My whole family has decided to drive down the M5 and celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday at her house in Devon, even though the elements are stacked against us. For a start, there is the August bank holiday weekend traffic. For another thing, I’ve only just installed the Tinder app on my phone, and the total lack of mobile signal in those valleys is a major disincentive. (Not that I’m brave enough to actually hook up with any of the men on Tinder – I just wanted to see if I could swipe NO to as many as my friend did before it gave her full-blown RSI in her right hand.)
Another obstacle is that my grandmother has been dead for seven years and we’ve got no idea who lives in her house now, or if they will even be into the idea of us turning up and raising a toast to the deceased in their front garden. Some people just don’t like this kind of stuff, apparently. Still, the Heawood spirit is strong.
So we eat sandwiches on the wet grass outside a service station on the way, and my mother informs me that my small daughter is running off into the woods, and because the spirit is just so strong, I carry on eating. I think to myself how silly all those people who run after their child every five seconds are. I think about that very interesting study I read that says children have one fifth of the outdoors freedom they had 40 years ago, yet the rate of attacks by paedophiles hasn’t risen a single percent.
“And what in god’s name is that big black penis doing?” my mother adds. I jump about five feet in the air and look across the grass immediately, where I find my daughter headed towards a large sculpture of a surfboard, painted black, apart from a yellow tip. Leaving me with one very important question – would I have jumped so high if my mother had said "And what in god’s name is that big pinky-white penis doing?" And, if not, would that mean I’m a racist?
"Before I turned vegetarian,” says my dad, consuming his soup, “about 30 years ago, I used to collect tins of Mulligatawny soup. I was working on a collection of one hundred tins. People used to go mad for it when they came round,” he says. “They’d always ask to see the collection.”
Alright, calm down Andy Warhol. I ask him how many tins he had. “Oh, only five,” he replies.
We get to the small Devon town, and go to a pub, where I notice a taxi from a local firm called Badger Cabs is waiting outside. “They’re collecting them in cabs now,” notes my father, “to save them from being culled.”
As well as it being the day the badger cull starts, we find out that it is soon to be the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech – not from anyone in the small Devon town, though. Or from me, what with me now being an actual racist. I think it’s in the 'paper. Anyway, my dad starts reminiscing about when he worked on a civil rights campaign in the southern states of the US. (In case you’re interested, he worked accompanying people who by now had the right to vote, technically, but who encountered huge obstacles in the reality of exercising that right.)
"When I was in Tennessee in 1964, being chased through the night by rednecks,” he says, “we actually drove to Mississippi to escape them. And then Square Mormon…”
Wait, I say. You were campaigning alongside a square Mormon?
“No, that was his name, Square Moorman. Anyway we were speeding away and then he shouted ‘STOP! I gotta get that ‘coon!'”
Um, so he wasn’t on the same side as you? I ask.
“Yes, I’ve told you, he wasn’t a square Mormon, that was just his name.”
But you were running from the racists and he was chasing… coons? “Yes, Sophie – I mean, you were the one who started talking about raccoons.”
He’s right – I did. It was something to do with the badgers. Right. My dad is talking about actual raccoons. “Oh he was a lovely, lovely man, was Square,” says my mum. “I’ll show you the book he wrote sometime,” adds my dad. “It was about justice. He was a local man, a man of substance. After we were there he funded and built a health clinic for local black people, with a staff of 12. He owned cotton crops.”
So he was white? I ask. “No!” says my dad, “he was black.”
My dream of being the multicultural one in the family, just because I live in Hackney and got knocked up by a Hungarian Jew, lies in tatters.
The next day, we drive to the house where my grandparents used to live, from when my mum was a child until I was one, too. After that they moved to a smaller place, then a sheltered flat, then money-guzzling nursing homes. But I remember family Christmases in that house, up a steep and narrow lane that overflowed with wet red earth if the winter was bad enough. You could barely drive up to that farming hamlet without a tractor.
Now, Devon is crazy posh. It turns out that all the old barns up that lane, where dogs used to hide to spawn their litters, most of whom later got drowned, well they’ve all been turned into luxury holiday cottages with shiny oak floorboards. A few signed photographs of Samantha Cameron on the wall, perhaps.
The house’s new owners are South Africans who live in Hong Kong and just visit sometimes. The house stays closed to us but they let us into the garden, where they have built a swimming pool. We hover around it like ghosts, trying to fit back into our old lives that we couldn’t now afford however much we wanted to.
We should probably be hosting some kind of Day of the Dead celebration, sitting here playing loud voodoo drums all night, to wake up our ancestors’ souls like Haitians do. Making sugar skulls of those we have loved and those we have lost. Or asking our dead to intervene as messengers between us and the gods, like they do in some African cultures, when intel from the dieties is urgently required. Or we could burn some hell money to be spent in an underworld prison, like the Chinese do.
Instead, because we are English, we just stand there, on our beloved dead grandmother’s 100th birthday, dumbfounded by the existence of a swimming pool.
Follow Sophie on Twitter: @heawood
Previously – Vaginas Are Ugly