Radio Scotland - Days Like This

Theme: Family

Frae Morning Sun Till Dine

Carolyn Roberts

Waxy, sweating cubes of orange cheese were punctured by a flimsy cocktail stick and flanked by two tiny pickles that would later cause an eyewatering vinegary explosion in someone's mouth. They sat in plastic moulded trays, their juices slowly trickling onto the salt and vinegar crisps that accompanied them, ready to nourish the Roberts family into the New Year. It was 1988, but the Hogmanay routine was the same every year.

An hour or so before the family was due to arrive; my dad would unlatch the drinks cabinet. The door clunked as it opened, a quiet, two-syllable noise, and the familiar sweet, slightly musty smell of the interior wafted out. The glasses - once pristine matching sets, now comfortingly muddled - were taken out, washed, polished and displayed on a dishtowel.

And then there was the drink. Whisky, of course - a single malt for the bells, a decent blend for the start of the evening, Grants for the wee small hours when no one could tell the difference anymore. Blazing red cans of McEwan's Export filled the fridge, while Tennent's Lager (plastered with backcombed and impossibly glamorous lager lovelies) was parked outside the back door. White wine and soda was the drink of choice for my aunties, with squashy plastic bottles of lemonade and Irn-Bru for the kids.

Decked out in shiny white tights, shiny patent shoes and a shiny face that I hadn't yet learned to powder, I was ready to begin door-answering duties. And soon the living room was full of chatter, cigarette smoke and Ella Fitzgerald on the record player. Cheerful aunties sporting flammable fabrics and even more flammable hair arrived, dispensing hugs, kisses and tissues to snotty children. Jolly uncles turned up, cracking jokes with my dad about Hearts' latest score and my father's golfing progress. Adult relatives were arrayed in rows on the two sofas while small children squeezed into the gaps, heads peeking out between two sets of shoulders.

And me? I was upstairs, enacting my traditional part in the Hogmanay ritual: forcing my long-suffering older cousin to teach me 'gymnastics'. This was a consequence of one of the first major decisions I'd ever faced: the choice between going to a ballet class at the local community centre, or gymnastics at the sports hall. I'd pleaded to do both, wanting to keep my options open - an Olympic career OR a place in the Bolshoi - but my mum had refused, on the ludicrous grounds that paying for two classes plus two different sets of clothing was excessive. At that point I'd decided to keep quiet about my fallback career path (joining Bucks Fizz, which at the time I endearingly assumed would involve singing lessons) and opted for ballet on the grounds that all my friends were doing it. But I was still desperate to be a gymnast, unluckily for my cousin who had attended gymnastics lessons for - I don't know, it could have been a week or a decade for all I knew, as far I was concerned she was still the world's leading expert. For weeks before Hogmanay I'd been dreaming of the dazzling skills she would teach me, despite the fact that there was no room to do even a cartwheel in my bedroom without crashing into a wall - something I knew for a fact, since I'd tried it more than once.

My cousin demonstrated her usual endless patience when she arrived and found herself shepherded upstairs by an over-excited twelve year old, but despite her best efforts, I achieved nothing more impressive than a flailing somersault from a standing position on my narrow creaky bed, probably doing irreparable damage to the mattress on impact.

After this I sidled downstairs to munch on the crisps that were now soggy from spilled beer, (possibly explaining my taste for McEwan's in later life). I paid little attention to the conversation, except when it was about me, but was regularly dispatched to fetch more snacks or to answer the door to a latecomer. One such arrival was someone I'd never seen before, someone who was obviously, even to me, swimming in drink. The fattest man I'd ever seen, swathed in yards of muddy raincoat and with a curiously round, luminously red nose, he'd been attracted moth-like by the lights and hoped to pass himself off as a bona fide relative. In panicky tones I called for my dad, who gave one of those reassuring displays of dadly authority by politely, firmly walking the man backwards out of the front door, chatting amiably all the while until the door had closed.

The telly was switched on sometime near midnight, in time for the Rev I.M. Jolly to mourn the year past, and the fact that another one was hot on its heels. It stayed on long enough to count down to the bells and toast the new year: then Auld Lang Syne was snapped off in favour of a heartfelt speech from dad and the annual rendition of Patsy Cline's 'Crazy' from his sister.

At around this time I was required to start phoning taxis for affectionate, swaying aunts and uncles. The house, which had been ferociously cleaned before the evening began, was now littered with crisps that had been crunched into the carpet and empty cans abandoned behind, on top of and under every surface. Once most of the guests had disappeared into the darkness, I sent myself to bed and lay listening to the last, most absolutely essential tradition of Hogmanay: the sound of Bobby Darin blaring from the stereo, accompanied by enthusiastic singing and, I suspected, jiving from my dad and Uncle Ian. Every New Year's Day began with a house that smelt of lager and a pile of records on the living-room floor, with Mack the Knife always on top.

And so another year began. The bells had rung, the Bells had been drunk. And I still couldn't do a backflip.

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