We chugged through the sorry streets,
finding our way back home. I felt sullied
by the stink of petrol fumes and grime.
By the time we alighted from the bus,
I was caked in filth. William and I hurried
the final lap to our house. It had begun
to rain solidly. I turned the key. A pungent
aroma of sweat filled the hallway. Loud
snoring emanated from the living room.
Uncle was clearly soused again. I poked
my head in. Uncle’s heavy head was tilted
back precariously. His mouth had fallen
open, revealing sick yellow gums. I
resisted the urge to scream.
Overwhelmed by sudden pity, I drew
up close and cast a blanket over Uncle’s
legs. He would be out cold for hours.
Then I edged the door shut, and went
up to my room.
William had stayed outside, I thought
the scene would destroy his head. As
I exited Aunty’s room, I pinched William’s
arm roughly. He squealed and followed
hard on my heels. I was desperate to
escape this place, which had the smell
of a morgue. Once we were out in the
street, I drew a deep breath of sooty air.
My heart was still pounding. Whatever
has happened Sis? asked William,
panting, holding onto his knees. I
explained how sick Aunty had looked.
I tried not to be too melodramatic, but
the words just spilled out of me. William
listened intently. He was silent for some
time. Then he clutched my hand firmly,
and dragged me towards the bus stop.
The first thing that struck me was
Aunty’s absolutely pallid face. Her
mouth was sealed by tubes, she
looked like some Frankenstein
experiment. Aunty’s hair had been
pulled fiercely back, causing her sharp
face to appear skull-like. I recoiled from
the sight. Shivers travelled down from
my stomach, into my legs. My eyes
smarted with tears. It didn’t look good.
I wondered for how long Mrs Eames
would be attached to the ventilator.
I wondered whether she could breathe
by herself. Was her mind being starved
of oxygen? I hated all this. I choked
down a wracking sob, and fled for
I would go to the hospital. Nobody was
going to prevent me. I would rant and
rave at the nurse’s station, until they let
me see Mrs Eames. Uncle was in no fit
state to travel, so William and I caught
the bus. It was a winding journey. We
crawled at a snail’s pace along grubby
inner-city streets. The hospital was an
imposing old world edifice. Its corridors
stank of carbolic. It was difficult to locate
Aunty’s ward. By the time we reached
the nurse’s desk, my heart had shrunk
to a timid mouse inside me. I squeaked
out Aunty’s name, expecting an
immediate rebuttal. However a
kind-hearted junior nurse smiled, and
jauntily waved us towards an offset room.
For a moment I stood outside, trying to
regain my composure. Then I shouldered
the door open, and moved inside.
I didn’t have a clue when we’d be able
to see Aunty. I rang the hospital daily.
Hectored nurses always imparted the
same grim news. Her illness lingered.
She was still hooked up to a ventilator.
Aunty couldn’t be seen. Uncle tried to
regale me with false hopes. But his
words held no conviction and I wasn’t
comforted. Most of the time Uncle was
woozy from his whiskey. He would clutch
his hanging jowls and moan. It was pitiful
to see. I suggested that we all go for a
drive in Uncle’s smelly old car. But he
was too soused to get beyond rattling
his keys. I felt imprisoned, helpless. I
desperately craved the bubbly company
of my Aunty.
Uncle moved himself into our box room.
I found him a huge brown dressing gown,
which he wore all the time. Soon it was
speckled with cigarette burns. It reeked
of stale sweat. When Uncle did venture
out of the house, he’d return with his
usual cache of alcohol. Once I went in
to clean up his room. He’d rolled an
assortment of empty whiskey bottles
under his bed. They stank. The room
was irredeemable, so I went out and
closed the door firmly. I heard a
commotion. Uncle was pulling his
weary body up the staircase. I bolted
for the safety of my own room. This
whole situation was hideous. Uncle
was puffing and wheezing outside like
a bloated invalid. For one revolting
moment I thought he might rap his
knuckles on my door. Mercifully he
shuffled by, and snorting noisily,
slammed his door shut.
I read up about pneumonia. It’s a horribly
insidious illness. It can fell perfectly
healthy souls and bring them to the brink
of death. Sometimes I will chase sufferers
right into eternity. This was sobering. I
called the hospital but they didn’t divulge
much about Aunty’s condition. I could
only glean that she was stable, but her
recovery was far from certain. Uncle was
a mess. Now that I’d made him feel
welcome, he’d ensconced himself firmly
on our couch. He didn’t speak much, but
he drank ruinously. He would pop out and
return with armfuls of clinking bottles. I
said nothing. After slurping down gallons
of cheap whiskey, Uncle would snore
obscenely. I found it profoundly
Uncle was enormously grateful when I
dished up some simple macaroni cheese.
I suspected he hadn’t eaten a square
meal for days. Uncle’s talked excitedly
with his mouth full, splattering his food
across his grubby blue shirt. He spoke
tenderly of Aunty. His heavy bulbous eyes
lit up. It was all a little cringeworthy, but
his affection couldn’t be doubted. I
listened uncomfortably. Foremost in
my mind, however, was visiting dear
Mrs Eames. I desperately wanted to start
a bedside vigil. Because she was my only
real family. I couldn’t include the ragged
scarecrow sat opposite me. Although my
heart had begun to warm to his unshaven,
Uncle snored heavily on the couch. It
seemed unkind to wake him. I watched
Merlin toy with a moth, playing games.
William was always upstairs now,
obsessing over his stupid gadgets. He
had this larder of food under his bed,
snacks, fattening treats, so he didn’t
need me. I gazed blankly into the growing
gloom. Dusk wasn’t far away. I thought
of Aunty in her hospital bed. I couldn’t
bear to think she’d die, and leave us,
like Mother had. I would ring the hospital
and enquire after her health. I pulled out
my phone to dial. But Uncle was stirring.
His great bulk shifted on the sofa and he
yawned cavernously. It was time to
There was an alarming pounding at
the door. I knew it was Uncle. I edged
the door open. Uncle stood there like a
black bedraggled scarecrow. He was a
train wreck. He barged past me, and
sailed into the lounge. Meg is in intensive
care, Uncle announced without
introduction. My heart sank into my boots.
I could say nothing. She has contracted
pneumonia and is on a ventilator. This
was the direst news. Aunty was at the
local general hospital. She was too sick
for visits. Tears welled into my eyes. I
stiffened suddenly, thinking Uncle might
want to comfort me with a repulsive hug.
Instead he collapsed onto the sofa, as if
he’d been deflated. I studied his hanging
jowls. He looked a hundred years old. I
felt sorry for him. All my absurd
conspiracy theories, the outrageous plots
to defraud Aunty, burst like silly fantasies.
Because Uncle clearly cared.