Despite more than forty years stateside Uncle Archibald and Auntie Mildred remained distinctly British; they studiously maintained their Queen’s English, they belonged to a local bird watching society and they drank a lot of sherry. Another throwback to the motherland was their modus operandi of keeping a stiff upper lip.
For the first few weeks of the summer holidays the relatives decided the best way to handle my “stubborn streak” was to ignore the matter. We three had gone some rounds before, through the years, and I was familiar with the routine.
“Gorgeous weather.” Auntie Mildred said with her back to me, stirring baked beans in a pot on the stove. And then she wiped her twitchy fingers on the lace edge of her apron. “Could make a person want to do something with their lives.”
I was lolling in a doorway, and I made a big point of crossing my arms and exhaling loudly. Max was always by my side, charmingly overprotective.
For most of his life Uncle Archibald had worked in the capacity of curator of the estate of an ex-pat English writer, claiming some far-flung blood connection by way of qualification. Had moved from his home on the south coast of England with his then young bride, to take the job.
“Lovely, Mildred, we don’t say gorgeous. We say lovely, or splendid. Never gorgeous.” Uncle Archibald’s response was muffled by the newspaper he hid behind. While Uncle Archibald was not the funniest person I would ever know he was first-rate and his only visible weakness was gluttony. The pile-up of chins and corpulence was beyond portly.
He could have his newspaper, I thought, I have Max. Max was not fooled by the faux civility and he would press his whole body against me, and make fierce faces at the relatives. It was overkill, but very appealing.
Auntie Mildred was a traditional housewife content to fuss about the hearth, fry sausages on Sundays, and pad her nest with a dutiful devotion. Without fail every day Uncle Archibald went to work with a bag of sandwiches prepared for him the night before by Auntie Mildred. Punctilious, he was home by six in the evening, in time for a meal Auntie Mildred called “high tea”, usually comprised of baked beans and towers of buttered toast, crusts off. Post repast the relatives liked to molder in upholstered armchairs, one on either side of a fire of pine cones, and read beagle hunting periodicals and sip Madeira sherry.
One morning Uncle Archibald, gathering his briefcase and his bag of sandwiches, ruled on my sentence, “No college, no free ride Lovie.”
“No problem!” I spluttered, hoping to mask the shock I felt at the grotesque news.
“If you don’t change your mind about school you’ll need to move out by the end of the summer. Action Lovie, it’s time for action.”
I did nothing. For the rest of the summer I put the overambitious chore out of my mind. Instead I closed off and curled up in a hammock under the arched boughs of a Mulberry tree, where I read adventure books. Each tome convinced me more my own road in life should be the Gringo trail, the path of the traveler, the explorer. Max was usually close by flopped on his side, snout ruffling as he growled in his sleep. I imagined he was dreaming of rabbits. Now the last days of August were upon me and time was evaporating. As a token gesture I scrolled the internet employment sites but inevitably I could not find anything agreeable. Either a dead chicken could get the job but the pay was low, or ridiculous quantities of years of ‘experience’ were required or no need applying. I’ll admit I was disheartened.
In the evenings I would follow Max across the front yards and the back lawns of the homes of neighbors, meandering our way to the beach. Rabbits sprang about and Max devoted a lot of energy to trying to catch them. Chasing at full speed, carving corners low to the ground like a motorcycle, he got awfully close and I wouldn’t mean to but sometimes I’d lose my nerve and yell at him to leave the defenseless bunnies be. Except that Max never caught a rabbit, which was a relief, although I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for him. He was cut like a body builder, he had speed like Ali, but he couldn’t catch a bunny rabbit.