Thirteen years ago, I answered a knock at my front door on a hot august evening, to find my cousin and her three children standing outside. Surprise enough, even more so since I hadn’t seen or heard from her for over twelve years.
“Hallo,” she chirped. “I’ve decided to move back to Gib, so I thought I’d stay with you for a while.”
What I should have done was shut that door, lock it, and hide behind the furniture. What I actually did was smile in a stunned manner, and allow them to file past me into my woefully small living room. Space being at a premium here, the apartments command London prices. Our joint income didn’t amount to much, so my husband, my four children and I were already shoehorned into a very compact and bijou flat. Now I had suddenly acquired an extra adult, two sulky teenagers, and Victoria. And thus the nightmare began.
My cousin and I are polar opposites. On every level! I am the tall, posh, skinny, redhead, she is the short, chubby, bleached blonde with a just south of London accent. She smokes, I don’t. I do housework, she doesn’t. Where we differ the most is in our attitude to parenting. None of these things concerned me when she lived a considerable distance away, but trapped in a confined space with her, it quickly reached the point that even the sound of her breathing incited me to murderous rage. On numerous occasions my family were left open mouthed by her family’s behaviour. Her three daughters fought continuously, until I actually banned them from speaking until I had left the house in the morning. The youngest one turned out to be riddled with head lice, which resulted in my spending hours in the bathroom with traumatised kids, while cousin lay on the sofa nursing her vodka and coke. The oldest girl took to stalking the unfortunate son of one of my neighbours. Just to add to the festivities, my husband lost his job, and I was suddenly the only wage earner for a family of ten!! I started to gallop rapidly towards a nervous breakdown.
I am very blessed to have fiercely bright children. I have always thought of very young children as being like sponges, soaking up information, and made it my focus to keep them supplied with a healthy flow of stimulation. This included talking to them constantly, from the moment they were born, much to the amusement of people around me. My cousin had adopted the opposite approach, avoiding conversation with her offspring as much as possible. As a result, the youngest in particular had a very limited vocabulary. I began with the best intentions, gently correcting her, encouraging her to use the correct word. By the end of a fortnight, I was grinding my teeth in frustration. Breaking point arrived as I was unpacking the groceries whilst the rest of the household concentrated on practicing their best reclining positions. My cousin’s youngest daughter bimbled in as I placed a bunch of grapes in the fruit bowl.
“Aunty Nikki, can I ‘ave one of them berries?”
After thirty seconds of bemused searching for berries, I realised she meant the grapes.
“They are grapes, Victoria, and yes, you may have one of those grapes.”
A few moments passed.
“Aunty Nikki, can I ‘ave another one of them berries?”
“They are grapes, and yes, you may have another one of those grapes.”
“Aunty Nikki, I really like them berries!”
Audible grinding of witch teeth.
“Grapes, Victoria. They are grapes.”
She wandered back into the living room and announced to the world in general,
“I’ve just bin eatin some berries in the kitchen.”
I tried. I even clamped my hand over my mouth, but the words had already taken flight.
“They are grapes!!! FUCKING grapes!!!!!”
They moved out shortly afterwards.