Andrew Kauffmann: I couldn’t have known

The early-eighties
Miquel Barcelós was en vogue, I couldn’t have known
Uncle Barry’s squiggly sketches, there was no pretension involved
The family ‘artist’
Auntie Kikue by his side
Such colourful eyes
His regular birthday greetings;
I suppose art was manifold
But it was printed on Mum’s apron

The mid-eighties
It’s Grandpa’s birthday, to Edgware we go
Pristine tatami mats
An offer of slippers
Egg and cress, chopped liver too
As in any Japanese-Jewish household.
An accompagnement, cuts of lemon
Thick slices of smoked salmon
‘Exotic; to this six-year old
In those days, little abnegation

The late-eighties
Tucking into Tunnocks tea cakes
Marshmallow springs
Like the beanbags we sink into
Us three kids
Our mattresses turn mightily into toboggans;
More fun than Grandpa’s jammy biscuits
Nearly anything he bakes;
The web of Mum’s gaze
Such attention I spin, the youngest
In Uncle Barry’s neatly mown garden

The early-nineties
Formula One race tracks I sketch
Graveyards to sit, church steeples set with my HB pencils
Dad’s expense
Paintbrushes and pads from WHSmith
Mum’s long hours and privations;
Friday night roast beef dinners
PJ’s, the scent of jade, washed Persil-fresh
Grandpa’s piccalilli, avoided rows
Dad and I mop up the detritus from Mum’s ceramic dish;
A peculiar cornet solo
That time again, all quiet now
Must switch to Coronation Street
Grandpa’s favourite

The mid-nineties
A spring of late evening tumult
There’s a family dispute
Dad’s howl as he crimples like paper in the wooden seat Grandpa used to sit
Us three kids watch from the landing, eyes hiding behind banisters, peering
Something about “trust”, he’ll “never again”, “wills”, Mum must phone her brother,
“Barry. Now! This instance!”

The late-nineties
Uncle Barry’s birthday cards keep coming
The messages contracted, his squiggles sweet
Years pass
There’s others, but blame is such an elastic material.
Passover dinners come and go, but Mum’s tears.
An acorn.
Growth, of such staggering and rapid proportions

The early 2000s
I see Barry peering out Mum’s bedroom window as she lies in her bed
And a further Uncle
Like the unmown garden, their faces somewhat lacking in animation
We phone them early in the morning
Before the undertaker, before the horrific last
Before she’s carried down those stairs
Where five years earlier we wondered what she’d done
To deserve Dad’s heated contempt
To feel such abrupt and peculiar devastation

To illustrate
I use pastels, charcoal and crayons
A sailboat – it’s Mum – on a Pacific horizon;
Crinkled in the corners, I’ve no idea where
I’m foreshortened, sitting in storage,
My sisters are two sea-birds, flying in the foreground.
Art as a means
Solitary, vain attempts at understanding.
I visit Barry
A minor stroke
Aunty Kikue serves me Grandpa’s ginger cake, her version confounds expectations;
I have a presentation to give, so heavily cultured
The ‘Painter’s Painting’ by Barceló, (1983), self-referential, wild, kaleidoscopic; plenty of
tilting angles and little by way of revelation;
Art’s my escape, sifting through pages
In galleries, chromatic explosions;
Chronos dictates
Barry needs physio, I couldn’t have known the pain
Not the one Mum felt, deprived on all those occasions.

Andrew Kauffmann

Andrew Kauffmann is a writer and coach whose queer prose has been published by Untitled WritingMechanic’s Institute ReviewStreetcake MagazineClavmagQueerlings, The Lumiere Review and Overground Underground. He is a genealogy geek and is currently working on a number of non-fiction projects including a memoir of donating a kidney. Forthcoming work will appear in Polari Press’s new anthology, ‘Creating in Crisis’. He blogs on storytelling and wellbeing at

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