When Queen Elizabeth died I remembered
that my uncle Tom died the same month
as her father, King George. Both were veterans
of the First World War – one of the Battle
of Ypres, one of the Battle of Jutland.
Both private and prince were heavy smokers
till near the end – roll ups, Benson & Hedges.
Tom was gassed at Ypres. After the war
he became a pastry chef until
the Depression. Later, during the next
World War and subsequently, he made
packing cases in an aircraft factory.
Children take for granted the adults
around them. Later we avoid unpicking
memories – so it had not occurred to me
until now that Tom appeared to have no friends,
no interests, or possessions, or
to wonder why. And, of course,
there is no one alive left to ask.
After his death, I was moved into his small,
impersonal bedroom above the hall –
in our 1920s rented, pebble-dashed,
three bedroom semi with a privet hedge.
When Tom was alive six of us lived there.
The five who remained were me, my mother,
her older sisters, and my grandmother;
an only child, two widows, and two spinsters;
four formative women, who are still vivid in my heart.
But Uncle Tom evades me. Perhaps
he had shut down his life some time before.
I lived there from age five to sixteen.
Though death and loss and regret were near
neighbours, and my granny and her daughters
talked mostly about the past – making me
both risk-averse and ambitious – it was not
a cheerless place. It was a house with books;
an upright piano, which I learned to play,
and for which I had a ready audience;
and a number of pictures – including
a print of Somerscales’ ‘Off Valparaiso’
on the wall at the bottom of the stairs.
So we all passed it at least twice a day.
Tom would have looked at it, presumably,
though perhaps he was always too fatigued
in his fifties then from physical work
with lungs damaged in youth by the mustard gas.
Whether I actually did or not, memory
tells me I would stop and study the print.
Someone must have told me Valparaiso
is a port on South America’s west coast,
and the ship featured in the picture
must have been heading for the harbour,
since a pilot boat is waiting for it,
which the ship acknowledges but refuses.
The three masted barque, from beyond Cape Horn
and the Southern Ocean, into the azure
Pacific seas, is steering almost
towards us, the wind in its sails – an image
of grace and purpose, of power, and of risk.
'Off Valparaiso'Elizabeth IIGeprge VIThomas SomerscalesYpres