Thursday, 4 August 2005


Forwards, backwards. Older, younger. A cyclical dance through time-worn grooves, on sticky school-hall floorboards, dust catching in your throat, then skating on ice in front of winter palaces. The younger is the time I spend, and the fun I have, putting animal stickers just so on the pink envelopes I send to my niece, who is a Fairytale Princess. Not quite sticking my tongue out of the side of my mouth as I do it, but definitely in that childlike space, oblivious to anything but the fixing of pretty pictures. I can practically smell crayons.

The older is the sudden fear that I am turning into my own aunt. Because no-one wants to become somebody else, no matter how good that other being is. My aunt, like me, is happily childfree. A traveller she be. As far back as the 70s she was taking full advantage of her teacher's holidays, whisking herself off to places no-one had even heard of then. She was almost arrested on a trip back from Russia, because, after all, who would possibly go there for fun?

As a child I subjected my classmates to displays of the 'treasures' my aunt would bring back in her suitcase. And they did come in a suitcase – the hard kind that knocks merry hell out of your legs – for those were the days long before cheaply available rucksacks.

I had a Babushka before they ever appeared on Sesame Street, counting. (Counting was for the Count, sometimes in Spanish. Words too – agua agua.) The thin wood of Babushka screeched as she delivered her next generations. I had neon-pink mirrored pens, from old Siam. They never worked. They ran rainbows round my room where the sun caught the bits of broken-up glass pushed into plastic, but made no mark on paper. We wondered about the unfortunate people in Thailand, my brother and I, with pens that didn't work. Strange leather belts from Malta, creaking of sherry-soaked sun. Sweets on a string from Spain, violently orange and fizzy. Such various things amassed themselves in a higgledy-piggledy fashion about my bedroom. 'Gewgaws' my mother called them, 'dust-collectors'. To me, though, they were glimpses of a bigger universe, lands and time outside of my patch of Irish countryside.

Until one day, grown-up (moody teenager), I looked around me, and came to believe that I was surrounded by tat. And I chucked everything I could into the bin. So now I am nervous, as I parcel up a piece of Africa into a pink envelope for the Princess. A bubble-wrapped bejewelled gecko, made from the finest wire and beads…destined, surely, to some day be relegated from exotica to tat from Auntie C.

Mind you, I kept my Babushka.