Our family have never been close. Not particularly alienated, I just get the sense that we couldn’t be bothered. There was a natural division, four boys then a girl. Obviously, with bedrooms and all that, the boys went in two by twos. My mother used to introduce me “This is Mary, my P.S.” And I was, if not exactly an afterthought, a change of sex in the family, born four years after the last boy. ”The first girl born for 60 years”, said my mother through gritted teeth, when I pulled on my favoured dungarees.
At some point, looking after her in her 80s (when, demented, she became a sweet old lady) I realised one of the reasons we were not close was she operated on a kind of divide-and-rule system. She was a fantastic grandmother however, the sort that you find on all fours behind the sofa, or flipping pancakes in a sweat. One that the grandchildren wanted to keep in touch with even when they grew up.
Which brings me to Nick, my nephew from the north, who escaped far west, and beached in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Nick who diligently visited Judy whenever he came back to the UK, and dined me finely. Being the eldest son of my eldest brother, we are almost as close in age as I am to his father, and feel like mates. When Nick married his long-term partner Jane in the summer I thought I’d go. Then I revised this plan (how much do you actually see of a couple on their wedding day?) to visit a respectful time afterwards. I didn’t really know Jane and I wanted to. Now I do, and am the richer for it.
Coming from an area full of stone houses with walls a meter thick, and strange prehistoric bristle-tailed hopping silver fish, it was homey to see these early settler houses doing a good impression of villages round here in the Cotswolds. I don’t know if Marblehead has weird silverfish, but they do have cockroaches, or, as Nick pointed out, Palmetto bugs. (Which is what you have if they are in your house; in your neighbour’s house they are cockroaches.) I examined the map before I left. There was a Gloucester, Worcester, Essex and Truro…hundreds of English names. Did the settlers land, and think “goodness me, this looks just like Gloucester” or did they think “know what, lets call this place after the old country” and wiped away a tear. Maybe it made them feel less lost in a New England. I think of them whenever I use a cup for measurement, carefully unwrapping little tea cups from protective cloth and examining them for chips after their journey across the ocean.
Marblehead is a little-tea-cup kind of a place. Houses preserved in ‘revolution’ style by assiduously applied planning rules (even ones built in a later era). Made of clapboard, they are painted a gorgeous palette of colours (which I found to be rather more subtle without my sunglasses). Much be-flagged and neat as a pin, it would be picture postcard perfect if only they’d pick up after their dogs.
Being on the coast, Marblehead is all about boats, the Boston Yacht Club predominates. Nick has a modest boat and we discussed plans the next morning over breakfast at the Driftwood Diner.
We would sleep overnight on the boat and make a 4 am start for Provincetown, Cape Cod. I wondered about the wisdom of sharing a small boat with a honeymoon couple, but assumed they’d be past the heavy rocking stage having been a couple for ten years. I worried about my usefulness on the boat. The last time I sailed was at school on Frensham Ponds, where the limit of my technical lingo was ‘duck’, or ‘watch out’ or ‘oh shit’. I wondered about the wisdom of having a barbecue on the boat. I worried about my propensity to sea sickness, combined with jet lag. But most of all I thrilled at the thought of possibly seeing humpback whales on the Stellwagen Bank.