Knowing freedom

Sunday night – aged ten

The rain is orange gems on the window as mum is drawing the curtains.  She stoops to the fire and adds a heavy lump of coal – shifting it all, making things collapse and sparks leap up the chimney.  I am leaning on the door frame watching her.

‘I’m going to do my shoes now, Mum.’

‘OK, love.’

The brushes are old – one set for brown and one for black.  There’s the sticky bottle of sports white for plimsolls.  There’s a jar of navy blue from that year when I had blue shoes.  But these are black.  Twist the little metal lever and make the lid pop up.  It’s called Cherry polish and it’s black as black – pitted where the bristles of the brush have bitten in.  On with the dark brush, off with the light – and then rub them with the cloth.  Specks of polish scatter on the newspaper.  I like the smell.  I rub hard.  These will make me feel right.  In the morning, these will make me safe – cross-legged in assembly, I’ll look at the shiny bit underneath my ankle.  I’ll remember how I polished them.  Made them right – clean – ready.

I bounce on each stair going up.  The smell of the dinner is gold.  Roast potatoes are spitting in the oven.  From three bedrooms I can hear three radios in unison.  The chart.  I know my big ones are hovering over radio cassettes – fingers ready to press play and record when their favourite tracks come on – making tapes for the rest of the week.  It’s time for my bath.

I slide the little bolt.  I have blue bubble bath.  Blue is best.  Blue is the sea with dolphins in it.  I pour it into the stream of steaming water, watch it make a mountain of bubbles.  My body disappears under the soft.  I lie back and flex my neck, hear the water dance at my ears.  I find froggy with the concave tummy.  He’s a soap dish but if you put soap on him he flips over.  I don’t mind.  I like him for company.  I coil the shampoo in my palm, rub it on my fine hair – make two horns.  Lie back again to rinse it out.   Check my hair squeaks.  If it squeaks it’s ok.

Velour pyjamas.  I asked for them.  The bottoms are sky blue.  The top is stripy.  The slippers are boys ones too – navy cord.  I dry between my toes.  You have to do that or you get athlete’s foot and it makes your feet like jam.  I brush my hair.  It reaches the neck of my ‘ jama top.  It’s the top ten now – the count down – and Mum is calling.  Five minutes.

We take our plates into the front room.  I’ve got carrots on carrots on carrots because they’re my favourites – and gravy over the top. The others are on the chairs, the settee and I sit cross legged on the hearth rug.  Mum comes in last – she’s pink.  She has the oven gloves slung over her shoulder.  I eat the chicken with my fingers like a Saxon king, sucking gravy from my skin.   I scoop the peas up with my fork.  Scrape away at the dribbles and flecks of crispy roast potatoes until my plate is all white.

‘Is there pudding?’

‘Have an apple.’

I don’t want an apple.  All Creatures is coming on soon.  I want AA so I run upstairs.  AA is on my bed – face down from last night.  He’s quite flat for a bear really – pancake face – one eye.  He has an eye patch like a pirate but it keeps falling off.  I carry him by his thin leg and run downstairs again – jump the last three.

The top hat is on the end of the kitchen table.  There’s a lot of gubbins at the moment – songbooks, agendas to be delivered, someone’s swimming stuff in a co-op bag.  The top hat is in amongst it all.  I put it on and go back to the front room.  AA makes a good pillow.  Lying on the hearth rug it’s scorchy down my left-hand side.  I get so close to the little metal rail of the grate that I can stare right into the caves.  Dragon caves.  The top hat is balanced on my brow.  Sucking my fingers, watching the telly, rubbing AA’s softy foot.

***

There probably wasn’t another little girl in 1980 lying too close to the fire in boy’s pyjamas with a top hat on her forehead like the Artful Dodger.  There probably wasn’t a happier little girl than that one with her mousy hair rising in the warmth – lifting the smell of shampoo into the air.  There certainly wasn’t a readier little girl – a girl who cleaned her own shoes, had a bath, ate with her fingers and knew freedom.

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