Sunday, 18 August 2013

Making it up

When the lace is torn, the elastic's gone loose and the bones of your bra stick into your sides, you know it's time to buy some new underwear. When you bring home the new lingerie and can't find anywhere to put it, you know it's time for a clear out. And so, there I was, tipping the contents of my knicker drawer onto the bed, trying to work out what was worth keeping, wondering what might fit for a little while longer.

When I was young, my mum always lined our clothes drawers with paper. Not with those scented liners you only seem to find on a bric-a-brac stall at the village fete, but with brown paper, carefully cut to size. Or at least, I think she did, though I can't remember why, and I can't remember ever asking her the reason. Part of me is certain that's what she did, part of me thinks that when she reads this she'll tut under her breath and declare, "she's making things up about us again..."  Memory is a tricky beast, but if she didn't line our drawers, why would I think now that it's the proper thing to do? How would I know that you take the drawer out of the chest and mark round it on the paper to get the right size? And how could I see so clearly that when you do just that, the paper will always be a little too big, so that the sides curl up as you lay it in the drawer?

So there I stood, looking at all the underwear tipped out on the bed and, just for a moment, I thought about going downstairs to try and find some brown paper, a pen and a pair of scissors. Then, as so often happens with my vague attempts at housewifery, I decided the effort was more trouble than it was worth, especially when I still didn't understand what the paper was for.  Much better to start sorting through; throwing the oldest scrappiest clothes into a plastic carrier for the bin, selecting the better ones to put back in the drawer. 

And then I saw it, the white cotton handkerchief, roughly folded into a square, with its neatly hemmed edges not quite lined up. I opened it out, tried to smooth it flat, but the folds had been there too long. I tried to remember if I'd ever seen it open before, if I'd ever seen it used. Part of me is certain that I saw my dad pull it from his trouser pocket, just in time to catch a sneeze. Part of me thinks I'm making things up again.

In my memory, I can see a long flat box, with a paisley pattern on the bottom and a clear plastic lid. Inside the box lie three cotton handkerchiefs, each with a letter B embroidered in dark red silk. The box is sitting on some thin green wrapping paper, and I'm learning how to fold the paper over, making the ends into triangles, fastening them with sellotape.  Or at least that's how I imagine it was; that I took my pocket money to Woolworths and picked out his Christmas present: that he opened it and smiled; that he put the hankies carefully away in his underwear drawer but always made sure he had a clean one in his pocket.

I carry on sorting out my undies, putting the good ones away, lining them up neatly in the drawer, at least for now. Last to go in is the hanky. The fabric is thin now, old and worn. The centre is still white, but the edges have turned yellow with age. I think about showing it to Eddie one day, telling him about his Great Granddaddy Bernard, who used to write stories and sing us songs, who used to take us for long Sunday morning walks to collect conkers and long rides into London on the no 3 bus. For a moment, I wonder if Eddie will think I'm making it up. Then I fold up the hanky, with the neatly hemmed edges not quite lined up and put it carefully away in the drawer.