It’s a strange feeling when you find that you have suddenly arrived in your future. This unsettling thought entered my head as I was driving home from my mum’s house last Friday evening. It’s not as if I have never known that one day I would have to dismantle my family home, into which we moved in the late summer of 1978, my mum and dad just in their early 30’s, my brother and I aged 4 and 7. It’s just that I didn’t expect it now. Surely I am still too young for this to be happening? And I always imagined that it would be done with great care and reverence, not this almost obscene, indecent haste.
That house has contained so much. Day upon day has been laid down in a thick strata of time over that patch of land. Such happy optimism must have hung over my Dad as he walked into that house for the first time with us, his young family on that September day. It was detached! It had 4 bedrooms – one with an ensuite! This was a real step up from the tiny shoebox in Stanford -Le – Hope that he had left behind.
All those days; all those years. They mount up quietly and knowingly, until one day you look behind and they are monstrous in their enormity. They tower above you and then topple over and seem to wash away the present, pushing you into a future you thought was years away. The new family that are moving in will know nothing of this life lived. They will guess at it, maybe, if they are imaginative. They will ghoulishly wonder if somebody died in this room, then dismiss the thought as they think about tonight’s dinner. They will know nothing of the little girl, lying in bed one Christmas Eve morning, watching the snow flakes whirling down past the window while Bucks Fizz plays on the clock radio; they won’t know about the birthday parties where the floor was filled with sweating, wrestling little boys in their best shirts, noisily ignoring my mum’s efforts to get them to play Musical Chairs; or about the evenings coming in from school and taking my copy of Smash Hits to my room to devour along with the packet Revels my mum left on the side every Wednesday. There are so many fragments of memory contained on those four, symmetrical walls…
Take the Cabinet of Curiosities, put together by my Dad over the last 30 or so years of his life. This innocuous dark wood cabinet originally housed a few pieces of ancient crockery and Silver Jubilee mugs, but the custom arose whereby my parents would place something inside it from one of the many, many holidays that they had since my brother and I stopped being children. The Cabinet sits opposite the head of the dinner table, and as such the contents could be viewed comfortably by my Dad from his chair. Nothing made him happier than to sit in that chair on a Saturday night, or at a family gathering, glass of vintage red in hand, and retell the tale of how one of the Curiosities came to be in the Cabinet.
Now, my Dad having been prematurely dead these last 3 years, and my mum facing a move to a flat in sheltered accommodation, the time has come to dismember this monument to a life lived to the full. There is just nowhere for it to go, and so it must come apart. I am taken aback by my mum’s casual disregard for what happens to the content: she doesn’t seem to care or hold it with the same awe that I do. Seeing the doors cast open yesterday, and my children plunging in their hands to retrieve objects they then turn over in their young hands fills me with a deep horror. It feels wrong; I feel like a plunderer of treasure. I imagine that I can feel my Dad’s hurt and sorrow at the casualness of the conversations being had about what is worth taking and what is not.
But it’s just stuff, right? Isn’t the value in it the fun to be had with it, to do what you want with it? It reminds me of my Sliver Jubilee Souvenir Book, circa 1977. It’d be worth a fortune, maybe, if I hadn’t cut it to ribbons and covered it in scribble…
The year is 1977 and I am 6 years old. I am in my tiny bedroom, sitting on my orange candlewick covered bed looking through my Silver Jubilee Souvenir book. My bedroom is very orange. I remember being asked what colour I wanted my bedroom, and replying, quite determinedly, ‘orange please’. I have an orange bedspread and orange carpet, an orange wall, orange curtains and orange knobs like big suns on my white MFI wardrobe and drawers. I am a true daughter of the 1970s. My brother’s bedroom is possibly of even poorer taste: it is brown. The carpet is made from off cuts and is a swirled brown and orange pattern. He has brown floral curtains. I am jealous of his bedroom because he has wallpaper and I do not. Never mind that it has been put on upside down by my Dad so that the huge, drooping brown flowers point downwards.
I am busy drawing and writing in my book. I may have even taken scissors to it at one point. I am in love with the Queen and her entire extended family. I was given the book inside a carrier bag of other goodies at the street party. There was also a large souvenir coin, and other things that have not endured in my memory. Every weekend morning, I wake up early and look at my book. I think that Princess Anne is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen, and I desperately want to be her. My favourite picture of her is one in where she is wearing an orange (of course) floral maxi dress with a high, frilly neck, and her hair is swept elegantly up into a bun on the top of her head.
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I would like to own an orange floral maxi-dress. I have a brown party dress covered in tiny yellow flowers. It has puffed sleeves and a frill around the bottom. I wear it to all the parties that I am invited to by my friends, and there are many of those. We buy each other Victoria Plum bubble bath and note paper and run about in our party dresses until we are red and sweating. I have friends called Denise, Joanne, Laura, Angela, Victoria and Vicky. And Julie, who lives next door and whose mum drives a white Ford Anglia. Julie takes thorns from the rose bushes in our garden and sticks them to her nose and forehead with spit and pretends to be a rhino. In Julie’s identical bedroom we swap the worst swear words that we know, and we know quite a few between us. I hear her mum and dad shouting them at each other when my mum lets me press a glass to the wall so we can hear their rows better.
At 6, clothes mean a lot to me. They are more than the sum of their parts: they are a feeling, they are a possibility. I have a white, tight, ribbed polo neck jumper. When I pull it over my head to put it on, it is so tight that it makes my ears hurt. I wear the jumper with my pleated red skirt that has a little red, white and blue band at the front with a gold chain suspended from it. Joanne Bradley has one, and I asked my mum to get me one. We walk into Corringham one afternoon after school, on a cold October evening with fog and bonfire smoke in the air, and we buy it from the shop on the parade. From this same shop came my navy blue, cord, flared trousers. When I wear these trousers with my red bomber jacket I am taken to a different plane of existence. I walk the streets and I just want to melt with the pleasure I get from this outfit. I can do anything. I can go anywhere. I can go to the ends of the world and back before teatime. I am almost 7 now, and I am allowed bubblegum . All these years later and I can still conjure up the way they made me feel.
I walk down the road in my cords and I knock at the door of a neighbour who has a dog called Dylan. Can I take him for a walk? I have the lead in my hand, and Dylan is pulling me up the path. If I am lucky, the deep pink Tonibell Ice cream van will pull up now and I can buy a Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or maybe even a Screwball. I must be careful not to dash behind the van with my ice cream or I will end up dead like all the ghost children my mum seems to know so much about that cluster about at the edges of my childhood. Sometimes these children get uncomfortably close and brush me with their fingers, like the time that I was sucking on a Trebor Strawberries And Cream Blob on the way back from school and it slipped back my throat and stayed there. I am outraged and horrified that this is happening to me and I stop in my tracks and gape and choke. My quick-thinking mum whacks me across the back, and I have a memory of seeing the pavement upside down above me as the dissolving and fizzing sweet shoots reluctantly from the back of my throat like a lurid pink pebble. I stare at it in its pool of stickiness and briefly understand the precariousness of it all. My mum never buys me Trebor Blobs again.
In my front garden there is a hole. I am not sure what the hole is for, but one day I find a toad at the bottom of the hole. I watch it and am fascinated by it. I am in the garden helping my Dad to plant red, white and blue pansies in time for the Silver Jubilee. There is going to be a street party and so everything has to be red, white and blue. Red, white and blue…red, white and blue. It is a phrase that colours the summer of 1977, and they are the colours of my favourite clothes after all. There are tiny flags fluttering from the houses down our street, and I wonder what exactly a street party is and what all this fuss is about anyway.
I sit at a table in the middle of the road, not far from the bit of the pavement that witnessed the incident with the pink Trebor Blob. Drizzle is in the air but nobody seems to care for today is The Jubilee. There are paper plates and party hats (all red white and blue…red, white and blue), and warm orange squash in plastic cups. I am sitting with my brother amongst other children from my street: Julie and Paul, Wendy and Rodney, David and the twins – Justine and Julian, and Claire who doesn’t have a brother but does have a big, cross looking white cat. There is a white paper table cloth that lifts and flaps in the breeze. The adults are crowding around the children, making sure that we have everything that we want. They are drinking sour white wine from the same paper cups that we have, and there is loud music. I pile my plate high with round, ring shaped biscuits, covered in pink and white crispy icing. Afterwards, I am given a paper bowl full of red jelly and yellow ice cream, and I eat it unsteadily with a white plastic spoon. The ice cream makes my teeth hurt, and I shiver. I am wearing my party dress and my arms are bare.
Later on, when the tables have been cleared away, there will be party games and dancing. We will go home in the dark, clutching a white carrier bag, stuffed full of identical souvenirs for each child in the street. In the morning, I will tip the bag out on to my orange bedspread, and I will find the still pristine Jubilee Book. My dad will tell me that I should look after the book and the coin, because one day they might be worth something. I will think of his words as I guiltily but irresistibly take my pencil to the clean, stiff pages to make my mark on it… Yep, it’s just stuff. You can get rid of it. But before you do, let those things take you on a journey…
A beautify written blog by Sinead, one of the therapists here at Life House Therapy.
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