“We had a hard life in them days, we did.”
My brother and I rolled our eyes as Uncle Alf cranked open the floodgates of his memory. Again.
It was the same every Christmas. My mother felt it her responsibility to invite the old boy to ours; we were the only family he had left, at least living locally. He was the husband of her long-gone sister, Philomena. He lived on his own now, retired and constantly sick, trundling towards the closing credits.
I kicked Billy under the table and giggled when he yelped. Mother shot us an I’ll-be-talking-to-you-later kind of look and smiled at Uncle Alf, encouraging him to carry on.
“It were just after the war.”
“Shouldn’t that be ‘was’, Uncle Alf?” Billy corrected, quite brazenly, but Uncle Alf took no notice; he was stone deaf. My mother gave Billy that look again.
“My dad, well, he didn’t make it, see, so my mum had to bring us up—all five of us. Joey were the youngest …” Billy opened his mouth to speak but thought better of it. “… and I were the oldest, but I were only 12, so there weren’t much I could do to help.”
Uncle Alf took a sip of his rum while we waited. He needn’t have bothered to continue really—we knew the whole story inside out.
“She went out to work all day, did our mum—left us with the neighbours. She had a cleaning job in the morning, worked behind the counter at a baker’s in the afternoon, and did sewing jobs in the evening. But even then …”
On cue, he took out his handkerchief—which, I noted, was already yellowy-green—and blew his nose, then dabbed at his rheumy eyes.
“… even then it weren’t enough to give us proper meals. We had to get by on bread and dripping for our supper—nothing like this luxury.”
He waved a hand over the table that had borne our Christmas lunch, such as it was, the carcass of the tiny chicken sitting forlornly in the middle.
“And clothes. You’ll never believe it …” We did, as we’d believed it the year before, and the year before that. “… but I were 13 before I got my first pair of shoes, and they were hand-me-downs.”
“Foot-me-downs, you mean?” Billy again. My mother made a fist and shook it at him. Uncle Alf was oblivious to all of this, staring at the stripped chicken as if it bore some of the blame for his poor childhood.
“But we were happy!”
Uncle Alf sat back in his chair and glared around the table, as if challenging us to challenge him on his story.
We had nothing to say. Billy and I were keen to escape the grey tedium of the old man’s recollections and play with the second-hand wooden train-set Santa had left for us.
“PMILTT?” Billy asked my mother.
She nodded and he scampered away from the table. I looked over at her expectantly, and she nodded at me too. Before I jumped down to follow Billy into the front room, I noticed her eyes, welling up. I often think of how I should have stayed and comforted her. But I was young, and to my shame, a wooden train-set trumped a mother’s tears back then.
I remembered that Christmas Day and others this afternoon, sitting at the table, a fat, partially-carved turkey occupying a large part of it. What triggered the memory was something my three grandchildren did.
“It was hard for us in the old days,” I’d said, preparing to compare the bounty of food on the table with the meagre Christmas fare of my childhood.
They didn’t see me notice, but I’d caught it—the rolling of the eyes, the stifled giggling, and my daughter looking daggers at them.