I had a recurring dream once.
An old Sean Hughes line.
I had thought it was from Emo Philips, but I Googled to make sure.
So goodbye half-hour, hello “research” — and some cracking old Philips routines, like this one, when he appeared on the Joan Rivers show back in the day:
But I did have a kind of recurring dream the other night. And it was a once-off.
In it, I am standing up, and filling a large white teacup for someone seated at a large rectangular table.
All I can see is the bottom right-hand corner of the bare wooden table top. And the cup on it.
There are voices in conversational hubbub.
A typical family gathering. Like the Kris Kindle we do in my family each year, you know, sibings, partners and over-excited children eat and drink too much and exchange presents.
So, everyone else is sitting at the table.
I am pouring from a little red floral tea-pot – I remember now, the one we have in our own kitchen.
I fill the cup the first time, right to the top, and pick it up, only to splash a fair amount of tea from it on to the table. People titter, including a laugh I recognise as that of one of my brothers.
So I fill the cup again — dream magic at play here, the cup is empty again, and I am pouring from the top.
The same thing, I fill it right the brim, lift it up to give it to someone unspecified or by now forgotten, and it spills again. Not much, just a splatter, but annoying, and embarrassing.
So I go again, and the same result.
The dream moves on but I don’t. Yet.
Thinking about it, I am struck by a few things:
How I stubbornly — or stupidly — had to fill it right to the lip each time, despite the risk, and with everyone there watching.
There is the feeling of played down mortification, of being made fun of by all those present when the tea splashed into the surface, passing it off but actually really annoyed with them all. Furious actually. And they know it, really.
It also made me think of those anecdotes your sibs tell about you — and you about them — which can be both sweetly nostalgic, but also inserted, stiletto-sharp, into the chitter-chatter with unacknowledged malicious intent.
Put out there for a laugh, but also, you feel, to put us in our places, somehow, both in the original family constellation, but also letting others, like our partners or children, know that well though they think they might know us, we know the real you. And the juicy stuff.
Before you got all surface grown up, with your career, your own family, house, and all that baloney.
It’s like a weird version of that Paddy Power betting ad:
Enough of the nonsense: all that guff about how the kids are doing in school, and how difficult teenagers are these days, now we’ve had a few sherries it’s time to break out the Family Anecdotes.
Oh yes, telling tales in every sense, capturing something uniquely you, something only we were present for, or know about anyway.
Used before, and will be used again, and again, and …
‘Do you remember that time you fell off that big black pipe running across the river when you were getting the football? …”
‘What happened, Dad? A pipe across the river, where, when? … ’ asks your son, who you thought was in the front room doing some communal phone watching with his cousins. His eyes are glinting …
You’re laughing with the rest of them.
‘Don’t worry, son’, you’re thinking, “Uncle Bollox over there is about to tell everyone’.
(You bastard, what age was I, only about seven, and at least I had the bottle to get on that fucking pipe and risk falling off it. And to pour that bloody tea, and spill it!)
You’re laughing along — the only way — and then you remember when Uncle Bollox peed in his trousers on purpose because he was afraid to ask that horrible Sister Hildegard in his senior infants class could he go to the toilet …
And we laugh and we recall, and the bread and butter pudding is only divine with that twist of raspberry and reminiscence …
And we are the siblings who, to all the world, are as tight as ever, and we gather every year, all bonhomie and secret jitters.
How about those families where this secret knowledge has caused more sparks to fly than a Harry Potter spell, and just as much destruction!
If they are still talking.
Oh yes, here I am, man of the world … newspaper career, my own family now, yada, yada, but still the seven year old gobshite who fell off that pipe and managed to at least land standing up, even if his sandals, socks and long-short green trousers, the ones with the massive side pockets you could fit a Beano comic in, were destroyed.
And I got the ball!!!
Now another thought: I am the only one of my sibs who doesn’t drink tea.
Is it something to do with big mature adults drink tea, and there I was, away from the adult table, but still pouring tea, just the way I wanted to, even though it was spilling?
Not quite up to the job?
Or do I just hate tea?
So, I’m stubborn and a bit susceptible to how others see me, especially in my family of origin. Before Hollywood.
I can back out here, out of my dream and my own head, and go universal … like who doesn’t feel they are not taken seriously enough by their siblings, or by their parents if they are still alive?
Who was the bully? The tattle-tale? The funny one? The noble one who bottled everything up but paid for it later in therapy and stomach trouble?
Back in the day, I studied psychoanalysis and obviously dream interpretation figured strongly.
I am not good at remembering my dreams, but the links and connections linger, and I am fascinated by the stream of associations that fan out from even the smallest dream fragment.
These associations are endless, in fact, which is why so many people can fall into the wormhole of permanent, and expensive, analysis.
And end up knowing lots of stuff about themselves, but getting no closer to “solving” the endless riddle of self.
And maintain the notion that one day they might stand nonchalantly at the table at a family gathering and pour that tea. Without spilling a drop.
And what of it if they did?
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