The Game of Solitaire
When is an uncle not an uncle?
Answer: when he’s your auntie’s husband
and she’s your dad’s sister
so I must have some of her in me,
not that I could tell in nineteen fifty-three,
especially with her sort of bacon
I had to come downstairs to
with my stomach turning over,
after I’d just been watching
the boatmen skulling across the water
in the cistern just below the window
of the daughter-gone-to-be-a-nurse’s floral bedroom
where they’d put me for a week.
Packed off from a Woodside platform
for a compulsory solo holiday
in Gloucester aged ten on a steam train
which has been disappeared and
which had awkward long leather straps
for struggling to opening windows with
and struggling to close them
if you didn’t want smuts in your eyes;
second visit to a branch of the ancestral family,
and the last,
I was in another country of strangers
who were children fifty years before me
some time between Mafeking and the Somme.
What’s to remember?
Being shown to a shed
to get a lungful of hot onion gas,
a child was bound to like a well nurtured onion,
and the cabbages making a farty smell
at the bottom of their garden,
as tall as me at dawn and
rolling silver beads down my bare legs,
the watering can which helped me escape
to pass the time befriending them,
the Ford Prefect precision parked
with post-war pride
after taking me to Bourton-on-the-Water,
a child was bound to like a picturesque model village,
or Peter Scott’s Slimbridge,
a child was bound to like pretty ducks,
no doubt Uncle Harold did,
he carried binoculars round his neck,
like an untested meaning of life.
Having worked his way up,
he was big in carpets at Bonmarché.
He rolled out an Axminster,
this is an Axminster, he said,
a child was bound to like a well made carpet.
There must have been a speech or two
at his well-earned retirement,
Gloucester colleagues standing round,
remarking upon his achievement in mats and rugs,
grinning for as long as it took.
Auntie Elsie would have written to my mum,
saying how much she enjoyed having me.
What a good eater I’d been
and so quiet,
put in the front room each evening
with the solitaire, not a sound,
a child was bound to like a nice game of solitaire.
Were they tested or untested
when the photographs came
from the other side of the world
which was bigger then
and grandchildren were sequestered behind smiles
and wrote compulsory thank you letters to strangers,
treasured in a Bonmarché letter-rack
like a consolation contre la mort?
They didn’t say.
Pride keeping it shut, perhaps.
Uncle Harold and Auntie Elsie
have gone to graves in Gloucester,
though I doubt if they know it
or what became of me
or what will become of me
and a couple of cousins
and scatterings of grandchildren
with bits of her and him and me in them,
and our fading fragments of memory
of their existence,
and their graves no-one visits,
where people dawdle by,
and a fox deposits a sloppy mess.