My Uncle George was known in the family as ‘The fix it man’. Whenever anything broke in our house my mam would send me along to Uncle George with it. He would often fix it there and then. We would have tea and cake and I’d leave with a book from his library.
During my next visit he would quiz me on the book and if I couldn’t answer or he thought I was cheating he wouldn’t let me have a new one until I got most of the answers right. Uncle George instilled in me a love of learning and a love of books.
After I left school Uncle George sold his house and went travelling, leaving us with his cat, Biancoinsegnante (Bianco for short) and his books. They took up residence in the spare room. Before he left, he gave me a book.
‘Read this one first.’
‘How will I know which one to read next? You always tell me.’
‘You will know.’
At the end of each book was a note from Uncle George asking me questions about the book, saying I should tell Bianco the answers, followed by which book I should read next. He sent regular postcards, and I pinned them up on a corkboard in the spare room plotting his journey on the map he left pinned up there.
I carried on like this for a year. Each time I got to the end of a box, a lid would come off a box and the book I needed would be sitting inside waiting for me.
I went to swap the first book for the second he sat on the box and refused to move. Its inquisitive eye watched me as I did everything I could think of, apart from following Uncle George’s instructions, to get it to let me open the box. Nothing worked. In the end I had no choice. I had to try.
‘Ok Bianco if I answer these questions can I have my next book?’
I swear he nodded.
As I got to the end Bianco jumped to another box leaving me free to exchange my book.
I felt silly at first telling Bianco my answers but there was no other way to get the book I wanted. Bianco sat firmly where he was until I completed the task.
I was reading the last book when Mam got a call to collect him from the airport.
Bianco and I sat on the stairs awaiting his arrival.
He burst through the door, throwing his bags on the floor. He picked me up and whirled me round as Bianco weaved between his legs.
‘How’s the reading going?’
‘I’ve just finished the last book.’
‘So Bianco tells me. He said you got most of the answers right too, well done. I have the rest of my library in storage but there’s a few in my bag to keep you going till I find myself a new place. I can squeeze into the spare room till then.’
He handed me his bag.
‘Take the books out and see what you think.’
I piled the books on the floor.
‘What else did Bianco say?’
‘He told me about you plotting my journey on the map and reading about the countries I’d been to.’
I looked at Mam.
‘I didn’t tell him.’
Bianco turned its inquisitive eye on me.
I didn’t know what to believe so I said the only thing I could. ‘I’ve missed you Uncle George.’