But we do something else in Lyme Regis each year, something other than a celebration of the birthdays of the living, something of great significance concerning a late relative. And what makes this year particularly poignant is that my brother and his wife will be there with their five-month-old daughter, Ellie.
"It's a big day tomorrow," I reminded Matthew, who was listening to me while playing internet poker - his idea of multi-tasking.
"Why such a big day?" he asked.
"Because Ellie is going to meet her paternal grandfather for the first time," I explained. There was a long pause then that I assumed had something to do with the poker. Finally, Matthew said in a measured voice, "I don't want to seem callous, but your father died on 1 May 11 years ago, and unless someone has exhumed him and schlepped him across country, he's resting peacefully in Newmarket cemetery."
Matthew was being faux naive. Of course I know that my father is dead and buried in Suffolk. I am all too aware of the location owing to a mistake I made over the measurements. His headstone is so tall it can be seen by the naked eye from as far away as Edinburgh and, on a clear day, Siberia. Matthew describes it as the second most embarrassing funeral related cock-up ever. The first occurred during an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David inserted a death notice in a newspaper that should have read "Beloved Aunt". There was an unfortunate typo with the first letter of "Aunt".
Back, though, to Lyme Regis, and our family gathering. Matthew knew perfectly well that when I referred to Ellie's paternal grandfather, I was referring to a slot machine in the seafront amusement arcade.
Dad's in The Derby
The machine is called "The Derby", and my brother found it six years ago. He had arrived early for the gathering and wandered into the arcade in order, he maintains, to shelter from an April shower. The Derby features cut-out horses racing along a mechanical track in a crude facsimile of this nation's most famous horse race on the flat. Having inserted 10p and watched the animals crank their way to the winning post, my brother became aware of a familiar voice announcing the winner and the odds. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he all but fainted with shock.
My father, I should explain, was a racing journalist and a commentator for Channel 4. Every Saturday and some weekdays, he read the betting and results from around the country and, as we discovered that day, he can still be heard posthumously reading results, on a now warped, looping tape in hundreds of amusement arcade Derby machines around the country. My brother has encountered the disembodied voice of his parent in Scarborough and Blackpool.
These are the faintly macabre circumstances under which Louis came to meet his grandfather. And this is how, after a stately progress through the municipal gardens in her pushchair, Ellie will meet him tomorrow. Assuming that he is still there.
Having parked the car at the top of the hill overlooking the town, I saw that Lyme Regis was undergoing reconstruction, owing to cliff erosion. I doubted that my father would have survived the diggers. The seafront was a mass of reinforced concrete - with cranes and tractors and bollards and miles of red-and-white tape slung across various sections of the seafront. All I could do was pray that the arcade was still accessible. My brother would take it hard if he was unable to introduce his firstborn to this now time-honoured family ritual.
'Hand me that crane'
Indeed, upon his arrival my agitated sibling swore that if he had to nick a hard hat, hijack a crane and force his way into the aforementioned building with one of the breaking balls lying on the sand being gently buffeted by waves, he would. He was greatly upset by the closure of the municipal gardens, forcing him to wheel Ellie through the town itself. Nothing about her progress through the Easter holiday crowds was at all stately or ritualistic and my brother stepped in a discarded pasty. So it was with relief that we discovered the amusement arcade was miraculously open - relief followed by anxiety as we searched, in vain, for my father. He was not to be found.
Not wanting to admit defeat so early, we split up; my brother headed towards the fruit machines while I concentrated on the area beyond the Cracky Crab games. Louis was trying to win a plastic lobster, I couldn't think why, and my mother and sister-in-law had gone in search of a cup of tea and a bun.
We did eventually find my father. He had been there all along but we hadn't recognised him straight away because he has a new case; much brighter than the old one, fluorescent and plastic. Still, the voice is the same. And after taking the traditional photos of ourselves with our late relative we bade goodbye for another year. My brother went in search of the arcade manager, saying he was going to try to buy the old, discarded machine if it hadn't yet been demolished. "Perhaps it is time," he concluded, "to bring the old boy home."
- More about: