Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Chapter Three

How many people can say they saved a man’s life when they were six-years old? I’m guessing the answer is not many. My own brush with heroism took place on Boxing Day 1980. As was custom we would spend Christmas Day with one set of grandparents, and Boxing Day with the other, alternating the order every festive season to diffuse grumbles about favouritism. That year we spent Christmas Day with Gran and Grampa Watkins, the best bit was playing Star Wars with Grampa Watkins trying to escape the deadly clutches of the AT-AT under my command, which was the jewel in the crown of my presents that year. Grampa Watkins wasn’t the healthiest of men, his weakened lungs, thick with coal dust, made his every movement an effort beyond anyone’s imagination, making the hour we played on the living room floor one of the bravest acts I’ve witnessed in my life, although I was too young to realise it at the time, my head being full of stories I wanted to play. The following day would be spent eating to our hearts content with Nonna and Nonno, as they opened their house to the whole of the Bazzini clan for our traditional Boxing Day get-together. The two days could not be more different; the down to earth approach of Gran Watkins a far quieter experience than Nonna Bazzini’s the best that money can buy vision. Both had their good, and bad points. Gran Watkins cooked a mean turkey and had the most comfortable armchair in the world where I would curl up and read a book, while Nonna served the sweetest deserts and there was always a ready supply of chocolate on hand to see off any hunger pangs. On the downside, Uncle Greg usually drank too much and argued with my father about politics at a Watkins festive meal, while boredom plagued me for hours on end at the Bazzinis, despite Nonno’s best efforts to make discussing the law seem like the best fun a boy can have at Christmas.

Nonna and Nonno lived between the coastal villages of Ogmore-by-Sea and Southerndown, their house hidden from view behind the double barrier of a stone wall the height of a grown man, and a row of tall, sturdy trees the height of adult giraffes. Normally, we would have parked our car on the drive, but on this day there wasn’t room and we had to leave our car on the road and walk up the crowded drive towards the large whitewashed house, approaching it from the easterly side. In front of the house a large, moss pocked lawn sloped down towards the stone wall that circled the property, atop the wall crawled the tentacles of brambles and ferns that put off anyone from wanting to make use of a small wooden door set into the jagged wall. The grey expanse of the Bristol Channel lay in the distance, the far shoreline that was England an indistinct cameo on this overcast winter’s day; the only signs of life were the twinkling lights of similar coastal villages. Sitting mid-channel lurked the ancient ship wrecker’s paradise of Tusker Rock, which was a childhood source of intrigue and fascination, and only visible in the dwindling light due to the low tide.

Reaching up to grasp the black, wrought iron doorknocker my thoughts were far from heroic that day, clouded, as they were, by an ongoing pwdi that had delayed our arrival by a few hours after I had been told I couldn’t bring my AT-AT with me, although I was more than free to bring the thousand piece jigsaw Nonna and Nonno had given me – the hours ahead were going to be a struggle if the chocolate supply was low.

Clunk! Clunk!

Clunk! Clunk!

The door opened to reveal Aunty Chiara, my father's eldest sister, wearing a red dress that drew a Ho! Ho! Ho! It’s Father Christmas! from Dad. She shook her head and bent down to give me an alcohol doused kiss, not forgetting to tousle my blonde hair that set me so apart from the rest of the family.

The house was a step down from a mansion, but several steps up from most houses, and the extra room was needed on a day like this when people of all shapes and sizes were crammed inside. Although most of the guests were Bazzinis there were others who had been invited with a nod towards business, and it was to these guests that Aunty Chiara directed my father after she had taken our coats and placed a drink in Dad’s hand.

Not waiting for Dad to break away from his companions (he would be chatting for an hour or two) Aunty Chiara guided Mum and me along the teeming hallway, chatting and joking with people until we reached the larger of the two sitting rooms on the ground floor, where Nonna and Nonno were holding court. The room was so big that apart from an eight-foot length coffee table there was room for several armchairs, two leather couches, a rarely played piano, an antique china cabinet that had the habit of swaying if you stood too close to it and a bookcase that had more empty whisky bottles than books standing on its shelves. Thankfully, due to the number of people in the room, I couldn’t see much of the lime green floral wallpaper that made me feel sick during our weekly Sunday visits.

On seeing us Nonno got to his knees so he could give me his customary hug, all the time ignoring Nonna’s cries about ruining his clothes. “Here he is,” Nonno declared loudly to the room, his trimmed beard as black as his short cropped hair, “the future Lord Chancellor. Bright as a button, and sure to be a heartbreaker as well!” Unsure of what to say, I said nothing and people laughed politely before returning to their conversations. Nonno slowly got to his feet, his large frame dominating the space above my head once he had reached his full height. As a young man he had been a keen swimmer, and although many years had passed since he had last worn a bathing costume (the word trunks never once passed his lips), his shoulders had never lost the broadness gained by many hours spent in swimming baths. Nonna was less effusive in her greeting, but she hugged me all the same.

“What do you have to say to Nonni?” Mum prompted me.

Nonna, my dear, Nonna,” my grandmother said. Although she was in her mid fifties Nonna dressed as if she was an octogenarian, with her silver hair pulled back in a way that did little to discourage people’s opinion of her as being something of a cold fish. Worse for Nonno was Nonna’s perpetual wearing of black, as if she was preparing for the day he would leave this mortal coil.

“Thank you for my presents Noona,” I recited the line Mum and Dad had drummed into me on the way over in the car, and kissed her on the cheek, something I dreaded doing, knowing I would be coating my lips in the white powder Nonna blanched her face with.

Nonna ignored my mistake and patted the empty space on the couch beside her.

“Why don’t you tell me all about your presents?” she said, and endured a smile for my sake.

I wanted to sit with Mum and Aunty Chiara, but a sharp look from Mum and I knew I had to sit with Nonna. I clambered up dutifully, nearly, but not quite, tipping the thousand-piece jigsaw on the floor in the process. I began to list my presents, reserving my most lavish praise for the AT-AT I had been banned from bringing. A short time later, and with Nonna in full flow about the importance of posture for a growing boy, Aunty Helen, Dad’s other sister, made her entrance with her son and daughter in tow. At fifteen and sixteen they were my closest relations in terms of age but both rarely spoke to me, not that I struggled for attention at Bazzini parties. I was fussed over eternally. Did I have enough food? Enough pop? Could I see the TV? Don't sit down Eugene's behind you! Isn't he gorgeous? Pats on head. Wet kisses. Warm soft hugs. I was the Golden Boy of the party, and I never had to work for it. Not like Uncle Val.

Strictly speaking Uncle Val was a second cousin, but at thirty-nine years of age it would have been odd for me to call him by his first name and so uncle had been added. I think it was because of his Christian name (Valery) that he worked so hard at being the centre of attention. He could hold a room in the palm of his hand with a story, have people clutching their stomachs in bouts of hysterical laughter, mesmerize others with a magic trick, but his greatest talent resided in his voice. For a few years he had made a living singing in pubs and workingmen's clubs around the country. Some in the family thought it was only a matter of time before he would be making records. I don't know if he was ever that good, but he could a tune. His party piece was an impersonation of Mick Jagger. Even to my six-year-old eyes, with no knowledge of the Stones’ front man, the transformation that took hold of my uncle was magical, and gut wrenchingly funny. His whole body changed shape – his bum jutted backwards, his chest thrust forwards while his arms waved frantically like the traffic conductors I saw in films. But this was nothing compared to his face. Usually bland, and unflappable, it flowered into a collage of pouting lips and startled eyes, the transformation completed by a gaping mouth reminiscent of a goldfish. The effect was undeniably funny, and within seconds of beginning his act a room would be rocking with laughter.

On this day I assume I had already seen his act before, because I remember feeling excited when Uncle Val joined us in the sitting room an hour or so after we had arrived, and he was cajoled, with ease, to the centre of the spacious room. The table, and a few of the armchairs, were moved out of the way so that everyone could see Uncle Val’s act, and in the commotion I escaped from Nonna and sat next to Mum on the couch. By now the day had given way to night and the air was heavy with the warm aromas of baked breads and cakes, cooked turkey, intoxicating (quite literally) sherry trifle, mulled wine and other foods and beverages that mingled with the aftershaves and perfumes of the day.

Uncle Val theatrically cleared his throat and flicked his shoulder length hair with his hand, which had people laughing even before he began his act. At this point I remember being lifted on to my mother's lap so that Uncle Donald could sit down. He was neither a blood relation nor a relation by marriage, but rather a close friend of Nonno. He had never married and, being an only child whose family had long passed away, he was adopted, like myself, by the Bazzini family and was an ever-present figure at family gatherings. He had a fierce appetite and my earliest memories, indeed most of my memories of him, involve food in one way or another; eating, preparing, serving, or, as was on this occasion, choking on food.

At first everything was great fun. Uncle Val began his act by strutting around the room and waving his arms in the air, asking everyone to clap their hands, and like everyone else I joined in, slapping my hands together and getting caught up in the excitement. Even without the benefits of Mind Re-Capture technology I can still feel my mother's arms squeezing my body as she clapped along and I was joggled on her lap.

When the room was reverberating to the sound of hands clapping in unison Uncle Val stopped his strutting, stood stock-still, and looked around at everyone. He smiled broadly, and egged on the room by shaking his head and then saying loudly that he needed to hear more love in the room, at which point the clapping grew louder and louder until he started to strut again and shouted Yes people!

My hands were becoming sore, and added to the noise, which by now was verging on the unbearable, I wished Uncle Val would get on with his act. Another drawback of the clapping was that not only was a laughing Uncle Donald showering me with crumbs of food as he ate from a food laden plate on his lap, but also that his mountainous arm kept pushing me aside as he clapped, and my seat in my mother's lap became a game of rodeo as I was jostled up and down, and from side to side.

When the clapping seemed to be in danger of peaking, Uncle Val, at long last, began to sing. At first it was difficult to hear him over the shrieking laughter and clapping, but the cacophony lessened its fervour just enough to give air to Uncle Val’s singing, and he took advantage by showing off his voice in all its colours, but he knew well enough not to dwell on the talent he cared for most of all, and within a short while he had taken to raising the laughter levels once again by moving his arms faster and faster, jutting his backside more vigorously and, most of all, by dancing his face into increasingly outlandish expressions. To my annoyance, while most people had stopped clapping, Uncle Donald, despite the fact he was now eating a very large pork pie, was still keeping beat, his thick arm continuing to barge me aside as he struck his meaty palms together. What made this doubly annoying was the fact that Mum seemed oblivious to the buffeting I was taking.

Uncle Val must have changed some of the lyrics because people kept on erupting in squalls of raucous laughter even when he wasn’t doing anything funny. At one point he was ticked off by one of the oldest relatives in the room, a wizened, minuscule creature who used to scare the living daylights out of me, “Do you kiss your mother with those lips?” she lectured him, slapping him sharply on his backside to reinforce her disgust, her own words barely legible thanks to a sherry inspired blurry slur. At the sight of this my mother become even more of a rodeo bull, and I felt fresh air between my bum and her lap she had laughed so hard and bucked me airwards. Between my mother and Uncle Donald it was fair to say I'd had enough of my fairground ride. I squirmed out of her grasp and went in search of the chocolate supplies that were kept in the second sitting room.

With Uncle Val putting on his show, the smaller sitting room, despite its hoard of food, was almost empty, which suited me just fine because it would give me plenty of time to indulge my sweet tooth in peace. Now, if this had happened today, I would be faced with a selection of chocolates and sweets that would run into the hundreds, but back then the number was far smaller. The chocolate stash was made up from a handful of well known, if not particularly talented, chocolate makers, with the odd posh choc thrown in by family members who had holidayed on the continent – it was rumoured that Nonna kept the best chocolates hidden away for herself, something I could easily imagine her doing. I was never all that worried what it was I popped in my mouth. I didn’t care if I was eating Roses, or duty free jobbies with foreign sounding names, all that mattered was that it was chocolate, and I made sure I had my fill. I sank my hands into a Quality Street tin and stuffed my pockets full before setting my sights on a selection box that had been opened, and I popped chocolate after chocolate into my mouth until my cheeks bulged. It took me no time at all to devour the mish-mash of dark, milk, white, caramel, toffee, coffee, nougat, strawberry, cherry, orange and truffle that I had crammed into my mouth, leaving me wanting more.

Exercising a rare bit of restraint I turned my attention to eating fruit, and tried to eat a date. I have to admit that I was more enticed by the shape of the bevelled ended, white, oblong box than the fruit itself, which ended up being wrapped in a serviette after two chews. After this failed attempt at widening my diet I resumed my attack on the chocolates, filling my mouth to bursting point for a second time. But this time I felt a bit sick, and my stomach made an ominous gurgling noise, and was it my imagination or had my stomach moved northwards? My throat felt thick with chocolate. I rubbed my stomach and the noises began to travel in gas bubbles back up my throat and I was soon burping. But not nice, attention burping. It was the kind of burping that was followed by a thousand jolts of pain in my stomach. There was only one place I wanted to be right then, and that was sitting on my mother's lap.

Walking back into the sitting room I was greeted by the same laughing faces I had left a short time before, but now I didn’t care for their fun. I wanted them to be quiet. Couldn't they see I was in mortal peril? Me, the Golden Boy? The one they fussed over? I could feel my stomach churning more and more and a wave of hot air rushed up my body towards my face, turning it, surely, the same colour as Aunty Chiara’s dress. But all they could do was laugh at my stupid uncle, because they were as stupid as him. Even my mother was stupid, because she couldn't see that there was something wrong with me. It was then I thought of Uncle Donald – if there was anyone in the whole room who would be able to help me it would be my constantly eating uncle. I turned to him, my stomach paining and churning and gurgling so much that it would only be a question of time until the inevitable happened and I was sick all over the carpet. Thankfully he wasn't laughing like the others. No. He was a beacon of normality amongst the hyenas surrounding me. He was busy fussing with his shirt collar, and there wasn't a smile on his face – he would help me in my hour of need. I tugged on his arm, but instead of looking at me he continued to play with his shirt. I tugged again, this time much harder, and I was glad to see his eyes move towards me. It was then that I noticed something slightly odd about him. Even though he wasn't laughing he was the same colour as my red-faced mother beside him, who was pleading with Uncle Val to stop his act with tears running down her cheeks. But now his redness seemed to be far redder than hers; in fact, he was redder than anyone else, and I wasn’t sure if he was red anymore but more the colour of the last sweet I had eaten. Had he eaten too many of the same sweets as me? Would I be turning purple just like him? My stomach lurched as a wave of panic set in.

Uncle Val neared the end of his act and the laughter was unbearable in the room – could no one tell that there was something wrong with Uncle Donald and that I would soon be sharing his fate if nothing were done about it? Uncle Donald's eyes were beginning to bulge, and terrified that I would soon be looking like him I jumped onto my mother's lap.

“Ow, Eugene!” she laughed.

“Uncle Donald!” was all I could muster, and I pointed towards him with shaking hands.

As soon as she saw him she screamed and the laughter in the room came to an abrupt halt. I was dragged out of the way by my father and cries of David! rang out. My mother lifted me up in her arms and a white haired man came rushing into the room, a sheet of toilet paper dangling from the back of his trousers. He took one look at Uncle Donald and asked for help in getting him to his feet. My father and Nonno rushed forward, grabbed Uncle Donald under his arms and heaved him up from the couch – by now he no longer seemed to be aware of anything, his eyes, dimmed and insensible, stared at an invisible point in space.

“Turn him around! Bend him over the couch!” David said firmly. They had barely heaved Uncle Donald’s slumped mass around before David began striking him repeatedly on his back. The change in atmosphere was eerie. A few seconds earlier you could barely hear yourself think because of laughter, the only sound in the room now was of Uncle Donald’s back being pounded with a clenched fist.

My mother held me tight. Her body, usually soft and warm, was taught and unyielding. She was frozen like the rest of us. By then I understood I wouldn't be sharing Uncle Donald's fate – the sickness that had come over me had vanished. Aunty Chiara and Aunty Helen were both crossing themselves and looking up at the ceiling, too afraid, it seemed to me, to look at what was happening. Others shielded the scene with their hands. Uncle Val stood immobile, his hand frozen in place in his hair as the thump thump thump continued. Nonna looked on impassively.

Suddenly a high-pitched gasp broke the silence and Uncle Donald's previously immobile body lurched as he gasped for air. My father and grandfather helped him down on to the couch where he continued to fill his lungs. All around me the room caught its collective breath, a sense of relief washed over everyone, including Mum, whose body broke free of the invisible bands that had trapped it and it rose and fell at something like its normal swell.

“I think this is the culprit,” David held a chunk of barely chewed pork pie up for everyone to see. “Next time chew your food properly,” he said in a playful manner and gently patted Uncle Donald on his stomach.

“It was his fault,” Uncle Donald replied shakily, and pointed towards Uncle Val. “If he wasn't so bloody funny I'd never have choked on the sodding pie!”

The room erupted in laughter as Uncle Donald took the pork pie that had so nearly cost him his life and threw it at Uncle Val's head.

Later, after all the close shave jokes had been told, and the Boxing Day slumber had taken hold once more, Uncle Val came up as my mother was putting my coat on me and wheezed, “You saved my life tonight sunshine. I'll never forget it,” and as if to reinforce his gratitude he bent down towards me, his vast bulk eclipsing the hallway light, and with his giant's hand he patted me on the head and said once more, “I'll never forget.”

Download PDF version of Chapter Three from Google Docs