My Favourite Sister's Uncle
Colin Herd responds to an exhibition by Charlie Billingham and Zin Taylor at Independent Régence Brussels, 7 September - 7 October
“If, as Algernon says in the Fourth Act of the play, relations are ‘a sort of aggravated form of the public’, the main aggravation seems to consist in how the public grows less individual, less differentiated, even less lovable as it is brought within the holy bounds of family privacy” – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Queer Tutelage’
“What may be at stake in the making visible of aunts and uncles in this play?” – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Tales of the Avunculate’
Years ago I knew what it was about. The rain was so steady and the pavement just soaked it all up like a quiet baby and I called him Uncle. It rained in Brussels but the air was so mossy nobody noticed. We were at the home I was renting from someone else, and I was renting my own home out to help cover the costs.
My home was flouncy in aspect. My wallpaper was moody and fresh (as in attitude). My world was violet and tense. I saw a lot of exhibitions. I collected oggly walking sticks and hung them from the ceiling.
After weeks of deliberations (habitual after a while), and visits to various sports shops to buy new pairs of trainers and what I call “traineroids”, I decided to pluck up the courage to opentable us a dinner date, to find out if him seeing me in some other way than he might have seen my sister was a go-er or off the cards.
Things that come to mind about that period include Uncle’s squeaky opening of things. The cheese sandwich was just for starters. It sent shivers down my little bowing spine.
Uncle’s skin was so fleshy. His cheeks poured foundation all day long, welling up. We drank sour gueuze.
My tenant in Scotland was fond of cold toast. Rebecca. She worked for an art gallery and museum. She didn’t have her own pet but walked dogs for other people in her spare time. She had been recommended to me by Hamish and it seemed like she had her own troubles. She was a ping pong enthusiast.
Hamish by this time had been ejected by my sister. My efforts were slight and ineffectual to tease him out of his shell.
“Are you cold?”, Uncle asked.
My décor skills were not.
By the time he was eating up the last of my wholegrain mustard mashed potatoes with one hand, swirling a glass of lambic in the other, we’d ranged over all sorts of topics so it didn’t seem that absurd when I told him that I liked to eat popcorn with chopsticks, to avoid getting my hands all slimy. And he told me that his favourite foodstuff bar none is the edible paper you get at the bottom of charity bake sale cakes.
“So, mister, what’ll it be?” I asked when we’d been staring at the dessert menu for a while. “I myself am still weighing my options.”
The windows opened and the rattling sound had this sexy air about it. Looking down the stairwell was like seeing into somebody’s vanity case.
I thought of the pull of all those dogs on a leash in a hand in all those different directions. And the cocktail of smells. According to Rebecca Hamish talked, once in a while, if you wound him up.
Rebecca’s museum was staging an exhibition of beautiful esoteric barely real sea creatures / walking sticks / papier mache twigs etc and big paintings of sweltering, leering, jovial, pastel, avuncular fleshpeople from some time or other.
The invigilator passed by me putting a finger to her lips, and went barefoot, from then on.
Rebecca was a rare individual because she gardened and walked dogs in her spare time. Her gardening was austere and extreme.
In one exam I was faced with questions that related to nothing I had ever heard or seen or been told about.
Uncle’s fly was the squeakiest I ever heard, whatever trousers he had on. Sometimes I would hear it when he went for a wee in restaurants, this little guttural mouse squeal.
“The greenest grass has never been mown,” I made up.
“You will love this show”, Rebecca said, and then to convince me, “there are plants”.
Uncle’s Summit, I said, whenever he started a serious conversation.
The goose pimples on his upper arm were small, amassed, infectious.
Rebecca dug up anything that looked like it was having a bad day.
I aced all my exams. Even then my head was choc-full of ideas. An idea I had in those days was the slipper sock, which had only recently come into existence and I had never seen.
Hamish had discovered Forex. Was making a lot of money with it, according to Rebecca. They took each other to Brussels. Clinked icy tumblers.
It took three and a half weeks until I saw him again, and in that time my work life balance was unhinged and warped. In a rare moment when I wasn’t doing my ideas-things and reporting on them in meetings, it dawned on me that I should get a green light from my sister before pursuing avenues further and anyway, he hadn’t called, even in an avuncular way to check I’d got home alright.
My sister phoned twice a week back then. She used to talk for hours. Her subjects ranged widely but she usually spoke in sizes and shapes.
The breeze in my kitchen lifted ephemeral papers from the stash on top of my fridge and they glided towards the oven.
“Call a doctor,” I said, “he will only get a lot worse.”
A low murmur hummed down the wire. The scone I’d been toasting was black and smoking. It had caught around the edges.
“Can I call one for you?”
The ticking and wheezing of another century seemed to envelope us in smog. I nodded, cagey and sage-like at the same time, flapping a tea towel around my head in an attempt to stave off the alarm.
“Hang in there a week or two and I’ll make the trip.”
The implications were massive. She thought it had been a cube but it had always been a pyramid when you looked at it in retrospect.
Uncle discovered boiled wool. I called them his Jim Jam Pants.
“Call me something else”, said Uncle.
I found a packet of luncheon meat under my fridge three weeks after I had gone vegetarian.
That was how I was when the doorbell rang, standing on a ghost chair in my kitchen, back window open wide like a Tennessee Williams play. I never got to take my turn in the queue, asking her advice. Poor Hamish, I thought, as I ambled to the door, and opened it to my favourite sister’s uncle, got up all in sky. I couldn’t stop my eyes from buzzing in the glare. He carried a carton of milk and a petrol station sandwich. My favourite sister’s uncle, indeed. Between his teeth a rose.
Just kidding. Before I could do more than mouth “Hello”, I had to lean back into the hallway, whisper an apology to my favourite sister, promise to come and see Hamish soon, and press the red button on my phone.
Our dinners were the happiest I had ever been in my life. I never knew what to expect. One week he would turn up with smoked tofu. The next he would turn up with litres of red wine.
I called Rebecca to avoid calling Hamish. Her job was more rewarding than she expected. She didn’t have the problem I did, of having to come up with ideas on demand, in 30 seconds, an hour, a week. No, she dealt mainly with interpretation, with presenting things in a way that they made sense to visitors.
My favourite sister never found out about her uncle and me.
Cut flowers are an obsession of mine and I also have a large money plant and a murderously high turnover of orchids.
“Uncle”, I said once, twice, three times a nephew-oid, “have you ever read Eve Kossovsky Sedgwick on The Importance of Being Earnest?”
Love is a many sided thing, my sister said, like a dodecahedron. One that changes size from very large, where you can see only one side at any one time and aren’t aware of the others, to very small where you can hold them all in your fist.
Uncle wrapped things up. Satin trimmings, scallop ribbon, thick flappy jute.
Rebecca made a request to switch some of the rooms around. She wanted the living room to become a bedroom and the bedroom to become an office. Her coffee table was painted this extraordinary three layer style – like there was a canvas set in the table frame but there was also paint either side of the glass.
Gueuze is made by a process of spontaneous fermentation that mixes old and young worts, I said to stern uncle, almost winking myself into oblivion.
I knew the invigilator a little because I used to act in plays and so did her three children. I was often cast as the dame.
“He’s a bona fide tube!”, my sister said, “the size of the Channel Tunnel!”
Custard Creams. Cold faux goose and Tofurkey.
In the switcharound, Rebecca found an old box of my ideas behind a wardrobe. She and Hamish were buying a small plot in the Proriat to make gutsy exuberant reds.
Uncle closed my windows and my kitchen curtains fell to a pause.
In those days my extractor fan dominated the landscape and the soundscape with its metallic hum. I operated my bin with my foot and it went clang.
“I’m more of a wrap person myself,” I said, and filled the kettle with water, revving it up and waiting for the blue light. We needed a bridge of sorts between us to stop me droning on about my vantage point onto the neighbour’s dreary barking angsty pitbull. Uncle strained to hear it above his high-pitch chomping.
After an hour twice a week, my sister ran out of sizes and shapes.
My job enveloped more and more of my time. I came close to kicking myself out when instead of ‘Dear Denise,’ I inadvertently addressed my boss ‘Death Denise’ in an email, sent from my mobile phone, while also on the landline, at 8.37pm.
Uncle’s hand tapped the table and it made a squeak not a tap.
“You’re something else,” I said, and ha ha ha’d him up the stairs.
Rebecca passed on a tip for the maintenance of my money plant: watered down peach schnapps.
I called her in the middle of sorting myself an evening snackette.
My sister’s uncle was late, had had trouble getting a taxi, and consequently the conversation was a little clumsy to start with, but I bided my time and “stirred in more sauce”, as a friend of mine from back home had once advised.
My floor needed a sweep. I’d mopped it not long ago, which meant there were these damp claggy bunches of fur here and there.
The kettle had been overfilled, perhaps, and spilling was as spilling is. The date, it turned out, began hot, messy, and on the counter, just as I had planned. And my urge to purge kicked in, all absorbent and circular motions.
“Now”, blasting, evaporating, expunging.
“Now, uncle dearest,” I announced, faux-mopping my brow, heading upstairs to brush my teeth and shave my armpits:
“I hate to be narratively unsatisfying but it’s time for an intermission!”
Commissioned as part of Objects I Have Been - a reviews season in the ekphrastic mode
Charlie Billingham's work also featured in Plant Scenery of the World
Colin Herd is a poet and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. His new book Click & Collect is out from Boiler House Press. He edits www.adjacentpineapple.com and co-organised Outside-in / Inside-out: A Festival of Outside and Subterranean Poetry. www.colinherd.com