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Dirty Uncles, Clean Nephews, Saintly Nieces

We grew up as the ultimate nuclear family. I knew only my parents and my sister as family, that was it. What was ‘family’ had been left behind in my parents’ home country. I did not know an uncle or an aunt or a cousin or a grandparent until I went there on holiday for the first time at age fourteen. There I met them. Bless me, my cup runneth over, I could compete with anybody in sheer number of family members; my father having four siblings and my mother seven, most of whom had ably procreated. I realised through the interminable introductions that I belonged to many people. But I could not relate to them; it was too late in my life and our visit was altogether too short for that.

Oh yes I had an uncle, my father’s brother, who lived four hours’ drive away from our home, but somehow they never visited us and we hardly visited them.1 When I saw him every few years or so he remained distant. However, I did have many ‘Uncles’. These were my parents’ friends, whom I had to address as Uncle until I was of a certain age. Now these so-called ‘Uncles’ were actually the real uncles to me. They were the men who set about shifting the boundaries of my innocence, because they told me things my father, being old school, wouldn’t dare to. My ‘Uncles’ would deconstruct the riddles in which my mother addressed my pubescent self. Confused, I would go straight to them and they would explain.2 Because, delightfully, my favourite ‘Uncles’ told me things as they were. They would follow this up with the rudest of jokes. And when united over drinks as a corrupting force against me, they would put on solemn faces before dropping the most lascivious innuendos in my ear when any short-skirted woman walked by, more to enjoy my squirming embarrassment than anything else. The unuttered rule was that I never repeat anything to my parents, neither was it conceivable that I would. To their Latin way of thinking, my ‘Uncles’ were making a man of me.

Nieces and Nephew 1

Nephew, Niece, Niece

My ‘Uncles’ were a bunch of characters.3 Quite a few were illegal immigrants and were single or married but womanless in their new country, but who made plans. There was ‘Uncle’ Virgilio, who couldn’t hold his drink, spoke absorbing cra_p, walked with a limp and supported Porto as opposed to my father’s Benfica. Guess which team I support to this very day, despite not being a soccer fan? There was ‘Uncle’ Raphael who fancied himself as an Elvis look-alike and acted the part. Except when a policeman walked into my father’s shop, when he would flee out the back door in evasion, an Elvis-on-the-run.4 ‘Uncle’ Martins, having had lived there , acted Brazilian, with the accent, a cool thing. There were one or two ‘Uncles’ you daren’t called ‘Uncle’ else they’d throttle you. These were the mavericks, the hot-headed ones. Oliveira was one who really ‘educated’ me. He had run away from home at age twelve and had survived in the city thanks to a relative. The only thing he believed in the whole wide world, Oliveira would stress, was that one should screw_ as much as one could, preferably to tongue-hanging exhaustion. That was his philosophy. Did I get that? Could I please repeat it to his gaping ear to see if the lesson had sunk in? Rego was of the same ilk. He would come into the shop in furtive sprees to buy condoms from late-teen me when Dad wasn’t there.5 Manuel Ducktail warned me about the funny guys who would peep up at you from under the partition gaps of the nearby public toilet cubicles while you were piss_ing. “My boy, do you know what you do in that case?” he would ask in a bored tone, blinking slowly. I sensed more education coming. “What you do, is you aim your train of piss_ straight into their eye!”6 Cumprido taught me how to cheat at cards, matter-of-factly. Pinto Leite, an ex-marine, showed me how to stab a villain straight through the heart if ever one were to confront me in a nightclub. “How would you deal with him my boy?” he asked in a gruff voice, head lifting, eyes glowering, grasping a dagger. “Like this.” Not taking his eyes off me, he froze, screamed “take that!” and in a flash executed a backhanded stab on his kitchen door, sinking the dagger deep into the wood where it stuck, wobbling. Impressive. And then there was ‘Uncle’ José, who diverted me into a brothel at age 23, where he was clearly a client – even an operative it was rumoured – but that’s another story.7

Nieces and Nephew 2

Niece Nephew Niece

I was terribly fond of my ‘Uncles’. I couldn’t wait to see them. My ‘Uncles’ were the real uncles of my fairy-tale reality. I looked up to them, I had no need for my actual ones. I would tell them things I wouldn’t dream of telling my parents, and they were always there for me, despite their ‘stuff’, with good advice and a protective arm when the issues were serious. Most of all, they always had time for me, time to spend with an overly inquisitive boy with whom they must have had their hands full.8

Nieces and Nephew 3

Niece Nephew Niece

Fast forward thirty years. It was my turn to be ‘Uncle’ to Pieter, Madalé and Antoinette.9 The dynamic was entirely different though. Two were girls, so one had to be gentler with them.10 Moreover their culture was different. Theirs wasn’t macho-Latin, but circumspect-reserved. The Uncle’s role I had known didn’t feature in their world. Rather, the avuncular function was seen as imparting wisdom and probity, even gravitas, all three for which I was wholly untrained. Besides, a whole generation had passed during which parents had gotten very progressive. Parents had started telling their children everything from age three as if it were right and seemly so to do. There was no longer much need for ‘Uncles’ to iron things out for you. Mum and Dad would have gotten there first. Much as I tried to instill it, my version of ‘Uncle’ didn’t quite square with them, rather it bemused as a lingering anachronism from a sordid age.11 I think I got through to Pieter once or twice but hardly impressed him the way my ‘Uncles’ had impressed me.

I nonetheless played ‘Uncle’ as best I could. My ‘nieces and nephews’ once or twice got what I was about, like when they were around ten and I sent them a postcard from the Great Wall of China telling them how tranquil things were and how so glad I was that they weren’t there to bother me. Had e.g. Antoinette been on the Great Wall with me, she would have been continually pestering me with “Uncle Alex when are you going to squeeze me to a quivering pulp? Squeeze me to a quivering pulp now! Uncle Alex when are you going to give me the kiss of death again? Give me the kiss of death now so I can faint and d-i-i-i-e-e in your arms!” That’s why I was glad they weren’t there, I said, I wanted peace and quiet from all that. Lies. When one of them first figured out I wasn’t their ‘real Uncle’, she rushed to tell it to me with a certain defiance, which injured. I retorted that they not so readily discard ‘Uncles’ from their lives. Unlike me, they didn’t have any real uncles at all and should hold onto any uncle they could get, whether fake or real. It wasn’t as though uncles were in excess supply. You couldn’t just go and buy one, I said.12

The success I achieved as ‘Uncle’ to them was a shadow of the great roles my ‘Uncles’ had played in my life. I was the ‘Uncle’ who failed. I don’t really know to what extent my ‘nieces and nephews’ appreciated my efforts. They are in their early to mid-twenties now, well grown up and ever delightful. I love them to bits. But the time had come to end all that. So, just after New Year, in a celebratory spurt of renovation, I sent them an email asking them to stop calling me ‘Uncle’ forever more and to stop referring to me as such. To them, as to everybody, I would henceforth simply be known as Al-e-e-e-e-e-x. An era had come to an end.

And I’m mightily glad about that.

Pietie 2015b


'Niece' Madalé 2015


'Niece Antoinette' 2015




  1. Some religious dispute or other, I was to find out in adulthood. Silly, senseless.
  2. Some of them were self-evident, such as “you’re the most useless animal the sun has ever warmed!”, and “you’re going to sleep in the bed you make yourself and I forsee nightmares for you!”, but others were more cryptic, such as “we’re going to twist your ears and no blood will flow”, and “that girl you’re eying has got the three in her ear”. Go figure. For rapid decipherment, contact ‘Uncles’.
  3. Where do you think my expressiveness comes from? A vacuum? No, from my ‘Uncles’. By the way, the stories are absolutely true, I’m not making them up.
  4. Being an illegal immigrant without papers, he had to always be on the run. I got to not like policemen much. To the very day I’m on edge when a cop’s around.
  5. Condoms were discreetly hidden in shops in those days and not garishly on display as they are everywhere today.
  6. Actually, this is advice I wouldn’t pass on. It might just be the thrill they’re seeking.
  7. I know you won’t believe me, but I only had a drink and an awkward half-an-hour in that brothel while ‘Uncle’ José and a feisty prostitute traded low wit at our table. He had the repartee of a man of the world but I daresay she gave as good as she got. Engaging stuff, I couldn’t claim I was bored stiff. I’ve never been to a brothel since – I’m not sharp enough!
  8. Despite my focus on the prurience of my ‘Uncles’ here, you’ll be glad to know that most of our interactions were prosaic, befitting decent society.
  9. My partner’s brother’s children, all of whom I saw within 24 hours of their being born.
  10. Sorry, how very-old-fashioned of me.
  11. My attempts in fact earned me the joking moniker of ‘Dirty Uncle Alex’. Ouch!
  12. These days of course money can buy you anything, including an uncle…