July 5, 2015 by downwardlymobilewoman
I was nine when the first present arrived. It was a sandwich toaster coated in bright yellow plastic.
The message said: ‘To my beautiful Chichi. I still think of you every day. Here is a present for you. Welcome to the 21st century. I know you will not like it but your children might.’
Whoever had sent it was right- we loved it.
‘Do you know who it’s from?’ I asked my mother.
She shrugged and looked away.
‘It must be someone who calls you Chichi,’ I said. ‘And thinks you’re beautiful. Maybe Daddy? Does he ever call you Chichi?’
She started eyeing the toaster in a way that made me think she was about to declare it broken and throw it out. There was no way I was risking that. I stopped asking questions. Even nine year olds know that there are times to shut up and make another cheese and pickle toastie.
My mother was proud of being a technological luddite. She refused to allow any helpful machines into her home unless they were of historical interest. There was no television, microwave, washing machine, dishwasher or freezer. She reluctantly conceded that a small fridge was necessary for perishables but most food was kept in the larder. Cooking was done on a coal-fired Rayburn. Entertainment came from looking at words not moving pictures. Laundry and washing up were done by hand.
My mother believed that doing household chores without access to the fripperies of the modern world was not only possible but should be fun. She pictured scenes of family closeness. She and her children measuring out soap powder on wash day, testing the water temperature in the bath, cooperating with each other to operate the Victorian mangle she had rescued from a junk shop. And often, at the start, her infectious enthusiasm would bring something of this vision to pass. The first few smaller items of clothing would hang beautifully on the airing frame, washed, wrung out, smoothed of wrinkles, veritable symbols of success. But, inevitably, things would start to slip and slide. Attention wandered. Tempers frayed. Reprimands and slaps would be doled out, furious children would storm from the room. Away, away, away from the lowering tornado of my mother’s frustration and disappointment. Away, away, away from the mounds of fabric submerged in slimy lukewarm water.
‘Just look at that vulgar thing,’ my mother said to my father on one of his rare visits to the kitchen.
She was soaking 3 different kinds of dried pulses in ceramic stock jars and skinning tomatoes, preparing to make her signature dish- Italian bean casserole, slow cooked in an earthenware pot.
‘Where did you get it from?’ asked my father.
‘Someone who thinks Mummy is beautiful sent it in the post,’ I said.
My father raised his eyebrows.
‘Just an old friend,’ said my mother. ‘The children love it, of course. They are so seduced by ephemera at this age, aren’t they?’
My father accepted the toastie I offered him, demolishing it in 2 bites.
‘Do you want one, Chichi?’ I asked.
My mother narrowed her eyes at me.
My father looked perplexed.
‘Who’s Chichi?’ he asked.
I noticed that my mother looked after the sandwich maker, cleaning it each evening with a rag steeped in a homemade white vinegar solution. Its yellow plastic casing stayed pristine. I was touched by her care for it. It seemed like a concession to her children’s interest in the modern world.
The next gifts arrived like a burst of sunshine at the end of a gloomy November. They were addressed directly to my brother and me, showing that the mysterious present sender was willing to fight dirty to force my mother into further concessions. The postman hovered by the front door smiling indulgently as we ripped them open. Each contained a Nintendo Gameboy Advance and three games. My brother gave a gasp of joy and ran to his room to play Legend of Zelda. I, on the other hand, burst into tears.
For as long as I could remember I had heard my mother tell people that her children’s wellbeing and intelligence were linked to her decision to ban brain-rotting electronic screens from the family home. She held fast to this belief even under strong challenge. She seemed bewildered when one of our primary school teachers suggested that my brother and I might fit in better socially if we had a television. She was outraged when my father’s provocative sister, Auntie Maud, ventured the view that denying post-millennium children access to the internet bordered on neglect.
Only our local greengrocer, Mr Luigi, had ever managed to silence her on the issue, by pointing out that his own offspring, who had access to every screen-based entertainment going, were perfectly content and literate. Indeed, he added, the eldest was just about to start studying physics at Oxford. My mother flushed slightly and started discussing her plans for a mulberry and damson fruit salad. She admired Mr Luigi. His commitment to stocking interesting organic produce and advising her on how to prepare it was impeccable. But her views on screens had not changed as a result of his straight-talking. I was sure she would not allow us to have Gameboys. Even worse, I knew that my desperate wish to keep my Gameboy was a deep betrayal.
‘I don’t want it, Mummy,’ I said, through sobs, handing it to her. The postman looked shocked. My mother closed the door in his face and put an arm round me.
‘You are a very loyal little girl, Cassie,’ she said, hugging me tightly and smoothing my home-cut hair away from my face.
I stopped crying and tried not to mind when she put on the face that always preceded a lecture.
‘Now, listen,’ she said. ‘I completely understand that you don’t want this Gameboy thing. And since you are so upset I’m very tempted to give in to you and throw it straight in the bin.’
‘Well, it’s not that I don’t wa—’
‘No need to explain further,’ she said, cutting me off. ‘You’ve made your feelings very clear. But sometimes parents have to be strict for their children’s own good, you know. I was talking to Mrs Chadwick the other day and she said that Eliza’s maths has really come on since she got one of these Gameboy machines. In fact, she mentioned a very educational game called… er…’
She riffled through the games I’d been given and picked one up.
‘Ah yes, Puppy Luv. I’m sure this was the one she was talking about. I know you will not like it but I’m afraid I’m going to insist that you take a look at it right now. Your maths is very good for your age, of course, but there’s always room for improvement.’
2184 toasted sandwiches and several million Gameboy games later, the biggest present of all arrived. It was an automatic washing machine, delivered by two burly men who plumbed it in on the spot, completely ignoring my mother’s furious protests and insistence that they take it away immediately.
The postcard that arrived with it was a Toulouse-Lautrec. At the Moulin Rouge: Two Women Dancing.
‘That lady looks a bit like you, mummy,’ said my brother, pointing to one of the women in the picture.
‘She looks nothing like me,’ snapped my mother.
I looked at the postcard. The woman with the grey blouse did have a look of my mother. She was depicted as lost in the dance, her eyes closed. Her female partner was open-eyed and pert, regarding her with a look of love.
I turned the card over. Scrawled on the back it said:
‘To my gorgeous Chichi. I can’t get you out of my head or my heart even after all these years. You have another life now. How I wish I could be part of it, even in some small way. Anyway, I’m feeling flush and I thought I’d send you this in case you still do your washing in the bath. It is the latest model and very eco-friendly. Maybe those you love now will like it even if you do not.’
‘Do you and Daddy ever dance?’ I asked.
My mother shook her head.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Daddy’s not much of a one for dancing.’
‘Oh,’ I said. Then, to change the subject, ‘Can we try out the washing machine?’
My mother scowled.
‘She really has gone too far this time,’ she said, almost to herself. ‘It is absolutely outrageous.’
‘Who has gone too far?’ asked my brother.
‘Never mind. No one you know,’ she said.
I found an orange button that made the washing machine door spring open and reached in to take out the instructions stored in the drum. There was something else in there too.
A small clam-shaped mobile phone.
I didn’t think my mother could cope with any more technology that day. I slipped it into the pocket of my stripy shorts.
‘We’ll have to make some laundry powder if we’re going to try out this ridiculous contraption,’ said my mother. ‘Persil and Daz are full of toxic chemicals. Your father has very sensitive skin.’
She dragged us out to the chemist to buy cakes of carbolic soap and soda crystals. Once home my brother and I took turns rubbing the giant dull-green soap bars against our blunt cheese grater, collecting the flakes in a tin to be mixed with the other ingredients. My mother’s baleful glare at any sign of slacking kept us in a state of resentful compliance.
We had produced nearly a full tin of soap flakes when something buzzed alarmingly against my outer thigh. I shrieked and leapt out of my chair in surprise. The phone in my pocket started singing loudly.
‘On Top of The World’ by The Carpenters. My mother’s favourite song.
She marched towards me and I stood frozen, bracing myself for the inevitable. I’d seen my mother look at me with that level of cold fury on only one other occasion, about a year before, when she had caught me eating a Big Mac with my best friend Sadie. I well remembered the aftermath, different in kind from her occasional spontaneous smacks at times of stress.
But she did not hit me. Instead she reached into my pocket, pulled out the singing phone and flipped it open.
‘Hello Roxette,’ she said, her voice quivering with rage. ‘I am so angry with you I can barely speak. It’s bad enough that you’re being your usual undermining, interfering self with me. But you are also causing my family untold stress. It’s completely unforgiveable.’
She stalked out of the room with the phone at her ear and shut herself in her room. My brother and I crept out and listened at her door for a while. We couldn’t make out much of what she said but her tone of voice gradually gentled to a sensual warmth. We heard her laugh several times. When she emerged she gave us both big hugs and said we would put the wash on now.
The washing machine seemed to thrive on being fed lumpy homemade detergent and purred efficiently into action. My brother and I sat cross-legged before its clear circular window for some time, watching the wet clothes going round and round. My mother made a big plate of cheese and pickle toasties and relaxed into a kitchen chair with my Gameboy. She had recently discovered an unexpected liking for Puppy Luv, explaining that even though she had passed A’ level maths with distinction there was always room for improvement.
‘Well, look at this. My little family gathered round a brand new washing machine. How very unexpected and cosy,’ said my father, coming in from work and picking up the Toulouse-Lautrec postcard.