To the writers’ group in the evening. My exercise this time was about some childhood bathtime recollections triggered by a simple gesture. I read it out to my kids first, who grinned in recognition of what I was describing. Everybody this evening had similar recollections. It’s funny how these collective cultural experiences lie just below the surface – a bit like a bar of soap in the bathwater, actually. See ‘read more’ below for the exercise.
There were no hair driers at the Agritourismo, so without thinking I used a towel and my knuckles to rub my hair and scalp and suddenly I was back in the bathroom at Dukes Avenue on a Sunday evening with my father. These were bitter-sweet moments. Bitter, because the weekend was almost over and school would once again be upon me; sweet, because these were privileged moments with my father. We didn’t see much of him during the week. On Saturdays he was busy – shopping with my mother, decorating or building something. Sunday mornings were taken up with mass, and then there was Sunday lunch and (groan) in the afternoons, homework. But on Sunday evenings he was responsible for bath time. Now, when I see my son in the bath, I think back to my own childhood and remember doing exactly the same things. First of all, I’d fill the bath as full as possible, though not too full, because the hot water tank was quite small. I suppose this was to provide maximum buoyancy, but also to allow me to fantasise that I was in a sort of swimming pool. The first game was getting into the water when it was too hot. This was a challenge. A toe first and then, when my skin had acclimatised, a foot, and then an ankle and shin. This I’d repeat with the other foot. Then I had to sit down slowly, buttocks burning. Because my knees were bent, they seemed always to be the last part of my body to be submerged, and I liked the way, because of the surface tension, the water would roll up my skin as I gradually lowered them.
Then I would make waves. These inevitably went over the top, obliging me to scamper out of the bath and mop up the flood waters before they went through the floor boards and stained the ceiling below. I would float with my ears under the surface, and listen to all the different sounds, amplified by the water. I would turn over on my belly and hold my breath or open my eyes (no soap in the water yet). In due course, I would have to wash my hair. This I would do by submerging my head, then shampooing my hair, and then submerging my head again to rinse out the shampoo. I don’t believe I ever once throughout the whole of my childhood used the soap for what it was intended, but I did play games of hunt the bar of soap once the shampoo had rendered the water opaque.
Then, inevitably, would come the order to get out – ‘you’ve been in there far too long’. If my parents didn’t get too impatient, I would pull the plug and stay in the water until it had all drained out. This enabled me to stop a ring from appearing on the walls of the bathtub; for some reason – laziness, surely – I didn’t like rinsing the ring away after I’d got out. Alternatively, if I had to get out earlier, I used to test the weight of my limbs – because I had been floating my legs and arms always seemed terribly heavy as I lifted them out of the water and this fascinated me. Once out, I’d wrap the towel around me then play with the ‘whirlpool’ as the water went down the plughole. Then, when I was younger, my father would appear and take care of the drying. This consisted of a brisk rub-down through the towel – though he did it roughly, it was the closest we got to a moment of tenderness – and then he would dry my hair by putting a towel over my head and rubbing my scalp vigorously with his knuckles. The last element of the ritual was to check behind my ears and then to clean and dry them with a corner of the towel. And that is where I found myself on the Friday morning in an Agritourismo near to Lago di Como – back in the bathroom at Dukes Avenue on a Sunday evening.