Each hour, a roomful of shame

Here come the catkins. In a matter of days, they’ll sprout filaments that in time fall to the ground like confetti and get caught in my pillowcases as they dry on the line, or creep under doorways. Only to disappear when the first leaves arrive. And the tree becomes a summer umbrella that wards off heat and houses birds.

An empty tram rattles past. How must it be for tram drivers, these days, for train drivers and bus drivers, those people whose task is to ferry people throughout the town, when there is no one to ferry?

A sense of purposelessness, of futility. Why run if there’s no one travelling.

The catkins on the pin oak pay scant attention to the pandemic.

The empty trams, schools, playgrounds, the bus shelters. The seasons go through their cycles, a marker of time. For most there is a sameness to the days, as if we’re held in solitary and must resort to our minds and memories for comfort.

There’s little else to give pleasure unless you’re good with your hands, and can sew dresses, make masks for the protection effort, grow vegetables and keep your house clean.

These human tasks that help to keep us purposeful even at a time when so many of us feel useless.

The way I felt as a child when we stayed for days at my brother’s house. During school holidays with no structure in our lives, left to make sense of our time on our own.

I had books to read but coming out of a full school term I wanted something else beyond books. And this was not my home. This was a series of rooms in a small half house where my brother who had taken on work as a printmaker, lived alone in anticipation of marrying the new woman in his life.

We could stay with him for a few days during the holidays to give us a break from our father’s bender, to keep us safe. It was not home.

When you’re at home, you can always find ways of occupying your time. No matter how trite. Your space and time are your own and if boredom hits, there are ways around it.

But staying in my brother’s house there was no way around the boredom. He showed us how to use his record player and I sat for hours listening to the plaintive voice of Paul Robeson, Ol’ Man River, the songs of the slaves and I linked my own situation to theirs even as I knew I had it so much better.

To feel sorry for myself was a danger I needed to bypass but tempting.

When you’re fifteen years old and the grownups have left you to your own devices, in charge of younger sisters and a brother who can amuse themselves in front of a television set or in the garden dragging sticks and loose bricks to make a fort, my mind soared to lofty thoughts.

These were the days of terrible poetry, words scrawled onto scraps of paper, forced into rhymes that made no sense but sounded exquisite to my fifteen-year-old ear.

Poetry in preference to doing things.

These were the days when my body felt like an enemy. Every day my clothes too tight and getting tighter. Every day a smell that came from under my armpits, between my legs, a strange sickly smell, the smell of my mother, of ageing, no longer the jam and butter toast smell of childhood.

I roamed from room to room. Scraped my hand along the sheen of my brother’s red velvet coat, the one he wore on weekends when he was out to impress the woman who was to become his wife. In the days when he clenched a pipe between his teeth, twenty-one years old and as ancient as my grandfather whose pipe tobacco he imitated.

Amphora of the forest smell. An old man and not yet married, but ready to enter the new world of adulthood, which called to me too through the stink of my body, only I did not want to go there. Not yet.

Did not want to struggle with the sense I needed now to preen and pamper myself as my older sister did. Smear lipstick around my mouth much as mother did at five o’clock before my father came home when she needed to take on a smile of welcome.

Welcome to what? I did not want this life of shame. This life of closeting myself inside a body that was no longer mine but belonged to any man who would have me.

The nuns taught us we must take care not to offer ourselves up too soon. Chaste love is pure love, like the love of god for us, his children. The other type of love, the lustful type was sinful and belonged to the territory of that dangerous garden, the one in which Eve tempted Adam.

Original sin on our souls forever more.

It was Eve’s fault and she has paid for it ever since as all women were to pay for it. I too when my turn came, and I did not want it.

I only wanted the day to pass. Inside the kitchen beside the bench that shone silver under the weight of the dishcloth I had dragged over again and again.

Our sink at home was never so clean as my brother’s sink. He had learned under the ministrations of the woman he was to marry. She taught him how to keep a clean house. How to wear deodorant under his arms so that he no longer wore the stink of untamed adolescence, the way I smelled myself, only mine was a female smell, more sickly than my brother’s smells and worse in some ways. An in-between smell, between stale clothes that have been left piled in a cupboard for weeks on end. The musty smell of neglect.

The musty smell of my underarms as the day dragged on and my body became even more of a burden when my mind could find no way of offering solace.

I think of these days now. The days when time dragged. Nothing to do. No place to go and no one nearby to offer the comfort of friendship or a mother’s love. We were alone in those days. Sisters and brothers rattling around our older brother’s house watching out windows as the sun moved across the sky to signal the day’s close when my brother returned home from work and there was activity again in the form of a meal to prepare. Food to eat and then the bliss of sleep.

I think of these days now, under Covid. Endless days when nothing happens and yet everything happens. Our lives slip by and the catkins will soon turn to lime green leaves, that splendid spring colour, which lasts only a short while before the green deepens and then sometime later as the end of summer turns to red, yellow and brown. Then dry out, crackle and die.

The cycle begins again.

In Covid the only cycles come with the weather. The cycle of human activity, the trams filled with people on their way to work, the cars on the roads going somewhere, the people on the street walking purposefully.

Now we can only kill time until time stops killing us with its relentless fear of contamination.

Stained, soiled and sore.

Already my new red jumper has threads pulled. Which is of no great consequence to anyone but me. I had hoped the jumper might hold its newness for a while longer and then comforted myself with the thought, like the first scratch on a new car, the first wound on a baby’s skin, it takes away the pressure to maintain this pristine state. 

It’s all downhill from here. Downhill or uphill, however you look at it. But at least that sense of fragility that accompanies the use of something brand new diminishes once the first blemish erupts.

By way of contrast, every renovation in this house is unfinished. Somehow the strips of moulding that go to seal the floor and wall joins have never been put in place. The builders on the second renovation went bust and I had a baby a week early and so those small finishing touches were never completed. Although my husband swore, he’d get around to them one day, it never happened. 

It’s funny how those small, unfinished bits get forgotten, if only visually. I don’t notice them anymore even when I get the vacuum cleaner out over the years and find myself trying to scoop up a lone paper clip, or safety pin, bead or Lego piece that got trapped in the small openings still visible between the parquetry floor’s ending and the wall.

So many treasures slipped into this cavity and many I will never reach. Most of the time I don’t even notice but I wonder about an observant visitor. Will they notice the incompleteness of my house, or the thick dust that turns to a sliver of grime on the ledges of window tucked behind curtains and rarely visited,

Ever since our cleaner stopped coming during Covid and I’ve taken on the task of housework here along with my daughter and occasional efforts from her boyfriend, I’ve noticed the cobwebs are on the increase and the dust is beginning to leave its mark. I get to the major cleaning tasks, the bathrooms, toilets, kitchen sink and floors, but the ledges that are everywhere do not scream to me as loudly, until it’s too late and there’s a film of dust across almost every unused surface. 

Olga Lorenzo once told a writing class I attended when one of our group was complaining she had too little time to write because her teaching job swallowed up all her time, ‘What would you prefer they wrote on your grave stone: “They kept a tidy house”, or they wrote a fantastic book?’ 

The latter of course. 

The question stays with me and justifies in my mind at least my comfort in not spending too many hours on housework. Then I watched the pleasure in my daughter’s eyes when she completed sewing a summer hat yesterday, from scraps of material she’d collected first for mask-making under Covid. She dragged out the sewing machine and took to ordering patterns online. She now sews away in her spare time. Her satisfaction is palpable. A sense of a job well done, a task completed, something to show for her efforts. 

My daughter completes these pieces. Her perfectionist father has more trouble getting things to that finished stage, that stage where once you decide enough is enough, you must then accept its imperfections, no further amount of work on it will improve it. Now it only needs to age and grow tarnished in the process.

For a long time now I’ve been dancing around a title for my second book, one of those memorable titles that signpost the book’s contents without giving too much away. An enticing title and there are so many around at the moment. 

I love the way book titles these days can encompass entire clauses and even multiple clauses, never quite a sentence. I love the way people are playing around with ideas in the titles. And I want to do something similar which is why the title that came to me, ‘If he touches you, scream’, may not work. It did the minute it snuck into my head but on further reflection, it loses its appeal. 

Book titles hint at beauty, even when the book offers ugliness and cruelty at its core. And all I can think about now are those early blemishes on my skin, well before the acne of adolescence. When I was small, I developed a series of school sores on my face around my lips and nose and on my knee. The scars are still there as if from wounds. They must have been deep those sores. And in my memory, the colour purple. They used gentian violet to deal with outbreaks. I only learned as an adult that school sores are contagious, that we can pass them on, that I must have collected them from a sibling or passed them on, much the way we can pass on this virus which tyrannises us at present. 

The cat has begun to squawk, the kettle just boiled, and life drags me away from my writing as it tends to do every morning after I’ve written for a short time. Insistent life which calls more loudly than the cat. I have jobs to do, rooms to clean, floors to vacuum and toilets to disinfect before I can settle into that restful time called the weekend. 

And still no title for my book. Still no moulding for the floor. Everything incomplete. Everything flawed. Stained, soiled and sore.