Uncle Teddy by Jennifer Barrett
Uncle Teddy by Jennifer Barrett
Runner Up (Adult Category)
I love my teacher. My brother and the older boys call her a big, fat lezzo but I think she’s beautiful.
Her name is Miss Beaumont and every day she wears black lace-up shoes, a straight black skirt down to her calves and a white button-up blouse. She always teaches Grade Five and I’m trying to be kept down and stay with her forever.
When I told Mum that Jonno called Miss Beaumont fat she tutted and said she was just stout. When I asked if I was stout she squinted at me then pinched my belly with her witch’s fingers and said it was just puppy fat.
I don’t belong in this family. My mother calls Jonno Jack Spratt because he is tall and thin, lithe and brown, like her. Dad isn’t as thin as Mum and Jonno, but he’s not stout either. I am stout.
On the last day of school I am devastated. It was a balancing act to be stupid enough to stay in Grade Five but do well enough to please Miss Beaumont. I failed. I am going up to Grade Six. At the end of the day, after moping in the shadows while everyone else played tiggy and ate watermelon, I throw myself at Miss Beaumont and stick to her like a limpet, crying.
Miss Beaumont peels me off her wide hip, finds a bench to sit on and looks into my face. You’ll be fine, she says. If you just try a little harder, you’ll be fine.
But I love you, I sob, hiccupping my shame. Sweat sticks my fringe to my forehead. Miss Beaumont drags it out of my eyes with a forefinger and, holding my face in her hands, wipes the tears off my cheeks with her thumbs. Her breath smells of butterscotch and her fingers smell of chalk.
You’re a good boy, she says, you’ll be fine. She hugs me close. It’s like burrowing into a pair of cushions. I will never forget that moment. She lets me go, turns me around and pushes me towards the other children.
At least I will see her every day when I go back to school. If I can last six weeks away from her.
The Friday after Christmas we have a visitor. He arrives in a metallic green roar of Torana. Jonno and I stand agog on the front porch. Jonno licks his lips and lusts after the car. I am a bubble of curiosity because no-one we know has a car like that. The driver has mirror aviator glasses and sits and stares at Jonno and me. I scatter through the house. Mum, mum, I yell.
By the time I follow her back to the porch, trailing in the wake of her cigarette smoke, he is bouncing up the front steps in a flurry of flared jeans and pale blue paisley.
Debs, he shouts, his arms wide.
My mother blushes but tosses her half-smoked cigarette onto the front lawn and walks into his hug.
Do you remember Uncle Teddy? Mum asks when he puts her back on her feet. She straightens her skirt and strokes her throat.
Jonno and I both shake our heads. I can’t take my eyes off him. Jonno flicks looks between Uncle Teddy and the Torana. Uncle Teddy doesn’t look like Mum. He is shorter and rounder and Mum has straight hair unless she puts it in curlers.
It’s been a while, Uncle Teddy says as he pushes his glasses up into his mop of brassy curls. You, he looks at Jonno, would have been about this high. He waves his hand down near his knee. And you, he looks at me, were only about this big. He holds his hands about a ruler’s length apart. He bends down and grins into my face. But look at you, you’re a big boy now, he says. I twist away before he can poke me in the belly.
What are you doing here? Mum asks with her arms crossed, not inviting Uncle Teddy in.
Wedding, he says, tomorrow night. He reaches up, puts his arm around her shoulders and points her towards the front door. Was hoping to spend a night or two, catch up and stuff.
Mum sighs and opens the door. Alright, she says, but no more, I’ll have to make sweet with Darren so stay out of his way.
That night Uncle Teddy goes out. Buck’s night, he says to Mum with a wink. He isn’t there when Mum tells Dad. Dad turns the TV off. He never turns the TV off. He stares at the blank screen and asks Mum, What makes him think he can just bloody-well turn up here without warning?
Mum lights a cigarette and waves her hand at Jonno and me to get out of the room. We both hover in the kitchen to eavesdrop. I can’t remember the last time Jonno and I spent so much time together. Mum and Dad hiss tense, hushed words at each other. Dad turns the TV back on and turns the volume up. Mum comes into the kitchen and tells us to go to bed. We didn’t hear anything that solved the mystery of Uncle Teddy.
Uncle Teddy is still in bed when Dad starts the mower. Uncle Teddy slept in Jonno’s bed and Jonno slept in mine. I slept in the sleeping bag on the floor beside Jonno.
Dad spends a lot of time mowing the same strip of lawn outside Uncle Teddy’s window. Uncle Teddy is still in bed when Dad comes back inside, makes a sandwich and tells Mum he’s going to the bloody pub.
And tell that lazy sod he can’t spend all day in bed! Dad shouts as the screen door claps shut behind him.
Dad comes home early. It’s almost like he can’t stay away and wants to make sure Uncle Teddy is really here. Uncle Teddy is in the shower. Dad gets a beer from the fridge, flicks the top into the kitchen sink and sits at the kitchen table. He watches the bathroom door. Jonno sits beside him, leans back, fidgets with the salt shaker, and watches Dad. I sit in the lounge with the TV off and watch them both.
Eventually the shower stops running. I wait. I am terrified of what Dad will do but think it might reveal some Big Secret. We all wait. Uncle Teddy stays in the bathroom a long time. When he comes out he is wearing a green dressing gown and a pink shower cap. His towel is over his shoulder, his clothes folded over his arm. Dad takes a swig of beer. Jonno watches Dad. I watch Dad then Uncle Teddy then Dad then Uncle Teddy.
Hey Darren, Uncle Teddy says, thanks for letting me stay. Big night tonight but I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow.
Dad grunts. He takes another swig. He looks at Jonno. Leave the salt alone, he says, then stares out the window above the sink.
Uncle Teddy shrugs. He keeps walking and his dressing gown flaps open. His inner thigh is a slab of hairless flesh, smooth and white but dappled pink from the hot water of the shower. I blush. I don’t know why but I wonder if Miss Beaumont’s thigh looks like that.
Dad finishes his beer, leaves the empty bottle on the kitchen table and goes out to the shed. Jonno shrugs. He goes and rides his 10-speed up and down the street in front of the house. I sit in the kitchen and fidget with the salt shaker trying to look as nonchalant as Jonno did.
Uncle Teddy didn’t close the door to his bedroom properly. Under the shower cap his hair is in curlers. I watch him take them out one by one and flip them onto the bed.
Hey Debs, he opens the bedroom door wide and shouts. Can I use your mirror? It’s just that it’s bigger than the one in the bathroom and there’s none in here.
Mum has hidden in her room for most of the day. When she comes out she has circles under her eyes.
For Chrissake don’t let Darren see you in there. She shuffles into the kitchen and sits opposite me. Uncle Teddy sneaks past with a hairdryer and spiky round brush. Mum is furtive and chain smokes. She stabs and grinds each cigarette butt into the ashtray. She crosses her legs and bounces her foot, looks from the back door to her bedroom. The hairdryer whines like a jet engine.
Suddenly it stops. Mum stands up. She watches the back door. On his way past Uncle Teddy kisses Mum on the cheek. She keeps her arms crossed. The smell of hairspray trails after Uncle Teddy the way cigarette smoke trails after Mum. Dad doesn’t come inside. Mum looks down at her feet then puts the kettle on.
An hour later Dad is still in the shed. Mum decides we will have jaffles for tea. I help her cut up tomatoes and grate cheese. Jonno lies with his feet on the lounge and reads a Phantom comic.
I look up when Uncle Teddy opens his door and strides down the hallway. He is taller than he was before and the curls in his yellow hair sweep back from his forehead and bounce on his collar. He wears a purple crushed velvet suit with pants that flare over a pair of green and purple platform boots. His shirt is emerald green with ruffles down the front and at the cuffs. His smile is bright and broad.
Dad comes in through the back door the same time Uncle Teddy comes into the kitchen. Dad looks tired. Uncle Teddy looks amazing.
Dad shakes his head. For God’s sake take the makeup off, he says. He goes to the lounge, knocks Jonno’s feet of the seat and sits down. Uncle Teddy’s smile goes out like a blown light bulb.
Mum hugs Uncle Teddy. You should have known better, she says. Go and have a good time and I’ll see you in the morning. I hug Uncle Teddy too because I want to see him smile again.
He pulls my head to his chest. He smells nice. See ya later, kiddo, he says.
Uncle Teddy is gone when I get out of bed the next morning. Mum says he had to get back to the city. Dad says nothing.
On the first day back at school I find out that Miss Beaumont has been transferred. I am gutted. I spend all lunch hour in the toilets crying. The older boys call me a sissy. Jonno says nothing.
When I get home Mum isn’t there. Jonno slouches in front of the TV and won’t let me change the channel. I eat a bowl of cornflakes and linger in the kitchen. I’m sad and lonely. I go into Mum’s room and lie on her bed. The bedspread is quilted apricot and slippery under my fingers. It swishes when I slide off it. I sit in front of Mum’s mirror. Her hairbrush and comb are the colour of the bedspread. I try on her rings. They fit me because I have podgy fingers. I don’t want to have podgy fingers. I look at myself in the mirror. I remember Miss Beaumont touching my face. I hang my head and cry until the tears drop and splatter dark stars on my grey school shorts.
I don’t hear Mum come home. She finds me there. She puts an arm around my shoulders and I sob into her belly. Somehow she knows about Miss Beaumont. She strokes my hair.
It’s alright, she says. You’re a good boy, you’ll be fine, you’ll find another friend. She tugs a tissue out of the apricot-coloured box beside her ring stand and gives it to me. Blow your nose, she says. You look like something the cat dragged in.
She picks up her brush and brushes my fringe back from my forehead. I tip my face up. She smiles down at me. My fat fingers find a curler on the cut glass tray in the middle of her dresser. I hold it up to her. She frowns down at me. My shoulders drop. She goes to the door and shuts it.
Mum winds my straight, sandy hair around curler after curler. She pulls tight. I sigh. Her bony fingers smell like cigarettes and her breath smells like coffee. Tomorrow I will stop on the way home from school and buy her a box of butterscotch.