MindReader and I are at EarlyNiece’s first birthday party. I can’t believe she is one, that I went to meet her in the hospital a year ago. We drove up to Nottingham in the sun. I rested my bare feet on the dashboard and put together a totally awesome summer playlist. Ahead of us lay a whole day of BBQing, drinking, family, laughter, sunshine.
Now, it’s 7pm and things are quieter. EarlyNiece is still crashing around – walking, sort-of talking, ripping stuff up, opening cupboards she is not supposed to – but everyone else is mellow; there is (of course) a pot of tea on the go and leftover chocolate birthday cake being eaten.
“Look,” I say to DoctorSister, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me. “They’re interacting.”
DoctorSister looks out into her spacious hallway – stairs in the centre, rooms coming off in a wide circle. And, right in the middle, EarlyNiece is pushing her walker and my parents – together – are helping her.
“Wow,” DoctorSister says. “A post-divorce first.”
“Do you think they’ll get back together?” I say with a laugh.
“I’d have to agree with your big sister on that one,” DoctorSister’s Friend (a Psychiatrist, of whom I have today asked many, many questions about personality disorders, y’know, out of interest) says with a sympathetic smile.
We gaze into the hallway, sipping our tea. MadFather leans down, his thin arm supporting EarlyNiece. Mum bends down and smiles at her. DoctorSister reaches for her camera, and there is the moment our divorced parents were interacting, recorded forever.
And even though I may spend my days furiously being financially independent, learning Spanish, being a lawyer, and even though DoctorSister lives in this massive house and saves lives and has a daughter for God’s sake, we have come from the same place; grown from the same plant. We don’t really look alike, and there are other people in the room. And yet, to me, these invisible threads still bond us, even through broken hearts and decree absolutes and different cities. We are bonded by Haven campsites in France where we would say goodbye to the end of every day by playing card games and laughing, where I would get a round of applause for getting up at noon and where we tried not to laugh at DoctorSister’s overreactions to wasps. We are bonded by twice-yearly Chinese takeaway, saving up to go out for birthday meals. By a winter’s evening spent – collectively – trying to dip our old cat’s foot in TCP. By New Year’s Eve barbecues in the snow at family friends’ houses, walking home in the cold after midnight and mum opening birthday presents when we got in. By sledges and bike rides and moving three houses up our street and that time MadFather’s car got broken into and that time DoctorSister failed her driving test and that time I was caught kissing my picture of Stephen Gateley and that time we held a funeral for the hamsters and I sprinkled their food on their graves like confetti.
DoctorSister puts her camera down and makes a gesture with her hand which says she understands entirely what I’m thinking. I catch her eye and smile at her. And here we still are, after the divorce. Still drinking endless cups of tea, still liking each other a lot, still BBQing and being disorganised (“Sorry, here is your present,” I said, handing DoctorSister a Royal Mail calling card [Gosh, working is annoying]. “Here is MadFather’s present,” she said, holding another). We’d done all these things as threes – me, DoctorSister and Mum and me, DoctorSister and MadFather. But now, here we all are.
EarlyNiece storms back into the living room and my parents sit gingerly either side of me. And, just like that, our family fits back together. And even though we are grown now, and it feels awkward and tense at times, there is still something wonderful – and slightly eerie; a stillness – about sitting opposite my sister and between my parents. Sort of like for a moment – one suspended moment – I don’t have to be brave or thrifty or proactive or strong. I can sit here, beside both of my parents, and feel small and nostalgic and taken care of, just for a minute.