KEYS TO THE CITY
I: A New Career In A New Town
II: Dream Life
III: Paintings As Prayers
IV: Late Summer Evening
Rose Crowned Evenings
Moments Of Pure Ashtray
The Personalised Circus
Blind Children On Western Streets
Lucifer Says He Won't See Me
Swans On The Surface
Girl Smoking On Balcony
Stained Glass Window
The Insurance Was WILD
The Sea's Smile
Van Gogh's Lights
The Disappointed Prince
A Night At The Circus
Chekhov In Kreuzberg
A Stolen Dress
Two Contract Killers Get Arrested
My Uncle Dick
Death In The Cafe
Performing To The Curtain
Getting Past The Curtain
Living With Samuel Beckett:
An Anti Essay
MY UNCLE DICK
When I was sixteen, I went to a rock`n roll concert with my friend Martin. As the concert finished late, my mother arranged that we stay with my aunt Mary and my uncle Dick, in Wembley. Mary and Dick were in their sixties, but ever since I could remember, they lived with the spirit of a couple in their prime. The family parties would always be at their old place in Wembley; Boxing Day at Dick’s was almost like a family tradition. In the living room, the men, big and low voiced, would drink beers, and in the kitchen, the women would make the food. I would often prefer to chat with the women in the kitchen, feeling shy around the men and their teasing jokes. In the kitchen, my mother and my aunt Tania would prepare all the food they had made earlier that day; there would be one or two joints of cooked ham, a roast chicken, a curry, sausage rolls and potato salads. Occasionally Dick would shuffle into the kitchen, and with an old smoky Irish croak, say, ‘and how are you Jojo!’ He’d ruffle my hair and say, ‘Here, don’t tell your mother’, and sneak a tenner into my pocket. He always had a cigarette in his mouth, hand, or behind his ear, and would often be humming or singing an old Irish folk song, or a Sinatra favourite… ‘da dee, da dooo…’ Dick was a man but in my eyes he was at home with the women. He was a small man but when he was in the room you knew about it, and when you knew he was in the room, you felt things were alright.
Sometimes these parties would on too long. They’d all drink too much. My cousins and I would hang out in the garden house or sometimes upstairs, playing football video games and drinking coke. By about 11 O’clock, almost on queue all the relatives would start stamping to the Irish music. ‘Why do they always have to stamp?’, we’d say to each other and laugh. Then we’d get curious and see what was going on. Downstairs would be smoky and rowdy. All the women would say hello and smile at you sweetly as if you’d only just arrived. The men would crack a few jokes and then the women would say, ‘Oh leave him alone Peter! You know he’s shy! - Take no notice darling, he’s just being silly’ -
‘I’m being what?’
‘You’re being silly Terry’.
‘His football teams silly, thats what silly, isn’t that right Jojo? They’re shit.’
I’d mumble a reply and then Terry would laugh and tell me to help myself to a coke. All the family would try and get me and my cousins to dance, but we’d refuse. However, as the years went by, we would rustle up some courage and shuffle around awkwardly with the women. ‘Not bad’, Aunt Mary would say, grinning with her pretty green eyes, fixing her loud auburn hair. ‘Not bad’. My old great grandmother would grace the room with her presence and sit in the corner like a disappointed queen, comically scowling at the men’s drunken antics.
Eventually people would leave. Often my sister and I would go upstairs whilst the smoke and music continued, albeit more quietly. I remember once standing by the banisters and hearing a heated political debate between Uncle Dick and Aunt Tania. In the morning though we’d all be sat round the breakfast table. Mary would always ask my sister and I if we needed any more orange juice. Dick would be humming to himself, smoking a cigarette, reading about the horseracing in the paper. ‘Clever Dick is five to one Mary! Clever Dick, thats me isn’t it? Haha!’
‘Is that so,’ Mary would say whimsically. Dick loved the horse racing. He was a painter and was often in the bookies, but Mary didn’t mind. When we’d say goodbye, he’d slip me another tenner. ‘Ah Dick, you really don’t have to?’
‘Ah come on now Jojo, don’t talk nonsense. Buy yourself something nice, eh?’
‘Ah no problem Jojo, be a good boy for your mother!’
We’d all laugh, say goodbye, and then see Dick and Mary again next year.
Before the concert, I told my friend Martin a lot about Dick and Mary, and he couldn’t wait to meet him. Martin liked ‘characters’. We were brothers in arms; our creed was anything rock ‘n roll and being class clowns at school. We bought some cheap whiskey from an off licence and snuck it into the show. Walking through the aisles I felt bad. I consciously had a grin on my face as if I knew something that everyone else didn’t it. Martin was like that too.
After the concert Martin and I felt elated. Our voices were hoarse from singing and shouting. Dick met us in the car park and we jumped in the back. Lately Dick was very sick. The warm fire of his soul was still there, but it was gradually being put out. Now he had no choice but to accept his lot. He was not like the Dick of my childhood or early teenage years. Now Dick had limits. He was still his friendly invigorating self, but, what with being sick, there was a sadness to him now. Dick had limits now and they said he was probably going to die soon.
In the car Dick chatted to Martin. The conversation was amusing. We were hyper from the concert. There was a fuzzy radio playing, and the lights on Dick’s speedometer had a faint red glow to it. I watched Dick blow blue smoke out of his rolled down window. It was a cold winter’s night and we were heading home.
When we arrived at Dick’s house, it was past midnight but Mary was still up.
‘How was the concert boys? Hello Martin, Joe’s told me all about you.’
‘Oh I suppose thats not too good then’, Martin replied.
‘Nonsense. Come on get in the house boys, its cold,’ Dick said.
‘Yeah the concert was great,’ I said to Mary, when we sat in the living room. At this Mary tenderly smiled.
‘Well I’m glad you boys enjoyed yourself.’
At the Boxing day parties, Mary was often one of the loudest, but that night she was a lot more mellow.
‘So play us this band then Jojo’, Dick wheezed. ‘I bought their album the other day’.
Mary brought us all bottles of beers. We played the album. At the time it wasn’t a great album and in retrospect, it wasn’t even a good album, but Martin and I were proud of our concert. Martin was now drunk, and often when he was drunk, he lost all his inhibitions, to the point where I felt he was a little precocious. There he was on the sofa, smoking a cigarette with my uncle!
‘You want one Jojo?’ Dick asked.
‘No I’m alright Dick’.
‘You don’t smoke do you Joe?’ Mary said, curiously.
‘No I don’t’, I mumbled. Martin grinned at me from across the room.
‘So,’ Martin began, ‘Joe was telling me you grew up in the sixties, Dick?’
‘Ah yes,’ Dick grunted, with a smile.
‘What with The Animals, and Eel Pie Island? I love all that!’
‘Oh yes,’ Mary said in her musical voice. ‘We did all of that. Carnaby Street. It was a different day back then...’
‘And you saw The Stones - when they started in Richmond?’ Martin asked.
‘Ah yes...’ Dick said thinking for a moment. ‘The Richmond Hotel. But they’ve changed it now. Its a bar now I think?’
Dick looked at me for confirmation but I didn’t know.
‘Yes’, Mary said, ‘Oh we were around during all that...The flower power movement...’
Dick started singing, ‘if you’re going...to San Francisco...’, smiling to us as if he wrote it.
‘What was Mick Jagger like, Dick?’
‘Well I never met the man in person, Jojo. I used to see them when they first started. They would have a drink with us but they’d always be going somewhere afterwards.’ Dick turned to Martin, ‘Fucking Mick Jagger eh!’
We all laughed and drank our beers. I think we had another one afterwards and chatted for about half an hour, but it was late and we all had to get up relatively early the next day.
In the morning Dick dropped Martin and I home. It was a frosty morning and Dick was chatting away. Condensation and smoke filled the car. The road was busy with all the rush hour traffic. Dick was playing with the radio and telling a few funny stories. Martin and I were tired so we mainly just listened and enjoyed his conversation.
When we pulled up outside Martin’s door in Chiswick, Martin said, ‘Hey Dick...could you...could you look after my cigarettes for me? I don’t want the cops to find out...’
‘Ah your mammy doesn’t want you smoking, eh Martin boy!’ Dick chuckled and put Martin’s cigarettes on the dashboard. ‘Take care of yourself now!’
Martin said thank you to Dick for his and Mary’s hospitality, and then we drove towards where I lived with my mother and sister.
‘He’s a funny boy, your friend, Joe.’
‘Yeah. He’s my best friend.’
‘Ah yeah. He’s a fine boy though.’
Dick tapped on the steering wheel. ‘Say, which way do you want us to go Jojo? Which way’s best? I can go through Twickenham if you want?’
‘Yeah go through Twickenham. Whatever’s easiest for you, Dick.’
Dick hummed, his voice croaky, and said that we’d take the A316 through Twickenham. When we started to near my house I began to feel sentimental; I tried to fully appreciate Dick as a man, his character, my time with him. Perhaps he realised this, for beneath the scatter laughter there was a sadness in his eyes. I guess I was worried that I would never see him again.
We pulled up outside my house and my mother came out to meet us in the drive, embracing the pair of us.
‘Hello lovely, how are you!’ Dick said.
‘Oh not too bad Dick, how was the concert?’
‘Oh it was fantastic!’ Dick said, laughing as he answered for me.
‘Oh I wouldn’t be surprised if you went there with them...’
Dick was chuckling away. My mother asked him a few questions about his health, to which Dick lowered his eyes and mumbled about things being alright. We stood there with him for a few minutes and then bid him goodbye. I watched him open his car door with his keys. It was automatic, it was a cold morning, and Dick got in his car accepting it all. His car drove off down the road and then he was gone.
‘Come on then,’ my mother said. ‘You can help me sweep up the dead leaves in the garden.’