A cupboard of my own
At the start of the 1960s, my parents bought a corner shop and moved into the house above it with their five children. Ten years later, I, the accidental sixth, was born. By the time I was 9, my brother and sisters had grown up and either temporarily or permanently moved out, leaving behind them a museum of abandoned items. Cluttering every shelf and corner were forgotten cardigans, orphaned dolls, discarded purses and grayscale strips of pouting photo-booth faces.
My parents had their own sprawling archives, of their lives together and of the lives they had left behind in Ireland before their migration to England: photographs of fearsome-looking sweethearts, songbooks, dance invitations and Mass cards. Added to all this was the shop’s stock and the worthless junk sold to my father by the previous owner — birthday cards from the 1930s, boxes of sealing wax and, for no reason ever made clear to me, many glass taxidermy cases.
Perhaps some children grow up feeling themselves to be the center of the universe, but the physical evidence around me made clear that even in my own house, I was a very tiny, late-arriving drop in the vast ocean of other people’s lives and their shoes.
So it was with both surprise and delight that I discovered, around that time, some virgin territory in the house: an uncolonized cupboard. In the corner of the kitchen, behind the stool where I ate my meals, was a built-in larder — that most despised of attributes in the wipe-clean plastic 1970s: an “original Victorian feature.” I wasted no time in moving in some toys. There was John the poodle; a nameless teddy with no ears and cross-stitches for eyes; a small hard black cat that wasn’t much fun; and a rag doll called Marsha. In my mind Marsha was American — a floppy-limbed hybrid of Nichelle Nichols and Valerie Harper. Marsha was futuristic, streetwise and highly fashionable. She was my favorite doll and regular dining companion.
For most of his life, my dad was not a handyman. He possessed no power tools and showed no interest in asserting his masculinity in such a way. He was comfortable in his slacks and suede-elbowed cardigans; resigned, when necessary, to paying a few quid to his largely inept mates from the pub to botch any building jobs around the house. But this sedentary phase of his life came to an end with the arrival, in the 1970s, of the big D.I.Y. retail barns and their revolutionary democratization of home improvement, their seditious ethos that anyone could do simple jobs around the house and — most persuasive of all to my dad — their promise of great financial savings. When the time came to redecorate the kitchen, he, like many other men of the time, fell prey to the discrete charms of wood-effect wall paneling, finding himself implausibly excited by the possibilities offered by big sheets of hard plastic covered in images of sawed timber.
One afternoon, I returned home from school to find a kitchen profoundly changed from the one in which I had eaten my Rice Krispies that morning. The table was still where it had been, my mom was in her usual place at the cooker, my dad was hammering in the corner, but the room around us was smaller and resembled a tree house. I walked over to my toy cupboard, but there was no cupboard there. I remember trying to find the handle, stupidly running my hand up and down the smooth paneling. It transpired that my father’s awareness of his own limitations as a handyman meant that he had not attempted to cut his panels around the built-in cupboard, but had rather boarded over it — a straightforward, if unsophisticated solution. I don’t know how long it took before this became, or was made clear to me but it led directly to the obvious question:
“The toys that were in the cupboard.”
My dad said, “Sure, there was nothing in there but some old rubbish.”
My mom said, “You have toys scattered all over the house.”
In years to come I’d sit on my stool in the corner, eat my fish fingers and try and lose myself in Cheeky Weekly, but my thoughts would often turn to Marsha and the others entombed just a few inches behind me. I imagined them lying in the dark, hearing muffled voices from the other side. I hoped they hadn’t been scared when they’d first heard the hammering. I hoped Marsha had taken control. Maybe she’d found an escape route and was off in the world leading a fashionable and exciting life. I could never quite convince myself of that, though, and in time I found it easier to forget the cupboard and pretend that the wood-effect walls were real and solid and had always been there.