They Went To Sea In a Sieve

My brain floats about in the same puddle of thought that induced Margaret Atwood to say, “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.” I also look unkindly on people who deface books, especially mine, so the only time I have ever lined up to get one signed was about three years ago in South Kensington on someone else’s behalf.

Gordon Ramsey’s autobiography Humble Pie had just come out and I wanted him to scribble on a copy for my mum – affectionately known to those whose grazed knees she has gently bandaged as The Mammy. Why “The Mammy”? It’s Irish, it’s a character my dad used to draw, and who knows, it’s lost in the filing cabinet of memory. We call olives ‘obblers’ and nobody can remember where that came from either. Families. Anyway.

In Australia she had a dealer (usually a supplier of new episodes of Doctor Who to impatient antipodeans) who, for this one special client (The Mammy) he would obtain – through nefarious Internet means – new instalments of The F-Word, and slip them across the table in an unmarked envelope. Later she would spend her entire evening delighting in watching a chef who swears more often and with more venom than her own pottymouthed daughter – the very same one on the other side of the world clutching a £12.99 hardcover and leaning glumly against a staircase in Waterstones.

After an extensive period of queue-tedium in which the line somehow managed to avoid anything vaguely interesting, instead snaking through the Law textbooks, foreign language dictionaries and mind-bendingly horrific mathematics tomes, I reached the front of the line. Ramsey looked down at the yellow Post-It on which I’d neatly printed, as directed, the name of the person to whom I wanted the book personalised.

“….The Mammy?” he asked incredulously, Sharpie held aloft.

“That’s right. It’s for my mum. Capital tee, capital em.”

He furrowed his brow at me and I furrowed my brow at him. His (I could tell already irritating) PA stepped between us and said, ridiculously, “Are you sure? Wouldn’t she rather have her name on the book?”

“That is her name.”

“So it says The Mummy on her birth certificate?”

“Course not. And it’s The Mammy, uh, with an ‘a’.”

Pshh! He can’t write that on his autobiography!”

It continued, awkwardly, while behind her Ramsey wrote out the name I had given him followed by the requisite All The Best, Gordon Ramsey. He shut the cover loudly, silencing the chihuahua PA. As he handed the book back to me he said: “Well, I hope it keeps The Mammy happy.”

As personalities go, I’m definitely more up the solitary, miserable end of the spectrum: family barbeques are things I try to avoid, even when there’s a very strong likelihood of top notch pavlova mixed in with the ever present threat of a family sing-along. The Mammy is a different creature entirely – there is not another person I know who so enthusiastically sloshes about in her gene pool. She is forever inventing new things to do as a family, knowing that if we were left to our own sulky devices we would do nothing at all. Her enthusiasm is such that you can’t help going all fluffy duckling, quacking along behind her as she leads you wherever she will, even into oncoming traffic.

When I was a kid The Mammy won a phone-in competition. Her prize was an afternoon of professional family portrait photography – a splendid record of her happy brood, their smiling cherubic faces captured forever in a family portrait such as we see in the paintings of Millais or Gainsborough, with the little boy at the front with his playthings. It is not her fault that we, by inclination rather than breeding, are a cynical bunch who tend to look like grimacing mental patients in straitjackets if we’re ever lined up and forced to say “Cheese!”

You’ve no doubt encountered the hazy filtered, enforced familial affection, pearly-white photographs before, probably while in someone else’s house on a doomed trip to the toilet that involved getting lost in a labyrinthine arrangement of stairs and hallways if your sense of direction and rich peoples’ houses is on a par with my own. The Class-A examples of this peculiar kind of art usually feature the family casually lying on the floor, propped up on their elbows, each wearing the same kind of blindingly white T-shirt to contrast with the background colour of choice, a deep inoffensive red or blotchy cloud-effect blue. Even at the age of eight I suspected this was a new nadir, but quack quack and into the studio we go.

My two-year-old brother, four-year-old sister, Dad and I arrived wearing our best outfits and most unconvincing smiles. I remember my silent scream as we watched The Mammy get whisked off for two hours of hair and make-up while the photographer pushed us into a room without her. My brother was wrenched out of his Batman costume and forced to be a cowboy (he didn’t want to be a cowboy) (his portrait is an image of a red-faced, screaming child in a faux-Stetson with a free-of-charge glossy sheen thanks to the sheer volume of tears). My sister and I knew that if we just went along with it we’d be out of there sooner and maybe we’d get fish and chips on the way home, possibly even an ice cream. Her already painfully cute brunette ringlets were crowned with a straw hat and additional daisies, and I was landed with a double-denim outfit consisting of vest and shorts, which I was expected to wear whilst smiling and holding a basket of plastic flowers aloft. This is a thing I did. It was turned into a laminated calendar for the year 1994 and my grandparents used it for a decade.

Two years ago I brought home an English boyfriend who immediately took ill and went to bed for a week, as is customary with English boyfriends being introduced to Australian relatives. When he emerged days later from the darkened bedroom, still sweat-drenched and mosquito-ravaged, The Mammy suggested a family outing. It was one that would introduce the Englishman to the phenomenal beauty of that foreign land, whilst simultaneously giving her ex-pat daughter (me) a thoroughly saturating dunk in the stuff she got so homesick for. We would be going kayaking at Byron Bay: a three-hour drive from Brisbane and one of the most beautiful beaches on the face of the planet, home to a blues festival, a bunch of tie-dyed hippies, and Paul Hogan. The kayak tour company promised that on our peaceful trip out on the tranquil blue sea we would see dolphins and turtles – all of God’s little creatures frolicking in their natural habitat. Quack quack.

She hired a van and drove us south: my brother (now 17 and neither Batman nor cowboy), sister, Dad, English boyfriend and me. After a preliminary introduction to the wonders of life jackets, paddles and the likelihood of actually being eaten by a shark (answer: not very likely, not entirely unheard of) we dragged our kayaks down to the shore. Unlike a canoe, a kayak has no sides; as a vehicle it has all the safety features of a cheeseboard. We were told the hard bit would be getting it through the breaking waves, those speeding walls of crystal clear water that would slap you in the face and spin you upside down for decades if you let them. But once through it would be literally smooth sailing, with dolphins sticking their merry faces above the water to say hello.

With expectant faces and over-excited paddles the sadistic instructors pushed us into oncoming waves. The white water smashed against the nose of the boat with such force as to tip it vertical. For a second all I saw was sky, then I fell backwards, lost my paddle, slammed into the face of the English boyfriend and together our ungainly heap hit the hard sand beneath. When we and our tweety birds surfaced we were tossed and flipped in the waves some more as we chased the fast disappearing kayak, which had transformed itself into a potentially fatal torpedo with its target set on seaside toddlers. Far off yonder I could see my bedraggled brother and sister in a similarly fine mess but with the benefit of a genetically similar paddling rhythm which got them beyond the breakers before anyone else. This forced teamwork makes this whole sorry exercise a good idea for marriage counselling. It could make or break a marriage in an afternoon.

When we eventually joined my near-drowned siblings it was not the peaceful blue heaven we were promised, with playful turtles offering rides on their expansive backs should we tire of paddling. As we waited for the rest of the group to join us on our terrifying maritime adventure, we were blown out to sea at a considerable speed by a wind so strong it caused every rival kayak company to call off all outings for safety reasons. Even at the ocean’s most tranquil moments, the buffeted orange kayak would capsize and empty our thrashing bodies into the ocean as we gulped seawater and envisioned our own imminent watery deaths. I pictured my flailing limbs from below while the Jaws theme looped in my head and was seconds away from screaming when I was wrenched from the water like a kitten by the scruff and found myself face-to-balls with the boardshorted crotch of my hippie instructor as he paddled my limp body back to my unmanned ship.

After half an hour of terror on the high seas the second instructor appeared at the breakers and paddled expertly over. “Which one of you is Hayley Campbell?”

“Me,” I burbled.

“Yeah, so, uh, your parents didn’t make it. I MEAN, they didn’t make it over the breakers. They’re on the shore. Look! They’re waving at you.”

I squinted at them, tiny figures on a windblown shore. I couldn’t believe it. I looked over at my soaking wet brother and sister, each gripping their paddles for dear life. The Mammy was waving cheerily, and standing beside her, Dad was green like some macabre thing washed up after a shipwreck.

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