In the discordant days of my youth, there is no one I remember more fondly than my uncle, my namesake. An infrequent guest to our family home in the early nineties, he’d fly over from London and spend a fortnight on our front room couch.
My mother and my grandmother would busy themselves in the days before his arrival, and discussions would centre on his diet, what accommodations would be made for his stay.
My father, four years my uncle’s senior, would simply nod in a non-committal way at their queries, before settling back into his sports section. They had grown up in this house as boys, and they looked quite similar but also very different.
They had the same oblong-shaped face and dark brown hair, but while my dad’s was militaristically cropped at the back and sides, my uncle’s flowed out and down, cascading in beautiful curls to his shoulders. In photographs from that time, he is seen sporting peach-coloured dungarees over a crème-coloured top, a look my grandmother called ‘fun’.
In my childhood mind, they were like two flowers blooming from the same root, where one was exposed to sunlight, the other to shade.
On one visit in early June, when the sticky, thick heat of the summer sun covered the ground in a blanket of warmth, my uncle glided in carrying a greenish-golden duffle bag. He was greeted by my mother and grandmother, who took his belongings and welcomed him with an embrace.
“How was the traffic?” my mother asked.
“It was fine,” he replied. “I have to tell you though; I don’t miss those bumpy country roads.”
My father came out from the sitting room, television remote still in hand. My uncle opened his mouth to speak, but my father interjected.
“Will your work mind you staying with us for so long?” he asked.
My uncle steadied himself and cleared his throat. “Yeah, I spoke to them. They don’t mind.”
My father stared for a time at the freshly grown moustache neatly balanced atop my uncle’s lip. “Must be nice,” he said.
The day after my uncle’s arrival, my father picked me up from school. I couldn’t find him among the sea of parents at the front gate. My head darted from face to face as I dipped and dived in under handbags and outstretched arms.
I found him by the peach tree which did not bear fruit very often. On the odd occasion that it did, the small peaches would drop to the earth all mushy and sour-smelling. The older kids would collect them to fling at each other on lunch break.
My father was standing underneath it, talking to a boy who had earlier mushed up some of the rotting peaches, placed them in the hood of my jacket and waited in breathless anticipation for me to put it on. When I did, the remains of the fruit stuck to my hair, and its juices dribbled from the back of my head all the way down to my eyes, nose and chin.
He worked with the boy’s father in the bank in town, and I would hear them sometimes late at night, crashing in and shushing each other, knocking over ornaments, and laughing, as they jostled their way to the fridge to grab two beers.
I pictured them, ties loosened on their work shirts, laughing about the minutiae of their day. Sometimes my mother would come down to scold them. On these occasions I felt small and wanted nothing more than the blankets I was under to suffocate me.
As I approached the crooked peach tree, I could hear them – my father and my tormentor – discussing some football team’s dreadful season. He didn’t see me at first, and so I pretended to tie my untied shoelaces until he did.
I still look back on the relationship my father had with the banker’s son and feel envy. I knew there was a right way to be in life. I did not know what that way was exactly, but I knew I was not it, and no one made this feeling more pronounced in me than my father.
It never felt like that with my uncle. That weekend, he drove me to Movie Magic in the nearby town, and instead of rushing me along like my father, he walked with me, discussed the videos I picked out, and weighed up the artistic merits of each. I asked him how he knew so much.
“I have a lot of friends in London who make films.”
It was nice to hear him talk about London. No one seemed to know what he did there, nor did anyone care to ask. He seemed like an exotic plant, out of place and out of time, with petals the full spectrum of the rainbow.
I imagined he had an exciting, slightly bohemian existence, far away from us and from the cloud-burdened hills of our village in north county Wexford. I pictured him walking through an urban market busy with excitement, with fully stocked stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables.
He drove us both to Courtown for ice-cream and a stroll on the beach. On the collar of his red floral shirt rested a pin, a pink triangle floating in black void. I asked him what it meant.
“It’s a symbol.” He glanced out the window of my grandmother’s Micra.
“For people who are sick to death of being beaten, shouted at, mistreated.” He stopped himself before getting too heated, as if he suddenly remembered the company he was in.
I let the words rattle around in my head, like when my mother put my runners in the tumble dryer: Beaten, mistreated, shouted at.
“Like me?” I asked.
My uncle didn’t reply at first.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I get mistreated and shouted at in school.”
He pulled in at a corner shop by the amusements, the one that sold Mr. Whippy. He didn’t say anything at first. He just removed the pin badge from his collar and handed it to me.
“For when you get shouted at,” he said with a wink.
I am in a giant manor made entirely of glass, and my family and I sit in a banquet hall. The room is large, elegant. A diamond encrusted chandelier dips from the ceiling and hangs low above the ornate mahogany dining table. In the centre of the table stands two portraits: One of Queen Victoria, the other of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
My mother sports a baby blue dress that balloons out the bottom. White frills lace the ends of it, and her bodice – tightened from neck to waist – ensures she sits upright at the table. My father wears a double-breasted grey-coloured suit with matching trousers. He takes paltry sips of a dark red liquid from a crystal glass. In the corner stands a manservant with a decanter. He checks his pocket watch and wheezes.
From my seat at the table, I can see out into the front garden – a sprawling landscape of giant trees, flowers in full bloom, and bees hurrying from one spot to the next. At the far end of the plot a couple dances the tango. The sun beams in through the glass building and scorches my face.
I try to move my arms but cannot. I try to move my legs but cannot. It is as if I am confined by invisible nets designed to hold me in place. Everything feels pre-ordained, and very fragile. To break these restrictions is catastrophe.
We eat in silence until the sun-soaked sky is enveloped in grey and a fierce wind blows in. The world turns cold. Looking up, I can see an elderly woman at the manor door. She is dressed in rags and a dark veil covers her face. In her arms a baby, porcelain white. She scratches and claws and screams and cries.
She poses a danger I do not understand. I am not supposed to help her. It is not ordained, yet the cries continue.
“Should we do something?” I ask.
My family does not even feign to hear me. Instead, like clockwork automatons, they continue the motions decided for them.
“It’s cold outside. She might get sick.”
I can feel the ground begin to tremble. A fierce thunderclap follows a spurt of rain. With great effort, I fight against the abstract forces holding me in place, and slowly, slowly, I make my way to the door.
I help the elderly woman up, and, wordlessly, she follows me inside. Taking her baby in my arms, I place her in a warm bath. As I ease her in, large swathes of her baggy skin come apart in my hands like wet paper, revealing rotted, sour-smelling flesh. As if like ash, her baby dissolves and blows away in my grip.
The trembling grows larger, and by now I can hardly stand on my own two feet. The manor shatters and breaks away, and pieces of glass rain from the sky like hail.
“What have you done?”
My father swings me around, grips me by the shoulders and violently shakes me.
“You were not supposed to do that. What have you done?”
Looking up, I catch his eyes in mine. Like an ink drop in water, a darkness emanates from his pupils and clouds out until the whites of his eyes are completely enveloped in it. A low growl comes from somewhere behind me, and I know I am about to die.
I wake up and my bedsheets are wet.
I didn’t see my uncle for a while after he left that time. Whenever I inquired about his next visit, my mother and my grandmother would say they didn’t know, or that he was too busy, or that maybe he was coming over next year. Eventually I heard he was coming home to live with us permanently. A bed was moved into the front room, with an IV drip and some form of monitor on either side.
The next time I saw him, his long hair had been shaved and his face was covered in bruises.
The weeks that followed are still a blur. The moments I do remember play again and again on a loop in my mind, like a corrupted montage.
My parents had told everyone that my uncle had cancer. I knew this was not true, because behind closed doors everyone spoke in hushed tones about a mystery disease he carried. This disease eventually spread to his brain. It ate away at his memories like how caterpillar gnaws at a leaf, leaving parts of it brown, dry, and brittle. Countless times we were awoken by his screams in the night. He called out for my grandfather, his father.
“It’s funny,” my father said. “He barely spoke to the man when he was alive.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
My father did not answer. He simply shook his head and moved away. He spent the days my uncle was sick shuffling from room to room carrying his newspaper. When he did talk, he talked only of sport and politics.
Some days later, I found my uncle wandering our garden in a cloudy haze. Seeing me, he jerked around with one very intense motion. His eyes were frantic and darted from side to side, as if searching for something.
“Have you seen Peter?” he asked.
“Peter. He shines in the sun, and he’s beautiful. He has a lovely Adam’s apple. And his skin is silk. We were supposed to meet today. At Camden Market. We were going to buy a tea cosy.”
My uncle’s entire demeanour was disarming, and hearing him call another man ‘beautiful’ made me ill in a way I did not understand.
He fell to the ground and began to cry. He clawed at the earth, pulling at massive mounds of soil as if searching for something in the undergrowth. His screams had begun to attract the neighbours who, one by one, peered from behind open curtains. My mother came racing out of the house, and gently placed her hands on his shoulders.
“Come on, come on. Get up out of that.”
She helped him up and guided him inside. At the doorway stood my father, who did not say a word. He simply stared in quiet resignation. I later caught him sitting alone on his bed, crying subdued sobs muffled through a shirt sleeve. He beckoned me towards him before grasping me so tight I thought I might choke.
His sobs broke into deafening cries that filled the room. It was as if a dam had cracked open, and a floodtide ripped loose, suffocating all life that had the misfortune of becoming enveloped in it.
“Son. Please. Please don’t end up like him. For the love of God, please don’t.”
I caught my reflection in a mirror behind him and couldn’t bear to look at it.
My uncle stopped speaking entirely towards the end. He would sit up in his make-shift bed and stare out at the sky. His occasional blinks were the only way for us to know if he was in or out of consciousness. That’s why, when he eventually faded in the night, we did not realise for too long a time.
He was buried next to his father in Blackwater cemetery, in a small plot at the tail end of the yard. St. Brigid’s church hung high in the distance; its weather-worn exterior faced the rain clouds overheard. He had no next of kin, and nothing amounting to useful assets.
“A life lived and nothing to show for it,” my father said.
There, huddled around the open plot, was my father, mother, grandmother, Father Mooney, an altar server, my father’s friend from the bank, and his son. Rain drizzled down and lightly dotted our faces. I rested against my mother’s hip bone, her maroon overcoat cushioning my cheek. My father stood motionless, breaking intermittently to wipe his nose with a cloth he stashed in his breast pocket.
The altar server held a large black umbrella over Father Mooney’s head. He had been parish priest since the 1960s, and he wore every second of every year of it on his face. Hunching over the open plot like a sunflower dying and dipping in the shade, he spoke.
“Our young adventurer was a particularly bright student, with keen interests in Art, English, and History. He also had the misfortune of being the only young boy in Sister Loretta’s Music class, and the teasing he got, my word. Some of the jeering, it would turn you positively blue, it would. Yes, it would.”
He paused to wallow in the soft laughter.
“But it was always in good fun, and I am sure he always took it in his stride. Why, I often caught him skipping down the corridors between classes and I’d have to tell him to stop or he’d get a whack of my infamous shillelagh.”
Again, everyone around me chuckled, but I didn’t get it.
“Anyway, after school, he left our dear sunny south-east to join up with his friends in Dublin. From there, they caught the ferry to Britain, where he, eh. Where he made his new life.”
Father Mooney broke into a coughing fit that only subsided when the phlegm causing a slight rattle in his throat had been fought off. I imagined that doing multiple funeral services in weather like this was beginning to take its toll.
He continued: “His only request, when lucid, was that the following poem be read aloud at his service, which I will do for you now.”
Producing reading glasses from his pocket and a sheet with hand-written words, he began:
“Yet all is well; he has but passed
To Life’s appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.”
The light drizzle had turned to a heavy rain. I held my mother tight.
“I hope you lot are fucking happy.” A cry came from the graveyard gates, and a denim-clad young man sporting a beanie cap was racing towards us, half-jogging and half-running. He had a distinct English accent, and his cap was dotted with pin badges. In among the discordant display of images and slogans, I noticed something familiar – the same pink triangle floating in a void of black. The same pin badge I had hidden away in my bedside locker.
My father whispered something to his friend from the bank, who rolled up his sleeves and moved to meet the stranger halfway up the graveyard’s path. The pair argued and I strained to listen, but could make out nothing more than “unfair,” “travesty,” “love,” and “together five years,” from the stranger’s mouth. His arms flailed and jerked violently, like a large plant caught in a breeze, and he gestured occasionally in our direction. My father’s friend had his back to us, and all I could hear from him was, “some nerve,” and “family only.”
“I’m more family than you,” the stranger yelled, quite clearly.
Before I knew it, he was down on the ground, the result of my father’s friend’s carefully-timed right hook. He grabbed him by the lapels and threw him against a headstone. Using the full weight of his being, he straddled the stranger, pinning his arms to the earth beneath, and spat into his mouth. He lay into him with a right hook, then a left, then a right again, in a pattern he repeated with increasing speed and ferocity. Little spots of blood flecked the ground.
“For the love of Jesus,” my mother yelled. “Tell him to stop. He’ll kill him.”
We ran towards them. My father shouted to my friend, who paused mid-punch – his fist hanging in the gloomy air. He looked down at the stranger, across whom he sat. The stranger turned his head to meet the banker’s gaze, doing so with great struggle and effort.
“Does this make you hard, mate?” he asked.
My father’s friend showed visible disgust – his mouth contorting into a violent frown, his brows furrowing.
“You pansy fucking faggot bastard.” He pulled the stranger up and dragged him back to the gated entrance. He tossed him to the ground into a pool of water that had coalesced in the rainfall.
“Stay away from us or I’ll call the guards.”
We turned to make our way back to the grave. Looking behind me for a brief moment I saw the stranger pick himself up and, with his jacket sleeve, wipe the blood from his nose and mouth. He caught my gaze in his, and we shared a brief glance. He nodded at me after a time, before turning to make his way quietly and solemnly from the churchyard. He was never spoken of again.
That night I sat up in my bed, stroking my uncle’s pin badge with my thumb and forefinger. His words echoed and reverberated in the cavernous expanse of my brain. “Beaten, mistreated, shouted at.” I thought of the stranger, a man with the very same badge, and the ferocious violence of the day. I wondered what made some people hate other people, how hatred started and how it continued. I wondered how that man knew my uncle, and if they had been friends in London.
I thumbed at the badge and searched it more deeply and more thoroughly than before. I felt the scratches and indents and bumps and ridges that defined its current form. I pondered at its history, and the story behind every mark, and marvelled at how, despite the barrage of mistreatment it had apparently endured, the pink triangle still stood visible, its shape still truly clear.
I heard my father crash in with his banker friend. They had ‘taken to the drink’ after the service and were out all evening. I threw the badge into my bedside locker, shut it closed, and buried my head under the sheets.
“Beaten, mistreated, shouted at,” played in my mind in a cycle.
David Monaghan is an Irish journalist, critic, and editor who writes about arts, culture, Film, tech, and LGBTQ+ and community issues for HeadStuff, GCN, Dublin Inquirer, Business & Finance, and others. He is a two-time arts graduate, having completed a BA International in English with Film, and an MA in Film Studies. In 2017, he was shortlisted for ‘Journalist of the Year’ at the National Student Media Awards in Ireland. He is a frequent writer of short fiction.
Image by Sharon McCutcheon on Pixabay
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