KATHARINE'S UNCLE

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Once upon a time (although it is a terribly long time ago now) I fell in love with a young woman named Katharine. She was a rather frail, mischievous woman with dark hair, dark, blue eyes, a small, almost miserable mouth, and a vaguely upturned nose. Her prettiness, which went unnoticed at a first meeting, was full of everything Katharine was : She was a tease, a cynic, a destroyer, and a ridiculer of men and men’s affections. She drew her eyes sideways to you, and her mouth (which was terribly pretty) would open as if she were panting silently, and she would breathe a scentless perfume, full of hidden roses and other flowers never to be realised.

      After a time, after you had met Katharine several times, you came to realise just how lovely and sad she and her beauty were : For here was the wittiest, prettiest, gentlest, frailest, saddest of women unable to find a man she could love, even though many would have loved her, and, of course, many more would have used and abused her as she used and abused them. And the reason why Katharine was so remarkable and so miserable was because she hated men and wished to destroy them.

      To prove that she hated men and further to say why her hatred made her so unhappy, would take many pages of writing; and, even then, those pages might never include the subtlest or most tendentious reasons. Besides, this story is not about Katharine (although I am indebted to her for its subject); it is about her uncle – a man whom I met only once, a man full of the strangest eccentricities, who so constantly chewed his mouth that you felt him lucky to have any lips left, and you sympathized with those lips for all the rough treatment he gave them.

      Of course, with Katharine, I was hopelessly unhappy; and I now realise she would never have wanted me otherwise. But so strange and irrational is love that even now I would give up everything to be able to be with Katharine again though without her knowing I was there. I would give up everything to be able to see her and know what she was doing from one day to the next, just to be able to watch her eating her food, even watch her walking beside her latest boyfriend (though perhaps I could not bear to see her newest, latest novelty, another man). And, of course, I long to watch her asleep or rising in the morning, angry (because morning always depressed her), red with her long hours of sleeping, to see her splashing water on her face, rolling up the sleeves of her nightgown till her shoulders gleam white in the strange, darkening morning of winter or whispering spring, freckled with shoots and the mildest of green lights.

      But all this is hopeless, hopeless dreaming. Katharine has gone, and if I did pluck up the courage and tried to see her without her seeing me, no doubt she would spot me immediately and abuse me. Even if I hung around under some huge, protective tree, my sky a circle of green whispering leaves, and ventured from such verdure to gaze lovingly, longingly, upon her as she passed me by, dressed in those browns and greys, those sobrieties she always wore and loved, surely she would see me, and smile at me and beckon me over, and immediately I would go over to her, crippled with love, and she would abuse me, knowing how much I loved her, knowing me in her control again. And I would be made more miserable than a neglected child kept on the end of a string.

      It is no good; it is impossible, but I still love Katharine, not anything that is Katharine (for she is completely negative and very, very horrible) but something that is not Katharine, something that exists with her, about which she could never say : “That is me!” And although she is very, very horrible like a beautiful snake you touch which stings you to death, she is terribly unhappy as well.

      I wish with all my heart that she could be atrociously happy in her horror and evil.

      But this story cannot be about Katharine. Only very long books, beautifully long, beautifully written books should be about her, only prose whose captivating cage and burnished lines are guilded with the saddest haze of dying soldiers over which terribly sad happenings and blossoming creatures flower and mourn can touch her fate and theirs and mine. Such tracts should be about her, honouring her. This story can only be about her uncle – whom she always loved to describe as a ridiculous, fond, old man, ridiculous, fond, old Uncle Lambenweister.

      I met him once – in a cathedral near London Bridge where Katharine’s eldest sister was singing in the midst of other energetic voices. I was one of the audience, and about to go down with a severe attack of ‘flu. Katharine’s mother was also there, and her younger sister, a complete family gathering almost, only lacking her youngest sister and of course, her father, whom I never met but who seemed, through hearsay, to be very talented, very buckled and very unhappy, an anaesthetist without a fatality to his name!

      Uncle Lambenweister sat chewing his lips throughout the entire performance. Afterwards, we retired to a wine bar. Katharine’s uncle smoothed his grey hair, very eccentrically, very nervously, and spoke non-stop to a young man. He was a grey, old man, heavy with oddities, inexplicable movements and unaccountable concerns. Did he order an orange juice in the wine bar that evening? I’m not sure that he did. I can’t remember, but I think he did. Whatever, Katharine and her sisters looked on with glee, relishing the absurd uncle and his absurd creativity.

      Katharine’s memories of him were many. They were all drenched in slapstick, and Uncle Lambenweister could easily have been a circus-clown falling over himself throughout all her anecdotes.

      Her father, an austere, foreboding man, often severe in the extreme, was perpetually embarrassed by Uncle Lambenweister – for he would be forever drawing attention to himself without realising it.

      The uncle who lived on his own had a little motor-bike. If he was invited to stay for a weekend at Katharine’s parents’ house, he would ride his motor-bike to the station, deposit it there, travel up north by train, arriving at his destination still clad in riding-helmet. Completely ignoring the requests of Katharine’s father, he absolutely refused to take it off till they arrived home. Katharine’s father, therefore, had to meet him and go side by side with him from the station to the house while pointing fingers and subdued chuckles followed the pair.

      When Katharine was little, she used to go up to London to stay with her uncle. One of her earliest memories was of him taking her to the British Museum. He went through the revolving doors first, giving them too hard a shove; they jettisoned him forward, and, stumbling into the building, he tumbled over. Katharine, following him in, was amazed, when she got in, to see a crowd around him, many of whom were trying to help him, while he, beside himself with rage, was brushing aside their outstretched hands and arms, muttering, dusting himself down and getting to his feet.

     Ah, yes, and then there was another story that Katharine used to recount. (O my dear darling, I can still remember how you used to tell the tale till the tears came to your eyes and you had to stop to dry your eyes from the profusion of your merriment.)

      Uncle Lambenweister went out with the family for a drive and a walk in the countryside. Katharine’s father had to use all his powers of persuasion to convince Lambenweister not to wear his crash-helmet in the car, so the trip got off to a bad start, with the doctor in a terrible mood, and the brother-in-law disgruntled and morose. They got out into the countryside and everyone bumbled out of the car. Katharine’s father, the doctor, insisted on an hour’s walk (good for the heart) despite a grey sky and a weepy prospect. After a strenuous stroll, everyone arrived back at the car, closed their umbrellas, only to find the car-wheels whirring, spinning and splashing in the runny mud. Everyone, except Katharine’s father, got out to push, but Uncle Lambenweister pushed harder and more energetically than everyone. Suddenly, the car wheels gripped, the car shot forward, the uncle, still pushing furiously, found himself pushing against nothing, and consequently fell forward, face down in the mud. Everyone was aghast but very merry, although Katharine’s father was yet again hard put to controlling himself. He didn’t want the muddy uncle back in the car. But what was to be done? Uncle Lambenweister was gingerly placed on the back-seat on some newspapers. And when they arrived home, he was “stripped and made to wash himself” (Katharine’s very own words). None the less, Katharine’s father remained very annoyed and the next morning Uncle Lambenweister and he gave the inside of the car a thorough clean. After that was done, Katharine’s mum and her brother could be seen exchanging words and casting dire glares at the eminent doctor.

      And these little stories, as far as I can gather, are what charmed Katharine, and made her cry with joy whenever she thought of her “favourite” uncle.

       It is strange how potent a name can become when you have lost the person whose loveliness was that name, who is now only the name you know and love. Katharine, whom I loved, who is gone forever, leaves me alone with her name. I find I am irresistibly attracted to streets and roads with Katharine’s name. If I learn of a pub in Katharine Lane, I immediately feel impelled to visit and savour that pub. If a street is called Katharine Street, I walk down it hopelessly lost in memories of her. Perhaps I have become as foolish as Uncle Lambenweister but I could wish villages, towns, cities and empires to bear no other name than Katharine. I am forever looking at maps, studying roads and places where I know Katharine has lived or been. And they seem to change from bleakness to warmth under my gaze; they seem to become my darling who once walked there or slept there or was miserable there. They become finally the most lovely loveliness, the most precious of all the world’s most precious sweethearts.

      Ah, but this is all foolish, all the folly and foolishness of gullible, fond, old men. And I am young, such a young man still!

      Everyone tells me: “Look, fellow, there are plenty more fish in the sea.” But all I say, all I can ever say to them is this: “There will never be another Katharine. There can never be another Katharine. How can there ever be another Katharine? Ah, you advisers, cold-hearted and inept, even you must now acknowledge that I loved Katharine and will always love her. So, how can I ever love one of your fish? And, besides,” I add, scornfully, “Katharine wasn’t a fish.” I am crying now but I look up through my tears and say, “Please go away and leave me alone. Please, I just want to be alone.”

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