I often wondered what my nosy neighbours said about my uncle Stephen. They spent so much time rallying whispered gossip across garden fences that I was sure the incident had been discussed to exhausting point. I pictured them, sharing uneducated comments and exchanging judgmental looks over the fact that a man, once unfailing dedicated to his family, had up and left them without a warning or explanation.
Stephen Ridley was named my godfather the day I was born. It was in the cold white walled operating room that I voiced my first opinion of the world. As the story goes, my scream was the loudest the nurses had ever heard. It was only once my uncle held me in his safe arms that I fell silent.
I was six years old when I realised my uncle loved me more than my father did. That grey Tuesday afternoon was supposed to offer only one significant memory. I wished it had stayed that way. But it didn’t. Enough of autumn had arrived to leave the road scattered with bronze and yellow leaves and the ground tacky from a previous fleeting spout of rain that had fallen that same morning. Mom’s lack of energy confined her to the kitchen. She stood waving to me through the window above the sink. My view of her was party obscured by a bright display roses and sunflowers that sat along the window ledge. The flowers had been gifts, sent our way by family and friends after the news of mom’s illness had quietly been made known.
Dad stood arms folded, in the gateway of the entrance to our front garden while my uncle waited expectantly half way down our road, his arms open wide. The handle of my new pink bicycle wobbled violently as I gripped it with all my might. No matter how hard I tried I could only secure my feet onto the white peddles for a few seconds before my lack of balance won and my feet fit the ground firmly, jerking my body forward.
“That was better than last time, Leah Love,” My uncle called out to me.
I grimaced up at him; feeling like the road was quickly stretching into the longest one in history, mocking my attempt to conquer it. I turned to my dad, hoping for words of encouragement but he offered me only one; “better.”
My uncle cupped his hands around his mouth; “give it another go,” he called. “I’m right here, just come to me.” He beckoned me forward but I didn’t move.
“I can’t do it.” I shook my head. “I can’t balance.”
“You’ll get it right,” he shouted. “Just keep trying.”
I kept trying, but I didn’t get it right. All of a few determined seconds later, the bicycle buckled underneath me and threw me off. I felt a hot searing burn as my knees and palms scraped the abrasive tar. The bicycle had skidded away from me, its front wheel still spinning as it lay without a rider. My bottom lip began to quiver and I burst into tears. Once again I looked to my father for help but help never came.
“This is your area of expertise,” he said, but not to me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the blurred silhouette of my uncle hurrying towards me. “For god’s sake, Alexander,” he scowled at his brother. “She fell down; you don’t need a medical degree to know how to help her.” Stephen picked me up and I wrapped my arms around his neck and secured my legs around his waist. I cried into my uncle’s shoulder as he carried me inside. Over it, I could see my father. He lifted my bicycle and stood it upright; before he bent down to inspect it for damage.
“Is she all right?” My mom met my uncle and me in the entrance hall and followed us to the kitchen. “How badly is she hurt?” She tried to move me so that she could see my injuries but I clung to my uncle. “It’s just a graze. I can patch her up,” he insisted. “Do you have an antibacterial solution?” he said. “A liquid would be best. And cotton pads.”
Looking flustered, my mom nodded. “I think there might be both in bathroom cabinet. I’m not certain, but I’ll check.” She disappeared around the corner and I heard her climbing the stairs at a slower pace than she normally did.
My uncle leaned down and sat me on the edge of the stone kitchen counter beside the sink. I looked down at my hands. There were lines of red and patches or white where my skin had come off. My knees stung with every wisp of air that brushed them.
My uncle’s hand was suddenly under my chin as he lifted my head, forcing me to look at him. “You’re a brave girl. Do you know that?”
I nodded.
“Good,” he said, touched his index finger to the tip of my nose. I had already forgotten about the pain. “Now, I’m going to fix you all up. Will you sit still for me?” he added.
“Will it hurt?” I asked him, tears welling up in my eyes again.
“Not a bit,” he said. “I promise.”
Stephen plucked a white bowl from the third drawer to the right of the oven the held it under the sink, and filled it with water from both the hot and cold taps. “You were doing great,” he said, glancing sideways at me. “You’ll be riding circles around me soon. Don’t let this stop you from trying again.”
My mom entered the kitchen. Her face was pale. “Will this do? It’s a few weeks out of date.” She reached out her arm and gestured for my uncle to take the white bottle filled with bright orange liquid. Then she pulled a nearly empty packet of cotton pads from the back pocket of her faded blue jeans. “Oh, and here,” she added. “There were only a few left.”
Stephen ignored what my mom was offering him. “You should rest, Cassie,” he said. “I can take care of Leah.”
Mom shook her head. “I’m fine. I just need a second.”
My uncle looked just as worried as before, but he nodded, took the bottle and packet from her and poured a measured amount of orange liquid into the bowl. I watched as it transformed into a white swirling cloud in the water. He then emptied the cotton pads onto the counter and dunked one into the water before pressing it to my open palm. I braced myself for the sting, but like Stephen had promised, it never came.
“Alexander?” mom said.
“Outside.” My uncle replied.
“Thank god you were there.” Mom walked over to Stephen’s right side and placed her hand on his back and rubbed it for a few seconds. “Sometimes I think I married the wrong brother.” She laughed lightly. I hadn’t heard her laugh in days. It was light and had the magical effect of diffusing the panicked climate of the room. I think my uncle felt it too, the way he looked at her made me feel like he did. I loved seeing them together. There was an air between them; not a romantic one, something stronger than that. It radiated warmth and filled the air with the soft touch of comfort. It was as if they had lived a thousand memories together.
But the glow of the moment faded as something dark fell across mom’s face. She starred out the window. “He hasn’t spoken to me in days. I don’t know what I’ll do if it carries on. It’s not like I want to discuss the situation either, but what good will ignoring it do?” Despite her choice of vague words, I knew that she was taking about her illness.
“Give it time, Cassie,” Stephen said his voice notably tense despite the slowness of it.
“You think?” she said. “I can’t stand it, I hate being cross with him, but he’s making feel like there no room for me to be feel anything, like he’s claimed it all. Not having him at my sides makes it all seem so much worse.”
“You have a fighting chance. There are trials. I have colleges in that field. I can make calls.”
Mom placed her hand on my uncle’s cheek, holding it there for a moment before she looked away. “You’ll look after them, won’t you?” she said, glancing down at me for the briefest of seconds then up to the window ledge. “The flowers, I mean,” she added. “Can I trust you to take care of them?”
“Don’t do that,” he said. “You have time, plenty of it.” My uncle’s hands were shaking as he washed the bowl. It slipped from his grasp and cracked in half. “Damn it,” he cursed as he began to gather up the fragments of the broken dish.
“Leave it,” mom insisted. “Leave it, Stephen. It’s not important.” She walked around my uncle and over to me , kissing the top of my head. “My brave girl,” she said. “Would you like to help me pick with vegetables we want to plant in the back garden?”
I nodded, jumped down from the counter and took my mom’s waiting hand. I glanced back at my uncle as my mom guided me out of the room. He was hunched over the sink, his head down, shoulders squared and knuckles white from grasping the edge of the counter.