On this day in 2006, I lost one of the most important women in my life, very suddenly and unexpectedly.
I was sitting in a history lesson when a kid in my year came in to say my head of sixth form wanted to see me. Everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ that I was in trouble, but as soon as I walked upstairs to his office and saw mum standing there, I knew something was up.
Nan had a thick Irish accent, even after living in London for over thirty years. She cooked bacon and cabbage on the regs and had a cackle as loud as mine – perhaps that’s where I got it from, actually?
From a very young age, I knew she was the bomb-diggity.
We would stroll up and down the Portobello Road, popping into Woolworths to buy me secret treats I wasn’t to tell mum and dad about. We would walk hand in hand as she told me all about Mrs Boyle and the doctors at the surgery she worked at. She was actually pretty nosy and not very good with the whole confidentiality thing, thinking about it, but I enjoyed the stories nonetheless.
I would sit and stare at her from the sofa next to her chair as she smoked her way through packets of Silk Cut, wondering what it was like to smoke and whether granddad minded her doing it as he read his books or drew his pictures, nicotine-free.
I would go to bingo with her near her chalet by the sea, losing every time but somehow coming out with vouchers to spend in the shop next door. Mum hated the tat I would bring home from there but, much to her dismay, I couldn’t get enough of the naff key rings and stuffed toys from the seaside.
I would sit with her, knitting (badly) as she churned out jumpers and socks like it was nothing, talons in tact, tapping away, telling me I was doing just fine. I don’t think I nailed anything more than a couple of rows of wool, but she made me feel like a pro.
We would dance around the kitchen to an Irish tape I still have.
We watched as women from Carnival floats danced on by her home in Ladbroke Grove. Nan even let one lady use her loo, free of charge. Her costume terrified me as a tot.
Whenever mum and dad went out, I would always choose to stay at hers. Mainly because I pretty much had my own room there (complete with double bed), but also because I liked playing with the china dolls she had dotted around the house (until I broke one and cried my eyes out while she told me it really didn’t matter and glued the head back on, hiding it from grandad).
I would refuse the boiled Irish dinners she would cook, knowing in doing this, she would give me exactly what I wanted: cubes of cucumber and cheese covered in salt and pepper, alongside slices of fresh bread with butter layered thick enough to give a young kid a heart attack.
Even into my teenage years, I still loved going round to nan’s house. I used to love the plates of snacks she laid out on birthdays and the cards with swirly writing she always gave me that smelt of smoke. I particularly enjoyed the one pound coin she would press into the palm of my hand with a wink as I headed out the door, even aged 15.
And then, one day, she wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t just pop round and see her. There would be no more chats about school or homework or boyfriends.
I was more devastated than anyone probably ever knew.
As a family of O’Briens, St Patrick’s Day has always been special, but for the past 11 years it has meant so much more than green clothes and Guinness. I still find it hilarious (as she would’ve) that someone so Irish passed on Paddy’s Day, so when I lift my glass tonight, as I do every year, I know who I’ll be cheersing to.
Miss you daily, lady.
Happy St Patrick’s Day.