This is about my Uncle Jim.
My Uncle Jim is 97 years old. When he was born South Africa was still a part of the British Empire. When the First World War ended, he was already in school, playing jacks and tops and bowling a hoop. He was alive when Titanic sank and a grown man when Hindenburg went down and he was already almost old when human beings first walked on the moon. But when he answers the phone today, he says ‘Jim, hello!’ and his voice is as clear and firm as a policeman at the door and when I visit him and hug him hello he hugs me back with strong arms and his back is strong and he stands on his own two feet. I should be that strong when I’m half his age.
For nearly 20 years, for reasons of family tensions that I only half understand now, I didn’t have much contact with that side of my family. I was feuding with my grandmother, Uncle Jim’s sister – the kind of pointless, silent, drawn-out, passionless WASPy mutual ignoring that is never resolved and doesn’t end till everyone’s dead – and the cost for me is that I haven’t spent enough time with people like my Uncle Jim.
I could have learnt from him, in the way that young men most truly learn things – by osmosis from being shown a good example. When I visit him, his hair is neatly combed and he wears his shirt neatly tucked into his good shorts. I would probably always have been a confirmed shirt untucker, but there are definitely some things I could learn about wearing my good shorts for visitors. Men of that generation knew how to show the world a good face. No matter what’s happening or how he feels, my Uncle Jim smiles and jokes and is attentive to the ladies and makes sure everyone’s comfortable. He doesn’t smile quite as often as he used to, but he smiles more than almost anyone I know.
My Uncle Jim doesn’t talk about the war, but he fought with the 8th Army against Rommel in the yellow deserts of North Africa. I once played bridge with him on Christmas Day, and he told me, probably to deflect attention from my disastrous attempt to play a four-hearts call, about the time he played bridge on Christmas Day in a prisoner-of-war camp with his Italian guard. They sat in the shade of a tree and he called and made small slam in no trumps.
On other occasions when you try ask him about the war he’ll start telling you what a long fight it was and how tense he was and what a struggle and how he was afraid he had the wrong reel, and only then will you realise he’s describing one of his fishing trips.
My Uncle Jim lived in Sea Point when he was young, and I live there now. He remembers when there were no apartment blocks on Beach Road, only houses, and he remembers the names of the families who lived in those houses and going to the Winchester Hotel on a Saturday night to dance. He used to swim at Rocklands Beach, and I swim there now. I told him that I’d buy a kayak if only I had one of those kayak garages in Three Anchor Bay to store it. He nodded thoughtfully, then told me how he made his own canoe and carried it down to the sea on his back each day after work.
‘I made it from galvanised iron.’
‘Wasn’t it heavy?’
‘It leaked a bit. You couldn’t go out too far, especially if there were big seas coming. I once caught a Hottentot. Hell of a struggle. Big fish. This big. There was water everywhere. Water up to my waist. I didn’t think I’d make it back in.’
Young men when my Uncle Jim was young were better than young men are now.
Jonathan Ames once wrote an essay for Vogue about his great-aunt Doris. She was 90 years old and he would call her every day and visit her every week in her studio apartment in Queens. They’d go through photographs of her ex-lovers and talk about contraception and her abortion in the 1940s and they would swear heartily and discuss his sex life and how she had once nearly been a prostitute. We aren’t from that kind of family, my Uncle Jim and me. We are white English-speaking South Africans of English descent, who get out the good teacups when people come to visit and are careful what we say. My reticence is shyness; his is good manners.
When my Uncle Jim’s grandson, who’s in his twenties, visited from the USA and brought his girlfriend with him, Jim was concerned about them sharing a room, so he called the boy’s father to check if it was all right with him. He said it was fine, so Uncle Jim called the boy’s mom in New York City. She said it was fine too.
‘So I let them share a room. But …’ he leaned forward, ‘there’s a lot of conservative Afrikaans people around here, so I don’t know what they would have thought about it.’
My Uncle Jim is a charming man. At his 95th birthday lunch he showed Fred Astaire’s footwork gliding between various ladies from his retirement village, vying for his attention. They had to be prudently seated at different tables. He paid them each attention and left each of them smiling, but whenever one was smiling all the others glared at her with five hundred years’ worth of concentrated fury.
Once when we were having lunch a long-legged woman in a summer dress walked by and both our heads turned. ‘One of the great joys in life’, my Uncle Jim said, buttering his bread roll, ‘is a windy day in summer’.
My Uncle Jim loved one woman all his adult life. He came back from the war with TB and had a lung removed, and his matron’s daughter was the woman he married. She was musical and had won a scholarship to study music in Europe but the war had intervened. They played golf together and fished together and raised children. She died only a few years ago and I torment myself thinking what losing your love of 65 years must be like.
I asked him how his New Year’s Eve had been and he said he enjoyed it, but when we were alone he confided that his eyes had temporarily let him down and he couldn’t read so he’d gone to bed early. ‘They come back’, he said, ‘but then it’ll be something else. Hearing. Taste. They go. Usually they come back’.
He smiled, and I smiled, but then he said in a low voice, so we couldn’t be overheard, ‘It’s not something you should look forward to’.
In the afternoon, every day, my Uncle Jim takes a walk up the road to visit my grandmother, his sister. She’s his older sister, she’s 98, and she doesn’t speak very much any more. He always smiled more than she did. He walks in each day and pulls open the curtains and tells her there’s not enough sunlight. He sits for an hour and chats to her. I don’t know what he talks to her about, but I doubt it’s sentimental. He probably tells her I came to visit him last week. She probably doesn’t reply.
When my Uncle Jim walked me out to my car he stopped to show me a young tree in his garden. ‘That’s an avocado’, he said. ‘I planted it from a pip’. He beamed. He looked proud. ‘In a few years’ time, she’ll be a beauty’.
24 January 2014