Tag Archives: childhood

Missing the Car Wash and the Colour of Nuns – the Traumas of Being the Youngest Child

It’s rubbish being the youngest in the family, and I should know. When I was born, my closest brother in age was already 7, and the oldest was 14. Even Prudence our cocker spaniel was older than me.

This huge age gap meant that my brothers were able not merely to tease me, but to weave elaborate scams that I had no hope at all of seeing through. It was a completely one-sided arrangement because I was far too inexperienced ever to get my own back.

For example…

We were privileged enough to be a two-TV family. We had a colour set in the living room, with a dial to change the channel between BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. It was very similar to this one:

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And we had a black and white TV in the dining room with four separate channel buttons… “In case they ever bring out a fourth channel,” my dad explained to me.

If my brothers and I wanted to see something different at the same time, then of course we argued about who got to use the colour set. On one particular occasion I wanted to watch The Sound of Music. My brother Nick, maybe 13 at the time to my 6,  explained to me that I would be better off watching this particular film on the black and white TV.

“Why?” I asked.
“Because of the nuns,” he replied, completely dead pan.

And I bought it. I trotted meekly off to watch in the dining room. Although I assume that there must have been a tiny suspicion in the back of my mind that I was being had, because why else would I remember the incident 35 years or so later?

A more regular, and possibly even more surreal piece of teasing, happened every Saturday when we would all drive from Sunderland to Newcastle to visit my grandma.  My parents would sit in the front, and the four of us would be crammed into the back (no seatbelts obviously) with the dog across our knees.

Part of the way through the journey, there was a car wash. A perfectly ordinary car wash in a petrol station next to a roundabout. Every week,  my brothers would wait till we’d driven past it (with me invariably looking the other way) and then they’d chant:

“Susan missed the car wash! Susan missed the car wash!”
“AND” they’d add, “it had a white Rolls Royce in it!”

Then they’d fall about laughing. And my parents would tell them off, but you could hear that they were trying not to laugh, too.

And I’d cry.
Every single week.

Now that I’m nearly 42 my brothers are really quite nice to me. And over the years I’ve become much better at making sure I don’t miss car washes.

But still, when our youngest child (who is only 4) gets furiously angry because his older siblings are laughing at something unintentionally funny that he’s said, I empathise. I really do. Though it can sometimes be a struggle not to laugh, too.

***

Do you have any equally traumatic stories of sibling teasing? If so, please tell me about them in the comments section.

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Porridge and Sweetcorn: the Psychology of the ‘Free Gift’

Filed away in my parents’ house I found this letter that I wrote to Father Christmas when I was 5:

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Why a little girl from a Jewish family was writing to Father Christmas in the first place is a subject for another day…

The paper is blackened with soot because it had been sent up our chimney (obviously the only way to communicate with Santa Claus) and, as my father has noted at the bottom, was subsequently retrieved from the garden.

The first thing that might strike you about this Christmas list is the paper it’s written on. It advertises:

ANUSOL: Soothes painful piles and anal irritation 

My father practised as a GP in a large Sunderland health centre and drug companies constantly tried to seduce him with freebies, including this branded paper.

Practically everything in our house seemed to have the name of a drug company on it: paper, pens, calendars, mugs…

My parents always welcomed these gifts enthusiastically. I’m pretty sure that we would have had a sofa with Amoxicillin-branded cushions or a car painted with the Nurofen logo, had they been offered to us.

I remember one of the free items was  a gadget that would cut through your seat belt if you found yourself entangled in it due to a car crash. I’m not sure what was written on it. Perhaps, “You’ll never feel trapped with Laxido”.

I think there’s a curious psychology surrounding the idea of the ‘free gift’. (Incidentally, the term itself is tautological: if it’s a gift, then you’d expect it to be free.) We have a tendency to accept things that are free, even if we have no desire for them whatsoever.

I re-entered office life last year after nine years of working from home. I was bizarrely excited about every aspect of the corporate world because I’d spent so long away from it. One day I emailed my husband Anthony in great excitement, saying,

“They’re giving away free porridge with golden syrup in every kitchen!”

“But you don’t like porridge…” he replied.

“Yes,” I said, “but it feels really good to know that if I did like it, I could have it. And for free!”

More recently, in my current office, these boxes turned up containing packets of microwavable ‘express’ sweetcorn:

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This photo was taken only about 5 minutes after they’d arrived and already the boxes are half empty. By the time the email came round saying ‘There are packets of microwavable sweetcorn in the kitchens’, the whole lot had already been snaffled.

Now sweetcorn is, admittedly, quite a useful thing. Most people like a bit of sweetcorn with their dinner now and again. But nobody could claim it was exciting. I’m not sure the fact that it ‘heats in 1 minute’ really made much difference either. I don’t generally think, ‘I would eat sweetcorn much more often if only it didn’t take so long to prepare…’.

No, the speed with which those packets vanished was, I’m sure, almost entirely due to the mysterious power of the ‘free gift’.

Anyway, back to the Anusol…

I can only assume that Father Christmas was not impressed with my choice of writing paper because, despite having requested it in my letter, I wasn’t given a Cindy (sic), and certainly didn’t receive ‘all the clothes and all the furniture’ to accompany her. Which just goes to show that presentation really matters: sometimes it’s worth ignoring the free gift and spending a bit of money.

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Do As You’re Told!

Barbecue

My friend Emma mentioned the other day that she’s very much looking forward to coming to our 10th anniversary barbecue next month. I was a bit perplexed by this because I wasn’t aware we were having one. She showed me the entry in her calendar:

“Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue (babysitter booked).”

What struck me later is that my first thoughts were not: “We have already been married for more than ten years, and we don’t own a barbecue”.

These were, to be fair, my second thoughts.

But my first thoughts were:

– Bloody hell – now that it’s in Emma’s diary, we’re going to have to arrange it.
– We’ll have to buy a barbecue and we can’t afford it.
– Maybe we could just use one of those disposable ones.
– Who else should we invite?
– My husband doesn’t even like barbecues.

All of this only took a few seconds and then I came to my senses. But it got me thinking about how extremely suggestible some people are (e.g. me) and how others are the exact opposite.

I’ve worked with people, for example, who completely refuse to respond to anything I ask, apparently on principle.

I say: “Please could you… [insert here completely basic function of their job]” and instead of saying, “Yes, of course!” they respond with a question of their own. The conversation then spirals into a bottomless pit of doom where I begin to consider eating my own arm.

So perhaps it’s better to be easily led like me. Although it must be said I’ve done many stupid things, just because someone has suggested them to me. Despite the fact that any kind of risk-taking makes me feel panicked and miserable, not excited and alive, I have been guilty of the following (you can surmise for yourself how old I was for each):

– ringing on doorbells and running away.
– climbing over a spiked fence to leave the grounds of a castle because it was quicker than going back to the main exit.
– stuffing rude notes through the next door neighbour’s letterbox.
– trespassing in an old lady’s garden in Siena in the middle of the night.
– drinking half a bottle of vodka in 30 minutes and spending the next few hours lying in a flowerbed throwing up.

I get that this is a pretty weedy list of misdemeanours to show for my 41 years. I expect I could dredge up some more if I thought about it really hard. But the point is that I didn’t want to do any of those things and nor did I feel good about them, either at the time or afterwards.

Anyway, the barbecue mystery was finally solved. It wasn’t “Reubens’ 10th anniversary barbecue” but “Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue” – i.e. the barbecue of Emma’s friend Reuben.

“You should both have paid more attention to the placement of the apostrophe,” her husband said, sternly.
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