Radio Scotland - Days Like This

Siobhan Redmond

The Shiniest Hippopotamus That I Have Ever Seen

Siobhan Redmond

There's only one thing I do regularly that I'm sure my parents would approve of: I look up new words in the dictionary. Throughout my childhood, as soon as I'd say, "What does this word mean?" I'd be told to find out for myself. Words are important to my family - as things of beauty, weapons of choice and tools for telling a story. My parents grew up in households where everyone told stories to and about everyone else and I grew up surrounded by that tradition.

In fact I'm still surrounded by it: my bedroom is in the roof, and in the eaves on either side of my bed are boxes packed with diaries, stories, poems and letters written by my parents, my granny and my aunts. Some boxes have lain unopened for many years. As people died, as people will do, my sister Grainne and I pack up what seems personal and promise ourselves to look at it later. It's sore reading and yet impossible to dispose of. It's become buried treasure - part of me like bones.

My wonderful, hilarious rose-scented Aunt Mary is responsible for much of the archive. She deserves another audience, and so today, I finally look in the eaves for a story of hers to send in her name to "Days Like This", a project she would have approved of.

She had exciting stories from the steelworks where she was a nurse, tales of gore and fire and furnaces and of how men were when they forgot she was a woman. She could turn anything into a better version of itself. I see her as she is in her stories: eating roasted cheese cooked on a shovel thrust for an instant into an industrial oven; laughing with her pal Annie Park as they snipped the feather off an obtrusive hat worn by a woman sat in front of them at the theatre; fainting at her own reflection in a darkened window, or at any mouse; dressed up as a ghost and lying in wait for my sister, my cousins and me to scare us into that delicious state where you shriek and laugh till your breath sticks and even your hair hurts.

Her boxes are at the front, and so I lug those out into the bedroom, in for a penny, in for a pound, hell slap it into me, why not go further back? Here's a letter from Granny about her home-help and a steak pie... Granny had stories about the Black and Tans, of run-ins with her scary mother-in-law Katie Roberts who was one of the Drinking Redmonds and owner of a dog-killing cat called Tiddles, of giving birth to my Dad on a table. "An awfy girny wean" she said. "Aye greetin'."

He grew up to be a spectacular dandy with velveteen suits, long hair, a beautiful face, a wicked way with words and a story for everyone. This last incensed my mother who preferred to keep a low profile - all the better to surprise people. She was in fact the star story teller; by far the best actor in the family with a leaning towards the tragic, she'd stun us through tears into silence if she felt like it. She took no prisoners and gave me whatever theatrical ability I have.

We had to have stories, my sister and me. I wouldn't eat till I'd heard about, for instance, the fish that swam from Norway with a fishcake for my dinner balanced on its head. Grainne was worse - she'd only eat if her food was turned, spoonful by spoonful, into mystery parcels.

"Who's this for, Grainne?"

"For me."

"What's in it?"

"A Grandfather to make Daddy eat things he doesn't like."

In search of more stories I go right back into the narrow space behind the shoeboxes, spare duvets and Christmas decorations. I cut the packing tape on the furthest box and, under the school reports, ("Could do better if tried harder."), the ancient photos of Grainne with pigtails and me with a knicker-pink eye patch, I find my reward.

Much as I hate it when the tupenny-ha'penny advice from every agony aunt turns out to be right, it seems true enough that if you grit your teeth and do the thing you dread, you get a prize. And mine is going through these boxes and finding a thing I thought I'd lost forever except in barely remembered fragments, a song my Dad wrote when I was really wee. I'd had a story book about a baby hippo: its final line describing him after his evening bath inspired Dad to create a sparklier lyric which was sung to the tune of John Brown's Body.

Here, written out in my Dad's spidery hand is "The Shiniest Hippopotamus That I Have Ever Seen". I'm so happy to have this back - thrilled to see that the forgotten lines contain a word for me to look up - grateful to my family for their stories making this story. I remember us singing this as we drank baby coffee with lots of milk from little glass cups with wooden handles. You won't hear my Dad harmonising in his pentatonic whisky tenor, but I do.

The shiniest hippopotamus that I have ever seen

Wore a purple tartan waistcoat and his eyes were emerald green

His mouth glowed like a furnace: his comedos shone like star

And his teeth were ivory bars.

Hip hip hip hippo hippo hippopotamus, (sung 3 times)

And his teeth were ivory bars.

His jaw lit like a lantern and his nose shone like a torch

And if you went too near him then your eyebrows he would scorch,

His breath was like a blowlamp, his eyes blazed fierce and bright

And his tail lit up at night.

Hip hip hip hippo hippo hippopotamus, (sung 3 times)

And his tail lit up at night.

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