There is innocence in childhood that has the capacity to reduce a complex situation to the simplest of solutions. It has it’s own shining beauty in that it need not be corrected, nor adjudicated upon…just to be sure that such innocence will be perhaps, irretrievably lost once past the “coming of age”. But then, surely, each age has its’ attractions..even old age can offer a “safe harbour” for memories of the child we all once were.
At my mother’s passing last year, I came into possession of all her archived household accounts and diaries…THEY were meticulously kept, from 1962 – 2014…right down to the last cent. Her correspondence, however was not so conscientiously maintained.. they were bundled or loose, in no discernable order of from any particular author…and all in a big box along with pamphlets and postcards. So it was no surprise to me when I came across one envelope that had written in one corner in her perfect script ; “ Keepsakes”.
Upon examination of the contents, among snippets from Aunt Lou of Sth. Africa, or some distant relatives (on my father’s side) in America, there was a small cut square of wrapping paper..a faded yellow in colour with the print of two bells tied with a flourished ribbon and the script ; “Your wedding Bells” half circled above them.
This piece of paper ‘rang some bells’, if you’ll excuse the pun..and, begging your indulgence,I’ll tell you the story. How do I know the story so well? you’ll ask after it has been told…You see, like all those childish adventures and miss-adventures that come to the attention of parents, they are told and re-told and repeated with some embarrassed amusement, right into our adult lives at every Christmas or family gathering…but then, one has to fill in the subtle details from memory of one’s own actions in the “ adventure” !
It went like this :
A Box of Spoons.
It’s a curious cycle that has parents giving their offspring Christian names that would elevate them, if only in nomenclature, above their poverty-enriched status. So was the only child of Ruth Hogben given the name “Alistair” at birth with a surety of decision that stopped short any debate on other possible names for her child. “He is to be named Alistair” she spoke wearily after the birth, then lay silently to feed the child. Ruth Hogben was a single parent in a “Trust” house on the fringe of the southern suburbs of Adelaide. How and why she was without a male companion shall remain a mystery,… that is not our story.
“Damn poverty!” she would grumble to no-one in particular, “Oh to have a little extra money…even to buy some decent cutlery rather than this mish-mash of rubbish!” and she cast a plain steel knife into the dishwater.
Alistair heard this complaint many times as he grew up to his six years of age, so it formed an impression on his gentle child-mind that associated knives and forks and spoons with a degree of wealth. When his mother went shopping at “Tommy Johnson’s 4 Square” grocery store, he would wander out the front of the market to gaze into the plate glass window of the jeweler next door. But not at the expensive, glittering baubles of diamonds and emerald rings and bracelets, nor at the expensive timepieces. No, he stared hungrily with sweaty hands flat pressed against the glass at a set of glowing silver cutlery all embossed on their handles with delicate textures that mesmerised the tender-mind of the boy. And the fact that they were embedded in a rich, red plush of crushed velvet that itself seemed to shimmer was an added bonus. Oh how he would love to be able to make a gift of that set to his mother! If he stood there too long staring, a frowning face would inevitably appear above the cutlery set and a hand would make shoo!, shoo! away motions that would send Alistair backing slowly away over to the store door to wait for his mother.
There were two major events that affected Alistair’s life, both to the frustration of his mother, one was his susceptibility to asthmatic or bronchitis attacks, which with the croup in his lungs and the fits of coughing would keep him home from school for days at a time. It had even put him in hospital overnight a couple of times so that now, when he had an attack, a district nurse dropped in to check on him. The other event, one that brought rapture to Alistair’s heart was the opening, in a nearby gully of a mega council rubbish dump. Alistair became, to his mothers concern an inveterate “tip-fly”. He would descend onto that refuse heap every spare moment that the council men weren’t there (for it was “forbidden to scavenge”) to pluck little treasures from that miasma of debris. He would come home with a box full of trinkets and toys and, of course, always a little “something for Mum!”…And!…and, despite her distaste for the subject, a certain curiosity would compel her to look into his “treasure chest” of swag.
“What have you got this time?” she’d ask as her eyes scanned the collection of knick-knacks. And Alistair would rummage expertly amongst them hummingly to produce a little treasure for her…for her he found it, a piece of colourful patterned china? a bauble of a cut glass vase perhaps? a book of verse… (she loved verse, he knew). And his mother would smooth his hair with her hand and plant a kiss on the top of his head in thank you and place the trinket or whatever up on the “special shelf”.
Ally would smile happily, but always at the back of his mind was that lingering awareness of his mother’s concern for what she called ; “their poverty” and that elusive set of cutlery, one day he would bring her a set of cutlery, he was sure he would, for in his child mind, there was nothing to distinguish this throw-away society from all that in the shops on the high-street. The measure of wealth was to him nothing more than the collection of material things..of trinkets ..of glitter and shine.
Come one winters’ day when the rain rattled on the glass of the window next to Alistair’s bed fit to drive even the hardiest birds to cover, Alistair gazed up from the picture book that was to amuse him as he lay resting from the latest attack of croup. He coughed a hacking , phlegmy cough that bought his mother in from the kitchen.
“Ah, dear, dear,” she fussed with the crumpled bed clothes and placed a warm moist hand on his forehead. “How’s my little chap then?” she cooed automatically. Alistair shrugged. “I’ve got the nurse coming today to look at you.” she consoled, “you just lie down and rest till she comes” and with one last smoothing down of the blankets she left the room.
Rest? Rest? tell a six year old boy to lay and rest when, if not for the blasted coughing, he could be out in the wild…rest!! From out of his window Alistair could at any time see down across the open sweep of paddocks to the gully that was the dump. Hardy scavenging seagulls would on most days circle like vultures then settle on the heaps of domestic garbage to feed. The site drew Alistair’s attention like iron to a magnet.
“It doesn’t look like the men are working now it’s raining,” he thought, “I might be able to sneak down for a look.”
This logic resolved his boredom and he quietly slipped out of bed and dressed for adventure. He opened his window carefully and climbed through into a bush of pelargoniums, the boy was free! His many trips to that “El Dorado” had worn a track through the grass and around the sparse, wild-olive trees that dotted the paddocks. As he got closer to the tip, each olive tree had a clear patch around its base furtherest away from the cyclone-wire fence of the tip. Here he’d spy out the ground. The way was clear, the men were not working with the steady rain, they would be in the shed. Raindrops dripped from the dark leaves of the olive tree down Alistairs’ back, he shivered in reaction, but he didn’t really notice the wet; he had other distractions! He crept to the fence and along to the large corrugated iron shed that housed the bulldozer. There were a lot of old nail holes in the sheeting, to one of these Alistair put his eye as he had done on many occasion. Two men sat at an old table in the shed, they were playing cards. Alistair listened:
“Where’d you get these cards from?” one man asked mockingly, there was a moments silence.
“Found ’em t’ other day,” the other grumbled while in deep concentration on his cards. After a few cards were thrown down and others picked up, one threw his cards triumphantly on the table.
“Full house” he boastfully cried, “Kings high!” and he smiled. The other frowned quizzically then nodded. ‘
“Not bad” he said “I’ve only got five aces!”
“What!!” the first man exclaimed in disbelief.
Alistair left them at this point to argue the toss and seeing that they were involved in other duties, he made for his goal through the steady rain. He had gathered a few little ‘lovelies’ in his swag when he came across a jumble of wrapping papers and discarded ribbons amid confetti and used papers plates. The whole lot was next to a pile of rancid domestic waste. He poked about amongst the wedding debris (for that is what it was) with his seasoned eyes searching for booty. Then, all at once, amongst the scrap paper wrapping, he plucked out a small box, a card-board box about six inches square and one inch thick, it had a buffed crimson lid. He shook it, it rattled dully, he pondered on its’ contents and tried to guess, he played this game often, coins? buttons? No, too solid, nails? No too few! give up…carefully he eased the crimson lid off and gazed into the container.
Gosh! his eyes glowed with delight. He quickly closed the lid and slipped the box under his shirt less it become more rain speckled in his box of loot. His box! No, mustn’t forget that and he picked it up, he’d got enough now, yes! Oh how wonderful! he turned to sneak back home, gloriously happy, wait; paper! wrapping paper everywhere!, he snatched up a piece that had “Your Wedding Bells” scripted over it, along with a length of white ribbon and he ran over to his spot at the fence which he crawled under to make for home,…home, there past the shed with the huge silent bulldozer smelling of dust and diesel and the two men laughing inside, home, past the dark olive trees and across the grassy paddock home, home, and how he ran, the grey clouds tumbled and the rain streaked in silvered incline toward his house…home!
The district nurse had arrived, Ruth showed her in and led her down to Alistair’s room. He wasn’t there!…and his window was ajar!
“Oh lord! where can he be?” Ruth exclaimed, but she had a pretty good idea. “Boys, they’re the hardest things in the world to keep in one place!” and she moved to gaze out the window. She couldn’t see him, but she knew he wouldn’t be long.
“He…he must have gone to look at something,” she explained weakly, “I’m sure he’ll be back in a minute…would you like a cup of tea while you wait?” The nurse looked at her watch and remarked that yes it was near lunch time anyway. and yes a cuppa would be nice..ta! so they both adjourned to the kitchen.
Alistair crept up to his window and climbed through…he coughed harshly…his mother heard and excusing herself went to investigate. She found him standing at his dresser wrapping a package, drops of water fell onto the rug under his shoes.
“Ally…Ally…where have you been? why, you’re soaked !…and…and your shoes, they’re filthy!” Alistair gave scant attention to his mother’s angry remarks, but thrust out a small, hastily wrapped package toward her. Ruth was taken aback by the tactic, she gazed dumbly down at the package that had “Your Wedding Bells” emblazoned on the wrapper.
“It’s for you Mum,” Alistair quietly but eagerly offered. He stood there soaked to the skin with the length of white ribbon he had no time to use, dangling loosely in his hand.
“It’s…it’s a…” but no! he wouldn’t tell her what it was, though one look at his wide-eyed expression and you could see he was dying to tell, he bit his bottom lip to stop himself and handed his mother the package, then clasped his hands together eagerly.
As Ruth took the clumsily wrapped package, the paper unfolded itself like petals of a flower to reveal a small box about six inches square and one inch thick, its’ lid was a crimson wash, speckled with rain-drops that raised welts on the smooth surface. She gazed wonderingly down at the box.
“Open it Mum, it’s for you…I found it for you.” Ruth gently praised open the lid and her mouth formed a little “o” with an accompanied sigh. Alistair crowded next to her and peeked into the box also. There, embedded in a plush of rich, red crushed velvet lay six bright, shiny silver tea-spoons, all embossed on their stems with delicate textured patterns that mesmerized Mother and son, a soft glow from the single filament light in the ceiling reflected spangles up into their eyes.
“It’s a box of spoons Mum.” Alistair whispered, “a box of spoons for you to have so now we won’t be so poor.” he said keenly.
Ruth looked to her son standing there all a tremble and took him into her arms. She smoothed and kissed the top of his head and murmured more to herself than to him.
“I never knew how rich we were.” The nurse called down the corridor, Ruth quickly stashed the spoons. They put Alistair back into bed and the nurse attended to his needs. He was ordered to stay put in his bed. Alistair snuggled down into the depths of his blankets and smiled contentedly at the thought of his days’ glory. He listened to the hum of conversation between his mother and the nurse in the kitchen, the chiming of the spoons against the side of the tea-cups as they stirred their brew rang an angelus in his heart.
“Oh, what lovely spoons” the nurse cooed syrupy, “where did you get them?”
“Oh these?” Ruth replied nonchalantly, “why, they were a…a gift, from someone… someone very special to me.” Alistair pulled his knees up to his chest, he coughed several times. His mother listened to the nurses chatter and cocked one ear to listen to her child’s coughing she nodded big-eyed at something the nurse had said, but at the same time sighed comfortably, for those coughs had a particular sound, the croup was easing, Alistair was on the mend.