The nature of dust

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Yesterday I cleaned out the vacuum cleaner, a Dyson, designed to remove dog and cat hair. I used the compressor in my husband’s workshop, this great long thin nozzle attached to a bulky machine that lets off the most ungodly groaning when in action.

The compressor blasts a wind so strong it can strip dust from within the body of the vacuum cleaner and from the surface of my hands in great swathes.

One of my daughters once wrote an essay on the nature of dust. Who’d have thought dust held such meaning as to oppress whole generations of women throughout the centuries, women who were given the endless and thankless task of removing it.

You strip the dust from the vacuum cleaner and with one or two more times around the rugs in the house, the vacuum cleaner is full again.

I went though a phase where I first discovered the satisfactions of cleaning out a house to within an inch of its life when I was young.

I lived with my then boyfriend, Paul, a gambler, and every Saturday he went off to the racetrack to win or lose the money we needed to live off. Mostly, he won enough to keep us afloat.

In those days, I was a student on a government allowance of $12 a week, hardly enough to feed us, let alone pay the rent.

Paul paid for everything in the last two years of my undergraduate life and in return I kept house.

It seemed a fair enough trade, especially as I reasoned one day I’d complete my studies, get a proper job and then it could be Paul’s turn to be kept, his turn to go back to study.

His turn to keep house.

This in the later stages of our time together became our shared dream after Paul came to realise the life of a professional gambler was not all it was cracked up to be, unless you had millions to play around with.

The big rollers could do it, the men of wealth, but not Paul.

His pockets did not extend to coverage of even small losses when they happened often enough. The power bill languished on the hall table unpaid and we worked in the dark.

In the meantime, I learned to live an unexpected life, a life of uncertainty when it came to money.

Cleaning was different. Cleaning I could control.

To this end, I splashed whole buckets of water, laced with bleach, across the patch of lino in our kitchen and watched the layers of filth slip off to reveal a pale green colour underneath.

Such bliss.

But the floorboards were tricky. They were coated with years of grime, this in our Black Rock home, the one Paul rented for a song.

It stood as a half house over the road from the beach and I didn’t realise it at the time, its owner was biding his time till he could find a decent buyer who would turn this house, half of which Paul and I occupied, into a luxurious block of flats overlooking the sea.

The place was ready for demolition. It held land value only.

When I think back on how much cleaning of that thankless place I went through, I’m awed by my sense of the waste, especially when I reconsider the endless process of cleaning and how mindless it became.

I realised this most clearly on a Saturday night all those years ago in the Black Rock half house when Paul announced he’d asked friends over.

Normally keen to enjoy visitors, I found that day I did not want them around.

They’d only make a mess of my pristine handiwork. They’d leave dirty dishes around the rooms and grit in the carpet. They’d mess up the toilet, which I had domesticated back to sparkling white porcelain.

After cleaning, I preferred to keep people in the house to a minimum. Even at the time, I considered there was something misplaced about wanting to keep people away in order to keep a house clean.

In time, I left Paul and most of my obsessive cleaning habits behind, though once a year, at Christmas time, I try to conduct a similar clean.

This year I’m hampered by my wrist. This year I’m slowed in my tracks. This year I have to leave the thankless dust to accumulate until next year, by which time I might realise the thanklessness of the task and pay someone else to do it for me, or even move to a smaller place, though that’s unlikely for several years to come.

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4 Comments on The nature of dust

  1. Karen C
    January 16, 2017 at 7:14 pm (3 months ago)

    People tell me my house always looks clean and tidy and yet I devote very little time to cleaning. I must have a gift.
    I also went through a house-proud period in my early marriage and became so obsessed that the one day I dedicated to cleaning, I refused to cook because it would spoil the shiny, sparkling kitchen. I’m not like that anymore, but I do dislike people leaving a mess (except me).
    I have a friend who is a gambler (but we don’t talk about it) and he is the most optimistic person I know. Regardless of whatever money muddles he might be in (again, we don’t talk about it), he firmly believes it will all be fixed when he wins Tattslotto. He recently lived here between homes but never lifted a broom or a vacuum! (we don’t talk about it.)
    My darling MiL was the hardest working person I knew. She ran from morning til night cleaning, washing & caring til she could do it no more. Her children all talked about the artwork she had done over the years but all the searching never uncovered it. I suspect she discarded it as ‘dust-collectors’ that no one would be interested in.
    There is nothing left of her now. Nothing of her personality to share with her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
    And the beautifully clean home? Sold.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      January 20, 2017 at 1:18 pm (3 months ago)

      This reminds me of something a writing friend said to me once, Karen. What would you prefer to have written on your grave: she kept a clean house or she wrote a good book? I know what I’d prefer. Your second story makes that point. And extraordinary about your gambling friend? I suppose when you write about the things you don’t talk about it keeps it all a lot cleaner. Not that this is your intention but perhaps his. I too enjoy the fantasy of winning TattsLotto. So many of us do but I don’t know many people who rely on it as a way of resolving their difficulties. thanks, Karen.

      Reply
  2. Jim Murdoch
    January 16, 2017 at 11:34 pm (3 months ago)

    Whenever I think of dust the following quote always comes to mind: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” It’s by Quentin Crisp but the one thing about it that’s always puzzled me is that he was gay, quintessentially gay even, and if there’s one thing one tends to associate with homosexuals nowadays it’s their sense of cleanliness, perhaps as a natural reaction to being considered unclean (at least in a spiritual sense) by so many.

    I am not a cleaner and certainly not a fastidious one. I can even tolerate a fair amount of chaos as long as my personal spaces are orderly. When I’m working the rest of the house disappears pretty much anyway. I’m more of a tidier. A little dust her and there doesn’t offend or upset me in the slightest. If I know people are coming over I make more of an effort but even then I never go to extremes. I don’t see any point in dusting—it doesn’t remove anything, it simply spreads it around—and so I’m more likely to wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth. The bird’s cage is obviously the dirtiest thing in the flat. Who would ever have imagined such a tiny creature could create such mess and actual devastation? If he’s not throwing seeds around willy-nilly he’s shredding cardboard boxes, shedding feathers and pooing wherever and whenever the mood takes him.

    I do understand why cleaning might become an obsession. I’ve started working on editing ‘Left’ which is my only novel where all the main characters are women. The narrator’s a middle-aged woman who’s never worked after leaving uni and is perfectly content to be a housewife for a variety of reasons which I won’t go into but high up on the list is the fact that a home can be controlled when so many things in this life, particularly people, cannot. And so she cleans and tidies.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth
      January 20, 2017 at 1:12 pm (3 months ago)

      It’s that fantasy of control that fascinates me, Jim. To clean is to control and of course it’s illusory as with so many things. And it’s an issue that tends to assail women more than men because life has so far dictated that it’s mostly the women who get to clean, though that’s not always the case. Interesting what you say about Quentin crisp. Maybe the need for cleanliness reflects things that go beyond gender. All I know is that our need for cleanliness is a construction based in part on the human need for hygiene. We live longer lives when we keep certain germs at bay especially in places like hospitals and kitchens, but also the extremes of cleanliness can be dangerous, too. Hence all the allergies these days. As usual a balance is what we need.

      Reply

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