Victorian Values

(Iris has realised that turning her family’s life around is going to involve more than staying away from Sainsbury’s. They need a wholesale reappraisal of their values. But her audience is strangely unreceptive…)

Malcolm carefully rescued the upturned chair. ‘Come on Mol, your mother’s had a nasty shock, she’s not well yet, and here she’s cooked you a lovely healthy supper. It won’t kill you to hear her out’…Iris beamed up at him in gratitude and surprise.

‘…Especially with the economy going the way it is. If I were you two, I’d be grateful for tips about how to make do and mend. By the time you’re earning, ninety per cent of it’ll go straight to National Insurance. Sit down, the both of you.’

The children skulked reluctantly back to the table. Iris tried to ignore the agony in her knee, summoned back the smile, and reached into her bag.

‘Here, everybody, I’ve got a piece of paper and a pencil. We’re going to make a list of things that we can do that don’t consume lots of energy and materials, and will be creatively fulfilling and fun. Look, I’ve got one already, I’m going to write down “embroidery” ‘

‘Embroidery! God Mum, you can’t even do a zip!’ Molly slumped across the table and tore into the second packet of Maya Gold.

‘Well, all the more reason to make up for lost time. I used to be quite good at sewing, I’d have you know. Which is sort of the point, isn’t it? Anyhow, we don’t all have to do the same things. Malcolm, your turn.’

‘There’s a few things round here that could do with a good clean-out. You could start with the welly boot cupboard; that should take a few evenings, if you’re going to do it without benefit of modern technology.’

Somehow, exploring the darker recesses of a foetid cupboard on her hands and knees hadn’t been quite the image of wholesome recreation in Iris’ head. Meanwhile Ted had somehow wrested the second bar of chocolate from Molly before it all disappeared.

‘Is it a game Mum? Can I get a prize? Is it my turn now?’
‘No, Ted, the whole point is – we don’t need prizes to have fun, do we? You remember what Miss Kilpatrick said, it’s about taking part, not winning. You can put down ‘playing music’ and ‘making up tunes’, you sing beautifully…’
‘So can I get an iPod then Mum? The music on an iPod just floats through the air, it doesn’t give off carbon or…’
‘You can have the music…’
‘All right!’
‘…but not the iPod, Ted, it costs money and it uses a lot of batteries.’
‘She’s wanting you to grow a pair of antennae, son. Come to think of it that’s not a bad idea, you could probably do it with a couple of electrodes and…’

Malcolm’s jokes had always seemed hilarious to Iris; but they’d never before been directed at her. Now, she determined to rise above it.

‘Why not make a musical instrument yourself, Ted, out of driftwood and bits and pieces? We could do it together, that would be much more fun than just buying something wouldn’t it?’
‘And that’d be driftwood from the unspoiled beaches of Tufnell Park, would it?’

Thanks, Malcolm. Maybe he didn’t mind if they turned out greedy, small minded and materialistic. Or maybe he thought her efforts would backfire, and drive Molly and Ted into careers as arms dealers or opium smugglers. Maybe they were just the wrong children. Maybe Malcolm wasn’t the noble-spirited, decent person she’d always assumed. She didn’t like the implications of that, at all.

Or maybe the three of them were right, and Soren was wrong, and all her attempts to be a better person were sad and stupid, a puny finger in a dyke fighting the tidal wave of human history.

Iris looked at Molly, and found herself thinking of Sammy. Sammy, with her friendly openness, her mad, home-made clothes, her casual affection for goats and cabbages. Sammy wasn’t sad, or stupid. Surely Molly would be happier with a bit of whatever Sammy had?

Don’t give up yet, Iris. Where’s that breastplate?

‘Look, can we just lose the negativity and try this? I’ve got lots more. How about building an astronomical mobile for your room? It would look lovely, and if we put in all the planets and their moons it would take ages.’

Ted’s face lit up with a sudden epiphany.  ‘Is it things that take ages Mum? I know I know, how about when you made those Chinese dumplings for when your friends came over for lunch, and they were too small and the filling was too big, and we had to start over, and then…’

Iris didn’t enormously want to be reminded of the dumplings. ‘It’s not necessarily only that they take a long time – there’s no more chocolate Molly, you needn’t bother looking – it’s, well it’s especially things that aren’t screen-based, you know, computers and such.’
‘Oh, so I’m supposed to do my mocks with a slate and an abacus am I? “I’m sorry I got like, zero percent but my Mum’s a raving nutter and she threw away my computer and my calculator” ‘.
‘Don’t talk to your mother like that, Molly.’
‘Well somebody has to. I’ve had it with this, if I’m going to be awake all night guarding my computer from my psycho mother, I might as well be lying down.’

She pushed out her chair so hard it banged onto the floor, and stomped upstairs on ten inch crepe wedges. Malcolm headed back to the sink.

‘That went well.’

‘No thanks to you. What happened to solidarity in front of the children?’

Ted was still there, furtively licking the chocolate wrapper, but she was too outraged to care.

‘Any agreements between us on that front are rendered void by insanity. Next time you want support for a Luddite insurrection, you might want to consult me in advance.’
‘You’re the one who’s always going on about them being addicted to their computers, and – I just thought we could return to happier times. You know, like the Victorians making their own entertainment round the fireside…’
‘The Victorians sent nine year old children up chimneys filled with soot. Speaking of which, isn’t it bath time?’

For the first time that evening, Ted was authentically enthusiastic.

‘Hey, I’ve got one, not having baths! Mum can we stop having baths, that will save lots of energy won’t it? Can we stop right now?’

Iris glanced nervously at Malcolm before whispering as she ushered him upstairs: ‘You’d better have one tonight, but we’ll see about tomorrow. Come on, we can make it a quick one, as it’s so late.’

 …buy Mrs Normal’s previous books right here….