IT’S 9pm. I’m in Sligo, at my sister’s house, where my siblings and their families have gathered for the weekend to celebrate my mother’s birthday.
I’m the last to arrive, and from where I sit in the car, I can see the entire scrum — spanning three generations and all kinds of vigorous temperament — through the conservatory windows. It looks pacy in there. It looks very pacy indeed.
I love that scrum but right now, after hours of single-carriageway trucking through faraway lands to the back of the boondocks, I’m wondering how I’m going to survive the whirlwind of it with my faculties intact. What with tomorrow’s itinerary of long beach-walk and icy swim (“last one in’s a wuss”) looming, I’m thinking perhaps... sedation, to be honest. In the wake-me-up-when-it’s-all-over sense of the word.
Inside, momentum is reaching its peak: Nephew Marius, 7, is having a broken-hearted conniption; he’s overwhelmed by the invasion. He’s also just swung a dog lead around like a lasso, and hit himself in the mouth with it.
Three-year-old Lola marches forward, grabs my dog Tilly, and disappears under the table, pulling it by the tail in her wake like a suitcase on wheels. The dog vanishes backwards behind the tablecloth with a dispirited “six hours in the car and all for this?” look.
And pudding is being distributed.
There’s a knot of hulking teenage frames over in the corner, from which my nephews peel away one by one, trailing over to greet me. The youngest, Matteo, gives me a hug that reflects all the awkwardness of being 15 and having to hug aunts. I cannot let it pass. “You’ve got to sort that hug out Matty, once and for all,” I say. I show him how it’s done, giving him the hug-equivalent of a firm handshake. “Like that,” I say, “quick but fierce. Now practise on me.”
He practises. His new hug is much better. For its brief duration, I’m unable to breathe.
“Perfect,” I say, “job done.”
My sister thrusts a glass of wine and plate of food at me. “That N17 is a killer,” she says, “Sit. Eat.” I sit down on the sofa between two nieces. Gessy, 10, tells me she has nobody to play with at home any more. She says her older siblings are always in their bedrooms.
“So it’s not much fun being 10,” I ask through a mouthful of salad.
“No,” she says. “If you could pick an age,” she continues, “and stay that age forever, which age would you choose?”
“I have no idea,” I say.
“You have to choose,” she says.
“I need some time to think about that,” I say.
Lola pokes her blonde dandelion-clock of a head out from behind the tablecloth, where she is colouring in her legs and my dog with green felt-tip pen. “Tilly doesn’t luff you,” she announces. “She ony luffs me. Juss me.”
My brother tells me about the family walk he’s planned for tomorrow. I wonder how Lola will fare on a six-miler. “She’ll get a piggy back,” says Gessy, “lucky Lola.”
“So have you thought?” Gessy says.
“About what age you’d be. I mean would you choose to be as old as granny?”
“No, not as old as granny,” I say.
“What about 13?”
“Definitely not 13,” I say.
“What age then?”
“OK, let me think about this properly,” I say.
I look at my nephews and nieces; young, with their lives in front of them. Like newish hard-drives that have nothing much downloaded onto them yet. Then I look at my siblings; they’re all laughing, and yet, in the backs of their eyes there is that look of forbearance — that cow-in-the-rain thing — that creeps in and sits there right at the back, whatever you’re doing, when you’ve parented for more than 15 years.
Then I look at Lola. She’s just dropped some ice cream on her bare feet. She sits down on the floor, puts one foot in her mouth and licks it off. Then the other. Climbing up onto the sofa, she lies back, hanging her legs over its arm. She calls the family labrador. “Nelson!” she shouts. “Here, Nelson!” She smiles as he bounds up to the sofa. Nelson cleans her feet. “And my toes,” she says. Then she swings her feet backwards and forwards gently, smiling to herself, and looking around the room with shiny eyes.
“Three,” I say. “I’d be three.”
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