Memories of Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en always brings back memories of when my daughter was a tiny tot. Her first outing was when we were living in the wilds of west Kerry. Off she went into the darkness with all the neighbours’ children and returned home stunned/shocked with all the sweets she had been given on her travels around the village. And then, she took something out of her swag bag, extended her small arm with an apple held in her hand – bewildered, disgusted, confused – as if it might poison her. She looked up at me with sad, tear-filled eyes, and said ‘But Mrs X gave me…’ and she stuttered out the dreaded word ‘f-r-u-i-t.’

I don’t think she ever darkened that lady’s door (ever, ever) again!

The Quinns Reunite

In October 2013, we Quinns gathered in a manner that would make Leo Varadkar and his “Gathering” project proud. Huddled in a basement room in The Gresham hotel, we were each given a name card with our parent/grandparent’s name on it. My dad’s preferred name was ‘Bill’ but the family still call him ‘Willie’. We delighted on how many times they could get ‘Willie’ on the same card. My daughter particularly liked the two side panels of ‘Willie’.

We mingled with our fellow Quinn folk, reading names off each other’s chests. When an elderly lady asked me if my father ‘was the big or the small Willie?’ I really didn’t know what to answer. I politely nodded agreement with this elderly cousin who informed me that ‘Our family certainly has an awful lot of Willies…’ Not smirking was made even more difficult while trying to ignore other family members emitting tipsy giggles. After all those ‘Willie’ comments, however, I can only surmise that the only way is up…!

 

pic

Parents? Pfft!

“Hi Mum. Can you do me a favour? Yeah? Can you go up to my room and look for a top for me?”
“Are you there?”
“Okay. It’s the pink one I bought recently.”
“No. That’s salmon.”
“No. That’s too pink.”
“Mum. I said PINK not red!”
“It’s like the blue one you like.”
“No. Not that one. The lace one.”
“It’s definitely there.”
“Hanging up.”
“Oh wait… Maybe it’s on the shelf.”
“Yeah. That sounds like it.”
How many arms does it have?”
“I meant sleeves. You know I meant sleeves!”
“No. I am not getting angry.”
“No. I am not upset.”
“Yes. I am grateful.”
“Yes. I do know you’re doing me a favour.”
“Okay. So it has one sleeve.”
“Is it left or right?”
“Yes. These things do matter.”
“No. I didn’t put it in the wash.”
“Don’t you trust me??? Why are you going through my laundry basket?”
“Yeah. Well, maybe I did leave it at work.”
“Actually, now that I think about it. I did leave it at work.”
“We all make mistakes.”
“Huh?”
“Be like that then!”

And clicking off the phone, she turns to the rest of us, throws her eyes up to heaven and mutters “Parents? Pfft!”

The Kitchen Table

That table, with its shabby chrome legs and scarred Formica top, was the centre of our kitchen. With knocks and kicks, enamel paint chipped off and rust settled in. The cover, with its once pretty flowers faded now through excessive scouring, held deep cuts from loaves sliced for hasty, tasty, sandwiches without board or care.

In its crevices lay remnants of our lives. While food was devoured there on a daily basis, it was also where big news was broken. Clustered around we learnt of many a relation’s passing. And it was here we were singled out for individual news. I must have been no more than three when I sat on a stool, elbows resting up on the table with legs, too short to reach the ground, swinging back and forth. In soft spoken voices, my parents performed a duet of scripted words of how they were not my real parents but minding me for another. And in turn, we all made this journey, sat at the table and tried desperately to absorb that same news which went way above our young heads.

When we saw the material, sewing box and our mother’s mouth full of pins, we’d balk and pray frantically it wasn’t our turn. Like so many women in the 1970s, she made most of our clothes and so often we endured the tedium of standing on the table as hems of dresses, skirts or trousers were pinned up for completion.

That table played host to family conferences where relations arrived and debates began. What would they do with the old house? The family grave? The old Retainer? Pots of tea plonked on the Formica surrounded by the good china with plates of cake and sandwiches presented frequently for consumption. And when the serious business was over, talk would turn to memory sharing and football rivalry. Squashed at the table were the sounds of chat, laughter and sometimes tears – of many people now no longer with us.

If the kitchen is the heart of a home then this table was its very soul.

Malaga, 2014

Day One…

After an early and quite delicious breakfast, we head to the sun terrace expecting to queue like Germans until it opens but instead are lucky to get the last two loungers. Twisting and turning as we toast ourselves in the glorious, and much needed, heat. Listening to church bells ring and looking at the city views from this wonderful, roof top, location. Two doses of hay fever drives us inside eventually. This is after the Après Teen finds that a dying bird has taken up residence in her flip flop and an American seeks to educate us all that they have Italians in America too (narrowly stop myself saying ‘Yep, we’ve all seen the Godfather…’)

 

Day Two…

Plans to go to the beach are averted by nothing other than sheer laziness. Lounger on the sun terrace beside the fab bar – couldn’t be bothered moving. Tanning like the red head I am – I pop freckles at a ferocious rate and tan in the unenviable pattern of a dalmatian. Walk to the commercial centre where the Après Teen picks up some fab shoes and I buy a stunning 50th birthday present for a pal. Lovely meal. Cold beers. Great chat. Perfect company. Life is good.

 

Day Three…

…and it’s time for culture!

We toy with the idea of Seville, Granada, Gibraltar but instead settle on the Red Bus tour because tapas-sized culture is all we are up to. As the bus is packed, we resist taking up our usual spot, sitting at the front pretending to drive the bus, adding in the vroom-vroom sounds and doing our tuneless rendition of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ that we have sung in all major cities to date.

We go up to Picasso’s place to have a look at his etchings. 285 pieces of art and a guest exhibition of Lissitzky later and I’m cultured out of it.

Chilling under a tree in one of the many beautiful squares while the Après Teen heads off – with my credit card – to sample the cultural delights of Pull and Bear, Springfield and whatever other shops pop up on her route. As long as I’m not there to witness the carnage, we should be okay.

 

Day Four…

Starts with me getting tangled in my swimsuit and the Après Teen having to unravel me. Next I put on my clothes back to front. I really am not ageing well.

Eventually – and surprisingly – we make it out of the hotel and to the beach where we lie under a parasol, minding ourselves from the rain. It is all so dull, as if the world is monochrome but we and our fellow Celts continue to battle the elements. The Après Teen makes me quit despite my repeated plea of “But Google Weather says…”

So we sit at a beachside café – bliss – or so we think until the rain starts again, bucketing down through the old canvas that limply covers the space. The coffee is delicious though – even with the rain plop, plopping, into it.

We wander from the seafront through this beautiful city, from the new through the old. Back at the hotel, and while herself hides out in the bedroom, I brave the elements on the sun terrace. It is so cloudy but ever so warm. When I see two muppets turning their sunbeds towards the invisible sun, however, I know it is time to quit.

Here’s hoping that, in the immortal words of my fellow red head, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow…”

 

Day Five…

As Google Weather tells us the day will be cloudy and dull, we gear ourselves for a repeat of yesterday. I brave the sun terrace again, burn to a crisp and am now basted like a turkey in After Sun for the umpteenth time today. Maybe the Après Teen is right about that weather forecast not being too reliable…

This evening, we go to the Arabic Baths. I have to admit the entrance scared the bejaysus out of me. It looked a bit rough and ready. If the Après Teen hadn’t urged me through those doors, I would have run away – run very fast – and at my size, that would be some sight indeed! Even with her by my side, I remained apprehensive.

We go through the door and wow, wow, wow! It is like Doctor Who’s Tardis – enter by a small shop front and be led through a series of corridors into an amazing, purpose-built, enormous, complex. Stunning.

The experience? Wow, wow, wow. We enjoy an hour and a half of sheer bliss – warm, hot and cold water pools plus hot stones to lie on and a steam room. And on top of that, a wonderful massage too.

Regrets? That I didn’t brave this earlier! I could have enjoyed this every second evening. What a loss.

Dinner? I pass on the Apres Teen’s suggestion of a Vegan restaurant when I notice it also doubles as a Steak House! We end up in another restaurant – lovely food but the staff let the kitchen down – such a bunch of rude and disinterested people (yep, that’s the polite version).

The evening ends with me reading and drinking beer while my face continues to sizzle. Celts and sun will never be a good mix!

 

Day Six…

And we are back to cloudy weather. The Apres Teen insists on a return to the beach. So there we are alternating between hot sun and wrapping ourselves in towels to keep warm. A man beside us sings constantly – in no key we have ever heard and hazard a guess has yet to be discovered. Out of tune plus all the wrong words. The Way We were is belted out until it miraculously turns into ABBA’s Fernando. Excruciating doesn’t even begin to describe it.

I insist on getting a taxi down and am stunned by the driver. He is the happiest person I think I have ever met. Keeping his mobile on a stand on the dashboard, it is easy to see the texts that come in quick succession: ‘Where are you?’ the texts asks again and again and again… When he clicks on the screen to open the messages to reply, the root of his happiness is there for all to see – a selfie of a naked lady, legs apart, leaving *nothing* (and I mean NOTHING) to the imagination. He barely stops the car to let us out before he tears off again!

Our neighbouring chanteur on the beach gets a bit frisky too. Sitting beside his partner, who is sunbathing topless, he has a rub of her breasts but gets a swift slap when he goes in for a nipple suck (yep, extra dark sunglasses are pretty handy when people watching in earnest). When he tries to apply a clip to her nipple, I can watch no more…

The weather is switched up from gloomy to fab and lovingly lasts the whole day. The taxi back costs far less – due to the fact we have to walk a big chunk of the way after the poor driver’s gear box goes – in the middle of traffic. His day ends with a bang but obviously not as much fun as the one his colleague got earlier…

 

Day Seven…

So the tale of ‘One woman, four cardigans and the Apres Teen go to Malaga’ ends today. And a very pleasant week it was too. Lovely city, lovely people and great food – we will return.

The journey home is somewhat uneventful. We have an extra bag to transport the unplanned purchases which looks large enough, and heavy enough, to be carrying a small child. We are stunned to get it through under the category of ‘Hand Luggage’.

The flight home is also uneventful – that is, until the mother beside me lets her toddler have a good jump around the aisle – in a stinky nappy.

A-R-O-M-A-T-I-C

And when the plane lands, they clap and the Ryanair trumpet music blares. Revenge for my comments against clapping on the journey out methinks…

 

A dad and his son

Nothing as endearing as seeing a Dad on the train doing the final morning preparations to ready his son for school. Hair brushed and flattened. Collar sorted and tie yanked down. Jacket straightened. Lip balm applied to the smallie’s chapped lips with all the panache of roller painting a wall so the small fella now has an inch wide grease track the whole way around his mouth.  And the look of sheer adoration as he gives his dad thumbs up would melt even the coldest of hearts.

 

I knew my Dad so well

That was such a sweaty summer. I’d never experienced heat and humidity like it. It was hot. It was sticky. It was grimy.

And it was wonderful.

What a summer! Barely 20 and, although I left home under the shadow of yet another argument, I was so happy. In London. Working hard, partying harder and feeling like an adult. Breaking free. Life was good.

That was the summer of ’85. Crowded London, hordes of visitors, crammed Tubes, thronged streets and Live Aid. The buzz around the city was fab and I devoured everything it had to offer.

It didn’t take much thinking to decide to stay. What started as a summer job was quickly turning into a permanent move. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go back to college. I didn’t want to feel the restriction of being a daughter any more. I simply wanted to be.

In a world of letters, postcards and landlines, I hadn’t spoken to my family in months. And I was so not up to speaking with them that day. Sunday morning and I literally crawled onto the landing to answer the phone, monkeys banging drums in my head, stomach feeling as if it had been scoured with Brillo pads. I was raw. A couple of hours of quasi-comatose sleep didn’t equip me to deal with the conversation that unfolded about college and fees. Sitting on the floor, eyes closed to contain the banging, with the receiver to my ear, I grunted replies to the seemingly endless list of questions. Dad became cranky as I became increasingly unresponsive. I wasn’t doing it deliberately. Did he not realise I was in a severe state of self-inflicted pain? I wanted, wished, prayed to get off that phone and back into bed for a few more hours before work. And I got my wish. Ringing off abruptly, he said he’d talk to me again – when I was in a better mood and considerably less hungover.

We never spoke again.

A gentle tap on my shoulder alerted me to the fact that there was an urgent call for me at Reception. All I remember as I hurried to the phone was worrying about the heap of trouble I’d be in for receiving yet another personal call at work. The Head Waiter nodded solemnly as he handed the receiver over and even his demeanour didn’t hint at what I was about to be told.

Dad was dead.

I struggled to take in what the voice was telling me, questions about what money I had to get me home, booking flights and all the details that really could have waited. I placed the receiver on the phone and with my knees buckling, felt the Manager’s strong arms scooping in to support me and bring me to the Staff Room.

I was numb, so numb I didn’t feel him rummage in my pocket for cigarettes before placing a lit one between my fingers. I kept going over and over what I’d just been told and thinking about Tommy Cooper. We’d seen him collapse on stage and when learning he’d passed, Dad said that’s what he wanted – to go quick, easily and in a place he loved. And he got his wish. On a warm August evening, playing golf with his best friend, he dropped to his knees and passed – “just like that…”

When I got the news, I felt that half of me had was ripped away. Until then, I never realised how intrinsically linked we become with a parent, how much of our own personality and development is intertwined with theirs. When the sadness began to lift from my chest. I realised part of me also passed that day. Dad was 58.

The grief was so intense and when it eased, I still missed him – intensely. He was my pal, my confidante, my ally, my hero – a gentleman and a gentle man.

And I consoled myself, confident in the fact that I knew him so well.

Or so I thought…

Of all the family, I felt closest to my dad. We’d disappear on adventures with me always blagging sweets at the end of each trip. He built a toboggan for us and we’d happily glide through the snow – him steering while I screamed like a child possessed with an uneasy mix of devilment, delight and sheer terror. When I started college, he’d sneak me a crafty cigarette or a vodka to pop into my innocent looking Coke to shelter me from the judging glare of mother.

We were mischief makers. He particularly delighted when people raised an eyebrow on him introducing me as his daughter, getting a kick out of them mistaking me for his mistress! A proud moment he had when I started drinking pints of Guinness, ‘a real man’s drink’ that would put hairs on my chest he delighted. It made me laugh while also terrifying me and follicle checks were regular from that day forth.

I knew my Dad so well – knew his strengths and knew his failings as clearly as he knew mine. And from the day he passed, I miss and remember him daily. I feel sad that he never got to be a Granddad as he’d have been such a super one, spoiling the little ankle biters like they had never been spoilt before. I feel a concoction of anger and loss when I see pals walk down the aisle with father bursting with pride, knowing I will never, can never, experience that. I feel at a loss not being able to chat to him, to lean on him, to get his encouragement, to earn his approval, to laugh with him. And I often feel incensed when I hear people moaning about having to visit parents, wishing that I could just have some more moments, even an hour, with my beloved father.

I knew my Dad so well – in terms of what he could be for me, the presence he could grow to in my life. But when those letters were put into my hand, my whole understanding changed in an instant.

When all others were asleep, I poured a large G and T and settled down to read the tatty, aged, pile of letters from the 1940s my cousin had given me. From boarding school, he dutifully wrote home to parents and siblings. To his parents, he sent greetings, thanks for cakes, sweets, pens and ink while asking for other items to be sent when possible. To his sisters, he thanked them for the crafty cigarettes they sent his way.

With each letter, I became increasingly taken aback by the familiarity and closeness of the text. The intimacy of relationships unfolding on those sheets hurt me. It wasn’t a sense of jealousy that made me recoil; it was a deep sense of loss. As I read paragraph upon paragraph set out in scrawled handwriting, telling of childish concerns about horses, pals and football victories, I realised I didn’t know my Dad at all.

I was awakening to the fact that my knowledge of my father was directly in line with my life, not his. My knowledge of him began when I was born and up to the time I lost him. I knew him as my father but I never knew him from the perspective of being a husband, a son or brother – of being a friend. He passed too early for conversations of adults to take place, where stories of these other sides could be revealed. And those who could fill in the gaps are now long since passed.

I wish I’d received those letters years ago. I wish I’d asked for information sooner. But most of all, I so wish I’d known my Dad better.

 

Dad and his sister, Maureen