Sunday, 10 May 2009

Elephant Words - The Shaving Tackle Box

By Matthew Hartwell, Attribution: Non-commercial. No derivative works 3.0 unported

(The above image was uploaded to the Elephant Words site on Sunday 3rd May 2009)

Elephant Words
is a burst-culture website, featuring daily fiction. Each Sunday, an image is posted. Over the following week, each of six authors takes their turn to write something inspired by that image. Visitors to the website are also encouraged to comment on the pictures and also, if they're inspired to write something to contribute. I saw the above picture during the week and was inspired to write the following so, with the encouragement and advice of Nick Papaconstantinou - to whom I'm extremely grateful, here it is!


Scroll back 46 years. It is a Sunday morning in 1963; I am 7 years old and I have a job! It is my job to balance on the side of the bath with my legs dangling, my feet almost touching the floor – but not quite, and unpack my father’s shaving tackle from its brown leather box. I am very careful because I know that razor blades can be very sharp indeed. First I hand the shaving brush to my Dad, then the razor which already has the blade in it – because I am not allowed to touch the blades. Then I pass him the styptic pencil. And my job – until he has finished shaving – is over.

I am now free to stand by the bathroom sink and watch him very carefully whilst he shaves which he does meticulously. I like watching him hold the skin taut on his face. It makes me giggle when he shaves underneath his nose and I giggle even more when he puts the thickly lathered shaving brush on the end of his nose so that he ends up with a white blob of foam where his nose should have been.

When the shaving ritual is completed, I resume my position on the edge of the bath and I am handed the damp shaving brush, the razor (which I am again VERY careful with) and finally the styptic pencil. I place everything neatly back in the brown leather box and press stud it closed again.

Now I am free again to watch my father rinse his face with very hot water and then very cold water. He pats his face dry and then splashes some aftershave on. And that aftershave is the very best smell in the whole world.

And if I put my mind to it, 46 years later – I can still smell it and it is STILL the very best smell in the whole world. It’s the smell of safety and security and has the faint whiff about it that no matter what, my Dad will make sure that everything in my world is all right.

Scroll forward to the new Millennium. It is January 2000 and my mother has just died. My father has come to stay with me, my husband and our then 2½ year old little boy.

My father doesn’t feel like smiling very much but it is a Sunday morning and he is in our bathroom, shaving. He has a helper. A little boy who is given a job to do. The little boy balances on the side of the bath with his legs dangling. A tattered, well-used brown leather box is placed on the closed toilet seat. The little boy is shown how to open the box and then asked by his Grandpa to first pass the shaving brush, then the razor - which he has to hold very carefully - because the blade is VERY sharp indeed, and finally the styptic pencil. The little boy then moves to the side of the bathroom sink and watches as his Grandpa holds the skin on his face very taut and moves the razor over the skin to get rid of all the prickly bits. I can hear giggling coming from the bathroom and go to investigate. A little boy is laughing because his Grandpa has just put his shaving brush on the end of his nose and he now has a blob of thick white foam where his nose should have been.

Shaving over and the little boy must complete his task. He is handed the shaving brush, the razor which he is again very careful with because he’s been told that the blade is VERY sharp indeed, and finally the styptic pencil. He’s shown where to place everything within the old leather box and enjoys pressing the stud to close it. And this will be his Sunday morning job while Grandpa is staying with us. It makes him smile. He hugs his Grandpa and his Grandpa smiles too.

Now we are back in the present. I look at a picture and with a sharp intake of breath I experience something akin to a physical pain. I see a brown leather box, a shaving brush and a razor and I am once again 7 years old and I can smell my father’s aftershave. I show the picture to my 11 year old, his head nods slightly and he says “Grandpa’s shaving box”. My 88 year old father comes round for dinner and we show him the picture. He looks at it and says to me “Can you remember when mine looked like that”?

I can.

I look at my father. I look at my son. And we all smile.


  1. The actual image page at Elephant Words that triggered off this lovely post is here:

    Just, you know, FYI.

    Thanks for writing this, Karen!

  2. It is extraordinary that, although nothing contained in this story bears any resemblance to any experience of my own, there are now tears rolling gently down my face.

    What an exquisitely poignant memoir and how beautifully interwoven with the present.

    It is a rare talent to be able to evoke such a reaction - if I were a film director I'd be very interested in having you work on screenplay.

    Thank you Karen - I love anyone who, and anything that, can make me laugh or cry and you have proved excellent at doing both!

  3. I have tears gently flowing down my cheeks. You write so movingly and fluidly that although my father would never have invited me into the bathroom to take part in such an intimate scene, I am utterly moved by it.

    You have captured so exactly the scene that I pictured it utterly in my head as I read. It was almost a visual scene rather than a literary one. As Linnet says above it has filmic qualities and you should try your hand to something more than this blog. Not that this blog is not amazing, insightful and very daring.

    Karen, you are my blogging heroine. If I could write like you I would never stop.

    Can I vote for you as a blogger of influence somewhere so that others can benefit from your insightful, gentle, generous, calm, profound, beautifully composed, moments of perfection?

    Thank you Karen. Thank you.

  4. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Talented cow.

  5. Wow, Karen.... I can only repeat what Stevyn said.... Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.... & a few tears welled, I can tell you... & reminds me of my own experience - at a similar age - with my favourite uncle whenever he used to come and stay with us.... Ah... memories... Thank you so much.

  6. Karen
    I don't know how I did not comment in 2009 when I starred this lovely story. It's just come in an RSS stream.
    So now I can make amends.
    I think this is a beautiful and touching story. I didn't provide such a good service to my Dad but I do remember watching him as he shaved. He died 5 years ago and would have been 99 this month. Your writing has triggered some wonderful memories of both my parents.
    Thank you.

  7. Bernard,
    Thank you so much for such a lovely comment. This is REALLY the sort of thing that I do so want to get back to writing but, of late, so much has been happening that writing time has been limited to say the least. "This TOO shall pass" and shall really have to make some time to let my fingers run free!

  8. Such a fine piece of writing and heart.

  9. Thank you Ken ... praise indeed from you whose writing I so admire. x