He had a chequered history, did Uncle Axle, as he more often than not disclosed by reciting this bit of past information or that little anecdote. No one quite knew exactly where he came from or what religion he might be. I say religion because many thought of him as of Jewish extract on account of his name sounding so much like many of the other unpronounceable Jewish names in the area. That was one piece of knowledge never bestowed on us.
But then another school of thought felt he was from South America. I cannot think why they would imagine that now, but he had a swarthy look and he did like to dance to Latin American music when it came on the radio.
Sometimes we used to watch him through the window when we first got out of school of an afternoon. We rushed home for tea, (which took us all of ten minutes) looking in again before we knocked on the door of his two up, two down dwelling. It was one of those dingy streets where the pavement was a bare yard from doorstep to curb stone.
He loved the Tango and he could Samba with the best of them, he said, (if only he had a partner).
There were some camps who said his name was derived from an ancient fish, or an old mountain and they could have been right, for all we knew. Not a fish like a herring mind you, we were used to that name; or cod and tuppence worth at the local fish shop.
All we kids knew was that 'The Book' was the greatest man we could be around at the time. He literally seemed to enjoy our company. Most grown ups then had little knowledge or care of what we kids did with our time. In school we were controlled by the teachers. Most days we would rush home after school, grab our tea and come back to Uncle Axle's house as the rest of the day was ours until bedtime, which in the light Summer evenings was usually ten pm or just after.
It was way before television. We had no money to speak of and had to make our own enjoyment. Cricket in the street with the bat made from a strip of orange box and chalk for the stumps. Or hoops with an old bicycle wheel. Fag cards flung against one of the many walls and marbles (if someone could treat us because they cost real money, one half-penny for three). But 'The Book' relished our company late afternoon and early evening during the week. Said it taught him never to forget that we were people too, just that we had to wait a while to get there. Very wise was Uncle Axle. More than we knew then.
We were called to visit real Uncles, Aunts and Cousins and attend Church on Sunday, not to mention Sunday School so we never saw Uncle Axle until Monday afternoon when he would come to his little blue door, beckon his finger with one hand whilst waving a new book in the other.
He had discovered all kinds of things (information we would say today) that you only got out of books. He must have read sixteen hours a day to acquire so much knowledge. There were lots of books in his room but he often went down to the Library, spent his days pouring over the printed page. That is what he told us at any rate, and we believed him for how else could he know so much?
We thought he was brilliant, the most well-read man on the planet. Not that we even knew much about planets then but 'The Book' knew all there was to know about the Universe. He could pinpoint a particular star and tell you how far away it was supposed to be (distances were somewhat imprecise at that time) and show you the spot in the sky where the planet Mars was, or Jupiter or some other stellar body.
We loved to be with him on Winter evenings when it got dark early and the sky was crisp black and thick with stars and planets, and the bright twinkling lights of the Universe. He would stand in the street and recite facts and figures we would never dispute.
In Summer we were not allowed out past our bed time. Long Summer evenings, when the 'canyon' streets held the day's heat like a sheepskin blanket, meant that darkness came too late for us to indulge Uncle Axle's knowledge of the summer skies.
During the summer though he had other wonders for us to learn. Our knowledge of the world we were a part of came from 'The Book'. Strange sounding places like darkest Africa, Taj Mahal, Rotarua and names like Samarkand, Bali and Ethiopia were like magical jewels to us kids. We rolled them around on our tongues, repeating them the next day as if they were some huge gobstopper we sucked to see the change in colour.
We were told of people whose skins were so black they shone like glass and of others who wore blue robes and rode a 'ship of the desert'. Said he had seen them himself. We asked "what was a desert?" and of course 'The Book' satisfied our curiosity.
Every day we added to our growing awareness of all things written, enlarged upon by Uncle Axle's copious ideas on each and every subject. We were the most well-read (second hand) kids north of the River, not that any of the others outside our little group were interested. We got called names many a time and not a few fist fights broke out as we defended 'The Book' and his teachings (all unbeknown to him).
Our school teacher became curious when we voiced opinions on subjects he decided should not have been known to us. "Who told you that?" was often hurled at us until finally Uncle Axle was called to book. He must stop it! Children should be taught in school. He was giving them ideas above their station. Learning was for the school curriculum to decide, not some old man whose dubious contact was unwelcome.
So that was the end of 'The Book' for us. Parents got involved and he was hounded out of the area. Police came and asked us questions, but it was all so innocent then.
We never saw Axalottle Geshempher again. But I often wondered whatever became of this quiet old professor who wanted nothing better than to instil in us some learning of subjects wider than our comprehension.
© Copyright Evelyn J. Steward October 2001.
(Edited April, 2012)