I am eight and a half years old. The whole world is squashed into Doris’s front parlour and the room is spinning in the glow of the orange and tobacco coloured lava lamp.
Mum is smoking. Tapping her ash into a mechanical ashtray she is sharing with our newest relation, Kosta, a man ferried home from Greece and winning all our hearts with the exotic pink delight that is taramasalata, and the hilarious way he is teaching himself English by staring at the television too intently and issuing random statements he could only have heard on Coronation Street.
We are celebrating. Long lost Uncle Eric is home from Australia and the whole family seems irrationally pleased with this funny little man in bottle top glasses. I can’t stop staring at him. He is you see the stuff of legend. The prodigal son. Though exactly whose son I couldn’t tell you. Still he has brought a party with him. An excuse to wear our nylon maxi dresses.
I am sitting on Dad’s knee. He smells of cigarettes and cider and his big moustache tickles my ear as he talks to me. I twirl his long hair between my fingers as we watch the in-house entertainment: Nana, and her sisters, Winnie and Doris arms linked as they perform "Such Devoted Sisters" for their doting audience.
People wander in and out. The teenage contingency come back from the pub, all platform shoes and velvet smoking jackets. There is a little buffet in the other room, cheese on sticks shoved into a foil wrapped cabbage and home-made sausage rolls, watched over by Tom, a gorgeous man in a zip up beige cardigan, not old but forever old regardless. A man who rarely speaks, but provides solid reassurance sat there in his armchair. (The one nearest the door, because Grandad’s ghost sits in the one beside the bookcase.) He is always there is Tom and when you need time out you go in there and climb onto his knee. No need to speak. No need at all.
I wish I was in there with him. But now there is Coca Cola being handed around in paper thin wine glasses. I can’t swallow it. It won’t go down. The room is getting louder and the purple daisys on my black dress are dancing the tango to the throaty rasping voice of Rod Stewart demanding to know whether we think he is sexy. Helen has bit through her glass and all hell has broken loose. Mum has gone white. Her deep set kohl rimmed eyes sparkle with panic. Nana is rooting through her faux-croc handbag for a tissue and Eric is up there behind the upholstered bar pouring himself another vodka and singing with an Australian twang. Everyone is shouting and up in the top corner of the room the cine camera is showing movies of us as babies. A long hot Summers afternoon on Southport beach. Me shoving a boiled egg in my mouth and little Helen running off towards the sea with Mum in Dr Scholls, hot on her her heels.
Nothing makes sense. It is snowing outside. Summer has long passed. Everything is thick. The atmosphere. My neck. The lava lamp glowing through the haze of cigarette smoke. Blood drips out of my sisters mouth and in the midst of it all, I lean back and fall asleep on my Dads wide collared chest, one hand still stroking Nicky the dog.
The next day I am diagnosed with mumps.