The sun attempts to rise while Frank addresses the squash bottles, summoning the troops, by flavoured rank – Orange, Lemon and Lime, Summer Fruits – then as an assembly. They obediently soak his daily pep-talk into their juices, take the buzzing babbles and animated cap taps dutifully into their days ahead. Sometimes, if he sees them inactive on a shelf, sluggishly stewing in their own sugars, he’ll give them a little wave, as if to say “hello, I am here, and I’m watching you.”
I prize out the odd jabber, ‘Mumma’ or ‘Dadda’, and like a paranoid party-head I’m thinking, what are you telling them about us? Translating Frank’s linguistics and their etymology is a code we only crack away at word by phrase, before he switches it up again. “Awa,” is the answer to many things. Whilst being advanced in dexterity and progressive in mountaineering, dialogue has taken a backseat but only in conversation that we can understand. He chats away to those squash bottles in full dynamic sentences, as if he’s retelling in detail the plot of Macbeth or explaining all the reasons why Boris is a grade-A bobblehead.
Funny Bear is in on it too, as Frank passes his secrets into those fluffy used-to-be-white ears and they crack each other up, giggles that vibrate their tiny bodies, huge gappy-toothed grins with snot bubbles and spit. Frank always shares with Funny Bear, such a thoughtful little funny bear himself and then they’ll laugh again and I demand to know the joke. Frank explains, using the entire range of pitch and expression, but what I suspect he’s saying is something like, “Oh you wouldn’t understand mum. You’re too old!”
When we were young my Nan, Brummie biscuit-factory worker, with neither the chance or privilege of an education, wrote a story (among many things) and recorded it onto cassette tape for my brother and I, called “Sugar and Spice”. Sugar was a shallow, syrupy little sugar-shaker who had a high pitch and an entitled attitude (my Nan did all the voices, embedded in my memory). Spice was a gruffer, laddie spice-shaker who was brave but sensible, and ended up saving silly Sugar from falling into a pie. The cast of that piece was the complete set of condiments, from Mustard to Pickles, and I can still see so clearly each of their tiny faces poking through the cupboard doors.
I was that girl in Wonderland, just as my Nan was before me, deep inside imaginary worlds full of friends who weren’t formed with a skeleton, because sloshing colourful insides were just as good criteria. Stories have continually ticked through me, something in my blood perhaps, so many different things to be and do that the normal realm seems grey beside it. I have always preferred the colour of Wonderland.
Now, still, I often feel stuck behind the looking glass, detached from ‘real life’, regularly hauled up inside my head. But I’d rather see the world like this, like Frank. To crawl back out of the shit and heartbreak and disease and LBC hysteria, just for a couple of hours, to get back to something simpler, untouched or damaged by life and overthinking. Writing is living again, creating the world you want to be in, cooking dinner for three kids in a cramped back-to-back Midlands house where the Spice and Sugar shakers have an adventure.
We shape worlds, in our minds and sitting rooms, construct castles in galaxies where pirates live with servants who are eggs. Where cars fly and horses queue up to enter expansive Duplo kingdoms. There is so much more possibility here. I am excited for blanket forts, soft toy tea parties and cities that curve around the sofa arm. (Please don’t let all this be on a screen.) Everyone loves escapism, we need it and this validates my purpose for writing. A part of me, as completely nuts as it would be, wants Frank to never stop talking to squash bottles.