Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia

If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find most shocking

I’m going to plump for Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia – a lady I discovered way, way back in my family tree – 18-something. Maybe even 17-something. My Exeter aunt sent me a letter, I recall, in which she claimed that GGAT-R Celia had run off to Scotland with an Under-Gardener and been Ruined By Strong Drink. I used to picture my paternal Ancestor thus: dishevelled hair, a long frock with patches, a sacking apron and the remains of a frilly bonnet. Always she would be slumped in some Highland hovel with her Mellors-esque Under-Gardener, sharing a bottle of whisky. And then another bottle of whisky. And then another. At the end of the evening they would toss the jam-jars (they wouldn’t be able to afford whisky glasses) into the embers of the peat fire and stagger off up the stairs to collapse on their creaky iron bedstead, singing uproariously. Excellent!

The very thought of having the guts to run off and be ruined by anything – drink, drugs, promiscuity, a life of crime – seems so far beyond my family nowadays. We are dull. We are old. We are depressed and harassed beyond belief; each of us caught in that spider’s web of tiny, dismal details, tiny dismal duties and tiny dismal fears. Life has got us by the throat, all four of us. (There’s a handful of husbands, offspring and suchlike but for the purposes of this post I count family as what’s left of the original unit – my mother, my two sisters and I.)

My sisters and I communicate by email or telephone. I see my Canadian sister once a year and my English sister two or three times a year. I drive over and visit my mother on a Sunday, plus ad hoc in the middle of the week if she’s in the middle of some new dementia-inspired disaster which needs sorting out. She has forgotten my name but still notices that there’s mud on my boots and my fringe is in need of a trim. She is always surprised to see me when I materialise in her hallway, having let myself in, having no idea what day it is. Time seems to be skittering past her at an ever-increasing rate.

So ours isn’t a family in the television kind of way – people of diverse ages and genders living in the same house, eating big meals with Yorkshire pudding, sage-and-onion stuffing and lashings of gravy around a cheery kitchen table, then cramming themselves hugger-mugger onto a giant sofa to watch Coronation Street or East Enders and make witty remarks. This is why I like watching Gogglebox – which is basically watching other people watching television – because I can’t imagine what it must be like, to have that kind of family. My family consists of four old(ish) ladies, basically, living in four different houses on two different continents, and maybe the time has passed for throwing caution to the wind and eloping to Scotland.

There was a time when – shockingly unemployed and in the midst of a mental crisis – never again to be employable in the sense that I had been – on the verge of losing my house and discovering I could claim sufficient per week in benefits to buy food for myself and the cats but not enough to pay the mortgage or the utility bills – I imagined I might reinvent myself as a lady burglar. I wasn’t sure how to set about burgling but I thought, how hard can it be? You just have to sit down and work out a method; a modus operandii as they used to say on Dixon of Dock Green. You’re good at working things out, making plans – on paper at any rate – and after all, there must have been a First Time for every aspiring burlar/ette.

I imagined myself stealing from the Quite Rich – nothing despicable like taking presents from under the Christmas trees of disabled youngsters – or maybe just removing food from supermarkets – stuffing it up my jumper or sneakily eating it as I went around. Maybe I could just steal cat food – sachets would weigh less than tins – and I could maybe go to lots and lots of supermarkets and slip one or two Kit-e-Kat pouches into my handbag per location. And for me, Cream Crackers and Craft Cheese Triangles, which would fit into my handbag whereas a loaf of bread wouldn’t. Then I could channel the paltry benefit money into paying the water-bill or keeping a roof over our heads.

No one, I reasoned, would expect a woman as forgettable-looking as me to be up to mischief, especially as I had lived so many, many years without stealing. Had I not been a model citizen? When my friends were out pocketing packets of hair-grips and bottles of scarlet nail-varnish from Woolworths, was I with them? No – I was at home reading Odhams Encyclopaedia. Or occasionally etymological dictionaries. So if there were suddenly to be a spate of burglaries, since I didn’t look like a burglar/ette and had no ‘previous’ with the Police, I’d be likely to get away with it.

Of course, I didn’t become a burglar. Eventually I managed to get a terrible job in a call-centre, badgering total strangers into completing market-research surveys, and somehow continued to feed my feline tribe for another five years. However, that spell of desperation – and my subsequent loss of status, employment-wise, knocked me off the moral high ground for good. I now see shabby people on TV, people on benefits, people who steal, women who turn tricks, mothers who sneak in to food banks and hope no one is looking, and cannot separate myself from them. I can’t condemn them for doing whatever they need to do to get by. Back on Boogie Street, as Leonard Cohen put it. It changed my politics.

So, long-since deceased Great Great Aunt Twice-Removed Celia, I’d love to see you. Yes, really I would. Pop in any time.

And don’t forget the whisky.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
I’m back on boogie street
You lose your grip and then you slip
Into the masterpiece
And maybe I had miles to drive
And promises to keep
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep

Leonard Cohen


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