I knew I had to fly over to Ireland. My mother sounded forlorn and lost in her calls. She said: “Your father’s managing very well.” Then, later: “We’re too old for this.” They were staking out the sickbed of my 86-year-old aunt in a nursing home. Holding her thin hand; saying prayers; doing what you do, as someone you love, fades back to black.
My little family was supposed to go away for the bank holiday weekend to a hotel. “We will go another weekend,” I told them. “OK? My aunty is ill. I should tell her goodbye and I have to go look after granny and granddad.” My six-year-old, phlegmatic: “If she’s your aunty. You should go watch her die.” My four-year-old, passionate: “I’m coming with you.” The baby, disappointed: In me. Again.
Newcastle airport; seven o’clock in the morning, Friday. The hen party jet set. Brides spouting tulle veils and sporting hope frothed garters; bridesmaids dropping Tupperware strawberries into plastic glasses; almost pink champagne. Blonde. Slim.Tanned. All of them. Even the ones who weren’t. Pink champagne at dawn can do that for you.
The hen parties made me feel glad for them. Sad for me. I wanted to catch a flight to New York. Make taxi drivers ramp up the sound system. Dance in cars. Stay up all night. Catch the eye of a handsome stranger. Try on my best friend’s lip gloss. Sparkle. Say: “No it suits you better,” and not believe it. Be born again. Blonde, slim, tanned. At the very least, I wanted the pink champagne.
I take comfort in the fact that once I have, literally, shaken off the children, who make a last ditch bid to smuggle themselves through to departures, I am a World Traveller. I decide the new laptop I am carrying makes me look like the professional I once was. I might even be on a business trip.
As I walk though security, a guard who has used his X-ray vision to look into my handbag calls over his colleague. I wonder if he admiring the laptop. He points to something and a security guard walks back over to the belt. He nods to the bag. I say: “Absolutely.” I want to be helpful and support the fight against world terrorism. Even in my handbag. He takes out and moves aside my laptop, two notebooks, some papers, a black leather diary and a cosmetics bag. He puts in his hand and extracts a jammy knife. I had cut bread in the kitchen, brought the slices and a pot of strawberry jam in to the car. I jammed bread for all three children before I lost the knife. I twisted and turned in my seat to find it but it had disappeared. It reappeared. In time to have me labelled “the madwoman “ at airport security. At Heathrow they would have taken me away to a little room and strip searched me for the matching fork and spoon. As it was, the guard held up the knife for inspection. He looked at it. Then at me. “Don’t get jam on yourself,” I said.
I made it to Dublin. Being away from your husband and children is both wrenching and empowering. These step-away moments make you remember there was a time you could cope on your own; obtain euros, hire cars, figure out how to reverse them. Particularly empowering is the moment on the motorway when you realise you are driving, not so much a sluggish car, as a car with the handbrake on.
It had its revenge. Arriving at the lakeside hotel, I shut the door. It locked. It would not unlock. I press the electronic key fob. (What is it with car keys?) Nothing. I had clicked a switch inside the car marked Lock;Unlock before I climbed out. I did not realise that meant for ever. I try a different approach. I abandon electronics and look for a lock to put the key in. I prowl the car in case a lock magically appears. It does not. I ring my husband. I say: “I have a bit of an emergency.” He says: “I’ll ring you back.” He does not. I have to ring the car hire company and explain. I try to explain without telling them I clicked the Lock; Unlock switch. I have to ring the AA and eventually, a nice friendly man with a garage rings me back. I explain what has happened. I skim over the Lock;Unlock switch. Since this is AA business, the man wants to know what make of car I am in and where I am. Since this is Ireland, he also wants to know who I am, who I am related to and why I am here at all. The young mechanic he sends shows me how to slip the tail of the key or a screwdriver into a small slit in the lower edge of the black plastic door handle to flip it off and reveal the metal lock underneath. I now have options; as a mechanic. Or a master criminal. The young man says I am not stupid, I just need a new battery for the fob.
About this time, my parents arrive back at the hotel. My aunt died in the early hours. I was too late to say goodbye. I am in time for the funeral.