The Looking Glass

John Sayles

© Copyright 2019 by John Sayles

Photo of a store window.

Keep regular, keep regular, keep regular seemed to be the mantra of early life while hanging over the nursery nurse lap as she pushed soap up the rear end. With or without a mirror, only imagination at work, not a pretty site. Quite unpleasant in fact, if there was ever a mirror to register the scene. There was me looking around at the brass fender giving protection from the fire’s warmth, but no looking glass to be seen, even if I knew what I was looking for, only a black and white rough, rag rug, stretching below my head. Very much a time of being upside down or crawling on hands and knees. More a site of smells, tactile experiences exploring new life. The place of soapy, dusty smelling rug on which to lay but glass or mirror not to be seen. At such a young age and in flannel nappies what was this mystical looking glass anyway? But I fancied bodily functions were more regular because over time less and less soap brought a warm hand from soap dish to my backside.

The opportunity to see a looking glass or larger mirror as a reflection of opportunity for different stages in life came a little later when having one’s bottom spanked with the back of a hairbrush for some long-forgotten misdemeanour. This hairbrush, now with a cracked handle, was the object of controversy with adults and some tears as they eyed me and then the damage done. It was, after all, part of a costly lovely, now ruined, set of turquoise enamel items used at the dressing table. Perhaps it was a wedding present as an antique investment.  When mother allowed me in her room, which was not often, I watched her examining her features with care before dashing off to meet friends. It was at this point that the importance of looking at one’s appearance manifested itself, the odd facial spot, runny nose or chapped, cracked winter lips could be examined with interest. This resemblance of life search became part of being regular in another sense in that one made an attempt to be seen as one wished to be seen by others.

With hindsight looking in a mirror brought back many youthful memories which might otherwise have been forgotten. For example, more recently, before deciding on style and length of beard a small scar across the bridge of an already broken nose brought childhood memories back into focus. The broken nose, the result of an eager but careless attempt to catch a cricket ball when not seen descending from out of the sun, smack right on the bridge of the nose, blood spouting and spectacles broken it two laying on the ground. Learning as a child can be a painful experience at times. But what of the little scar under the nose thought I peering into the bathroom mirror. How did it happen? Oh yes, I remember now. Sledging on Dunstable Downs with friends. Cold, chapped hands. In short knee length grey trousers. Exposed flesh especially the painful raw edge created by wind and driving snow that formed just above the top of wellington boots. Screaming, laughing, sliding down the slope using a piece of thin metal found abandoned nearby. Remember, it was wartime and toys like manufactured sleighs were unobtainable so tin trays or whatever could be adapted were used as part of our playing armoury. The tin sledge did not work well until I had bent the front edge up, a pal standing on the metal and me kicking up the edge. Whoopee, away again down the slope. The retrieved sledge caught by the wind swung up in to my face, the bent over edge smacking into the face.  The gash, the blood, looking far worse than it really was, put paid to sledging that day. Marked for life but quite forgotten until peering in the mirror of the bathroom’s warmth.

So with the winter day coming to a close and ebbing sun fading we trailed back to boarding school but not beaten, that was to come later. No, next weekend we would go back to Dunstable Downs for more fun, especially as we had heard soldiers banging away firing their mortars nearby.

Old enough to notice Matron looking in the mirror when passing or the occasional young lady at the bus stop opening her handbag to peep in a mirror registered. Was this the stirrings of a sense of romance? Hardly, more like an opportunity to supplement limited pocket money. Women were fashion hungry, eager for colour, especially silk and nylon unobtainable with clothing coupons but possible if one had the right friends. Older boys, where father was in the British Army, used to say the banter between troops was ‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’’ which meant little to us but more like a little earner for us lads. Of a weekend we would go on the Dunstable Downs, near to Whipsnade Zoo, and wait for the mortars to be fired as part of a regular practice exercise. The fired flares would burn bright suspended below small silk or nylon parachutes. These usually white or yellow in colour. With luck the updraft of air at the side of the Downs would send the parachutes drifting over our heads. Off we would go keeping up with the parachute hoping against hope that it would not be carried on over the zoo. By the time of landing we could grab the flare, detach the parachute knowing that all those ladies looking in mirrors could brighten their appearance by using the silk or nylon material for converting into clothing. Such ladies were eager to give us money for such treasure. Happy days!

Not such happy times when parading in the shower locker room was to see who was made a three-stroke sergeant for talking after lights-out resulting in three long blue/black bruises across the buttocks. Fellows peering over their shoulder to see the damage in nearby mirrors. What could one do, laugh or cry? Most laughed though some more sensitive cried and tried not be seen doing so when peering in the mirror. But reflections can be used to mark the passage of time. Perhaps some will remember comedian Harry Worth’s famous shop window routine as part of the opening credits to the T.V. “Harry Worth” show. So reflections can bring sadness or joy depending very much as to how we see life reflected at any one time. Next time you’re in a busy shopping street take a minute to watch the reaction of people passing many a shop window, a touch of the hair, a smile, adjustment of a hat or tie. Most people seem to enjoy what they see reflected, be it a looking glass, mirror or some other form of reflection.

Then sadness, perhaps with dignity, as with time, little can be changed as one notices wrinkles or greying of hair. Gone are the days when one avoided reflection by draping black cloth over mirrors or pictures to mark the final passing of life in one’s home. Instead, with approaching old age one sees new reflections in facing new life challenges and retaining a positive view of life.

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