[The follow is an account of an afternoon with my late Great Uncle]
A TRIP TO PLAISTOW
Went with my brother to visit my great uncle in Plaistow. Middle of nowhere. Lives in some flat for old people. We go in and the TV is blaring loud. We start talking but can’t hear each other. I suggest we turn the TV down. He turns it down a bit but it’s still loud and so conversation competes with a program he loves: the Antiques Roadshow. He gets us a water. We start talking and then looking around the flat. I start asking about different photos. I see a couple of my great grandmother I’ve never seen before. There are pictures of old boxers. There are stones from Jerusalem and knick knacks from Israel. There’s a desk with clutter. The flat is small and pokey. We decide to go out and get something to eat at a local curry place. We get up and then get told about a little flood he’s had in the bathroom. Popping my head in all I see are pants in a sink filled up with water. Then before we go he asks if I can help with his computer as he’s having problems with the sound. We go into his little tiny den – which is an old storage cupboard – or he goes in and we stand in the doorway of this tiny broom cupboard that can hold only one person. He is surrounded by books and shoeboxes like a tiny spaceship with him sitting in the centre at the controls. His computer is on but is a relic. He spends five minutes clicking on stuff trying to make something happen. To no avail. I gently suggest I have a go and we swap places. Now I’m sitting at the console in the driving seat of the spaceship. An advert for erectile dysfunction has frozen on the screen and I see the problem. I start trying to close all the windows. I try to click the erectile dysfunction advert shut but ironically it stands firm. We are all looking at an advert for erectile dysfunction. There are lots of books in the room. A pentateuch. A couple of Holocaust books. Eventually I shut down the computer with the intention of starting it up again. I do this and it works. I open up a boxing video on Youtube to test the sound. We then watch. We then make it out the flat and start walking on the street. He talks about the death of the cab trade and tells me about when he became a musher – which is someone who owns their own cab. The sun is really hot and we shuffle down the street. Of my grandpa, his brother, he says, “Julius all his life has been a gent”, which makes me feel good because it’s so true. I don’t understand how such a gentle, placid man can be a part of my loud family. We shuffle off to go to this restaurant. Completely unannounced though he breaks off from us and goes into a newsagent. We find him in there buying a lottery ticket. We carry on walking down the street again. Without saying anything he just walks off into another shop, this time a chemist. He goes past the queue of people waiting and starts telling the guy, “You didn’t put the red pills in there?” A discussion ensues with my great uncle saying he’ll be back later. Outside I make a joke questioning whether he is actually running a protection racket and is doing the rounds and has brought me and my brother along as muscle? We carry on. It is a hot London day and I can feel I’m gonna get burnt and zapped by the blistering heat. I mention the heat and he says, “What are you moaning for, it’s beautiful?” He says he wanted to be in the navy like his brothers and that Cyril was the only one that went into the army, making it to Sergeant. We shuffle on and finally arrive at the restaurant. It’s shut. My great uncle suggests we can just wait till it’s open but it’s an hour till then so with gentle insistence we head to a nearby café instead. He knows the Turkish guy there and we sit down. I order some roast dinner, my brother gets an all day breakfast and my great uncle orders an omelette with an element of discussion about what is going to be in the omelette. My great uncle starts confusing the staff asking if they’ve got “a toasted lemonade sandwich?” It’s actually really funny and I find out later than he’s not content to simply rest on this image and has previously asked for “a coke on toast.” His tea arrives and he talks. “I’m 21 - four times over. I’m 84. Isn’t it amazing? I’m actually 21 but exactly four times over?” Our food arrives. He starts talking about what a good man my grandpa is, albeit referring to him as our “dad”. I ask a question about their dad. I know he’s not looked upon favourably. He’s known in the family as “Percy Ponce” and walked out on my great grandma leaving her to bring up five kids on her own. She would take on work as a seamstress. I take the opportunity to get an idea of what Percy Ponce was actually like. I ask the question directly without treading delicately around the subject. “I hated him. Cyril hated him. Harry hated him. He was a drek. Julius hated him too but he was the only one that went to the funeral.” “I know he wasn’t a good man, but what was he actually like? Do you have any memories?” “He was just a total drek. I was only a kid. I remember my mother throwing this saucepan at him that if it hit him it would have killed him but it missed him. And that’s what I can see, this saucepan flying through the air. What a memory, huh?” “What was my great grandmother like?” “She was really just a little Romanian girl. She stayed a little yiddishe girl.” I take some of my brother’s toast. My great uncle tells of how he and Harry were evacuated to Norfolk and stayed with a lovely family. Harry stayed in touch with them all his life. “It was just an adventure.” I remember my great uncle was seeing a lady last time we met and I ask if he’s still seeing her? “What do you mean, seeing” he says? For some reason I change my language to be like how I imagine old people talk, “You know? I thought you were courting this lady?” “What the hell are you talking about? Courting?” I feel like a nob but know it’s funny that I’ve earnestly spoken to a cab driving East End boxer like we’re in a Jane Austen novel. He says he’s free and loves his life and can do anything he wants whenever he wants. He says you can’t give that up. I mention a no-goodnik we know and ask if he thinks he’s changed? “I hope so,” he says. “Cos if he hasn’t then this time he’ll end up in the beit-tsoris.” The house of troubles. My great uncle has nearly cleaned his plate and delicately gets every last morsel of food down to the tiniest bit of lettuce. “If I didn’t work I’d die. So I go to City Airport in the mornings. I get to go out and see the boys. I’ll take a couple of jobs. But the whole thing’s dead. If you’re a pensioner like me you can make a bit of pocket money but you can’t raise a family on it.” I mention that I saw an itinerary on the wall of the assisted accommodation where he lives advertising activities for the residents. I ask if he takes part in any of them. “No. All that old lot - they’re a different breed of people.” He hangs out with ex-boxers mostly. They sometimes raise money for charity or the wife of a boxer who has passed away. He recounts a couple of boxing stories. Some of which I know, namely that my grandma was the loudest one there, cheering them on. The joke goes that my great uncle’s problem as a fighter was he’d hit someone and daze them and then stand back to admire his work, so it would take my grandma to yell out, “Hit him! Hit him!”, which would remind him to finish the job. He used to wear a Star of David on his shorts and recalls one venue where he’d fight in a real yiddified neighbourhood. “Mosely should have gone through there – not Ridley Road. Ooh they hated it.” There is a lull in the conversation. Seriously he speaks: “I don't eat like I used to. The doctor thinks I'm like a man of forty. The only thing is - I can't fuck like I’m forty.” He bursts out laughing. “I’m so bloody rude!” Our food is finished and my great uncle makes another joke involving a fizzy drink. The ambience of a bill to come is in the air. I say, “I think I know how this goes - but what would you say if I offered to pay for this?” “I'd spit right in your eye.” He pays. My brother walks him back home but I had to rush off to a gig. They walk off and I see the back of them. I don’t want to look away but I do. I had so much fun but it makes me want to weep weep weep. I can't hang onto all the stories. I can't keep hold of all the memories. Our lives just slip away. It’s really true. Everything everyone says is true. It’s so short. It’s so damn short...
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Hyman sounds like he was a great man. Thank you for sharing those memories; he will live on through your stories.