I’m sitting here thinking of sunshine. And not having to think very hard about it because it’s all around me. And I am wondering if this is the end.
Well, you know. We’ve had so much apocalyptic rain since March, the idea of clear high skies and Chillax music and the sound of gently calling gulls and faintly bobbing summer blooms and dappled light on the terrace all seems too much like the end of some budget cod-spiritual sci fi flick now. If the credits roll shortly and I haven’t woken up face down in a puddle in the rain then I think I may be too late to put my earthly affairs in order. Sunshine can be creepy.
The alternative – that this IS a full-on summer day and I really DO essentially work in the garden – is, I think you’d agree, a tad unrealistic. Even with the affordabilty of great CG these days.
No, of course I’m glad it’s sunny. And perhaps even more glad to see Liam Dutton’s face on the Channel Four News weather bulletin last night at finally being able to deliver such a forecast to the nation. I thought he’d cry. I thought he’d set us off.
Sunshine does restore the soul kind of magically. If you’re British and not used to it, certainly. Then there are days when you can’t even notice it.
I remember one particularly sunny memory. A holiday, a thousand years ago. 1993, to be exact. When we were young enough to clear off for a month with nobody minding.
We cleared off to Switzerland. Which I’m hoping you are now picturing in manner of the Stella Cidre ads, in manner of 60s aspirational-chic travel lifestyle, complete with lounge music. Which is how I try to live and operate everywhere, obviously.
But no. The lovely first lady of Momo and I had both just graduated from various things and were, essentially, a bit wiped out. ..YOU might not think a graphic design degree would take it out of a lusty young chap like my 23-year-old self, but I shall simply look flintily into the middle distance at the traumatic memory and say nothing. Nobly. The point is, we were offered an almost free trip to go stare at some mountains for a month and we jumped at the chance.
The mountains in question were backdropping the Zugersee, a lake on which sits the pleasant Swiss town of Zug. We never went near them that I remember, we just bobbed about on the water in an inflatable dinghy every day and most nights in sweltering-still mountain valley summer heat looking at them. When we weren’t sleeping. Or watching a Michael Palin travelogue box set we found on video in a cupboard.
The cupboard in question belonged to my aunt. As did the cat called Pussy. The cat called Pussy that we’d been left to look after for that month, and who had been trained by my aunt to come from the farthest hinterlands of cat adventure at precisely 5.30 in the afternoon upon calling of his name. Yes. Calling of his name. Out of the kitchen door, to the neighbourhood. ..You can imagine how I handled this every night, I’m sure.
The reason my aunt had left us a cat, a few video box sets, a telly to watch them on and a whole nice Swiss apartment to go around them, complete with inflatable dinghy in the adjoining garage, is because she and my uncle and my young cousin were spending that month in the UK, looking for a home to relocate to, rather closer to British family than the drive from beyond the bottom of Germany that they were getting used to performing. And they’d kindly offered us the house-sit. With the Pussy-calling duties.
My aunt was my Aunty Sheila, my dad’s next sibling. And these acts of generosity and innocent sillyness were typical of her. And of what made my dad and all her brothers shake their heads with a muttered: “Oh, Sheen…” often.
I’m not sure any of them would have coo-eeed “PPPPOOOOOSSEEEEEE!” across the Swiss neighbourhood with such camp aplomb as I did for four weeks that summer.
Actually, that’s so not true of my dad, is it.
Aunty Sheila has always been herself everywhere. I’m not sure there’s a more complete way to complement a human being. So long as the human being in question is, like my Aunty Sheila, generous, caring, quick to laugh and dotty as a cherry cake.
If you mention my Aunty Sheila’s name, the first word to come to mind is not ‘streetwise’, however.
The way it would with me, say.
Something innocent has always remained about her somehow, as much as she has been old-school mum to many beyond her own kids. ..Including foreign students.
So imagine the response from her family when, a little while after her first marriage broke down, she brought home a foreign student. “Brought home” if you know what I mean.
Yes. Imagine what her brothers made of THAT. But it was okay. She hadn’t just dragged some cute young man with an accent in off the street, no. Don’t be silly. ..No, she’d bagged one of her students from her English class.
Young Peter was a little over twenty years Sheila’s junior when she introduced this shy, funny young Swiss man to the rest of them. I wish I’d not been only eight or something when this happened – I’d have loved to have been fully in the room to watch everyone’s reactions.
“It will never last” was the main theme, distilled quickly. And then she moved to Zurich with him.
Aunty Sheila’s older son, Jeff, decided to stay with his dad here in the UK. But her younger daughter, Melanie, went with her, relocating her whole young eight-year-old life to the middle of Europe, making me and, I think, all her cousins very sad. Melanie was lovely.
A few years later, though, I can still remember mental pictures of clearly. A seminal moment for young Timmy. For somehow, my cash-strapped parents found enough loot to get me and my sis and my mum on a plane to Switzerland. And visiting Aunty Sheila and Uncle Peter and lovely cousin Melanie became my first ever foreign trip, aged 13 or something. And between hearing Mum and uncle Peter swap dirty English jokes over fags, and feeling kinda funny around lovely cousin Melanie, my young mind was being exposed to the subtle new visceral truth of Europe.
And so a cultural love affair began – with odd cheeses, and lifts with no doors, and smart square buildings, and recycling bins, and cool three-wheeler supermarket trolleys, and supermarkets that smelt wonderfully different to Richways in Tuckton, and TRAMS. I listened to Jean Michelle Jarre all the way there and all the way back on the plane on my Walkman, gazing out of the window. And that was the beginning of me, I think.
Peter and Sheila and young cousin Jeremy, the cutest new addition to their family, were to stay in Switzerland until the call of Sheila’s English family – and of Peter’s longing for English breakfasts and humour – became to strong and they began the process of looking to migrate back, at about the time our own little family was looking for a very cheap student holiday.
Visiting lovely cousin Melanie those years later in ’93 was splendid. She’d grown into quite the European woman – an easy sophistication in style and language, but with her mum’s huge warm-heartedness. We watch fireworks from a boat over lake Lucerne on Swiss National Day and marveled at how the explosions cannoned around the mountains.
The fact that I still have an email on my Mac here from Melly, from only six years ago, weirds me out a bit. Because it was not long before her cancer reappeared.
Aunty Sheila, in the last months, nursed Melly at home – here in the UK. And she didn’t let anyone else really see what happened to her lovely daughter in the days before her death, aged 36. She just got on with it. Her and Uncle Peter.
As I stood looking down at the wreaths outside Poole Crem, a handful of Melanie’s Swiss friends stood nearby staring down at the neat blooms even more stunned. They looked completely lost. Like a key flywheel from their navigation apparatus was missing and they were adrift, not sure which way was up.
They looked like someone had turned off the sunshine abruptly and they could make no sense of it. And they were right.
As I looked up from the wreaths on this particular day, Melly’s Swiss friends were suddenly gone. Because they were just a memory. And I realised I was standing in the exact same spot as before, wondering what to do next, as before, this time having just said goodbye to Melly’s mum.
Aunty Sheila died a few weeks ago. And in the middle of the stupid things that Momo gets me doing, I simply scheduled it in and went along to the service and looked at my family and made jokes and ate the buffet. And thought again just how much Dad’s brothers remind me of him. And then I raced off to the next thing.
But the truth is, Aunty Sheila was like sunshine. You can’t imagine a world with out it; it’s a constant, whether it’s behind the clouds or not. And it lights up a room and brings warm comfort. And Jeff and Jeremy and Peter have seen it switched off inexplicably fast for a second time.
The truth is, though, I suspect the sunshine of Aunty Sheila’s life was kept shining by one key chemical reaction – her marriage to Peter.
Marriages are personal, private affairs. But they have very public effects. And more than thirty years after it started, Aunty Sheila and Uncle Peter’s unlikely love affair was still radiating. One of the great love affairs of history, getting on with life. Often despite it.
The sun continues to shine. Out there in the middle of our solar system. And sometimes here on the terrace. It feels reassuringly warm.
But it’s a pale imitation of the real thing.