Uncle Fred was notorious in our family. His one unforgiven crime was that he had fled to America, to make his fortune, shortly after his father died.
The crime was not that he had failed to make the fortune, nor that he had chosen America, nor even that he had fled. It was leaving his younger brother – my father – to look after their two sisters, and widowed mother. My father, at the time, was still at school, and only thirteen. This was before the days of Social Services and the Welfare State.
The story was told so often that I developed an unreasoning dislike of Uncle Fred, though I had never met him. Like the bogey man he lurked in my subconscious, but never appeared. We never received so much as a postcard, and no Christmas cards were sent either. In those days, a transatlantic phone call would have been prohibitively expensive. Then one day it was announced that he and his ‘new’ wife, would be visiting for a cup of tea. What was more, they were moving, imminently, back to the town, and we would be seeing much more of them.
When Uncle Fred and Sophie arrived, I treated him with distant civility. I was surprised to find him a chirpy little man, with a stereotypically fat, jolly wife, who fussed over him incessantly. She fussed over his chair, plumping and pummelling its cushions until he was comfortable. She fussed over the tea cup, to which the precisely correct amount of milk had to be added, before the tea. She fussed over the cup of tea, testing it for temperature before allowing him to press his lips against it.
Fred is very delicate, she told us, fussing over the amount of light falling onto him through the sitting-room window from the afternoon sun.
What surprised me most of all was that neither of them had the slightest trace of an American accent. Feeling resentful towards Fred, for his abandonment of my grandmother – whom I never met on account of her early demise – and his curtailing of my dad’s education, I was churlish and uncommunicative. There was no way I was going to give him the satisfaction of hearing me enquire about his life across the pond.
Poor Fred, who was only a few years older than my dad, took after his mother when it came to dying, and popped off soon after.
My dad lived for another decade, and at his funeral a slim man with a Hitler moustache and a comb-over, accompanied by two equally slim and middle aged looking teenagers appeared. Who are they? I asked my mother. They’re your Uncle Fred’s grandchildren, and his son. They’re your cousins, she hissed.
None of them had American accents either, and this time I wanted to find out why.
It turned out Fred’s American adventure had lasted barely two years. Throughout my childhood he had been living less than twenty miles away.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England within sight of three mountain tops and a sliver of Solway Firth. He writes short stories, some of which have been published and/or performed. Under another name he writes other stuff.
Illustration by Paul Austin Instagram