In a suppressed, earnest, somewhat conspiratorial tone, aunt Jane asked the three of us to meet her behind the house, in the backyard. She said she had something important to tell us. As I saw Susie going downstairs, we exchanged glances: we knew what this was about. This was about uncle Matthew. Uncle Matthew was paralyzed, and we were about to go see him at the hospital. We knew all that, even Sam (though he probably was clueless as to what ‘paralyzed’ actually meant), so I was failing to see what aunt Jane was getting at. Preventive scolding? Pep talk?
- Your uncle is not going to make it, – aunt Jane said as we stood there in the already chilly August wind. Leaning against the barren, threadbare apple tree, Susie was shaking visibly, maybe deliberately, as if to let everyone know she wouldn’t mind getting back inside the house. However, the sad, humourless woman that aunt Jane was, she was of course determined to speak further.
- You’ve heard about the accident. You know uncle Matthew is very sick… He is paralyzed.
- What’s paralyzed, aunt Jane? – This was Sam, obviously. He was at the age when asking ridiculous questions felt like the best way of establishing good rapport with the outside world.
- Well, Sam, it’s when a person can’t move. The muscles in his body won’t respond. Your uncle is dying.
Thankfully, Sam fell silent. My right foot might have had something to do with that. If he asked what ‘dying’ meant, he knew there would be heavy beating afterwards. So he fell silent, and aunt Jane continued.
- Now I know what you think of your uncle. Particularly you, Philip, – she looked at me, and for the first time that day I paid attention to her oily cheeks, like something a particularly fastidious rain could do. Distant tears, they made the area around her eyes look like dimly shining fish scales. I thought that looked repulsive. Also, why me. Why not Susie. She had her reasons, too. – You really hate your uncle, don’t you?
- No, aunt Jane, I can assure you…
- Oh please, drop it. I’m talking to you here because I don’t want your parents to hear this. You know how they are. They will get upset. – She waited ten seconds, as if anticipating some challenge from me or from Susie. This time, however, we knew better. – Well, anyway, I guess I just wanted to tell you that you will probably see your uncle for the last time today. The very last time. He is not going to make it.
That’s it, I thought, she has gone full circle.
- I want you to be nice to him. He deserves it. – She gave me a hard look, her voice quivering. – He will not be able to move, but he will hear you. Say something nice. He will see you. He will understand.
- Okay, – Susie said. – Okay, aunt Jane. Of course. We get it. Can we go now? I’m cold.
Aunt Jane nodded, her desperate ‘I give up’ gesture. I was in awe of Susie’s seemingly boundless cynicism and felt like a child, bewildered schoolboy, hopeless neophyte at moments like that. I could not go that far, I was bound to choke on something. Like a nasty fishbone, a bad dream would come, a feeling. Feeling!.. Sometimes Susie’s attitude seemed so relentless, so disgustingly overwhelming that I wanted her to shut up. However, I could not kick her ankle. Susie was not Sam. She was 16. She was two years older than me.
Hated him? Sure we did. However, not before both of them started regularly coming to our house for summer. At first neither Susie nor I could see any reason for that (after all, they had a perfectly normal house themselves), but it was not like we could do anything about that. The first time they came, we disregarded the two bulky suitcases and thought this would be a short-lived hello-goodbye sort of thing. A matter of two days. But – no. Like bad habits, like painful memories, like your worst splinters, they had to stay.
While they both seemed like a nasty, unwelcome contrast to my parents (who suddenly revealed themselves as two flimsy, invisible, listless entities whose authority could only extend to Sam, and even that could be questioned), we still thought that for all her fussiness aunt Jane was okay.
- It is just that she doesn’t have kids of her own, – Susie said once. Interesting how she excluded uncle Matthew from that thought. And then she would always add: – I bet they never even had sex.
Sex was where you could trust Susie. Judging from her own stories, she could have been pregnant numerous times. If all those names of her male classmates and her peculiar size gradation were anything to go by.
But with uncle Matthew it was different. There was hate, yes, but part of it came from fear. Fear that one day he would tell everyone, fear that he has already done that. However, I didn’t see why aunt Jane had to include Sam in all that. Sam didn’t mind uncle Matthew. Sam didn’t mind anyone. Sam wouldn’t have minded the end of the world if he was still allowed to drink milk-shakes and play shooter games. Susie and me, though, we certainly had our reasons. I still shiver from the memory of him entering the kitchen right when my hand was under her summer frock and in the delicate process of rolling her panties down her legs. I imagine my father standing there. No, he wouldn’t have said sorry – he would have probably frowned, blushed and made the kind of disgusted face that could send us both muttering lame excuses… Uncle Matthew, though, made a scene of it, and didn’t let us go away until he told me I could grow up a pervert and (he did say it, though I still find it hard to believe) a pedophile. He then asked us what we thought would become of our parents (or, indeed, Sam) if they saw us. Also, we had to make a half-hearted promise to never do that again. Only then he let us go. We felt slighted, embarrassed, ashamed. The thing was, you could not challenge that depressing, dwarfish man. You could challenge aunt Jane on just about anything, but you could never challenge uncle Matthew even on watering the goddamn flowers.
Of course we did that again, numerous times, but this would always be accompanied by an edgy sense of frustration. Susie would never let me touch her as often as before, and I myself would only do that if time was right and the door was locked. Lest uncle Matthew should feel like entering the room.
It was odd, but it appeared that he never told anyone. Though strategically that must have been the clever thing to do. This was something we always had to be aware of, and when he told me to go outside help him wash his car, I did exactly that. As for Susie, I remember one instance when one look on his face made her change her skirt next time she went to a party.
- He just wants to get laid, believe me, – Susie told me afterwards. – It’s not you who’s a pervert.
- Yes, – I said. – But do you think he might have told someone?
Though speaking of ‘tell’, it no longer seemed so desperate after that car accident. Of course, there was no way he could tell now, but the day Susie got into what she called her first the relationship, the whole thing stopped. She never said anything, but from now on I had to think of a damn good excuse to even enter her room…
So what could we tell him as he was lying there paralyzed in his hospital bed, unable to speak or move a muscle? “Something nice”, – aunt Jane suggested. “Nice”, – I thought. Sorry about the accident. Love you, uncle Matthew. Won’t do that again, uncle Matthew. God, I could hardly say any of that.
- Susie, – I knocked on my sister’s door. It was time to go.
- What? – she called out. – I’m going, I’m going.
- Susie, please don’t put on that purple skirt of yours. Just please don’t do that.
- What?!? – she exclaimed, blowing the door open, hitting me on the shoulder and almost knocking me off my feet. – Are you out of your fucking mind?
Part of me was bewildered, another part relieved. She was standing there in front of me in that dress mom had given her for her birthday two or three years ago. The one she was supposed to feed to the moths. I wondered whether she was taking the piss.
However, nothing about the look on her face could help me detect any falsehood.
- Susie, – I said as we were about to get inside the car. – What should we say to him?
- Just say goodbye, – she whispered blankly. – That’s the only thing to say, really.
Oh okay, I thought, pushing Sam to the other end of the car seat. Now it looked like we were all ready to go.