“Can we play cricket Uncle Bertie?” I said, hoping he might leave the construction of his radio transmitter, which project was approaching its first anniversary, and after a pause he said “Why not” and so we went out to the garden where he bowled balls at me that were easy enough to hit. Hitting them was my pleasure, and always he would say, “Well done” and scrabble around in the vegetable patch or behind the shed or wherever the ball had gone, while I stood at the crease practising my shots and accepting the applause from a non-existent crowd.
In those days, with my father recently dead, and my mother spending her life at church or in bed, he came to stay and gave our household a semblance of direction. Even at that age I was aware that, before he died, my mother’s comments about my father were not always complimentary. Indeed they seldom seemed to be so, but with his demise, he had grown, according to her, into a titan, a tower of learning and a man who was widely mourned by her and all who knew him.
Unlike her brother, my mother always sought out drama in the dullest day, and “grief-stricken widow” seemed a role rich in possibilities. Dull, by her standards, but also thorough, my father had taken out a life-insurance policy which removed the need to worry about bills for the present, allowing her the freedom to worry about everything else instead. My uncle had stepped into the role of carer for now, and stoically shouldered the burden of “celebrator” in that house of shadows.
That was thirty years ago, and he is no longer with us, although he lives on in the annals of greatness now, according to my mother, for whom he cared until his death. A bachelor almost by design. I remember him saying, on more than once occasion, “You can never be too kind William. It often makes the difference.” Perhaps he was a wiser man than he knew, and my rock, who guided me through childhood.