I ventured into our garage earlier today. You might recall, if you’ve been paying attention at the back, that I’ve previously referred to it as “the dilapidated old garage full of shit which stands at the rear of the house”.
At some point the full of shit will be sorted out, as all full of shits should be. This one, quite possibly only when the time comes to knock the garage down so that we can erect a ‘proper’ storage shed and build some sort of shack, cabin or small brick structure next to it, to replace my office in the house (which is to become the baby’s room).
Currently stacked up inside the garage are boxes and bags and old suitcases stuffed with the redundant remnants of our former lives. Books, posters, postcards, DVDs, old electronics, photographs, some clothes. They exist alongside the employed. A lawnmower, a strimmer, a fire-pit and a garden parasol plus all of our tools.
Also bits of furniture we don’t want but haven’t yet disposed of (a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a cupboard, some cheap shelving, that sort of thing) and a 1930s three-panel interior door which was given to us by someone at the local tip who was about to throw it away. It needs stripping and sanding down, and once we’ve done that it’ll be hung in the house somewhere. Possibly even in a doorway.
Alongside all of this stuff there has been a large plastic wash-basket full of very old bottles – vintage, I suppose you’d say. Today it caught my eye. Almost all of the bottles in it belonged to my Mum and Dad, and I clearly remember them on display during my childhood. Not forthright like ornaments. Just gathered as an ambience on a shelf, or tucked in a corner.
I grew up to be quite mesmerised by old glassware. I don’t mean intricate or ornate or delicate things made of glass. Fancy doesn’t interest me at all. Just old bottles.
The kind with a brewery or beverage or potion, lotion and medicine maker’s company name and town imprinted onto the glass. The kind with a marble stopper in the neck or the kind with ridges in the side. The kind that bellies out half way down and then back. Blue, green, turquoise, teal. Different sizes, shapes, weights and textures. Some industrial, machine-blown. Some imperfect, artisan. All precious.
There were probably twenty-five in total in the wash-basket, and three or four were those I had added myself over the years – picked up in charity shops or at jumble sales. So I know I don’t have my parents’ whole collection and there are some I can picture from years ago which are absent. I took the twenty-five into the house and ran them through the dishwasher in shifts over a couple of cycles.
It’s the cleanest I’ve ever seen some of them, and their ancient handsomeness struck me all over again. I added one or two contemporaries which I’ve been saving. Modern classics. I can recommend Mermaid Gin, deep blue-green with a fish-scale texture. That’s the bottle not the drink.
I was nine years old during the summer of Grease. 1978. Mum took me to stay with some of her friends ‘down south’. Bath or it may have been Swindon. Either way I recall a day out in Monmouth. I remember how the word Monmouth felt in my mouth more than the place itself. Also a day amongst the megalithic standing stones of Avebury.
The son of Mum’s friend was a little older than me – thirteen or fourteen perhaps? He had a copy of Private Eye in his bedroom. It’s a weekly British satirical news-sheet which, remarkably, is still showing its teeth today.
I think Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was on the front of the copy I saw. I remember a big pair of spectacles. Though Callaghan was leader of the party I have most closely aligned with throughout my adult life I do remember, even at nine years old, sensing that the establishment was ‘off’.
Everyone in power was about a hundred years old and covered in a layer of dust. Words like gout and bunion and verruca and hernia and truss and vest and teak and transistor and pools coupon and war drifted up through plumes of dead skin and blue-grey cigarette smoke. Blotched bulb noses and the smell of bitter alcohol in power. It was Brylcreem and thick lenses and an air of we know best.
Anway, I digress. The fourteen year old was tasked with amusing me for a couple of days, or keeping me company, or allowing me to keep him company. Whichever it was, we got on well. Even after he had stormed off up the street in Monmouth after being told off by his Mum.
He wanted to write a love letter to a long-haired girl who was about seventeen and lived on the same cul-de-sac. And for some unfathomable reason he asked me what I thought he should do. “Put some perfume on the letter,” I said.
I don’t know where I got this idea from but I do know that I delivered it with such confidence – a kind of Bowie or Barack Obama level of solid self-assurance – that he did indeed put some perfume on the letter. He sneaked into his parents’ bedroom upstairs and doused the paper with his Mum’s expensive scent – and rather a lot of it, just to be sure.
Boldly, he rode over to the girl’s house on a Chopper bicycle he was a couple of years too old for – and just a couple of minutes too young to realise he was a couple of years too old for. Heartbroken, he slammed his Chopper down as hard as he could and stalked about when he returned home.
Clearly not happy with my advice. My first love was actually before 1978 (Agnetha from Abba, in 1976) but that early crush hardly qualified me as an expert. At a paltry nine years old how could I be anything, even a mere novice, on such matters? I’ve had my moments since 1978, but I’m still not and never have been any kind of Terry Thomas!
Anyway, I digress once again.
One of the days we were together he took me ‘tipping’. Our Mums dropped us off at an overgrown and old – very old – waste dumping site on the edge of town. We cleared overgrown foliage and rummaged and dug. Perhaps we were actually on the ruins of an old factory or pub or something, because within a few hours we’d amassed a modest pile of old bottles in perfect condition (except for the decades of muck grufted onto them).
We took them back to the house and cleaned them in a washing up bowl on the back lawn. They shimmered like jewels, emerald and pretty in the garden sunlight. One or two of the bottles were taken back home and given to my Dad as a present.
Here they are in front of me now, over four decades later. I’ve cleaned up Mum and Dad’s bottles – well, mine, I suppose – and I’m going to put them out on display in the house. Not forthright like ornaments. Just gathered as an ambience on a shelf, or tucked in a corner.
It’s funny how things come back to you, isn’t it?
I wonder what my own child’s memories and attachments will be, when they reach 51… I hope they are as happy as this one. In the meantime, when they’re ready to ask, my advice will of course be “Don’t put perfume on the letter”.
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