The Uncle Who Wasn't There

Every Sunday, for as far back as I can remember, I would be dropped at my grandparents whilst my grandmother and my parents went to the hospital to visit my uncle Francis. Looking back, I don’t know when I realised that this wasn’t something that happened in every family, or when I asked what was wrong with him. What I do remember is being little, running around with my cousin James, irritating the hell out of Katie and Mandy week after week, watching Bullseye and having tea served in 60s-style transparent mugs that I’d kill to have right now. With ginger biscuits, obviously.

Eventually James and Mandy moved away, and I resented being left on my own every Sunday, having discovered this wasn’t something that happened to everybody else. As I result, I turned into something of a brat, at one point karate-chopping one of my aunties because I wanted to go home now, dammit. Thankfully, I like to think that this phase didn’t last too long; Katie and I came to something of a détente, wherein I discovered pop music and spent Sunday afternoons in her room reading the fortnight’s issue of Smash Hits, plus I used her stereo to tape songs from the Top 40. My resentment turned to curiosity. I began asking if I could go with them to the hospital to visit my uncle. I remember asking a lot, and being turned down every single time.

Until one day, they relented.

I don’t remember much, except for driving past the Rover factories in Cowley and arriving at Littlemore Hospital, formerly Littlemore Asylum. A building constructed in the Victorian era to house mental patients and the very picture of a 19th century institution: grim, foreboding, and rundown. I remember the signs pointing to the ‘Rivendell’ unit in Rail Alphabet, the faded thick yellow walls, the ancient radiators and the blue floor tiles. And the puddles. And the smell.

I doubt at that age I really understood what ‘schizophrenia’ meant (though, to be fair, most people, especially drama writers, seem to have it confused with multiple personality disorder). I was told to stay close, and I did. I remember being a little scared at the people walking by, talking in a manner that I couldn’t understand, and getting to Francis’ room. I guess it must have been an anti-climax that he didn’t seem like a monster out of Jane Eyre, but just a thin man with black hair, shocked that his sister had a child, smoking his cigarettes and eating his chocolates, then telling us to leave when he got bored of our company.

After that, I’m sure I moaned every now and then about Sunday afternoons, but I understood more. The times spent in Katie’s bedroom faded away (she’d started buying Kerrang! and the Bros posters were replaced with Megadeth…not my scene, to be honest!), and I started secondary school. Sundays became something else: homework time. But it was great, because I had a defined time at the weekend where there was nobody around of my own age, and little to do. So I had hours to spare to concentrate on all my homework (this used to drive my Mum mad, as I always left everything until Sunday, instead of, say, doing it on Thursday or Friday night, because I knew it could be done in that time). This was how the Sundays ended, up to my time in the Sixth Form when I was allowed to stay behind at home instead of going down the road to my grandparents (which annoyed my sister somewhat!).

(I can’t remember how many times I ended up going to Littlemore. It must have been more than once, as I remember sitting in different parts of the ward, a faded memory of a party of some sorts that our family organised for the residents, and how Francis needed to be reminded who I and Bonnie were when we went in. But it wasn’t a huge amount, and even fewer after I went to Manchester and the hospital was sold to property developers, with the residents being sent into group accommodation. Today, a 3-bedroom apartment in the complex is selling for 345,000, but you couldn’t pay any of us any amount of money to live there.)

He was the uncle that wasn’t there, going into the hospital shortly after I was born. But he impacted on my life every week as I was growing up, and I think I’m a better person for that influence. So thank you, uncle Francis; we’ll drink to you here on this side of the ocean, and again when I go to live on the other side.