“AW! REMEMBER WHEN YOU HAD NITS? YOUR HEAD STANK!” was the way I was greeted by a family friend last week. I’d already had “Remember when ‘uncle’ Clive bit your bum?” (Er, yes. Yes I do. EVERY NIGHT AS I WANDER THE DARK ABYSS OF THE SOUL.) and “I’m getting ruddy sick of seeing your face in the paper” (Thanks. Well…be thankful it’s not my bum, I guess.), so a loving reminder of my pre-pubescent scalp infestation was a nice distraction. (Sometimes I actually yearn for the yanking of that tiny comb.)
My mother, not usually one for such unnecessary displays, decided to have a birthday. She stuffed a Portuguese restaurant so full of her nearest and dearest that I spent the first hour or so utterly overwhelmed and not knowing who to talk to. I even felt that thing that surprises me from time to time; shyness.
Then I saw my lovely cousins Michael and Sammy, laughing at the end of the long table. I scooched down to sit with them, and even though I rarely see them, felt instantly comfortable. We still had the same playful ease that comes from having been kids together.
We were all born in East London. My family moved when I was three to Leicester, and Michael and Sammy, and their brother Sean and sister Emma, all stayed and grew up there. They were like gods to me. They were everything I wanted to become, but I could never quite catch up.
Michael came to live with us in Leicester for a bit when I was little and became like a brother; the proudly flatulent hero down the hall. I would run to his room, throw myself like a bed tobogganist onto his belly and make him terrify me with tales of ‘Monsters and Demons’. I’d wriggle and scream but never once actually want to escape. He’d sing me ‘Ding dong bell, Pussy’s in the well. Who put her in? Little Johnny Flynn.” with a knowing malevolence that delighted me. (Songs about drowning cats were what I lived for back there in the formative jungle of ’85.)
My cousins joked about what I might be like now if I’d stayed in Hackney. We decided I would probably be a self-appointed warden of a notorious tower block, a well-meaning but potty-mouthed avenger of knife crime or something. Michael and Sammy laughed, but I could actually picture my Alsatian. His name was Atticus and he wore a patch. I probably would have got shot in the face for talking to my plants and died hanging out of my tenth storey window with my wet bedsheets flapping in the smog. (Or been a reasonably-priced prostitute upon whose boobs you could have a good cry and then I’d give you a biscuit.)
I often wonder, actually, what my life might have been like, in Hackney, in Leicester – if things had somehow wandered their way into being…different.
But being there at the party with my cousins, drinking beer and laughing, and seeing my mum warmly watching over at us like her many homes had aligned, our current circumstances sort of didn’t matter. We almost weren’t who we are, but who we were together, before life beckoned us away.
I’ve never really thought about how my cousins shaped who I am. Sometimes we don’t pause to credit people, do we? But they were where I started. They were the steps ahead; could read, write, play out, drink hot tea, swear, all before I could. Heroes.
And Michael taught me to love stories. It’s what my life rotates around now – dreaming and writing and playing in stories. And when someone has given you that, they’ll always be in your life, whether you see them often or not.