My niece, whose impatient sidelong glances I have been pretending not to notice for the last ten minutes, finally has had enough and calls over to her daughter, descending into hysterics for the dozenth time at the same tirelessly demanded sleight of hand.
“Leave Uncle Peter alone now.”
Then she looks up and addresses me in a different tone, as if Abigail can’t hear anything spoken above her head: “Well it’s not really appropriate, is it? At this kind of occasion.”
There’s a brittle air of apology to her disapproval.
I wonder if she means this to differentiate it from her own delighted squeals at the same trick under a table at Paddy’s wedding twenty years ago, then wonder if she even remembers. I certainly can’t imagine she means out of respect to Auntie Penny, who delighted in nothing more than winding each successive crop of the youngest generation up to such a pitch of excitement and indulgence that afterwards their parents cursed her visits for days. But she looks suddenly vulnerable for having voiced this opinion, as if uncertain whether she’s just done something foolish or brave, so I smile and let it go.
I mingle and chat: mainly catching up with people, news of holidays and the achievements of children, but occasionally we speak about her—platitudinous cricketing metaphors, expressions of gratitude for all Hilary and I did for her in the last few years, all that driving around, affectionate tales of her eccentricity. She was certainly notorious in Ashton: I remember queuing in the post office on a trip back to see my parents only to have her sweep in, straight up to the counter and demand attention, gesticulating wildly with an umbrella.
“I’m sorry sir,” the helpless cashier addressed me, using the same adult tone with which my niece had bypassed Abigail, “But I’m going to have to serve this lady first.”
“It’s okay,” I reassured her, “she’s my Aunt.”
I think I was about thirteen before I realised she actually was my Aunt, well, a blood relation at least. We called everyone our parents knew Aunt and Uncle in those days and I must have just assumed she was a family friend, as she didn’t seem to fit in anywhere genealogical: it was my cousin Paddy, who was older and liked to prove how much more than us he knew, that revealed she was actually my mother’s cousin—daughter of my Grandpa’s sister who We Never Spoke Of.
David comes over and we talk about his work: he’s being seconded to Brussels for a while and may even be there over Christmas. At least this means we won’t have to endure the lumpy indignities of his and his girlfriend’s spare room again this year. Quite frankly I couldn’t see the point of us going to them when we have so much more space at ours, but Hilary said that it was important so we went. I’m glad he’s finally settled somewhere, at least, the years of ferrying to and from friends’ houses having given way to years of acting as a free removal service to support the apparently endless transience of a young man’s lifestyle these days. I try to get him to explain how to get the scanner working so that we can put all of Penny’s photos on a disk, but he seems to think it would be easier for him to just come over and set it up himself.
“She had masses, didn’t she?” David remembers.
“Well I guess for a lot of old people on their own they’re an important connection to the rest of the family in between the times when they’re able to come round.”
I wonder if this is how people viewed her? A lonely old lady sitting at home, waiting for the next guilt-induced visit. I recall the vigorous independence we admired in her as children and think that it would be a shame to remember her solely as that last glimpse: a white-haired woman in a night-shirt, waving from the upstairs window of her house in Ashton. She was the last survivor of that generation of industrious and outspoken women: Auntie Gladys (waving from the window of her flat in Hutton,) Auntie Ruth (waving from the window of the sheltered accommodation in Farnleigh,) my mother (who seemed so strong that none of us suspected, waving from the doorstep of our home.)
People have long journeys ahead of them and start to depart. Hilary has taken the car so that she can get the wine glasses back before the shop shuts so I stay around and help to clear up, tidying around Paddy who remains ensconced in an armchair—boring one of Penny’s old pupils about his time in the Middle East, fifteen years ago. That done, I shift some boxes that have come over from her flat up into my sister’s spare room: letters and jewellery, decorated plates, all except the books, which I leave for David.
“Come on then Dad,” he calls, bouncing back down the stairs: “I’ll run you home.”
By Neil, 9 August, 2006; direct link.