The madness began with Auntie Sue’s arrival from Tenerife on Thursday morning at about 2am. It didn’t subside until I scrabbled back home, dazed and confused, at 6.30pm on Sunday. And even then I knew it was only an ebb tide in an on-going torrent.
Auntie Sue had a plan. It involved whisking away the children on a secret mission to Berko, Hemel and all points in between to empty poundlands and gift shops of their party poppers, bunting, balloons and all stocks of assorted celebration-fare. Then she moved on to the children themselves: party dresses, footwear, haircuts, and French manicures. It was a blizzard of activity. I’d never seen anything like it. Not since the last party anyway. The girls loved it.
In amongst this whirlwind, Mrs A, Auntie Sue and the girls had made two trips to the airport to collect Auntie Betty from Florida. On the first occasion they lost her. Or, more precisely, Delta airlines did. They cancelled her flight from Boston and would give Mrs A no information (or they had none, I’m not sure which) about which flight she had been moved to. Eventually, after much pressing, they learnt that Auntie Betty was on an American Airlines flight arriving about 24 hours later. 0/10 Delta, you scumbags.
At least she was on that one and the welcoming committee was there for her. She’d had a good flight and had been put up in a decent hotel. By the time I arrived home, Betty was lying out full stretch on the garden bench, supported by cushions, pillows and blankets. She was resting, aided by a second gallon of hot, sweet, milky tea.
“Dave! How’r ye doing? I just got here. They cancelled my foolish flight. I like your new office – it’s not a doghouse anymore is it? Wow, it’s a palace, right! And what about this garden. Jeez, it’s like the botanical gardens, right? The girls are so lovely. I can’t believe how they’ve grown! I’m having a little rest now. I didn’t sleep for two nights. They put me in a bootiful hotel room though. A bathroom the size of your house.”
I hadn’t uttered a single word yet. There were stories emanating via friends in the States that Betty was quieter these days, after some treatment had improved her hearing. I’m pleased to be able to scotch those dirty rumours. Betty’s astonishing Irish-Floridian accent is still up at 11 on the Spinal Tap-scale, belying her tiny, frail 4’ 10” frame. More power to you Betty!
She was the surprise guest at her sister’s 80th birthday bash. Trying to keep this a secret was a nightmare. Every time Chrissie rang we had to get Betty out of earshot of the phone. Not easy, given her larynx was impersonating an F16 fighter with transatlantic afterburn.
But eventually, party time arrived. Presents, guests, luggage, bedding and music were all rammed into the charabanc. No room for me though. I was packed off to the railway station. Nor the bedding, either. A hasty phone call from the car on route from daughter no 2 said simply ‘sleeping bags’!
To maintain the cloak of secrecy, we had all arrived at Chrissie’s together, minus Betty who had been dropped off at Bruv-in-Law, Chris’s. They would then bring her to the party once it was underway. Meanwhile a gang of us decorated the hall under Sue’s expert direction. Daughter-in-law Sharon had expertly procured from her work over 100 A4 and A3 photos of Chrissie spanning her full, packed, 80 years, which we gummed up on the walls. At the end of the night, friends and relatives were peeling them off and taking them home as souvenirs.
They’re a keen bunch in Old Stratford. We’d barely finished blowing up balloons and sound checking the singer (“two-two-two, scream for me Milton Keynes…”) when the guests turned up and starting necking the welcome fizz. The room was soon filled. Marcel, Rita, Paul and Clare and families – Chrissies nieces and nephews from Gloucester - had come up for the party and there were people dropping in from all over the place. She’s a popular old bird my mum-in-law.
I was in the side room ordering a few drinks when Betty arrived. I knew because I heard the screams. Infact I saw the screams when the sound waves ricocheted around the corner and popped the three glasses I was holding. The surprise worked a treat. Eyewitnesses describe Chrissie spinning in a circular jig “like a dog chasing its tail”, beaming like the North Wall lighthouse! Chrissie really did not know Betty was coming. She spent the next hour touring Betty round all the tables introducing her to every guest. Even those who already knew her. Fantastic scenes: the two remaining Moffit sisters in harness again at 82 and 80.
Hardly worth stating the bleeding obvious, but that was one good night. Highlights? Well, almost too many to record…..Chrissie opening her ‘This Is Your Life’ photo album and passing it round the guests for them to sign, with Fiona doing a top marshalling job to get it moving around the tables……… the birthday cakes moment – there were two – where blowing out the candles took a full 5 minutes (where was she aiming?)……..
And then the inevitable singing later on as Peter the Turn was forced to share the mike with a succession of entertainers from within the family. First, bruv-in-law Chris marched up to the front and held together a surprisingly tuneful Dirty Old Town; then the birthday girl and Auntie Betty started a very cheery version of Sisters that went something like “Sisters, Sisters, There were never such devoted Sisters” “I’m here to keep an eye on her.” “No, that’s not the right line Chrissie what are you singing” “Well that’s the way I’ve been singing it for 50 years” It was quickly aborted in favour of Betty ripping out a stunning version of the Irish Rover. Finally, Chris, Chrissie, Betty, Frank and Peter did as much justice as it’s possible to do to the tortuous, lengthy and dirge-like Fields of Athanry. It’s always there isn’t it….
Back at the house, people were spilling out of bathrooms, bedrooms, in the garden, under the gazebo. I spotted Peter the Turn over in the corner at one stage, holding a cup of tea and being talked at by half a dozen revellers. He needed to get back to London that night for a gig the next day and was wondering how he would ever get out of the room.
By about 2am the singing started again. Maybe it had never stopped and I’d just been stuck outside with that big-eared bloke talking rubbish about Leeds Utd for longer than I thought. I had also considered it my Uncle-ly duty to check over my niece Robyn’s new fellah. He’s seemed pretty cool to me. Not exactly sure what Uncle-ly tools I had in the box if I didn’t like him, mind….
Back to the singing…I’d muscled my way past a couple of septuagenarians to assume control of the ipod flight deck. I found what we were looking for. Neil Diamond Song Sung Blue (everbody here knew one) and Sweet Caroline. Sue gave me such a hard time about that. “I hate this one” she mouthed through the crowd. I could barely hear her for the noise of the “bah-bah-bah” bouncing round the room. There was a bit of ole blue eyes, My Way and New York, New York. Chris (no, a different one - keep up!) and John had become good friends of Sue and Chrissie whilst in Tenerife. It was great to see them here. John was sat in the corner belting out New York, New York with gusto. I swear he was louder than all the rest, rumbustuously cranking out all the wrong words at the wrong time and in the wrong key. Fantastic! I thought it was just me. My kids had also been chucking their heads back and screaming “I did it miiiiyyyyy waaaaayyyyy” at full tilt. Great to these classics being murdered right across the generations. There was a bit of Presley, a bit of Cliff’s Congratulations and then a raucous round of Happy Birthday To You with Chrissie in the middle of the room. Great scenes.
At one point Joe, our 20 year-old nephew, elbowed me out of the way and scrolled through the ipod menu. Oh no I thought. If he finds the girls’ Olly Murs or JLS on there we are doomed. But no. Out of the speakers snaked a lithe and dangerous Walk The Line and Mr Johnny Cash. It’s OK folks, the future is safe.
Later still, we had the ska revival. Chris’s moves to One Step Beyond were mind-boggling. Still later still, everything had gone properly pear-shaped. Someone had found the Val Doonican CD that I thought I’d hidden in the locked filing cabinet down the cellar behind the door marked ‘beware of the tiger’ (apols to Douglas Adams). The three Milner children, Chrissie and Betty and assorted others were rattling out the convoluted lyrical concepts of Paddy McGinty’s Goat, O’Rafferty’s Car and Father O’Flaherty’s Irritating Bowel Syndrome. Might have misheard the last one.
By 5am, things had wound down. Most people had left and those that remained grabbed whatever berths they could find.
I surfaced about 10.30am next morning. Chrissie and Betty were already up and had gone to mass on about 4 hours’ sleep. Where they get the stamina from I’ll never know. I’ll be happy if I’m half as fit (but maybe twice as sane) as that at 80.
Apparently Bruv-in-law, Chris had called earlier to see if I fancied a round of golf. Another with an iron constitution. Unbelievable. It was only a few short hours since he was giving the finest air-saxophone solo to Ghostown that I’ve ever seen. He’d had a bit of kip, apparently and woken with a raging thirst. He couldn’t find any cold soft drinks in the fridge and so resorted to another strongbow! He gave me a shout a bit later. He’d turned up at the course with an inevitable massive hangover. “I couldn’t see the ball”, he said. “I took 24 shots on the first hole. I’ve had another couple of cans though and I feel fine now!”
Mrs A had been up a while and had brought all the presents back from the hall. The lounge was suddenly claustrophobic with gifts that were roughly themed around flowers and plants, chocolate and alcohol. Only the alcohol would have been a surprise to the casual observer. Chrissie has never drunk much. (Heaven forbid. She really doesn’t need to!) But it’s become common knowledge lately that she likes a splash of Baileys Irish Cream on her porridge of a morning. Smoothes it up she says. So this fact accounted for the five bottles in three different sizes of the stuff now parked on the coffee table.
Chrissie and Betty opening the presents was a scream. But trying to work out who had given which gifts became a convoluted, repeating saga worthy of any Laurel and Hardy sketch. Catherine was attempting to write the presents on the cards as they were opened so Chrissie wouldn’t forget. It should have been simple. It wasn’t.
“I’ve got Clare’s card here. Where’s Clare’s present?” Granny looked confused.
“We haven’t got to it yet Auntie Chrissie”, helps Marcel.
“Is that Joan’s there. Well, see, maybe that’s Clare’s. What did you write on the card Catherine?”
“Pendant and chocolate, Granny.”
“On Joan’s card?”
“Yes, Granny. “
“Well where’s Clare’s then?”
“I don’t think we’ve got to it yet Auntie Chrissie.” Marcel again.
“Is that Clare’s then?”
“No that Joan’s. Still.”
“What’s this?” Chrissie finds a nice Cath Kidston-inspired bag. “’To Auntie Chrissie love from Clare and the gang’. There it is! We hadn’t got to it yet!”
Mrs A and I went out to return the crockery to the caterer. On the way we took a detour and stopped a while to ponder quantum physics and count ants. This was preferable to returning back to the chaotic system in the house too quickly. On our prolonged return, Elizabeth had taken over card annotation duties from Catherine who was now jibbering in the corner with a wet towel around her head.
“Now, where did I put…:
“It’s over there Granny”
“Is that the…”
The rubbish pile is here Granny”.
“That’s the bag pile Granny”
Elizabeth had already perfected the eye-rolling and head shaking that many a grown-up would struggle to master.
One barbecue cooked in the rain later (a Summer tradition…), we heard the ice cream van turn into Mounthill Avenue. Sue and Catherine popped out to grab one each. “Do you need some money?” says Chrissie.
“No, we’re fine”, replies Sue.
“They’re a pound each”
Sue was grinning when they come back. “Mine was £1.60 and Catherine’s was £1.40”.
“Oh!” chuckles Chrissie. “I always give him a pound. He never asks for any more!”
“Brilliant!” we exclaim. “Great approach. Does it work everywhere? How much did you pay for the telly? Tenner?”
The madness continues. The following week, we all took Chrissie and Betty ten-pin bowling for the first time. Those lanes really took a battering. We shuddered every time Betty delivered one of her over-under-arm launches. They are in Ireland now, raising mayhem around Killestre, Swords and Howth. Then, next week, on to Gloucester for a few days. The British Isles, merely pin-pricked by recent riots and bad weather, will cower and lick her wounds by the time Betty leaves in early September.
As Irving Berlin would have said (had he met them):
Lord, help the Mister, [family….friend….airline….innocent bystander…..anyone, really] who comes
Between me and my Sister