I’ve always liked a substance that makes me feel better, be it Aspirin or a swift brandy or two. I was no different at a young age and decided to try to get the ultimate thrill aged 7 years old.
My maternal grandmother, who I’ve written about before on here, was a great hoarder. She saved anything and everything and her house was like a depot for local jumble and tat. You couldn’t sit down anywhere without first having to move a plethora of items; perhaps a damaged teddy bear who looked like he was the first face transplant patient, an old garish tank top or a crinoline lady to sit atop your toilet roll. She believed that everything, however tawdry or damaged had some value to someone; not a bad way to think, I suppose but I’m quite the opposite. I’m a ruthless clutter avenger.
She’d get numerous postcards and trinkets from Torremolinas or Corfu, which she kept propped up on the gas fire until they disintegrated. She had hideous china dolls with cracked faces and matted hair, old L.P. records by obscure folk bands and tattered old books about pig keeping. They all had a place in her heart.
She wasn’t a Roman Catholic but had married one and so decided that fund raising for the local church was as good a move as any. She adopted the practices of the congregation, if not the faith or churchgoing and became the repository for Catholic tat. Whiskery old Irish ladies would drop off mysterious bags brimful of unusual items, day and night. My grandma would sift through them, cream off the “good stuff” and sell the rest, aggressively, on a jumble sale stall. She came into her own at a Summer Fete. She could sell sand to an Arab.
She even organised a whole summer fete/street party for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the early 80s. She acquired a box of balloons, a few miles of plastic union jack bunting and a set of union jack bowler hats (all won from a Tetley Tea competition) and set about organising a party for the local children. She, naturally, had a huge mirror with pictures of the happy couple which hung in her hall. It stayed there long after the royal divorce and the royal mangling in a car crash, like a sad reminder of more innocent times. The face of a young, coy looking Diana and a smug Charles, loomed over you long after the party was well and truly over.
She also hoarded fat. She kept a large brown bowl in the kitchen and whenever she cooked anything meaty she would pour of the fat into the bowl. She’d then the scoop the speckled mixture in gelatinous spoonfuls into a frying pan and fry things in it. If you ate a fried egg there you really had to try hard to ignore the dubious brown flecks from the dripping it was fried in. The bowl never emptied. She just kept topping it up and scooping it out, maintaining a status quo. I suspect that had the bowl ever been subjected to a rigorous archaeological dig, then the lower strata would have been found to have dated from circa 1952 and may have contained a few souvenirs from The Festival of Britain and an Alma Cogan record or two.
She hoarded clothes too and until her death in the early 2000s, persisted with wearing amazing dresses from the 1960s whose lurid patterns were enough to induce nausea at 20 paces. They were generally made of manmade fibres, zipped up at the back and were just above knee length. I think the technical term is a “frock”.
She had more buttons than any woman on earth. Her button box was a 5 pint ice cream tub which yielded to the hands with a cool and satisfying tinkle. I loved to sink my hands in deep and see what gems came out. They were simple times. We had no X-Box or DVDs and there wasn’t much to do of an afternoon. Her string collection was awesome and I defy any man or woman to have as many rubber bands as she did.
Naturally, the Catholics loved her for her tireless fundraising. The priest was often round for a cup of tea and she’d clear him a spot on the settee by brushing off a few 1960s board games and some chipped china. Her efforts were tireless and she raised money for African orphanages, coach outings for poor children and trips for crippled people to go to Lourdes to try to be cured. They never were. She attended the Catholic Social Club and was a dab hand at the bingo there. Oddly, the other women there would mutter darkly if she won; about her not being entitled to it as she wasn’t a Roman Catholic really. It was just the church service bit she avoided, though. She didn’t like to sit about too much.
There was a lot of Catholic tat in her house; the odd cross eyed infant of Prague here and there, wonky crucifixes and slightly discoloured virgins tottering over. The thing I had my eye on though was of far more value. It was a bottle of Holy Water from Lourdes which some old lady had bought back for her. It was made of opaque white plastic, shaped into the form of the Virgin Mary and had a lurid blue hat which acted as the bottle top.
It sat tantalisingly, next to the broken stereo, beckoning me with its promises of power and cures for any ills. I’d eye it longingly and even went so far as to unscrew the top and sniff it, when her back was turned. It was odourless. I suspect it contained water.
I perpetrated the cunning heist one summer’s afternoon when she was down the bottom of the garden pegging out giant pants and bright dresses in the sun. I made a dash for the bottle, unscrewed the top and swigged the whole bottle down in one. I then quickly dashed for the sink, filled up the bottle again under the tap and ran back in, replacing Holy Mary next to the stereo.
She didn’t seem to notice and I waited and waited for the water to take effect. Clearly this was very special water and I’d now be imbued with some sort of magic power. I pointed at the cat and tried to cast a spell, no joy. I tried to jump high, no superpowers. I still couldn’t roll my tongue (but apparently that’s genetic).
This was my second ingestion of Catholicism as aged 3 I had swallowed a string of rosary beads. I was sucking them vigorously and they snapped, resulting in a trip to Accident and Emergency for an x-ray (which I thoroughly enjoyed).
I’d like to be able to say that the rosary beads which lodged in my small intestine and the miraculous water coursing through my kidneys made me a very well behaved little boy. Sadly, I can’t.