Jack paused for a second then advanced on my uncle. He took hold of Charlie’s arm, one hand doing the handshake while the other gripped his bicep as if testing my uncle’s strength. Charlie did the same, and they stood there shaking hands in this four-handed way. At the time it struck me as continental. The physicality. Here in a Scottish kitchen it seemed especially warm and affectionate, an embrace almost.
“I knew you’d come today, with it being Easter Sunday as well.”
My uncle nodded and indicated me with his thumb, like a hitchhiker.
“My nephew, this is him, you remember, Kenneth’s youngest.”
“Is he? Well, well. How do you do?”
Jack reached out his hand with a sudden, wide grin.
Some months before, a girl I was pursuing had introduced me to her brother as a friendly precaution. He was a roof tiler and had unnatural, hard, callused hands. So had Jack. In that childish habit young men have, I immediately put Jack under the heading: Right Hardy Bastard. And on that subject, I confess here that on Jack’s first appearance through the kitchen door, a shallow snobbery I had been indulging at university led me to believe that he might be an employee of the house. It was shameful and these years later I still wince.
He sat us at the kitchen table and without asking, poured out three glasses from a red bottle. I could smell it was rum, the old fashioned kind, like rum truffles. He put the same again of plain water in each glass and set the jug on the table. We all said cheers.
“What’s in the box: hamper from Fortnum’s?”
He meant the Campbell’s Soup box on the worktop.
“Don’t get excited, it’s just a bottle and some stuff for Hilda. Where is she?”
“She’s in town shopping.”
My uncle nodded again and for the next half hour I sat largely forgotten, feeling the rum in my circulation and comfortable in the company of the two men, old friends so at ease with each other. We had two refills each; I remember that because I was counting. Then Jack asked if we had been to the grave yet and Charlie said no, we were on our way, then he asked if we needed any broom and Charlie said no we had plenty, then they both looked out the window and a silent decision was made that we should be making tracks.
“How long are you up for?”
They had turned to face me. I composed myself to answer. As they waited, Jack started grinning again. It was a simple question, but before I could, my uncle answered for me.
“He leaves for France on Wednesday.”
“I see. Driving?”
“He’ll be stopping in Glasgow on the way.”
“I see, right.”
It took me a second to realise that I had been asked another question. I was keen to have someone answer for me for I’d lost the inclination to speak. I somehow managed.
“Yeah, I’m going back down through Glasgow.”
We were standing now, preparing to leave. Jack bent into the cupboard under the sink and came up with a large yellow Jiffy bag and a small parcel that for some reason I took to be a book.
“Nearly forgot. Here’s that thing you asked for.”
He handed them to my uncle, who showed no surprise when I think about it, putting them both under his arm.
I watched from the car as the two men said goodbye on the doorstep. I remember thinking, Christ the way they’re going on, handshaking and pawing each other, it’s like the French Resistance or something. All I got was a wave and that grin again.
We were quiet in the car, my uncle and I, heading south, it was getting dark and cold and even in the car I think we sensed the wind had changed. The heater was on and the wipers were making the odd swish as the first drops of rain hit the screen and it seemed an age till the tick-tock tick-tock of the indicator brought me out of myself in time to see the signpost, as we turned off the highway and took the lonely road, up the hill to Culloden.