So a light one this week from the non fiction family stories thing. The other day, there was a spoof article from SuffolkGazette – a jokey ‘news’ site on Facebook; ‘Girl, 9, disappears after putting on cream that makes you look 10 years younger.’ It made me think about this story about the antics my grandmother and great aunt got up to one evening when they were youngsters. My grandmother told me this story, herself, so it does come straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. She swore it was true and my mother thinks it quite probable that it is, so here, for your delectation …
The Vanishing Cream …
In this tale, Nye, my grandmother, was twelve years old, which would make Aunty, her sister, four. Nye comes over as a great deal less streetwise than twelve year olds today, but then, it was another era and having lived with ‘Granny’ Mum’s view was that she would have kept her children as young and naive as possible for as long as possible. Nye and Aunty didn’t go to school. They had a governess, who was French. When this story takes place I can only assume that she was elsewhere, or believed her charges to be in bed.
Anyway, Nye had discovered a pot of Pond’s Vanishing Cream on her mother’s dressing table and was extremely intrigued as to what it did. Vanishing cream was first introduced in 1892 and got the name because it’s a cream that disappears when it is rubbed on. Nye’s Mum would probably have used it as a moisturiser or a colourless base for makeup. However, Nye had convinced herself that her mother wore it to make herself invisible. Reading a bit too much E Nesbitt, perhaps? Who knows, but whatever the reason, one night, while their parents were downstairs entertaining friends to dinner and the Governess was … elsewhere … Nye and Aunty, went ‘exploring’ around the house and crept into their mother’s bedroom.
Immediately, Nye’s eye lit on the pot.
‘Look!’ she said, showing it to her little sister. ‘Vanishing cream! If we rub this on ourselves it will turn us invisible.’
‘Really?’ asked Aunty, saucer-eyed.
‘Yes. That’s how Mother knows when we have been naughty in lessons,’ Nye explained, never thinking, for a moment, that this might be because the Governess reported it to her when she reported on their progress.
The girls decided they would test how effective the cream was. Aunty went first and was disappointed to discover that she could still see herself. Nye put some cream on, with similar results.
The two of them thought for a moment.
‘I know what it is,’ said Nye. ‘We should undress because otherwise, even if people can’t see us our clothes will be visible.’
‘Is that why we can see one another?
‘I don’t know, let’s try.’
The two of them took of their clothes and put vanishing cream on literally every part of their bodies, I do hope, for their mother’s sake, that it wasn’t too expensive. They stood back and regarded one another.
‘Can you see me?’ asked Nye.
‘Yes,’ said Aunty.
‘I can see you too.’
‘Perhaps it isn’t working,’ said Aunty.
Nye thought for a moment.
‘There is a way we can find out.’
‘I’ll tell you …’
Aunty was all set to try Nye’s cunning plan and so together, the two of them, still as starkers as the day they were born, crept downstairs.
From the dining room came the sound of cutlery chinking gently on plates and genteel voices having refined and proper dinner time conversation. Nye pushed the door open a crack. Nobody took any notice. She turned back to her sister.
‘Remember, they can hear us, even if they can’t see us, so we mustn’t talk,’ she whispered, and put her finger to her lips. Aunty mimicked the gesture and nodded.
Nye opened the door a little more and slipped into the room.
The two girls stood there, in silence.
Nye walked round the table. The grown ups carried on talking, oblivious. Aunty’s hands flew to her mouth to try and muffle her gasp of delight. She went to join Nye and the two of them danced, cavorted and skipped about the room in silence. The grown ups made absolutely no sign of noticing anything. Perhaps if they were a bit older, our two heroines might have noticed Grandpop’s demeanour take on a somewhat stoic set, or might have seen the visible loss of colour on their mother’s face. They might even have noticed the atmosphere among the adults become a little strained, seen how a couple of the guests eyes bulged or heard how the conversation had taken on a somewhat stilted tone. But as it was, they were twelve and four, and not yet sufficiently aware of human nature to hoist in any subtleties like that.
After about ten minutes cavorting about without being seen got boring so Aunty and Nye left the room and returned to their bedroom; upstairs, next to the nursery. The Vanishing Cream Experiment had been an unmitigated success and the two of them slept soundly that night, dreaming of the wonderful things they would be able to do and places they would be able to visit now that they could become invisible.
The following morning, Nye and Aunty heard the governess being told off, extensively. When the two of them were called in to see Granny and Grandpop in the drawing room after breakfast they knew something was up.
‘What do you think you were doing last night?’ asked Granny.
‘Sleeping?’ asked Nye with more hope than conviction.
‘Before that. When you were cavorting about the dinner table divest of every single stitch of clothing.’
Nye was surprised.
‘Did you see us?’ she asked.
‘Of course I did.’
Oh dear. Although, thinking about it, maybe family members could see one another, yes, Nye reflected. That would explain why Aunty and her could see one another, too. However, she was sure none of the guests had noticed.
‘But we thought we were invisible,’ said Aunty.
‘Why on earth would you think that?’ asked Grandpop.
‘Because we were wearing vanishing cream,’ Nye explained, ‘and that’s why no-one else noticed us.’
‘You utter fools! Of course they noticed you!’ said Granny.
She heaved a sigh and then Grandpop stepped in and went on to explain that some things are ‘not quite nice’ and those things are ‘not talked about’ and that two nude child children cavorting around the table at dinner would fall into the category of ‘not quite nice’ and ‘not talked about’ hence the gathered guests would do what any British person should do when confronted with such a disgusting spectacle. Ignore it stoically until it went away.
Nye was in a home by the time she told me this story and sadly, Aunty had already died, so I was never able to get her side of the story, and I’d have loved to have heard it. I remember Nye saying,
‘Can you imagine it? There they were eating while two little girls danced around the dinner table naked and they were so stuffy they pretended we weren’t there.’
She clearly felt it served them right. I suspect Granny and Grandpop may have had more of a sense of humour than family history gives them credit for. But it’s quite clear that, whether or not they did, Nye was unrepentant, if not at the time then certainly in her late eighties.