Albert

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I know very little about him. I know my uncle was born in Southampton on 20 July 1921 and that he died in Scotland in January 1944. He was the eldest child of Hedley and May Mabey, my grandparents. He worked as an industrial chemist before his service in the RAF. He was a clever, handsome man and a keen photographer.

Were I to write that he was a presence in my childhood, I would be lying. All I remember is this photograph that was in my parents’ bedroom, finding the ‘big black compass’ and the book of poetry.

Ours was not a house filled with photographs but paintings hung on every wall in every room. The only two photographs on display when I was a young child were Albert’s and my Father’s mother. I knew that they were both dead, and thus in my solemn way I equated photographs with mourning.

We got into trouble once through playing with the ‘big black compass’ in the wild part of our garden. I think my sisters and I were being spies. The misdemeanour was my doing. It was I who rummaged around in the airing cupboard, pushing my small hands under the ‘good tablecloths’ at the back. There, amongst the bars of yellow soap and Imperial Leather talcum powder, I felt a leather handle to pull at. This was attached to the curious block of metal, which I furtively transported downstairs and out to our spot in the garden. Later Mother scolded me for taking what I should not. I knew I had done wrong but I could not understand the hurt upon her face. She never said it belonged to him. We called the heavy, square box a ‘big black compass’ because of its glass-faced display of semi-circular dials and red needles. It was a mechanical mystery. My uncle, what he did and who he was, was another type of mystery. I know now he was a flight navigator, but the function of that instrument will remain a puzzle, for Mother made sure that we never saw it again.

The book of poetry was the collected works of Keats. There was an inscription in it, from his girlfriend Joyce. Mother let me borrow it when I was at university, on condition that I took good care. I looked for the book after Mother died, but she must have given it away. What happened to the big black compass heaven only knows. The photograph stayed on the chest of drawers until my parents moved to live with my sister. ‘Long enough’ I suppose she said to herself – 40 years was long enough.

I have sent away for Albert’s service record and I hope that it will yield more concrete information, I’m waiting another week before starting on his letters, in the hope that I will receive the record soon. So it goes that more than 70 years since he passed away, almost everything I will know of Albert will come from his own hand.