A Special Meal by Melissa Dennison

13 July 1985. My Grandma’s 74th birthday. It is also the day of the biggest event in pop music history, Live Aid, which for me is massive. But I am going to miss some of it. My disappointment knows no bounds.

As it is a Saturday, we are getting together as a family to celebrate. Mum, Dad, me, my uncle and auntie as well as my three cousins, are all going to be at Grandma and Grandad’s. It will be cramped because they live in a Flower Fund home, a tiny bungalow with just one bedroom on a small estate of identical homes. These are dotted around the grounds of an old, unwelcoming house which has been converted into flats. The big house gives me the heebie-jeebies, looming out from behind a couple of monkey puzzle trees like a soot-coloured angry giant.

It is a gorgeous summer’s day with a lovely swimming pool sky as we walk up the long road from the bus top. I am 12, tall for my age, and self-consciously skinny. I have decided to wear lace in my hair, which I have copied from the music videos of Madonna, who is brilliant, and some pointy grey shoes which are very cool and fashionable.

My grandparents are of the war-time generation, and to them music is defined as Big Band, the type of music played at dance halls in the 1930s. I am frequently told ‘that is not music! Where is the melody?’, usually followed by ‘What are they singing about? It’s just noise!’. Luckily, Grandad has the TV on and, after Mum has kissed Grandma and given her a pretty card, I secure a prime position in front of the box.

‘Can I watch it?’ I ask, looking as amenable as possible. ‘Can I?’

My Grandad is kind, so he says ‘okay’ and switches over to the BBC. My heart is beating faster, my veins are throbbing with anticipation. I am deliriously happy – the day is not a wash-out after all.

The concert begins with Status Quo, not my favourite band. That is Duran Duran – everyone fancies their singer, Simon le Bon – but I prefer Andy Taylor. Replete in their signature denim outfits, Status Quo belt out Rocking All Over the World.

Dad groans. ‘All their records are the same.’

I laugh, but there is something catchy in those repetitive guitar riffs.

We will be staying for tea, squashed up like sardines around their tiny dining-table, which is usually folded up neatly by the door, just under the window of their front room.

For as long as I can remember, every Saturday, either we have gone to my grandparents for tea, or they have come to us. I don’t enjoy their teas; it’s always salad consisting of tasteless lettuce, tomato, boiled ham, potato and some kind of pickle. One thing I hate is boiled ham. It has fat around the edges and sometimes running through it. Yuck! Grandad will say, ‘Get it down you!’, ‘It’ll do you good’ or ‘You don’t know how lucky you are!’. Sometimes he jokes, ‘It’s dry-bread-and-pull-it for you next time’. I am mystified by this ‘dry-bread-and-pull-it’, so I just smile and put his comments down to old age and confusion.

Grandad loves his food and, after each meal, says to Grandma ‘Doll, that was lovely.’ Grandad lived through the Great Depression and The War, so he knows what it means to be hungry. I often hear stories about these times – the General Strike and the Jarrow marchers, when hundreds of unemployed men walked all the way from the North East to London. Our conversation usually flows on to politics and to our Prime Minister, the villain of the piece, Mrs-Thatcher-the-milk-snatcher’. Grandma calls her this as she ended free school milk for primary school children. I don’t mention that I never drank mine as I don’t like milk.

‘If we’re not careful, we’ll be going back to the ‘30s! All these millions of unemployed! I remember what it was like having to go to the Labour Exchange and not being able to find work.’

As we squeeze in around the table, careful to pull our chairs out and avoid bumping into each other, there are lots of smiles and awkward ‘excuse mes’ and ‘mind my legs’. I see that our meal is the dreaded boiled ham salad, and make a face. Mum notices and says, ‘It looks as if it’s lean’, but I remain unconvinced. At least Grandma has bought the crisps she knows I love from Leeds Market. They are fries, long, golden, slender slivers of delight and my favourite flavour: salt and vinegar. I get crumbs all over my fingers and spend time licking these off.

Grandma also serves the tastiest apple sauce which is a soft, golden-yellow colour and very sweet. I used to think that Grandma bought this, but it turns out that she buys cooking apples and makes this herself. Grandma makes this especially for me. With love. I am told that I am spoiled.

‘Ooh, you are a sweet tooth!’ Grandma says to me, laughing as I swallow spoonsful.

It is brought to the table in a nice glass bowl with a silver teaspoon to serve it out. All very civilised. I would eat this with anything, given the chance. I slather it onto my plate to cover the taste of fatty boiled ham. I scrutinise the ham for any white, veiny bits, like a surgeon about to do key-hole surgery. I then cut these out very carefully with my knife, and put them on the side of my plate. Everyone else is tucking in, although my cousins seem to eat only crisps and drink orange juice. No-one appears to mind. For once, Grandma and Grandad are not talking about politics, but about the next main topic – money.

‘We had a win with Ernie Bond,’ Grandma announces.

I think, ‘Who is Ernie Bond?  He is something to do with premium bonds, but I don’t know what.

‘Congratulations!’ Uncle exclaims, the ham dropping off his fork.

‘Yes, one day our ship will come in,’ Grandad remarks.

They are always hoping that their ship docks, or for a win on the gee-gees or the pools, as money has always been tight. Everyone smiles at this, and then Grandma asks if anyone would like anymore as there is plenty to go round. I greedily spoon on more apple sauce.

For afters we usually have tinned peaches and cream. My favourite is fruit cocktail, as I like the pretty red-pink cherries and looking for a sweet tasting grape in my dish. Occasionally we have mandarin segments, which are a treat, or pear and pineapple. At Christmas, Grandma makes trifle. I love all those layers of goodness, a riot of different flavours and textures on my tongue. As today is a special occasion, Grandma has made a strawberry jelly and added a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But mostly, we have fruit right out of a tin.

Afterwards, Grandma asks, ‘Would anyone like a chocolate éclair?’

She means the sweets. I love them, wrapped up in their pretty purple and gold paper shiny wrappers.

‘They’ll rot your teeth!’ Grandad jokes, but I don’t care.

Grandma hands the plate around, and we kids grab a handful each. All you can hear is contented sucking and chomping. I close my eyes as the toffee melts and the chocolate erupts on my tongue like a heavenly volcano.

It has been a better day than I expected, and when I get home, I watch more of Live Aid.

Melissa Dennison is a writer of short stories, poetry and haikus, which emerge from life writing. She is currently developing her funny bone and putting this into words.