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When Uncle Mercedes Came To Stay
He had seemed pretty innocuous at first, if a little needy, standing there at the door in his dark, dismal jacket and trousers, a little shiny here and there where his hands had worn away at the fabric, there by the pockets; and there, by the flies.
He was selling some sewing kits he'd had assembled, and other bits and pieces of house-holding-together gear: sellotape, pins, elastoplast and little bottles of some cure-all hooch that you could apply just about anywhere (including internally) and get some relief.
The thing was - he didn't demand a barter, not at first; and he certainly didn't deal in gold (not that we knew of) - in return for a packet of corn plasters or some soap, a reel of thread or some flypaper, it was 'only a favour' he required. In the beginning, this would involve running simple errands or putting a 'friend' of his up for the night or, on a few occasions, helping him to clean his pokey flat.
He'd be round every month or two, and then every month, and then sometimes fortnightly, until eventually he seemed to spend half his time either at our door or in the hall or our parlour, at our kitchen table or even in the front room.
He'd let us know that he 'had something special' this month/week/morning, and once he'd distributed the cure-all, he'd pull some gewgaw from his portmanteau and bedazzle us with it.
The one I remember most was the flower-in-the-box. Simply, it was a paper bloom that hid itself inside the box's mechanism like a reluctant bud, and then, on the end of a remorselessly metal spring, and with a terrible scraping and screeching, sprang from the container into full bloom. He swapped us some disinfectant and plastic pants after that display.
Another time, he had us all transfixed by some glass beads - they were simply irresistible - and by the time he was gone we were all wandering the corridors and making our way to the outside privy in fabulous looking necklaces and tiaras. No milk was drunk that week, but Mercedes was back in a day or so with some curious-looking, rather runny butter, which we gratefully accepted.
That was, looking back on it, the first barter. It had seemed at the time as if we had just lent the milk to him in return for the 'jewels', that being the favour he required; but in truth he swapped a week's supply of milk for only a day or two of 'butter', our bodily adornments soon fell apart ('overuse' he said), and we were soon churning the 'milk' ourselves in return for free spread and a down payment on the repair of the 'precious items'.
This was only the beginning. From where I write this I can see Mercedes dozing in the armchair in the corner, his chest shadowed by the brim of his dark hat, his nose and chin just visible as they strain to touch the buttons on his waistcoat. He's like some item of badly inclined household fixture - necessary, but recalcitrant and unreliable, and not averse to collapsing or snapping shut at crucial moments, or just falling on you. There in the corner, in the half-shadow, snoring gently, he's a monstrous old tall-boy that's got himself wedged in front of the door and just won't budge, drawers stuck and stuff in there we need.
He's just glanced over, and from his look I can see that he thinks I am doing the accounts, as indeed I might be, with the ledger open and the inkpot out. But this diary is my only relief, and I'm willing to risk it if in his suffocating presence I can breathe just a little.
He has had his dinner, he has had his pipe. He will listen to the wireless when he wakes, and then tend to his books, checking that I have them in order. But for now he dozes, and the rumbling, wheezing silence is like a bank holiday before we must return to school or factory. Such is his rhythm and we must dance to it.
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