On one of their visits we went to the coast, I can’t remember where now. Maybe Polperro or Looe - it was so long ago – more than half a century. I remember the whole family sitting in one of the beachside cafes, all bright melamine tables and orange lustre ware. Uncle Jack’s largesse was renowned, and he decided that he was treating his family and ours – all ten of us - to a knickerbocker glory.
Knickerbocker glory. A name resonant of extravagant lusciousness. And a hint of naughtiness.
Mum had to find a cushion for me to sit on so that I could reach the top of the tall glass with my long elegant spoon. Gradually I worked my way down through the traffic light layers of neon-hued jelly, custard, ice cream and perfectly cubed fruit. At the side of the saucer sat a jewel-like glace cherry, an unfeasible shade of red, my most favourite part of the whole concoction being saved until last. I still remember the price of that delectable dessert. Half a crown. Five weeks’ worth of pocket money, now just twelve and a half pence. That glorious tower of deliciousness summed up my Aunt and Uncle and their visits.
Later, ironically thirteen years later, there was a more sombre visit. Unknown to me, Aunty Irene was dying of lung cancer, her job and the free cigarettes at the Benson and Hedges’ factory reaping its hideous revenge. I can see her now, sitting on our sofa, slowly eating a bowl of my mother’s home-made soup, my mum next to her in her District Nurse uniform, heads bowed, talking in dulcet tones. Cancer wasn’t discussed openly back then in the seventies. Maybe it was too painful for my mum to explain to me. I had no idea. My aunt rocking in pain was lost on me, reduced as I was to an all-encompassing misery by an erstwhile boyfriend. I had no thought, no space for anyone else. I rowed constantly with my parents throughout that summer, oblivious to my aunt’s illness, my mother’s sadness.
Later that autumn, back at college, my mother called to tell me her sister had died. Suddenly I understood what had been washing around me all summer. Only then did I realise how selfish I had been. How unfeeling. But those knickerbocker glories stand like beacons to my vibrant aunt, to happier days, and what appeared to be simpler times when the sun shone forever.