Wednesday, October 13, 2010

10. Uncle Tom and a disastrous holiday .

Uncle Tom, my father’s brother, came to visit us from South Africa with his wife, Mavis, and baby, Derek. I watched my little cousin being bathed and although I was almost ten years old I had never before seen a naked baby boy and thought the male appendage very strange. Over forty years later this baby boy, who had grown up and moved to America, came to visit us all in Bulawayo. What a dish! He had all the women in the family wide eyed. But, I thought, I was the only one there who had seen his equipment, albeit in miniature. He had the Lawley charm and good looks, but he did not stay long enough for us to make any in-depth assessment.
Uncle Tom was very good looking, apart from a crooked, scarred nose and a cut on his cheek. I asked mother what had happened to his nose and she told me that one day Madeleine, his sister, in a rage had thrown a carving knife at him which caught him across his face. Bill, father’s other brother, was a very mild man who had been a Warrant Officer in the Indian Army. He sniffed a lot and smoked and had married a girl called Mary, who also smoked and ate pigs’ trotters with her fingers. She died of leukaemia. Anyway, while Tom and Mavis were there, Jane and I were sent to spend two weeks with a woman living in the country who “took in children”, supposedly to give them a fun packed holiday. Jane was thirteen and I was ten and we hated the place. There were other girls and boys there, plus the woman’s own children, I don’t remember how many. The boys just wanted to play cowboys and Indians, to tie us to trees and whoop round us brandishing spears. I had experienced all the brandishing and whooping that I needed, and this was not my idea of a fun holiday.

The woman in charge arranged tests for us. For instance, I was made to sit alone in a room, on a chair pulled up to a table, on which was placed a square of chocolate, and I was told I must not touch it. After a very long time, the woman came back and I was allowed to eat the untouched piece of confectionery, and I blame that incident on my becoming a chocoholic; if I see chocolate, I have to eat it. Then we were each told a word before going to bed; we were not allowed to write it down, and it had to be remembered in the morning. I was terrified that I would not remember and get into trouble, so I cheated by writing the word on the neck of my doll; the head was on an elastic band so the end of the neck could not be seen. Somehow the woman found out and I was disgraced for cheating. Far from being a happy holiday, every day seemed to be one more trial or test. On Sunday mornings we woke to find a bag of sweets and a comic magazine on our beds, no doubt put there to keep us quiet while the master and mistress had a lie in. My comic of choice was “Film Fun”. I loved the antics of Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.

The grounds of the house were quite large. We ate baby carrots pulled straight from the ground, picked tiny yellow tomatoes from the greenhouse and big, sweet juicy ripe, yellow gooseberries. We went on a picnic and I was dumped in the river and made to swim. We fished for tadpoles and played hide and seek, and I hid in the boot of a car with a 12 year old boy who told me he had been waiting all his life to find a girl like me! It had been three years since my affair with the freckled faced boy at the Kingston by-pass, so it was nice to know that I had not lost my fatal attraction. No, it was not all bad, but we missed Mother and wanted to go home.

Mother, Father, Uncle Tom and Aunt Mavis and the baby came to collect us at the end of the two long weeks and we were so relieved to see them. We were also very pleased to see that Father and Mother seemed happy together. After a short conversation with the woman of the house they announced, to our horror, that as we were having such a lovely time, they had agreed that we could stay another week! Only now do I wonder if they intended to take us home with them because there would not have been room in the car for seven of us and our luggage. As the car drove away we burst into tears. Years later mother said that she wished she had known we did not want to stay because it had been a struggle, finding the money for the extra week. Oh the miseries caused by the failure to communicate.

I liked Uncle Tom, he smoked a pipe and let me sit on his knee. I wanted to hide in his cabin trunk and go back to South Africa with him.  Later he sent me cigarette cards on which were printed pictures of South African flowers, and I thought the Proteas were magnificent.  When I had my own little patch of garden in Cheam, I planted African marigolds and ice plants. That was the only time I ever saw, or had contact with, my Uncle Tom.

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