Looking through old photos in my dad’s house one afternoon, I found a picture I had never seen before. It was taken in the early 80’s and showed a group of us on picnic at the beach.
Studying it gave me a surge of nostalgia for a time I don’t remember at all, and made me wish for something like this with my own friends and family and kids. I have thousands of photos on my Mac, and hundreds in albums – from birthday parties and Christmas dinners and nights out and day trips. But not so many like this – a group of young parents with small children on a beach.
The thing is, my kids and I don’t often meet up with other families for day trips – this is partly habit, and partly down to self-employment – it makes advance planning tricky. But if I’m honest, it’s also because I find it difficult enough to get me and the kids out of the house without the pressure of meeting up with other people by a certain time in a particular place. Ditto holidays – we’re slow starters in the mornings, terrible at getting out of the house in the evenings, and I don’t want to spend two weeks keeping the kids to a schedule and telling them to hurry up.
But still, when I looked at this decades-old photo, I wanted something of it. The it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child of it. The kids-playing-while-the-parents-chat of it. The shared-work-and-the-shared-fun of it. What were they talking about, I wondered? The Empire Strikes Back and John Lennon’s death and newly-elected President Reagan? Or perhaps the same as we did when the kids were that small – lack of sleep and weaning and who was on The Late Late Show last week.
The picnic lodged in my mind, morphing into a real memory; the photo (as photos often are) a magic wand of time and space. I wanted it for my kids, but more than that, I wanted it for me. I wanted to feel part of their gang, to whisk away the decades that separated us and sit on the sand and listen to their stories. I wanted a photo to show my kids – remember the day we had the picnic on the beach and everyone was there? I wanted it for them, and I wanted it for me.
Then on holidays this year, it happened. Sort of. We were staying in Bella Italia campsite, and our holiday overlapped with some lovely friends from home, E. and M., and their families. I’ve known E. for most of my life, and when she suggested a picnic on the lakeside one night, with fish and chips and Prosecco, it sounded absolutely perfect.
Seventeen of us jumped on board with the plan, eight adults and nine kids. We lined up at the takeaway to order the fish and chips, and someone ran to the supermarket to get Fanta for the kids. The smart people had brought glasses from their mobile homes – my husband managed to get plastic cups from the takeaway for us. We headed to the lake, and laid out beach towels on the water’s edge. Fish and chips were doled out while kids ran over and back to the lake. Some of them were in swimsuits, ready to jump off the jetty between bites of breaded fish and slurps of Fanta.
The first bottle of Prosecco was opened and poured into glasses. And suddenly it dawned on me – this was it. This was the moment I’d craved. A different country, a different century, different food and different drinks. But the same conversations and the same camaraderie – this was it. I reached for my phone, just as the first drops fell.
“It’s not meant to rain for another hour,” we told each other, “it’s probably only a shower.”
We kept sharing out chips and passing around Prosecco and telling the kids not to go too far. We’d managed to get food, drinks, beach towels and children to one spot and we weren’t about to give up now. A few drops of rain never deterred any Irish person.
But the weather apps were wrong, the storm was coming sooner than any smart phone could predict. Those first few drops became the heaviest downpour any of us had ever experienced – or at least, while drinking Prosecco beside a lake, trying to protect fish and chips from the rain. We had to give in.
We grabbed children and chips and started to run, flip-flops splashing into rapidly forming puddles. We raced through the campsite for M’s mobile home, and threw ourselves on to the deck, every one of us wringing wet. But the chips were still crisp, and the Prosecco still sparkled, and there we sat, eating and drinking and looking out at the rain.
The husbands went to watch the World Cup match after a bit and the kids played “throw the flip-flip” and we stayed chatting on the deck. Then we went down to the night-time entertainment and kept chatting while the kids watched the show. Then the kids went across to Belpark, the outdoor arcade, and ran back and forth to ask us for money for candy-floss and coin-slot games. Then we heard the World Cup game had gone to extra time, and the staff of the arcade had set up a TV under a tree. The rain was still pouring down, but the TV was sheltered by the tree, even if the kids and their mothers weren’t. And there we stood, in the dark, in the lashing rain, with the staff of the arcade, and nine kids between us, drinks in hand, watching England in the World Cup. And talking about all the things we talk about – the 21st century equivalent of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan and sleep and kids and who was on the Late Late. And it wasn’t quite the 1980’s photo recreated, but as I looked around in the pouring rain at cheering kids and laughing friends, I realised it was my picnic on the beach, and though dark and blurry and soaking wet, it was perfect.