- "Staje luntana da stu core,
- a te volo cu 'o penziero ..."
We've got a big family. I grew up surrounded by cousins and aunties and uncles. There were always babies being being and Christenings happening, and people falling in love and massive weddings going on. Growing up was busy.
Of all the people in a family there are always a few that stick out more than the rest. You know, the ones that you want to stand next to in photos. The fucking cool ones. The ones that make everyone laugh, and who, at the age or five or six you would beg your parents every Sunday to take you to visit.
We lost my uncle last week. He went into hospital before Christmas and the doctors didn't know what was wrong with him so they kept him there and then last week he died. I got a text from my cousin:
'Uncle is gone, he went last night. Hope you're okay.'
We had fucking loads of uncles, more uncles than you could shake a stick at, but there was just one Uncle. Everyone just called him Uncle, no need for a name. Until about a year ago I didn't even know his first name. I'd never thought that was strange.
Anyway, one of those days aged five or six that I'd begged my parents to take me to see Uncle stuck out to me, and I wanted to tell you about it. So, here you are.
Uncle and his wife didn't go to church. They were Jehovah's Witnesses, so on this lucky Sunday when my Dad was obligated to go to church with his parents, my grandparents, I got taken over to Uncle's and left there.
When we arrived Uncle was drinking coffee in a tiny cup. Dad left and Uncle gave me a tiny bottle of fizzy orange stuff and a packet of maize-y ball shaped crisps. I fucking loved those crisps. There was a little dog on the packet and the flavours were mostly meaty and smelt like cat food. There was always a massive multipack in the pantry and I could eat as many as I liked.
We walked down to the end of the garden and through the gate to the allotments at the back of the houses. Uncle's allotment had artichoke and asparagus, and some potatoes and cabbage. We dug up some potatoes, plucked an artichoke and put them in a plastic basket that we had brought along. Then uncle filled the watering can at the tap and stood behind me as I grabbed the handle and poured. He would stand there and hold until my tiny arms could take the weight, and then stand back, spark up a cig and look on.
We went back to the house and he gave the vegetables to his wife. We went to the shed.
I loved the shed.
In the shed there were shelves that went all the way around the top about two feet above Uncle's head. They looked like the tallest things ever to me but Uncle managed to get things up and down from the shelves just by standing on an upside down bucket, and he wasn't that tall, so they can't have been that big.
The shelves were three deep, and full all the way round, of bottles. Bottles of his own tomato sauce that he'd made by pureeing tomatoes that he'd grown in the greenhouse; and bottles and bottles and more wonderful bottles of homemade red wine.
Uncle pulled some empty green bottles towards us and took the blanket off the massive thing in front of us. I don't know what it is called, but you know when you get a bottle of wine and it's kind of fatter in the body, less wine bottle shaped and just rounder? It was kind of like that. A weird, massive barrelly thing with a neck that Uncle uncorked and sniffed.
'Ready.' He said.
He took a bit of hosepipe that was hanging on the wall and fed one end into the neck and far down to the bottom of the barrel. The other end he brought down to the floor where I was sitting with the bottles. He sat on the floor with me, exhaled, and then put the hose to his lips and sucked sharp and hard.
Wine came rushing up through the hose and I passed him the first bottle. The bottle filled and Uncle put his thumb over the end of the hose while I passed him the next bottle and put a cork in the full one. We filled maybe twenty or thirty bottles like that, not talking, just working to get a job done.
A while later my Dad arrived to pick me up and take me home. Uncle gave Dad some wine and some tomato sauce and they chatted for a bit. I kissed Uncle goodbye and he snuck me some more of those crisps that I loved.
He was always, to me, incredibly fucking cool. I had no idea how he did that thing with the hose, I didn't understand the science of it, but I did try to do it myself at home, with a bit of pipe and a bucket of water. It didn't work, so I assumed that he was just magic, and he kind of remained magic forever, even when I understood what he'd done.
He wasn't spectacular or different from anyone else at the time. He just liked making his wine and being at his allotment patch and being around his family and living a simple and modest life. About ten years ago he went blind in one eye and somehow his one cloudy white-blue eye and his one hazel eye made him even more handsome than he'd ever been, and let me tell you, he was a fucking handsome man.
I will miss him a lot, and when I go home for his funeral I will no doubt hear other stories about him and his life. Even if they tell stories of him taming lions and feeding the poor and building big, beautiful monuments - I think that I will still like my story more.