When I was a girl, about four or five years old, my parents would leave me with a lady called Mrs Mook. She was a big lady; strong as an ox. She had great, wide hips and salt and pepper hair that had been set in pink, heated rollers. She wore slippers for wide feet and paisley, patterned polyester dresses. I liked it when Mum and Dad couldn’t pick me up before tea time. I liked sitting at her Formica table and eating beef in little squares with sweet, tinned peas and grey-vy.
Mrs Mook had the most extensive collection of porcelain I have ever seen. As we had a cuppa in the living room, Mother would raise her cup to her lips, believing it to be a greater shield than it truly was, and utter in harsh, hushed tones ‘Don’t touch,’ before measuredly sipping her tea and eliciting a demure smile as she lowered her cup.
The boy with balloons was my favourite ornament. He stood nearest to me on the left of the dark wood mantelpiece. The balloons were so appealingly edible and fruit-like with their shiny, glazed spheres. I just wanted to pick one and eat it and feel it crunch in my molars like a pear drop. But I did not. I was keenly observed.
I was excruciatingly restrained, sitting on my hands lest they lose control and propel my child’s body up from my chair. They might fling me into the glass cabinet sending plates and coveted tea sets crashing to the floor, before dragging me across to the fireplace. My wayward left hand might lift my arm and force it in one neat line all the way down the mantelpiece decapitating the blue and white bonneted shepherdess with the upturned fingers, massacring the promenading Victorian couple, slaughtering the proud Dalmatian dog and finally murdering the boy with the balloons in one foul swoop with a crash and a smash into smithereens.
The shepherdess’s head would roll casually along the floor till it reached Mrs Mook’s slippered toe where it would rock gently and come to rest with a delicate nose, pressed between a rubber sole and worn carpet. The pink balloon would break free from the others and rather than float away to the boundless sky, it would land with a sure thud and nestle by my chair leg. My unruly hand might take the charlatan strawberry sherbet and conspire with my guileless mouth which, overcome by temptation and fateful opportunity, will weaken and allow wicked, tiny fingers to prise its lips apart just enough to gleefully pop the pink balloon onto my insatiable tongue.
I must sit on my hands.
I wonder where the porcelain boy is now and whether his knuckles are still white because he has been clutching china balloons for his entire life.