I hadn’t been to my uncle’s house in well over fifteen years. It always felt like a unique place; a quiet little close in Maidenhead, with perfect gardens front and back.
My Aunt Josephine answered the door. The big happy welcome was so familiar. I tuned into her melodic Italian accent as I talked with her in the hallway. I followed her towards her kitchen, slightly unsure of where I would need to go to meet my uncle. While idly chatting away to my aunt, and partly distracted by the renewing memories of the house, I was surprised by the presence of a young teenage lady, standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of tea.
My aunt looked over her shoulder as she set the kettle to boil. ‘Do you know who this is?’ she asked, nodding her head back to the girl. As she asked, I shook my head, but with a curious and eager smile. ‘This is Sophie’s daughter, Louisa!’ she said. My aunt was already anticipating the fun of watching us meet for the first time. I hadn’t seen my cousin Sophie in twenty years, and now I was meeting an eighteen year old version of her. I melted a little. I put my hand on my heart, slightly choked at how time could pass like that. ‘I’m so pleased to meet you. I’m Shakeel.’ Louisa replied with a polite and cheerful smile. ‘Me too. I’m Louisa.’ she said.
‘Your uncle is in the next room, go and say hello,’ my aunt said. I left the kitchen, and poked my head around the door of the room she’d pointed out to. It was a familiar room, one that I’m sure I once played computer games in with Sophie’s brother, Cader. Now it was a small dining room, with a TV, a window looking out to the front garden, a sofa, a bookshelf and a dining table.
‘Hey, Uncle!’ I said. Uncle was having his lunch. I wasn’t able to shake his hand or give him a hug, so all my energy seemed to go into big excited heeey! instead. He sat back in his chair, pushed his plate slightly away from him, and said hello back to me. It was the same kind of raucous hello as always, with his chesty laugh, except at much lower volume, and with a cough that trailed on afterwards. I’d already seen the clear plastic tube and the machine it was connected to in the hallway. The tube ran from under the stairs, through the doorway of the room, over the carpet, up his back, over his shoulders, terminated by a clip over his septum. I felt a pang of sadness, but didn’t let it show.
I sat down on the sofa. On the TV, a spaghetti western. I was reminded of my own sick days when I was a kid. The image was so beautifully retro, saturated and analogue, and the nostalgia warmed me.
Uncle was eating a rich-looking meat and potato curry with chapatti, which I didn’t want to interrupt. There was a silence for a minute or so, and then he turned to me to ask a question.
‘How do you see me?’ he asked. He put the chapatti to the side of his plate. It was a serious, loaded question, but asked in a subtle way. It had me at once searching for a truthful answer, and a kind one.
‘You look just the same as always, Uncle.’ I said. His countenance did not change much. He dipped back into his lunch. He had the technique of scooping up curry down to a fine art. It takes me three chapattis to clean a plate, but guys like him can do it in one, and leave a plate so clean it’d squeak if you rubbed it.
My aunt brought in a helping of curry and bread for me, so I came to the table to sit with my uncle. For a while, it was awkward to speak. I wasn’t used to visiting him on my own, even visiting him at all. We watched the TV in the meantime, until a shootout took place which piqued my interest. I recognised the set. I had a story for Uncle.
‘You see this place? I said. He glanced up at the screen. ‘You’d think it was out in the Wild West, right? I’ve been there! It’s a set, in Spain. In a place called Almeria, in the south. They used to shoot a lot of these films over there. They’ve turned the set into a theme park, and you can go in the saloons, see a cabaret, watch a shootout, even someone getting dragged about by a horse!’
It had caught my uncle’s imagination. At first he wouldn’t believe it, having watched a few westerns, being the Clint Eastwood fan that he was. Not in the sense that he thought I was a liar, more in that sense of how a Mauritian might say ‘no way?’ so that you come with the extra detail of the story. So I gave him some more, which brought up his stories about true rodeo that he’d seen while holidaying in Dallas, where his niece/my cousin lives, again someone who I’ve not seen for ages, maybe twenty five years.
The atmosphere softened up a little. It was a good opportunity to give him the card that I’d spent the morning making for him. He looked at it, curiously, but I couldn’t make out what he made of me giving it to him. He put it at one side of the table, and waited until after I’d finished eating to open it. When he did, he went at it with concentration and precision, a dexterous little affair with a fork handle which opened up the envelope with a perfect slit.
‘Oh wow!’ His eyes lit up as he slid the card out. ‘Who made this? Did your nephew make this?’ Not the response I was expecting, but I had to laugh. There was no way this would be a dig at my amateur artwork. In a way, that was the best response. He was laughing as he pointed first at the watering can, then the pot-plant, the trowel and finally the bag of dirt. He perched it on the table, in a way that we could both see, and continued to look at it from an angle. I knew that I was no Monet, but I liked that my art must have had a genuine four year-old toddler feel for him to say that. It galvanised the little boy in me.
My aunt returned to clear up the plates and to check on my uncle. ‘Would you like a break now?’ she asked. They had a quick size-up of his oxygen intake for the day, and decided he could come free for a while. I felt my lungs swell, almost wanting to breathe for him as she slipped the tube over his head.
He excused himself to go and wash his hands. On his way back, I heard him becoming short of breath. He’d only walked three metres at most.
He wanted to sit on the sofa, under a blanket, with a hot water bottle on his lap. The house had such a comfy temperature from where I was sitting, but it looked like a sharp draught was coming in from somewhere for him. My aunt tucked him in, plumping some cushions for him to get comfortable. She talked with us for a few minutes, as she gathered her bag and car keys. She was taking Louisa to the library where she was worked, and going to pick up medication for Uncle.
The medication run was a complicated one, she explained. For reference, she showed me the packed plastic basket full of prescription slips, pills and tablets. All for keeping Uncle’s colitis under control, the stent in his heart in check, something for the irreparable scar tissue that had formed on his lungs, and blister pack after blister pack for whatever else. One brand of tablets had had a cheap coating, which meant the bitter tablet would dissolve in Uncle’s mouth before he could get a sip of water to it. The pharmacy only stocked that one particular brand of that tablet, so they had to find a better brand at another pharmacy. All in all, to compensate for each pharmacy and its shortcomings, they were using four pharmacies to keep the medication stores full. Sometimes a stock-up could take forty-five minutes to be made up, only for the last one on the shopping list to be out-of-stock, meaning a return trip the next day. Coupled with the stories about how four different hospitals were tending to specific areas of his health, I became introspective, my uncle’s daily grind of drugs, tests and doctors giving me an insight into one way my own life could turn out.
Through the window, I watched my aunt pull out of the driveway. Uncle was looking at the card.
‘You remember how I used to look after the garden at the mosque? I nodded. I knew that well. ‘I used to plant all the flowers, look after them, water them, look after the soil. I used all my own money from my own pocket, all that work came from my own time.’
He looked to the window, as if to take a breath from outside.
‘I have been sick for so long. I have been sitting here like this for six months. Not a single person from the mosque has bothered to check on me. Nobody comes to see me, no phone calls, nothing. I have been praying in that mosque for so many years. These people. They are not my friends. They have used me.’
His words penetrated at a frequency I could not help but align with. I loved that my uncle was a gardener and that he had brought nature to the mosque. His own garden had always been a masterful work of art. He himself was now so dehydrated that his lips bore a faint white crust, and his dentures were slipping because his gums had shrunk. He had to regulate his water intake, as a change in the consistency of his blood could cause problems for the stent in his heart. The thought that the mosque garden was now as frail as he was, spurred on in me a sharp fizz of anger that I found hard to contain.
‘You know what else,’ he said. ‘These Muslims. They have no structure. All they know, is divisions.’
Usually, a statement that general would have me reaching for my book of argumentative retorts. Not this time. No sick old man has the time to be untruthful.
‘Why’s that?’ I asked.
Uncle readjusted the way he was sitting to face me more directly.
‘In the beginning, we used to pray in this one mosque in Maidenhead. Many people used to come, especially on Friday prayers. But then there was this rule: you had to wear the hat. You could only pray if you wore the hat they said was allowed. Not everyone wanted to wear these hats. They’re Pakistani hats, and not even all Pakistani people want to wear these hats. And on Friday, when people were coming to pray on their lunch break, they were coming in from their offices, so they didn’t bring hats to work with them. The mosque then put a box of hats out, but still people did not have time to look through a box for a hat. People started to get annoyed. Someone might only have five minutes to pray, but would have to waste one minute of that arguing with someone who wants him to wear a hat.’
The story was on a different level of absurdity.
‘So then, what happened, some youngsters, they went to Hajj. When they came back, they wanted to pray in the mosque, but they were wearing an Arab style of hat. They were told they could not pray in the mosque because they were not wearing the correct hat. These youngsters were angry. They said, we have just been to Makkah, where everyone wears this hat? Why can we not wear it here? But the mosque would not listen.’
I fell silent as I thought about the situation. I didn’t get it, but I did. This is precisely the sort of thing that helped me realise what a waste of time Islam is.
‘Did you see people being turned away from Friday prayer?’ I asked.
My uncle turned the thought over in his head. He had a way of thinking, so similar to mine that I could tell we were related. Eyes down, shallow pensive nods, and a slight angling of the head before refocusing on the other person.
‘No. No I didn’t. But I did see people fighting over a hat.’
I held my face in my hands, cringing that my uncle’s only choice of mosque had this kind of drama playing out.
He carried on.
‘So these youngsters, they didn’t want to pray there any more. They started their own mosque. And you know where? Two minutes away. Can you believe this? Because of a hat, we have to have two mosques.’
My uncle wasn’t the kind of Muslim who cared about holy hats, pious outfits or beard lengths. A place to pray should be a place to pray. I admired his purity, which came from a special place; he’s a man of the island. When he prays, he prays with the mountains, the sea, the trees. The beaches, the birds and all the island people. People of nature, who know the earth, who bring that to their solemn moments of engaging with the higher forces at work.
On top of that, he’s a master gardener. Gardeners see life so close up. It grows and it flows through their fingertips.
We became quiet for a moment, when I remembered what we’d been talking about earlier.
‘What’s happened to the garden at the mosque?’ I asked.
I imagined it as he explained how he imagined the garden’s life to be.
My heart was in pieces.