“So, there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman …..”
I can remember what our parents used to say to my brother and me as our car pulled up outside Pine House in South East London many, many years ago.
"Right you two, no playing up when it’s time to leave ok? You promise?”
My brother and I would nod agreeably, all the while itching to get out, for two reasons.
Firstly, we had been sat in the back seat all the way from home and wanted out of the car, but secondly (and more importantly), we were going to see our Uncle Tony and Auntie Maureen.
This was nothing other than a total treat and the excitement started before you even walked through their door. Our journey there would culminate with our Dad turning off the main road followed by a few lefts and rights and then all that was left was for him to find a parking space before the fun could begin.
Pine House was (and still is) situated on a kind of square, although it’s not a square; if you see what I mean. Anyway, I would recognise the terraced houses that lined the road and the anticipation would build. Our squeals of delight are probably what prompted the ‘end of visit’ warnings but I think our parents knew that leaving Pine House was never something my brother and I would consider doing quietly.
Out of the car, run across the green that ran around two sides of the block and it was a straight race to see who could press the button to call for the shiny, silver lift.
Shiny and silver makes the lift sound like a modern, smooth lift but nothing could have been further from the truth. I think the ‘call lift’ button was black or red plastic and it took all my 10/12/14 year old strength to push the damn thing in. Of course, you never knew if you would hear the lift gears and pulleys clunk into life when you pushed it in, my knuckle turning white with exertion.
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. And you know what? It was more fun when it didn’t. Because my brother and I would have discovered that the lift was broken before my Mum and Dad had even reached the door to the flats so off we went like lunatics, crashing through the door which led to the stairs, to begin the climb up twelve half-flights of cold, hard, concrete steps.
Crash through another door, this time the one to a landing, but the lack of numbers on any of the levels often led to coming out at the wrong floor. The only way we knew was because their door was so distinctive. "Wrong one, wrong one, up another flight", I would shout, now trailing my brother as I had initially been leading.
Up another flight – yep, this is the 6th floor, run along the landing, looking out to the right at the twinkling lights of London town as dusk crept over the city and rat-a-tat-tat on the door.
Auntie Maureen would open the door, we would shout our hello’s and run straight past her, into their living room where we would find our Uncle Tony, our Dads’ Big Brother.
Well, one of his big brothers at any rate.
Some of the things I remember from our trips there are;
Getting sweets and lemonade
Standing out on the balcony to the living room and looking through binoculars at the green below
Horse racing on the television and
The tropical fish tank
These are to name but a few superficial memories.
There are however, two distinct memories I have of our trips there. They are;
1. “Shooting” Uncle Tony in the teeth.
One of his front teeth was on a false plate and he would get me to hold a gun (I can’t remember if it was an actual gun or if I just cocked my fingers) and aim at his mouth. We would both shout ‘BANG’ and he would jump, put his hand to his mouth and palm the plate into his hand and then grin slowly, revealing a big gap where his tooth had been.
Of course, I learnt the trick eventually but I can honestly remember the first few times I did it, eyes widening in surprise, then fear, before turning my face into my Dad’s shoulder and crying.
Their laughter convinced me I hadn’t disfigured my own Uncle for life but I was fooled, initially at any rate.
2. The floating tray trick
This involved my brother and I taking it in turns to be blindfolded before standing on a small tray that had been placed on the floor, in the middle of the living room. My Dad and Tony would kneel down, take one side of the tray each and then slowly lift me just a few centimetres off the ground. They would wobble the tray slightly, all the while saying how high I was getting, how I was nearly touching the ceiling, wobbling more, making me unsteady, losing my balance, oh, mind your head on the light, duck a bit, oh no, you’re going to fall … watch out …. aaarrgghhhh ….
Of course, they never lifted me higher than a foot from the floor but it worked every time. My brother then delighted in the same trick being played on him, before I insisted on another turn, trying to remind myself that it was a trick but without success, fear still winning over common sense.
That was when we were younger.
As we got older, a trip to Pine House also meant we might get to go in the pub opposite (was it the Lord Nelson?) and play pool, maybe even get a sip of someone’s lager shandy!!
Older still and a trip there meant we could buy and drink our own beer, pay for our own game of pool.
Of course, time marches on and the visits that we had loved for so many years became less frequent. There were friends to see, girls to meet, other pubs to visit, clubs to go to.
It didn’t matter though.
We would all be sat around the dining table at home, eating, when the doorbell would go. Dad would answer the door and, knives and forks poised to hear who it was before we heard, “hello Tone, hello Maureen, come in, come in”.
Smiles broke out on our faces.
Do you know what this meant? It meant half an hour, maybe an hour, maybe two hours of laughter and silly stories. Because our time together would invariably revolve around stories of the past with a typical Tony twist, coupled with jokes that we had all saved to tell each other.
Uncle Tony loved telling jokes, almost as much as he liked being told them.
"Have you heard the new Jimmy Jones tape?" he would ask. Hearing that we hadn’t was his green light to reel off risqué joke after risqué joke.
Of course, our Dad doesn’t think much of swearing and cursing (much to his brother’s amusement) so Tony would tailor the joke as appropriate.
Depending on how mischievous he was feeling, he sometimes left the original obscenity in, just to see the look on my Dad’s face.
The best bit was when he would laugh halfway through telling his own joke, closing his eyes and exhaling for what seemed an age, everyone wondering if he was going catch his breath, before he composed himself saying, “sorry but I know the punch line already and it’s a corker!”
Of course, whenever we told him a joke, the reward was two-fold. Watching a grown man collapse into fits of laughter was one thing. The funniest part was when everyone else had moved on to discussing something totally different and Tony would suddenly burst into laughter again, remembering the punch line from 10 minutes earlier, finding it funny all over again.
I also used to laugh at the fact that we could all be sat at my parents, discussing nothing in particular, but if Tony was bored with the conversation, he would start whistling.
Just like that.
"I’m bored, so I’m gonna whistle over you all". A real “old school” whistle it was too, wobbling all over the place.
His laughter and take on life hid the fact that he hadn’t been well in the past.
He was a big man with a kind but troublesome heart.
He knew this of course, but never grumbled about it. Well, perhaps he did grumble about it, but if he did, he never did it in my company.
Perhaps it was because I knew he had a slightly dicky heart that had caused him problems, albeit 15 or so years ago, that I didn’t fall over with shock when my Dad told me on Sunday that Tony had been taken into hospital late last week and that they were heading over to see him after our lunch together.
As it turns out, they didn’t go until last night, which is probably a good thing as my Dad had been drinking red wine on Sunday, and who wants someone nodding off on them, especially when they’re one of your hospital visitors!!!
For some reason certain people in your lives seem invincible.
“Oh, so and so’s not well eh? Nah, don’t worry, he’ll be fine, you’ll see”.
As it turns out, my Uncle Tony wasn’t invincible and it was with slight disbelief that I read my brother’s e-mail earlier on today.
"Just to let you know that Uncle Tony passed away at 9am this morning".
Yeah, you could say that.
Yeah, that too.
I did what many people do in the face of bad news.
I read it. I read it again. I said “oh no”, out loud; my colleagues all turning round to look at me. I stood up, said "oh no" again, announced what had happened to everyone, then left the room to call M and inform her, before calling my Mum and Dad to find more of what had happened.
But to be honest, exactly what happened between the hours of 5am and 8am this morning is irrelevant, at least as far as my writing here is concerned.
All that’s important is the fact that my Uncle Tony is gone.
Our Uncle Tony is gone.
My Dad’s big brother.
My cousin’s Dad.
His children's grandfather.
I haven’t spoken to anyone else today so I don’t know how things will pan out but I don’t need to know that just yet.
I didn’t need to speak to anyone to know that the world, my world, is just a tiny shade gloomier than it was when I opened my eyes this morning.
And so it is that I find myself sat here at my desk at just gone 1am the following morning, with a half empty glass of rioja raised in his honour, drinking, thinking and attempting to put into words what my Uncle Tony meant to me.
Hopefully I will have conveyed some of that feeling.
If not, it doesn’t matter.
I know what I wanted to say.
And of course, everyone will be feeling sad over the coming weeks, months, perhaps years.
Me. My brother. My folks. Auntie Maureen. Cousin Tony. Big Tony's grandchildren. Everyone who knew him.
Everyone will be sad for a while.
Well, everyone bar one.
Everyone will be upset about Big Tony's passing except his youngest son David.
David who died well before his Dad, way back in 1995.
No, you can bet your sweet ass that David won’t be sad.
Because right now, as you're reading this, he’ll be telling his old Dad all the jokes that he’s been saving up for the past 13 and a bit years, thrilled to bits that they’re finally together again.
So, with tears rolling down my cheeks and onto my keyboard, I raise my glass and say goodnight and goodbye to my smashing Uncle Tony.
Until we meet again.
"Keep a careful watch over us all Tone won’t you?"
"Say, did I tell you the one about ……...…”