Letters from an unknown uncle

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The Independent Online
IT WAS crisis time in the Larkin household. But then it was always, in the nicest sort of way, crisis time in the Larkin household. 'I've been looking through our household accounts,' said Pop Larkin, 'and I wish I knew where the next fiver was coming from.'

'I didn't know we had any household accounts,' said Ma Larkin, carrying on stirring an immense cauldron on the stove. Appetising smells rose from it.

'Smells a very likely dish,' said Pop Larkin, wrinkling his nose appreciatively.

'It's a load of your favourite shirts, having a quick boil,' said Ma Larkin. 'But do have a taste, if you're tempted that way.'

'No, no,' said her husband hastily. 'Anyway, about these household accounts . . .'

'You don't keep accounts,' she scoffed. 'I never heard of you keeping any records. Never keep anything that might be taken away and used against you - those were your very words.'

'No, well, when I say I've been going through the accounts, I mean I've been going under the floorboard where I normally keep our cash flow and our rainy day account, and there's not a lot down there. Except this . . .' He held up what looked like a bundle of letters.

'Who in this family ever wrote any letters?'

'Uncle Philip,' he said.

'Uncle who?'

'My father's brother. Philip Larkin.'

'I don't remember any Philip Larkin being talked about,' she said, sprinkling what looked like herbs into the cauldron.

'Well, we didn't talk about him much,' said Pop, 'on account of he let the family down very badly. Dad never forgave him for going away to university after the war, just when he was badly needed for the black-

market petrol business and the ration books lark. But would he stay and help? Oh no, he MUST go off and spend three useless years among the books at Oxford or some such dead-end hole. My dad always called him the white sheep of the family. Or the ne'er-do-bad.'

'What happened to him after that?'

'He became a librarian,' muttered Pop.

'A librarian?' said Ma. 'You mean, he spent three years at university reading books and the rest of his life lending them to people and stamping them when they brought them back?'

'Something like that.'

'And he never got a proper job?'

'Not that anyone ever knew of.'

'That's very sad,' said Ma. 'But I don't see what it's got

to do with our household


'Well, I thought these letters . . . these letters all have his name on . . .'

'Well, you should have sent them on to him.'

'No, they're not addressed to him. They're written by him. They were sent home by him to my dad, years and years ago. And I just thought, well, you never know, I thought they might be valuable.'

'Oh, yes,' said Ma Larkin, giving the cauldron another stir and absent-mindedly throwing in a couple of carrots. 'Very likely, that is. 'Dear Sir, your book is two weeks overdue and I would trouble you to bring it back as soon as poss, yours sincerely.' How much do you think that would fetch at an auction? Oh, wake up, Pop Larkin] Stop living in a dream world]'

'Well, I'll just have a look first,' said Pop defensively. 'You never know.' He opened the first letter and read. Then the second. Then the third.

'Well,' said Ma Larkin, starting to strip a duck of its feathers, 'don't keep me on tenterhooks. What are librarians like when they are at home?'

'They don't like black people much,' said Pop, scanning a fourth. 'I don't think they like women, either. They certainly don't like children. Dear, oh dear. He didn't seem to like foreigners much.'

'Who did he like, for God's sake?' said Ma impatiently.

'No one,' said Pop. 'Not even himself, much. He was a miserable old cuss from the sound of it. Listen to this. 'So, I am now 21 years old. That means the next major event scheduled in my life is my death. Well, roll on, I say.' '

'A real Mr Cheerful,' said Ma Larkin. 'Here, chuck something in the stove, would you? I'm beginning to lose heat.'

'You can have these for a start,' said Pop, stuffing the letters in the stove and watching them ignite. 'Good riddance, I say. Now, I wonder where the next fiver is coming from?'