Death cleaning and the problem with stuff – part two: The Spring Clean
Sarah Morgan Jones
Dust might be the essence of the universe to the variously weird and dysfunctional family of Philip Pullman’s Lyra Belaqua, but here, in this house, it is not so much a gateway to another fundament, but more the irritating, repugnant and bloody everywhere variety.
In the years following the acquisition of Stuff, every corner, spare shelf, underbed and cubbyhole has been at full occupancy, offering ideal breeding conditions for a layer of semi-organic matter so thick and resilient that the act of ‘dusting’ merely scrambles it into the air, before it rapidly recolonises in new territories. Imagine the 1970s kids’ TV show ‘Runaround’ and you’ll get the idea.
Quentin Crisp once famously opined that after four years there’s as much dust as there’s going to be, so what’s the point of cleaning it? Or words to that effect.
Indeed, in the last few years of numbness that grief has ushered in, this adage has ticker taped through my mind. Apart from occasional outbursts of aggression, directed at furry cobwebs spanning ceiling corners, which fizzle out as quickly as they arrive, the sense of futility outlined in those Crisp words has lingered.
The books on the shelves in my daughter’s room have remained untouched since way before she left town for university and have remained so, long after she graduated and stayed put in her adopted city.
The stuff shoved under the bed ‘just for now’ when my long-term boyfriend moved his life in and became my husband six years ago has not been sorted out and properly homed.
The excess life acquisitions which arrived after the death of my parents, first Mum and then Dad, still sit in their ‘bags for life’ under the sideboard and in the corner and in the shed and in the attic…and their twin boxes of ashes remained on the shelf by my desk up until last autumn.
Grief, it seems, comes in all shapes and sizes. And for me it had settled quietly over the last four years and taken the form of a dust jacket.
All this recently came to a head. Although I had glimpsed a teardrop of change back in September when we finally interred the ashes at their nominated resting place, I was still waiting for the deluge.
Autumn and winter had overtaken. After the interment, I had reinstated the empty cardboard twin towers back on the shelf – for what reason, I do not know. They did not represent any part of my parents, and yet I was having trouble letting go.
Whether it was because idle fantasies of moving house trampled through my mind, or a pragmatic sense of mortality, or the sudden realisation that I don’t have to live with this crap, I woke up one Monday and decided enough was enough.
The air was not flowing in this house, and it was beginning to stink.
I bit into some annual leave and announced to my bewildered and slightly terrified husband that spring cleaning was about to commence.
His efforts to contain my brewing whirlwind with mutterings about it not being spring yet and lists, and suggestions about a nice walk and lunch out were swept aside with a stern look and a determined power stance.
No, said I, with all requisite drama. I cannot breathe! I cannot think, I cannot bear this any longer. I need some space. It’s me or the dust!
When I was small and the youngest of my family, and the only girl, Mum and I would often find ourselves alone together. She like to recruit me as her mini-me, including me in the vast list she had to dispatch in between her job as a district nurse, and managing a house full of growing boys, my dad, and the pets.
It was a busy, noisy house, and despite the imbalance of the sexes, everyone was expected to pull their weight.
“What did your last servant die of?” would be the snap-back response to any request which oozed idleness, and after the daily evening meal, the boys would take it in turns to cry ‘Bagsie not clearing the table, washing up, drying up, feeding the dog or making the tea…’ as they scrambled to escape pre-destined chores.
But there was no escape, everyone had to do one of them.
Invariably, Dad would wash up (“We don’t need a dishwasher – we’ve got one already” he would sing when Mum lusted after the new big thing), and I usually fed the dog, while the others jostled and bickered about what they had to do, and some wag would decide that salting the tea rather than sugaring it was either witty or original or both.
Once a week, Mum kicked us out of bed early to tidy our rooms before school because Rosemary was coming. Rosemary was the cleaner, and despite there not being much in the kitty going spare, this ‘woman that does’ was the person who saved my mum from going spare.
A Tuesday morning clean from top to bottom provided a bridge of sanity between weekends, but the rules were clear. She cleaned, she did not tidy (that cost more) – picking up clothes, making beds and tidying up was very much our job – and if the rooms were not tidy, she would not enter them. And that incurred fallout.
At the weekend then, when the boys were off out doing whatever teenage boys did, and Dad was parked in front of the Saturday afternoon sport, Mum would look at me conspiratorially and say: “Shall we have a blitz and then maybe make a cake?”
A ‘blitz’ was just as it sounded – a fast and furious sort out of the bedrooms: two boys per room and my tiny broom cupboard upstairs, the bathroom, Mum and Dad’s room and the weird corridor/landing space in between, which contained a dart board, the airing cupboard and a stack ‘em up radiogram and was unfathomably called ‘the study’.
Remarkably, I always said yes. I enjoyed rooting around in the empty bedrooms usually barred from my view when the boys were in situ. I thought I was very grown up making the beds and helping Mum change the home-made covers on the ‘continental quilts’.
The replacing of sheets and blankets with these new-fangled duvets was a moment of real novelty in the house, and came at quite a cost, I imagine. Consequently the covers were created from old bed sheets and net curtains which caught our toes rather than our dreams.
I loved arranging my brothers’ things in piles after dusting the surfaces, and most excitingly, I loved playing whatever record was on the turntable in the front bedroom – something forbidden to me when they were at home.
What I heard would depend who was playing last, but if it was my oldest brother it could be the Sex Pistols (the Who Killed Bambi image on the back of the Great Rock and Roll Swindle traumatised me for months), Sham 69, the Police or Dark Side of the Moon… if it was the second born it could be Shostakovich, or Tchaikovsky, or Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King, or best of best of all, Julie Covington singing Evita (I still know every word).
In the back bedroom, the atmosphere was different – the music was reggae, Ska, Marianne Faithfull and Two-Tone, joss sticks commonly masked the sneaky rollies, and posters of Glastonbury festival and Bob Marley adorned the walls – it was darker, more mysterious, grottily exotic.
My own room was so tiny that if I stood up out of bed too quickly, I ran the risk of banging my head on the opposite wall, and at that stage the music was Grease‘.
Anyway, whichever room, whatever the soundtrack, the methodology was to make a bigger mess first and then put it all right. Strip the beds, pile up the washing, collect any stray crockery and pile it up on the landing ready to sort out.
The bigger the pile the better, according to Mum, as that meant it couldn’t be ignored, it had to be dealt with.
This trip down memory lane is not to tell you I came from a tidy home – I didn’t… it was as full and chaotic as any other. It’s more to point out the sense of calm those fixed points in the week, when everything was in its place, instilled in my mother. And if she was calm, the knock-on effect was beneficial to all.
Back to the present day, I have inherited that sense of calm with a tidy house. My mini-me apprenticeship carried on through my adult life. Although I never managed to spread my ‘blitz’ enthusiasm to my own offspring, my motivation and approach are just the same.
Dragging everything out from under the beds unleashed the dust bunnies, more akin to General Woundwart in Watership Down, than Hazel, and as my man clutched at his chest and reached dramatically for a pump, I employed my mother’s modus operandi and piled it high on the landing.
“None of this goes back under so make up your mind what is staying and what is going…” and as I set to Henrying the carpet under the bed to its proper colour, and evicting cobwebs from the ceiling, I’m sure I caught a whiff of Marie Kondo’s approval.
Over the next couple of days, every corner of the upstairs endured similar savagery and the car filled up with charity and tip stuff. Even the twin towers were stuffed into the recycling.
‘Just for now’ was a banned phrase, as was ‘I’ll stick it in the attic’ if it was anything resembling a stalling tactic for making a decision on whether it was useful, joyful, or valuable… but legit storage was allowed.
Each task seemed to generate another one. It soon became clear that doing the whole house in those short days was a bit ambitious, so I should content myself with wrangling the bedrooms and the tiny study (an actual study, with books and no dart board…and no radiogram…), my workplace, into submission.
Reconciled with that, I began to take pleasure in the detail, in being a bit more thorough.
The cleaning blitzes of my childhood were speedy, something to do before making a cake, before eating crumpets in front of the telly, before Doctor Who and the Generation Game.
This task, while driven and tinged with urgency, was much more slo-mo, more mindful and deliberate.
As we worked through it, and created more space, the atmosphere began to lift.
I realised as I starfished in my bed on the first night, that I was aware of the space beneath it, I could imagine the air flowing freely, I could breathe.
I have not yet tackled that which lives under the sideboard, and in every spare corner downstairs – much more of my parents’ bequeathed lives.
All that is yet to come.
But for now, even as the dust settles anew, at least spring has its foot in the door.
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