My uncle died a few years ago aged 61. His ex is a friend of mine, and the contents of his property have fallen to me to sort out. It’s slow work and not something I can come close to completing in the time I have on this island right now. I didn’t really know what I was dealing with until I arrived. It’s a mess.
My uncle was an alcoholic. It got him in the end. His stuff is haphazardly flung hither and yon. In a plastic bag full of old toiletries socks and rennies I found a copy of my grandmother’s will, a watch and his old rosary. In an old leather Gucci briefcase I found a load of junk, the broken filament of a lightbulb, a picture of the house I lived in with my mum his sister in The Isle of Man, golf tees, a mostly exploded packet of Lockets, a million plastic shirt collar straighteners and a tie pin.
There’s deodorant everywhere. Papers everywhere. Things scrawled on the back of envelopes that might, to his eye, unlock all sorts of wonders. Bags of ties, newly laundered pyjamas, eye masks. There are the keys to a house in South Africa. Does the house still exist? There are photos of boats, models of boats, drawings of boats, keys that might be for boats. There’s a set of initialled cufflinks in the pocket of an old fleece top. Our life makes sense to us, perhaps, but we all think we’re going to live forever. Looking at his life preserved through these things, it doesn’t look like it even made sense to him, to be honest. It feels like he was lost somewhere trying to find the way out, getting ever more entangled.
He exists in my memory as a kind, awkward ultimately tragic figure. Like my mum, the alcohol took him very early. What can be done about that? I’ve found doctor’s letters from the nineties telling him to lay off the cholesterol. “Take at least two days off drinking every week.” The last time I saw him he got ragingly drunk and that was decades later. I think he did it every night. And then one night he fell over and didn’t get up again and now all his stuff is in boxes however it was shoved, and I’m trying to make sure that we don’t throw away the Gucci briefcase along with the old rennies. Because it’s either me or some guy with a skip. And so goes the cycle of life. 61. He’d be 68 now. He could still be running around at 68. He wasn’t well at 60, and was running a habitual avoidance on himself.
Addiction is rightly thought to be an illness. When it’s killing your life and your happiness but still you return to it endlessly. It’s such a tough spiral to break as well, in yourself and in others. Because, as his ex rightly points out, the addiction is the most important thing. It’s more important than love. Than money. Than happiness. Than life.
Every neatly folded pyjama bottom I put into the hospice pile, every unanswered piece of correspondence I fish out of the bottom of a washbag, every envelope full of expired currency I find neatly labelled and forgotten, every stolen hotel match box I find in a shoe – it’s all pushing me further towards really hard-questioning the drive there is in me towards alcohol. With one hand I’m actively trying to make my life work despite a faulty career, not much romance and terrible financial management. With the other hand I’m grasping for a crutch that my mother and her brother used to bludgeon themselves to wet and miserable ends and seeing if I can do it as well. Bollocks. The sun is fading. I’m going for a swim. And I’m definitely not having a drink tonight.