On Friday the 13th of March 2015 I went for a meal at Annaya’s Indian restaurant in Helensburgh, with my brother Andrew. I’d gone for a couple of beers after work before heading back, so when we got to Annaya’s at around 8pm I was in good spirits and ready for a slap up feed.
When we entered the restaurant I was happy to see my Aunty Denny and Uncle James sitting down the back, so I asked the waiter if we could join them. He showed us to the table right beside them and the banter started before we’d even taken our seats.
“Och! Denny, they saw us!” James laughed. “Shush, you!” She said back to him.
Aunty Denny and Uncle James had always been a great double act. When I was younger I used to get quite stressed at the way they constantly tormented each other, but it became a source of great entertainment over time and I loved the comedy of it when I was in their company. We spent the next hour or so laughing and talking as we ate our meals and I was so glad we’d happened upon them on the night.
They were finished before Andrew and I, and, after a bit of fuss over not being able to find her scarf, Aunty Denny came back from getting her coat to give us £30 towards our meal. I immediately protested, saying it wasn’t necessary, but she told us that she’d won big playing bingo earlier that week and wanted to treat us.
She’d always been a fan of bingo. I remember when we went on family holidays at caravan parks or Butlins, Aunty Denny would waste no time getting stuck into the bingo halls. I never knew she still played it, but her winnings were impressive.
It was such a kind gesture for her to share her windfall with us and I gave her a hug and a kiss as she left. James was already at the door, eager to get to the pub and going “C’mon you!” Denny scoffed and theatrically rolled her eyes as she went off to join him, waving us goodbye as she went out of the door.
That would be the last time I ever saw her.
The weekend passed and I was minded to call her up and thank her again for paying for most of our meal, but for whatever reason I never got round to it. With the new week came work and Monday night taekwondo class. Then on Tuesday I was sitting at my desk when I got a call from my sister Hazel.
There’s a quiet meeting room by the front door, so I went out there before I answered it because the phone reception is better in there than it is at my desk. When I answered Hazel blurted out straight away that Aunty Denny had died. I was stunned and glad I hadn’t been at my desk, as the tears came instantly.
After the call I went to wash my face and tried to regain my composure before I went back to my desk. It was a futile effort, as I spent the rest of the day feeling numb and unable to concentrate on anything. Tears spontaneously streamed from the memories that flooded my mind.
The biggest and most important one for me was when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Each weekend the kids in our family were sent to church and then Sunday School. But, for several years, I had not felt any connection to religion and found Sunday a test of endurance where I worried constantly about being found out for not singing the hymns properly or not trying hard enough to draw wise men or suchlike in Sunday School.
I just didn’t believe there was a god or in any of the stories we were told, but as much as I detested it I didn’t have the courage to tell my mum that I didn’t want to go any more.
Then this one weekend I was having a sleepover at Aunty Denny and Uncle James’ place in Cardross, where I’d play with my cousins Emma-Jane and Jamie. On the Sunday morning we’d get picked up by a minibus that took us to church.
That morning Aunty Denny could see I was anxious and coaxed out of me what was on my mind. I told her how I hated going but I felt like I had to or I would be in trouble and the family would be disappointed in me. She told me it was okay, that I was old enough to make my own decisions and that I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to.
I was at once surprised by her understanding and horrified by the implication. As if reading my mind she told me not to worry, that she’d call my mum and let her know my decision and that I was just going to spend the day with her. After Emma-Jane and Jamie had reluctantly got on the minibus, Aunty Denny did as she said and called my mum to tell her. I sat there with my heart racing as she spoke, but the way the conversation went seemed to be very matter-of-fact.
After the call was done she said my mum understood and asked me if I wanted a coffee, as if the hard part was all behind us now. I decided to play along and Aunty Denny showed me how to make a sweet coffee with milk and two sugars. It was great – I don’t think I’d had coffee before, but I liked it.
For the rest of the afternoon we talked, watched TV, drank coffee, and just relaxed, really. And the whole time I felt like a grown up. My anxiety about going to church had been taken seriously and she’d supported me as if it was nothing. But it wasn’t nothing – it was such an in incredible gesture that ultimately helped me stand up for myself when I didn’t think I could.
I never did go to Sunday School again, except for on rare occasions where it was the done thing to do to accompany the family. Nor was my decision questioned – whatever Aunty Denny had said to smooth the way, it worked without any fallout. At least for me – I don’t know if she ever got a hard time over it, but if she did it was never mentioned.
So the memory of that weekend was the biggest one that came to mind. Yet, for all the things I remembered; her hearty laugh, her generous, loving nature, the nagging realisation that kept bringing me to tears was that I did not have nearly enough recent memories of her. Most of the things that came back were from my childhood, with the decade or so previous being bereft.
And yet I had that one last evening in her company in the restaurant, so new and fresh in my mind. What a stroke of luck to have had that chance encounter.
It’s been one year that you’ve been gone, Aunty Denny. I miss you so much and I’ll never forget what you did for me.