In June 1999 Uncle Pete developed a dry, persistent cough. He sucked on throat sweets, took supermarket cough medicine, but still the cough remained. By the end of the month he went to his GP – mostly at the insistence of Auntie Carol whose sleep was being disturbed night after night. The GP put a cold stethoscope to Pete’s chest, and after a brief listen diagnosed him with a chest infection. Uncle Pete thanked him, took his prescription to the local chemist then went home. That night he and Carol held a party for friends and family to celebrate their Ruby Wedding anniversary.
Throughout July the cough intensified – a dry, rasping hack that made eating and drinking difficult. Uncle Pete sucked on more throat sweets, and took more cough medicine. By the end of July he went back to his GP, expecting another course of antibiotics. The GP listened to his chest more intently this time. ‘Do you still smoke?’ he asked, moving his stethoscope across the chest and back. Uncle Pete smiled ruefully and nodded. Later he told me the GP kept pausing, tapping his chest, listening, and pausing again. The GP prescribed steroids and requested a chest X-ray from the local hospital. That night Carol and Uncle Pete wrote thank you cards to everyone who’d given them a gift for their wedding anniversary. Three bottles of champagne still cooled in the refrigerator. Two delicate crystal glasses (a present from my parents) stood at the centre of the dining room table surrounded by a flock of congratulation cards.
The next day Uncle Pete walked the short distance to the local hospital for the x-ray. As he reached a gentle incline the tightness in his chest intensified. ‘It felt like I was being smothered by heavy blankets’ he would tell me later. X-ray taken, Uncle Pete went home for a late lunch. He helped Carol with the washing up then went upstairs to do some paperwork. Later that afternoon the phone rang. When Auntie Carol answered it was the GP. His voice was tight: ‘I need to see him this afternoon. The receptionist will confirm the time.’ Carol called up to Uncle Pete in his office. His cassette recorder was playing (country music again) so he didn’t hear her. Auntie Carol went upstairs and entered without knocking.
When the technicians had examined Uncle Pete’s X-ray they found his left lung had collapsed. Dark, undefined masses crowded around the right lung. An urgent CT-Scan took place at the Leicester Royal Infirmary the next day. ‘I could see the faces of the X-ray people through the glass’ Uncle Pete said. After the scan he jovially asked about the results. ‘Too early to say’ was the reply. ‘Your consultant will discuss the results with you.’ Uncle Pete had played cards for years, firstly during National Service then later with friends and family. ‘I know a bad bluff we I see one’ he said to Auntie Carol later that night.
Two days later the consultant oncologist delivered the news: Uncle Pete had advanced lung cancer that had metastasized to the major organs. Extensive chemotherapy would prolong his life by three months; four at the most. Uncle Pete listened quietly before politely turning down any further treatment. He walked back through the hospital car park with Auntie Carol. He turned his Nissan Sunny into the thin, mid-morning traffic; they were home in under twenty minutes.
Uncle Pete died three months later. He was 63 years old.
It was from Uncle Pete that I learned how pleasurable smoking could be. Posters at school warned you of the dangers (Superman using his x-ray vision to show us a pair of disease ravaged lungs!) but it was only when you got up close to a nicotine addict that you saw how easily it would be to start – and to go on smoking Marlboro after Marlboro until a ripe old age. Uncle Pete would stroke the top of a new packet before delicately unravelling the outer cellophane. There were the bright white stubs partially hidden by the gold wrapping. Then the wavering flare of a match. I would watch his body respond and relax as the nicotine entered his system. Head back, eyes closed, he exhaled a miasma of smoke towards the ceiling. ‘Heaven for me’, he would say. ‘Heaven’.
Every family, however close and loving, has different attitudes and experiences that rub and spark against one another. My parents loved Uncle Pete but there was always an undercurrent of disapproval. The chain-smoking was a big, black mark for my Mum – she’d been a nurse since 21 and her time spent caring for emphysema and cancer patients had left her no philosophical room for manoeuvre. She used every trick in the book to get him to stop: ‘I don’t want my sister to end up alone, Pete’; ‘your lovely wallpaper has been stained yellow again’; ‘think of the big holiday you could have if you saved the money you spent on those things’. Uncle Pete would smile apologetically and offer everyone another round of coffee, a second piece of cake.
But it was his attitude to sex that made my parents really dubious. Uncle Pete was unashamedly and unapologetically an admirer of women, especially the unclothed variety. He read The Sun every day, had a Page 3 calendar on his kitchen wall and a collection of Electric Blue videos secreted away at the back of his video cabinet. He proudly showed me these when I reached thirteen. ‘Like to see one?’ he asked before a sharp look from my Dad stopped him in his tracks. I blushed and inwardly thanked Dad for stopping him but I’d been excited to see them too. This open, and in some ways innocent view of sex had been inculcated into Pete’s daughters. Both had boyfriends relatively young. Both gave off the confident scent of experience that was embarrassing to my brother and I.
Shortly after I’d finished university (and brimming with self-righteousness), I tried to show Uncle Pete the error of his ways. ‘You see, the feminists say that Page 3 models demean women, make them into objects purely for the gratification of men’. Pete looked baffled at this, went into the kitchen and returned with his calendar. ‘Even Miss December?’ he asked sweetly, beginning to tease me now. Even Miss December, I pointed out. ‘It’s really not PC, Pete. And it can’t be nice for Auntie Carol’. He thinks about this: ‘But your Auntie Carol got me this one. Who’s for more coffee and cake?’
Shortly after his death my Mum and I found some pictures of Uncle Pete from the late fifties. Fresh out of National Service, his ebony hair greased back, a bright white cigarette tucked behind his ear, you could see what the ladies (and eventually Auntie Carol) saw in him. Shortly after the photo was taken Uncle Pete joined a big insurance firm and began selling policies door to door. ‘The ladies loved him’ my Mum remembered. ‘It was the dark, handsome suit, his shiny hair and infectious laugh. He was always generous with his cigarettes – he didn’t like to smoke alone.’ I wondered how many of these clients became conquests. As if reading my mind, Mum chipped in: ‘He did like ladies, always liked ladies, but he never cheated on Carol once they were married; I just know that. I would never have married Pete but I respected him.’
The company Uncle Pete worked for was eventually taken over by a conglomerate. A new breed of salesman, uninterested in clients but compelled by bonuses, started to push his generation aside. ‘Reptiles’ he called them. Uncle Pete was always more interested in the person than the product, he loved the feeling of extended family he clients gave him. Eventually in 1992 the inevitable happened: Uncle Pete was offered early retirement and he reluctantly accepted. ‘It’s beaten me ‘ he said. ‘I hate pushing people to sign on the line. ‘And’ (gesturing to his cigarette) ‘there’s only so many of these you can smoke in a day to reduce the stress.’
‘Only kiddies play with little sticks – real money or not at all’. It was winter (I remember the gas fire stuttering from the November wind) and Uncle Pete was showing me the finer points of Pontoon or ’21’ as he preferred to call it. He saw cards as a serious business and to play with match sticks was undermining to both him and the game. One look at his face and I knew he wasn’t joking – I unzipped my wallet (‘looks like a purse!’) and took out three pound notes. ‘No limit’ he said gruffly ‘and I’ll be banker’. He’d played with the same deck since the early fifties; the cards turned and flicked effortlessly in his hands. ‘Watch the cards and remember’. He beat me easily, of course, and after only an hour I’d been wiped out. No more money, my pleading eyes said, but he didn’t return my winnings. They’d been lost in a man’s game and there were no second chances. ‘Next time’ he said, ‘watch the cards and remember’.
I finally beat him a year later – he chuffed my cheek and put another fiver into the pot to swell my winnings. ‘You tell your Mum and Dad there’s another good card player in the family’. My parents would have given me my winnings back, would have engineered victory to spare my humiliation. But not Uncle Pete: you were beaten again and again and again until you learnt to be the better man.
‘He wants to see you, will you come? I know it’s difficult after what you went through last year’. I closed my eyes to find the words. Auntie Carol had called to tell me he was now back home. All the blood tests, CT scans, and terminal words had fallen away. Just Uncle Pete now, in bed, waiting to see how it feels when your body loses hold. ‘Of course, I’ll come – he was always there for me.’ He’d been one of the first people to visit me after I’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. He’d chuffed my cheek and said simply ‘Spooked you, I expect?’ I nodded, fraught with tears. ‘Now where’s that coffee and cake?’
When I’d moved into my small Loughborough flat in 1997 Uncle Pete had been one of the first to visit. He brought me some spare chairs from the garage and an Edwardian trinket box that I’ve kept to this day. ‘For your keys – I’m always losing the buggers at home’. He’d known my parents had objected to my moving out, that they thought I was in too fragile a state to cope on my own. I was still having monthly CT Scans and blood tests, waiting to see if the cancer would regress. But if I hadn’t moved out then, I never would have. I would’ve lost the courage to build a life of my own. Sometimes, when everyone would understand the reason for you not doing something, for not asking anymore of yourself, it’s a sign that you must do it. I think Uncle Pete saw this and quietly admired me for it.
I last saw Uncle Pete at beginning of September 1999, two weeks before he died. I hugged Auntie Carol at the door and handed her the marigold I’d brought with me. ‘That’ll brighten the place’, she smiled. ‘He’s been an angel, never complains, you know. Go on up.’ Uncle Pete lay in the front bedroom, facing a large window that looked down on the street. The net curtain had been taken down to give him a better view. A black oxygen tank stood to his left; a small table, on it a drink of water and packet of cough sweets stood to his right. And above him, in lieu of a crucifix, was tacked a lusty Page 3 model – ‘all tits and teeth’ as Uncle Pete would say.
‘It’s a bugger, innit?’ he said. I held his hand in reply – it was firm and warm as usual. ‘I got out into the garden on Sunday, just for a bit. Sat on the seat and watched the sparrows and thrushes. One took bread from my hand, just like this.’ He mimicked the action. ‘I’d go out again if it weren’t for these bloody ribs’. He gestured to where the cancer had begun to invade the bones of his rib cage. ‘Those ciggies – played Russian roulette with them and lost. Hear you’ve got a girlfriend, got a picture?’ I took out a picture from my wallet – we’d been together all of three months but it felt good to be with her, like there was something to build on. ‘Pretty blonde, eh? Lovely figure.’ A wink then, a squeeze from his hand.
In the street below I saw a postman finishing the last of his round, a young mum unloading the groceries, two young boys circling each other on bikes. Half an hour passed and the view below began to dim. ‘Time to go’, Pete said. ‘And look after that girl of yours.’ His eyelids were falling and I left him part asleep.
So it surprised me, halfway down, to hear a thin voice drift down from the top of the stairs. ‘Have a good life, Stephen. Don’t worry about me’. I turned to reply but Auntie Carol was already at the front door, opening the silent house onto the street. A dry kiss, then I was back in my car. I looked up at Uncle Pete’s bedroom window but could make nothing out, not the still oxygen tank, or the glamour model smiling out into the last light of day.
Uncle Pete taught me how to play pontoon once. He taught me that if you stick at it you’ll eventually win more games than you lose. And he taught me that being uncomplicated isn’t the same thing as being unsophisticated. Most of all he showed me bravery unbound – in all its power and silence.
© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.