My mum’s mum had a saying, that I’ve adopted from time to time.
“You’re a long time dead,” she’d say. The Scots are a straight-speaking type of people, so read this less as a whimsical motto and more as an outright statement of fact. You’ll be dead a lot longer than you’ll be alive.
In the middle of January, two pieces of news reach my family within days of each other, from very different parts of the world. From Preston comes word that my aunt has passed away. And a few days later a message from Hong Kong that my uncle has died. Just like that, my family is a bit smaller.
Preston is about two hours by train from London. It’s a university town and feels like a lot of places around the UK, in the sense that things are opening up and closing down at roughly the same rate. It has a Brutalist bus station the council wanted to demolish, because when budgets shrink councils feel they have to do something.
This information is delivered to me by Jackie, whose house I’m staying in. There’s a plate in the kitchen with a croissant and slices of bread, completely covered in cling film. Tomorrow’s breakfast. Feeders on the patio attract a host of small, skittish birds. We spend my first hour in Preston sipping tea and bemoaning Brexit.
Later that night some of us meet up in a Beefeater attached to a Premier Inn, located on a stretch of road surrounded by car dealerships. Beefeater is the kind of place I’d never go to in London, but this night there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. We order massive plates of pie and battered mushrooms. My great uncle works on a colouring book with my second cousin’s little girl. They make a ball of Blu Tack into different shapes and toss it to each other.
My uncle is there. He’s always seemed larger than life to me, with his outlandish stories and wonderfully expressive face. Tonight he is small. Quiet. When he talks about my aunt it’s in the present tense, and my heart tightens like a fist. But then he spins a hilarious tale out of cancer treatment and buying trousers, and I think, not for the first time, that the Scots are an incredible people.
Four generations of my family live in Preston, most within minutes of each other. The small church is crowded with that story, of people who have been in a place so long as to become part of its fabric. The coffin is carried in by her son William and the five grandsons. When they lay it down one of the attendants walks over and places a framed photo of my uncle and aunt—doing a jive, their faces full of glee—on the coffin’s lid.
My second cousin delivers the eulogy and, at the risk of sounding biased, smashes it out of the park. She tells us my aunt was the only four-foot-nine woman men were afraid of. Of her love of crosswords, and the time she asked for a four letter word for ‘crusty oceans’. (It was crab.) Of boat trips and the Coast Guard and tranquillisers.
Most of all, of a relationship that spanned over 60 years, produced four children and nine grandchildren and now a great grandchild. And what it takes to have that, and what that means.
And then, as we walk out, Lionel Ritchie plays out of the speakers.
My love, there's only you in my life
The only thing that's bright
My first love,
You're every breath that I take
You're every step I make
I’ve been crying for an hour straight but now, now I’m a total mess. The song feels impossibly sad and also perfectly right. When I ask about it later a cousin tells me, “He was her favourite”.
At the crematorium another cousin expands the story. Of her tenuous relationship with cooking. Of a house full of friends, and dancing, and karaoke. Of the glue that binds people bent on flying apart. As we line up to leave, Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt tell us they don’t know much, but they know they love us. I put my hand on the coffin and say goodbye.
At the wake I’m introduced as the cousin from Canada, the cousin from London, the artistic cousin. I meet John who’s been in Preston since 1969, and who, he tells me with a wink, might have been my uncle if James hadn’t asked Chrissy to that show that night.
I am told multiple times how respected my family is in Preston, and how important it is I came. The earlier sadness has been parked for the night, and in its place is Glasgow Ranger songs and conga lines, names shouted across the room, hugs and handshakes. There’s Lancashire hotpot to eat and when I buy a round of drinks it costs less than a single pint in London.
And the stories. My god, the stories. Everyone has one and they’re all brilliant. I soak them up like a dried sponge. There should be a podcast that’s just a group of Scots in a room, each telling their version of something that’s happened. You’d get a hundred episodes out of it, easy.
I want to stay all night but can feel my emotional energy running down, so I say my goodbyes and walk the hour back into the centre of Preston. I find a wine bar and sit, surrounded by laughing groups of students, and linger with my thoughts.
The next morning Jackie asks me how it went. About ten years ago she’d packed up her life in London and travelled around the world for as long as her money would let her. That got her a year-and-a-half all the way to Singapore. I’ve never been to a gathering like that in London, I tell her. I want to see the world, and I don’t plan on having children, and you can’t really have that kind of community while moving about. You’re not going to develop that level of connection.
No, she says. You can’t really have both. You can’t have both.