Howard Jacobson: I loved him for the calm he exuded

A tribute
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My wife's uncle died last week. Her only uncle, which made him special, though he was important to us in other ways too.

Everyone who dies is remembered for his sweetness of temper, but that truly described him. We found him hard to locate, so self-effacing was he, so accommodating and yet so locked away, as though by showing concern for others he didn't have to show himself. He was already getting on a bit when I met him, so I missed the deeds and misdeeds of his early and middle years that might have explained him. Right up until his death he had a glamorous companion, a French woman, herself cloaked in a degree of mystery. They went on cruises together in their eighties and must have cut quite a dash, she black haired and painted as though for the last cocktail party on the planet, her eyes as jet as Cleopatra's, her ankles as slender as a young girl's, he in a blazer and a yachtsman's trousers, with a touch of David Niven about him, only with a more nautical moustache.

People who'd known him all his life were no less mystified. Did he have a secret life? In international politics? Espionage? Love? Once, as a man of 80, he flattened a thug a quarter of his age who attacked him in the street. The police warned him against further acts of pensioner ruffianism. We live in insane times. We can no longer flatten thugs with impunity. It's a union thing: only thugs themselves are allowed to do the flattening. But he laughed it off, leaving us to wonder how this elegant, well-mannered elderly gentleman had the strength and know-how to do what he had done. Had he been trained in the martial arts? Could he kill with his little finger if he chose? Was he from Krypton?

He was on the management boards of hospitals, appointing senior staff, dispensing money and advice, counting eminent surgeons among his friends, though none could help him when he needed them most. But there was always a suggestion of some other mission.

Myself, I loved him for the calm he exuded, for his air of being a disinterested amateur in the job of life, for his refusal to sit in judgement on anybody, and because his being my wife's uncle rubbed off on me. I like other people's relatives, which isn't to say I don't like my own, but about other people's you experience none of the vexed loyalties of consanguinity. In his company I too felt an amateur in the job of life. Had I been closer to him in age I'd have enjoyed going cruising with him, sipping cocktails while his French woman beat her eyelashes at the captain.

His final illness was shockingly sudden but mercifully brief. He'd been in hospital about three weeks when my wife rang to say he'd asked for me. He was deteriorating but insistent and she felt I should get over right away. Why me in particular? Perhaps to tell me to love and look after his niece. But he knew I already did. Perhaps he wanted everybody close to him around his bed, the more especially as his partner was ill in another hospital herself, a separation which, the longer it continued, was taking on a tragic complexion.

He began making scribbling signals in the air the minute I arrived. His voice was gone, his throat ruined by the cancer. He was wired up to a barrage of screens that monitored every breath he struggled to take. The day before, he'd worn everybody out by persisting in raising an arm and lowering it again, pointing to the nurse and growling out a word that seemed to begin with an H. "Helpful?" we'd tried. "Hopeful? Hospital? Happy? No, not happy – hateful, heartfelt, hopeless?"

He'd grown exasperated with our stupidity. "H – h – hi – hi..."

"Him," we tried, "hill, hymn, hirsute, hibiscus, hispid?"

He raised his arm again, pointed to the nurse, and then made a moustache with his other hand.

"Hilary? Hildegarde? Hitler? Hitler!"

He smiled, nodded, and fell back on his pillows.

His nurse was as bossy as Hitler, was his point. A joke. All that effort for a joke. My father had been the same when he was dying. Making one more joke was all he cared about. Hearing laughter one last time. Men and their jokes! Some men will go to hell for a joke.

We knew, anyway, that whatever he wanted me to write about was going to be hard to decipher. We must have spent three hours on it. Eventually we made out the word "police" and the word "destruction". That he could get out "destruction" after the trouble he'd had (or we'd had) with "Hitler" only went to show how fiercely he felt about whatever he believed had been destroyed. His health? Himself? We didn't doubt it. But then why "police"? There are no cancer police. There is no one who will apprehend and punish cancer for you, and if there were such a person he'd probably tell you to leave it alone, that cancer, too, has human rights. So did he feel he'd been the object of criminal neglect? If so – and neglect is always possible in an age of hurried doctors and crowded hospitals, and he a man who knew about hospitals – it didn't tally with the praise he'd been expressing earlier for the care he had received. What then was I to say to the police? Who or what had been destroyed? And why did he need a writer to tell them?

Seeing me bemused, he sought another word. "Am-mo. A-am-amo." He settled on that. "Am-mo."

Amo, amas, amat? Was he trying to tell us who he loved? We thought we knew who he loved. No, he shook his head violently, rattling the tubes in which he was enmeshed. "Amo, ammmo..."

Ammo. Ah – ammunition! Those gathered around him exchanged looks. Was the truth finally about to come out? Was I to tell the police about the ammunition, before it destroyed half of London? But whose ammunition, and where was it?

He gave up on us and fell asleep. Three hours later, he died. Leaving me with a job to do, but not knowing what. I expect to go on wondering for ever. Amo. Ammo. Or was he teasing to the end? "Am only joking," was that he was saying? "Amonly pulling your leg."

We know nothing. Neither of our going hence nor our coming hither. My wife's uncle was the only person I've ever met who seemed contented with that thought. The loveliest of men, mystery or no mystery.