The story of a kitchen knife and razor sharp memories - Euan McColm

The snow lay thick across Glasgow in January 1979. A heavy sparkling blanket concealed the filth of the city and made the world look magical, like Narnia in the book I was reading.

I’ve been transported in my mind back to those days, recently. My memories, refreshed, are vivid: the snowman my sister and I built in the front garden; the time Midge, our runt-of-the-litter black Labrador disappeared into the lawn when she leapt from the front step; the way my grandfather’s car slid across the road after he collected us - Mum, my sister, Midge and me - in the dead of night after my father had passed out.

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An explosion of violence had changed everything. As my ninth birthday approached, I found myself living with my grandparents in a creepy old mansion in Lanarkshire.

Moving house stirs up many memories. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty
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The landladies - two spinster sisters who lived upstairs - terrified me. The house - its walls draped with the grotesque puppets the sisters had used during their theatrical careers - scared me more.

Caldergrove House had been an auxiliary hospital during the First World War. One of the rooms in the basement was full of old metal bed frames which had filled the living spaces when they became wards. Some nights, I’d hear them rattle below me and pull the covers over my head.

My grandmother, Lena, gave up her job as an interviewer with the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in order to look after me and my sister while my mother found work and began saving the deposit for a house.

Each day, after collecting us from our new school, Lena would prepare our tea while my sister and I sat at the kitchen table. The ritual was always the same: she would start by sharpening a wooden-handled kitchen knife that had belonged to her mother. Years of this process had worn away the belly of the blade, rendering it wisp-thin.

ferret ornament

I’d watch, fascinated, as Lena swished the knife across the sharpening stone. I’d hope - in vain - to see sparks fly.

Forty-three years later, I find myself settling into another new home. After some years in Edinburgh, I’m back in Glasgow, the city of my birth.

Unpacking has been a long, slow process. Not only does my flat contain my share of the contents of the Edinburgh place, I’ve also had to find space for the contents of a large storage unit in which my late mother had deposited several boxes of items that had belonged to my grandparents.

I’ve inherited some beautiful things. The green art-deco coffee set that sat in a display unit in the hall of the Clydebank tower block to which my grandparents retired is now mine. It’s worth nothing in financial terms but also far too precious for me to actually use.

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I’ve inherited some awful tat, too. My heart sank when a sealed box fell to the floor last week and I heard what sounded like shattering glass. On cutting away the tape, I found the decision on what to do with some unbearably twee ornaments had been made for me. The remains of a china ferret wearing a bolero jacket now rest in the municipal tip.

Regardless of their aesthetic value, each item triggers memories. On opening a box filled with blankets and throws, the scent of mothballs and cigarette smoke took me back to the days when - during games of hide and seek - I’d squeeze into the cupboard where they were stored. A set of placemats depicting different game birds of Scotland takes me back to Sunday lunches when my grandfather would warn us not to touch the plates because they were so hot they’d take our skin off. When he left the room to retrieve the sprouts, Mum and I would grab the plates and laugh because they were always cold.

Among the trophies and the trash which now belong to me, one item in particular stopped me in my tracks. Emptying a box of cutlery, I found something wrapped in a soft tea towel. It was this discovery that opened that time tunnel back to Caldergrove House in 1979.

The kitchen knife that first belonged to a great-grandmother who died before I was born and then to the gran who gave up her career so that she and my mother could solve a problem created by a man is now mine.

You’ll have similar items, I'm sure, things that are much more than their physical reality, things that trigger memories of those we’ve loved and lost. That knife isn’t just a useful addition to the kitchen drawer, it’s a symbol of the resilience of my mother and of hers. It’s as evocative as any photograph. The memories it summons are so clear.

At 52, I’ve been looking back on those days in Caldergrove and, yes, some sadness lingers but there’s pride, too, at the way in which the strong women in my family - as is so often the case - took a terrible event and selflessly did all they could to make things right. I wish I'd realised how grateful I am while they were still alive.

I’ve been using that well-worn kitchen knife for a month, now. Its wooden handle is perfectly smooth, polished by decades of handling and, though the blade may be thin, it’s still razor sharp.

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“Look,” I say to the kids, sitting at the kitchen table anticipating dinner, “at the way it slices through this lemon.”

“I don’t want lemon on mine,” says the boy.



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