It is pitch black; like an idiot, I am teetering on a stool cleaning windows and muttering that there are far better ways to spend my life that doing chores. To say that I hate housework would be inaccurate. I don’t mind the jobs themselves, and I love the feeling when they are done, but, after decades of doing them, I’ve gone right off the necessity of housework.
I do not make a habit of nocturnal window-cleaning, but the rain-splattered panes had been bugging me for a while and, having rolled up my sleeves to do some heavy-duty cleaning, I didn’t feel like leaving this, the final job, till morning. When that rare mood takes me, it is one of those ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ things. And I was having company… and that means that in spite of my best efforts, I cannot help myself.
This is an ancient habit… conditioning from earliest childhood of which I have failed abysmally to be rid. ‘Having company’, although you know with absolute certainty that they will neither know, notice nor even care whether or not you have cleaned, means that you clean regardless. In part, it is a gesture of care and respect towards your guest… in part, it a promise of comfort and welcome. Partly, I begin to think, it is a form of self expression. Just as a artist may choose to veil a work in progress until he is happy with its form, so a home, that is always a work in progress, must feel ‘right’ in your own eyes so that you are comfortable when you open its doors.
It matters very little what you do or do not have. The decor and furnishings matter only in as far as they become an expression of who you are. You start with a blank canvas of empty rooms, and a home evolves, little by little, from the small things that make up your own life and personality. When you roll up your sleeves to make it presentable, what you are really doing is cleaning and polishing an image, both a snapshot of who you really are and the image of yourself that you wish others to see. Intimate truth and fantasy, hand in hand.
My home always used to be spotless, my garden neat as a pin. These days, things are rather more relaxed. Time was that I would have brandished the lawnmower at dawn, or got up early to scrub the floors just in case anyone came… conforming to the expected standards of a Yorkshirewoman who was raised in the era of well-scrubbed doorsteps and pristine lace curtains.
In spite of the itch to clean for company, my days of scrubbing the doorstep and blue-ing the curtains are over. I no longer choose to submit to that prescribed mask that was so often plastered over the face of poverty. Because that was the thing… in the days when poverty was the norm in my home county, when everyone was in the same boat, we all understood that small pride of showing a prim and proper image to the world. We hid the lacunae behind a surface so well starched that it crackled. It wasn’t about pretending you were any better than you were, or even better than your neighbours, it was about a stoic refusal to repine or advertise your family problems; it was about making the best of what you had too, taking pride in it. They aren’t bad things to subscribe to… only to become enslaved by.
The illusion held until a stranger wandered in and judged you on the whiteness of your lace curtains or the uniformity of the row of terraced houses of soot-blackened brick. They did not know what was going on behind their doors, how many times Mother was simply ‘not hungry’, or ‘really preferred’ just potatoes and gravy. Nor did they see the kinship between the families who shared a single outside toilet at the end of the street and who all hung their most intimate laundry like flags across the street. But kinship there was and a companionship that looked after its own.
I wasn’t born to the terraces. But I have lived that life too and seen it from both without and within. I have seen the shared laughter of having little, as well as the spiritual poverty that can live in the most beautiful of homes. Behind the closed doors, the well-scrubbed steps and the gleaming lace at blind windows, so many different stories played out. In one home a young woman might dream of the wider world, in another a new born child wail its welcome, in a third an old man kiss the cold cheek of his wife of fifty years before closing her eyes for a final time. Walk down that prim little street and you would never have known. Judge the repetitive façade and you missed the human stories behind it.
When I think back, I can see how easily habits and stereotypes are imposed upon us by others… others who follow, all unknowing, the dictates of their own. Many never find a way to break free. All the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ define so much of our public façade in line with our perceived social standing. The fear of letting go and being yourself in face of others’ disapproval or disparagement is very real.
The ‘dark, satanic mills’ of my childhood home were not simply the cotton and woollen mills with their machinery and smoking chimneys, they were also the mechanical behaviours, the habits and customs that were passed down and absorbed without thought. Some of them…like making a welcome for a guest… still hold value, if only because they imply a level of thought and care. Others were designed to mask a reality and their ghosts serve a darker purpose, allowing us to hide behind a tended image.
Yet behind our own conventional façades, each one of us is an individual, with our own story unfolding behind curtained eyes. We can disguise them with the trappings society recognises… the scrubbed doorstep of acceptability… yet we need to be prepared to cross the threshold with each other and see what lies deeper, learning to invite others in when the inner furnishings are unpolished and there are weeds in our emotional flowerbeds, just as much as we need to learn to cross the thresholds of others and embrace them for who they are, not what they may seem to be.
*images from Leodis: photographic archive of Leeds