05 Apr Uncle Bill
My uncle returned from England in his twenties and moved back into his parent’s home. As my mother tells it, his heart had been broken by a woman he fell in love with over the water, so he had come home to lick his wounds. Twenty years later he was still living with his parents, and the scars were still fresh enough to influence the way he lived his life.
Bill was very much his father’s son. The two went shooting together on the odd occasion, but more often Bill shared those excursions with his friends. Just like his dad, Bill enjoyed the outdoor life, as well as the indoor sportsman’s pursuits of betting and the odd drink.
Because of the amount of time I spent in that house during my youth, I saw a lot of Bill. He was nearly seventeen years older than me, but I always got on with him more like a brother than an uncle.
Many times we shared the lunch my grandmother made us, watching the news on the BBC, while eating beans on toast, or fluffy scrambled egg. I never could make beans on toast like my grandmother could. Everything tastes better in your memory I suppose.
Though I must have shared hundreds of lunchtimes with Bill and my grandparents, what I remember now is one perfect hour; a distillation of the many times I drank mugs of tea and wolfed down my grandmother’s cooking. Those were happy islands of time for me, set in a sea of teenage angst.
Thinking now about Bill, one memory resonates like few others in my life. One moment of perfect clarity that I can look back on and say: that’s when my life changed. You could say I’ve had other such moments more recently, but I wouldn’t call them perfect and they weren’t moments of clarity.
I remember one day, one morning, so clearly. I was maybe twelve, and I was staying over at my grandparents’ for a couple of days.
Bill asked me if I wanted to go out for a walk with the dogs early the next morning. It sounded like an adventure so I said sure, though I have to admit that when he came downstairs to wake me at six o’clock the next morning I was tempted to tell him to go on without me. Even though my bed was the couch in the sitting room, I was warm and cosy, nestled in a multitude of blankets, with the still glowing embers of the fire adding to the warmth of the room
As lazy as I felt, still I dragged myself off the sofa and put on my clothes, though without being totally awake. Bill promised to make us breakfast when we got back, in an attempt to hurry me up. The two of us left the house just a few minutes later, not forgetting the two cocker spaniels, of course. That made four of us then.
Out the front gate, and we walked into a different world. It was crisp and clear, already bright that late in the spring. And so quiet. The town was sleeping; the streets empty in every direction.
We carried on down through the town, passing council workers sweeping the roads in preparation for the new day. I’d never seen this hidden activity before. It seemed magical, as if they were giving the streets a shine and a lick of polish while the rest of world slept on blissfully unaware. The pungent odour of hops wafted through the cold air. It came from the tall stacks of the local creamery, and I was glad to leave it behind as we walked on. I’ve never liked that smell, but still it reminds me of early morning.
Our path took us along the road that curved with the bay towards the city of Cork, and we breathed in the salty smell of the sea. The tide was out as we looked across the bay to our left. Masses of dark green seaweed lay in great lines on the still wet sand. The seaweed wasn’t dry enough yet to stink too badly, which was a blessing.
The dogs bounded ahead of us, glad of the freedom. They would run ahead a short distance, then circle back to us and stop dead for a moment, sniffing the air for anything interesting, and then race on in front again.
We passed by marshland in the throat of a bay that no longer exists, reclaimed a decade later for yet another new housing estate. The sun had climbed slightly above the horizon but it was still bitingly cold, like only the fresh new hours of the morning can be. I’m almost shivering now with the vividness of that remembered cold.
We clambered over the waist-high wall that separated the road from the equally tall reeds of the marsh. On the other side was a wilderness. The dogs leapt over the wall before us and were soon lost to sight in the thick cover. We were still within the town limits, just, but a few feet from the side of the road was undiscovered country.
Bill and I didn’t speak much, but that was fine by me. I was too busy trying to take everything in at once anyway. The light pink of the dawn light was just barely visible out in the bay, reflected in pools of water that the sea had left behind.
Under the pale sky the dogs led us across the mushy ground. Before long the town and the road were a memory as the ground sloped away towards the bay. The going was getting progressively wetter, so we cut left, going parallel to the shore.
Ahead of us the dogs started barking excitedly, then ran back to alert us of their find. A few moments later we saw the cause of their excitement. There was a blue nylon tent five feet or so ahead of us, well camouflaged by the tall marsh grass.
Satisfied that they had done their duty, the two dogs bounded up to the tent and gave it a good barking to, just to let it know they had its number. That was too much for anyone to sleep through, and a head came poking through the flaps at the front of the tent.
It was a young guy, probably only a few years older than I was at the time, with a shaven head. He was bleary eyed, roused from his sleeping bag by the barking, but he gave us a cheery hello all the same. He cadged a cigarette from Bill, and we sat down at the entrance of the tent for a chat. The young fella was lying half in, half out of the tent, his bare chest coming bitten into goose bumps by the cold.
We shot the breeze for a while, Bill and the lad doing most of the talking. He told us he was there with some mates, just to have a few beers around the campfire or whatever. The campfire part hadn’t worked out, he said, but the cans had gone down just fine. The dogs were getting impatient with our lack of progress, so when they came back to the tent and started licking the lad’s face, Bill decided it was time to move on.
We left the teenager to try and get back to sleep, and we went on. I don’t remember the boy’s name, or if we even asked, but there was such a sense of camaraderie between the three of us, that I do remember. We were part of a special group of people, fully alive and aware while the rest of the world was still oblivious in their beds. Even later and for days after, I felt more alive than I ever had before. People seemed unaware of the wonders held by the world before waking.
That whole morning seemed surreal, even at the time, probably because I was still shocked by the unaccustomed early hour. At the same time it was almost hyper-real, every blade of that marsh grass was sharp and clear to my eyes. I could open my mouth and taste the morning. There was a sense of adventure and mystery and limitless possibilities, and a freedom I’d never felt before. Not many times since either. I try to lose myself in that moment, lying motionless in my bed, but the memory hasn’t run its course yet.
We followed the dogs through the marsh reeds for another while, but the going was getting too muddy, and Bill said it was time for us to rejoin the road. After climbing back onto the tarmac I realized we had not come half as far as I had thought. The slow, marshy going had kept us from making any considerable progress. Even as I enjoyed the easy travel offered by the tarmac, I marvelled that we were still in my home town. I felt sure we must have gone to some far off land on our journey.
We took a different route back to my grandparent’s house, less scenic but shorter. The dogs knew this road meant they were on their way home, and they were obviously eagerly anticipating getting fed and watered, much as I was myself.
By the time we arrived back the early start had taken its toll on me though, and I was very nearly asleep on my feet. After helping feed the dogs, I decided to skip breakfast and instead grab another hour of sleep. Bill went back upstairs to his room and left me to it. I fell asleep to the sound of the first car of the morning driving past.
At Bill’s funeral, some fifteen or so years later, I remembered that clear spring morning, the crisp taste of the world before it wakes. It was, I understand now, how experience is truly passed on. You don’t tell someone that life is beautiful; you give them the opportunity to find out for themselves. Discovery is part of the beauty.
I was lucky to discover at an early age that the big wide world is a place to explore and make your own, but I haven’t put that lesson into practice lately.
I remembered my uncle too when I walked the mountains near my home. Coming around the far side of the tallest peak, you suddenly come upon a corrie cut during the last ice age. A sheer cliff reaches towards the sky at the back of the lake. The water that fills that glacier-cut hole is mirror calm and deep. The same glacier made its thousand year journey towards the sea an age ago. It finally ended its slow advance down in the bay, where I walked with my uncle Bill just twenty years ago. The ice is long gone, and so is Bill, but the mark they made on the landscape, and on me, remains.
The people we knew as children always leave their mark on us. Sometimes we aren’t aware of their influence until years later, but it’s there nonetheless. When I think of these three men, now gone from the world, it is with a gentle regret and strong affection. I regret that I didn’t realize how important they were to me when they were alive, but I’m glad that I know it now. I hope that I’ve passed on something worthwhile in my time, but I realize now that the reckoning of that is not for me to make. I can feel sleep gently calling me, and I no longer feel the need to fight it.