It was a real shock when I was told that Auntie Pat had passed away suddenly. There had been plans to have a celebratory event for her 80th birthday at the Prestberries Estate in May, with all the family gathering from across the world.
Of course, Pat was technically Lady Barton St Mary’s aunt rather than mine, what with me not being ‘blood’. Because my parents were both 40 years old when I was born, my aunties were all slightly older than Pat, having names like Bella, Dot, Bessie and Dolly. Additionally, all my aunties came from London, whereas Auntie Pat and her sisters (Val and Jackie) hailed from Manchester.
I can remember my mum’s aunt, my great aunt Nell, coming to visit when I was 18 and still living at home. Great Aunt Nell would have been born towards the end of the Victorian age and was of that vintage that used to wear a long woollen coat, thick grey stockings and flat black shoes. All topped off with a tiny hat, held on with a rather vicious looking hat pin.
I walked into the kitchen to greet Aunt Nell, sitting bolt upright in a dining chair, her handbag held tightly on her lap. She stared at me, a stern look on her face. My mum was doing her best to improve Aunt Nell’s mood, so I tried to help.
“Are you alright, Aunt Nell?” I enquired chirpily.
“No, I’m ‘arf left!” she snapped, eyes wide. I swallowed something large. Mum tried to move things along.
“Ooo Aunt Nell, did you know that Robert’s been offered a place at university?” she said.
Aunt Nell said nothing for a few moments, pursing her lips together.
“What a fucking waste of time,” she replied, looking at me levelly.
It’s a myth that Victorians abhorred bad language. Well, at least all those hailing from London. Who were members of my family.
So, although Aunty Pat was nearly 80, she was still a youngster as far as I was concerned. Also, having aunties (and uncles) who came from Manchester was a real novelty. They were proper northern. They’d worked in cotton mills, drank warm, flat, dark brown beer and called everybody ‘Ower’, as in ‘ower Jackie, ower Carole’ etc.
What’s even more amazing is that Pat spent many years living in South Africa before returning to England in the 1980s but still sounded like she’d never moved more than 4 miles south of Failsworth. In traditional modest style, she would tell you stories about her time there as if it wasn’t something special.
‘Oh aye luv. Bloody lion turns up in the garden and starts messing with me washing line. Had to go out with me broom and tell ‘im t’ bugger off.”
My early experiences of Pat were in the days when I was still courting Lady Barton St Mary and staying at the Prestberries Estate. In those days, I was a rather enthusiastic smoker, much to the understandable disappointment of The Marquess, who is an advocate of healthy living.
In those days, the best place for a crafty smoke was the boiler room, a separate building from the main house. As I crept in out of the rain to light up, something moved behind the pallets, making me jump. It was Auntie Pat.
“Hiya luv. You having a ciggy too?”
We chatted about her life in Manchester and South Africa and her kids; Carole was with her, a rather beautiful, tanned girl with a thick South African accent, who, as Lady Barton St Mary reminded me with arched eyebrows, was only 15 years old. Pat told me about Carole’s older sisters Joan and Janet, who were just as good looking as Carole. I demanded photographs. Her son David lived in Denmark, her other son Ian in Australia – a real globe trotting family, all described with a lot of pride.
It wasn’t long before the boiler door opened again and Brian, Pat’s husband appeared.
“How do,” he nodded, before sparking up. Not far behind was Auntie Val and Uncle Graham. The boiler room soon gave the appearance of a makeshift smokery for human kippers, with most of The Marchioness’s relatives packed in, sitting on piles of old newspapers, puffing away to their hearts’ content.
We never met that often, but when we did, we always had a little joke and, during my smoking career, shared a cigarette or two. She was always keen to get her retaliation in first, if I remember rightly.
But what of her send off? News came through that a huge hunting lodge in The Peak District called Roaches Hall had been booked, where the family could all stay for the weekend and celebrate Pat’s life.
What a venue it was. A large, imposing dark house on the moors, with turrets and secret passage ways, old panelling and high ceilings. Oh, and wi-fi.
After the funeral, we all returned to Roaches Hall in the evening for dinner. It was truly magnificent, with Paul, husband of The Duchess of Macclesfield (the aforementioned Janet) organising a magnificent feast.
There were speeches and games, hugs and kisses. The evening progressed to dancing and more carousing, a stupendous game initiated by Carole involving a cereal box, people posing for photos with a large statue of a stag and an impromptu appearance by a Bee Gees tribute band, initiated by Drew, Lady BSM’s brother.
It was great to get to meet all of Pat’s family, hailing from Australia, South Africa and Denmark, the grandchildren, all ages, all joining in with the fun.
But throughout the evening, it was apparent that people were thinking about Pat, how much she would have enjoyed such an event, laughing and joking and occasionally disappearing for a fag.
I also realised something that was very satisfying. No, it wasn’t that you could tease a 7ft, 300lb South African policeman and still stay intact. No, it wasn’t that, as suspected, all the Manchester United side of the family didn’t live in Manchester. It wasn’t even that finding yourself in a dark room full of naked black men can be disconcerting (thanks for that story, young Robert).
It’s that Aunty Pat was always welcoming, always positive, always great company. What’s more, she always treated me like a nephew, like one of her own. I’m part of a lovely, loving, fun family. Indeed, part of me is indeed northern.
Thanks, Aunty Pat. Thanks, family.