It’s a Scorcher!

At the time of writing, the U.S. is not alone in suffering from excessive heat. It’s much the same over the water, where British newspapers are dusting off the traditional headline “It’s A Scorcher!”, complete with photos of people paddling in the Trafalgar Square fountains or shots of beaches packed pale shoulder to shoulder from the promenade to the shallows. So while this is a story of childhood in northeast England told before, it may be worth repeating.

One week-day during the summer holidays while the adults were at work, it started to get really warm not long after we’d spooned down our milk-mushy Weetabix breakfast. By dinner time it must have been in the low 70*s, because we reckoned it hot enough to have the calamine lotion bottle on standby for the anticipated bad cases of sunburn and kept sniffing the milk bottle to detect any suspicious aroma, the presence of which would mean anyone adding milk to their evening cup of tea would see lumps rising to its surface even if the bottle had been kept in a bucket of cold water all way — our version of a fridge.

Keeping cool in an industrial atmosphere heavy with smoke and grit and chemicals in a city where air conditioners were not so much unknown as undreamt of was a serious business. Once you’ve thrown up the sash windows to let in stray breezes, what else can you do? Eventually, having tired of throwing cold water on our faces and subsequently mopping up the flooded scullery floor, my younger sister and I were suddenly inspired. Indeed, one could say perspiration was the mother of invention.

Bear in mind this particular dwelling had no indoor plumbing except a cold tap in the scullery. Hot water was dispensed in small quantities from a wall-mounted gas-heated geyser although if larger amounts were required, a metal bucket was pressed into service to boil whatever was needed on the cooker. However, and it was perfect for our plan, we lived in an upstairs flat whose back door opened to a precipitous flight of outdoor steps leading down into our back yard.

So what we did was gather together several common household items from which we handily constructed a nifty outdoor shower. It was a good example of makeshift engineering, formed by suspending a colander by three pieces of equi-spaced string from the handle of a broom. The bristle end of the broom was firmly tied with a skipping rope to the railing at the top of the stairs, placed as to jut out over the yard below. Then a hosepipe was attached to the cold tap in the scullery, the sink being placed only a few steps away from the back door, and the other end of the hosepipe tied into the colander — although a close eye had to be kept on it as well as the kitchen tap since both ends had a tendency to slip out of their allotted place.

I now wonder why we happened to even have a hosepipe, given there were no gardens to water around our way and nobody owned a car or anything else that would occasionally need to be washed down. In any event, once the contraption was in place, having put on our prickly black wool one-piece swimming suits and rubber bathing hats, we took turns to stand under the cooling sprays of water coming down through the colander holes while the other sibling kept a close eye on operations.

It worked pretty well, all in all, not to mention the concreted back yard got a good wash down as well.

Nowadays swimming pools, water parks, and visits to rivers, coasts, and islands are very popular and attract thousands of holidaymakers. Bearing that in mind perhaps we should consider patenting Reed’s Miniature Portable Cooling System, which could be marketed with that wonderfully attractive slogan “No batteries required”. Even better, if its purchasers grew tired of standing around getting wet, they could press its various components — broom, colander, string, skipping rope, and hosepipe — into their usual everyday uses around the household and garden. Talk about frugal!

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

6 Responses to It’s a Scorcher!

  1. I think your and Jeff’s attempts to create skates or skate boards are not unrelated to your being writers. There was no quick trip to Toys ‘r Us with indulgent grandparents. So you had to use your imaginations in ways the last two generations have not had to.

    Desperate at the last minute for a topic to assign students, I took one from their text, which I hardly ever did. They had to compare/contrast radio and TV shows (yes, there were radio shows then). I swear this is the truth. Several said that the ADVANTAGE of TV was that you didn’t have to use your imagination.

  2. My favorite school story came from my father. The boys had all gathered around the second story window in the schoolhouse. They just built wings and were ready for the maiden flight. They fell to quarrelling over who should get to make the first trip. Till Booth won and said “don’t worry boys, I’ll just circle the schoolyard once and come right back.” They had been afraid he would fly off and never give them a chance.

  3. Memoirs are very popular these days, Mary. When you get past tenfer, you should collect your blogs and start your own. You have the incidents, you have the language. And you do a great job creating a scene.

    In New York kids open the fire hydrants to splash around in the water. This is of course illegal.

    My father grew up on the east side of downtown New York, where many immigrant families settled (he was born in the U.S.) He and his brothers would sleep on the fire escapes to get some air during scorchers.

    That part of New York has been the site of many bargain stores, which grew out of pushcarts. My mother, my daughter, and I used to go down to the lower east side to shop. And then we would go to what is called Little Italy to have pastry and cappuccino at a still famous bakery and cafe. My father was always puzzled by our sojourns. He spent so much of his life getting us out of such neighborhoods and here we were visiting them as tourists.

    • Strange to relate, Barbara, I was just thinking the other day about a photo I had seen a while ago of a family sleeping on the fire escape “landing” outside their window! We do not have air conditioning so rely on fans, but as I observed to Eric the other day, it’s pretty bad to be sure but some poor souls do not even have fans.

  4. What a wonderful image of your days making do, Mary. May we never forget our own. What immediately came to my mind were the scooters (called “gigs”) precursors to skate boards we constructed out of a two to three foot long 2×4, an orange or apple crate, a single roller skate–the sort that separated into halves–and the caps off bottles of pop (for those not from Pittsburgh, “pop” is “soda pop”). We nailed the skate to the 2×4, half on either end of the board, nailed the orange crate to the end of the 2×4 at the front of the skate, and decorated the result with pop caps. In those days fruits and vegetables generally arrived by rail from California and Florida packed in wooden crates, and with my father in the fruit business, my buddies and I had the inside track on some of the sleekest crates in the neighborhood…

    • What memories you conjure up, Jeff! I abandoned the attempt to attach roller skates to a metal tea tray, but the tray came in handy for coasting down our steep stairs sans skates.
      That we got through life without broken limbs is a wonder to this day! However, while the tea tray experiment failed, there is photographic evidence of the bed on skates which I and several friends pushed around the town collecting money for charity one Saturday in the old country. …

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