‘Premium bonds!’ she said to her husband as he quietly prepared the sprouts, his head bowed. ‘They know he doesn’t have any other close relatives, but all the same, your brothers both give our ten year old boy premium bonds for Christmas.’
In the neighbouring room, two uncles kneeled awkwardly on the floor while their nephew crashed cars around a Scalextric track.
‘If you accelerate on the flat, it might do the loop.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ the boy replied, solemnly.
‘Is this what you asked for?’
‘Yeah. I know dad likes cars so I thought we could play together.’ The pair of uncles shifted uneasily, neither being particularly consummate in dealing with children. The strained voice of the child’s mother still droned unintelligibly from the adjoining room, the father notably silent. ‘Will you help me build a raft in the woods?’
At first, the idea of building a raft in the woods seemed nonsensical to the uncles. But the boy was quick to point out the possibilities, there being a flooded hollow across which they could attempt a trial run. Evidently, the area was a favourite hang out with other children for the hollow’s bank was home to a rudimentary platform above which a rope swing dangled from a sturdy branch.
‘You’re both engineers, aren’t you?’
‘I’m an engineer. He’s a chemist.’
‘Oh…but you’re still good at building rafts?’
‘We’ll give it a go.’
The uncles were quick to see potential in the salvage their young nephew had collected. There were plastic barrels for buoyancy, long timber planks for a base and metres of thick rope and baler twine to hold the thing together. For the uncles, this felt like familiar territory – more DIY ingenuity than genuine child’s play – and in no time at all, a sturdy, symmetrical structure had come together.
They stood on the rickety platform by the hollow and gently lowered their finished craft into the water before climbing aboard. For propulsion, they had chosen to use sticks as barge poles, reasoning that the pool would be shallow enough for them to reach the bottom. Grabbing a pole each, the uncles assumed position at the rear of the craft. They planted their poles onto the side of the platform and in perfect synchrony pushed the vessel into open water with a noisy forceful surge, the echoing sound awakening the wood from its slumber. In the excitement, the boy looked up, expecting to see the flight of some previously sedentary birds…while the uncles looked down at the broken sticks languishing in their hands, now roughly half the measure they were moments before.
‘We have a problem Nathan.’ It was the first time that either uncle had spoken to their nephew by name. ‘You still have your barge pole, don’t you?’ Nathan waved a thin wispy stick in the air and quickly recognised the sad look of resignation that spread across the face of each uncle. Undefeated, he thrust the stick into the water and started to paddle, the raft responding with a sluggish clockwise rotation.
‘We should probably phone your mum.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Nathan replied, his strokes becoming ever more frantic.
‘You don’t sound very convinced.’
‘What does volatile mean?’
The uncles were still coming to terms with how their nephew took conversations in unexpected directions.
‘Volatile? Well, a volatile substance isn’t very stable.’
‘Like a firework?’
‘Yeah, sort of.’
‘That’s why we shouldn’t phone mum,’ Nathan replied, throwing his stick into the water with a flourish.
The uncles fell silent and pondered what other adjectives their timid younger brother might have used to describe his wife. If he had a phone of his own, they would have called him to resolve this situation but that not being the case, they were now reliant upon the intervention of strangers. They both looked longingly at the length of spare rope lying on the bank and hoped it would come to their rescue before long.
When they finally made it back to the house, the trio found that Nathan’s parents had hardly noticed their absence.
‘Where’s dad?’ Nathan asked his mum, who was alone in the kitchen.
‘He’s out the front trying to fix the Christmas lights. 84 bulbs apparently and he’s got to track down which one has blown.’
‘It won’t be a blown bulb,’ one of the uncles replied.
‘Well, that’s what he said.’
‘More likely a fuse. He should know that.’
Nathan stared at his uncle who was standing motionless in the corner, his trousers tucked into reindeer-patterned socks and his shirt collars protruding over a novelty festive jumper.
‘Can you show him what to do?’ The uncle walked off obediently. ‘And mum, I can smell burning…it’s the potatoes. Look, the pan is dry.’ She whipped it from the heat and was about to top it up with cold water from the tap. ‘No, don’t do that. You’ll just make them all taste burnt. You need to get a spoon and remove the good ones.’
‘How do you know?’
‘It’s happened to me before.’
‘When do you cook?’
‘When you don’t.’
‘They’re pretty much done anyway. Can you mash potatoes?’ Nathan asked his other uncle, who had now assumed position in the corner, wearing his own look of social clumsiness. Nathan handed him the bowl of decanted potatoes and pointed to the butter dish. ‘And mum, the grill is smoking as well,’ he continued, turning the heat down a notch. ‘Just keep your eye on that while I lay the table.’
Having coordinated his adult relatives, Nathan proceeded to the dining room with a handful of cutlery. The small rectangular table was only really made for four but he would try to squeeze both uncles on one side. His parents could have the other side, which meant he himself would have to sit at the head of the table, a position he was beginning to accept with every passing day.
Duncan Hedges works as yard staff at a stables in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He writes short stories in his spare time. He has previously been published online at Spelk, Bending Genres and Ad Hoc Fiction. twitter.com/duncan_hed