It’s weird but when people have been saying the same thing to you over and over for years, it’s really hard to remember when it first began. So I can only guess it must have started when I was about eleven or twelve. It spooked me a bit at first – the way someone in the family would look at me, really look, as if they’d just seen me for the first time. Then they’d say, “you know you’re the spitting image of your great-uncle Sam.”
A few months ago Auntie Barbara and Uncle Frank came round for tea. We hadn’t seen them for a while so when I opened the door Uncle Frank did a sort of double take, like they do in sitcoms.
“By God son, did anyone ever mention you look just like your great-uncle Sam?”
I nodded. “Yeah often. Mam’s in the kitchen – she says to go through.”
So at tea-time I thought I’d try and find out a bit more. If I was someone’s double I wanted to know more about him.
“So why have I never met him, this great-uncle Sam? Does he not live around here?”
There was a sudden lull in the conversation. I caught Mam looking at Dad and then Auntie Barbara said, “Tell him Caz – the lad’s curious. It’s only natural.”
If looks could kill, Auntie Barbara would have been laid out cold on the kitchen tiles by now.
“You haven’t met him Paul because he’s dead – Sam died when he was quite young, of meningitis. He was only about twenty five and he was a joiner. Now who’d like another helping of lasagne?”
There’s an old suitcase in the cupboard under the stairs that’s full of jumbled up old photos. I waited until Mam and Dad were out one night, then I opened the cupboard door and wrestled my way past the vacuum and the garden chairs to find the suitcase. Then I sat on the carpet in the living room and tipped all the photos out. They were mostly black and white, some of them all cracked and folded. Luckily Mam insists on writing on the back of photos so I shuffled through the piles until I found what I was looking for. ‘Sam – Scarborough 1955’ – and there he was, a young man in an overcoat grinning at the camera with the Grand Hotel looming in the background. I looked at him really closely. It was absolutely true – he was the spitting image of me, or rather I was the spitting image of him. It was uncanny – same nose, same chin, same eyes.
I kept sorting through the photos and came across another one, a close-up this time. I stuffed all the other photos back into the suitcase and manoeuvred it back into the cupboard. Then I took the two photos upstairs into the bathroom. I held the close-up in front of the mirror and covered my mouth – same eyes. Then I covered the top of my forehead – same mouth. No wonder everybody stared.
I wasn’t having an easy time at school around then. Not caring about football is a hanging offence around here. I’ve got my own friends, don’t get me wrong but sometimes it gets to me, like when they sent me texts pretending Rachel Simons wanted to see my prick. I didn’t fall for it of course. Rachel Simons has never even glanced in my direction, let alone have designs on my private parts. Sometimes there’s a few shoves, a foot stuck out in the corridor, a slap around the head, but mostly it’s just words and sniggers. Big deal.
I always thought, if I had an older brother he’d stick up for me. I wouldn’t have to put up with this rubbish. But I haven’t. Only Rosie my little sister and she’s only interested in being a princess. So the next time someone shouted out ‘wanker’ as I walked past, I pretended my great-uncle Sam was walking along next to me. It made me feel better, stronger somehow and I found myself whistling as I went along.
Another time I opened my locker and a pair of girl’s pants fell out. I knew who’d put them there because I’d seen Dave Lorimer messing around a bit earlier on. I could feel Sam behind me encouraging me, so I just walked straight up to Dave and hung the pink pants from one finger right in front of his nose.
“I believe these are yours” I said loudly and everyone snorted and sniggered when Dave went red as a poppy.
“Piss off” he said trying to win back ground but I’d already dropped the pants in front of him and walked off. Result.
More and more I found Sam helped me out when things went wrong.
‘What would Sam do?’ I’d think and the answer would come to me.
Or I’d ask myself ‘what would Sam say now?’ and the snappy words I needed were there.
So when the careers guy asked me what I thought I’d like to do in the future I said without hesitation – “joiner.”
“Have you ever worked with wood before son?” he asked, sounding doubtful.
Of course I hadn’t – I’d given up CDT as soon as I could in Year 9. My A-level choices for the next year were sciences and IT so I could see why the guy was a bit puzzled.
“Maybe you should sign up for an evening class in woodwork before you make any big decisions.”
So I did – I enrolled at the local FE College for a course in joinery, once a week from seven to nine at night. The minute I started to plane the first piece of wood it just felt so right. I could feel Sam at my shoulder, looking on with pride at what I was doing.
All right we were only learning the basics but I couldn’t help starting to dream – I would become a famous furniture designer, making bespoke pieces for celebrities. My name would be known throughout the country and when I was interviewed I would say I’d inherited my amazing skills from my great-uncle who had died at a tragically young age. I would dedicate my first collection to Sam.
One weekend I went over to see Granddad. I don’t see him very often because he lives over the other side of town and has a busy life with his bus trips and ballroom dancing and visits to the betting office. He’s getting quite old now though and I definitely thought he looked frailer than the last time I’d seen him.
“I won’t be around much longer Paul,” he said cheerfully when I brought two mugs of tea through from his little kitchen.
“Don’t say that Granddad. Anyway you’ve been saying it for years and you’re still here aren’t you?”
“You wait until you’re my age son. It’s no laughing matter.” He popped a whole Jaffa cake in his mouth and grinned. His usual party trick.
“What son? It’s no good asking me for money because I haven’t got any. I lost this morning. Bloody horse didn’t even finish the course.”
“Sorry about that Granddad – anyway you know I wouldn’t ask you for money. But what I did want to ask you was – what was your brother Sam like?”
It was like when you suddenly turn the sound off on the telly. Complete silence. I realised I’d upset Granddad by making him think about his beloved brother and now he’d never forgive me.
Then very slowly and deliberately Granddad said, “Sam was a right – little – shit.”
“What do you mean Granddad?”
“Just what I say son. He was a bad lot – shoplifting, drunkenness, always getting into fights. And the girls – he couldn’t leave them alone but he had no respect for them. He’d have ended up in prison mark my words. In with a bad crowd he was.”
“But he died so young” I protested. I could see Sam’s face out of the corner of my eye. He was smirking and I could swear he winked at me.
“Just as well for him he did die – otherwise someone would have killed him before long.” Grandad took a swig of his tea. “Now that’s enough. I don’t talk about Sam as a rule. And now you know why.”
I told the evening class tutor I wouldn’t be able to finish the course. Then I brought the pieces of wood I’d been working on home and made a little bonfire in the back garden. I watched the smoke curling up into the air, feeling empty and bleak. Then I had another quick look at the close-up of Sam before I chucked it on the bonfire. For the first time I noticed that his eyes were closer together than mine and his mouth was definitely smaller. Nothing like me at all really.