Extract from Chapter 10, Dan’s timeline, ‘Four Goodness Sake’.
Dan’s framily (friends that are family, plus some actual blood relations) was small, but sound. Dan made me draw pictures of this framily, which basically included all the people that were important to him. He had me and his dad, Nanny and Grandad, Auntie Liv, Jay and his mum Anna, half-brother Curtis. Eileen and Chris too, my boss and her partner, and Eileen’s daughter Marisha. Marisha was a teenager and on our visits, Dan would charge up to her attic room like a pauper with direct sight of Aladdin’s cave. The room was painted mostly black, draped in purple scarves, roll ups littering surfaces, the scent of weed-tinged patchouli, and a Playstation. No greater mystery to a child than this, and he prodded and poked in awe and wonder.
‘Get out!!!’ Marisha yelled.
Grandma, his dad’s mum, and her dog, Rosa, also had to be drawn, inexpertly, in the framily group.
‘Mummy, that doesn’t look like Rosa.’
‘I know, I can’t draw dogs, just pretend.’
Grandma — Maria Robinson — was short, quite round as she got older, and unintentionally eccentric. A bewildering variety of furniture, ornaments, pictures, photographs stuffed her small flat. She was a magpie. On being divorced in 1996 she took her youngest daughter to Blackpool for two weeks and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on all the seaside tat she could. It took Steve and I two trips to get all the soft toys home. Nothing in the flat ever matched. She’d simply pick a thing she liked, mostly from charity shops, and add it to her collection. She had cocktail glasses in vivid neon shades, though she only really drank sherry, port, and cheap fortified wine.
‘I’ve only had one…’ she’d say, though the way she’d gently bump against the glass-topped dining table, bounce off the doorframe and lean on the boxes in the hallway might tell you otherwise. After raising seven children, sousing herself in sherry every now and again was entirely legitimate.
On the occasions Dan went for tea, she piled up food.
‘I’m doing him sausages and them smiley faces he likes,’ she said. And she cooked twenty sausages and two dozen smiley faces and kept loading Dan’s plate till he really couldn’t eat another thing. If anything told me how much she loved him, this was it. She had raised seven children on virtually no money. At one stage the family had been reliant on food parcels from the Salvation Army, in the days before foodbanks. And, when her husband had had the grand notion to take his family to a tiny Orkney island so that they could live self-sufficiently, and then decided that he would leave them there whilst going off to study at Farnborough College, she made lettuce soup. Having so little for so long meant that she hoarded food; her fridge freezer was always completely rammed, and to share her Iceland bounty was a mark of her generosity. She overfed to prove she could.
The telly was always on.
‘What are you watching?’ Dan asked, on one of his Saturday visits.
‘Oh, I dunno, this film. I’ve seen it about eleven times. It’s rubbish.’
Dan was still laughing about this when he told me the tale that evening. ‘That’s so typical Grandma. It’s complete rubbish but I’ll watch it again anyway. TEN MORE TIMES. And then moan about it.’
In any framily picture I drew, the first people to be added were Dan’s ‘NannyGrandad’, Bob and Joan. My parents had long given up on me getting married or having children. So, when Dan came along my mum had no hesitation in telling me, ‘He’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’
They both adored him. He spent at least one day a week with them, being fostered in love. There was little material indulgence, they were simply poor, but Dan had a few toys there, a few books, and their company. Nanny put him in the buggy, gave him a handful of toast, and off they’d go to the park. Grandad took him out for drives in the huge old Mercedes car that he’d been gifted and which really cost too much to run. Nanny and Grandad lived in half a small barn in a cluster of cramped farm properties – three little terraces, a weaver’s cottage, the farmhouse. It all sounds idyllic, but it really was a barn, rather than a conversion. There was a living space, kitchen, and tiny bathroom downstairs and two cavernous rooms upstairs that had nothing but white painted felt and oak beams between the room and the unrepaired and ever deteriorating slate roof tiles. It used to snow indoors. Dan, staying over as a young boy, snuggled in Nanny’s bed, away from the floorboard-trembling snores of Grandad in the other room.
Nanny was northern, full of one-liner observations — ‘they can’t shoot you for what you’re thinking’ — and a gentle friendliness that meant she couldn’t walk down the street in her hometown without being stopped several times by people wanting to chat. Raised Catholic, she attended her weekly ‘microwave mass’ – thirty-minute services on Saturday evenings – so that she could have a drink after and a lie in on Sundays. ‘I don’t think God minds what time I go to church’ she said. Nanny, whose hair turned grey in her twenties, had grown a softness in late-middle age that made her the perfect cuddler for a little boy. Nanny was the one who read to Dan, who nestled him on her lap and let him play with her hair as he drank sleepily from a sippy cup in the afternoons.
Grandad was Southern, born within the sound of Bow Bells, raised as part of an evacuated family in the Buckinghamshire countryside. He trained as an engineer and served in the Navy for nine years, worked in middle-management most of his life. There’d been a brief golden period of home ownership and relative material comfort in the early 70s until business partnership with a fraudulent friend led to debt, and back to renting by the early 80s. At the time of Dan’s arrival he’d settled into semi-retirement as an odd job man; the real Bob the Builder. Dan worshipped him, his tales of sharks and ships enrapturing him. Grandad was the one who made Dan’s favourite snack — cream crackers with thickly spread butter — and who took him to the pub with the big outdoor slide, nursing a half pint of shandy and helping Dan up and down so he could slide again, again, again, until they were both exhausted.
Nanny and Grandad provided the example that Dan’s dad and I had failed to set, that it is possible to have a successful and enduring relationship. The security of their presence in Dan’s life could not be overestimated.
One afternoon, I shouted at Dan for not listening. He started crying and saying he wanted his daddy. I told him Daddy was still at work but maybe he could phone him?
‘I don’t want to, I want him here.’
‘But Daddy doesn’t live here,’ I said quietly.
‘I want him here.’
‘Mummy and daddy don’t live together.’
‘Nanny and grandad do,’ he wailed. I knew then that he understood that there was something wrong about Mummy and Daddy not living together. I just kept telling him that we love him, both of us, more than anything in the world. I saved my tears of shame until I was alone.
Steve and I made our efforts to stay united for Dan, and we were always friendly toward each other. We were there together for his first Nativity performance, at nursery, watching as he delivered his only line.
‘Has a King been born today?’
We were as delighted as if he’d performed on the West End stage.
At four years old, Christmas meant something to Dan this year. His make-believe games included me being Father Christmas whilst he was the Genie from the lamp. Father Christmas and genie shared Christmas dinner.
‘Oh this is delicious turkey, Genie,’
‘Yes it is, Santa. Have you got any more presents for me in that sack?’
The framily, as a fluid creation, meant that Christmases were not spent together. I hosted an early faux dinner for Dan, me, Anna, Jay, and Liv. Crackers and trimmings. Music, laughter, silliness. The best gifts.