Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Tardis that is my wife's handbag

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 29.)

“Where’s that receipt?” I asked my wife. I wanted to return a faulty electric hedge trimmer to the store where we’d bought it and needed the receipt as proof of purchase.

“In my handbag,” she replied. My heart sank.

“Which one?” I asked.

“You know – the big white leather one,” she said.

My heart sank further. My wife’s big white leather bag is the size of a coal sack. Just lifting it puts me at risk of a hernia.

I began rummaging. I pulled out two Air New Zealand boarding passes for a flight to Nelson in June 2000. I remembered the occasion well – an old friend’s funeral.

There was an annual leave application from my wife’s job at a Wellington childcare centre in 1996.

There was a family admission pass to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. When were we last in Melbourne? I wondered. Ah yes – 1989.

Next I pulled out a yellowing recipe for my late mother’s cold Christmas pudding. It was typed on the Imperial 66 Mum owned in the 1970s.

I fossicked further. Next came an envelope containing colour pictures of our kids at the beach in Hawke’s Bay, where we used to holiday in my parents’ caravan. There were just three kids then; our youngest daughter, now 25, hadn’t yet been born.

There was a reference supplied to my wife by the posh Sydney restaurant where she worked briefly in 1972. A damned good reference it was too.

There was her birth certificate from Stuttgart in 1951, a bit tattered around the edges but still legible (well, if you read German).

There was a Star Ferries pass from Hong Kong, dated 2002. That would have been the trip from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on which my wife found a natty little folding umbrella left behind by a previous passenger. She still uses it – in fact the umbrella was in her handbag too.

There was a photo of me standing outside an ancient pub, famous because parts of it had slumped into the mineshafts underneath, in the English Midlands. That would have been 1985.

There was a Plunket booklet recording the birth weight and developmental progress of our first son, now 36, and the business card of the real estate agent who sold us our first house in 1978.

There were copies of our children’s reports from their primary school in Titahi Bay, dated 1981, and a receipt from Madame Louise’s Le Normandie restaurant in Wellington dated 1976. I had a whitebait fritter followed by lobster thermidor; my wife ordered smoked eel and a carpetbag steak. I vaguely remember an argument about whether we should order white wine or red.

There was a crumpled admission ticket to a screening of Ryan’s Daughter at the Cinerama in Wellington. Gee, that Sarah Miles was sexy.

Next I found a hardback copy of Great Expectations, issued by the Paraparaumu Public Library in 1987. I idly wondered what the overdue fines must amount to by now.

The reason it was never returned was that the book had accidentally become entangled in a copy of the Manawatu Evening Standard that carried a front-page picture of my wife’s family arriving at the Palmerston North railway station in 1965. Immigrants were news then, especially when the family included three strikingly attractive blonde daughters.

My search for the hedge trimmer receipt continued.

I came across a grease-spattered Des Britten Cookbook, published in 1977, and an owner’s manual for a 1970 Triumph 2000. Fat lot of good that ever did us – it was the most unreliable car we ever owned.

Next I found a loaf of sourdough bread, a selection of cheeses, half a dozen bakewell tarts and a frozen size 14 free-range chicken. My wife doesn’t like to go anywhere without the security of knowing we have food.

There was a Kodak Instamatic camera that I’d completely forgotten owning. The film that I took out of the camera is at the chemist’s now; heaven knows what the developed images will show.

There were several balls of wool and a Butterick sewing pattern for a man’s kaftan. A great kaftan it was too, except that it had no pockets. I remember making quite an impression when I wore it hosting a party in 1975.

A carton of Rothmans cigarettes came out next, purchased duty-free when we were both still smokers. How could we have mislaid that?

There was a battered dual-speed Ryobi power tool that I last used to sand a house that I painted in 1981. I vaguely remember my wife putting the Ryobi in her bag to get the damaged power cord repaired. She must have forgotten it.

There was a complete set of Arthur Mee’s 10-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia that I remember taking from my parents’ house when we cleaned it out after my father died in 1984. I’d idly wondered where it had gone.

Then I found a two-person tent, complete with fly, guy ropes and pegs. “You never know when we might need it,” my wife used to say. She probably stowed the tent in her bag about the time we owned the Triumph 2000, reasoning that we could never be sure where we’d be marooned when it next broke down.

There was the nice little macrocarpa coffee table she made at woodwork night classes in Porirua when the kids were still small. I think she was distracted when she arrived home with the finished table because our youngest child, not accustomed to being left in my care, was bawling inconsolably. Somehow the coffee table just got left in the bag.

Next, I pulled out a Hornby electric train set. We got it for the kids one Christmas but never could make the damn thing work. It ended up back in its box and ultimately found its way into the handbag, probably with the aim of dropping it into a Salvation Army store. Oh well.

By now you will have gathered that there is a slight element of exaggeration in this tale. But not much.

Doctor Who’s Tardis – the size of a phonebox on the exterior, but miraculously capacious once you get inside – has nothing on my wife’s handbag, which represents a dimension of space hitherto unimagined by physicists.

I can’t claim intimate knowledge of the contents of other women’s handbags but I suspect it’s much the same story.

Oh, and by the way, I never did find the receipt for the hedge trimmer.

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