September 28, 2015 by downwardlymobilewoman
‘That’s my box! I want it back when you move house,’ said my sister. Her tone was, to neutral ears, light-hearted. But whose ears are ever neutral? Not a sister’s ears, that’s for sure.
‘What?’ My tone would have got me instant entry to drama school- if they’d been looking for people over forty able to portray the justified outrage of an injured innocent. ‘What are you talking about? It’s not yours! It was a fair swap. You wanted the other one. We shook on it!’
We had shaken on it. About twenty-nine years before.
Our friend, one of five siblings herself, acutely attuned to and excited by the subtleties of sisterly love and warfare, was the closest thing we had in the room to neutral ears. Though there are biases, there are always biases. She dryly enquired which box we were talking about.
I like a box and the box in question lives among several other boxes on my red shelf. My sister and I rolled our eyes as our friend wrongly guessed that it must be all the boxes except the right box. Then, to neutral ears politely, but we all know neutral ears are a load of old bollocks, we pointed out to her the completely obvious best box, our box, the real box, the box at the heart of the matter.
It’s a varnished wooden box. Smooth, sturdy and well made. It closes with a satisfying click.
It’s gramophone player sized. Because it used to contain a gramophone. Belonging to our Dad.
My sister and I used to fall about laughing when our Dad talked about gramophones.
‘What used to be in this box, Dad?’
‘What box? Ah that one, yes. Well, it used to contain a gramophone.’
‘Oh! A gramophone! What’s a gramophone again, Dad?’
‘It’s what you call a record player these days. Did you know, I was in the gramophone club at university?’
Did we know? Of course we knew! Why did he think we were asking?
Still, what goes around comes around.
‘What’s a record player, Mummy?’
‘It’s what you call an ipod, sweetie.’
‘An ipod? Like the music player on my phone?’
‘Oh, sorry, yes. I think ipods are over now, aren’t they? It’s all about the phones. I can’t really keep up… Anyway, a record player is what they used to play music on in the olden days. Before CD players were invented.’
‘What’s a CD player?’
‘Um… Never mind. My nice wooden box (you know, that one that your silly auntie thinks is hers) used to have a record player in it. But that was so long ago that it was called a gramophone. Did you know, your grandad was actually in the gramophone club at college?’
The box swap was eerily reminiscent of Jacob and Esau’s pot of pottage for a birth right exchange. My timing was impeccable. In the immediate aftermath of one of the big shouting rows between my mother and my sister, when they were both sorry and on the verge of making up, I offered to my sister a box painted by my mother as a self-evidently fair swap for the gramophone box. Maximum emotional leverage. She fell for it. It was a very fine box indeed. Beautiful. A neutral person might have thought there was no pottage about it whatsoever.
But what do neutral people know? And is anyone really neutral? Maybe only those who don’t care. My sister and I had several boxes (and many other things) painted by my mother, often specially for us. My mother bestowed little pieces of herself on her children all the time. She let us see most of herself in all her stubborn, creative glory, for better and worse. My father is a private man, hard to know, not one for bestowing little pieces of himself. The pieces have to be foraged for, fought over with guile and determination. And that means that his gramophone box must be battled over to the bitter end. Though the whole conversation made me love my sister so much all over again that I might, just might, one day let her have it back. Maybe when I move house.