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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C&A, Shopping and Knobbly Knees

We like to buy our clothes in C&A at Marble Arch on Oxford Street in the West End, if we’ve the money. C&A is where I sometimes go with my big sisters Rose Marie and Patsy, usually when Mum insists that they take me. We catch the Number 36 bus to the Odeon cinema and walk around the corner and C& A’s is on the opposite side of the road. It’s the first big store on the street the mannequins seem to call to shoppers dressed in the latest gear. Once through the glass doors you enter a mecca of kitsch wonderment. This is high cheap disposable fashion at its best.

As we enter the store our eyes are captivated by shiny shimmering racks of clothing and people mostly young women milling around hands caressing garments as they part hangers and gaze with delight or disgust at the offerings before them.

“Hey Pats, take a look at these,” Rose Marie shrieks to Patsy as she holds up some long patent red boots.
“Wow, fab,” whispers Patsy, “But Rosie I doubt they’ll zip up on your calves, let me try them, do they have a size 6?” Rosie’s mouth turns up ever so slightly as she hands Patsy the boots in her size.”

“Well, I’m sure these will fit.” Rose Marie is holding up a pair of black kitten-heeled shoes with a big buckle on the front. They look like the shoe’s witches wear, but I know Rose Marie, is happy that she has found this pair of shoes as they’re a size 3.

Rose Marie is proud of her tiny hands and feet. They’re much smaller than Patsy’s.

I just watch them shopping, I like looking at the racks of clothes and the customers disappearing into changing rooms with arms clutching long coats which look like they’re made of carpets trimmed with fur stuff, like you see on Christmas cards of Victorian winter scenes and lots of the girls with long hair are wearing long white shiny patent leather boots, with witches buckles, white matching polar necked ribbed tops and miniskirts in a rainbow of colors.

I don’t try on clothes or shoes. I just eat up the sights of people wearing stuff. My sisters have part-time jobs. Rose Marie works at an after-school club and Patsy works at a corner shop after school and at weekends, so they can afford to splurge occasionally. As I twirl labels around on a rack of tops, I feel Rose Marie’s arm circling my neck. Unlike sometimes when I’m sure she is trying to strangle me this feels like a friendly hug.

“Have a look at these Angie.” She points to a rack of clearance items. There are trousers, skirts, blouses and jumpers all hanging on a long rack and they’re a mixture of sizes. To the left of that rack is a row of skirts. They’re shocking pink, salmon pink, powder blue, sky blue, lilac and green and turquoise, they’re not on sale.

“I like those,” I gush to Rosie. “They’re absolutely fab.”

“Go on then find one in your size, let me see the price? Okay, yes find one in your size and try it on and if it fits, I’ll get it for you.” I run over to the rack shove rows of skirts one by one to find my size in a colour that I like. I find several but settle on a turquoise mini skirt with a kick pleat and a big blue red and green zip sewn on the front with a kind of key chain ring on it.’

Moving swiftly to the curtained off changing room I change with multiple other women milling around in various stages of undress. I didn’t like showing my underwear so I put the skirt on over my trousers and peeped out of the room motioning to Rosie who was waiting outside.

“Rosie?” I want my sister’s opinion.
“Rosie, do you think I can wear this? “ I ask tentatively.
“I don’t see why not Angie. What’s your problem?” Rose Marie asks.
“My knobbly knees, I’ve got knobbly knees and….” I’m grimacing at my knees which are covered by my trousers, Rose Marie cuts me off with,
“Stop your nonsense. Knobbly knees?” and she kisses her teeth, “Chuups” and cuts her eyes at me.
I get the skirt.

In other shopping trips to C& A, I buy a “tent dress” in shocking pink. It has a striped green and yellow Kipper tie and I know I look like the cat’s pajamas or the cat’s meow as I don’t care about my knees anymore.

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. 

Hospital Memories

It’s probably a few days later that for one of many times pneumonia comes calling and I end up in an oxygen tent at the Paddington Green Children’s hospital. But because memories are never secure, I may have conflated these events in my head. One thing I do remember is that l like the waiting area in Paddington Green Children’s hospital. They had rocking horses there, some large and some small. They were magical. If I was well enough Mum would allow me to ride one of them. I wished that I could take one home, and for years I prayed for a pony. At church they said if you prayed and really believed then your prayers would be answered. This is why I prayed and believed that one day when I returned home there would be a rocking horse, and as I grew older the rocking horse prayer turned into a pony with a white star like Black Beauty and then into a Palomino golden horse. None of my prayers were answered. I recall being in a hospital bed saying,

“Mum I feel as if someone is sitting on my chest and they won’t get off me.” I complain to my mother. I didn’t like the plastic canopy that covered me. I’m overjoyed when they take the oxygen tent off. As I recover in the crisp white cold sheets of my hospital bed, a little boy with flax like hair and blue stripped pajamas chats to me none stop. His name is Tommy and he teaches me a song,

 “Yum- yum, chewing gum stick it up a lady’s bum, when it’s brown pull it down, yum, yum chewing gum.” It makes me feel so proud when I’ve learnt all the words and I feel excited to sing it to my mother when she visits. My mother is the only person that visits me and to tell the truth I don’t want anyone else to visit. I wished she would stay.

My Mum is not amused with my new song. “Who taught you that?”  I point to the little boy in the bed opposite and say “that kid over there. “Don’t point it’s rude,” my mother says and scowls her disapproval. Thinking back, I’m not sure if the disapproval was of my pointing finger or Tommy. My mother continues,

“Well, I never, the children of today.” She never says or calls us “kids” she always tells us not to use that “American word.” “A kid is the offspring of a goat and I’m not a goat!” “I don’t want to hear that from you again. You understand me?”

“Yes Mum,” I reply committing the rhyme to memory.

The nurses in their white aprons and funny hats perched on their heads try to get me to eat,

“Come on luv, you must have something,” they extoll. 

I make excuses, the truth is I just don’t feel hungry.

“I don’t like porridge.” I lie. At home I live mainly on a diet of ‘Cheeselet Crackers’ tiny square cheesy crackers and my bottle of milk. I drink out of a bottle until a little after the age of five and start school. I probably would have taken my bottle to school if it was allowed, but I can still drink out of it when I get home.

“Would you like cornflakes then?” A nurse asks with a smile in her voice. Finding it difficult to breathe, I croak out an answer.  “Yes.” I really don’t want to speak it hurts my chest to speak. I want to just nod my head. But my mother has cautioned me with “it is rude to just nod your head,” and it sounds like an alarm in my brain. The truth is I hate the cold milk they pour on my cornflakes. At home if we’ve cornflakes as a treat, my Mum uses warm milk, and it must be “gold top” with the yellow cream at the top of the bottle. In the summer we keep our milk bottle in cold water on the window sill so that it doesn’t curdle. Sometimes my Mum lets Paul and me put the cream from the top of the milk bottle into a jar and we take turns in shaking it. Eventually the cream turns into globs of soft butter. So, lying in the metal framed bed I stir the cornflakes around in the bowl until it’s a mushy mess and leave it uneaten.

 Each day my Mum visits and as she’s leaving says to me,

“Ann Ann.”  “Ann Ann” is what my baby brother Paul calls me. “Ann, Ann, do you want me to bring you anything from home?’ My answer is always the same,

 “May I have a corned beef sandwich?” I have to say “may” as my Mum reminds us all frequently of the difference between “can” and “may” and so I make sure to phrase my question correctly. (Canned “bully beef” is a treat we’ve every Saturday one can of corned beef serves five to seven people and visitors too). I’m too weak to eat anything, but I still ask and my mother brings them, little triangles of homemade crusty white bread with a dark red filling which find a home in the dustbin when the nurses spot them.