by Orville Green
My father’s younger brother, Charles (Uncle “P” - for "Pops"), returned home from England in 1946, having ‘won the war'.
I lost no time in sharing with my friends that awesome fact told to me by Uncle P himself. I needed no details, reasons nor explanations. It was enough to know that my own uncle, who had left the family home to join the RAF (Royal Air Force) a few years earlier, when I was too young to remember, had returned a hero.
As if that were not heady enough for an impressionable young nephew, soon after his return Uncle P acquired a blue, 250-cc Francis-Barnett motorcycle. The arrival of that motorbike, which must have seen much better days, immediately relegated my father’s once-admired Phillips bicycle to an also-ran status, in my estimation. Here was yet another feather in Uncle P’s cap.
In the evenings, I stood at the gate and waited for the putt-putting of his arrival from work. As soon as I spotted him descending the grade that began in front of Mr. Saunders’ leather shop, toward Price Street, I ran to the backyard for the little wooden ramp he had made. I placed the ramp against the sidewalk and ‘cotched’ the gate open with a stone to facilitate the bike’s entry into the yard.
But Uncle P occasionally stopped at the gate for me to clamber on to the pillion, and we headed off for a short ‘spin’ down the street towards Thompson Street, where he made a neat u-turn then returned to our home, with me hanging on for dear life. (Truth is, my life was not in much danger because, as someone once observed unkindly, the bike had only two speeds - dead slow, and stop.)
When I had dismounted, Uncle P carefully negotiated the ramp and gingerly navigated the bike along the passageway to the backyard. As he raced the engine (to make it easier to start again in the morning, he explained), the acrid stench of the gasoline-oil mixture in the exhaust fumes permeated the air. Then he switched off the engine and all was quiet, except for the ringing in my ears.
Uncle P’s return home from England necessitated some changes in our living accommodations. With my grandmother, two aunts, my parents and four young boys occupying the house, we were already somewhat crowded into four bedrooms, although there was adequate sleeping space for all of us. So, another bedroom was added at the back of the house, on the western side that was flush with the boundary line of our neighbours' at number thirty-four. My parents moved into the new bedroom and Uncle P moved into their old room at the other corner of the house, where the passageway from the front gate opened into the backyard. So, we were all cozily ensconced.
One night, when everyone had long since retired, my mother was awakened by a persistent, squeaky sound of metal chafing against metal. She listened carefully until she realized that the sound originated near the bedroom window that opened onto the backyard. The outward-opening double windows were awaiting panes of glass that the builder had promised to install soon.
Mama looked toward the pane-less windows that were then wide open and saw, to her amazement, a man’s hand maneuvering a shirt on a clothes hanger from its hook in the open ‘hanging press’ next to the window. She was dumbstruck as the hand and the shirt disappeared. But when the hand reappeared, she immediately regained her senses. “Thief! Thief!” she shouted, in her crispest Queen’s English. She continued raising the alarm as the hand disappeared and the household began to come awake.
The escape route from the window to the street was by way of the backyard, around the corner of Uncle P’s bedroom, and along the passageway (runway, in this instance) to the front gate. The thief was just rounding the corner when Uncle P flung open his bedroom window that overlooked the escape route. (I learned later that he thought the Francis-Barnett was the object of the thief’s interest, which explained his quick reaction to Mama’s alarm.)
As the thief hotfooted past the open window, my Uncle P -- winner of the war, and aspiring daredevil motorcyclist -- instinctively sprang into action with a reflex that I convinced myself had been sharpened in combat. (When I was older, I learned he really had been a radio operator during the war; also, that his friends admired him as a storyteller.)
Reaching down into the darkened room for something, anything, to stop the thief, his hand fell on one foot of his prized RAF boots. Grabbing the boot, he deftly hurled it at the burglar, who maintained his grasp on the purloined clothes as he fled towards the front gate. The boot found its mark in the rascal’s back when he was about halfway to the street. In the instant that it took for Uncle P to contemplate what he should do next, the wily fellow stopped, turned back and snatched the missile from the ground, then made a clean escape.
I often wondered what he did with that boot, as Uncle P himself was never able to find a useful purpose for the one remaining boot.
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