When you are growing up, you notice how your parents have odd stuff. And by odd, I don’t mean a British policeman’s helmet made out of pink leather, or a taxidermied weasel wearing a tuxedo. I mean odd in the way that it is the only one of its kind. Mugs and teacups, notably. Your parents might have six mugs in the kitchen cupboard, but they are all different sizes and shapes. They’re odd. They are heterogenous. And when you’re young, you wonder why they decided to buy so many odd mugs, and if your home is very designed or co-ordinated, you notice this odd collection all the more. Why not just buy a set of mugs from the start? Why not replace this motley crue with a nice new set? Everything is so higgeldy piggeldy, you’d think. And whilst some are functional and dull, and others are clearly quite definitely odd (a ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ mug, as example), it is only when you are older that you realise that some of them aren’t odd at all. Far from it. They’re just the last remaining ones from a set, and your parents have, at one time or another, petitioned for their pardon from the box of things to give away, or saved for sake of love or memory. The last one of four, or the last one of the set of six. Whilst the actual one-offs stand out as obvious keep sakes and gifts, the ones that are, at first glance, seemingly simply odd, are usually so much more.
The mug with the picture of a penguin on it was not bought on its own. Not a chance. Who would buy one penguin mug? It was one of three, a present when your parents moved into the flat in Camden after making two trips down from Leeds with all their stuff, badly packed, rain pushing the old red Mini your Mum used to have for four hours to London. Your Grandad had bought her the car for her thirty-second birthday, exactly two years and two months before you were born. The moving in present of three mugs – one of a penguin, one of a polar bear and one of an igloo – was from a friend your Mum had lived with at University, a woman called Shonette. Shonette with the smile that made the rest of the room smile, Shonette who helped your Mum pass her exams by making her study when all your Mum wanted to do was party. She would joke that your Mum and Dad would miss the cold of the North, and the mugs would remind them of it. The night they opened them, the three of them drunk wine from them instead of tea, and they painted the study, with no idea that one day it would be your nursery.
The red mug with the white interior, the red handle gone pink from too many washes, was one of eight that your Dad owned when he lived on his own after he left University. He would listen to King Curtis, drinking coffee after coffee from one of eight mugs the same, staying up late until late became early, watching old black and white horror movies. He would wonder what colour everything actually was in the movies. Was Frankenstein green or grey? He may have been prawn pink for all he knew. Sometimes he’d read books by Milan Kundera and Albert Camus, and others he would have a girl stay over, and sometimes he’d look after his friend’s dog and the two of them would watch the old horror movies together. He wondered once if the dog was wondering what colour he was, and he laughed, quite loudly, on his own. And as much as he loved your Mum, he fondly remembered those endless, happy days and nights of his own company. The red mug kept this near, at least until he forgot the purpose of keeping it, memories of Dracula and a dachsund called Pete succeeded by births and first words and a thousand happy mornings since.
The black hexagonal mug (of no remarkable design) that my Mum always drank out. The one that I brought home to live in my kitchen the week after she died.
And those mugs of memory nestle between the mundane magnolia mugs, functional and unannounced. Happy relics. Preserved sunshine. Exhibits, even, in the museum in the kitchen.