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The Family Plot
Nal Brady

When my Uncle Phil died he was living in a down n' out hostel over in the other side of the pond; Queensland, Australia. He was found three days after the event wearing nuthin' but his battered old cowboy boots and a smile. Abandoned on the old rickety coffee table were his prized possessions; his banjo, a litre of Jim Bean, and his baccy. They said that his heart had given out and he had passed away peacefully in his sleep, which was hardly surprising being that the Jim Bean was on the pessimistic side of empty. He was only sixty- a man in his prime; and if it weren't for the green liver and blackened lungs, I'm sure he would have been described as a man of health too. But as fate would have it, old age was not to be for poor Uncle Phil. He was off to the great big barn dance in the sky to banjo with the angels, as they tickled the strings of their heavenly harps. So, to the great above with his soul, and to the sky with all that remained. Quantas flights were to ship his ashes back home to bonnie Scotland where he would be laid to rest in the family plot. And so begins the story of a free spirited banjo player; Estranged from his family for over thirty-five years only to be reunited in death.

This is the story of Uncle Phil... the man who died with his cowboy boots on.

"Well I wis thinkin'. why pay money oot for someone to dig a wee hole in the ground?" The deafening sound of silence clung to the air like a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, before tailing off and snaking its way around the room. We were all at my Granny's, making arrangments for Uncle Phil's burial. My Gran is a fairly normal wee woman. Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke. Would never take the Lords' name in vain. Would never suggest anything untoward...especially not what we were all thinking she was going to suggest... surely not! Gran was Uncle Phil's older sister by nine years. My great-Gran had been 42 when Uncle Phil, her wee surprise, popped out. From what I hear she was non too chuffed to discover she was with child so late in life. As for Granda, he was bloomin' livid and blamed his wife.. bang went the nights doon the local playing darts and hello again to Mr. Terry Towelling and sleepless nights. Gran says things were never the same after the birth of Phil. She said he brought joy into their lives, but with it a distance and void that would never close. But that is another story for another day.. Back to my Gran.. She isn't what you might call a 'granny' type. No knitted jumpers, not a tweed skirt or a set of pearls in sight. Gran is more of a t-shirt and leggings kinda gal! She wears her heart proudly on her sleeve, always thinks of others before herself and her generosity is second to none with regards to love and food. However, my Gran's penchant for a bargain is renound. Where there's a sale there's my Gran. Where there's a chance of anything going chirpy chirpy cheep cheep, Gran would be there, first in line with bells on! Which takes us back to what my Granny was about to say next.. " I think we should bury him.. don't look at me like that, I'm serious... You Alan.." (thats my Gran's brother) " can make a box" (she must have got through her sales' boxes quota for the year) " for his...you know.. his dust." (The epitome of polite euphonism) "Ahem, and you Stephen," (My dad) "do you still have that spade I bought you in the Woolworths' January sale?" (Forever resourceful; waste not, want not!) Nervous laughter engulfed the room. We stared at each other in disbelief, wondering who was going to speak up first, tell Gran she was being ridiculous. No one dared utter a sound, the laughter had dispersed into a long, prolonged silence. Gran had made her intentions known. And where there's my Gran and her will. there's a way.

Two days later: The day of the Funeral (You know?! The illegal one shhhhh)

"I can't believe we're doing this! Is she out her mind? Do u know what happens if we get caught? Think bars, and black and white stripes- the clink, that's what'll happen.".. Dad was loading the shovels into the boot of the car. He wasn't very happy about the whole 'plan'.. he had spent the last few days doing a fair bit of shouting, interspersed with a great deal of swearing. If only my Gran could have heard him, tut tut. My poor Mammy. She didn't agree with any of the madness either, but having spent twenty years living in the same house with Gran, she was well off in the knowledge that when her mother's mind was made up... well let's just say that it was made up. So the day had arrived. A day of mourning and loss; of reminiscing and toasting to poor Uncle Phil, cut down in his prime with only those blackened lungs and green liver to show for it.. and not forgetting them cowboy boots.

The 'wake' took place at my Uncle Alan's house. True to his word.. I mean Gran's orders, he had made a beautiful wooden chest; carved from the wood of the finest erm... I think it was MDF?! Anyway, it was nice. Smooth, varnished and carved with his brother's name, date of entry, and date of departure. The 'In Memorium' Jim Bean was flowing freely; conversation hushed and muted. I'd like to say that the silence was the product of respect and grief but the honest truth was- the nerves were choking us. By this rate all our hearts would give out to the whiskey. Gran made a toast (with her lemonade in hand- booze was the Devil's poison!! tut tut) to the memory of her brother, and soon stories from their childhood began to spill out, draping a calm over our inner storm. This is what I learned about Uncle Phil; he had been a normal little boy, playing normal boyish games and pranks on his sisters, beating the crap outta Alan whenever the urge took hold of him. He was mischievous, scruffy, and cheeky... then as he grew he became a bit of a loner. keeping himself to himself, not joining in with the rest of the family. He isolated himself in his bedroom, choosing to eat alone at mealtimes, spending hours playing his beloved banjo, writing poetry and drawing pictures of the Wild West; the iconic cowboy, the trusty steed, and scenes of dead-by- dawn shootouts. Then one day he just up and left. He had been gone three days before anyone noticed him missing. (Story of his life eh? In life as in death). He was 22. What followed no one really remembers...

Gran: " Think he went to America...became a ranch thingy majiga... a ranch handyman"

Uncle Alan: " Naw naw.. He went straight to Australia, worked in fields that grew wheat or something."

Aunt Isa: "See if you two had brains.. you would be dangerous. He joined the Navy. Only lasted a year. Got injured, got himself an honourable discharge. Met Sylvie and married her not long after".

Gran: " Sarah".

Aunt Isa: "What?"

Gran: " Sarah. her name wasn't Sylvie. It was Sarah. They had two weans. Freddie and och.... something or other. Two boys".

Aunt Isa: "Did I not say Sarah?"

Uncle Alan: " What happened to her?"

Gran: " Cannie remember right. Think she died of cancer.."

Aunt Isa: "What kind?"

Gran: "What kind of what?"

Aunt Isa: "Cancer?!"

Gran: "Oh... stomach I think. Her bowels, think she had trouble with her bowels."

Aunt Isa: "Oh right. Shame."

Gran: "Or was it her lungs?!..."

Uncle Alan: " How did Phil get injured in the Navy?"

Gran: " Dunno".

Gran and Uncle Alan both looked at Aunt Isa.

Aunt Isa: "Dunno."

So as it turns out, after the age of 22 no one really knows a great deal about Uncle Phil. Bugger all to be frank. When the conversation wavered, becoming stilted and weighted in nervous anticipation again, Uncle Alan started to play a few tunes on his accordian. All old Scottish stuff, I hadn't heard of most of it. Everyone forgot what was ahead for a while, nearly started to enjoy ourselves having a rare auld singsong... drinking Jim Bean... Gran giddy on the bubbles of her lemonade! Then darkness began to fall....and the clock began to tick, and once again the butterflies went berserk, doing the Highland Fling in our stomachs.

I don't know about you, but graveyards at night give me the heebie jeebies. The moon looked as though someone had reached up and smudged it with their finger. It cast shadows all along the red ash paths as an eerie silence consumed the night. Giant old oak trees with overhanging branches stared menacingly, as though waiting for an opportunity to seize and swallow whole. I suppose the fact that there's hundreds of decaying corpses laying beneath your feet won't really help irrationality find sense and calm. So here we were, 2am at Uncle Phil's funeral. Ten of us crowded round the family plot on the Northside of the cemetery. Each franticly looking over our shoulders, twitching nervously. I'm not sure if we were more afraid of seeing a ghost or seeing the polis but we were afraid. All that is except Gran. She was here to bury her brother, nothing else mattered. Illegal or otherwise. Gran muttered a few prayers (think we were all gonna need her prayers... Forgive me Father, for what we're about to do....), while Uncle Alan cut a perfect square of turf from the ground with a stanley blade. Then came Dad's turn... he was nominated grave digger for these o' so moral of proceedings. More nervous glances over our shoulders. We stood in silence as the men worked in silence, digging deeper and deeper. We were barely able to breathe. Finally, after what seemed like an age, the digging was complete. Three feet of box space grinned up at us from the great below. It was time to say goodbye. Gran and Aunt Isa kissed the MDF crafted box containing Uncle Phil's 'dust', and Uncle Alan placed it gently into the ground. We each took it in turn to sprinkle the red, graveyard ash into the earth. And then, just as I thought that the night couldn't possibly become any more surreal, Gran began to sing... "The Lord is my shepherd.......". Linking arms with her sister, Aunt Isa joined in. A nod from Gran signalled our cue to start chanting the mournful tune. So here was my family. My nearest and dearest. Standing in the graveyard, in the dead of night (pardon the pun!), singing the 'Lord Is My bloomin' Shepherd' . Linked arm in arm, hand in hand like 'Auld Lang Syne' at the bells, whilst busy burying a brother and an uncle that no one seemed to know much about, only that he was a banjo playing, drinker with a passion for cowboy boots!

What was wrong with this picture?

After the 'service', Uncle Alan and my Dad shovelled dirt into the box-shaped hole, and laid the finishing touches by way of the perfect square of turf. Gran laid some flowers on top. "To cover the joins. No one will be any the wiser" Gran whispered in my ear with pride. All ten of us hugged each other, said our goodbyes and just like that, got into our cars and drove home (free from the restraints of handcuffs and prison sentences- and black and white stripes!)

This is the tale of an unknown brother.. a forgotten uncle with whom we shared more experiences in death than in life. It is the story of a penny-pinching pensioner and her faithful followers. A family. A family united over a bottle of Jim Bean and an MDF handmade casket. This is the tale of Uncle Phil, the man who died with his cowboy boots on; and the night we buried him... illegally.

The End.


 

 

 

 

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