Some things were secret for a little while – long enough that they were exciting to hold onto before being exposed with jittery-joyousness at the end of the day. There were no serious accidents. Whether this was due to luck, the sweating endeavours of our guardian angels or because we had an intuition that some discoveries should not be repeated, I’m not sure.
However, a sure way of preventing any activity being enjoyed with abandon was telling what we had done to our mother.
Like many children who lived in decent enough streets with decent enough neighbours my siblings and I had weeks of unsupervised freedom during the school summer holidays. As soon as my brother was technically able to be responsible for our care there were no more uneconomic foreign au pairs. Instead, a small amount of change, up to two pounds, would be left on the kitchen windowsill for expenses. With efficient budgeting we discovered a six pack of crisps and five jam doughnuts could be bought in the village.
Our ages were fourteen, twelve, seven, six and five. Our temperaments were lively and our instinct for alliances and impromptu gang warfare of one sort of another was strong.
There were things we discovered that will be quite plain to most people, particularly to adults; cats like sleeping in blankets, but cats DO NOT like being spun in blankets. Afterwards, they are liable to go missing for several days. This was upsetting for the decent enough neighbours especially since it was their cat.
Many things naturally remained secret, untold to an adult, until the end of the day. Most of these were inconsequential, such as throwing panes of glass from the garage roof to hear the pleasing smash or making tea with five spoons of sugar or watching television from breakfast until two o’clock in the afternoon when Little House on the Prairie began. None of these posed any real dancer. The garage roof was flat and easy to scale, and of course at the time we were immortal.
The apple tree was also easy to climb. Stunted from lack of attention, it grew beneath a towering oak and we were more likely to break a branch than hurt ourselves. After the first few weeks of summer the windfalls were dispersed. Insufficient ammunition remained in easy reach and new apple bullets had to be collected by the youngest and lightest of our crew, regardless of her fear of heights.
She was small and blonde with wide bright blue eyes as if she’d been copied from a doll. She was simply called ‘Baby’ by our father for years.
Later, when the victorian red-bricked semi was repossessed and we moved deeper into the countryside it was she who was chosen to test the ice-covered lake – urgent rescue was required, but I digress.
With five sets of quick eyes and ears it is not easy to keep a secret, although we all tried. Fortunately, there is something irrepressible about a child who has a new achievement.
I suppose it started with a game of hide and seek.
We knew the house as if we’d built it ourselves, every cavity, dark shadow and lurking space. We knew how to camouflage ourselves in the dirty washing pile or beneath the coats in the black wedge-shaped cloakroom under the stairs.
Once, my brother hid and fell asleep in our sideboard, the only piece of furniture the family still possesses from that time. Nana was looking after us at the time. She alerted the neighbours and I think the police were being called when one of us happened to open the sideboard door and found him jammed inside with the junk mail and unopened bills.
There was an ever increasing drought of novel hiding places, not to mention the disappointing fact that we were growing. Discovering new places to fit inside became the challenge one afternoon.
It must have been too hot or too cold to play outside. More than likely our heads ached from too much goggling at the television, even more likely we had not eaten anything except crisps and doughnuts all day.
The youngest, smallest and lightest was chosen – Baby. It would be most fun, there would be more possibilities.
First, the old sideboard: centre and small end cupboards, easy. Second the newer dresser in the front room whose brass knobs fell off. The VCR tapes were duly scooped out and yes she could fit inside, no problem.
Next into the kitchen.
There was no washing machine, but there was a twin-tub beneath a mirrored picture of a Parisian lady with feathers in her hair. Baby complained that it was wet and the central rotor made it awkward, but yes, she fitted and the lid could just about close.
We never used it, considered too expensive and luxurious by our mother, but we knew what it was; the dishwasher. Was it a challenge? Not really with the lower rack removed. The door even clicked shut with a pleasing modern sound.
Much larger than modern microwaves – you could fit a whole turkey inside.
Baby’s shoes were removed, strategy was considered. Head first? Legs first? Bottom first? Was she flexible enough?
It was the first thing we told our mother when she came home from work.
‘Baby fits in the microwave!’
Gabrielle Barnby, Summer 2016