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.’
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.