Once when I was sixteen and home from boarding school, I lay in the bath at home and for the umpteenth time, mentally remodelled it. This was an old fantasy – I’d wall in the free-standing bath with its horrible iron legs, put tiles halfway up the gloss-painted walls and something would have to be done about the geyser, (hot water cylinder). From this, in the normal make-do style that governed our home, a metre-long, skinny, dark-green hose-pipe dangled down, from which boiling water shot and gulped in a terrifying way. Any foot or hand that ventured under this thin stream was in danger of being boiled instantly. Over time, the heat had whitened the end of the hose to a soft, melted appearance. With hard-won experience came impeccable timing – turn the tap off and the hose would keep dribbling water for a while – if turned off too late, cold water would have to be added again, by which time the bath would be a little too full.
On the towel-rail behind the door hung my mother’s very tired blue bathing-suit – the swimming-pool had finally been completed in Winterton and she regularly went swimming. I mainly went there to work on my tan with my friends and idly criticise the figures of other females or their ‘entering the pool’ technique.
Over the bath and casting shadows on my tummy was a handmade – what do you call that? A soap-facecloth-nailbrush holder, made perhaps by my grandfather, but more likely by my father – he was always tinkering with rat-traps which became more elaborate with each successive model, and the wire-mesh at the bottom of this thing thus betrayed his handiwork. On the side of the bath or on this bath-shelf for want of a better word, lay a back-brush, which long ago had resembled a fish with a very long tail. The tail had broken off, and the pink plastic had faded to the delicate shade of icing roses on a christening-cake – the gills battered with many whitened chips, the moulded pink eyes now only a relief pattern, with the glossy black pupils chipped off many years ago. It was a very depressing object, and had been old when we first encountered it in my grandparents’ home. There was still a tail then, and I guiltily suspect that we were responsible for that detail disappearing.
So as I lay there, taking in all these details, and absorbing the ugliness of various boxes, (Surf with SuperBlue!) tins (Steradent) and bottles (Eno) on the window-sill, I suddenly thought – ‘I will seal this moment in my mind for ever. I will remember this instant and never forget it.’
I’m glad I did… because with hindsight, every ugly little detail is infinitely precious to me. I’m so grateful my eager hands could never afford the time or money to impose my Sixties sensibilities onto that shabby but still stately Thirties bathroom – the bath alone was a genuine Art Deco design, and I’ve never seen feet like those supporting that bath, since. The bath itself was eventually lovingly retrieved from the bottom of their garden and placed in our back-yard until I could one day restore it, once I’d realised what it was, in the Eighties. The feet went missing and were never found. They were a geometric Art Deco design, not ball-and-claw. Well, they live on in my mind where they can never rust. The bath rusted; it never did rise from its last resting place and many things grew in there for many years.
The tall, narrow window, and the heavy teak door, so despised for being old-fashioned then, is something I craved in later years to find in every home I lived in. But all we seemed to find as a young married couple were homes with bright tiled floors, metal door-frames, wall-to-wall carpets and if not face-brick, then Spanish plaster.
There is something about ‘photographing’ a moment so completely ordinary, that is very special. It brings back other details, and facts belonging to that moment: my brothers in their room, tinkering with something electronic, their clever heads with their big ears bent over their intricate tasks, for once not fighting perhaps (rosy memories are permitted with this kind of hindsight); my sister, a small quiet presence reading in our room, or busy with some project with my mom – have to say with a terrible twinge that my arrogant sixteen-year-old self was barely aware of her; my grandfather and grandmother in their flat at the back, the murmur of their voices drifting through the painted-out window; my mother sewing in her shop while my father cooked supper in the kitchen.
LM Radio was playing in my bedroom. Soon, the famous jingle would be heard no more and LM would be called Maputo; my granny would suddenly pass away due to a heart attack; I’d drop out of school not too long after that, meet and marry a man with hair like a raven’s wing and have three sons; my grandfather would remarry and slightly scandalise the village; my mother would get cancer and put up a valiant fight for thirteen years after which my father would move back to his childhood home; my siblings and I would be separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometres; my sons would be living in distant towns or cities after I divorced their dad; in the distant future I’d experience the utter joy and pain of a far-away granddaughter… and I would have some amazing adventures which at that moment it would be better not to know about yet. I wouldn’t have believed it anyway.
On that night, with life suddenly coming to a standstill in a freeze-frame, all these things were mere potential. Eckard Tolle tells us we only have Now, but we don’t always realise it – then again, sometimes the Now becomes very profound simply because we decide to make it so.
This moment for instance. Isn’t it wonderful how it contains everything in it?