My story of Uncle Russell

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This is my story of Uncle Russell. It is not the story of Uncle Russell, and certainly not Uncle Russell’s story of Uncle Russell. He might not recognise himself in this story. If he read it, it might be like looking in a trick mirror. Or have you ever seen your reflection when you were least expecting it? It might be like that.

Speaking strictly, I know very little about Uncle Russell. Were his life Africa, I would say I had visited his Kenyan game reserves, taken an aerial view of his Congo, walked once in the tense streets of his Johannesburg and perhaps had a distant glimpse of his Sahara. Last time I checked, there were 52 nations in Africa, so you must conclude that, to me, Uncle Russell remains the unexplored continent.

To be clear: as far as I know, Uncle Russell has never been to Africa. If he hasn’t been yet, he’s not going. He is a thickset elderly mathematics teacher with grey hair and a square jaw, married to Megan, a thickset elderly mathematics teacher who dyes her grey hair blonde. They live in a comfortable bungalow with a wooden deck. Their large block of land, even now on the outskirts of the ever-advancing city, is fortified by range upon range of bright-blooming grevilleas, Uncle Russell’s favourite plant, which form cool and scratchy thickets amenable to birds. Uncle Russell’s favourite bird is the King Parrot, rarer and more amorous than the Rainbow Lorikeet.

Actually, I may not have that right. Uncle Russell must be retired by now, and who knows where he lives? It’s been a long time. He probably still loves King Parrots, but maybe he’s in a retirement village these days, feeling sorry for himself and wishing somebody gave a shit.

I gave Uncle Russell his start in the uncling business. He would have been all of thirteen at the time, and not much interested in his sister Susan’s precocious production of a baby. But Russell did like Susan and Dylan (my mum and dad). He could come down from the Central Coast and stay with them, sleeping on the couch, drinking beer and eating prawns. Big deal for a country boy. They had a flat in Randwick then, one bedroom, within horse-stink of the race course.

The story is I slept in a basket until I wouldn’t fit, and that was the signal to move on out to Strathfield. The first house I remember was a bit of a dog-box, but it had a great backyard for cricket.

As a little boy, I had no idea about age, and I thought of Uncle Russell as a grownup — but one of the best, because he didn’t mind rolling in the grass, or climbing a tree. He was willing to wrestle. He held me by the arms and spun me through the air, and when he stopped the world whirled on in a giddy stream.

Young Russell’s hair was a rare justification for Brylcream — he slicked it back and looked as glossy as a duck, with one black lock hanging over his left brow. He had dark eyes, a chin like Chesty Bond and skin the colour of creamy coffee. He was solid as a Hereford bull. He smiled well and laughed easily. He talked plain strine, but he was not slow like Uncle Kev, who drawled so low and flat that he could not hold my attention for a whole sentence.

Russell was a bicycle racer. He had thighs and calves stuffed with muscle. Here is a strange memory I have of Russell’s muscular thigh. One time when he was staying with us in Strathfield, I heard him groaning in the bathroom and peeped around the door. He was standing with his back to the mirror in his shorts and singlet, grimacing over his shoulder at a boil in the back of his thigh. Calling me in, he put one foot up on the edge of the bath and stretched the afflicted leg out behind him. He wanted me to squeeze the boil.

“Don’t stop if I yell,” he said.

Under compulsion, I put my hands on his thigh. It was hard, like cork, and sparsely vegetated with wiry black curls. The boil rose like a volcano in the middle of a plain.

“Not even if I scream,” he urged me.

The boil stared at me. I pretended to push.

Russell groaned. “Harder! Push harder!”

I gave one push. He yelled. I stopped. Sweat was running down his face.

“All right, I’ll do it,” he said.

I stood near the door and watched him wrestle the boil.

Russell rode a blue Malvern Five Star. Before important races, he solemnly retaped the handlebars, which curled over and down like animal horns. His racing stirrups curved over the toes of his bicycle shoes and laced down with leather straps. He won trophies — tin cups and ribbons — but in time this could not obscure the fact that there was really nowhere for a bicycle racer to go.

Rugby league was more promising. Russell was a star five-eighth, fast and unafraid. His school team won the comp. His club team won the comp. He was so good he was offered a chance to play reserve grade. Even my dad was impressed. He took me to a game, and did his best to explain what was happening. We sat on wooden benches in a woolly crowd that would roar, stop, swear, then roar again. I waited anxiously for Russell to come on.

“That’s him! There, see?” Dad said at last.

“Which one?”

“There. Ooof! On the ground.”

We watched him pummelled and pummelling, biffing and biffed. Once he sidestepped his marker and ran. The crowd roared. I was dizzy with excitement until he was laid out by the fullback short of the line. My uncle, nearly a hero. After the game he limped up to join us. It was not a great game, he said, with a pained smile.

Just once, he sat on the bench for the Premier League. But they didn’t call him on. He played in the reserves until he snapped his knee, which was the end of football and the beginning of a new kind of epic, a saga of plaster bondage and surgical torture that went on for years. They knew nothing about knee reconstruction then. They practised on Russell.

When Russell was a young sports star, Grandma was more proud of his tin cups and ribbons than he was. She served him gargantuan meals of roast chicken and vegetables followed by slices of apple or gramma pie. She never watched him play footie: she was too scared for his good looks. He was her only boy, her youngest child. When the knee went, she was angry, but she consoled herself by saying:

“At least they didn’t break his nose.”

Sporting ambitions set aside, Russell went to teachers college. He would have learned to teach physical education, but did not feel right about it with his bad leg. So he taught mathematics. Russell found that he liked teaching, being in charge. The students liked him too: tough but fair, good humoured, good looking. In his first year out, he knocked up one of the girls. Her parents complained to the principal of the school.

The principal found this awkward. He liked Russell. He knew the girl. She looked a lot older than fifteen. Nevertheless: what the hell was Russell thinking?

“We’re in love,” Russell said.

The principal had no pocket to put this stupidity in.

“Come off it,” he said. And then, when Russell did not come off it, he said:

“You’d better get yourself a lawyer.”

Russell didn’t know any lawyers, so he sought help from my dad, who by this time was doing quite well as a real estate agent and moving into a little land development. Dad was a Mason; it was a way forward back then. He had the little black bag. You know the rule with Masons: they only tell Masons they are Masons. Freemasonry is a secret among Masons.

Uncle Russell’s school was on the western fringe of Sydney, where all the land was being taken away from dairy cows and sliced into quarter acres. My dad was doing something that way. He had a friendly chat with the principal, who for all I know might have been a Mason too. Then he met the parents. They had the girl under lock and key, howling like a cat. They wanted Russell to disappear. If Russell would disappear, they knew how to protect their daughter’s reputation. But Russell refused to disappear. He was in love.

My dad knew a lawyer. They had a little chat. A girl of fifteen, that was statutory rape, even leaving aside Russell’s duties in loco parentis. He was not Romeo beneath the balcony. They would crucify him if he didn’t disappear. This my dad explained to Russell.

Russell didn’t know about that. Only after the police came to interview him did his love congeal. I think he realised then that there was no way to present this to his mother, who was prudish to the tips of her blue rinsed hair. So he let my dad help him. The principal, the policemen, they all helped. Russell disappeared to a new school, which happened to be back on the Central Coast, back home again. The girl … I don’t know what happened to the girl. I only know this much because my dad told me the story years later: Your Uncle Russell: a cautionary tale.

Please take a moment here to reflect on what this meant to Russell. The broken knee. The broken heart. Owing favours. Keeping secrets. Certain forests had been felled in Russell’s interior, and a creeping desertification now began.

How do I know? Well, I don’t know. I guess. I guess I care I guess.

After the crisis, my dad was a little tired of Russell, and maybe vice versa. So we saw less of Russell. There was a bit of a gap while we all got on with our lives, and other people took a turn at doing stupid things. What I tell you next is mostly hearsay, reinforced with the occasional unreliable encounter.

This is what happened. Russell met Megan in the staff room of his new school, a practical blonde with a sunny smile, and he married her.

Megan was very good at talking with Russell’s mother, my Grandma. They talked for hours over a pot of tea. They talked about Russell’s knee: its current range of movement, latest flare-up, therapy, and prospects for rehabilitation. They talked about Russell’s childhood, Russell’s career, Russell’s garden. Russell would drink the attention in until he was full, then go out to dig, or sit on the verandah to have a beer with his Pop (that’s what Russell called his dad, my Grandpa, god knows why). Later he would interrupt the women to ask for lunch. That was fine: they loved him to eat. They could talk all day about Russell’s appetite.

When Megan produced Kylie, Russell’s world was close to complete. Kylie was just like Russell, only a girl. Russell adored her. Megan and Russell were busy with their careers, so Kylie spent much of her childhood with Grandma. She was the last and dearest grandchild.

On weekends the three generations would get together at Russell’s place or Grandma’s. They made slow tours of the garden, Russell with a spade, digging usefully, and picking up gardener’s lore from Grandma. Kylie would peekaboo around the ferns and flowers. Tea and biscuits. Talk of Russell’s knee. Coupla beers. Roast lunch. Grandpa would sidle into the shade for a snooze. A sweet slow afternoon, perhaps a game of snakes and ladders, tea and biscuits, a slow drive home. The years dripped.

Then Grandpa died, silently moving from relative to absolute silence. The funeral was small: Grandma; Russell, Megan and Kylie; Aunt Betty, Uncle Kev and their kids; my mum and me. There was Grandpa’s old drinking mate, Phil Corbett, grey and rickety as the last paling in the fence. And there were two middle-aged people who stood apart from us, almost but not quite as if lost.

“Who are they?” Russell asked Grandma.

“That’s Roy and Doris. They’re your father’s children from his first marriage,” Grandma whispered.

“What first marriage?” Russell managed to say, but Grandma said no more.

Why had she said even that? If this was my story of Grandma, we could go into that. Another time, perhaps.

When it came to speeches, the chaplain knew nothing about Grandpa and did not pretend to know. Russell was a mess. He tried to speak, but could not. He could not gather his thoughts or control his tears. I didn’t know what was going on — of course I knew nothing about Roy and Doris until years later. I was a boy at a funeral, terrified to see adults unhinged by grief. I was particularly horrified to see such depths in Russell. Despite the knee, I still thought of him as essentially invulnerable — he had always played the manly-man.

Aunt  Betty helped him find a seat. Then she spoke to us.

Aunt Betty said that her father was a quiet man who loved his chooks. He could hypnotise a rooster so that it stood still for the judges. His best won Best in Show in 1963.

Grandma said nothing. She sat very straight and looked neither right nor left.

I don’t think Russell heard a word. As soon as the service was over, he made his way to Phil Corbett. I don’t know what he said, but this is what I imagine:

“Phil, do you know them?” Russell asked, looking over at his unknown relatives, who were looking uncertainly across the aisle at Grandma as she went out on Betty’s arm.

“Yes,” Phil admitted regretfully. “I guess you didn’t know.”

“I should talk to them,” Russell suggested.

“It’s a bit complicated.”

So instead of talking to Roy and Doris, Russell went outside with Phil and heard a few things about his Pop for the first time. How he was 82 when he died, not 72. How he married Maureen Gillies when he was 20 and had two children: Roy and Doris, before he had an affair with Maureen’s sister, Mavis. Maureen caught them at it and divorced him, which was a scandal in Ourimbah in 1932. He married Mavis and had three more kids: Betty, Susan and Russell. Maureen never spoke to him or Mavis again, but he kept in touch with Roy and Doris. Roy worked in the sawmill —

“In the sawmill?” Russell interrupted. It was at the end of the street. His Pop went once a week, and came back with sawdust for the chooks.

Who would have thought a sack of sawdust could mean anything?

In a kind of shock Russell went back to Betty’s house, where we had tea. He let Kev talk to him about engines, and he listened to Megan and Grandma talk about his latest x-ray. At the end of the day he took Grandma home again, and the next day he dropped Kylie off with her as usual on his way to work.

But his mother’s secret history kept gnawing at him. One time he went alone to her, to put it all in front of her, to confirm or deny. But Grandma only sat by her teacup, regarding the middle distance with a watery eye, and crunching a milk arrowroot biscuit between her indestructible false teeth.

After that Russell retreated to his garden, where the grevilleas grew higher and wilder, year by year. He brooded and grew stiff. Kylie grew up. Yet at sixteen she still visited her Grandma every week, until the incident.

“You don’t want to wear that dress.”

“I like it, Grandma.”

“It’s not a nice dress. You can see right up your legs.”

“Don’t be silly, Grandma!”

“You look like a slut in that dress.”

Kylie was upset. She told Russell. He rang Grandma and told her that she was a miserable old hypocrite and that she would never see him or Kylie again.

This was unbelievable, but weeks went by and Kylie did not visit. Grandma called Russell over and over again. At first he was rude to her and then he wouldn’t talk at all, hanging up the phone at the sound of her voice. So, reluctantly, Grandma told my mum and Aunt Betty, and they went to talk Russell round. He sat on his verandah, swelling and swelling, until it burst out — the secret he had learned at the funeral, the secret of Roy and Doris.

Betty was unfussed.

“Yes, I sort of knew Pop was married before, but Mummy doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“You know why, don’t you? She stole her sister’s husband!”

But Betty was sure that wasn’t right.

“They were at the funeral, his other kids. Mum’s sister’s kids!”

But my mum insisted that she hadn’t seen any strangers at the funeral, as if he was making the whole thing up.

They slid into one of those arguments in which people say the things they hardly dare to think, until in the end Russell pushed his sisters off the verandah and he tumbled down the steps chasing them away.

I have this story from my mum, who is not reliable, but still.

I can only guess why he felt so strongly. I never traced the sources of his Nile. But this is true: Uncle Russell never spoke to his sisters or mother again.

Hence, when Grandma was dying, it fell to me to call him. We hadn’t spoken in years.

“I’m sure Grandma wants to see you,” I said.

“Really?” He sounded hurt, as if me calling him was a trick. “What it is, you wouldn’t know, but she owes me an apology.”

What it was, by that time, was something that I did know something of, but I knew he didn’t know I knew, and what I knew I didn’t understand at all, so I said only:

“She’ll be dead.”

“She had plenty of time,” Russell said.

“We all want to see you!” I said desperately, remembering the glowing young man who whirled me round.

“Well, tell your mother I don’t want to see her, or her sister.”

“I don’t understand,” I begged him. And Uncle Russell hung up.

© 2018 Craig Bingham

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