Sometimes a turn of phrase will make the reader laugh out loud. One such popped up in a short story by Sapper, wherein a young man observes of an obnoxious character's plus fours that to wear them in public would outrage public decency and furthermore would probably cause a civil riot.
We guarantee there are no outrages to public decency in this issue of Orphan Scrivener, nor do we think its contents are likely to cause a riot, civil or otherwise. Neither of us possesses or has ever possessed a garment of this kind so subscribers should feel free to carry on reading, safe in the knowledge the two of us certify this newsletter to be minus any mention of plus fours.
I was interested in my own past too, almost before I had one. There’s no history closer to hand than our own.
One of my first experiences of personal history involved the child-sized roll-top desk I used to draw at long before I went to school. The top became stuck. I used a bent clothes hanger to fish down the back, into the space where the top should have rolled, and was surprised to pull out ancient artifacts. A plastic soldier. A stick of Black Jack gum so old it was petrified. A badly crumpled and torn sheet of paper bearing a drawing of my friendly chipmunk character.
Had I really lived long enough to acquire such a rich history? I thought the whole bag of soldiers had been lost in the garden trenches an entire summer before. The drugstore didn’t even sell Black Jack gum any more. As for that chipmunk drawing, it was embarrassing juvenilia now that I had moved on to machine-gun wielding squirrels. I could hardly imagine I had once been so unskilled and immature.
How these treasures had fallen into the back of the desk I had no idea. They should have been gone forever, along with the very memory of them. Howard Carter couldn’t have been more amazed when he first peered into King Tut’s tomb.
What is so compelling about history? Perhaps it gives us meaning that time would otherwise sweep away. We are forever locked in a moment that means nothing except in the context of moments which are gone and moments which have yet to arrive. We take our meaning from that which does not exist.
Most of us, in one way or another, are our own historians. We keep diaries, for instance, or family photo albums. We are not just preserving the past, though. By what we write in the diary, which snapshots we preserve, we are, like historians, interpreting our histories. And there is something satisfying, I think, of seeing that we are more than this moment.
As a child I loved reading the Alley Oop comic strip in the newspaper. Why wouldn’t I? Alley was a caveman who time traveled. I started clipping each strip out and pasting it into a scrapbook. After a year, when I looked at the beginning of the scrapbook, I saw vaguely remembered scenes and read story lines which seemed to have occurred an epoch ago, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and traveled backwards. I guess I had created a historical record for my own enjoyment.
My friends and I created a history for the Horseshoe Club which met in our basements every couple of weeks. The club’s activities consisted of consuming chips and soda, electing new officers at every meeting, and keeping an official record of the elections. Before long we had a history. At the end of the summer we put the official club record in a plastic bag and hiked up the railroad tracks to the edge of a swamp where we buried it.
When we excavated the records the next spring, after the ice sheets had advanced and receded, we not only had a history but an historical artifact.
And what a discovery it was! The bag had split and the precious paper inside was wet, stuck together, and partly rotted. But working carefully, we managed to dry, reassemble, and tape enough together to decipher the strangely childish handwriting. We were astounded. The ancient document revealed that there had once been a secret organization called the Horseshoe club and we’d all been members! Look, I was the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 9th president!
These days I’m not quite so blatant about making my past into history. I just write essays about it. And sometimes, doing so, I try to place the taste of Black Jack gum and fail.
Hearing the news brought back memories of Christmases past, when as children my younger sister and I did our little bit of Yuletide shopping at the Elswick Road branch of Woollies, up on the main road beyond the cemetery at the top of our street in Newcastle.
Following the basic company design, our local Woollies featured square mirrored pillars, popularly whispered to conceal a space where floorwalkers lurked waiting to pop out to apprehend would-be shoplifters. Items for sale were displayed on vast oblong mahogany counters with tops laid out with low compartments of appropriate size with walls formed of strips of glass a couple of inches high clipped together with metal Ts. Customers picked out what they wished to buy to examine them before sales were rung up on sit-up-and-beg-tills. What's more, single items were sold rather than the now common sets of five or ten encased in packaging needing the bread knife to cut open. This was particularly important for residents in areas such as ours where purchases of two ounces of tea, sugar, or butter were common, especially towards the end of the work week when Friday night's pay packet was still a day or so away.
So around this time of year it was off to the Elswick Road to purchase family gifts with our precious pennies. The first outlay was on a sheet or two of thin, chalky Christmas wrapping paper, printed in pastel shades and like many contemporary Christmas cards highlighted with glitter. Since our local Woollies stacked single sheets of wrapping paper -- it cost a old penny a sheet -- on trapezes formed from broom handles and hairy string, many of the items displayed on the counters below became decorated with shining speckles, little heaps of which drifted into the corners of the aforementioned compartments. The cards I liked best featured a back flap extending about half an inch or so to the right of the front. Printed with a pattern matching the card's illustration, the extra width was ideal for cutting off and using as a bookmark.
Well then, our shopping lists often included calendar booklets with a month to a page. We sometimes made calendars for family members, pasting a suitable picture cut from a magazine or a card to a piece of cardboard -- the reversed front of a Kellogg's cornflakes box springs to mind -- and then hanging the date booklet from a piece of ribbon at the bottom with a matching hanging ribbon threaded through holes punched at the top. For ready made gifts there were presentation trios of gold-foil wrapped bath cubes or toiletries such as boxed sets of matching soap, talc, and a single bath cube. Admittedly the bath cubes were not much use to us inasmuch we had no bathroom. It was the thought that counted and having counted the remaining cash there was usually enough to purchase a pocket diary with a tiny pencil in its spine, or perhaps a bottle of blue after shave or a box of stationery, though I confess I used more of the envelopes and notepaper than its recipient as I had a number of pen pals. Other gifts regularly showing up under the Christmas tree included a square box containing three gauzy ladies' embroidered handkerchiefs so delicate that to this day I am convinced they were intended for display rather than use, unlike the thicker manly linen hankies with an initial worked in blue thread. Since my father and brother had the same name sometimes one received hankies with no initials to avoid confusing the issue or should I say the atishoo. The shape of these gift boxes revealed their content before unwrapping as did the rectangular type containing a tie, another standby for male relatives at a time when ties were worn more commonly than today, but everyone played along and expressed surprise when the contents were revealed.
The Woollies chain sold broken biscuits by the pound from cube-shaped tin boxes, containers that proved ideal for all sorts of storage particularly in mice-infested houses. While my brother was in Egypt serving in the RAF we sent him a home-made Christmas cake and his presents each year in one of those sturdy biscuit boxes. There are abiding recollections of big jars of plum and apple jam from Woollies, not to mention their large tins of golden plums, one of the sparse choice of fruit available at the time when tinned pineapple was a luxury and more exotic fruits undreamed of by greengrocers.
Woollies sold just about everything for the home from ceiling to floor, from light bulbs to door mats, so store vignettes pop up throughout memories of succeeding decades. In our teens the paste jewelry, faux gems, and plastic bangles of the costume jewelry counter beckoned, and it was at Woollies we purchased packets of cobwebby nylons which laddered so easily we carried a bottle of nail polish around to effect emergency repairs by dabbing a spot on a new snag to prevent it running the length of the stocking. Then there was the makeup counter, purveyor of the white lipstick and pan-cake makeup that made us look, well, half dead at best. Catering to our age group Woollies also offered black and white postcards of current heartthrobs. We bought many but never posted any. Nor must we overlook their Embassy brand cover versions of popular hits, an enterprise of which John Lennon reportedly said if the Beatles could not get a contract with a real recording company they could always record for Woollies.
Fittingly, it was at Woollies that I purchased the thick navy blue wool with which I knitted the only sweater I ever produced, created with much labour and muttering on wooden knitting needles nigh as thick as my little finger. I could never master how to control the tension so when made up, the garment was too wide, too short, and its sailor collar too long at the back though virtually non existent at the shoulders. Callous friends dubbed this work my disgusting horse blanket. But what cared I? It was my pride and joy and I wore, nay, flaunted it in an ensemble consisting a tube skirt, stiletto heels, and one floral earring, for dear me, to misquote Louisa May Alcott, when we are teens let us believe we are fashionable or croak.
See you then!
Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the web at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/