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It has to be said that Westfield Stratford Shopping City would not be my venue of choice for a birthday meal, but this year my 71st coincided with a trip to the UK by my stepson who my daughter and I haven’t seen since his 21st birthday – he’s now nearly 51. It was his last night in London before flying back to the States with his two teenage sons and Westfield was the easiest place for all of us to get to. My daughter and her family had met up with them a couple of times already and he’d mentioned that one of his sons only ate chicken, burgers and pizza – very American – so TGI Friday’s fitted the bill. I’d been there once before with granddaughter 1 and I remembered its very, very loud rock music. So, I was thinking, maybe not the best place for a slightly hearing-challenged birthday girl to have an emotional 30-year catch-up session.
Yes, it’s a long time, too long, and a long and difficult story, one which a lot of people might find it hard to believe so I’ll draw a veil over that. Suffice it to say that his dad and I met abroad when he and his older brother (who sadly died in his mid-thirties) were aged five and seven and we parted company about 10 years later. My stepson now lives in the US and he was bringing his two teenage sons to the UK for the first time to visit relatives in the north of England, in Scotland where we lived and he went to school, to go to a school reunion and to show them London too – and all in a week. Yes, very emotional, particularly for my daughter – they were brother and sister for around 10 years and in the same class at primary school. Over the years she’s tried again and again to keep in touch, but the chequered life of his dad did not help things. But thanks to her perseverance (and Facebook, they’re now ‘friends’), here we were at last.
Waiting for his visit, some of the old not-so-good memories that I thought I’d buried had resurfaced in a jumble. But when I looked through my old albums when my daughter asked me for some photos from the past to show them, some of the good ones too. But to be honest, it’s impossible to describe how I felt when my partner and I arrived at Westfield – a whole confusion of feelings. My daughter told me her stepbrother had remembered the cuddly toy she had way back then (and still has) and his name – a soft pink elephant with blue silk lining to his ears – well, that speaks volumes. I’d brought along his teddy bear I’d kept over the years and after he’d given me a huge hug I gave it to him to take home with him.
It’s hard to have a serious conversation in TGI Fridays since although it’s like a deep dark cavern, the throbbing music, the cheerful staff and their, I think ‘banter’ is the word, gives it a manic party feel. So the evening turned out, as my daughter said, to be a celebration of us being there. But there was also a picnic hamper full of presents to unwrap. ‘Gran, gran, open that one first,’ cried grandson. And granddaughter 2 had designed a box for me labelled My Favourite Things which had cards for each one inside including, of course, chocolate and David Tennant. Then, oh god, my daughter went and told the TGI Friday’s staff it was my birthday and I had to perch on top of the sofa back while they sang happy birthday and presented me with a chunk of chocolate cake with a single candle to blow out and make a wish.
And what a lovely man my stepson has grown up to be in spite of the past. He sat next to me so I could hear as he told me about his life in the US and a little about his dad who died in Spain some years ago. And although he’s divorced from their mum, he spends as much time with his boys as possible and they obviously have a close relationship. And granddaughter 1 now has an open invitation to ‘go visit’ them in the US which she was angling for when she heard they were coming over – some of the bands she’s into are from the US. And of course wannnabe globetrotter granddaughter 3 is keen to visit too. Another huge hug and they were gone – but they’re coming back – his sons want to do London some more. He’s also hoping they spend a year out here during their time at college – so opportunities to see them again.
The next evening I went with my daughter and the family to see We will rock you – no, not the West End
version but even better, a performance by years 5 and 6 at granddaughter 3’s school. She’d been rehearsing hard for this – she’s in year 5 who were the chorus for the year 6 soloists taking on the Queen hits and she’d dressed the part in black leather gear. Wow, it was ama-a-a-zing with hi-tech special effects – jets of smoke gushing upwards, flashing lights, microphones – very professional with hi-energy performances from everyone. At one point photos of stars such as Curt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and, of course, Freddie Mercury, appeared on a huge screen while the cast and chorus sang Queen’s Only the Good Die Young – a bit schmaltzy perhaps but in amongst all the feelings of the past days, it brought tears to my eyes. The show ended with Bohemian Rhapsody ‘Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?’ with granddaughter 3 punching the air and laughing, her arms around her friends.
‘Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?’ sang Queen, and now years 5 and 6 – but the night in TGI Fridays and, for my daughter, the previous week, had actually happened. It had been a whirlwind of feelings, but now over the coming years we’ll have time to get to know my stepson – my daughter’s long lost stepbrother – again and maybe even talk a little about the difficult past and lay it to rest. And he’s already posted a photo of his teddy bear on Facebook and photos of where we used to live in Scotland. And he’s invited me to be his ‘friend’ too – and that’s the way people stay in touch these days.
*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.