Can it be true that memories from childhood are more vivid and enduring than most of the others?
If they are, that would explain my lifelong fondness for my Uncle Al.
He was my favourite uncle.
I’ve got other uncles who I keep in touch with, including two who are absolutely smashing and I adore them but not quite in the same way.
As an adult, Uncle Alan was missing from my life for years at a time – nearly a decade at one point before we all worried that he might have died of malaria. Another uncle prompted the British Consul to check up on Alan and found he was alive and well and teaching in a rather nice private boarding school in Mombasa.
His only UK teaching experience was a short, never-to-be-repeated stint at a comprehensive school in Tamworth. He taught abroad after that, in the Cayman Islands, then Uganda until bodies began to be dragged from the local river – and then Kenya.
So he became Uncle Alan in Africa. He missed all the family events, the births, the marriages, the death of his mother, the death of my father, the death of my mother. There were a few airmail letters and when he came back to the UK he’d telephone from the airport and say he was on his way and would call in if we were around.
He gave the impression of assuming everyone was all right and being satisfied with his life apart in the Dark Continent as explorers used to call it. He was the furthest outpost of the Welsh Williams family. He retired to live on his own little farm – we called it Fort Williams – in the northern uplands of Kenya.
His death was extremely sad. He didn’t want us to know that he’d had to return to England, very seriously ill with cancer. As a white man without health insurance, he’d been turned away from hospital in Kenya without treatment. He died early in January.
For administrative reasons the funeral was delayed for six long weeks. It didn’t seem right. My Uncle Al in a freezer at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I’m not normally a person who cares about things being done in a ‘proper’ fashion but I found that I cared very deeply that he had a funeral as soon as possible.
When it happened, it was very quiet – just seven people gathered together looking at fuzzy, badly-photocopied photos of my Uncle Alan displayed at the crematorium. In the main one, he looked kind of grim. He would have laughed that we were weeping for him and gazing at a very grumpy and misleading version of his real self.
My brother stood next to me in the chapel. We both had to be there. We have the same memories. Alan was still a teenager living at home when we were kids. When we visited nan in Abercarn, he was often there, his chemistry experiments spread out all over the kitchen table, carboys of vivid and noxious chemicals including cyanide on the kitchen cupboard. We couldn’t touch his experiments or even guess what they were. We just stood and wondered at the dripping, the colours and the bubbles.
He let us have a go at his guitar. He was good with electronics and made a record player so nan could play her Jim Reeves and Everly Brothers records in the front room.
He took us to Cardiff Museum where I remember seeing a bronze cast of the Rodin sculpture The Kiss for the first time. It seemed miraculous and it still does.
I suppose his gift was that, although he was a teenager – and very much a loner with his own interests and hobbies – and we were such young, impressionable children, he engaged with us and encouraged us.
He took us for long walks around and over the forested hills, catching bullheads in the streams, eating wimberries, listening to the bees buzzing all round in abandoned quarries, looking down over the long lines of coal trucks being pulled along in the valley below.
He bought my first set of proper books – a set of leather-bound childrens’ classics – which included Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Entrancing, absorbing, mind-altering stuff.
Until then, apart from the obligatory Christmas annuals, I relied on the library to satiate my voracious appetite for books. I read a lot of Enid Blyton. Uncle Al laughed about my Enid Blyton fixation and must have thought I needed more of a challenge.
Then best of all, he arrived at our house one day with a big, heavy present for me.
I carefully undid the wrapping to reveal a huge, expensive book called Birds of the World, filled with colourful illustrations of undreamed-of exotic species including birds of paradise, hornbills, marabou storks and humming birds like little jewels.
He wrote inside, ‘For Jan – An Unbirthday Present.’
“Unbirthday present? What’s that?” asked mum.
Thanks to Uncle Alan, I already knew.
RIP Alan Williams