My uncle was a substantial man, a man whom you could roll because his stomach curved like a ball. I often had the impulse to bowl him: there was something frustrating in the way he spent hours stitching old clothes. His painstaking labour jarred with my need for going fast at the time, which I remember taking the form of speed-reading. While I took a break, I’d find him in the kitchen, stitching lugubriously. I wanted to pick him up and roll him at speed. He was like a blocker, resisting my need to encompass his deliberateness. He was stitching, stitching, methodically bringing together; I, at that age, wanted to tear things apart.
When I moved to England, I lived with my uncle. He had a flat where I stayed and he came back at night with women of questionable repute. This was another form of his stitching. While I studied English in my room, I heard his comings and goings with the new ones. He stitched a tapestry out of women. There was something admirable about this way of managing; if he’d handled business with such deliberateness, maybe he would have been rich, but he reserved his skill for these women: one from England, with hair like Sheffield coal; one from Edinburgh, with hair like Scottish moors; and one from our native France, who had no hair. It was as if he stitched them together, basing his decisions on how one would interact aesthetically with another—by interact I mean in his head.
Also he had in his head for me to help with his electronics store. ‘I’m too busy studying.’ Besides, I already had a job dishwashing. I worked at speed.
‘J’ai besoin d’assistance,’ he said, drawling the syllables.
‘Why? So I can work while you’re seeing Cinderella Sisters.’
His face went raspberry-colour. ‘My friends are my friends.’
I had deliberately attacked his artwork, his tapestry of friends, which he wove with the persistence of Penelope.
I said, ‘You’re worse than Father. I should have stayed in Boulogne.’
‘What can I say? Decadence is in the family. Come on. My Uruguayan has a sister.’
‘No,’ I said, putting down my water, returning to speed-reading.
The night after, though, I came home from dishwashing to find him in the suit whose seams he had meticulously stitched. He was pointing at his cheap electric watch saying, ‘I want you ready in ten. We have a date for eight.’
‘I said no. Didn’t you understand?’
‘I don’t understand. My vocabulary is short.’
The day before, I had bought a svelte pinstriped suit, which I was saving for an interview. In my room, I saw it against the mirrored wardrobe; it was just too clean. I came back to the living room decked out. ‘Fine. Let’s go.’
We walked to the bar. Beneath his suit, Uncle wore an Argyle sweater, like an eccentric professor. I trailed behind like a protégé. I had the urge to pick him up, throw him down the street.
Finally we came to ‘O’Leary’s’. Inside, I hit against a ring-shaped counter; behind that, a barman with a vulpine smile; and behind him, an island of drinks: Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, Amaretto, whatever you could want to slow down, smooth out and sit back. The floor felt sticky. It was quiet and we went to a maroon banquette on the right.
‘Okay,’ said Uncle. ‘Which beer?’
I said for him to pick; he returned with two San Miguels.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Drink this before they come.’
‘I thought we were late. Where are they?’
‘I don’t know.’ He gulped; the mouthful travelled like a ball down his throat. ‘Have you had any luck with ladies?’
I tried to keep my face blank.
‘Okay. Won’t ask.’ His eyeballs rolled.
When the waitress came for our empties, he assailed her with comments: ‘What shampoo do you use?’ ‘Are you single?’ ‘Does he make you happy?’
She smiled uncomfortably. When she had gone, he took off a signet ring. He held it under the light. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘have this.’
‘Your uncle isn’t so bad.’
‘But why?’ I said.
‘Family. You’re a part of me.’
‘I don’t need it.’ But I stared in his eyes and, for a split second, they shone with doubt. I took the ring.
Uncle went to the toilet. I took the ring, which reflected in the recessed lighting. I stared at the gold—I remember it all vividly. White light bounced off gold. Every time I see that ring, I remember this confluence of bright light and mellow metal. Uncle would die the next day. He was on a train. He died at fifty-two. I look out, sometimes, and the word seems to come apart, like every moment is separate; every moment unstitched.