I had this aunt. Andy, short for Andrea, married to my uncle Alan, my mum’s brother. They lived in the village where my mum and Alan had grown up, notable mainly for being home to Acker Bilk. Once, when we visited them, I left with a compilation tape of Andy’s singles from the olden days, including Benny Hill’s Ernie, The Monkees’ I’m a Believer and The Beatles’ Hello Goodbye. When I was about 10 or 11 Alan and Andy had a son, Gary. Then when I was 12 Andy went to visit family in South Africa, where she suffered a severe asthma attack and died a few days later of heart failure.
It was one of those tragedies that a 12-year-old mind doesn’t really know how to cope with. For a few days it was this bizarre adventure, almost, with my dad, as the member of the family best equipped to take care of business, flying out to South Africa at zero notice and British Airways holding a plane on the runway for him. For a few days we relocated from the home counties to the west country, getting updates every day from the hospital, news that she’d lose the baby she was carrying, then that they were switching off life support and finally my dad bringing her body back to the UK. It was a lot to process and I sort of rode it out until the day before her funeral, when it properly hit me that she was actually dead. I didn’t go to the funeral, undoubtedly for the best. Life went on, Alan remarried a few years later, to a lovely young girl from my dad’s side of the family (go figure), Gary grew up. We don’t see each other that often, not for any great reason; it just never really happens. We met up for dinner about seven years ago when Philippa’s half-sister was visiting from Australia.
Gary got married today, at the same church where Andy was buried and where loads of family weddings have taken place: my parents, Alan and Andy (and later Debbie), my grandfather (on my mum’s side), and probably lots more that I don’t know about. Nice service, my mum did the church flowers, the bride was late (held up in traffic), the vicar was very good about it and did a splendid job of putting her at ease when she arrived. Afterwards the business of standing around while a photographer took far too long doing her thing, and it was during this that my mum mentioned putting some of the church flowers on Andy’s grave. I realised that I’d never actually seen it, so went after her and she pointed it out to me.
You know how when you’re little the world’s basically divided into children and grown-ups?
Obviously I knew Andy was young when she died, but also she was a grown-up, and that was how I filed it so that it made a modicum of internal sense. Grown-ups die, sometimes when they’re old, sometimes when they’re not quite as old, but that’s how it happens in the scheme of things.
And then today I saw Andy’s gravestone with her age on it. 27.
Barely an adult.
It span me right out. I’ve been spinning for the rest of the day, through the very nice reception in Bristol where progressive trance was pumping out of the crappy wall-mounted speakers when we arrived, through the meal, then dropping my great-aunt home and dropping my mum off at my grandmother’s flat where she’s staying for a few days because my grandmother’s got shingles in her eye at the moment, then finally home; all the while at the forefront of my mind in an image of that grave and that number 27. No age at all.
And I thought I’d dealt with it when I was 12, but you’re not really equipped to deal with when you’re that age and it’s easier to shove it to one side and carry on. And then today I unexpectedly found where I’ve shoved it, and the sense of loss feels as fresh as it was 30 years ago; more so now that I’m old enough to appreciate it.
It’s strange, and it’s sad, and that’s all.