Many people have a happy first memory from childhood. Perhaps playing in the garden with friends, or a particularly happy time with mother or father. Not me.
All I can remember is sitting in a huge pram with my brother and sister in the pouring rain outside The Greyhound Pub on the Fulham Palace Road as mum talked to a friend from work at Charing Cross Hospital; going into the outside toilet to find it inexplicably full of junk; a ghostly head-on-the-door experience that kept me howling in my bedroom for days. But the one that sticks in my mind the most is seeing my dad off from the living room window. It explains an awful lot about my life. Start, they say, as you mean to go on.
My father was an officer in the Territorial Army - that’s the British Army reserve forces to the uninitiated. He’s a doctor, so he got a Major’s rank and a job as an army surgeon. It had its priveleges, the cheap bar at Chelsea Barracks being one of them. He’d have to spend every other weekend at the mercy of the armed forces, and every year there was a two-week exercise, usually somewhere glamorous, up to their necks in mud in Aldershot.
As a recently self-aware three year old, dad disappearing for two weeks was a Big Thing. The lads turned up on the day in a great big Army ambulance, and half a dozen or so came in for “farewell drinkies”, before going out in the garden to talk loudly and postpone the inevitable moment of departure as long as possible.
I was left alone in the front room. The drinks cabinet, that great locked mystery to little people, had been left open revealing a fascinating array of multicoloured bottles. If it was good enough for the Big People, it was good enough for me, so I got stuck in.
There were a number of failures. A big green bottle turned out to be Gordon’s Gin. It tasted like rat’s piss, an opinion that is still valid three decades later. Similarly, the great big bottle of Tonic Water had my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and left me barely able to spit the rest out into a pot plant.
Third time lucky. Martini. A sweet bottle of yummy stuff that was oh-so-easy to drink. Before I knew it, I was as pissed as a little beetle, rolling around on the floor giggling, clutching the bottle to my chest. Given half the chance I’d have called everyone “You’re me best mate *hic*”, but I was alone with my bevvy, and dad was just getting set to leave.
Hic! It'sh a pink wellyphant! HIC!
I staggered up to the living room window, hoisted myself up onto the sill via the sofa and waved frantically to him as he got into the big green army ambulance. He waved back as he started off up the street, and I opened the window and shouted “Bye Bye Daddy!” as he went. The further up the road he went, the further out I had to lean to see him, and drunkenly waving with one hand, it made my position all the more precarious.
Headfirst I fell, landing on my three-year-old booze-addled noggin right in the middle of the flowerbed. I don’t know how long I lay there amid the roses, but by the time I came to it had started to rain and I was covered in a mass of mud and scratches. I had not been missed.
I staggered to my feet, and yowling, I banged on the front door until mum opened up to see me, wet, bleeding, muddy and crying.
“Oh!” she said with surprise “I thought you were upstairs.”
I puked neat Martini all over her foot. The truth was out.
Start as you mean to go on, baby.