Mrs A called the first shots. At least I think she did. She had a fantastic time visiting her ‘Sis, Sue in Tenerife a couple of weeks back. As if temperatures nudging the high 30’s, ruby Rioja on draft and smelly cheese by the trowel-full were insufficient, Sue had also treated them to a splendid birthday stay in a top resort hotel by the coast. Everything on tap apparently. The only thing missing was Tony Blackburn hosting an edition of Seaside Special.
Returning the favour, Sue popped over the UK for a similar long weekend, barely a week later. And to continue this theme of belated birthdays, Mrs A whisked Sue off to London for a posh meal in a bijou restaurant and thence to an incident-packed wine-tasting education at Vinopolis. And I thought my slurping technique was poor. Sue’s tasting notes were testament to the fact she had struggled with that precise sharp in-take of breath required to provide the ideal taste explosion at the back of the palette. But not because she had explained this in her otherwise comprehensive notes. No. It was because the wine was splattered all over the pages. I suspect a bout of giggle-induced dribbling, but Sue denies this…
I didn’t escape the gift-receiving entirely unscathed. I have documented the two-decade long tack-war that exists between me and my lovely sister-in-law elsewhere in these pages. On this occasion, Sue casually said, “Oh, here’s the last part of your Christmas present..” I wasn’t obviously worried, as the first part had been vegetable seeds and other useful equipment for the allotment. This wind-up gift war is a tricky thing. You are never sure when you might get outflanked. Here, I was presented with the New Scientists’ ‘How to Fossilise Your Hamster’, containing a range of DIY experiments including ‘make eggs go green’ and ‘measure the speed of light with chocolate and a microwave’. On the wider continuum of our present-giving, this sits somewhere in the middle. On the one hand I could easily see myself getting to grips with many of these intriguing tests. On the other hand, when Sue was sadly burgled last year, mysteriously, this book was not stolen…
The surprise bit of this visit was aimed at Granny, who had no idea Sue was popping over for a bit of a knees up. The Milners are good at these things. Although I sometimes struggle to remember who is surprising whom, and in whose presence I should be keeping my gob shut. However, Sharon, my other sister-in-law (yes I’m lucky enough to have two…) is worse. When Sue came home to surprise her brother Chris on his 50th birthday by suddenly, dramatically emerged from under the restaurant table (think ‘cake’ and ‘girl’), Chris took it nonchalantly in his stride. “Yeah, Sharon let it slip in the taxi over”, he explained. “‘Sue likes that restaurant’ she said. I looked at her and she went, ‘Sue? Did I say Sue? I meant Helen’. But it was too late”
But this time it worked perfectly. Granny was ambushed half way down the High Street. Our daughters were the advance, diversionary party. Granny greeted them effusively and then looked up and stared blankly at her émigré daughter for a good few seconds. And then came the scream of recognition. Closely followed by an open-palm thigh–spanking manoeuvre that has since become the template for a brand new Bavarian lederhosen stomp.
The timing of Sue’s visit was party driven by the Eurovision Song Contest, which fell on a convenient weekend between holiday weekends and thus provided an excuse for a party. Much in the same way that, for this lot, returning a library book on time might. Eurovision’s tortured televisual marathon is a marmite test. You love it or loathe it. Half measures don’t work. But it’s tough love. In the way that screaming filthy abuse at the toothy, airbrushed mannequin from Latvia when they give another 12 points to Estonia is love. Or at least passion. Especially when the volley comes from Granny, over there on the settee, aged 80-and-three-quarters.
|The French and the Spaniards win the icing count|
The five girls were in charge of thematic party preparations, but ultimately led from the front by Sue. At the off, we had cheese from the UK, wine from France, tapas from Spain, cold meats from Germany, pickled fish from Sweden, pasta from Italy, salad from Russia, taramasalata from Greece, tsatziki from Turkey, and er, maltesers from Malta! We had buns iced with nationalistic emblems, home made flags on cocktail sticks and highly dubious slogans like “Get Behind The Hump” splattered over pictures of the big man. Could a house be more thoroughly prepared?
|Dink makes a stink. Possibly.|
But at least we had the sweepstake to keep us edgy. Never let a betting opportunity go unexploited. That’s what I say. 26 finalists meant two blind picks each with enough spares to be allocated, virtually, to absent friends and family. And indeed that is who won. My niece Robyn swooped in with Sweden from distant Milton Keynes. Not that she knew too much about it. “Robyn, you’ve got Sweden, you’ve won!” explained Sharon down the Blackberry to her bemused daughter. “Oh, great. Is it a good song?” I know... hard to believe she wasn’t glued to the coverage.
Chris and Sharon left on the last train home, but we still had a full house and three kids ended up sleeping in my lovely office on blow up beds. So that just left the four women: Mrs A, Granny, Sue and Julie. And me. They were grouped menacingly round the dining room table, brandishing with intent a clutch of ‘70’s party classic CDs. I knew I was beaten. I was surrounded and there was only one escape route. Within minutes I hit the sack, lulled into a dreamy sleep on the melodious waves of “Take-a-chance, take-a-chance, take-a chance-chance”; and “Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo”. Although it’s always possible that I may have missed the odd lyrical twist. My head, as it was, being buried under a couple of fat pillows…
|"Will someone come in this photo with me...?"|
Sue had managed to bring that lovely Tenerife-an weather with her and on Sunday we barbecued, basking in the mid-20’s. Sue’s been vegetarian for a long time and she was delighted to know that Daughter No 2 had just returned from a school trip to France and Belgium as a pescatarian. Last year, a friend of ours observed that her son came back from the same trip a fully-fledged bling-boy after meeting some likely lads on the ferry over. The school has always said this is a life-changing trip. I wonder if these are the sorts of changes they had in mind…
Bex and GC joined us for the barbie and we had a revelrous afternoon. The highlight of which was undoubtedly Granny trying her hand at the now-infamous Vinopolis-inspired wine tasting slurp. Her take on this technique involved a dipping head action, pursed lips and the imparting of a low-pitched hum. We looked at each other, but yes, the melodious rumble was absolutely coming from Granny. Her pale blue eyes staring at some imprecise point in the middle distance. Unshakeable concentration. Humming may not necessarily be a skill advocated in the Sommelier’s Handbook, but could it have been working? Oh no, there went the riotous laughter. Finca Labarca everywhere.
All too soon, Sue’s short week was over. We’d had a blast. Her departure seemed to herald the build up to the next leg of a festival double header: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Just as the pictures of Englebert came down (did anyone check to see if he was OK on the Sunday morning?), so the bunting went up.
I’m not sure where I sit on the monarchy debate. I’m no hardened Royalist by a long stretch and I’m not about to justify fawning, jobs-for-the-boys, upper class hangers-on. But neither can I deny that the old girl has shown a fair degree of pluck and longevity in a tricky old job. And if the Rest of the World continues to come and gawp, bringing their tourist dollars with them, then I’m not about scream ‘revolution’. And I like a party too. This one did go on a bit long though: Derby procession, pageant, procession, gig, procession, church service, procession, dinner. Nice to see the Beeb got some hammer for their coverage. The bits I saw were indeed simpering, inane and shallow.
The Derby was a proper procession, though. Odds-on shot, Camelot, fittingly in the presence of the nation’s premier castle owner, smashed up a small field. The O’Brien’s are the first father and son combination to train and ride the Derby winner. The Triple Crown, in Jubilee Year, is very much on the agenda, it seems. I watched these events fairly dispassionately, having only minimal betting interest. Unlike the previous day’s Oaks, where I was screaming “foul” at the telly in my most wronged tones. My outside fancy Coquet was simply murdered on the inside rail by the slowing horses Nayarra and Twirl. She was closing with a well-timed burst, brim full of running when she had the door slammed and bolted in her face. No surprise to me that once again O’Brien’s pacemakers changed the face of the race by interfering with other runners. Coquet was absolutely going as well as anything and I will not hear of arguments to suggest this under-rated filly would not at least have made the frame. Or those that say that half a dozen live chances suffered a similar fate. Which of course is true.
Our Jubalympic Street Party was held on the Sunday. Bad choice. It tipped it down all afternoon. Stiff upper lips and resolve in the face of adversity were on full display. The alcohol helped too.
Even in the morning, as we were setting up gazebos in the drizzle, we had remained optimistic. “If it stays like this it will be fine”, we cajoled. Funny things, gazebos. Why are they all put together differently? We had about 10 to do. Which is a lot of fun when all the instructions are all missing. Especially when my neighbour’s canopy seemed to be a different size to the framework. Never mind. It may have taken eight of us, but by God, we got it to fit. (Taking it down was like pinging a giant elastic band down the road).
|Drinking through adversity...|