Uncle Who Lives Alone by Hannah Ling

Uncle Who Lives Alone

“I am not bothering anyone,” he says.

He is old, so nobody tells him that this isn’t the point.

“I am alright here,” he says, gesturing at the twigs under the pot and the plastic rain barrels outside. Somebody passing by — a stranger, of course — called it in and now the police are here, two of them, very young in their dark blue. Small damp patches circle their underarms. The one on the right has a moustache, very faint, almost pencilled in. He scratches his head and looks at the other policeman, who tends toward plumpness and has crinkly eyes. Drifts of fine dirt pattern the concrete porch at their feet. The shack, tacked on like an afterthought, is flimsy and dark; through the open doorway the policemen catch sight of a yellow cushion and half a bicycle. Broken hoes nudge the blackened fireplace by the door. A mouldering stench like cat urine rises from an open drain somewhere in the garden where vegetables jostle with wire scraps and torn plastic bags for space.

“Uncle, where do you get water?” asks Moustache.

“There.” Uncle flicks a knobbly finger at the rain barrels.

Moustache and Crinkle Eyes share a glance. Crinkle Eyes tries.

“You don’t have running water, Uncle?”

Uncle laughs. He steps closer and Crinkle Eyes catches a powerful whiff of sweat. Moustache coughs politely.

“Where got running water?” says Uncle, “house burn down, pipes destroyed, where got running water?”

“When did your house burn down?” asks Crinkle Eyes. He takes out a notebook.

Uncle’s gaze wanders. He stares at the avocado tree by the gate. “Three years back I live with my father. Take care of him. When he die, I live here alone. One, one-and-a-half years ago I go to the morning market, sell fruits, I come back it is burnt down.” He pauses to spit. It lands where the concrete stops and the garden begins. Moustache clears his throat and steps delicately away.

“But the land still got,” adds Uncle, “so I stay here. My house what.”

Crinkle Eyes says, “What caused the fire?”

Uncle shrugs. “They say bad wiring. I think can, but it was also very hot that day.”

“You have been living like this since then?” ventures Moustache, eyeing the tottering zinc walls and fraying attap roof.

“Yes.”

“What about insurance?”

“Insurance? Insurance?” He sounds almost insulted. “Where got insurance? You think I pay for insurance? Of course not!”

Crinkle Eyes cuts in, changing the topic. “What about electricity, do you have that, Uncle?”

Uncle juts out his chin and puts his hands on his hips. “No need electricity. I mean yes it is nice, but I don’t have also okay. I can manage without it. Some more no need to pay.”

“I see you don’t have a stove either. How do you cook?”

“Get wood, make a fire. You don’t how to do that?”

A fly lands on the spit smear, glistening in the heavy afternoon light. Its wings are clear panels joined by darker veins, like a church window without the colours or the quiet. The policemen’s uniforms cling limply to their shoulders and outside the sun heats their motorcycles to a sterile glow. Crinkle Eyes pops the question.

“Uncle, do you want to live somewhere else?”

The reply is eloquent.

“Hah?”

Crinkle Eyes perseveres. “People are concerned about you, Uncle. You live here alone, no electricity, no water.”

“People? What people? The people here know me, I sell my fruits and vegetables at the morning market, sometimes they bring me biscuits. I don’t know what people you’re talking about. Must be someone not from here — right or not?” Moustache draws breath to answer, but Uncle cuts him off. “These people, they walk past once think they know everything. I tell you, I am alright.”

He hitches up his shorts and flaps irritably into the garden. The policemen follow, stepping gingerly around old cans and broken pots. Crinkle Eyes nudges Moustache; they whisper and gesture furtively with hands and notebooks. Droplets of sweat bead in their hair and roll into their collars. Uncle halts next to a strapping papaya tree.

“You see, you look at my garden,” he says triumphantly, “good or not? Good or not?”

“It’s very nice, Uncle,” murmurs Crinkle Eyes, slapping at a mosquito.

“Ha!” cries Uncle. “I am alright what. If I am not alright, you think I can do this?”

“But Uncle,” says Moustache, “perhaps you are alright now, but when you are older? Don’t you want to retire?”

Uncle sniffs disdainfully. “I am retired.” He spits again, near Moustache’s newly-polished shoes. Moustache flinches and edges backwards. Crinkle Eyes takes over.

“Uncle,” he says placatingly, “isn’t it easier —”

“You want to arrest me is it?”

“No, no, of course not —”

“So go away.”

“Uncle —”

“Unless you want to arrest me, I am staying here. My house. Go away, I am busy.” He turns pointedly away from them, bending to inspect a cili plant. When they do not move he straightens and glares, throat working up another gob of spit. Moustache blanches and grabs Crinkle Eyes’ sleeve, pulling him back toward the gate.

A crowd of local people stand clustered around the policemen’s motorcycles. They part to let the officers through and Crinkle Eyes asks, “Is he always like that?”

A ripple of laughter traverses the crowd and a robust old woman in a hot pink headscarf pats him comfortingly on the arm.

“It’s okay,” she says. “Don’t worry. We will take care of him. He has no children, so when he gets too old he will stay with one of us. Perhaps he will be angry at first, but he’ll get used to it. We’ll let him come to his garden every day. It will be almost the same. You see,” she says, smiling, “he isn’t really on his own.”

Hannah Ling is a writer from Southeast Asia. Her work has previously appeared in Blue Marble Review, The Telling Room, and elsewhere. In her free time she can be found reading old detective novels and editing for Polyphony Lit

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Image: pxhere CC0 [ALT: older gentleman, shirtless and slinky, in a sunlit forest, throwing a chicken in the air]

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