The funniest thing Uncle Gordon ever did was put a large bouquet: triangular in shape and a foot and a half long, in the top pocket of his dress suit at my cousin’s wedding. He didn’t make a speech but a statement. He said, there is madness here.
I’d already noticed it. It was hard not to. He had a shock of dark, curly hair and a shy smile that gave a strong hint of the little boy he’d been. He often looked awkward. My mother implied that perhaps everything was not all there. I could testify to this: when you arrived at he and Aunt Joan’s house he’d scurry into the kitchen and make tea all round and often there would be a cry of, “Gordon,” from my aunt to propel him onto some other task: vegetable peeling, washing, windows, pots, toilet cleaning, drain clearing and so forth all of which he undertook without ever complaining.
Aunt Joan was busy knitting. Sometimes she had a dozen or more balls of wool in cups as she clacked away stopping only for a cigarette. I worried about her inventions – it was me and my sister that would have to wear them to school. It took a long time to recover from the-school-jumper-that-wasn’t, for example. Bottle green in the body and sleeves, all very regular, Aunt Joan had made a creative decision to knit the cuffs and waist band in a green many shades lighter. Inexplicably, she’d also made both 10″ long – as a shy, retiring sort it wasn’t the statement I was after making. It said, ‘Pick on me! Firstly, I have zero control over my wardrobe and secondly, relatives with no taste.’ Doubtless, any expression of the humiliation I felt about this and any other such lovingly made hideousnesses would have seen me hit from the back to the front door for my ungratefulness, so I kept my counsel.
But I digress. A man of very few words, Gordon used to communicate by tickling you behind the ear. I never got used to this even though – to give him credit – he did it consistently for a full 20 years. I’d like to say I’m making this up, but I’m not. He also liked to tickle behind the knees which (try it) often makes you collapse in a heap which he seemed to think was hilarious. It was marginally amusing when he targeted someone other than you but it wore thin.
But the truth was it was hard to stay cross with Uncle Gordon, the mildest of mild men. He would nod and shake his head as if he was actually participating in the ongoing adult conversation in their front room, without ever speaking. It was claustrophobic in there with the heating ramped up to full blast – on account of Aunt Joan’s cold blood (“I’m very nearly a lizard,” she once said). Relief came from this oppression regularly as she dropped another malapropism or similar sending us all (except Gordon) into paroxysm of laughter, “Have I said something wrong again?” she’d say as we wiped the tears away. She was never wounded. The Dooley Brothers became the Gooley Brothers, HMV – MFI, tendons in a boy’s finger were described as girders, the Newel post – which Gordon sawed off along with the stair spindles one rainy Sunday afternoon because Joan fancied going ‘open plan’ – became the Neutral post (a bit like a miniature Switzerland, I’d imagine). And very posh cooking was referred to as Gordon Blue. He’d just smile at her – a shy, loving smile. He was a simple sort, kind and decent.
When I was 15 years old, I began cycling with the CTC and met a man, Trevor, who worked at Jackson’s the Bakers alongside Gordon. I hated Trevor, who was cruel and borderline pyscopathic (he once attacked me at a youth hostel in the Lake District, though I’d been well taught by my mother and I managed to lift a knee to the delicate bits which seemed to do the trick. I wasn’t that kind of girl. And besides, he was married. To a woman who was on the trip with us and in the next room. And 35. Later, still in pursuit of me, though I felt I’d made myself clear, for my sixteenth birthday he sent me 6 pairs of very lacy knickers – so I re-addressed the label of this gift to his wife and mentioned she might like to have a quick word with him. They neither spoke to me again, and my cycling career was over.)
Before the knickers’ incident, Trevor, laughing, told me a story about one particular shift he shared with Gordon. He said they’d de-bagged Gordon and then filled his white work pants and white work wellies with flour so that when he re-dressed he left a trickle of white wherever he went, like a factory-based Hansel and Gretel. Gordon could have traced his journey back as he zig-zagged his way to the end of the shift. But instead, he just smiled, benignly. He was not a fighter, nor one of those men who felt the need for retaliation or power displays. He knew his place in the male hierarchy: the bottom.
When babies die, they always say, “She was too beautiful to live,” which can’t be true, though apparently that was the case with Lorraine, Gordon and Joan’s second child, who lived to 9 months and then did not wake up one morning. I tried to imagine what difference this had made to them but could not guess at either Gordon or Joan, who seemed lighter than my folks, and who floated along like flotsam on the high tide. For years on their bubblegum pink living room wall (“What were they thinking with that colour?” my mother asked) it said, “Gene Pitney” and I could never work that out either. Was that their favourite song, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart”? Who could say? (And besides, they’d spelt both Gene and Pitney wrong so I was never certain that that was what it actually read: though I hoped it was.) Nothing they ever said, or did hinted at any sadness or passion.
My dad said, “Gordon’s brighter than he looks,” and then added, “But not much,” and I understood this. I also knew that he was kind in the very core of his soul and as strange as the ear and knee thing was he was not a ‘mind-your-back-sis’ weird like Uncle Knobhead* (of which more, another time.)
Gordon had had plenty to contend with: later on when all three children, their girls H, D and M were strong and thriving, Aunt Joan got pregnant again. But this baby was a stillborn boy: Michael – made yet more hideous by two things. Firstly, Aunt Joan had to go through the pregnancy and secondly, on either side of this awful event both her sisters gave birth to boys, my brother T and my cousin J. Michael became a tree in their front garden and you would often find Gordon sitting on the step staring at it. I wondered at this thoughts but no word came from him.
One time, I arrived at their home on North Hull Estate and he was sitting on the front. It was a bright sunshiny day and for a change, he wasn’t running around after Aunt Joan. He was finishing his crossword. (“Must have been the quick one,” my dad quipped, “Was it in the Sun?”) I sat beside him. He rolled himself, then me, a cigarette and we smoked contemplatively together. From the house, came the Squeeze tune, “Cool for Cats” which he sang, softly emphasising the words:
“I fancy this, I fancy that, I want to be so flash, I give a little muscle and I spend a little cash, but all I get is bitter and a nasty little rash. And by the time I’m sober, I’ve forgotten what I’ve had, And everybody tells me that it’s cool to be a cat, Cool for cats….”
And I helped him with the last few clues, which surprised us both.
Not long after that I got the news that he had a brain tumour and his death was imminent, which seemed unkind. But, much as he lived, he left the world with a resigned, amiable, Buddha-like calm.
*Blatantly nicked from Peter Kay!