Sunday, October 27, 2013

A hot shower takes me right back to childhood


I love a hot shower; my husband likes it cool. Sometimes in the morning rush, my husband jumps in as I'm getting out. And every time he yelps, steps back, and reaches for the cold. 'How can you have it so hot?' he asks, looking at my bright pink skin.

Let me tell you, my dear. When I was a girl, we had an outdoor laundry; as well as the washing machine, it housed an ancient hot water system. My father would get up at six to light the boiler, and I, who had been mooching around since five, would often go with him and watch.

A brick bunker ran down the side of the laundry, full of hard black coal humped in hessian sacks from a Bedford truck. Mr Wright, the coalman, had twinkling eyes, a crinkly face, a snow white beard, and a big smile for me. Each morning, dad would fill the coal bucket from the bunker and I'd think of Mr Wright; then we'd go into the laundry.

There my father would kneel in front of the boiler, and open the metal door. His large brown hands would carefully lay the fire: first twists of paper, then firelighters, then a careful pile of coal briquettes. When it was built, he would strike a match, reach in, and gingerly touch it in several places. Very gently, cold breath wreathing, he would blow at the fire. Tentative flames would lick up once, twice, then, becoming more sure of themselves, take hold. We'd sit quietly and watch until we were sure the briquettes had caught. Then he'd close and latch the boiler door.

Hands black with cold dust, he'd run the water through a skinny folding spigot into the concrete laundry trough. The boiler was still heating up; the water was always freezing. My father would rinse his hands, then roll the yellow soap around and around. He'd rub his hands one inside the other, until his nails were clean and the ridges in his skin were clear; he'd send lather up to his elbows. Finally, he'd sluice his arms, and dry them on an old ragged towel.

More than anything, my father hated a cool shower. For all the care that he took, he was so anxious to ensure that his shower was hot that he'd sometimes overload the boiler. Twenty minutes later, it would boil over, rattling and shaking to waken the dead, shooting steam and scalding hot water all over the laundry roof, ready to take off like a rocket.

'Jooo-oooohn!' my mother would scream, a regular morning wail, 'you've done it again!'

On those days, the water was so hot that steam bumped through the pipes. Instead of warm water, we'd get jets of icy water interspersed with gusts of scalding steam. Impossible to wash in, we'd wait anxiously watching the clock, sniping at each other, until everything had cooled down a bit; then we'd rush through our showers and race out the door.

Whenever I remember this, my face cracks into a loopy grin – and there is my answer to my husband: a hot shower takes me right back to childhood.

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