A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it: witherto it turneth, it prospereth
When James was a boy back in Wiltshire, Uncle Jake, nineteen years old, had come to live with the family in the countryside. He was the last born of a family in which James’ father was the first. Since their parents had died, Uncle Jake lived his life moving from one older sibling to another. On the evening of his arrival in Wiltshire, James had the duty to show him into the small room reserved for visitors. They had never met and James stood leaning against the door while Uncle Jake unpacked his things.
“Are you an artist?” James asked after some time, pointing to the pack of pencils, crayons and drawing papers Uncle Jake was setting about the floor.
“Yeah,” he said.
James had always been fascinated with drawings and would have loved to gather all the colours in the world together to make beautiful ones but the economic position of the peasant farmer’s family who eked livelihood from daily work at a dairy, which had been on a steadily evanescing turn in the aftermath of a Foot-and-Mouth disease outbreak that had wiped most of its Jersey cows stock, did not afford such tertiary want. This part of Wiltshire was quiet, remote and predominantly inhabited by people of the ordinary class, and as James kneaded his chin between his fingers while watching this newly-known, high spirited uncle of his, he was privately judging the sense in the migration of an artist to this part of the country where there were not many fine people who could pay for the luxury of art. At dinner later in the evening, James realized that Uncle Jake had only come to stay till the start of the new college year in London where he would be resuming at the end of summer.
Before the arrival of Jake home was somber there was no reason for excitement. James’ father was moody and his mood ruled. Uncle Jake had been required to come to the dairy with the family, since he was now a part of it he should also contribute to the family upkeep. In the middle of his first day, a struggle began in the bottom of his stomach. Several hours he struggled to suppress the nauseous feelings growing and rising to the back of his tongue. He lost the struggle when he suddenly stood up and rushed for the door. Bending on the open field, he retched till all he took for breakfast came tumbling up his throat. By the time he had had a similar experience on his second day, Uncle Jake decided that the dairy was not for him since he could not withstand the sight and smell of cow dung that easily gave him a squeamish feeling. He would thereafter sit at home in the morning at a table outside sketching and shading on his drawing papers. James would watch him with wistful eyes wishing he could stay back by him at home and watch him draw but his father had stated clearly that once Jake had stopped to join the family at the dairy he should also stop to join them at meal times. Jake stopped to dine with them; he was responsible for his own upkeep now. For his meals he visited cafés, once or twice at most in a day depending on the status of his pocket.
Whenever there was a chance of it, James stood by his drawing table to sharpen his pencils and crayons. He went with him to the cafés where he bought him meals because there was never enough at home. Uncle Jake lived from moment to moment. When he had money he spent and when he did not have he would not fret. He went about life being jolly and happy-go-lucky.
“I’d tell you something, James,” he said, his teeth deep in hamburger, his legs dangling from the long bar stool, he looked ruddy. “You don’t need money to enjoy life,” he said.
James watched him in silence while he sipped buttered milk from a cup between bites of ham sandwich. Uncle Jake was full of opinions.
“Money is important to the extent that it can acquire a man’s needs but if you could somehow bypass money to acquire those needs, what then is the importance of money?” he said.
When Uncle Jake went on propounding ideas like that, James usually wouldn’t know what exactly to say. James knew that he was not making much from his drawings but somehow he was getting by.
James would grow coy and speechless whenever Uncle Jake took him along to a girlfriend’s house within the rich men’s divides. He had hardly spent two months in town and already he was well integrated much beyond the circle of acquaintances of the people to whom he had come. James would demure at the sight of the sparkling, glassy tiled floors, he would be scared by the yodeling of the mighty guard dogs housed within iron kennels and get swooned by the classy, polished girls that Uncle Jake had wrapped around his fingers. Most of them he had met while scouting in the elite area, his drawing pad and papers beneath his armpit, looking for someone to give him a drawing commission. James could not imagine how Uncle Jake, being poor, could feel so totally at ease with such girls.
Of those who really valued Jake and returned his visits, two of the girls were more regular. One came always riding upon an immaculate gelding while the other drove a self-owned sports car. They sat so comfortably by him within his dingy room in the common house as if it offered better comfort than their luxurious houses. They visited Jake more than he did visit them, as if their life depended on it. And like people going to the house of the Lord, they never came empty-handed. Uncle Jake was spoilt with their gifts in return for the elegant crayon portraits of the girls and of the gelding and guard dogs that he had made. With his gift he had bridged the gulf of class. It would seem the girls had a telescope through the lens of which they were capable of viewing the blessedness of the future to which Jake was headed and they were just so willing to invest in it so they could be partakers of the reward embedded in the days ahead. And Jake, when he wanted to be alone would tell James to stand by the door and tell any of them he had gone out but they could drop the unfailing gifts. Jake lived more on their kindness than what he made as an artist.
Once, while sketching and shading a seascape with swans basking in the open water, he asked James,
“When was last you rode a bicycle?”
“Never before. I never had one,” James said.
“By God!” Uncle Jake halted and exclaimed. “Boy, then what are you going treasure as a boyhood memory?” he looked utterly flabbergasted.
“Perhaps father would get me a bicycle once he has enough money.” shrugging, James did not see need to worry that at his age he had no bicycle and had not learnt to ride.
“Money! You don’t need money to get to ride a bicycle,” he said. “Come on, I am going to teach you how to ride a bicycle,” he rose up to his feet, abandoning the unfinished drawing at once. He picked his shirt, strapped it on and began to fasten the buttons. “Pack up, let’s go.” He said.
“Uncle Jake…do you have a bicycle?” James asked, he wished he would just sit there and finish the drawing which had started as meaningless but was now taking form.
“Yes, I did when I was a boy, your father too; and no boy should be denied the experience of riding a bicycle,” he said.
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