Tuesday 21 May 2019

First Person: Deciding to go for... The Lesser Knife

Growing up with no sense of entitlement whatsover, says Sarah Carey, became an evolutionary advantage

Sarah Carey

'It's the little things." Isn't that what they say? It was a little thing that provided a key moment of self-revelation almost 10 years ago. We'd just moved into our new house. I had a 14-month-old, and a six-week-old baby. I was breastfeeding joyfully and had a granite-topped island unit. Could life get any better? Making a sandwich one day in my flash, new German kitchen, I opened the cutlery drawer, gleaming with recently unpacked wedding cutlery.

There among the weighty, elegant, dozen dinner knives, lay a lesser knife.

It was skinny, slightly dented and even a bit rusty. Left behind by the builders, no doubt. Did I cast it out, condemning it for sullying my pristine kitchen? No. The woman with no sense of entitlement went straight for it, saying to herself, "Sure, I'm here by myself. There's no need for me to use a good knife (even though there are 12). I'll just use this lesser knife. Won't it do me grand?"

My other inner voice protests. "What are you doing? Use a good knife!" But no. I buttered my bread with the lesser knife.

Afterwards, I despaired. Of course I knew exactly who to blame for this. My parents. They were agricultural people; fundamentally anti-consumerist; accustomed to self-reliance, with little disposable income. Everything was saved and preserved.

I called it the Good Towel Syndrome. Growing up, we lived in a hard-water area and our towels were like sandpaper. In the hot press, there was a beautiful set of soft towels for visitors, and there was no way we were being let near them. I longed for those towels.

The "that's not for you, that's for other people" philosophy extended to everything. Whatever was cool and new was not for us. Whatever was sensible and boring, was. I vowed to escape and spend.

The first break came at my first Trinity Ball. I debriefed the bewildered family afterwards, describing how 10 of us went to a Chinese restaurant beforehand. It was 1989 to be fair, and it all seemed quite mad. My sister innocently observed that it must've been difficult to work out who owed what, for what they ate. I explained: "Oh, we didn't go through it like that! We just said: 'Fuck it - add it up and divide by 10'."

The explosion of amused astonishment is still something we laugh about today. The concept of subsidising what other, greedier people may have consumed did not compute. My reply became a catchphrase for frivolity. Whenever one of the family wants to justify unnecessary expenditure, they'll say: "So I just said 'fuck it - add it up and divide by 10'."

But here's the thing. Ten years ago, I thought the mark of thrift was a curse, which, by failing to purge it from my psyche, meant I was scarred in some profound way. But when the bust came and my income collapsed, it turned out to be an evolutionary advantage.

While others rage and wail about lost standards of living, to me it was simply reversion to the norm. All that discretionary spending? Eating out? Weekends away? Fancy towels?

Well - they were never for me anyway, were they? If I never really believed I was entitled to it in the first place, then it's easier to do without. In fact, the coping strategies laid down would be of assistance to anyone outraged at the nouveau notion of preserving water.

We've always had our own well, but hot water was the problem. If you wanted a bath, you had to light a fire and wait. As a result, despite the development of the oil-fired boiler, I never learned to enjoy what others call a bath. My husband has never been able to cope with the sight of me sitting in a puddle of lukewarm water. I only take a real bath in a hotel. Far from being weird, I predict this will become a national custom.

I have one indulgence, though. After my austerity wash, I do insist on a nice, soft, tumble-dried, Very Good Towel. Because some scars are worth healing.

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