Crinkly Around the Edges
In which Eddie Dickens is sent away for his own good
When Eddie Dickens was eleven
years old, both his parents caught some awful disease that made them turn
yellow, go a bit crinkly around the edges, and smell of old hot-water bottles.
There were lots of diseases like that in those days. Perhaps it had something to do with all that thick fog, those knobbly cobbled streets, and the fact that everyone went everywhere by horse . . . even to the bathroom. Who knows?
"It's very contagious," said his father.
"And catching," said his mother, sucking on an ice cube shaped like a famous general.
They were in Eddie's parents' bedroom, which was very dark and dingy and had no furniture in it except for a large double bed, an even larger wardrobe, and thirty-two different types of chair designed to make you sit up straight even if your wrists were handcuffed to your ankles.
"Why are you sucking an ice cube shaped like a famous general?" Eddie asked his parents, who were propped up against piles of pillows in their impressively ugly double bed.
"Dr. Muffin says that it helps with the swelling," said his mother. In fact, because she had a famous-general-shaped ice cube in her mouth, what she actually said was "Dotter Muffin schez va it hewlpz wiva schwelln," but Eddie managed to translate.
"What swelling?" he asked politely.
His mother shrugged, then suddenly looked even more yellow and even more crinkly around the edges.
"And why do they have to be famous-general shaped?" asked Eddie. He always asked lots of questions, and whenever he asked lots of questions, his father would say: "Questions! Questions!"
"Questions! Questions!" said his father.
"But why a famous general?" Eddie repeated. "Surely the shape of the ice cube can't make any difference?"
"Schows sow muck chew no," muttered his mother, which meant (and still means), "Shows how much you know."
His father rustled the bedclothes. "One does not question the good doctor," he said. "Especially when one is a child." He was a small man except for when he was sitting up in bed. In this position, he looked extremely tall.
Then Eddie's mother rustled the bedclothes. It was easy to make them rustle because they were made entirely from brown paper bags glued together with those extra strips of gummed paper you sometimes get if you buy more than one stamp at the post office.
Postage stamps were a pretty new idea back then, and everyone -- except for a great-great-great-aunt on my mother's side of the family -- was excited about them.
One good thing about there being so few stamps in those days was that no one had yet come up with the idea of collecting them and sticking them in albums and being really boring about them. Stamp collectors didn't exist. Another good thing about there being no stamp collectors was that English teachers couldn't sneak up on some defenseless child and ask it how to spell philatelist.
Anyhow, even for those days, having brown paper bedclothes wasn't exactly usual. Quite the opposite, in fact. Bedclothes used to be an even grander affair then than they are now.
There were no polyester-filled duvets with separate washable covers. Oh, no. Back then there were underblankets and undersheets and top sheets and middle sheets and seven different kinds of overblankets. These ranged from ones thicker than a plank of wood (but not so soft) to ones that had holes in them that were supposed to be there.
To make a bed properly, the average chambermaid went through six to eight weeks' training at a special camp. Even then, not all of them finished the course, and those that didn't finish spent the rest of their working lives living in cupboards under stairs.
Copyright © 2002 Philip Ardagh
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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