A Forgotten Birthday Present

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Home is where the heart is a cliché of unyielding power as it contains a grain of truth in it. For me home is a place with my own bed a place where I can sleep and dream and be myself. A place where if I choose to leave the sheets on for one more day no one is going to come and literally drag the sheets from off the bed to feed a hungry machine lurking in the corner of the kitchen.

Friends told me that for them Sunday mornings in their homes was a time when you could lie in bed. Not ours. Sunday was the day clothes got washed and moreover, beds were stripped, and you had to relinquish your cozy warm sheets to the drone of the twin tub washing machine that was in the kitchen come bathroom. Weird, but that’s how it was.

Home for me is a place that I like hiding in now that I am older. When I close the door, I can strut around in the eclectic style of mismatched socks, holey cardigans or beloved hoodie and unkempt hair or my birthday suit if the fancy takes me.

Talking of birthday suits, I spent years or at least several months looking for mine. Thinking about it now, my mother was probably tired of my morning whine in the age before school uniforms,

 ‘Mum what shall I wear?’

My older sister always jumped in before my mother could come up with a suggestion. I knew what Rose Marie would say eyes glinting.

‘Wear your birthday suit.’ She seemed to derive pleasure from my bemused wailing.

‘But I don’t know where my birthday suit is’. I groaned as usual and began my quixotic quest to find the hidden items. It was bad enough trying to work out how people had hung an iron curtain across half the world. I mean did they have something attached the the sky? I was perplexed by these curtains and my missing birthday suit.

I was sure I had been given clothes for my birthday and just couldn’t find them, I looked high and low, but no birthday suit. It didn’t help when my sister sneered

‘You’re wearing it’.

 ‘Nope I didn’t get these for my birthday.’ Exasperated and tired from my futile searches came my reply, “Mum got these pajamas for me from the John Moore’s Catalogue or these were from Aunt Molly. They weren’t a present’.

Come to think of it, birthday presents were as rare as hens’ teeth in our house, which may have been why I was convinced that on one lucky birthday someone had given me a suit. I did get white ankle socks one year. Those are the only present that I remember getting for my birthday. Usually, people forgot when it was.

I was secretly glad my birthday came at the start of the school year; friends were too busy talking about the school holidays and learning about new teachers to ask the scary question,

 ‘So, what did you get for your birthday?’

And I could reply with pride

‘I got a suit, a birthday suit’.

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Aberfan, Churchill and Piggy

Winston Churchill

I’ve met death before, but it never wrapped itself around and choked me, like it’s doing now. When children are buried under a landslide in a coal mine in Aberfan, it makes everyone very miserable.We hear our teachers whisper to each other about a school incased in coal. We children are gloomy because we watch the news with our parents and  see huge mounds of coal.

“What’s a ‘slag heap’ Mum?” a lot of coal Angie in a large pile, like a hill? Mum replies her eyes glued to the flickering black and white screen. “Why are people crying Mum? What happened to the children? A million and one questions pour out unfiltered and children learn that children like us are buried underneath a black avalanche, and our parents shake their heads around us, and hug us just a little bit tighter than usual. Parents mutter to each at the school gate and look distraught and we watch sobbing parents over and over again on our screens.

When I’m in Primary school, Winston Churchill dies. My mother doesn’t think very highly of him, she says,

” he never set foot in Jamaica, just stayed on his ship when he visited the Caribbean.”

We learn that he made grand speeches about fighting them on beaches, but Mum is not impressed. She kisses her teeth “Chuuppps.”We all know this is a sound which means dislike, distain, disbelief and don’t care, all in a single sound.

All our family watch Churchill’s funeral on television one Saturday. At school our class make a large scrapbook history of his life from magazines and newspaper cuttings that our teachers give us. We also write our own stories about him, although we don’t know much about him, just that he likes sticking two fingers up in photos, the victory sign, but if you turn your fingers the other way you are telling people to fuck off.

At the end of the year the teacher gives me the honor of taking the scrap book home. “Look Mum we made this at school,” Mum glances at it. “Find a safe place for it” she motions with screwed up lips to a place in the corner of the room. I’m enormously proud of my scrap book and keep it for years looking at the clumsy writing of eight year olds and the slightly askew placing of back and white photographs.

Then as if in a fit of absent mindedness, when I was least expecting it the scrapbook disappeared.

“Mum have you seem my Churchill book?” “Oh you mean that old thing that was falling apart, I threw it out ages ago.” and she Chuuuupses long and loudly.

When I’m in primary school my older sister Rose Marie starts attending secondary school and Rose Marie’s books are more interesting than mine. Secretly I borrow Rosie’s copy of “Lord of the Flies,” and read it.

I still wear pink round National health eyeglasses just like “Piggy.” I’m scared.

“I hope I don’t end up like him,” I say to myself” over and over again.

I worry about this a lot and never tell anyone.

Baking and Hot Cross Buns

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Mum bakes.

I can hear the clapping sound of the wooden spoon creaming butter and sugar together as it hits the side of the beige ceramic bowl with the white insides. She bakes fruit buns and cakes, she also makes plaited loaves of bread, and we like to break the ends of the plaits off as a treat. Mum lets us play with dough and we make mini loaves of bread that we place alongside Mum’s big loaves. We need to wash our hands before we start cooking, the dough takes all the dirt off your fingers if you don’t and turns grey.

 Kneading is hard work the dough starts off sticking to your fingers and as you turn it and sprinkle flour on the stickiness it becomes smooth. And then the dough must prove, and we knead, and it proves and once it doubles in size, we sprinkle it with water and sometimes we put too much water on. Mum puts them in the oven, and we wait for the smell of freshly baked bread.

I want to try some of the new Stork Margarine, but Mum says butter is better. I do taste Stork at my friend Julianna’s house on Mother’s Pride bread, and Mum’s right. Mother’s Pride bread is soggy and sticks to the roof of your mouth and you must swirl it around with your tongue or use your fingers to dislocate it from your teeth.

 We learn that cakes are done if the knife we stick in the middle comes out clean. That bread is cooked when you tap it and it sounds hollow. We know that bread must be turned out immediately and left to sit on a wire tray or it will go soggy. Cakes on the other hand stay and cool down in the cake tin and then are gently pried out of their prison.

We help Mum mix the butter and sugar to make the cakes. You must mix the butter and sugar until they’re white. The best time to mix butter and sugar is when the television program “No Hiding Place” is on. We like the exciting music and we beat the butter and sugar to the rhythm of the show.

When we’ve made the mixture white, Mum breaks and separates lots of eggs. She then uses an egg whisk with a round handle to beat the egg whites until they’re white and stick to the beater like mini mountains. Then she adds the yolks and beats them. She teaches us to pour this mixture slowly into the butter and sugar, we’ve to be careful as if we fold it in too fast it’ll curdle and you’ll see the mixture starts to break up, so we’ve to put flour in slowly to stop this happening.

After we do this, we add the rest of the flour and fruit, vanilla and almond essence, lemon zest stops the cake from having an eggy taste says Mum so that always goes in, and anything else depending on the kind of cake. Cake tins need to be lined with greaseproof paper and then we can pour the mixture into the tins. Making cakes is a long process, but the smell as they cook is heavenly.

 Although I like Mum’s baking one of my favorite places is a few doors down from Woolworth.

The shop is the local bakery brimming with ring and jam donuts, cream cakes of all different shapes and sizes. The ladies behind the counter wear pink gingham dresses with white aprons and caps to keep their hair in place. They glide around their tiny space behind the counter as they serve people.

In the shop window are sugar encrusted apple turnovers sometimes they’ve apple filling that has burst the seams of the pastry. There are current and Chelsea buns. Currant buns are like hot-cross buns, they’re brown on top and pale underneath and they’ve currants dotted all over them. Rose Marie and Patsy my sisters don’t like dried fruit, so if they get a currant bun, they pick the currants out.

Currant buns are the cheapest bun. I like Chelsea buns, and Swiss rolls. Chelsea buns are like currant buns but they’re square. I tried to make some once. You’ve to roll out the dough until it is flat and a rectangle, then you sprinkle sugar and currants on the rectangle, then you roll it up and then you slice it and the slices become Chelsea buns. You make Swiss rolls like this, but you make it with cake mixture that is cooked, and you roll the cake up, but first you need to put the filling in.

And then the most expensive things are chocolate éclairs, they’ve real cream in them. At school we learned to make Choux pastry and we made mini chocolate choux buns. You must pronounce the “Choux” like “shoe.” Our teacher tells us. It’s French, like chocolate éclairs. But our choux buns don’t taste like the chocolate éclairs. They taste nasty.

The bakery also has bread in a variety of shapes and sizes the most popular is crusty white “arm bread” sold unwrapped it’s tucked under your arm for the journey home where we fight over who gets the end of the bread. Once we win the prize it’s plastered with butter by the lucky winner.

Shop bread is much prized by us as our Mother bakes most of the bread we eat. I can’t understand why my friends like my uneven chunky homemade brown bread. I long for the even slices of white sticky “Mother’s Pride bread” that my classmates have for their sandwiches. Ashamed of my chunky uneven brown sandwiches I hide to eat them when no one is looking. My bread looks disfigured in comparison to the sharp triangles of Mother’s Pride sticky white bread. 

The most amazing day at the Bakery comes once a year. On Good Friday the bakery is a source of wonder. That’s the day when Hot Cross buns take over every nook and cranny. They line all the shelves. They’re piled high in the window. As far as the eye can see there are brown Hot Cross Buns with fat juicy raisins peeping through the shiny brown and beige surfaces. And people line up for ages to buy them, the queues go on forever until the last bun is sold and the bakery always closes early. 

“Mum why aren’t we allowed to eat Hot Cross buns?”

“They’re Pagan.” Says my Mum. So, I never taste one until years later and am disappointed with the doughy cross. Plain currant buns are nicer.

Blue Paraffin

 “Girls you need to go and buy some paraffin after school,” Mum reminds my sisters Rose Marie and Patsy. They need to walk a long way twice a week to buy five gallons of blue paraffin (Mum says blue paraffin is better than pink paraffin).

Only Patsy and Mum have winter boots, so Rosie needs to wear Mum’s boots. Mum says, “come child I know the newspaper I’ve stuffed in the toe is uncomfortable, but what to do? Your feet will freeze in your ordinary shoes, there’s too much slush on the ground.”

It has snowed and the snow makes everything look pretty. It hides stuff like dog dudu, and when it begins to thaw all the dirtiness that’s been underneath mixes in with the snow and makes it grey, white, and brown. If a dog or cat or human pees on the snow, it becomes yellow.

Dog dudu is the worse, you don’t know when you’re treading in it until your shoe comes up with layers of slush and shit. Anyway, Rosie must wear Mum’s boots to walk the three miles to get the paraffin, her feet make swishing noises in them and slip out as she walks. I know her feet must hurt as she has corns on her toes where newspaper rubs the skin off as she slips and slides down the street.

 For me walking in Mum’s shoes is fun. They make a clip clop noise around the house when I wear them. Rosie can’t wear her shoes at the same time as Mum’s boots, so it’s not fun. Mum says the doctor has told her that if I wear tight shoes it will make my eyes worse.

I always tell Mum if my shoes are too tight, except for once when I get some nice shoes and they hurt my toes, but I tell Mum they don’t as I want to keep wearing them. Me limping makes Mum suspect that they hurt, and I need to confess the truth. In school we learn a poem about shoes,

“New shoes, new shoes,

Red and pink and blue shoes,

Tell me what would you choose

If they let you buy?”

It was true I’d buy the “Buckle shoes” and what I got were “Tuff shoes.” They were supposed to last forever, but they really were “wipe-them-on-the mat shoes.” And impossible to destroy.

When Patsy and Rosie come back home with the two plastic containers of paraffin, we pour it through a white funnel into our heater in the bedroom. Mum sometimes lights the gas oven and that heats up the dining room and kitchen. My father has bought a secondhand television.

Come to think of it we’ve never had a new television set. We like the adverts for paraffin. “Esso blue, dum,dum, dum Esso, blue, Esso Esso, Esso dum dum dum blue,” is the jingle that we sing along too each time the advertisement comes on television. The paraffin heater we’ve in the everything room is green with a long body it has a flat top and you can cook things on it.

Paraffin heaters are great except for the smell and the fact that they could start fires, or you or someone else could get burned. Once baby brother Paul topples a saucepan of milk off the paraffin stove where it’s being heated and it burns his feet. He has to go to the hospital, and each day Mum changes his bandages and puts funny smelling cream on his pink blistered skin. He still carries the faint scars on the creases of his ankles.