Uncle George lived in a tall white house, with a fig tree orchard out the back.
When we visited, he would make ice cream sundaes from scratch, layering vanilla ice cream, almonds, homemade chocolate sauce, and topping with a maraschino cherry each.
He would wink at our wide-eyes.
‘Don’t tell mum and dad,’ he joked, admitting to the sugar overload.
Uncle George’s English was thick, mangled at times. His Greek accent tuned his words to the wrong frequency.
Sometimes, his little grandson Alex would be there too. Alex was what we called ‘not a very nice boy’. He wore a kid-sized leather jacket, and had soft red lips like a girl. He told stories about his Dad and they always included a motorbike or an airplane.
We didn’t like it when Alex was there. Uncle George was ours, but Alex made it seem really obvious that we weren’t family – just tenants.
Sometimes, we would go to the fig orchard in the afternoons. Uncle George walked really slow, stopping often to hold the small of his back and look at the sky. The figs were odd – brown lumps hanging off the tree branches like soft paper bags, crumpled. They were overripe, oozing sweetness.
‘We will make jam,’ Uncle George said.
In the kitchen, we boiled the figs with sugar, until they lost all shape, and the white seeds burst out of them like confetti. The mixture was thick, and Uncle George let us take turns stirring. It didn’t look like the jam mum put on toast for us in the morning. It looked more like the chutney she sometimes cooked in the summer and took to the markets to sell.
While the jam cooked, Uncle George made scones, kneading the simple dough until it was smooth and sticky.
His hands were covered in flour. Uncle George had the kind of hands that were always making something.
When we finally bit into the scones, dripping with thick fig jam and so hot that our tongues were scorched, we grinned at Uncle George with our mouths full.
Mum and Dad picked us up together most times. The takeaway they ran was busy, and sometimes they wouldn’t come home until it was already dark, the sky velvety black overhead, and the air cool and unwelcoming.
Uncle George would usher our sleepy bodies outside, and talk softly to Mum and Dad, pressing a jar of leftover jam into their hands.
Our flat was just down the road from the tall white house, in a building Uncle George had owned for years.
‘We bought it as a family, me and my brothers,’ he told us once. ‘But they are all dead now. Just me still here, still renting the flats.’
He looked distant when he said it, his eyes glazing over as if he was looking right through us and into the eyes of every other tenant he had welcomed and farewelled.
I don’t know when we stopped seeing Uncle George as much – we moved out of the flat and into a proper house eventually, and our visits became less and less frequent.
Eventually, we left town altogether, and it is years before I come back to see the tall white house, with the fig tree orchard.
I park my car out the front, and stare up at the door. It always felt so big then, but it looks ordinary now. Just a door; just a house.
I know there’s no point knocking. Uncle George must have been dead for years now. I don’t remember who told me, or how I found out – but I remember being hit in the stomach with grief, and suddenly catching the scent of baking scones on the air, even though there wasn’t an oven in sight.
I sit in my car, and look at the house, and I wonder if the orchard is still flourishing, or if the figs fall to the ground in their brown sacks, and spill their rich fruit onto the dirt.
Suddenly, I throw open my door, and walk towards the house. I creep around the side, ducking below the windows so no one will see me. The orchard is in front of me, and my stomach clenches with relief when I see the trees, still healthy, still filled with fruit.
Quickly and quietly, I fill my jacket pockets with figs, cramming in as many as I can, and grabbing more to carry in my hands.
Tonight, I’ll boil them with sugar, I think. I’ll make jam, and scones, and cover my hands in flour.
Image: Sonny Abesamis