19 MAY 2001, Page 55

No life

Question time

Jeremy Clarke

If you're going to sit in the sun again, Uncle Jack, make sure you put a hat on,' says Alison the care assistant.

'Bugger hats,' says Uncle Jack and he goes and sits out in the front garden all afternoon without one. He sits with his eyes closed and his reptilian, neon-pink face tilted in homage and affection towards the sun. I watch him for a moment from my hole in the ground. Then I finish loading the barrow with soil, get out of the hole and push the barrow round to the back garden.

At the point where I have to pass Uncle Jack the garden gets very narrow. With his legs fully extended in front of him there's barely enough room for the wheelbarrow to pass between him and the flower-bed. But by lifting the handles and steering the wheel in a precarious little semi-circle around his shoes, I can just about make it. The shoes. which I get to see rather too much of during the afternoon, are light brown in colour, small, cheap and collapsed. He's a wealthy man, is Uncle Jack, and he likes to keep it that way.

I'm negotiating these shoes with the barrow when Uncle Jack's eyelids spring open. His pale-blue eyes are belligerent with lunchtime gin. I'm sweating from every pore and a bit fired up myself.

'That looks like a jolly good load,' he says, in that fruity, prewar army officer's accent of his. 'What are you doing?'

'I'm barrowing earth, Uncle,' I say.

He wants a more thorough explanation than this, so I let the handles down and tell him about how I'm doing my bit for the planet by turning a flower-bed into a carparking space. About how I intend to dig right down to the shallet, put in hard-core and dress the top with a layer of tarmac. And about how I'm using the surplus earth to level out an undulation in the back garden.

Do you really need another car-parking space?' he barks.

'Not for me to reason why, Uncle,' I say. 'Orders.'

Then I take the strain again and lean into the handles with all my weight. Uncle Jack legs are still out at their fullest extent. He looks down them while I manoeuvre the laden barrow between his mean little shoes and the flower-bed. On the return trip I lightly pirouette the empty barrow around his feet and continue back to my hole for another load.

The next time I go by the feet are still right out. He opens his eyes and says, 'That's a jolly good load. What are you doing?'

I lower the handles and explain all over again.

When I've finished he says, 'But do you really need another parking space?'

Just about every time I pass Uncle Jack with a load he stops me and asks me what am I doing. It's like going through customs. I give the wheel on my barrow a squirt of WD40 so he won't hear me coming, but my shadow falling on that gecko face of his as I pass him gives me away.

It's an odd thing, a short-term memory. If he was aware that he had one, Uncle Jack might take being told he is repeating himself with good grace. But he isn't and he doesn't. He takes it personally and gets in a rage. So we don't tell him. But after he's stopped me for the sixth time to ask what I'm doing, I put the barrow down and tell him I'm getting tired of it.

'Oh well,' he says, all testy, 'bloody well forget it. I suppose you take me for a damn fool. Well, let me tell you I'm bloody well not. And you can go to hell. Go on. Bugger off.'

I'm hot, and my list of grievances against Uncle Jack is long, and my barrow is empty; so I pick it up and I throw it at him. I say throw it at him. Actually, I'm so angry, I have the strength to throw it with a fair degree of accuracy and I throw it to just miss him. Then I go indoors before I say something I might regret.

Once I've cooled off I go outside again, pick up the barrow and shovel another load of soil into it. He's still sitting there (all credit to him), eyes closed, legs out and head tilted towards the sun. As I push the barrow past him I glance at his face to see whether my throwing the wheelbarrow at him had had any lasting effect. As I look, his eyes open and fasten glassily on to the soil-laden wheelbarrow.

'I say. That looks a jolly good load,' he says affably. 'Tell me, what are you doing?'