Uncle Pete's Knife
|......I used to love going to Uncle Pete's. It involved two buses for one thing, which for me, at seven years old, was quite a big thing. It was always an adventure travelling what to me seemed such a vast distance. I was the great explorer setting out into the unknown to discover strange new lands.|
......The best thing was, Mum enjoyed the day out as much as me. It was so rare to see her happy in those days. I would sit by her side, always on the upper deck so I could see the worlds I'd come to conquer, and she would chat away to me like a little girl instead of the grown woman she really was.
......Then we'd arrive at Uncle Pete's, and of course everything isn't all perfect even when you're only seven. I never understood why Mum cared so much for her sister, my Aunt Brenda. To me she was the monster from every scary story I'd ever heard. She was enormous; nothing like Mum at all who was small and neat, you'd hardly believe they were related. I swear the ground shook when she moved and she would glower at me with piggy eyes almost buried in a round, bloated face. I was terrified of her.
......Mum loved her though. As soon as we entered the house they would rush to embrace. I was always petrified she would crush Mum in her massive arms. Luckily, she never seemed to have the desire to cuddle me. Then they would begin to talk and it was like they hadn't seen each other for a lifetime. It was as if I wasn't there anymore. Mum would forget all about me. I didn't mind too much though. As I've said, it was unusual to see Mum happy in those days: times were hard then. And there was always Uncle Pete.
......Now my Uncle Pete was two people. I don't mean he was split down the middle or anything like that. It's just that in the house he was in Aunt Brenda's domain and he couldn't be the real Uncle Pete. Instead he had to be this quiet little man who sat in a corner, hidden behind a newspaper, never speaking. He would however, sometimes sneak me a sly little wink if he thought Aunt Brenda wasn't watching - which she usually was. Then she would wither him with her piggy eyes. I learned pretty early on in life that there are some women who hate men, even when they live with them.
......There was always tea and sandwiches. An ordeal in itself. Uncle Pete was allowed out of his corner and we would all sit at the table. Woe betide me if I made any crumbs. Aunt Brenda would never say anything to me, she would carry on chatting merrily away like an overgrown schoolgirl with Mum, but she would look at me. That's when I first learned the meaning of the expression 'If looks could kill.' Aunt Brenda definitely didn't like children, especially if they happened to be boys. Uncle Pete had no such problem. He had long ago mastered the art of eating without making crumbs. I don't know how he did it. Me, I could never manage it.
......After an age the meal would be over. It was then Aunt Brenda would look at Uncle Pete and it was as if a mental communication was passed. She didn't speak - now I come to think of it, I don't recall Aunt Brenda and Uncle Pete ever talking to each other - yet an instruction had been given. It was time to get out of the way so that Aunt Brenda and Mum could get down to some really serious gossiping of the type that men aren't allowed to hear.
......Uncle Pete would stand up and look shyly at me; I would look at Mum, who would smile her permission after a quick glance to check with Aunt Brenda (again, all this by some weird telepathy), and off we would go. Like a pair of schoolboys let off unexpectedly early from detention; not gleefully running because they are aware that the schoolmistress is watching and might call them back, but as quickly as decorum and dignity would allow I'd follow Uncle Pete down the long back garden to his shed.
......Uncle Pete's shed was right at the bottom of the garden, tucked behind a hedge. It was ancient and dilapidated - I was always sure to shut the door gently behind me for fear the whole thing would come down on our heads. It was messy, dirty and untidy and the spiders were monstrous, but it was all Uncle Pete's. It was the complete opposite to the neatness and cleanliness of the house where Aunt Brenda reigned supreme; this was Uncle Pete's little kingdom and it was here that, at last, the real Uncle Pete would appear.
......I was being serious when I said Uncle Pete was two people. In the shed, in his own space (as the current idiom as it), Uncle Pete was an entirely different man from the one who cowered before Aunt Brenda. He somehow grew and became indefinably stronger and more confident. Best of all though, in his shed Uncle Pete was a happy man; not someone who raised pity in even a seven-year-old, as was the case when he was in the company of his spouse.
......He would sit in his rickety old armchair and I would sit at his feet on the comfortable little stool he'd made specially for me. First he would light the pipe he never smoked in the house, the one he'd made himself, then he would take up his knife and a piece of wood and start to carve. Though I've never smoked myself, to this day whenever I smell tobacco I am transported back to that old shed. Puffing luxurious clouds of smoke to the warped ceiling, his knife whittling and shaping, chips of wood falling to the already littered floor, Uncle Pete would begin talking in his soft voice.
......How he would talk! His eyes focused on some far-distant point, he would tell me in vivid and picturesque detail about all his adventures; about all the marvellous and exciting things he had seen and done. In that draughty, tumbledown shed Uncle Pete told me stories that made my heart race and my imagination fly. Stories such as of the time he was exploring the Arctic when a polar bear attacked him and how he'd single-handedly fought it to its death, skinned it and made a coat from the fur. How he'd been the captain of a submarine when a giant octopus suddenly appeared and wrapped its tentacles around the craft in an attempt to crush it, how he'd put on a diving suit and gone out to face it alone and how he'd left the creature helplessly tied in knots. He told me of the time in India when he'd saved the life of the daughter of a rajah who was being savaged by a man-eating tiger; how he'd refused the rajah's gift of his daughter's hand in marriage and enough riches to make him the most powerful man in the world.
......What stories! There didn't seem to be a corner of the world Uncle Pete hadn't been to, no amazing exploit he hadn't performed. I sat rapt and spellbound while he told me of ever more daring adventures, all the time the scent of tobacco and bared wood blending in an exotic mix while he smoked and carved.
......Far be it for me to suggest Uncle Pete was a liar; yet at times his stories stretched even my young credulity. I didn't then have the cynicism the years since have given me; but even so I couldn't help noticing little, shall we say, anomalies.
......For one thing: at the time I'm talking about Uncle Pete was no more than middle-aged. Even at the tender age of seven it struck me that he had done well to cram so many experiences into a relatively short span. Another thing is that Uncle Pete wasn't... well, what you would call a big man. Nor was he, as the modern term as it, very macho. In fact, to borrow another uncharitable modernism, it might be said he was a bit of a wimp. Remember, this is a man who lived in fear of his wife. At times it taxed the imagination to picture him tackling a full-grown crocodile or a twenty-foot snake. Perhaps all those years living with Aunt Brenda had shrunk him?
......Nevertheless, I loved his stories, and I loved Uncle Pete. What matter if his tales were whoppers? Not that I'm saying they were, of course.
......Another little clue as to the veracity or otherwise of his stories was when he retold them... as he inevitably did. Perhaps he had a bad memory, but with each retelling little details would change. The site of the underground cavern where he encountered a lost species of giant sub-humans might have been in Borneo in one recounting, while it would switch to Peru in another. The assassin from whom he rescued the famous MP might have been armed with a gun in one version, in another a knife. Little inconsistencies like these would keep creeping in. Strange to say, though, the one story that never changed, no matter how many times he told it, was how he came to own his knife.
......I won't repeat the entire story - Uncle Pete tended to go on a bit. Briefly: he was in Africa when he came across an old native being set upon by several members of a rival tribe intent on using him as the main ingredient in their cooking pot. It goes without saying Uncle Pete rescued him. The ancient native turned out to be a powerful witch doctor who was so grateful he took Uncle Pete to his hut. There, after performing an elaborate ritual accompanied by much dancing and chanting, the witch doctor presented Uncle Pete with a knife that he insisted was imbued with marvellous powers. It was this very knife that Uncle Pete always used to carve with.
......Now I'm not saying there was anything special about that knife. It was fairly ordinary looking; though it did have some strange symbols on the blade, which Uncle Pete maintained were magical. The handle was bound with a greasy, black leather-like material. Uncle Pete told me this was human skin. Apart from these features the knife looked much like any other. It was what Uncle Pete did with the knife that was special.
......I don't know how to describe how fascinating it was to watch that old knife in Uncle Pete's hands as formless pieces of wood turned into works of art before my eyes. You name it - he could carve it. Animals, insects, people, buildings - his shed was full of his creations. They were all perfect in every detail, and the only tool he ever used was that knife.
......I don't want to keep using the word magic; but sometimes, as I listened to Uncle Pete's stories, my eyes glued to whatever carving he was working on, I swear that Uncle Pete's hands had little to do with the process. He hardly even watched what he was doing himself; his eyes would be staring off into the far distance of whatever story we were both lost in. Yet, there in front of me, as if somehow conjured from the wood, would gradually appear a perfect miniature. I know the imagination can run a little wild when you're young, but to me it always seemed as if the knife was doing the carving; not Uncle Pete. It was as though it had a life and a mind of its own and it was the knife that controlled Uncle Pete's hands - not the other way round. Maybe the confined atmosphere of the shed and the thick tobacco smoke combined with Uncle Pete's quiet, gentle, hypnotic voice made my impressionable young mind more susceptible to believing almost anything - I don't know. What I do know is that even after all the years that have passed since then I can still see that knife chipping and paring away and another marvellous object slowly forming. I can still also see Uncle Pete's hands, strangely out of sync with what the knife was doing.
......Just one more thing about that knife. The only time Uncle Pete raised his voice to me was one day when I went to pick it up. He'd put it to one side while he relit his pipe and my curiosity got the better of me. I never saw him move as fast: he grabbed it before I could even touch it. His face went livid and he shouted at me never to do it again; no one else but he could ever touch the knife. He soon calmed down when he had the knife back in his hand and grinned shamefacedly at me. He said he was sorry; he hadn't meant to shout at me, it was just that he was worried for my safety. He went on to say that the old witch doctor had put a kind of spell on the knife that meant that as long as he lived it would always protect him and itself and it was very dangerous for anyone to try to take it from him. Just another of Uncle Pete's stories.
......I could go on for much longer about the happy times with Uncle Pete, but I would only bore you. Anyway, all happy times come to an end at some point.
The carving would be finished, and another perfect elephant or Tower of London would rest in Uncle Pete's hands. It was like a whistle signalling full-time had sounded. He would look up as if from a trance, blink his eyes, stop talking and put the carving to one side with all the rest. I don't think he ever bothered with them again once they were finished. Then he would get up, give me one of his sad looks, take my hand and lead me back to Aunt Brenda's realm.
......Once back in the house, he would revert back to the other Uncle Pete and go sit in his chair in the corner. It was as though he ceased to exist from then, and I must confess to my shame that I ignored him just like everybody else. The magic was over. Soon after, Aunt Brenda and Mum would kiss and embrace, much to my disgust. To my eternal gratitude Aunt Brenda never kissed me. Then would begin the journey home.
......Like I said, all good times come to an end. Suddenly there were no more trips to Uncle Pete's.
......Mum cried a lot. It was a long time before she told me what had happened. Even then, I don't think she told me the full story and, after all this time, it's still vague to me.
......Apparently, Uncle Pete stabbed Aunt Brenda to death. It seems that for some reason, I don't know quite why, Aunt Brenda had gone to Uncle Pete's shed. She never went there: it was Uncle Pete's place, the only one he had. Perhaps he was late for a meal - I don't know. Anyway, there was a lot of shouting; Uncle Pete snapped - and Aunt Brenda was dead.
......When I asked Mum if they had sent Uncle Pete to prison she said no, he had been put in a special hospital. She said some things I didn't understand: Uncle Pete wasn't responsible for his actions; the balance of his mind was disturbed - things like that. The only clear thing that sticks in my mind is what she told me Uncle Pete said. It seems he could only repeat over and over again that it wasn't him - he hadn't killed Aunt Brenda. She'd grabbed the knife off him, threatened him with it. It was the knife that killed Aunt Brenda - not Uncle Pete. It was merely protecting him and he'd had no control over it. He said this time after time after time and kept begging for them to return his knife to him before it killed someone else.
......I never saw Uncle Pete again. He died in the hospital.
......I suppose you'll want to know what happened to the knife. Well, I've got it. It was passed down to me after Uncle Pete's death. It was locked in a strong wooden box and that's where it remains. Maybe one day I'll take it out, I keep fancying doing a bit of carving.
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