The thickness of the ale reflects the thickness of the voices, the people. They sit around me these hardy souls, celebrating a life soon to pass the gilded gates. My father’s distant family – Northerners the lot of them – crowd round a cancerous woman as she marks her ninetieth year. Elsewhere, the reality of her situation would dampen the joyful shouts but here they raise them. Scarred knuckles, the fruit of excess ale, complement heavily lined faces raised into crooked grins. Deep-bodied laughs punctuate the barbed insults exchanged by mother and son as she cuts into her cake. Pieces are handed around to be pushed passed missing teeth. One man flings excess cream at another. It lands in the latter’s brimming pint causing the foam to break its dam and run over gold-laden fingers. What a shame to waste the alcohol someone exclaims! The gold-handed man treats the crowd to a smile and gulps it down.
Everything here is thick: the cream, the ale, the food. Potatoes and meat fried, mashed, roasted and salted form the stodgy diet. The squat two-up-two-down sits tight against its neighbours. The roiling clouds hang low enough to scrape the chimneys and are dark with rain – impenetrable to nature’s distant furnace. The rolling hills are clogged with matted grass and low bush. Water makes the ground sodden and heavy underfoot. Nature conspires to make these men thick-skinned and looking round their stance confirms this. They look hard, ready for confrontation. But tonight they won’t be fighting a middle-aged man on the cobbles. The laughter bellowed from bellies stood on wide set legs, will fight tonight’s sadness. How my northern relatives differ.
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