Uncle Frank swam the channel. That’s what I was told when I was a kid. Not by him, but by his wife, my Aunty Flo. She’d be in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner and we’d all be sitting at the big table in the room next door. She’d say the same thing every week. “You lot better eat all this up or you won’t get big and strong like your Uncle Frank. He swam the channel you know!”
Uncle Frank would just raise his eyebrows and look slightly embarrassed. He never commented on it.
My earliest recollection of Uncle Frank was when I was five years old. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen and just looking at him made me cry. I’d run to mum for a cuddle whenever he entered the room frightened to look at the giant that wanted to pick me up.
But by the time I was seven he was my favourite of all the great Uncles and I’d look forward to our visits to their large house in Stamford Hill, North London. He was married to my Granddads younger sister, Florence. Although her name was posh, “Flo” certainly wasn’t. She could swear better than most men and could down a pint of beer in seconds. I never saw her without a cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth. Flo was a formidable woman. Frank on the other hand was a gentle giant. Well over six feet tall with hands the size of shovels. Car mechanic by trade, he could strip an engine down, clean every piston and valve and put it back together again in just a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.
They never had kids of their own. Flo had been a bit of a wild child in her teens and secretly visited a lady who did something quite extraordinary with knitting needles. Her “insides” were never the same. By the time she met Frank she knew she couldn’t have children. I suppose that’s why they treated Mum and Dad so well, they were like the kids they never had and me and my sister were like their own Grandchildren.
After dinner on Sundays we’d play cards at the big table. We’d play Whist, Solo, Pairs and Newmarket. Then Uncle Frank would go and get the Shove ha’penny board and challenge me to a game. He always won! As we left, Aunt Flo would give us each a bright shiny silver half crown. “Ice cream money.” She’d say.
I was twelve years of age when he died in 1970. I remember the day well. I came home from school and Mum was crying in the kitchen. I asked her what was wrong. “Your Uncle Frank’s had a heart attack. He’s passed away.” He was just fifty four.
For some reason I can’t explain, I wanted to go to the funeral. I’d never been to one before. I’d had old Aunts and Uncles die before and my Granddad was buried just the previous year, I’d never thought about going to any of those. Besides, funerals weren’t a place for kids in our family. But Uncle Frank was different, I felt as though I “needed” to go. To my surprise, Dad agreed.
I remember sitting on a long wooden bench alongside Mum and Dad in a Church somewhere in North London. Uncle Franks Coffin was in front of us and we sang hymns. A man I’d never seen before stood up and walked to the front, he put his hand on the coffin and started to speak.
“Me and Frank were mates. Good mates. We signed up on the same day. Did our training together and soon found ourselves in France fighting the Germans.”
He paused, composed himself and carried on.
“Things didn’t go according to plan over there and we ended up on sitting on a beach waiting to be picked off by German planes. There were thousands of us. None of us really sure what was going on or what we should do. After three days a rumour started to spread that boats would soon be arriving to take us back to England. All we had to do was wait.”
He looked at the coffin and smiled.
“But Frank wasn’t convinced. At twenty four he was the oldest of our small group and by far the biggest. We all looked up to Frank, literally! He kept saying the longer we waited the more chance we had of being gunned down on the beaches. Frank had a plan. He’d swim back to England. It was only twenty or so mile, he was sure he’d make it. We all thought he was mad or just larking about, but first thing the next morning Frank put down his rifle, took off his belt and heavy boots and started walking towards the sea. We saw him wade in and start swimming. It wasn’t long before he was out of sight. To be honest I never expected to see him again. It was another day before the rest of us were lined up and marched into the sea. We could see small ships in the distance and only my head was above water by the time I got to one of them. It was a small fishing boat out of Gravesend. Two blokes hauled me aboard and gave me a blanket. They took as many of us as they could then turned around and headed for Dover.”
Again he stopped and looked at the coffin before continuing.
“And guess who was there waiting for me? Thousands of men all along the seafront, utter chaos everywhere and who was the first person I see? Yep…me old mate Frank. Large as life, with a big smile on his face.”
He paused for a few seconds.
“Did he really swim the channel? I have no idea because he never spoke about it. Every time I mentioned it he just shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. But you know what? I’d like to think he did.”
He gently tapped the coffin then sat back down.
That was almost fifty years ago and I think about Uncle Frank often. He swam the channel you know.