It's that Sunday again. The dreaded one in three when we have to visit my father's family. It's the only time my mother and I are ever really in tune. She hates it as much as I do for different reasons though I'm never really sure what hers are about.
So there we are - disunited as ever, a family of four trudging through the side streets of Bristol on our way to the dark, gloomy house to see the dark gloomy occupants and follow the same ritual as all the other visits. Sitting round in a circle on hard uncomfortable chairs drinking tea out of flowery china teacups and eating egg sandwiches and sponge cake from a wooden tea-trolley wheeled round, usually by my father's older sister, Queenie.
My mother has a face like thunder and I have my grumpy look, despite being warned by my father to be nice to them because they're old and lonely. They're also ugly, I think to myself, so no wonder they're lonely - anyway they have eachother even though Aunt Audrey only comes to life when persuaded to play the piano, which she does surprisingly well considering she's not been right in the head since she woke up to find her own mother dead in bed beside her when she was a child (so my mother tells me). Aunt Queenie will make a fuss of my brother as usual because she's his godmother and he always gets all the attention anyway because of his problems, which makes me feel left out and unlikeable.
The nearer we get to the house, the more panicky I feel. My mother is complaining loudly to my father, he is saying nothing as usual and my brother is wobbling along with that unsteady gait of his. I concentrate on avoiding the lines on the pavement, thinking if I manage not to tread on one then it won't be so bad after all.
And now we're here and climbing the three steps up to the front door with its familiar stained glass panels and heavy knocker. The door opens and, as always, they are lined up to greet us. Grandma Mathews, my father's step-mother, stern and wrinkled and wearing black as usual. Aunt Queenie, round face, round glasses, round body - Aunt Audrey, a thin version of her sister, clasping her hands and not looking at any of us, and Aunt Grace, step-grandmother's sister, who is quite a sweet old thing but never says much. Four unmarried ladies, and I include Grandma Mathews in that as she didn't marry my late grandfather until she was forty-five and although she was his fourth wife, he was her first and last husband. He died when my father was only in his teens so they can't have been married that long.
It's all a bit like something out of a Dickens novel. The house is as strange as the occupants - cold, dark rooms, the curtains always drawn, old-fashioned furniture, a musty smell everywhere and sepia photographs of unknown dead relatives on all the walls.
And now for the moment I've been dreading the most - four whiskery chins, four papery crinkled cheeks lean towards me expectantly. There's no escape. I have to do it so I close my eyes, hold my breath and reach up - peck, peck, peck, peck and it is done. But not really, because after tea I watch the clock hands creeping round to six o'clock (going home time) knowing I will have to go through the whole kissing ordeal all over again. And they don't even smell of lavender like old ladies are supposed to - they smell musty, like the house.
All the way home my mother grumbles to my father about the weirdness of his family, my brother ambles along beside them and despite a niggling worry that I might one day grow whiskers on my face when I'm old - I soon forget about it and instead concentrate on stepping on as many pavement lines as I can on the walk back.
After all it will be three whole weeks before we have to do this again and that thought very nearly makes me smile.