The freezer in the garden shed: An untidy life can spark joy too

By Jim Carroll

Some time in the late ‘70s my parents decided to invest in a freezer. As they were catering for five kids, they selected a large chest-style model. It was so big that it wouldn’t fit in the kitchen, and our new arrival was installed with some ceremony in the wooden shed in the back garden. There it co-habited with an unruly assortment of paint pots, old curtains and rusty lawnmowers.

Mum bought a book dedicated to cooking for the freezer and embarked on an industrial programme manufacturing spaghetti bolognaise and shepherd’s pie for long-term Tupperware storage. (The shadow of nuclear war still hung over us back then and we needed to prepare for every eventuality.) Dad drove down to Bejam in Romford Town Centre and collected a frozen half-pig, thereby securing a near endless supply of pork chops for family suppers.

One evening the Carrolls sat watching telly, having just polished off that week’s third plate of pork chops, oven chips and garden peas. Contented, Dad placed his tray to one side and announced:

‘With our new freezer we may not eat cheaper, but we do eat better.’

The freezer in the garden shed provided many years of solid service. Indeed it was still performing admirably when I left home for Turnpike Lane in the late ‘80s. I confess I rather liked the fact that the family freezer lived in the shed, and I would have been upset if, in some unlikely fit of rationality and conformity, my parents had upgraded it or transferred it to the house.

In the early hours of one cold, snowy winter’s morning my good friend Thommo, also my flatmate at that time, was struggling to get home. He’d had a few beers in town and fallen asleep on the wrong train heading in the wrong direction. He spotted a train destined for Romford and thought at least it was a place he’d visited before. He jumped on board and, having reached the station, trudged through the thick snow to my parents’ home on Heath Park Road.

When Thommo arrived he saw no lights on, no sign of life, and being a considerate soul, he was uncomfortable waking the whole household. And so he made his way to the back garden, let himself into the shed and organised some makeshift bedding on top of the chest freezer.

Early the next day Mum spotted the evidence of an intruder. There were tracks in the snow and the shed was open. She got Dad out of bed, somewhat grumpy, and pushed him out of the back door to deal with the situation.

‘Oi, you, get out of there!’ Dad cried in a booming voice with a gruff note of intimidation.

A timid Thommo, hung-over and frozen to the bone, poked his head out of the shed door and explained the situation. He was welcomed into the warmth, fed and packed off to work.

This modest incident became a staple of Carroll family folklore. My Mum, a devout Catholic, subsequently made a small wooden sign and hung it above the freezer in the garden shed:

‘Here, on one cold winter’s night, slept Thommo. It might have been Christ.’

We spend a good deal of time nowadays ironing out the rough edges in our lives, smoothing over the contours. We are increasingly obsessed with tidying things up, organising them away, decluttering and streamlining. We want frictionless experiences, seamless journeys, logical order, rational consistency.

But friction creates experiences, and journeys begin at the seams. Life happens in the folds and creases, in the spaces between. Life happens around the freezer in the garden shed.

I have over the years grown comfortable with difference and discrepancy. I no longer demand that everything should conform and make sense. And I feel no compunction to tidy my world into neat compartments that spark joy. I think I may be happier that way. As my Dad might have said:

‘You don’t live cheaper, but you do live better.’

This piece first appeared Jim Carroll's blog here