Is there something strange about your family?
I guess most people have some odd item hanging around in the back of their mind to make their family experience rather different to everyone else they know. I certainly do—I suppose I have rather a lot, now I come to think of it. Strange stuff pops to mind, like Dad making mother a butter churn. Not so odd perhaps, until you learn that the churn was a wooden contrivance exactly the correct size to accept a medium-sized Kilner jar. Mother was expected to place the ingredients into the jar, insert it into the churn, and turn the handle until butter was produced. I have no recollection of her ever having done this, and I’m sure I would have because the jar banged noisily backwards and forwards in the churn while Dad was eagerly demonstrating it for her.
A clever man, Dad made me a trolley, or down-hill racer, or whatever else you want to call it, using the wheels from an old pram. Being clever he also contrived a way of using the springs from the pram so that I had a wonderful trolley flourishing the only sprung seat in the village. This made me the subject of quite some criticism. A family didn’t have to be much different to be regarded with suspicion by the rest of the village.
Dad, always short of money, taught himself how to install electrical wiring in houses—the time was back in the days when homes were making the transition from gas-lighting to electricity. The new energy supply wasn’t well understood. Dad told us how, when he’d set up the lighting circuits in a farmhouse, he suggested the farmer might buy some light globes to enjoy the new supply, and that he’d be back to finish the job with power to other services in a couple of days. When Dad arrived, the farmer told him he’d had no time to buy lights, but he’d fitted corks in each of the light fittings ‘so none could get out’.
In the course of his work installing electrical fittings, Dad crawled around in attics, where he encountered all kinds of unusual and often unwanted items. Sometimes, with just a few words, he was able to make off with the most interesting junk. And one day he brought home a device that could be described as the epitome of Britishness. It was a Goblin Teasmade.
Quite simply, a Teasmade is a machine combining an alarm clock, a kettle, a teapot and a light. When primed with water and teabags, it arranges for the user to be woken up with light and noise to a pot of fresh-brewed tea.
Obviously Dad thought it was a wonderful device. Unfortunately his enthusiasm wasn’t shared by Mother, who had an aversion to anything she regarded as unusual. She’d had a number of adventures with a pressure cooker Dad had bought her, because she refused to accept that it really could cook vegetables in such an incredibly short period of time. The association between Mother and the pressure cooker reached its nadir when she decided not to wait for the porridge to cool and lifted off the pressure valve. The ceiling was coated with porridge and thereafter the thing was only ever used to boil various foods into oblivion.
The outcome in terms of the Teasmade was that it was only brought out on one day of the year.
Don’t ask me why. And please don’t ask me why Dad set it up where he set it up. There was a large Murphy black and white television in one corner of the room—a cumbrous wooden box complete with castors. For reasons unknown to me, Dad set the Teasmade down on the carpet in front of the television and adjusted the timer so that the tea would be made exactly at the same time as the Christmas Eve film finished—about ten in the evening.
It sounds quite reasonable—until you know how a Teasmade worked in those days. A few minutes before the time for the alarm to buzz and the lights go on, the kettle’s turned on and the water heats. The kettle is a pressure vessel and the idea is that, when the water boils, it’ll be forced through the spout of the kettle and into the teapot to brew the tea. The teapot and kettle sit on a little see-saw arrangement. When the kettle’s full of water, that side of the see-saw’s down. When the water gets pushed into the teapot, it becomes heavier and the see-saw tilts, turning on the lights and switching on the buzzer. A little crude and mechanical in these days of microchips, but it worked.
Unfortunately, the kettle, being a pressure vessel, had a safety valve—rather like a pressure cooker—and when the water heated up a gentle fan of steam began to erupt. Directly in front of the television screen.
On Christmas Eve the most popular film was a cowboy classic called ‘Stagecoach’. John Wayne battled innumerable Indians for quite some time, and no matter how many times the family watched the film, it was still exciting. However the combination of the tension of the film and the tension of the Teasmade’s imminent announcement was far too much for Mother. From the moment the first tiny tendril of steam emerged from the safety valve on the kettle her attention centred on the machine, only flicking briefly to the cowboy king and his brave antics.
As the pressure built up and the steam-jet became stronger, more obvious across the screen, Mother began to writhe in her seat, her hands wringing at the chair arms. Eventually the water boiled and it could be clearly heard as it poured into the teapot, which dutifully sank down on the see-saw.
And this was, as they say, when the shit hit the fan. It wouldn’t have been so bad if, when the lights turned on, the Teasmade produced a ‘ping-pong’ noise such as is made on aircraft when they want you to fasten your safety belts. But the Teasmade made an awful braying noise, ‘Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!’, as though a German submarine was about to crash-dive.
And the light came on, too. No matter how much Mother knew this was going to happen, it always took her to extremes of surprise. I’ve seen whole dishes of sugared almonds launched against the ceiling as she’s reared from her chair in terror—salted peanuts and slivers of apple, handkerchiefs, almost empty teacups complete with saucer bouncing gaily across the carpet.
Why, you may ask, did Dad persist with the Teasmade? Because he’s stubborn.