Long Time Coming: A Novel - By Robert Goddard
My mother surprised me when she announced that my uncle was staying with her. It was the first of many surprises that were shortly to come my way. But of all of them it was probably the biggest. Because I’d only ever had one uncle. And I’d always been told he’d died in the Blitz.
I’d phoned her from Heathrow, to give her an idea of when I’d be arriving. I didn’t have the change for a long call. ‘We’ll have to make this quick,’ I said. Maybe that was what prompted her to spring it on me. We’d spoken a couple of times over the previous week, while I was still in Houston. She’d said nothing about Uncle Eldritch then. Maybe her nerve had failed her. Maybe she’d doubted if I really was abandoning what she regarded as my glamorous existence in Texas. If not, I could be spared the revelation, at least for a while, that the old man wasn’t dead after all. But I’d gone ahead and left. So now I had to be told. And the lack of immediate opportunity for cross-questioning was a bonus.
‘I ought to have mentioned it sooner, dear. You uncle’s come to stay.’
‘Eldritch. Your father’s elder brother.’
‘But … he’s dead.’
‘No, dear. That’s what your father always insisted we should pretend. But Eldritch is very much alive.’
‘How can he be? Where the hell’s he been all my life?’
‘In prison. In Ireland.’
‘I’ll explain when you get here.’
‘Hold on.’ But already I was talking over the pips. ‘Let’s just—’
‘See you soon, dear,’ my mother shouted. And then she put the phone down.
Perhaps I should have been grateful. But for Mum’s bombshell, I’d probably have spent the journey down to Paignton, as I had the overnight flight from Houston, wondering just how I’d allowed a disagreement with the corporate finance director at Sanderstead Oil to become a resigning issue, with disastrous consequences for my engagement to his daughter. Because I’d wanted to would have been the honest answer. Because the job and the engagement were both too good to be true and I was young enough to find worthier versions of both. But naturally I had my doubts about that. Part of me was gung-ho and optimistic. Another part reckoned I’d been a damn fool.
I was pretty confident, nonetheless, that I’d be able to get back into the oil business whenever I chose. With the North Sea fields coming on-stream, there were plenty of openings for a geologist with my qualifications. First, though, I planned to spend a few weeks in Paignton, unwinding and taking stock. I hadn’t seen as much of my mother as I should have in the two years since my father’s death. The guesthouse kept her busy, at least in summer, but I wanted to reassure myself that she was coping as well as she claimed.
After the news of my uncle, all such thoughts went out of my head, of course. My mother’s matter-of-fact tone couldn’t disguise the enormity of what she’d actually said. Eldritch Swan of the exotic Christian name and raffish reputation had not been among the thousands of Londoners killed by the Luftwaffe in 1940. His death was a lie. And it soon occurred to me that his life might be a lie too. Nothing I’d been told about him accounted for several decades of imprisonment in Ireland. Evidently my father had decided I was better off not knowing the truth about his brother.
Or maybe he’d decided he was better off by my not knowing. A dead relative is more socially acceptable than an imprisoned one. I might have shot my mouth off to the neighbours about dear old banged-up Uncle Eldritch. And that would never have done. Grandad might have insisted on blanking his son out of the family, of course. That was a distinct possibility. But he’d been dead for more than twenty years. And the record had never been set straight. Until now.
My paternal grandfather, George Swan, was an engineer who rose to the higher echelons of management with the East African Railways and Harbours Administration, first in Kenya, then Tanganyika. His eldest son was christened Eldritch on account of his mother’s maiden name. His second son, my father, received the more conventional Neville as his label in life. The difference turned out to be prophetic, since Eldritch ‘racketed around Europe’, according to Dad, until the outbreak of war forced him to return to his homeland, only for a German bomb to score a direct hit on