For you today is a short piece I did for my MA homework a couple of weeks ago. This was a response to Naipaul’s Miguel Street, and the brief was to write autobiographically about a quirky or interesting character from your past who is part of a wider community, including the viewpoint of you as a child. Here’s my offering:
Uncle Dieter lived in a house crammed with people and stuff and noise. He was a sound engineer, and he said he had been on tour with the Rolling Stones. Whenever he said this, my mum rolled her eyes, but I believed him. He had long black hair held together with an elastic band, and this despite the fact that the top of his head was completely bald. Uncle Dieter’s eyes were the brightest blue; the rest of his face was mostly covered by an unruly moustache and beard. His house was like some crazy museum – he owned a Tesla tube and an infinity mirror, and he never threw anything away.
I went to Uncle Dieter’s after school two days a week until my mum finished work. All the folk musicians of the town hung out there, and on any given day there would be four or five or six straggly-haired drop-outs lying stoned on his threadbare carpet, or grouped by the window singing odd harmonies. My mum called them drop-outs – to me they were glorious, exotic, far removed from my mundane life. There was always a Girlfriend of the Moment, but the girlfriends seem to circulate weekly, and I never knew which of the wan, folksy girls would be draped around his neck from one week to the next. They seemed interchangeable. They didn’t seem to mind.
Uncle Dieter built and repaired speakers for a living, and my mum would tell me about the time he’d accidentally wiped her treasured cassette recordings with the powerful magnets they contained. She used to sing in a band with her brother, but now she said they were too wild for her. She still let me go there every week, though. I guess she didn’t have many options for childcare. Once, when I was coming up to eleven, Uncle Dieter let me try what he called his spliff. The musicians crowded round to watch, except for the Girlfriend of the Moment, who was then called Fay and had decided to bake Dieter a cake. I could tell they expected me to provide some kind of amusement, to choke and splutter and cough. But I sensed that Uncle Dieter would be embarrassed by this, so I pretended I liked it.
‘Cool,’ I said. ‘Let’s have another go.’
He never let me smoke again.
One day, Uncle Dieter shaved off his moustache. He bounded down the stairs and stood in the middle of the cramped lounge expectantly, his arms held wide. No one noticed. Except me, of course. At first I couldn’t understand it; his skin had a stretched, newly-grown quality to it, but he looked older. Thinner. There was something about his mouth, too, and I saw that he had a slight hair-lip which had been hidden before. The light shone off his bald head, and his neck rose scrawny out of the tie-dyed shirt, and he looked like a stranger to me.
‘Put it back on, Uncle Dieter,’ I cried.
Then the others noticed, and the Girlfriend of the Moment put her hand up to her mouth, and the musician called Bandolf started to laugh.
It seems crazy now, with hindsight, but it was at that exact moment I realised some things in life cannot be undone. At least, not instantly. Uncle Dieter couldn’t stick his hair back on; that one random act had changed how I saw him forever, and it was too late to take it back.