My grandparents had a box of buttons. It was a small cardboard box held together with sticky brown tape and it was filled to the brim with buttons of every shape and size you could possibly imagine. There were shiny metal ones; large brown ones perhaps once belonging to an old teddy bear; there were small prim white ones from a crisp cotton shirt; there were discs the colours of Smarties. Some were old with peeling surfaces, some were as bright as a pin and some still had cotton thread woven around their middles. I loved each and every one.
When our family came to visit my grandmother would beam down at my sister and me and ask ‘shall I get the box of buttons?’ and our eyes would widen a little as hers glinted and sparkled. You see, this box of buttons was no ordinary thing; it was a secret box of treasure that never failed to delight. We would sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor in front of the burning coal fire that kept this one room in the Victorian terraced house toasty warm and we would count out the buttons, one by one. The box seemed so deep that we would never find the bottom and I’m not sure that we ever did.
And let me tell you: that box held secrets. If those buttons could talk they would tell you stories that would transfix you and some that would make your hair curl. But rather than me tell you about it how about I show you? OK then, take my hand and let’s travel back.
Here we are then. Come down here with me in front of the fire by the rocking chair and make yourself comfortable. But before you do, would you pop to the cupboard under the stairs and pull out two cans of Shandy Bass? My grandmother always kept it in there as a special treat for my sister and me and we always felt so grown up with our ‘real beer’. Watch out for Cindy the cat, she’s blacker than night and hides in the shadows so be careful not to accidentally trip on her tail. Come back in quick and close the door to keep the drafts out, don’t mind the squeak. You’ll find glasses next to the Cream Sherry in the sideboard there, the one with the doilies on it just below the old cuckoo clock that my grandfather fixed. Right then, let’s take a look.
So many buttons. Where do we begin? How about with that small brown one there? It belonged to an A-line skirt that fell just below the knee, which took the number 6 bus to London town, to meet a friend who wore a fancy felt hat and carried a handbag full of hankies and mints. Do you see that oval button in the corner of the box, with the scalloped edges? It travelled through wind, rain and shine each day to the big department store where my grandmother worked when she was a young lady, and it was envious of the pretty pink button that went for tea and cream cake in the Lyons cornerhouse one sunny June day. And that proud, shiny button sitting on top adorned my grandfather’s army uniform and travelled over war-torn seas. What’s that you’re asking? What are those strips in the box? I do believe they are old leather swatches, perhaps to choose the cover for a sofa, but I couldn’t say for certain. I don’t know why they were kept in the box of buttons but what I can tell you is that they were the notes my sister and I used when we played shopkeepers with the button coins. Aren’t they colourful with their reds, greens and browns? Oh, look! That pearl button there belonged to the satin frock my grandmother wore the first time my grandfather took her dancing on a Saturday night. I wonder if she wore her favourite pink Yardley lipstick. What was it called…Camellia, perhaps, or Capri? She used to give me her old ones and I treasured them like gold. I can still smell their flowery scent now.
Look at that small brown button jumping up and down. He’s dying to tell us his stories. He knew lots of secrets, you see, learned each time he went to the top of the cinema on the corner of the high street where my grandfather worked the projector. In the dusty light beam that button saw the initials naughty little Jimmy carved into the back seat, the young couple kissing in the back row, the two old friends in their Sunday Best who never once missed their movie date, and Mr Robins sneaking in with the married lady from down the road.
So many buttons. I wish we had time for me to show you them all. But it’s time now for us to pick them all up and put them back in the box, close the lid and put them away until our next visit. Don’t worry, they’ll be there still, waiting, and shining.