Twenty years ago, it was a dark time in the house of Binney. My mother was sick, my father had died and I was sent to Yorkshire.
Like everybody I can think, or have ever heard of, I was a pain in the backside when I was fifteen. With the extra pressure of loss and grief, my mother was struggling and sent me to stay with friends of hers in the North.
A buddy of mine, who months later would come with me to my grandmother’s funeral, came to Harrogate with me.
My mother’s friends couldn’t have been kinder. They shifted their plans and made space for the two of us. I was in bits, everything else could be moved.
Just one occasion called for their attendance.
Their friend Charlie was turning fifty. They had sent their RSVP months before. Mary called and explained she had two teenagers descending on her for the week of his celebrations. With nary a moment’s hesitation, we were invited to join.
Charlie lived in wondrous opulence. His furniture was older than my grandfather; he lived in shades of darkened wood and soft red leather, he poured the wine with abandon; he was fabulous.
His garden stretched out in dappled tones of lime and khaki, hedges bloomed with little baubles of white fluff, bedding plants of every hue poked out their heads to the puckered Northern sunlight.
Standing aloft of all this colourful beauty was a beast of a granite monolith. Erected, a little prematurely, in his own memory, Charlie had had his full name carved in to the rock by a nearby stonemason.
The monuments’ man had carved exactly what he’d been asked for: full name. And dates. 1947 – 19__. At that time, we were only three years shy of the millennium and could only wonder what Charlie knew that we didn’t.
Fifteen years old and he made us very welcome in his home. His wife had been cooking since dawn. There was a monster roast, giant heaps of vegetables, the finest Yorkshire puddings in the history of lunch, and we got so drunk. So drunk.
It seemed, with every sip taken, Charlie suddenly appeared, freshly opened wine bottle in hand, ready to top us up. I don’t think there was a single glass all afternoon that got drained as far as the halfway mark. He would never allow it.
It was his party and he wanted everyone to have a good time. We did, although quite a lot of that afternoon is blurred in the memory. Probably for the best.
My friend was better at drinking than I was. At the time, my mother was better at drinking than I was, and she couldn’t look at a gin bottle without giggling.
By the time we got to the table, each of us had got through a bottle of wine. I’m just going to give you a moment with that thought.
I was thoroughly sozzled. We sat opposite each other at the far end of the longest table I’d ever seen. It must have seated forty. We sat either side of a lady neither of us knew, and being quite young, she must have been pushed for conversation.
Also, we were drunk.
“So,” she began, “how do you know Charlie?”
“We don’t,” my friend answered.
I laughed until I belched. It was a shock.
I rebalanced myself by leaning on the table and focusing on my own eyebrows.
We explained that we had mutual friends with Charlie. Or, more accurately, my friend said “my friend’s mother’s friend is a friend of his.”
No clearer, the lady – almost certainly realising we were too young to do anything for a living, asked what our parents did.
“My mother’s a solicitor,” my friend volunteered.
“And your father?”
Her father had died when she was a child, my friend explained. The lady blanched, apologised profusely and turned to me. It was like a disaster unfolding before the eyes. I already knew what was going to happen but I couldn’t run. I couldn’t really see or coordinate my limbs well enough to run.
“And you, my dear,” she said, desperately searching for something easier. “What do your parents do?”
I slurred rather a lot. “My mother trained a nurse with Mary, the lady down the table there. And.. that’ll do.”
“And your father?”
No way of making it sound less awful, I ploughed on regardless. “My father died three months ago.”
She grabbed my hand and exclaimed, “I know just how you feel, I lost a labrador around that time.”
Not a word of a lie, may I be struck down.
Now, I am a dog mother. I adore my dogs, I know they become part of the family, constant companions, devoted friends, they mean the world to me.
They do not equate to a father.
Thankfully, I was far too drunk to say any of that. Instead, I downed the wine, excused myself, left the table and threw up violently behind a tree.
Then came pudding and cognac.
I like to believe we made dinner that night as an apology for our drunken lunchtime and any embarrassment either of us caused. I’m not certain we actually did make dinner. Most of my memory from that time is sharp, like a broken mirror. One drunken afternoon has faded like a photograph drowning in sepia, or brandy.