A History and a Family Memoir

Gail Bell

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
The pleasures of found glass
WHEN I WAS A GIRL of ten my father showed me a kind of sample case, made, he said, of the best wood, lacquered, embossed with gold initials, hinged and fastened with brass. When you undid the clip and lifted the lid an inner shelf levered into view. On the shelf were beautiful bottles each with a glued-on label, handwritten in ink script, and sealed with glass stoppers. One bottle had a thick sludge at the bottom, like tar. Idly, I picked it up, extracted the top (which was stiff and unyielding) and put the end of the stopper to my nose, as you would with perfume. My father snatched it from my hand and said ‘Never, never do that. You could die.’
The sample case had arrived in a carton delivered to our house a week after my father’s stepfather passed away. The strange thing was, nothing inside the package had belonged to the stepfather; it was what was left of the belongings of my father’s real father, and for some reason had been hoarded, probably forgotten, until the relatives tidied up and wanted to be rid of them. We laid the other things out on a table: two leather suitcases from the 1920s, a collar box, a tie box, calling cards, a smoking jacket, a silver-handled walking cane and a small bundle of photographs. Looking at them seemed to give my father no pleasure at all.
‘What’s in the bottles?’ I asked.
‘Rubbish,’ said Dad. ‘Bad stuff, poison.’
Hearing this, my mother ordered the bottles out of the house.
I asked if I could keep the sample case but my father had made his decision. The next day he took it to work and buried it in the footings of a house. He put the other things back in the carton and put the carton in the shed where it sat for another twenty-five years, undisturbed.

My father worked on building sites for years and one of his pleasures was to uncover old bottles and bring them home. Clear ones with glass marbles in the neck, slender green ones that looked like schoolgirls, early Coca-Cola models that might be worth something one day. He lined them up on a shelf in his workshop where the sun caught their colours and threw them onto the walls. He showed me how to hold glass so its weight sagged in the cradle of my hand and warmed to blood temperature. Sometimes the delicate ones felt like little live things.
Often we cleaned them together, scrubbing at the clay with old toothbrushes and pliable pointed sticks my father had whittled to suit the work.
Years later I started bringing home my own glass: old tincture bottles, mortars, pestles, ampoules of sealed liquid, measuring cylinders, beakers, hollow tubing that could be melted and moulded on a Bunsen flame; all saved from the rubbish bins of pharmacies that were rushing into the 1970s without a backward glance.
Not once, in all those years of bottle collecting, have my father and I spoken about those bottles in the wooden sample case. He would say, if I asked him, that he couldn’t remember which house he buried it under, wouldn’t know if it’s in concrete or fill, couldn’t hazard a guess as to the possibility of excavation.
We’ve gone on appreciating the pleasures of found glass in this denying but comfortable togetherness that, for him at least, confirms his opinion that some things are best left buried.
When he retired from work he gave me the best of his bottle collection and sold or gave the rest away. He was done with dust collectors, he said.
I still line up the ones I like best — the green ones — on sunny ledges.
POISON: A HISTORY AND A FAMILY MEMOIR. Copyright © 2001 by Gail Bell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.