Mum’s strategy for keeping her domestic world in order involved a strict but predictable regime of household tasks that could not be altered, curtailed, or postponed. She called it being house proud. She claimed to love housework but it made her miserable and bad-tempered. The reward lay not in the doing but in the completion, when all evidence that we actually lived in our three-bed semi had been purged from every room. All through my childhood she kept a relentless hold on the domestic chores. After my brother was born, she resumed her part-time job, baulking at any suggestion of hired help. I still marvel at how she managed to keep us all in clean clothes with only a line in the garden, Lux soap flakes and the kitchen sink. A boiler which needed frequent feeding with coke was also a messy business.
The mania she had for cleaning wasn’t helped by the fact that it was such a hard slog to simply stay on top of it all. We had a ceiling airer on a pulley system and all the ironing was done at the kitchen table, covered in a thick sheet for the purpose. A laundry van collected bedclothes and nappies and the dry cleaners was also called into service for the good clothes. In addition to the daily washing, dusting and vacuuming duties, every couple of months I would discover her bending low or climbing high in a bid to access all parts of the hard-to-reach places in our home. On those days I watched her disappear away from me, searching for Narnia in the cupboard under the stairs, dustpan and brush in hand. Or balanced on a chair at the bay window of the lounge, so the net curtains could be removed for another hand wash they didn’t need. The room faced onto the street and when all six curtains were down we were exposed to the full gaze of the world for the next twenty-four hours.
Often, I’d be drawing at the kitchen table as the cleaning continued around me. Installed at some height, the kitchen cupboards were an ever-present, looming threat, for in her mind these harboured unseen layers of dirt that must be routinely flushed out. A bowl of hot soapy water would be placed on the kitchen table and then began a procession of tins and packets downward to any available surface. Cloth in hand, back up she’d go to wash and wipe the interior surfaces clean of the grime she believed was there.The food shopping and cooking were taken care of by Dad who was a professional chef, but the organisation and storage of tinned and dry goods came under Mum’s jurisdiction. When Dad needed anything from above, it was Mum, the keeper of the cupboards, who insisted on rising to locate the chosen item, passing it down like a museum curator handling a priceless exhibit.
According to Mum, dust and dirt, if left to settle on a surface, encouraged the advance of ants, mice and spiders. I was told these pests were particularly attracted to pencil shavings, so I was not allowed to carry out this maintenance in my bedroom, unsupervised. All pencils had to be sharpened straight into the kitchen bin under Mum’s watchful eye, lest a stray shaving escape my attention and land on the floor. She started her daily routine with a polishing challenged to which she was particularly devoted. The new wardrobes that dominated one wall of my parents’ bedroom had doors with a high gloss beige finish and every day she checked every inch of their surface for stray finger marks. The doors had no handles and shut with a click. They were impossible to open without leaving tell-tale evidence of human interference. She also spent a lot of time arranging and rearranging her clothes, carefully angling each garment on its identical hanger, lest it make contact with its neighbour, thus causing a crease of disapproval that would necessitate the exercise's being repeated again and again.
This kind of wardrobe maintenance was usually the prelude to an evening spent trying on outfits in front of the mirror. My parents had been invited to a wedding and Mum was in two minds about wearing a long evening gown. The garment in question had been hung on the back of the bedroom door as a reminder that a decision needed to be made.That evening she tried it on and had a practice run. She was petite and the clingy, crepe fabric with a dramatic off-the-shoulder neckline, swamped her little frame. I was sitting on the bedroom floor with a book. I stopped reading when she started applying her make-up because I liked watching what she did. She had a collection of Max Factor pencils, pots and palettes to create the Elizabeth Taylor look. A thick wedge of black colour was applied close to the upper lash line and then, using her finger, a jade coloured cream was rubbed across the rest of the lid. Black mascara in a small dry block came with an applicator resembling a tiny toothbrush. It all seemed most unpromising until she brought it to life with a bit of spit. The brush was then wiped across the moistened block to transfer enough of the boot black colour onto the brush. With her mouth peculiarly ajar, she stared into the mirror, tilting her head to ensure the brush hit its target every time.
Mum slipped her feet into a pair of silver stiletto heels and the transformation was complete. After a last look in the mirror she went downstairs. When the third stair from the bottom creaked beneath her foot, I took my book and followed her. She sashayed into the kitchen and took up a position in front of the sink, with one foot turned demurely out like a model posing for a photograph. Dad was reading his newspaper and didn’t look up straightaway.
“Put that paper down a minute. I want you to look at me in this and tell me what you think.” I knew she wanted Dad to tell her that she looked like a million dollars, that she was the most glamorous, stylish, beautiful woman he had ever seen. He was kind, but he didn’t say any of those things.
“Oh! Right. Very nice. Turn around. It’s an unusual colour, isn’t it?’’ Dad was colour blind, so he was already straying into dangerous territory, guaranteed to rile.
“Unusual colour? What are you talking about? It’s classic French navy! Unusual, he says!” Mum often called on an invisible third person for impact but oblivious, Dad blundered on.
“Oh, navy, is it? You know I’m no good with colours. It looks sort of brown to me.”
“Why do you always have to focus on the wrong thing? Never mind the colour – what about the style?”
“Well it’s very smart for the wedding. Flattering, really.”
“What do you mean, flattering?”
Dad started to flounder. ‘‘Well I, err… it suits you!’’
“You didn’t say that the last time I wore it.”
“I don’t remember seeing you in it before.”
“For goodness sake! I’ve worn it a million times. That’s it, it’s going. I can tell you think frumpy.”
“When did I say that? Frumpy hasn’t passed my lips.”
“You didn’t have to. It’s that look on your face!”
He chuckled at the accusation, trying to encourage her to see the funny side of his hopeless predicament. “What look have I got? I haven’t got any look. You’re mad!”
There was no way back now and she flounced out, vowing never to ask his opinion again. He called up from the bottom of the stairs. “The dress looks lovely. What do you want me to say?”
“Nothing! Nothing at all. I’m sorry I asked.”
Dad’s slippers swished on the carpet as he trudged back to the kitchen. The sound of his feet made me think he was sad because of what Mum had said. Sometimes she let me have her rejected dresses for dressing up so I followed her upstairs to the bedroom but there was something else I needed to ask first.
She was putting the evening shoes back in their allotted space at the bottom of the wardrobe. “Mum, why has Dad got a mum, but Nanna and Poppa are your aunt and uncle?”
She looked up when she heard the question and her face still looked cross from the conversation with Dad. “Well, because Nanna and Poppa are like a mum and dad. They adopted me when I was a little girl. It’s time you got ready for bed.”
I wondered what it would be like to be adopted. I didn’t connect it with loss or sadness. Being adopted sounded interesting and special, like an unexpected discovery. No further explanation was needed because my imagination train had left the station. What if I didn’t really belong to this family? Maybe my ‘real’ parents would come one day to take me back? It was an exciting idea but I kept my thoughts to myself because it would make Mum angry if she knew what I was thinking. I knew that every family was different and everyone else’s seemed much more interesting than mine. I’d already had a glimpse of the kind of girl I could be with different parents and an older sibling, because of Jacqueline Muir and her family.
Jacqueline was a couple of years older than me and was like a big sister. We went to the same school and travelled on the bus together on the days Mum went to work. It suited Mum that someone else could look after me when she was busy so I spent a lot of time at Jacqueline’s house, where the set-up was not at all like at mine. Jacqueline’s parents were Scottish, spoke with a strange accent and were much older than my parents. Her dad spent most of his time at home, painting pictures and looking after his bees. He used to work in China when he was younger and had a lot of special Chinese ornaments in a locked display case in his study. He didn’t mind us looking at them through the glass. There was an apple orchard at the bottom of their garden to play in and a clearing where the bees were. We kept a safe distance from the beehives when we saw Mr. Muir collecting the honey, in his white clothes, wearing a funny hat with a veil covering his face. I didn’t want to spread something on my toast that was made by bees, but I thought Mr. Muir was very brave to put himself in danger from all their buzzing to get it.
An ancient grandfather clock constantly bing-bonged in the hallway of their house and there was always a distinctly doggy aroma from Honey, their long-haired cocker spaniel. Mrs. Muir didn’t seem to care about the rain spoiling her hair or whether the house was in a mess. Piles of books, papers and ornaments covered every surface so that cleaning must have been hard to do, but Mrs. Muir never gave any indication that this was something she was concerned about. I couldn’t imagine her ever wearing an evening dress or getting annoyed if Mr. Muir said the wrong thing about her clothes.I was a little frightened of Mrs Muir until I got used to her accent. She was often in the kitchen, preparing dishes that sounded grown-up and tasted delicious, like Welsh Rarebit.
The family made a point of watching any particularly Scottish programmes on television, like the White Heather Club and Mr. Muir sometimes wore a kilt. There was another peculiar animal smell in the house whenever Mrs. Muir cooked haggis. We children could taste it if we wanted to but when I found out it was a stuffed sheep’s stomach I said no thank you. Downstairs, in the back room of the house, there was a big old piano. Jacqueline had a lesson every week and her music books were kept in an untidy pile on the top. She showed me how to play a tune called Chopsticks that used the black keys and the yellowy coloured ones. We both sat on the piano stool and she played her bit and I played mine and it sounded like a proper piece of music. When Dad came to pick me up, we played it again for him and he thought it was very good.
The Muirs had an extra room in the attic of their house where we played board games or listened to records. We liked the funny stories told by a man with an American accent called Bob Newhart. We had to climb up a stepladder to reach the small opening at the top but there was enough room for a few of us to be up there at the same time, all giggling and having fun.
One year I even had my birthday party at Jacqueline’s house. Mum probably thought it would make too much mess to have lots of children tramping through our lounge and since she was pregnant with my brother, Mrs Muir must have offered to help out. I don’t remember a single time that Jacqueline came to my house to play, although one summer she did come with us on a holiday to France. We kept count of the number of Coca-Colas we drank in two weeks. It was well into the twenties.
A few days after the incident with the evening dress I went to their house and her mum said I could play upstairs in Jacqueline’s bedroom until she came back from her piano lesson.
I sat on the bed and wondered how I could amuse myself. There was an old-fashioned wardrobe made of heavy, dark wood in one corner of the room. A door had swung open and some of the drawers inside were half closed, as if someone had been in too much of a hurry to care how they were left. I recognised the dressing up clothes, spilling out from some of them. I started at the top drawer and worked down, depositing everything I found in each one on the bed. There was a pile of hats, long flowing skirts, dolls’ clothes, swathes of tartan fabric, chiffon scarves, richly coloured velvet dresses and a poncho. All the clothes had a musty, old smell about them. Mixed up with them was a funny false beard, some random playing cards, a book of magic tricks, bits of stage makeup, homemade masks, several curly wigs, a cape, a couple of old blankets and a set of oil paints.
I remained focused on creating my own order out of the chaos. I folded all the clothes neatly and put each item back separately. I stored the disparate accessories and objects together, making sure each drawer could close without hindrance, as it was supposed to do. Some of the drawers were stiff and went back in a crooked way and I had to try a few times before they closed properly. I put the blankets by themselves in the bottom drawer because they were for the bed and not part of the dressing up collection. When I was satisfied that everything was as tidy as I liked my own toy cupboard to be at home, I sat back on my heels and smiled to myself, just as Mrs Muir put her head round the door and told me Jaqueline was home. I didn’t tell her what I’d done. I wanted my tidying up to be a big surprise for her. I was hoping she’d be so pleased she’d want to tell Mum.
Ruth Badley is currently exploring her third career as a writer and speaker. She is a qualified drama teacher and worked in secondary and adult education in the UK and Australia, before establishing a successful career in journalism and public relations. Her memoir, Where are the Grown-ups? examines the impact of a hidden tragedy on three generations of her family. She is the narrator for the audio format of the book, to be released later this year. She is currently working on her second book, a nostalgic food and travel memoir.