could feel my eyes turning into dust
- Mazzy Star, Into Dust.
Uncle Mark was his
There was Uncle Jeffrey. He wasn't a House. He liked telling jokes, and laughing at them. They only ever
saw him a couple of times a year, though, and he was glad, because he didn’t like how Uncle Jeffrey pinched his nose
and pretended he’d stolen it.
There was Uncle Phillip, his dad’s other brother. He farmed potatoes in
Then there was his Uncle Mark.
Uncle Mark was a schoolteacher. He had a wife, but they were separated,
with no children. Uncle Mark was smart and funny and quiet, and he didn’t take bullshit from anybody. That’s
what he would say, and Dad would shush him and say something like Dammit, Mark, you’re drunk.
would let him read his books, and show him the letters he wrote in to the newspaper. Uncle Mark taught him big words. Uncle
Mark thought he was OK, and in return Greg thought he was one of the coolest people he knew.
Sometimes he even thought
it would be great if Uncle Mark was his dad, in the same way he idly fantasised about saying something cool to a girl he liked
in the Sixth Grade. He would never have to go to school, and Uncle Mark could teach him. (He wasn’t always sure about
that, though. Uncle Mark lived alone, and sometimes he’d hardly ever get out of the house at all. Every now and then
Greg’s mom would have to make a big pot of stew, and Greg would drive over with his dad to make sure that Uncle Mark
ate some of it. Ten years old and you’re always hungry, and Greg couldn’t understand why anyone would have to
be told twice to eat). But it was still cool to imagine just that, lying in bed all day and climbing up on a chair to get
at the heavy books that he kept up high on his majestic bookshelves in his small semi-detached bachelor’s apartment.
could be Uncle Mark’s son.
On his eleventh birthday he got five dollars from his Grandma and Grandpa, a magnifying
glass and a baseball cap from his parents. A new pair of joggers. (But he already knew about those, because they had to know
that they fitted him right). A friend from school who he occasionally sat with at lunchtime, writing notes in secret code,
gave him three glistening cats-eye marbles wrapped in Christmas paper.
Uncle Mark gave him a book, a grown-up book with
no pictures inside. There was a very colourful picture on the outside, but when he slipped the dustjacket off the title was
just printed there on the spine in gold letters. Collins London. Master and Commander.
His own hardcover book.
With his own name printed inside it, too, in Uncle Mark’s bold hand. He couldn’t wait to talk about the book with
Uncle Mark, hear him say something like how is it, little man?
Five weeks after his birthday (and three weeks
after Christmas), his mom came in one night as he lay in bed reading. It was way past his bedtime, but he still had the light
on. Her voice sounded funny.
She had forgotten to come and tell him to turn the light out, but instead of scolding him
lightly or telling him something like lights out now, Mister, no exceptions, she just sat on the edge of the bed, near
his feet. He took a deep breath and knew something was wrong even before she swallowed and opened her mouth.
It was Uncle
Mark. Uncle Mark had an accident.
“Gregory, your Uncle Mark had an accident last night. He died, honey.”
almost wet the bed.
Uncle Mark’s funeral smelled like mothballs and the high, sweet, musty smell
of the church. They stood and sang and sat down and listened and prayed. Gregory prayed, once, and in between praying and
listening he snuck glances at the coffin at the front of the church between the heads of the hatted ladies in front of him.
He reached for the bible in the back of his Grandparent’s pew and read it quietly (following A map of the bible lands
with one finger), until his mother quietly reached and closed it.
His dad stared a lot.
After the funeral he had
to stand around tall in his ironed, taken-up trousers and be fondled and stared at by family members, smiling at them silently,
nodding, looking at his hands, taking in comments, until he could finally sneak away. People in sombre clothes were everywhere.
His father, smiling weakly with his brother, Phillip. Uncle Mark’s wife, pale and red-eyed.
He retrieved his
book from his mother’s bag, sitting to read it in a corner, in an armchair with doilies on the arms. He listened to
the kids playing a made-up game in one ear, waiting for them to play something he liked, feeling oddly sad because he wasn’t
playing too. At the table his mother and some other people were talking over coffee and cake. After he went in to drink a
glass of water (all of the soft drinks on the table were flat) they talked about him. About school. About how he and Uncle
Mark were buds. After a while he bent over the page, placed the book on the armrest, and left the room.
was helping to pack. There was a large, economy-size jar of pickles in the fridge, and it slipped from his arms (his hands
were wet and cold with condensation) as he carried it across the kitchen floor. His felt his mother come into the room as
he stood staring at the mess of glass and vinegar and gherkin on the floor. A pain started in his stomach and spread up to
his throat. He felt like crying like a big baby, and he didn’t even like pickles.
She saw his face, and even though
she was a little bit angry she tried to hide it.
“Go and help your father with the boxes.”
He went to
help his father close up the cardboard boxes that would go into storage (winter bedclothes, crockery, Christmas decorations,
glass things), and securely tape the small amount of boxes they would be taking overseas with them. One small box within another
was labelled Greg, and it contained his books, the trophy and the GI Joe action figure that he didn’t want to
let go of, some other junk. He didn’t think about his stuff taped within these boxes for a month or two in transit.
He was silent until he felt like talking again. So was his dad.
“I don’t want to go to Egypt.”
listened to his father breathe among the silence around him, the tinkling as his mother picked up the glass.
voice was deep, soft. They glanced toward the kitchen. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, so Greg could see his blocky
“Why? You were excited when we went to Italy.”
He picked at the lint inside his pockets
with one hand and ran a finger down the slippery line of packing tape on the closest box.
“I won’t be able
to use my library card anymore.”
“Oh, You can get another library card. Hey, maybe you can visit a museum
in Cairo and see skeletons!”
Greg didn’t like how that slightly patronising tone came into his father’s
voice. He wasn’t seven, and at that moment he didn’t care about skeletons.
There was a pause. He closed
the last of the boxes. There weren’t many of them.
“Why are we running away?”
His father stopped,
the tape loose in one hand. He looked angry for a second, then he just looked sort confused, sad maybe. Thinking. He put his
big hand on Greg’s shoulder.
“We’re not running away. We’re running toward.”
was bustling, hot, dusty. He did get to look in a museum. He saw skeletons and pith helmets and jars with Egyptian gods on
them. He learned about the Ancient Egyptians. He learnt to count from wahid to ‘asarah.
was if you needed the toilet, while laa afham meant he didn’t understand.
Then they drove for a long way,
through a lot of sand. The base was drowning in sand.
The next time they went to Cairo they visited the pyramids up
close, as well. Finally. It was partly because of him, probably – he’d been bugging Mom, asking when they’d
be able to see the Great Pyramid, telling her about the Egyptians and their mathematics over the cheap kitchen table in their
tiny base unit.
He watched the huge bulk of the pyramids rise above him as they drove in, his parents surprisingly
happy for the first time in a long time.
Then he ran and stared and shouted and pointed up at the wonder around him.
They were smiling again. He bought a cheap, mass-produced scarab from a wheedling street vendor. On the way back he babbled
on about how the Ancient Egyptians worshipped the dung beetle.
That night he wondered how long it would be before
they would be back in America.
He thought that he might like Egypt. He was used to the sand, anyway. And if truth be told,
although the borrower’s card in his wallet was defunct (Havelock Municipal Library, junior membership card), he was
enjoying this place, the heat, the sand, the thought of uncovering some kind of ancient tomb like Howard Carter did.
or three years later it finally sunk in that Uncle Mark’s death wasn’t as accidental as he had been led to believe.
The whispered what a waste that passed behind him as he shuffled out of the service in front of some friends of his
Uncle, the late-night murmurs he heard in the fraught month before they shipped out to oblivion that was sun and sand and
Uncle Mark had the kind of accident that you have in the bathtub with a bottle of scotch and a handful
of sleeping pills.
Years later, when he can only recall bare details, he will remember his Uncle, and the
empty look on his father’s face, and the desert sand that flew every which way, everywhere, the hot, stinging way that
it burned at his bare legs.
And he will wonder.