When I was a child, we would visit my Auntie Emily and Uncle Alfred in their house in London Colney. I used to think the place sounded rather exotic because it had two names (I was born in Sidcup so my exoticness scale was limited). I also thought that its origins might have something to do with coal, because of the relative similarity of the words ‘Colney’ and ‘coal’.
Neither one of these statements was correct.
In actual fact, Auntie Emily was my father’s aunt and she and Uncle Alfred were childless, although they did have a large, bad-tempered cat named Old Boy.
I remember these visits as intriguing because of the lack of other children or indeed any items that might be of interest or stimulation to a young child. There was a draught excluder shaped like a dachshund that I would try to hug before receiving a warning glance from my Aunt.
There was a gold coin, which hung on the fir tree at the end of the garden. I was never invited into the garden. I’m not sure why, but I always suspected that Uncle Alfred didn’t want me to have that gold coin or possibly cause any damage to his prize dahlias.
Sometimes I would sneak off in search of Old Boy and often find him curled up on the counterpane, which covered my Aunt and Uncles’ bed. I can remember holding out a hand to stroke him one day and receiving a neat scratch for my troubles.
My aunt was a proud woman. She had worked in service as a cook and always laid on an extravagant meal, designed to impress. She had not reckoned on my five-year-old self when she served dessert one day. She introduced us to her, ‘Pear Condé’ with clutched-bosom pride. I took one mouthful and declared,
‘This is cold rice pudding!’
My mother squeezed my hand under the table with a mixture of silencing embarrassment and maternal pride.
I particularly remember having to kiss my aunt on arrival and departure – her pursed lips and round face with hair sprouting from her chin, as well as the electric shock I always received, made it a dreaded experience.
I had other aunties as I was growing up – friends of my mother who were christened ‘auntie’ but who weren’t relations. I loved these aunties. My mother’s best friend and her daughter were my favourites. They were my godmothers too. It always seemed rather cool to have a godmother who was only fifteen or so years older than me. She used to take me shopping or meet me and my mother for lunch during a break from her exciting job in fashion at Marks and Spencer’s head office. She always wore lovely clothes and smelt wonderful.
My children have a whole raft of aunties both related and unrelated and they love them all. Auntie Becs is amazing because she’s a doctor and not just a doctor but a consultant who does operations and everything. Auntie Sarah knows A LOT about Greek myths, which makes her a particular hit with my daughter. Auntie Marianne is pure magic with springy curly hair and according to my son, the best laugh ever.
They have uncles too. Uncle Nick is a bit edgy and takes the mickey out of their Mum. Uncle Pants is called Uncles Pants so that’s just about perfect. Uncle Cheese (so-called because my son couldn’t pronounce ‘Steve’ as a baby) will play any game at any time for as long as you want and never gets bored or have to do the washing-up, unlike Mum and Dad.
When I wrote Life or Something Like It, I wanted to give a little shout of joy to the aunties and uncles. Mums and Dads are all very well and vital, but aunties and uncles have the capacity to be something akin to super-heroes.
Cat Nightingale is no super-hero to start with. She’s not quite as bad as Auntie Emily but she has no idea how to be around children. When she is thrown into Charlie and Ellie’s world, she is what my children term, ‘an epic fail.’
She meets Finn, uncle to Ellie’s best friend Daisy. He is pretty much the perfect uncle – funny, fun and completely devoted to Daisy. Cat hates him on sight.
Cat thinks she can win the children round by treating their care like a PR exercise, by wowing them with grand gestures and showing them the world. She doesn’t realise that it’s the children who are about to show her the world and it’s a messy chaotic one, which she resists at first.
It’s her holiday with the children, Finn and Daisy that turns everything on its head and shows Cat what it’s like to be a proper auntie.
So I would like to raise a cheer for Auntie Cat, Uncle Finn and all those other aunts and uncles who make children’s lives that little bit more magical, who smooth down the edges for their parents and in the case of Auntie Emily, serve cold rice pudding to five-year-olds.