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In my community — the Anglo-Indian — it’s still common to run into a youngster and be addressed as ‘uncle’. Don’t have to be related by blood. Any older male is just ‘uncle’. Even to be addressed as Mr Martin would be deemed a tad cheeky. That might have changed a bit today, thankfully. I can still remember greeting an elderly gentleman that way in the sixties (‘Good morning, Mr Baxter’) only to have one of my ears twisted by my mother, accompanied by the reprimand, ‘Don’t get above yourself.’

Mr Baxter was a man with a large family of eleven children. For a man who was an ‘uncle’ to all us kids at the time, I used to find it odd to hear him say to my dad, quite often whenever they met in the middle of the road, one going one way the other going another, ‘I’m off to see uncle’. My dad used to give him a sad, rueful smile and bid him well. And I, who used to be tagging along with my father, eavesdropping on all adult conversation, didn’t quite understand it all.

more off the cuff

Did Mr Baxter have an uncle of his own? In which case he must be quite elderly. And it kind of explained my dad’s sad expression. One day I plucked up the courage to ask my dad, ‘Can we go visit Mr Baxter’s uncle?’ ‘No,’ said my father, ‘that’s the one place we won’t be going to. Ever.’ ‘Why?’ I inquired, and I can still see my dad leaning forward and placing a finger on my lips. ‘Silence,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘Ask no more questions and you’ll be told no more lies.’ Of course, he didn’t use any of those words. But I realised even at that young age that there were things he didn’t wish to tell me, perhaps because I was too young to understand.

As it turned out, that was exactly the incentive I needed to try harder to find what it was dad was keeping from me. ‘Who’s Mr Baxter’s uncle?’ I asked my mum one day, when dad had gone to work. ‘You don’t need to know,’ my mother replied, adding, ‘Johnny Baxter’s uncle will be the death of him.’ That scared me enough not to ask any more. And it took me two whole months before I realised that there was a much more obvious approach. Lenny Baxter was my classmate! I could ask him.

How easily we overlook the simplest solutions and take the complex routes to an answer. So, at lunch time one day I put it to Lenny that I’d be interested in meeting his uncle. ‘Uncle? I don’t have one,’ said Lenny. Uh-oh! Dead end. I looked into his eyes. ‘Tell me the truth,’ I said, and he replied, ‘I’m telling you the truth.’ ‘I didn’t think you would lie to me, Lenny,’ I said, ‘Then who is the uncle your dad’s always visiting?’

I remember Lenny hanging his head like he’d been caught out in a lie.

And I, triumphant, pressed on, ‘See? Why not tell the truth straight up?’ The sad truth as it turned out was that ‘uncle’ was (and still is) a euphemism for ‘pawnbroker’. The Baxters pawned away most of their valuables, wedding presents and other personal possessions, to keep their large family going and growing. The pawnbroker was (and probably still is) one of the very wealthy businessmen in the neighbourhood; wealthy via the possessions of others, bought for a fractional price. All this was called to mind recently when I came across a sign in the local pawnbroker shop: See Me At Your Earliest Inconvenience.

— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.