June 27 2005

Uncle Jim went to the trenches and came back with a sadness he never lost. He had a glass eye that as a child I imagined replaced the one he’d left somewhere in a foreign field during that war to end all wars.
He lived with my Gran, his sister, in her house in South Walls and, in spite of the gentle melancholy that always hung around him, a visit there was never gloomy.
That might have had something to do with the pocket-money he gave me every Saturday, a threepenny-bit usually, one of those umpteen-sided bronze ones, but sometimes a silver Joey that I was loath to spend.
The army shirts he wore almost matched his walrus moustache, stained a bright khaki by his combined habit of sniffing mountains of snuff and puffing on a stubby pipe which he filled with tobacco noxious enough to kill a German sniper at fifty yards.
The glass eye, several shades darker than his good brown one, was hypnotic and I couldn’t stop looking at it. It never moved and it didn’t blink when the other one did, but he could wink with it which he did each time he handed me my threepence.
He wore a cap which stayed on even indoors and I don’t remember ever seeing him without it or his pipe.
He spent most of the day sitting on a tiny wooden stool almost on top of the fire in the black-leaded grate, listening to the wireless and studying the racing pages, absently stroking Mawkin, one of two cats, mousers who ruled the house like dowager duchesses. The other, Girlie, never got close enough to anyone to let herself be stroked; she considered it common. Occasionally, Jim would refill his tin mug from the huge brown teapot that sat on the hob from morning till night.
Superstition played a big part in his life and inevitably some of it rubbed off on me. He made sure I threw spilled salt over my shoulder, warned against putting new shoes on the table, and if I was around when there was a new moon we had to go through a strange ritual which must have baffled his neighbours. It involved us stepping into the street where we would both chant, “Lady Moon, Lady Moon, bring me good luck” while clutching a half-crown apiece. We then had to turn around three times. He never explained why it was necessary, but I was happy to go along with it, even though I had to hand my half-crown back.
Superstition played a part in his death, too.
During a family trip to Milford one summer’s day my mother found a horse-shoe and picked a small bunch of heather, both symbols of luck for some. When we got home Uncle Jim was dead.
He’d put a cushion in the oven and turned on the gas. Then he lay down and quietly drifted back to No Man’s Land.
I was wrong about his eye. I was told years later that he lost it in a fishing accident.
A couple of years after he died I poked around in a drawer at Gran’s and found one of Uncle Jim’s tobacco tins. Inside were a set of false teeth and a glass eye.
I never opened the drawer again.
When I told my father he said it was probably a marble. But he was wrong.
Marbles don’t wink.

 

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