Dad said, “where I grew up there were no refrigerators”. Mum never mentioned it. A
troubled married life was also ‘fridge free. Even after he died, even after I left home and that
rampantly dismal Council Estate, even then, untroubled, she lived minus one. When survival
was a silent priority and what happened to each penny really did matter, ‘refrigerator’ was not
part of the language. Bottled milk on the doorstep every morning, there before we woke. Milk
in a bowl of cold water was part of each day’s collage. Cows, refrigerators and peace were
beyond experience. They did not exist. Nor was sparse food around long enough to need
temperature control. If a cauldron heat did ever ‘turn’ it, the smell would need to be rank,
decomposition beyond recall, before slurping it into the sink.
So where did the idea to buy one come from? Was it a bold attempt to slide her into
the Twentieth Century; protect an ageing woman from food poisoning; impress her with my
largesse, the rewards of an extended education; make a difficult life more comfortable; repay
her poignant love, this woman who had been taught to read and write by a man who himself
left school at ten or eleven or twelve, she who licked the pencil after each written word, her
eyes wandering? I don’t know. Perhaps all of these, and that it was her birthday. Her life,
beyond the doubtful gift of three sons, had been bereft of presents.
Buying is easy. With no car the difficulty is delivery. Buses, underground trains, and
that final walk; all killers. Small but dense, it is awkward to hold. I arrive sweat drenched,
pull the string-tied key from behind the letterbox and let myself in. A charge of adrenalin
excitement as packaging is removed and the wires attached to a round pin plug. I explain it
has to be left on for several hours to reach the right pitch of coldness. I show her the light that
comes on when the door opens. I work the dial that makes it more or less cold. She wants the
round edged, ice-white cube put onto a rickety table and placed against the wall opposite the
window through which neighbours look. She asks how electricity makes a machine cold, not
hot. I do not know the answer. She wants to know if the Instruction Manual has costed it for
being on all day and all night. “No, but it is very cheap. Anyway, the other prezzie is this bag
of shillings”, months of slot meter food. She plays with the handle, rubbing its metallic shine,
pulling gently in case pulling harder is not in the manual. It needs a strong yank to separate
the thick seal that joins door to body. Hard won cold will not escape that easily!
she checks and rechecks electric plugs candle burns low
Eventually, as a warm day deteriorates, the moment of baptism is upon us, the
‘Opening Ceremony’ about to happen. She pulls hard at the door, telling me to “quickly,
quickly, go get it”. Slowly, carefully, gently, she places the ⅔s empty glass bottle of milk in
the middle and pushes the door firmly shut, followed by two confirmatory checks.
This is not a snapshot with a sting in the tail. Most day-in-day-out actions have
predictable consequences and outcomes, and there is nothing visibly extraordinary about my
mother. A month later, my next visit. There it sits, still in the middle of the wall opposite the
dustier window through which neighbours look, still ice-cold white, except for the lace runner
now covering the top. Her mother’s. A cut crystal glass, again originally her mother’s, retains
worse-for-wear water. An awkward bunch of wild flowers staggers and flops in all directions.
When, in a tin kettle, she starts to boil up lightly brown water, I open her ‘fridge to
take out the milk. There, still centred, still alone, in all its transmogrified glory, stands the ⅔s
empty bottle of milk, a time-capsule work of Art.
a month inside