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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not the colour purple

It's funny where a sequence of thoughts can lead. A friend was saying how she thought a particular colour was puce; one I took to be khaki. 

   Quite a difference, you must admit. I had no doubt about the colour of puce, because of an incident that took place when I couldn't have been older than six.

   My mother was helping me in the bathroom with buttons on a new shirt – you know how tight the buttonholes on new shirts can be  when we heard a crash, the sound of which I'd not heard before in my short life, nor ever heard since.

   It was the explosive sound of a tall cabinet crashing to the floor with nearly every piece of crockery in it being smashed simultaneously.

   My baby sister, Kay, was a crawler at the time. No, a better description is a “wriggler”. She didn't exactly crawl; she wriggled along the lino on the uneven kitchen floor like well... a worm. In fact, Dad called her that  “Worm”. 

   She liked it when Dad did, but no-one else was given the privilege. They got a tongue-lashing from a less-than-one-year old who had a surprisingly large vocabulary. Some of its more colourful tinges she had learned by illicitly eavesdropping on Dad, and he tried to encourage her to unlearn them before she startled her mother.

   Fat chance of that. Unlike the Bourbons, she learned everything and forgot nothing, and knew just when to drop a new expletive into the dinnertime conversation.

   She had her own wicked streak, and on this occasion she thought it would be great fun to grab my sister Lyn by the ankles as she was putting away the cutlery. She was quite good at silently ambushing from behind.

   Thus it came to pass that Lyn found herself tackled like a rugby player, with nothing to save her but the knob on the cutlery drawer – one which, sad to relate, had been a temporary stuck-on job using Tarzan’s Grip. And like many temporary fixes in our home, it had acquired a degree of permanence that was neither intended nor desirable, regardless of the admirable adhesive qualities of Tarzan's Grip.

   The knob lost its permanent status the moment when Lyn, under sibling podiatrical attack, attempted to use it as an emergency hand-hold. Sadly, in the process, the tall, solid cabinet, unbeautiful in appearance but highly serviceable, began its descent.

   Apart from Lyn’s desperate effort to save herself, the floor’s unevenness was the cabinet’s reason for its downward journey, and it may have been in a precarious state of imbalance for ages. As well, it was somewhat overloaded at the top, containing, as it did, enough crockery for six perpetually hungry mouths. 

   Lyn jumped backward, taking Kay with her, clinging like a leech rather than a worm, which unlike the leech has no capacity for clinging to the human body.

   Kay’s steely grip was just as well, given that there was a fair chance that the descending cabinet would have crushed her little skull and its entire vocabulary like a passionfruit. Incidentally, I don't mean the little wild passionfruit that grew amongst the bougainvillea. The latter had thorns like No. 6 fish-hooks that we’d brave by crawling under to get those wild pashies. They were as hard as golf balls and you had to crack them with a hammer. I was comparing Kay's skull with the regular passionfruit. Now where was I?

   Oh yes. The descent of the cabinet. As described by Lyn in an email I received this morning:
It contained the dinner set that had been Grannie Wright's, and all that was left was the large platter.
   No-one was deemed to be at fault, although Lyn was greatly frightened that she would be in serious trouble for the devastation she felt she had wrought. Kay was later instructed as to the unwisdom of her little frolic, and she was so frightened by the sound of smashing china just centimetres from her little ears that she was only slightly insulted by the lectures she got consecutively from our parents about bringing anyone down in the presence of large cabinets which might become involved in her game.

   Happy as we were to share, family democracy decreed that Grannie’s large platter was insufficient for the family's crockery requirements, probably because there was a fear by my siblings that I would appropriate far more than my share at every meal. This was a true if unkind observation, and because I was not earning my keep at that stage by milking cows, the matter of a dinner set of some description was deemed a priority.

   Dad was the only one who could drive our first ever new car at that stage, so he set off for Gladstone to buy a replacement set – brand new from Friends Department Store, of course. You don't think we’d settle for less, surely? We were proud farming folk and we bought nothing second hand. Either it came from a shop out of a box from the manufacturer, or we did without it till we could pay for it. Right?

   Mum was a little concerned, not completely trusting my father’s ability in crockery aesthetics, but he had the car-keys and she didn’t. We needed crockery and whatever he bought would be it full stop. All she said just after he left on the expedition was, “Just as long as he doesn't come home with anything puce pink....”

   Puce may have been Marie-Antoinette’s favourite colour, but it wasn’t Mum's, and I inherited a distaste for the colour ever since.

   In the fullness of time, as bad story-tellers and shonky British Prime Ministers say, Dad returned, beaming, triumphant. We were crockeried once more. Out from the tissue wrappers in the carton from Friends Department Store came the dinner-plates.

   These would be, and were, the plates we had until my dad died. They were adorned by large flowers with dark green stems, nicely painted, aesthetically arranged.

They were, needless to say, the pucest of puce pink.

Addendum: and here, thanks to my sister Jan for her wisdom in keeping it, is one of the bread and butter plates from Dad's choice. Magnolias. They weren't so bad, really.


  1. I laughed, because well, puce is one of my favourite colours.I ' m sure you were all pretty horrified at the near disaster...or were you??

    1. On the farm, anything could happen, so a couple of near-misses with certain death were all in a day's fun!

      Thanks, Briar.

  2. Puce is onomatopoeic or, if not, then quite descriptive of my reaction to its over-use. It's also the French word for flea, so perhaps assisted in The Black Death or Plague - which also seems appropriate. I don't like puce, but I enjoyed your story :)


    1. I agree with you that it's onomatopoeic – I've always thought so – practically a term of disparagement about an unpleasant colour. Yet it's obviously not – it's no more than a variation on shades of the colour wheel.

      To me it is just another illustration of how deeply we're influenced by the prejudices of our kin.

  3. What happened to the new plates? If that picture of a detail is anything to go by, they were beautiful, (I'm still shuddering at the thought of potentially crushed child, as we had a not dissimilar incident involving a cupboard and our youngest, in the hands of incompetent babysitters)

    1. You've rightly discerned, with your acutely discerning eye, this belongs to a particularly fine piece of crockery. The crockery Dad brought home was a utility set from 50+ years ago, and after that much use and replacement by ones which appealed more to my mother [a fine pottery and porcelain painter and teacher of the art herself once the farm was sold] was reduced to one piece, wisely kept for posterity by my sister Jan. This morning she sent me a photo, bless her, of the last piece of the crockery Dad brought home. I'm going to include it in the story when I resize the image.

    2. PS I was using it simply to illustrate what I believe to be the closest colour to puce. In practice, there's not much point, because the screen on every device will make the colour look exactly as it chooses!

  4. Loved the story Denis - what a close shave. And it reminded me that the accommodation provided for my first overseas job, in PNG, had puce interior paintwork, throughout. I wrote home and said I was surrounded in puke pink!

    1. I think that's the fate of puce - in English anyway, though I think it's the same in French - to be associated with 'puke'. At least your PNG accommodation was memorable for something!

  5. Greetings from Wangaratta - I look forward to seeing the sole survivor

  6. A very nice plate (for puce), but what intrepid little girls your sisters were! As well as a lovely one who saves family history. Anne P

    1. Yes, that makes all three. Each in her own way went on her own different pathway, but we never stopped being close.

  7. Reading this is like watching a movie in my mind, so vivid are the images.
    It reminds me of a similar instance in 1990 my four sons and I were travelling around Australia for a year.

    We called into the family farm near Pambula (place of my birth) to see my Aunt Janet who was then in her 70's. Just as I collect tea-towels in my travels (nb - unbreakable), so Aunt Janet collects bells (nb - breakable!)

    How foolish of me to take four young boys, 7-14 years old, who'd been cooped up for a thousand kilometres, to visit an ageing, widowed Aunt in her quiet, ordered old farm house.

    Of course, when I was in the kitchen helping my beloved Aunt, some gentle shinnanigans ensued in the living room, which, I believe, involved some giggling and leaping. Unfortunately, the sweetest of all boys and most able in the leaping stakes, 10 year old Joshua, caught his heel on the highly polished, many-tiered, but slightly wobbly walnut corner display cabinet containing a few hundred exquisite bells from all around the world.

    The crash made a beautiful sound.

    My Aunt's distress did not.


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