This morning, I watched the rain trickle down my window pane as I smoked my pipe. It filled me with a sense of nostalgia, transporting me back to a half remembered time decades ago, the seven year old me taken on an uninspiring journey to an uninspiring place.
The nostalgia inducing raindrops running down the misty window and the cloud of tobacco smoke surrounding me combined to take me back to that year's trip to "see the lights", an annual event that I had to endure for a good portion of my childhood.
My dad knew I hated it and I knew he did, but when I'd begged not to be made to go he'd pointed out that my mother and sister enjoyed it and so it'd be unfair not to. I wasn't convinced. He asked me why I didn't want to go, I said I didn't know. And I really didn't. I just knew I didn't want to go. Apparently, though, "I don't know" isn't a good enough reason. So I had to go.
"Can we have some rock this year?"
"'Course we can, sonshine. Now put some bloody trousers on."
Sat in the back of my fathers Renault 12TL, I spent the next hour and a half feeling nauseated as my parents chain-smoked their way through the traffic jam to then spend a further hour sat in a queue looking at some poxy lights. To my sister and I, seated in the back, the radio was nothing but a tinny hiss of white noise that made conversation impossible. Then, at some point, my mother glanced over her shoulder and caught me yawning.
Just like my father and myself, my mother hated the trip. By the time we reached the golden mile my parents cigarette packets were exhausted, offering my asthmatic lungs brief respite. The sudden nicotine withdrawal meant mum's temper was near it's limits and, having mistaken the tiredness of a small boy's yawn for boredom or disdain (in fact, it was both), she exploded in rage, loudly proclaiming that she didn't know why she'd bothered bringing us (a sentiment shared by a her husband and at least one of her offspring) and demanded my father turn the car around and cut short the evening.
"And don't think we're stopping for any rock, either."
Unfortunately, her rage hadn't broken the surface until we were already stuck in the procession of cars crawling along the windy prom with their passengers oohing and aahing and eating candy floss, and so we had to endure forty minutes or so of silence interspersed with occasional, loud reassertions of her earlier point before we could take a right and head back home. I placed my forehead against the glass, settled into the corner and watched the rain drops trickle as my sister nervously clawed at the flesh on my left forearm, drawing blood and leaving tracks (Tracks that should probably have raised a few spurious suspicions regarding my well-being, but didn't) and steadfastly refused to join in with the game of I-spy that my dad later suggested just when she was dozing off and slackening her grip.
The raindrops were catching the orange light cast by the ordinary, non-garish street lamps that lit our route home and pissed about with it, creating amber lenses through which brief images of a distorted world that had never existed and that would never be seen again in quite the same way as I was able to see it were visible. A twisted reality captured briefly within the walls of a shimmering, transient bubble. The rain was far more entertaining than a few shining clown's faces and a neon representation of a tube of Smarties. Quite possibly this was the beginning of my appreciation of the little things, a way of escaping the world around when the world around was passing through one of those periods when it's just not worth not escaping. Those boring, pointless periods that come between the interesting portions.
You can always find something to stare at and lose yourself in, even if it means giving your eyes a rub so you can watch the sparkles dance.
Many years later and a parent myself, my mother suggested we take my kids to see the lights. I have no idea why on Earth I'd do such a thing, but I agreed. I remembered I didn't like going, but I couldn't remember why, just that it hadn't made me happy.
The lights were a different type of shit to the lights of my youth, but at least equally shit. There were a lot more of them, but basically it was just a series of advertising screens like those you see in the petrol station. The boys politely smiled and nodded whenever their grandmother said "oooh, look at that one" and both toyed longingly with the Nintendos they weren't allowed to turn on.
We stopped and bought some rock, and it was raining.
There were no arguments. The car had speakers in the back so the kids could hear the music too and, of course, there was no cigarette smoke. As we began the journey home, I glanced over my shoulder and saw that my youngest son's forehead was resting against the glass.
Worried about him falling asleep too early and being a right, royal pain in the arse at stupid o'clock the following morning I instigated a game of I-spy. He joined in, begrudgingly. He was four years old at the time and so hampered by a limited vocabulary and ropey spelling skills, but he eventually managed to win.
"Your turn, sonshine."
"Do it properly."
Arms folded, he sat up and, through pursed lips, spat the words.
"I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with A."
His brother, grandmother and I began guessing, but he really had us. Eventually, we requested some clues.
"It begins with A."
"Yes, but is it in the car or outside."
"Is it in the front of the car or the back?"
"The front", He made eye contact with me in the rear view mirror and continued, sternly, "It SHOULD be in the back as well, but it's not."
Try as we might, we couldn't get it. Meanwhile, despite my employing such tactics as winding all the windows down and turning the radio up full blast, both my sons began to nod off.
"Do you give in?" Number two son mumbled from his slumped position as he fought an increasingly hopeless battle with slumber.
"Yes, what was it?" In the mirror, I saw satisfaction spread across his sleepy face as I conceded defeat. Nothing cheers a child up like beating his old man.
I could've kicked myself. Not for not getting the answer, but for not thinking of it myself when I was a little lad. The answer that meant I never again made my kids sit through that bloody rigmarole, the one thing that makes any period worth not escaping. The thing that should have been in the back, but that wasn't...
If something doesn't make anybody 'appy, what's the bloody point?