Uncle Jan`s Soup

Lucy Bauer
16.02.2017
 
Uncle Jan`s Soup
Uncle Jan wasn`t an uncle in the conventional sense of the word. He was one of my father`s employees, a Pole who had washed up in Britain with the wave of immigrants rolling back and forth after the fall of communism in the years when Poland was preparing to join the European Union. When Dad discovered that the ever-cheerful Jan was walking halfway across town to the discount supermarket just to save a few pounds on his groceries, he would offer him a lift on his way home from work. This little kindness soon led to invitations to share our evening meal, and eventually to weekend visits, family outings and the like.
If you`re marvelling at the generosity of my parents in extending such hospitality to an impoverished immigrant, I should point out that the arrangement was one of mutual benefit. My brother George and I were football crazy, Jan was an ace player, and Dad was … well, the less said about Dad`s ball skills the better. Besides, George and I struggled with maths and, you`ve guessed, not only was our adopted uncle something of an Einstein, he was also a patient tutor.
Was it any wonder that Jan was a welcome guest in our home? While Mum set the table with little Laura balanced on her hip and Dad chopped and stirred – what he lacked on the sports field Dad made up for in the kitchen – George and I would be trying to dribble past Uncle Jan at the bottom of the garden, any tricky homework problems already neatly solved. After dinner, Jan would read Laura a bedtime story (his accent confused and amused her by turns) or help with the washing-up. Grandma, who stayed with us, having grown too senile to live on her own, never grasped exactly who Jan was, but she adored him for his charming manners and his willingness to sit listening attentively to all the stories she had told him countless times before. Jan claimed it was good for his English, which made sense to George and me at the time; after all, boring you with the same thing over and over again was a tried and tested method of teachers at school. Now, as I think back, there is no doubt in my mind that Jan had no ulterior selfish motive in devoting himself to Grandma; what he had was quite simply consideration for others.
There was but one thing that marred this idyllic state of affairs: Uncle Jan`s soup. Jan insisted on contributing this Polish delicacy on special occasions, transporting it in the enormous pot he had made it in. The soup, which had an unpronounceable name and apparently consisted mainly of cabbage, was then re-heated and Mum would serve us all a modest plateful with a look that said ´Eat it or else!` We spooned dutifully. Now, children are notoriously finicky about food but apparently even our parents could hardly stomach this concoction, Jan being the only one who ever accepted second helpings. Time and again Mum told him he shouldn`t put himself to all the trouble of cooking and bringing it but Jan didn`t take the hint; he said it was the least he could do to repay us for being a family for him when his own and all else that was dear to him was so far away, for giving him a place where he felt he belonged. This little speech never failed to touch us and we simply reconciled ourselves to the fact that Uncle Jan`s soup was the price to be paid for the pleasure of his company. What Mum did with the leftovers was a mystery, for I am quite certain that she and Dad did not finish it off for supper after we had gone to bed, which was what she told Jan.
Then, at Grandma`s ninetieth birthday party, when Jan had been a regular guest in our home for quite some time, something dreadful happened. The weather being unusually mild for the season, Mum suggested eating outdoors. Uncle Jan`s soup stood steaming in the centre of the table, lid off the pot, ready to be served. George and I were just finishing off our usual boisterous kick-around with Jan, the ball, in spite of Mum`s repeated warnings, soaring higher and higher. And, of course, the inevitable happened: all of a sudden, the ball, sticky with grass, veered towards the table and landed in the soup with a resounding smack, splattering it all over the tablecloth. There was a second of horrified silence as we all contemplated the football bobbing gently in the pot, then Grandma, in a moment of uncharacteristic lucidity chuckled ´Good shot!`, and Laura, clapping her hands in delight, followed up with ´Bye-bye, yucky, yucky soup!`
Hand on heart, would you have been able to keep a straight face? We all burst out laughing at this candid summing up of the situation, we roared, we held our sides. All except Jan, that is. With hindsight, I realize that at that moment the penny must have dropped. Jan must have finally got the message as he looked round at us, trying to contain our mirth: his gesture of gratitude for our friendship, all he had to offer, all he could afford, a reminder of his homeland, a lovingly prepared gift, was unwanted, unwelcome even. He shrugged and smiled and cracked a joke but his embarrassment and disappointment were plain to see, even for twelve-year-old me. I don`t like to think that I saw tears in his eyes but I`m afraid I did.
Never again did Jan bring his soup when he came to our house, nor did he come as often. Gradually his visits tailed off until they stopped altogether. George and I missed him. When we asked Dad what had become of him, he told us that Jan had joined a football team and all his spare time was taken up with training sessions and matches. That seemed perfectly plausible to us as did the fact that Dad apparently had no idea which team Jan played for – what did Dad know about football? But I hope that really was the reason why Jan no longer had time for us in his life; I do very much hope that sporting commitments were the reason Jan stopped coming round.
The subject of Jan was hardly ever brought up after that. Grandma, I am sure, forgot that he had ever existed. One day a year or two later, Dad mentioned in passing that Jan had left the firm and the country to return to his homeland of Poland. That, I suppose, was where he felt he really belonged.
 
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