The room was buzzing. All day we’d been blowing up balloons, hanging bunting and strings of coloured lights, and erecting a wobbly screen for the slideshow of her nine decades. On every table, tea lights flickered in a sea of twinkling confetti 9s and 0s, and pots of daffodils stood ready to rejoice in my mother-in-law’s ninetieth birthday.
As the guests arrived, bubbles rose in flutes of pale English wine. Background music was drowned out by exclamations: ‘Haven’t seen you for years! How are you?’ Scrubbed-up faces and polished shoes shone in the red and green glow of the lights. The room was only half full; many friends had not braved the occasion because of a virus that was spreading from Italy and China.
Amidst a rumpus at the top of the stairs, she appeared wearing a dress of pink roses and flashing the impish grin she’d worn for ninety years and a day. The room surged towards her. ‘Hey!’ she called. ‘Where’s the music?’ Although it wasn’t yet time for the band, the fiddler, accordion-player and guitarist picked up their instruments and the Caller asked, ‘Has anyone been to a ceilidh before?’
Following the Caller’s instructions, we arranged ourselves – the old and the young – in sets of eight. I held the hand of a baby stretching from his father’s arms, and we stepped, swooped, ducked, skipped the wrong way and turned back amidst much shouting. Red-faced, we got through Strip the Willow despite clumsy off beat steps and once (‘sorry!’) treading on my neighbour’s toe.
My first ceilidh, at age eighteen, was in Iona village hall. Brimming with sweaty, exuberant youth, it was presided over by trendy Christians who knew a thing or two about how to bind young people to the faith. For three hours, we flung each other round and round, occasionally lifting off our feet and, unintentionally airborne, crashing onto the lap of a resting spectator.
I approached tonight’s ceilidh in a similar spirit, locked arms with our kidults and swung and twirled with all my might. Taking a break from the exertions of the dancefloor, I located a glass of wine, presumably mine, and let the bubbles spark a second wind. Then off again for the next dance, and the next, with quick glugs in between. Beads of sweat flew off my cheeks, and I smeared the heat of the room down my sleeve, and the evening became a blur of cuddling the baby and sipping, then skipping and colliding – ‘oops, sorry wrong way’ – only toning it down for a few rotations of the Gay Gordons with the birthday lady herself.
Time for speeches, for raising our glasses in a raucous toast, and a melodious ‘Happy Birthday’ sung by her friends who had been fellow musicians in the BBC Philharmonic. Above flushed cheeks, her eyes glittered – surely not tears? Holding the microphone between knuckles swollen by decades of violin playing, she thanked everyone for coming to her party. ‘I hope you’re all having a wonderful time.’ A pause for cheers, and then a silence. All faces were lifted towards the diminutive figure on the stage. ‘And for those who didn’t come, two fingers to them.’ She raised her hand, and with her crooked fingers gestured a V-sign. The crowd gasped, the shocked Caller covered her mouth with her hands, the twenty-somethings shouted ‘Grandma!’ in disbelief. After ninety years, her eccentricity had peaked.
She remembers nothing of that day, 14 March 2020. For the next three weeks, she floated in and out of delirium, gradually returning to health over the following months. We all blamed the baby, who tested positive, for being the super-spreader as one by one the partygoers succumbed to Covid. It still took a week or so for the penny to drop, since we were suffering in our separate homes. But as I hugged my hot water bottle, my partner’s headache persisted. One son had a temperature, while another’s kidneys smarted painfully, and all except me lost their sense of taste and smell. The Queen of the party didn’t recover from her post-birthday exhaustion but sank instead into a feverish delirium, and it became clear that we’d fallen foul of this virus gaining pace in the news. Our happy-go-lucky, blasé attitude had put everyone at risk. No one died, although an eighty-year-old guest spent weeks in hospital with Covid pneumonia. Only nine days after the party the whole nation was instructed to stay inside.
Not everyone in the UK was so lucky, and many of us have friends, or friends of friends, or relatives who did not manage to beat the virus. Now she is nearly 91, it’s likely my mother-in-law will remember this year’s muted birthday celebration as we emerge from lockdown, this time with fingers crossed not making a V-sign.