The truth is that ordinary folk in the States don’t live in the perpetual autumnal town of ‘Stars Hollow’, nor is the opening shot of a fabulous Brownstone apartment in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ a realistic home for many. The closest us Brits get to wood panelled rooms and the servants quarters of ‘Downton Abbey’ is on a family day trip, visiting a National Trust property.
None of the characters on British soap operas could afford to buy the houses on the wages of the fictitious jobs they do. Even the ‘Friends’ characters wouldn’t have been able to rent their apartments back then, let alone now. Bridget Jones could only dream of her grubby, tiny Zone 1 flat as a single woman on an average salary. What would be the point? She’d never be able to socialise. No money.
When time was measured by pencil lines on the door frame, and the term ‘staycation’ hadn’t even been invented, DIY happened twice a year in our house. Spring cleaning meant that every Easter, the four days that the adults in the house had off work, were spent washing net curtains and sofa covers, dragging duvets to the launderette, pulling furniture out and hoovering with the nozzle on the brighter patch of compressed carpet behind the wardrobes or damp dusting of skirting boards with old vests cut up into cleaning rags. Every year my mother would comment on how many spiders must have lived behind her bedside table and if she’d known, she’d never have been able to sleep.
There was a wall-mounted telephone in the hall, which sadly lacked the extra-long cable you see in TV programmes. An old dining chair lived permanently underneath, which was more useful these days as a prop to rest alternate feet whilst tying shoelaces, than as a seat for long conversations. On it was a mint green floral cushion featuring a slightly cross-eyed appliquéd owl that I made in primary school. Another one of my creative endeavours survives in that hall to this day. I sprayed an ornate picture frame gold, then hot glue-gunned some circular slivers of wine corks from my brother’s wedding over the painting. I thought my notice boards were a winner and planned to sell them at a craft fair, but never got around to it. There’s probably a etsy shop now selling similar somewhere in rural America. For over twenty years, that corkboard has remained the hub of both equally vital and useless information for the house. A Snoopy pen with a neck ribbon hanging from a hook. Postcards from pre-Obama holidays in Miami and Florida, the Dr’s phone number and opening times, a yellowing newspaper clipping of one of the grandchildren in a local play, a dry-cleaning stub, a tiny pink scrap of paper congratulating you on winning £25 on the lottery, a torn-off piece of cardboard from a lightbulb box as a reminder to buy some more, a half-used book of first-class stamps, taxi business cards and a list of household jobs that need doing. Defrost the freezer. Clean the oven. Wash glass light fittings. Move bed. Sort bathroom cabinet. Sharpen knives. Declutter.
Declutter. It had to be done. Basically, for us kids, it involved spending a whole day pulling everything we owned out of our wardrobes and putting most of it back in again, but tidily. That or helping with some proper elbow-grease scrubbing downstairs. Windows open, music blasting, dusting. Dragging furniture around to change the feng shui of my bedroom. I never had Molly Ringwald’s room or any brat pack teen movie bedroom for that matter, and I always had this nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would judge my record collection and deem me unworthy. I got to use the fancy, scented drawer liners that mum got me for Christmas, and spent the evening looking through her catalogues, writing up a list of clothes I thought I needed for the summer. By Saturday afternoon, there were library books to be returned, magazines to donate, black sacks for the tip, or the charity shop, and clothes to be mended. Everything back in its right place.
Easter Sunday obviously meant chocolate for breakfast. Hopefully, we would all get an egg in a mug which would become our new favourite. Other times, it was a smaller egg in a pretty eggcup, plus the promise of a day out at the zoo or theme park. My brother always hoped for a real ostrich egg but they cost £10 each, which seemed a bit steep. We were reminded that “an egg was a whole day’s work for a bird” and anyway, there weren’t enough of us to eat an ostrich egg, so it would go to waste.
Before lunch, I’d set the table with the fancy cutlery, that was usually kept in a shiny, heavily laquered wooden box, lined with red velvet, and, if we were having visitors, make name place settings using pinking shears, thick cardboard and felt tips. I liked to be quiet and still so I could see the motes hanging in the air in that cool dining room. Once we were all as small as those insignificant specks of human skin dust. I’d change the antimacassars from the armchairs to the Irish linen embroidered ones, polish the cut crystal glasses, and try to find the youngest mint leaves that had taken over the vegetable patch to mix with some malt vinegar. Roast leg of lamb for lunch. Being a teenage vegetarian meant I had the same meal as the rest of the family minus the meat, but I made myself some extra thick Bisto gravy, and possibly some bread sauce.
I hadn’t been a veggie very long, not even a year, so I was still experimenting with food. My mother said that if I got anaemic then I’d have to eat liver or beef once a week whether I wanted to or not, because I was still growing. When I became an adult, I could eat what I liked, so I decided very quickly that cavalo nero was going to be my favourite vegetable. I made my own humous, with chick peas from cans and tahini from the local health food shop. My worst purchase there was fennel toothpaste, but their falafal mix was quite good for my amateur palate. I invented something with red lentils, marmite and cheese, and begged my mother to fill the freezer with spinach and ricotta lasagnes.
It was a strange experience that made me turn vegetarian. The previous August bank holiday weekend, I was given the job of repainting my bedroom window frames. A butterfly got stuck on the paint and there was nothing I could do to help it. I watched it hopelessly struggle for ages after it tore a wing, before it finally gave up. I felt guilty for not helping, but relieved that it was a cabbage white with a tiny wing dot in the shape of a black heart, and not the rarer, more dazzling, common blue. Did insects have feelings? Was my overreaction empathy? A few days later, the butterfly had gone. It had been wiped away. Where its leg and wing had been trapped, there were two tiny marks. I’d sometimes gaze out of the window, thinking about what my future would be like, and run my finger over them. The smallest reminder of a brief life lived.