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Oh, to be 9 years old (but not 10)

Jillings Towers festooned with 10th birthday party balloons

We have recently hosted my brother in law and his young daughter H for a week’s holiday. They live in the US and usually join us for Christmas, but Covid put paid to that for the past two Yules, so we were overdue a visitation.

Scheduled to arrive in time for a full family Easter celebration, the visitors got off to a poor start by having their first flight delayed by so long that it became impossible to make their connection in Washington, so – as I was launching myself into the final bed-making round – we received a brief text explaining that they had gone back home to bed and the whole arrival thing would happen 24 hours late. Of course, as the non-travelling participants in this holiday, we were sheltered from the awfulness of having to get up at 3am for the second day running, but it was rather discombobulating nevertheless to have all the plans shifted. I immediately ceased hospital-corner procedures and down-dustered my day in favour of a brisk walk followed by some desultory Netflixing.

Daughter Jillings, who had planned to meet us all at Heathrow (despite Easter weekend closure of the Piccadilly Line to add to the challenge!) and then spend her precious day off on Easter Day with us all, was now not able to see her little cousin until several days later. A huge disappointment, given that she had been planning this for ages. Son Jillings was fortunately able to flex his own schedule and come for an Easter Monday roast instead, no doubt egged on (oh, I’m so sorry!) by the promise of Easter chocolate and a bottomless pit of Hot Cross Buns, and a need to replenish after what had suddenly become a somewhat low-key (and low calorie) Holy Day for him.

I don’t normally attend the big airport meet-and-greet when these relatives arrive at Christmas. Daughter J loves it all and usually accompanies her father on such excursions while I am to be found at home peeling spuds or fretting about whether we have enough wrapping paper for EVERYONE to use when they realise that, once again, they have failed to buy any themselves. But this time, with no younger generation available for collection duties, and no vegetables to peel (at least, not urgently), I decided to throw myself into the welcoming process, prepared a sign-board with our niece’s name on it, and jumped into the car with Mr J to brave Heathrow Terminal 2 short-term car-park (armed also, of course, with a credit card with which to negotiate the extortionate parking machines – I thought the hospital car-park was bad enough but airports are in a different league, if morally less offensive I suppose.)

As we got closer to our destination, several planes roared over our heads on their landing approach. I became increasingly distressed that, although Mr J was driving me to an airport, I would not be allowed to board any of these noisy monsters this time (despite secretly popping my passport into my pocket beforehand – ‘just in case’.) A sense of frustrated sadness threatened to settle – BUT, in the nick of time I reminded myself that this was not about me. It was about a young lady who had been deprived of her father’s homeland and relatives for far too long and needed a proper welcome.

Mr J was bemused by my animation in the Arrivals Hall. (But really, how can this not be exciting?!) I was always going to be the first to spot them, and young H was much quicker than her father in spotting me; the one mad woman jumping up and down waving an A4 handwritten (with several neon highlighter pens, and in wonky capital letters) sign, whooping loudly in order to distinguish herself from the low-key mini-cab drivers half-heartedly brandishing their inevitably misspelt iPad greetings for jaded business-class clients. The mad woman whom everyone else was studiously ignoring was surely just what was needed by a nine-year-old after two days with almost no sleep. And yes, it was!

From this point onwards, the whole week went swimmingly well. Highlights included:

  • several trips on double-decker buses across London – regular services, not the touristy ones – sitting upstairs at the front
  • meeting the ravens at the Tower of London
  • a sleepover at her cousin’s (Daughter J’s) flat
  • a ‘trainee’ session at the same cousin’s restaurant, where a be-aproned (and trained) H proudly welcomed the rest of the family and showed us to our table for lunch and later created a fantastic ice-cream dessert for us
  • an Easter Egg hunt in the back garden of Jillings Towers on the ‘day that we deemed to be Easter because they missed the actual day’ (I think this was the first time I’ve bothered to hide eggs in the garden. Apologies to my own children for depriving them of this when they were small, but in my defence I don’t recall such a sunny Easter time. Son Jillings made up for this in his enthusiasm for the search, but his young cousin triumphed spectacularly, perhaps due to having had more practice.)
  • a train trip with her father to the Jurassic Coast to look for (and find – hurrah!) fossils
  • a trip to the Jillings fatherland (hmm – can I say that? Well, I have) in Suffolk where an English pen-pal turned out to be a hit in real life as well as on the page, lunch was taken at the traditional pub, and several relatives later gathered for tea to maximise H’s exposure to her UK heritage, which could have been terrifying but turned out charming
  • a walk in Richmond Park, armed with a loaned camera so she could take (very good!) photographs of the stunning azalea and rhododendron displays
  • a quiet afternoon chilling out in our garden, underlining the dawning realisation
    Chilling rather than freezing
    that England – previously seen only in December – has trees with actual leaves, a sky that is sometimes prettily blue, and garden lawns that can be lain upon to read without the need for six layers of clothing (chilling now meaning relaxing rather than getting frostbite)
  • a birthday party with all sorts of balloon and bunting trimmings in the aforementioned  back garden – featuring a pre-requested Colin the Caterpillar cake (my relief knew no bounds when I received this request a few weeks earlier. My baking skills definitely include the ability to go to M&S and buy one of these. I found they even do baby Colins which are perfect for candles.)
Many Colins make light work of cake preparation

We felt honoured to hold H’s tenth birthday party. During the build-up to it throughout the week’s stay, there were several references to getting older and growing up. We imagined that reaching double figures was a really big deal and would be approached with excitement, but it turns out we were wrong about that. A party, presents and a cake, were most definitely eagerly anticipated – but the progression towards teenage and adulthood was decidedly not. H’s father told us that she has become tearful at the thought of change and has specifically stated she does not want to grow up. She wants to keep her fun-filled childhood a little longer. 

Paradoxically, this suggests self-knowledge and maturity beyond her years. Living, as she does, as an only child between two separated parents, she perhaps gets the best of both of them and a great deal of undivided attention (although we spotted no sign of being ‘spoiled rotten’ as you might expect from such a situation) but I’m not sure that accounts for it. Maybe this is normal anyway and I just didn’t notice it with my own children – or perhaps they didn’t have the opportunity to express such thoughts.

So, in order to make H feel truly comfortable (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it), I was more successful than usual in mining my own inner child – the one that rarely got an outing even when I was an actual child. As a result, I managed to complete the obstacle course at a local playground, much to my own astonishment and to the horrified bemusement of Mr J (who, along with H, failed to notice my brazen cheating at a couple of key points, but I must insist that my performance was still a triumph in tight denim and boots with heels (ok, fairly sensible heels, but still…)). I also spent a good five minutes sitting partially in the cup-holder of H’s car seat whilst hysterically trying to work out how to operate the middle-seat seat-belt of our car, milking my dilemma with squeals and child-friendly expletives for all it was worth to the delighted screams of laughter from H – and with three elderly Jillings brothers each displaying his own variant of nervous bewilderment from the other, wider, seats in the car. H loved it (shhh, so did I). (Horrified afterthought – were H’s screams due to me actually sitting on HER rather than the cup-holder. Oops!)

She also loved Potter Puppet Pals: The Mysterious Ticking Noise (which I would urge you to watch if you’ve not seen it before – so silly) to which Daughter J introduced her – and we spent the last couple of days of the visit improving our collective performance of this, particularly on car journeys. I like to think that my very own perfectly timed and pitched ‘Ron WEASley!’ went unsurpassed, although I gather it is now no longer funny to intersperse adult conversations with such gloriously honed contributions. Boring!

In addition to the Harry Potter spoofing, in solid family tradition, we created another regularly repeated phrase to punctuate our family interactions. I recall the last Christmas visit included far too much declaiming of  ‘I’m Spartacus’, and inevitably H came up with something with which we could all torment each other ad nauseam this time. For reasons that I have still not fathomed, the word ‘Pigeon’ was in favour. H would shout, or mumble or even whisper, this word at fairly regular intervals throughout the day, sometimes quite insistently. Son J proved himself a patient and resourceful cousin in this regard, and somehow managed to build whole lengthy conversations with H.

For example, taken from our walk back to Waterloo on Hungerford/Jubilee bridge –  H: Pigeon, Son J: We, H: Pigeon, Son J: are, H (forte): PIGEON, Son J: crossing, H (sotto voce): Pigeon, Son J: the H: Pigeon, Son J: Thames, H (yelling): PIGEON!

You get the general idea*.

For my own part, I tried to counter her Pigeons with alternative birds, but my aging brain struggled to find many examples quickly enough to keep up with her, and I resorted eventually to responding in French (well, an approximation of a French accent at least) with ‘Pigeon’. OK, not clever, or original, but it seemed to meet with her approval. These were the last words we uttered to each other at Heathrow and we have continued the exchange via WhatsApp across the pond. Such are childhood memories established. My brother and I once documented the ridiculous phrases we associated with our own childhood and presented this to our parents on their 50th wedding anniversary – I’m convinced such things are massively important and influential in life.  No doubt at H’s 21st birthday she’ll have an embarrassing group of English relatives shouting nonsense from their deliberately-allocated furthest-from-the-action table – even though several of us will be in our seventies by then.

Anyhow, all has now returned to normal – bedding has been washed, stray socks retrieved, bunting and party candles bundled away – but there is at least one person in this house who still rather wishes she could be nine again.


*Or not. Perhaps you needed to be there. Sorry!





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