First published in the Irish Field.
The bookies was dark and noisy as my grandmother led me in, the gold on her wrist as yellow as Spanish Armada treasure. The cigarette smoke whirled around my little blonde curls. It was lunchtime on my second birthday, and the 145th Grand National was just about to be run.
My grandmother hoisted me onto her shoulder and I swirled my chubby fingers in circles around her scalp. With my fist wrapped around her pearls for comfort, she jostled mud-encrusted farmers, florists and the priest to mark her betting slip. Up to the dim booth and the slack-jawed shop girl; the money passed hands.
From the vantage of my booster seat on the way home, Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, twinkled at me from her plastic cover that hung from the mirror.
Reaching through time like feels thicker than the soupy visions from a dream. Most people can’t recall a memory before they are three years old. This day is superimposed with the memory of every other Grand National day as a little girl in a small Irish town. But this is my birthday, it’s special!
The red Volkswagen Golf shudders and vibrates across the cattle grid. At the back door I am handed over to my mother, the sleeves of her Lady Di inspired blouse billowing with the smell of Dune perfume. A dab of non-stick lipstick catches the crown of my head, before she pulls a paper cone hat over my head, elastic snapping on my cheek and entwining in my hair. My grandmother hands her a betting slip from Hackett’s bookmakers and gives her a wink “The odds are getting shorter, you did well to get it at 16/1,” granny tells my mum.
Sleeves, jumpers and shoulder pads were my demesne, a little empress bobbing up to the world of the Grown Ups. Bowls of Jelly Babies and two child cousins signal it is also my birthday party, with sponge cake and candles. Happy Birthday, and smiles from my aunts, bespectacled like the soap actresses they watch.
There’s clapping and singing, and squishy red jelly through my fingers. If Spitting Image could be privately commissioned, it’s how I picture us. Parents wound up ahead of the National, kids foaming at the mouth with sugar and coke. I escape from sight, and clamber on the spindly chair. Seeking the admiration of my cousins, I leap into the air and crash into the hard parquet floor.
Two split shins later I have a face puffed with the melancholy of a fallen baby, back on my mother’s soothing lap. Sugar has exhausted the adrenal glands of my cousins and they slump waiting for someone, anyone, the binman, to take them home.
The grownups grow as quiet as the children and nail biting habits are revisited.
Scratchy wool slows down my movements, I’m now on the floor, as they are off. A tweed outfit bought by a gregarious family friend at Cheltenham weeks earlier. Who buys tweed suits for toddlers?
Near visible sound waves bounced from the TV to the wall. A big, black square box. Pressing my finger into the race the green, red and blue dots squish before I am hauled back onto my mother’s padded shoulder. It’s Becher’s Brook and why are they all so excited? Gentle touches of my mother’s scrunchie get me nowhere, loud shouts and hair tugs are now required.
They don’t listen, my parents are shouting, my father standing on an upturned bin. The biscuit tin is halfway out an open window. This is serious. Very serious. My grandfather is banging his stick and grandmother can’t look. Under normal circumstances, in such stressful situations she would naturally find herself saying the Rosary, but something seems wrong about that today. Two crooked neighbours cough and splutter and spill their tea and make signs of the cross. This is Ireland – and we’re still Catholic.
This is the 1991 Seagram Grand National, John Major is the Prime Minister and mothers still smoke Rothmans at creches. The French and English meet each other in the Channel Tunnel and the IRA have bombed 10 Downing Street, Paddington and Victoria stations. This year, Seagram is the horsey to win. Not that I remember of course. Two year olds don’t remember their second birthdays or British Prime Ministers. No, we need some solid facts that a baby can’t hold onto.
And so it went. At five, I had a new brother, who got the tweed jacket and the going was good. I walked into the bookies, as if I was born on the carpet and wrapped in the Racing Post.
Underage gambling commonplace, even amusing for the punters, I place my first bet. I laugh at my brother’s ignorance as he sits and stares from the pram, clutching a Cabbage Patch doll.
“It’s the Grand Nashol,” I tell him, sticking out my tongue “I have a tip”.
Now I am twenty five and old enough to notice the weight of lost bets; a sort of Brigadoon descends upon me for the Grand National. A world of possibility, the currency is winks and nods in shadowy bookmakers. It is not one singular experience, like losing one’s virginity or visiting the Louvre. It is the experience of a lifetime, as my life is punctuated by the World’s Greatest Horse race at Aintree.
In April I will turn 26, and as ever, the Grand National will be run. My parents have divorced, my grandfather has died and my little brother will not talk to me – but the National will be the same experience. Although this year, I’ll bet through an app, view the thirty fences in high definition, and converse using a hashtag.
Although A Toddler and The Grand National is fiction, it was informed by my memory of toddlerhood!