Harry Bannister had lived long enough to hit a major milestone – not quite time for the Queen’s telegram but only ten years to go. Today the entire family were gathering together, attendance demanded by order of Auntie Margaret, to celebrate Great Uncle Harry’s ninetieth birthday.
After the first major stroke five years ago Auntie M had taken him into her home and Harry spent the days sitting quietly in his ground floor bedroom, wheelchair strategically swivelled so the old guy could look out over Margaret’s immaculate lawns. Being the most responsible nephew, in Auntie M’s opinion, I’d been directed to collect the birthday boy and wheel him back to the party epicentre for the cake cutting ceremony. Knocking loudly on his bedroom door I felt a twinge of pity having to drag Harry from this quiet sanctuary and thrust him into a crowd of giants, all towering above and talking over his head. I prayed that the hostess wasn’t planning to stick a party hat on the poor bloke.
Noises were coming from within his room, voices, and I strained to listen at the door. A woman’s voice, but she wasn’t talking – it sounded as if she were groaning. A man’s voice, he sounded excited, urged her on. It didn’t sound like the television or radio and I hesitated before knocking again, this time much louder and harder. For a moment all went quiet and then the door suddenly swung open to display Marcus, my cousin, standing there with a very self-satisfied grin. He began to tuck his shirt into his trousers, a flap of silk poked through the half-open flies, and several buttons were undone.
“Jules,” he cried, “everyone’s favourite nephew.” He knew I preferred Julian but always chose to ignore this.
A tall blonde girl appeared at his side. One strap of her silk summer dress dangled halfway down an arm, she wasn’t wearing a bra, and the short dress showcased her long, slim tanned legs.
“Celia was desperate to see Uncle Harry’s famous four-poster,” explained Marcus, as if they had just been admiring the hangings. Celia giggled on cue causing the other dress strap to slip off her shoulder. “Excellent springs …” Then slapping me on the back he added, “See you back at the party, Jules. Do hope dear Aunt Madge has got in some decent bubbly.” He waved back into the bedroom. “Cheers Harry – thanks for the loan of your bed.”
I didn’t respond just stared at Marcus. What a complete and utter …
Uncle Harry was slumped in his wheelchair, eyes blankly staring towards the crumpled counterpane. I stood in front attempting to hide the offending sight; my hands nervously fiddled in my trouser pockets as I sought something soothing to say.
“Happy birthday, Uncle Harry.” How original.
Uncle Harry didn’t even seem to blink and kept on staring past me towards the bed. His right hand lay across his lap, the most recent stroke had wiped out most of the right side of his body, while his left rested on the wheelchair arm twitching continuously. Embarrassed to be staring at him I switched my gaze over to the photographs stacked along the mantelpiece. Mostly these were of Uncle Harry when he was a young man, either standing beside his Hurricane bomber or waving from inside the cockpit. The young pilot appeared carefree and happy, strange considering these were taken at the height of the Second World War. Hurricane Harry had been his nickname of this era and stayed with him throughout his life. Surviving all of his bombing raids, never losing a plane or crewmember, he’d acquired almost legendary status.
Lifting up his left hand Uncle Harry pointed towards the photographs. He was trying to say something through the left side of his mouth. “Julian,” his voice was barely audible and I had to lean closer to make out his slurred words. “I want to show you summat.” Again he pointed to the mantelpiece. “Box … take down that box.”
Behind one of the larger photographs I found a plain wooden box – a medal, I presumed.
“Open it,” he urged me.
I played along and opened the box. Inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, instead of a war medal I found a large pendant. It was a flat piece of gold, roughly beaten into a circle, edged with inscriptions that I couldn’t decipher; these spiralled into the centre where an ugly demonic face had been engraved into the gold. The demon had a rather unpleasant smile. The gold was surprisingly cold to touch as I lifted it out and held it up towards the sunlight shining through the large bay window. Harry crooked his finger and beckoned me closer. He reached up to also touch the medallion.
The room melted into blackness, all energy and senses just slipped from my body and an intense pain seared into my eye sockets – as if something was drilling its way out of my head. I couldn’t be sure if both eyes were open, as it seemed as if I was only looking out of one, and even then my vision was blurred and hazy. Then I realised that my right eye was blind, only the left was working and pretty poorly at that. Starting to panic I tried to get up and realised I was already sitting down; only my left arm could move and that wasn’t strong enough to push me out of the chair. There was someone standing in front of me. I tried to focus on the figure and though at first I couldn’t clearly distinguish shapes or colours gradually the image became more coherent. It was a man and he was holding Uncle Harry’s medallion.
The man was me … I was looking at myself.
“’Appy birthday,” I said, or the man who looked like me said with my voice. “’Ow does it feel to be ninety?” He turned away to look into the long, upright mirror that stood against the wall; he traced the demon’s face with the fingers of his left hand. “Bloody old I expect.” Holding up his right hand he waved all the fingers vigorously in the air. “And do you know summat?” he looked back at me with a broad grin, “I can really sympathise with you.”
I could hear his voice but it was muffled, as if my ears were stuffed with cotton wool. In the long mirror behind the figure I could make out Uncle Harry still sitting in his wheelchair. I strained to look closer but there was no one else in the bedroom – just Uncle Harry and me, but it wasn’t me … I lifted up my left hand and Uncle Harry’s reflection did the same.
The man who looked and sounded like me walked over to the window. “What a glorious day,” he said. “I always aches to be outside on days like this but the old bag never lets me out the ‘ouse.” He used my name, “Do me a favour, Julian, push me outside for a breath of fresh air today, just once.”
Crouching down he looked straight into my eyes. Perversely I was looking back into my own eyes but they were different, more alive – full of teasing humour. “Don’t worry, mate, I’m going to let you back because you haven’t lived enough yet. ‘Ow old are you, Julian?” He paused before answering for me. “Thirty-one … two? You’re already old before your time. Stop taking life so bloody seriously, follow Marcus’s lead - treat yourself, discover women, smoke a little, drink a lot and buy yourself some decent suits.” He picked up my wrinkled, lifeless right hand just to let it drop heavily back down into my lap again. “This is old age, Julian; keep it at bay for as long as you can.”
The medallion dangled in front of me and he offered it towards my left hand, just out of reach, “Touch it again and have another chance to be young.”
I stretched out to finger the cold gold.
The blackness and searing pain returned. This time on opening my eyes I could see clearly with both. Uncle Harry once again sat unmoving before me in his wheelchair and I was clutching at his knees and the medallion. Instantly I dropped it into his lap and ran from the bedroom.
In the hallway I ran straight into Auntie Margaret en route from the kitchen. She was carrying a plate of sausage rolls and thrust it towards me clucking with frustration. “Oh for goodness sake, Julian, where’s Uncle Harry? We’re all waiting with the cake in the dining room.” I couldn’t trust myself to speak so I took the plate off her and hurried onto the party. “Well Marcus will have to go and fetch him then” she grumbled after me.
I quickly ditched the plate onto the dining table, already over-laden with further plates of things on sticks, sandwiches and other party-fare. Two old ladies, who I didn’t recognise, raised their sherry glasses and waved in my direction. Nervously waving back I pushed through the throng of bodies crowding around the central table and headed for the open French doors. Outside, the patio was temptingly empty as all the partygoers were gathering inside to await Uncle Harry’s entrance. I bolted for the sanctuary of the garden, pausing only to fill a tumbler of whisky from a crystal decanter squatting on the polished sideboard.
I stood at the farthest edge of the patio my hands shakily trying to keep hold of the glass, sipping at the whisky to regain some semblance of calm. What had I just experienced? Some sort of freakish breakdown? Apparently I had just swapped bodies with a ninety-year old man, becoming temporarily paralysed, almost deaf and half blind, while my great uncle had pranced round the room trying on my skin for size. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep soundly again.
Cheers and clapping erupted from the dining room heralding the wheeling in of Uncle Harry followed by more whistling as the cake cutting got underway. To my horror Marcus then appeared at the French doors backing out Harry in his wheelchair onto the patio.
“There you go, Uncle ‘arry,” chirped Marcus in a sing-song voice, “some nice fresh air for you. Seems a shame to waste such a glorious day.” He then parked the chair beside me and lit up a cigarette, which he offered in my direction. He knows I don’t smoke but I was in such a state that I took it anyway and eagerly inhaled. Lighting up another he waved that in front of the old man. “Ah, the sins of the smoke, eh Uncle? You know all about the damage it does but what the ‘ell … you’re only young once.” Did he just wink at me? “Isn’t that right, Julian?”
“Marcus, I thought you’d abandoned me!” Celia joined us in the garden. A dress-strap was still losing its fight to cling onto her slim shoulder. Uncle Harry made a gurgling sound, as if he were desperately trying to speak but Marcus ignored him putting his free hand around Celia’s waist.
“This is my muse, Celia,” Marcus stopped to take a puff on his cigarette, “but you’ve already been introduced ‘aven’t you, Uncle?” His hand moved further down onto the curve of her bottom. “Do you know she’s not wearing any knickers,” he said with mock disgust. “Isn’t it shameful how the young girls of today behave, eh?” He winked at me again and continued, “but then women haven’t really changed. There were plenty of easygoing tarts around when you were younger too.”
Celia giggled clearly not offended at this reference to her morals. Squeezing the girl’s backside a bit harder Marcus stubbed out his cigarette on the back of Uncle Harry’s wheelchair and then spoke into her ear. “We’d better get going darling, don’t want you catching cold … but then I’m looking forward to warming you up again when we’re back ‘ome … “
Uncle Harry gurgled again and tried to raise his left hand towards the departing couple.
“Great party,” Marcus called out, “look forward to next year’s … “
As they disappeared back into the house Uncle Harry reached out to me his voice hardly audible but finding the words this time. “Jules,” he croaked, “the medallion … “
I jumped away from him quickly. His eyes were watery and pleading. I could smell warm urine and there was a distinctive dark patch spreading across his crotch. He was crawling with fear. My heart began to race again and I had to get away, away from the old man.
“Jules,” he cried again trying to lurch towards me, “help me …”
Some weeks after the party my mother telephoned: Uncle Harry had suffered another stroke; a big one this time and there was little chance of recovery. Her call was a strategic attempt to pressurise me into visiting him, a final visit to a dying old man. But I couldn’t face seeing him. So I stalled and to my relief Uncle Harry passed away before she could hound me again. I also wheedled out of the funeral but couldn’t escape the memorial service being held to celebrate the life of the famous Hurricane Harry.
After the service I hovered outside the church only to find myself amidst the same crowd who’d been nibbling cake and quiche at Uncle Harry’s ninetieth only weeks before. Spotting the same pair of old birds who had jiggled their sherry glasses at me I waved to them but on appraising me they sniffed and then scuttled away. Auntie M kitted out in new hat and matching handbag, cornered me beside a large hydrangea bush, its raucous pink blooms contrasted brightly against her dour black ensemble.
“You’d think he’d at least have the decency to turn up for the memorial service.”
“Marcus,” she stated with an impatient quiver.
“Why’s that?” I had noticed his absence today and my mother had taken pains to point out he’d also found a good excuse to miss the funeral as well - as well as me was her inference.
“Well he was Harry’s sole heir and beneficiary, left everything to Marcus he did.”
So Marcus turned out to be the favourite nephew after all.
“Everything?” I asked nervously.
“Everything.” Margaret adjusted her hat and began to search in her handbag, finally retrieving a paper tissue she blew her nose delicately. Oh dear, poor Auntie M had probably been counting on a generous remuneration to compensate for all her years of dutiful service to the ailing invalid. So he’d rather publicly embarrassed her by leaving everything to Marcus. Why Marcus? I shivered suddenly feeling an icy chill despite the warm afternoon sun.
“Although,” she continued, “he did ask me to give you something.”
She sighed. “No – Uncle Harry,” she rummaged further in her bag. “Mind you I’m surprised Marcus overlooked it as he virtually cleared out everything else before he left.”
I was beginning to feel nauseous. But I had to know. “When did Uncle Harry change his will? Was it just before he died?”
Margaret looked at me with half-closed eyes. “What do you mean, Julian, he didn’t change his will.”
Apparently, Marcus had been named as the sole heir to Uncle Harry’s estate over five years ago. Hurricane Harry died a wealthy man having amassed a small fortune arising from various clever investments made back in the 1980’s. On hearing of his good luck Marcus had promptly quit his job and was now ‘travelling overseas’. “Harry left a note asking that I pass this on to you. I have no idea what it is.” She concluded the search and held out a wooden box with an elastic band holding a piece of white paper in place around it. Reluctantly I took the box and slipped it into my jacket pocket. “Aren’t you going to open it?”
I shook my head. “I know what it is.” That wouldn’t satisfy Auntie M so I added, “it’s one of his medals that I always particularly admired.”
She was happy with this explanation and finally moved on to ensnare another luckless relative to bemoan her woeful state of exclusion from Uncle Harry’s will.
Once alone again I took out the box and removed the paper wrapping, which turned out to be a hand-written letter. The writing was surprisingly bold, steady and clearly legible – not the hand of a dying old man.
You understand what this box contains. When the time comes use it wisely.
I’m happy to leave it in your care. A good man would destroy it – you may hide it but you will never wantonly destroy it. A good man would not have simply walked away at the party.
The Uncle Harry you all knew was a fraud. The real Hurricane Harry was a very brave man, brave but depressingly dull and he died shortly after the war – well shortly after meeting my medallion and me. Marcus knew how to enjoy life; he lived twice as fast as you Julian so I have no remorse for what I’ve done. Death was nearing so I didn’t waste any time and he didn’t have too much time to suffer … or create a fuss. Besides dear old Margaret never listened to the ramblings of dirty old Uncle Harry.
So take this gift and even if you never use it just remember what it is to be young.”
So in reality I was Harry’s (or whoever he was) true heir. I looked again at the wooden box, felt its smooth surface then placed it back inside my jacket. I didn’t need to open it. I knew what was inside.