“I’m taking these shoes back,” Uncle Trevor looked disapprovingly where the sole flopped loose like a hungry mouth.
“How long have you had them?” my sister KM was the first one who dared to ask. I knew she was playing a well-defined role in the scene.
“20 years!” he said.
“That is quite a long time, Uncle Trev.”
“It’s not a lifetime, Mary.”
My sister and I stared at him.
“They came with a lifetime guarantee, and as far as I know, I’m not dead yet.”
This was true. He was standing in our kitchen, his long-shaped DA looking somewhat the worse for wear and in need of a cut. He was wearing a green jumper with a hole in the elbow, and a checked shirt, matched with his old, seen-better-days sports jacket. I’d seen him in this get-up for each of his last 12 visits, which was pretty much as long as I could remember. We all laughed though. This was Uncle Trev, a contradiction – the most generous of men, but also, personally, the tightest. Every time he came to our house, perhaps twice a year, he gave us each a tenner (“Well, I never see you do I?”) which seemed a fortune. He also came burdened with sweets, chocolates, ice-cream and pop.
There’s little wonder that we loved him – the second he arrived we were so loaded with sugar we were giddy and giggly AND we were rich. He was funny too, regaling us with one story after the other.
His wife, Elsie, chose a mini (Uncle Trev didn’t drive, “What’s the point, if someone else does?”) and it was always a source of entertainment watching him fold himself (all 6’4″ of him) into the front passenger seat.
“Elsie’s idea of a joke,” he said, “Buying the smallest car on the market.” Elsie would just shrug, then go heavy footed on the accelerator so that he’d flop forwards and backwards like a giant rag-doll.
My mother absolutely adored her older brother, another reason why we enjoyed his visits so much. He was the only surviving boy in the family and he held a sort of trophy position – plus he was very bright and like my mother, had passed his scholarship at the high school stage (not that either of them were able to take up their places.) He rogued his way through school, charming all he came across and then, bored, left at 14.
My mother used to tell stories about their childhood – he was child number one, she was number three but their intelligence made them firm friends (the sister between, Aunt Joan, was not quite their intellectual equal, and so was skipped over for fun and games.) My favourite story was this one: “Joyce,” he’d said, “Ask that big girl which two houses she lives in” which, being younger and slightly in awe of her good-looking big brother, she did. The ‘big girl’ in question, unsurprisingly not overly impressed with this, chased and caught my mother and by way of punishment tied her to a lamppost with her plaits. This just made Uncle Trev laugh. He did like to push his luck – even when he had full knowledge of the situation. For example, his mother – my grandmother – was prone to violence, but that didn’t stop him locking her in the outside lav for a bit of entertainment. That’s what comes of being clever and having no proper outlet. You could hear the names and swearing she called him when she was trapped inside half-way across West Hull. One time she was so exacerbated by his mischief making she walked him to the police station and asked them to take him off her hands.
Like all men of his generation, he served his National Service and, posted in the Midlands, he met Elsie and settled there. This broke the hearts of his sisters (including the two youngest June and Janice). Elsie was short (one time she was annoying him he – allegedly – hung her on the back of the kitchen door and it was only when she stopped yelling at him that he let her down) but they loved each other… She was a Shropshire lass through and through and wouldn’t move back to Hull with him so he stayed in a small place just outside of Shrewsbury called High Ercal. She worked in a local greenhouse picking salad stuff, and because she was so often in the heat she had the shrivelled look of an old plum. It made her look older than her years. She really had had too much sun. It seemed to work for them.
They both smoked like chimneys and I remember her Dunhill next to his baccy tin, and each conversation punctuated by plumes of smoke as they out exhaled each other.
I didn’t know what he did for a living until much later when he started to talk about those he worked with on the roads and I came to understand that he was responsible for a team of Irish blokes who built the lion’s share of the M6 – probably not entirely following modern understandings of health and safety practice either. And I sort of inferred that in spite of his tendency to wear (and better wear) the same clothes year after year that this work period had been very lucrative and he had money behind him.
Elsie died young – it turned out she had a congenital heart condition and when she was 52, she just didn’t wake up.
Uncle Trev carried on living in the same house, returning to Hull for visits as he had always done, but on the train, whilst Bessie, the famous Mini, went to rust in the drive. Every week he would ring each of his sisters and entertain them on the phone. The rest of his retirement he spent watching TV or in the pub.
Hard to say why he had such an aversion to spending money – perhaps one kind of reaction to the grinding poverty of his childhood where he kept it by ‘just in case.’
Something changed. He still rang but instead of the witty, happy go-lucky bloke he became a bit morose and down. He’d had a cancer scare, and recovered, but he just couldn’t lift himself and he was, he said, lonely. And he wasn’t, for some reason, sleeping well. This was an aspect of the man who no one really knew. He complained of headaches that came every day and that only shifted when he went to bed.
Days after his 76th birthday, no-one in Hull could raise him. Calls came in but there was no response. Eventually, the police were called and they got into his house with the help of one of his neighbours. He was in the living room.
There was nothing suspicious about his death insomuch as no other hand had been involved but he did die in circumstances that were entirely avoidable. He had been poisoned by carbon monoxide. On the day of his death he had not been able to sleep so he’d got up, made a cup of tea, and then, with the doors shut to the kitchen and the hall, had drifted off as the poison finally overtook him. He spilled the tea on the floor.
The issue was a fire that hadn’t been fixed – an issue with the manifold. I don’t know if it was maintained regularly and I don’t know if the failure was in its age, or in shoddy workmanship. I do know this though: Uncle Trev had carefully calculated how much each of his family members should receive from his substantial legacy: his sisters, his child, his grandchildren and each of his nieces and nephews.
Uncle Trev’s death not only caused me distress but also a good amount of personal regret – my partner’s sister lived in Shrewsbury but as my knowledge of Shropshire was shaky at best I had no idea that I had passed the turning for High Ercal dozens of times without ever realising just how close he was, or how, for the want of an hour here and there, I could have dropped in for a cup of tea.