The joy of carbolic soap

Wednesday June 22, 2005

For years and years now I’ve been on the look out for a supply of carbolic soap. It disappeared from hardware stores a long time back and even the big mail order stores stopped selling it so long ago that my stocks ran out, leaving no more than a fading memory of the way hands used to feel squeaky clean as I washed them before preparing and handling food in the kitchen. There are substitutes, I suppose, like germicidal liquid hand wash, but though they’re safe, they still lack something in the ‘feeling clean’ department.

So, wandering all unwilling through a cheap-o domestic store in deepest Boston today I was just about knocked over to find Graham beckoning me over, promising delights beyond my imagining. I was doubtful. I can do some fearsome imagining when it comes to delight.

Well, he was right. I’d never have imagined the delight of a whiff of carbolic soap in such a low-grade place. And there, in a box on a bottom shelf was a pile of the blessed dark pink tablets of perfect hygiene.

“Trouble is, there’s no price tag,” he said.

“Don’t care,” I said, grabbing a half-dozen tablets. “I’ve been seeking this stuff for so long that no price could be too high. Besides, everything is cheap here.”

At the check-out I asked the woman who served me if they always stocked it.

“Well, yes,” she said, somewhat puzzled.

“Great. I’ve been trying to get this soap for years and years.”

She laughed at that, told me I’d been looking in the wrong places, and I promised I’d be back.

Outside, in the blinding sun, Graham asked why I hadn’t simply bought the whole boxful.

“Ah, well,” I said. “There’s carbolic soap and then there’s carbolic soap. Some so weak it’s useless, and some so strong it can take the skin off your fingers. I want to try before I buy.”

“Fair enough. Mind you, it’d be worth buying it just for the smell. Talk about clean and wholesome.”

“S’rite. My grandma used to reckon it was an essential on the road to godliness.”

And off we wandered, very slowly, seeking that for which we’d come, leaving a trail of puzzled people behind us, sniffing the air and trying to remember what that smell was, raising memories of their grandma’s kitchen…

We were actually looking for a beaded door curtain to put over the door from the drive into the kitchen. It’s a white uPVC door, you see, expands in the heat, and is difficult to open and close when the sun is full on it. Fairly ordinary kind of request, you’d think. Sadly, Boston is clean out of beaded door curtains. Oh, they’re getting them in, next week, or the week after, or in three weeks. Except in one over-heated store where the over-heated saleswoman explained impatiently that there’s no demand for them.

“What we should really do is get some fly-screen and make a proper screen door,” I said. “Kill two birds with one stone, would that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Shield the door from the sun, and let us leave the inner door open for some air in the evening without being invaded by every passing moth and midge.”

“Mmmm,” said Graham, thoughtfully. He always does go “Mmmm” when I suggest fly-screen. This time, though, I think I may have caught him in a moment of weakness. He’ll be sneaking a peak at the Screwfix catalogue to see how much a couple of metres of fly-screen and the fixings to make an external door would cost, see if he doesn’t.

Oh, but it was far too hot to be out, and I wilted fast. And carried on wilting. When we finally got to Tesco’s I demanded refreshment of the salty kind, to be washed down with a soft drink of the extremely chilled kind. And when we got to the dairy goods aisle, where cold air pours down from the cabinets, I stood still and refused to move until I’d recovered from my par-boiling traipse around the town. It worked, of course, but the effect was soon lost when we got back to the car, to find it griddle-hot in the sun.

It was a blessed relief ro get home. I’d taken the precaution of drawing blinds and leaving the fans running, mostly so Dolly didn’t cook, but also because I suspected it’d be close to unbearable out there today.

“If this is going to last, I’m switching over to doing my shopping at night,” I said, scrubbing my hands vigorously with carbolic soap.

“They say it’s going to cool down day after tomorrow.”

“I know. They’ve been saying that for days.”

It’s getting serious. Old folks and invalids are beginning to feel the strain of it. I’m told that four days of uninterupted heatwave are sufficient to trigger distress and collapse in those without the constitution to handle it. The hospitals start to fill up… and things begin to happen in silent, lonely flats that give rise to shock horror headlines in the papers and on TV, questions in the House, politicians making promises… and then the whole thing gets shoved back under the carpet until the next time. It’s the British way.

Hey ho. I stood for a while, letting the cold tap run over my newly-scrubbed wrists, cooling down and getting my equilibrium back. Works pretty well, does that. Rather like sal-volatile dabbed on wrists and temples the way ladies of a delicate disposition did in the old days. Not that I’ve seen sal-volatile on sale for a long, long time. However, I’ve secured a source of carbolic soap when I thought all hope was lost, so there’s likely to be a shop somewhere… Look for the sal volatile alongside the rose-water and the eau-de-cologne and the small, lady-like tin boxes of violet pastilles.

Oh, and before I leave the subject of carbolic soap, and I do realize that it’s high time I left the subject of carbolic soap, I ought to sound a note of caution. It’s not a soap for delicate skin. Nor is it a soap for over-frequent use. The tablets I was lucky enough to find—and when the heatwave eases I’m going to go stock up in earnest—are on the strong-to-fierce side, and could burn the skin if used carelessly. And I doubt very much that it’s suitable for young children at all.


Carbolic soap, Stickford, Jun 22,'05
Not suitable for young children



One response to “The joy of carbolic soap

  1. I am no longer certain where you are getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or working out more. Thank you for great info I used to be on the lookout for this information for my mission.

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