Art Pact 231 - Our uncle and his crimes


Our uncle, in contradistinction to all established human practise, gloried in his enormous crimes while remaining embarrassed about his lesser ones. His position as somewhat about the law in our sleepy little county allowed him a degree of latitude in boasting about his excesses that petty conmen or burglars would have killed for, and he exploited it to the full whenever possible, laughing at dinner parties about the money he'd embezzled from the pension funds, joking when in public about fellow businessmen that he had ruined. The secret behind this impunity, of course, was that he knew himself to be surrounded by those who had benefited directly from his largesse, people who had themselves become so corrupted by association that they could not censure him without becoming eligible for prizes in the service of the advancement of hypocrisy. Even my sister and I, perhaps our uncle's most vocal critics, realised to our shame early in our lives that we depended on him for our house and food, and that with our father long gone and our mother unwilling to perform any sort of work, our lives would have been ones of deprivation and sorrow if he had not been both rich and willing to burn part of his riches on the great project that was keeping our mother in the manner to which she had demanded to become accustomed. It frequently astounded me that the man who could be so hard-headed in business could be such a push-over to his sister - I took care of my own sibling wherever possible, of course, but there were limits. Andrea and I knew that there were family obligations that were carved in stone (me protecting her from bullies, her protecting me from unsuitable girlfriends), but we also knew that we had to treat these services as if they were a courtesy, not a right. If Andrea had begun to get herself into trouble just to have me wreak havoc on a hapless boy, I would have cut her off in an instant, and I assumed that she would do the same. Our mother, on the other hand, combined an endless greed for money with a sullen ingratitude that made me wonder on many an occasion whether our uncle had ever stooped to involvement in murder - and what provocation it would take to drive his to that extreme.

He had certainly caused deaths, although none in a way that was directly describable as murder. He had ruined businessmen in such humiliating ways that at least one had taken his own life, and there were two more whose families blamed my uncle for a decline in health that lead ultimately to death. He was guilty of manslaughter (although neither in the legal nor emotional sense, only in the sense that I and my sister and many others knew with reasonable certitude that he was entirely culpable for the factory accidents in question), and it was widely whispered - although always with great care, for my uncle was a master at using the grapevine himself - that he had tampered with the scene of his first wife's car crash, and that it had been him rather than her who was at the wheel. He had attributed his survival and lack of injuries in the crash to the relaxed posture being heavily drunk had imparted to him, but it seemed considerably more likely that his relatively light injuries had been due to the car's superior driver's side air-bags, and that in fact the alcohol had caused the collision. But the local traffic police were in his pocket just as much as the detectives and chief constable, and so no such rumours made it as far as the crown prosecutor's office, much less the newspapers or a jury.

I had to admit to a certain admiration for the way in which he kept his largesse local and his crimes at arms length, ensuring that those surrounding him were rarely affected in such a way as to make them hostile. The ruined businessmen and dead factory workers, of course, all came from his concerns in the south, and so the locals saw them less as victims and more as rival teams who had had the audacity to live in a richer part of the country and pronounce their 'a's long and therefore deserved derision and defeat. My uncle exploited this ruthlessly, ensuring that when he had to do anything unpopular locally he hired posh-sounding consultants to come in and hand out the news as though they were government employees, putting himself in the position of having his hand forced. These stage-managed events he carefully designed so that they had slip points in them which he could pretend to exploit - for instance, when he wanted to extend the local bingo-hall to include slot machines (which meant knocking down the old people's home next door), he had his stooges pretend that this was part of a land-grab involving four blocks of flats and the neighbouring pub as well. He then arranged matters so that it looked as though he had outmanoeuvred the fake officials, saving the pub by a slight of hand involving local boundary laws that the big-city lawyers had misinterpreted. He was not, unfortunately, able to save the old folks home, but the residents of the flats and the pub landlord were saved. Not knowing that they had in fact never been in danger, their gratitude provided my uncle with an excellent smokescreen behind which he was able to secure the land on which the old folks home had been. By the time the slot-machines were in place three years later, no-one remembered what had been in their place.

Even this, though, was understood and written off to some extent. It was the really small crimes that seemed to be most embarrassing to him, especially those local to him. He would proudly say that he had ruined a man, but keep his lips sealed over swindling his housekeepers out of a month's pay by blaming them for stealing and dismissing them early. These trivial injustices were hidden from the world, but my sister and I were acutely aware of them.

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