My dad, his stupid cat and a house full of memories
Greetings from Lancashire, where I'm visiting my dear old dad for the fifth time in a year. Although I've lived in Northern Ireland since 1990, I've been back home over a hundred times and with each trip I notice something new or changed about the family home and its occupants.
When we moved into this big old house almost 50 years ago I was just a newborn baby. With five kids – and counting – my mum and dad needed a lot more space than the three-bed bungalow we'd had before then, so when a five-bedroom home with a big garden came on to the market just down the road (for a princely £3,000, which was a fortune in those days) they went cap in hand to the bank and, after much bowing and scraping, Edgehill House was theirs.
By the time the family was complete in the late Seventies, there were 10 of us living here. Mum and Dad, John, Louise, Chris, Jim, me, Marie, Rachel and Lucy ... and that was just the humans.
Then there was Twitchy the rabbit; Spats the cat; a stick insect that my brother 'borrowed' from biology; assorted goldfish won at the fair; a random lobster that my sister Lucy saved from death row at a restaurant and a flock of white fan-tailed doves that were my very own pride and joy but drove my dad mad because they nested (and therefore crapped incessantly) directly above his car in the garage.
I'd like to say it was in perfect harmony, but that would be stretching nostalgic leeway a bit too far. In fact, it was complete chaos a lot of the time, especially at the weekends and school holidays, with so many kids and their friends and cousins and neighbours and pets often all noisily present at any given time.
With the prominent statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus always on display in the front window (still there to this day) passers-by often mistook it for a Catholic orphanage. But for me the best way to describe it was like the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, but without any of the discipline.
Apart from Tuesday nights between 7 and 9pm (High Chaparral followed by Star Trek) Thursdays at 7.30pm (Thunderbirds plus Top of the Pops) and Friday tea time ("It's Friday, it's five o'clock; it's Crackerjack!"), when we'd assemble in front of the telly as regular as clockwork, the rest of the time was wall-to-wall noisy mayhem.
My own favourite memories, though, all took place in the sprawling back garden, which included a large lawn fringed with orchard fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a greenhouse, a converted stable and assorted outhouses. Apples of various varieties, plums, damsons, pears and figs all grew in abundance in the sun-trap between the high hedges separating us from a vicarage next door on one side and a nursery school on the other.
I'd often slip away for some scant solitude and end up spending hours lying in the dappled sunlight under a canopy of leaves, or sitting among the boughs with my beloved white doves, watching the passing birds and grazing on the fruit as it fell off the heavy branches.
In distant retrospect it was such an idyllic setting. I now realise how lucky I was to have all those multi-coloured, multi-faceted, multi-populated memories to look back on as I grow older and my own kids are almost too old to run around in the same spaces enjoying all the same simple pleasures.
Today, though, everyone has gone their separate ways and the house is virtually empty most of the time except for Dad and the un-named ginger cat he bought three years ago in order to catch a mouse and decided to keep for company. He's had it for three years, but because no one ever knew what sex it was, he never bothered to give it a name and just calls it "that cat" or "that stupid bloody cat", depending on how fussy it's being about food.
As I drove up the driveway, there between the trees was dad sitting on a deck chair with the Times crossword on one knee and that cat on the other. As he stood up to greet me an apple fell from a branch above his head and narrowly missed the cat, who ran off into the hedge squealing.
"Stupid bloody cat," he said.