Sunday, May 10, 2009


I woke at some ungodly hour thinking about stink bombs. I can explain. At some point in the next couple of months we will have to find a way of clearing out the loft. Son will be arriving home with all his stuff and though he will come and go, his stuff will need house space for a while. Therefore some things will need to go loftwards, but loft is full and, apart from Signs children's art works and old soft toys I have gone blank and can't remember what is up there, apart from a 1960s chemistry set (unused) my dad gave me for Christmas one year.

It is still in its cardboard box, everything in its place: the glass vials of blue, yellow and red crystals, the pipette, a thin pamphlet of instructions, unread. On the box is a picture of two children, a girl and a boy, that remind me of my Janet and John early reading books. She is neat and wholesome in tight plaits, he is smart and keen, short back and sides, holding a vial up to the light.

It was the Enid Blyton books about girls’ boarding schools called St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers. All human life was there, but there was no complexity. If you were a girl who liked to be pretty and neat, this was what you manifested in all you did. Ditto if you were good at lacrosse and team games. The sensible girls who held the social structure together never did anything reprehensible and if one of those did, say, utter one small untruth or throw a paper dart at mam’zelle in the heat of the moment, she would suffer the purging effects of inner remorse until all was made clean again. She would in due course be made head girl. There was the fat one who ate too much, stole other peoples’ tuck and was lazy, the shy one with problems who would be taken into the protection of the sporty one and go on to develop some artistic gift such as playing the violin, and then there was the odd-ball, slightly out on a limb with a touch of the Tomboy about her and cheerfully self-sufficient who was tolerated and indulged by the rest because she was a decent sort and frightfully clever. She played practical jokes and got away with it. She had a chemistry set. She made stink bombs. She might set one off on a particularly auspicious occasion when parents and teachers were gathered together and the girl no-one liked because she was so vain and up herself was about to make a long speech no-one wanted to hear. The stink bomb sent everyone rushing outside onto the lawn to have their cool lemonade and cucumber sandwiches and the clever, naughty girl was severely reprimanded but the headmistress had a twinkle in her eye. The twinkle followed this girl around like a charm. She could write her own script. She could duck out of things she didn’t want to do (embroidery, hockey practice), she could build a crystal radio set and make stink bombs. She had a secret tree house in the grounds where she kept her treasures: old medals, stamps and coins, a daily journal like a kind of lighthouse keeper’s log book; her chemistry set. When the school goody-two-shoes found out and reported her, it was goody who got the flack for being a sneak, not clever individualist stink bomb-maker. And when the time came for a heroic act, she would come and save the day – rescue the new first-former from the blazing fire. Decent.

More importantly, she had a life that was her own, one that I coveted. I possessed a journal, all I had written into it so far was the words for Raggle Taggle Gypsies but I could work on this. The boarding school would come and with it my chosen persona. All I needed was the chemistry set. I must have flicked through the pamphlet once at any rate. There was no reference to stink bombs. You could mix one substance with another to make something else happen, melt the crystals down and make a large one. I was not interested. But still, I had it.

My boarding school was not like St. Clare’s or Mallory Towers. People were less fathomable. My own nature too was a mystery to me. I was not brave, clever or charismatic or resourceful enough to learn how to make a stink bomb. I read books and found that reading about such things was more to my taste than putting them into practice.

But still. The box has come with me, moved from place to place for decades. The crystals have congealed and hardened. The pink on Janet’s cheeks has faded and John seems altogether insubstantial, as though touched by a wraith from the land of Mordor. There is a yellow and a blue that is never seen on children’s packaging any more, not even in Eastern Europe. The set is what we might now call long past its use-by date; untouched, yet still touched by the glamour of its original promise. I'll never bring myself to open it or throw it away.


trousers said...

Haven't read all that far into this yet, I got as far as the unused chemistry set.

There's something about gifts which were never used/played with which touches on something very maudlin within me - it just makes me feel ridiculously sad.

I'll be back later to read the rest.

Nicola said...

I recognize this chemistry set - mine was kept in our cellar near Celle in northern Germany. The boarding school sounds familiar, too. I seem to remember spending a considerable amount of time trying to work out how Jo from Little Women (whom I aspired to be) managed to read a book comfortably lying on a tree branch. And no Lauries for miles.

nmj said...

I utterly loved Malory Towers, read them all, total escapism (I went to a state comprehensive).

I loved chemistry sets, those copper sulphate crystals.

Can understand you still hanging on to the present your dad gave you, Signs.

Reading the Signs said...

Trousers, I think ultimately I probably got more out of this particular item by not playing with it.

Nicola, I might have guessed you'd have the same one. You didn't go to a Steiner school, did you?

It's a real museum piece, NMJ. Funny the things we keep.

I used to read those books with a torch under the bed after lights out.

Minx said...

But you are brave, clever, charismatic and resourceful - you just wrote something that made me read it twice!

I still have my full set of Mallory Towers and St Clares - no chemistry set but I do have my spud gun!

Nicola said...

I didn't, Signs, but I probably should have done. Steiner people - those I've met - seem to speak a language I understand even if I haven't quite learnt it myself.

Reading the Signs said...

Minx, with your spud gun and my chemistry set we could definitely have had fun and got ourselves (almost) expelled. I wish I had full sets of those. I think "Naughtiest Girl" is still knocking around somewhere.

Nicola, I was just wondering - when you said it sounded familiar. But you are probably by nature just 'one of us'.

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