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. 

My Cleaning Lady is not a Slave

Two months into the year and already my desktop is cluttered with papers. It happens so quickly. I scarcely notice them piled up one after the other. I cannot complain. After all I am the one who puts them there. I am the one who leaves them there each day with the thought I will file them later. But I keep putting it off.

The woman who cleans our house is away for two weeks and I am mindful that I will need to try harder to keep abreast of all the mess that builds up over time elsewhere, not just here on my writing desk.

I had intended to write the words ‘cleaning lady’, but such words speak to me of class privilege and superiority. It took years before I allowed myself the privilege of a cleaning lady. Is it a privilege, or as some of my friends and colleagues at the time suggested, merely a more sensible use of my time? Besides, I rationalise, it involves giving someone else a job.

The woman who cleans for me is my equal. She is not a servant. She is not a slave. I pay her well, but still the concept bothers me and I hesitate to write it down here, to write about it for fear that readers might consider me to be blue blooded, well heeled, a snob, all those things that smack of class privilege from over one hundred years ago.

I used to be quite a housekeeper myself. Before this woman came to help with the cleaning on Fridays, I spent the better part of each weekend cleaning out the house, the toilets, the bathroom, the dusting, the vacuum cleaning, and the changing of sheets on beds.

I took pleasure in my efforts in those days when my children were young. Not now. Now I hate housework. I do whatever is necessary on a daily basis to get dirty dishes into the dishwasher after meals, to wipe down bench tops, to wash, hang and fold away clothes, but otherwise I keep my domestic habits to a minimum.

These days I spend almost every spare minute I have beyond my paid work, and the shopping, and the occasional task I must share with one of my now essentially adult children, to the business of writing.

In between my efforts at writing I read. But it is the writing that offers me greatest pleasure. I have an ergonomically designed chair to protect my back from the ill effects of sitting for too long each day and I visit the optometrist every two years to get my glasses adjusted so that my aging eyes can cope with the glare and proximity of the computer screen.

Let’s face it. Writing is a prosaic activity. The sight of someone hunched in front of a computer screen tapping away at a key board is one that does not inspire much confidence in said person. It is not like watching someone dive into a swimming pool, smash a tennis racket against a ball or climb the slopes of a mountain. The sight of someone who taps away at a keyboard has a quality of excluding the onlooker. I know this from memory.

Many years ago before I started to take my own writing seriously, when my children were still little and I spent many more hours at housework than I do today, my husband went back to university to study for a law degree. He was a conscientious student and although he tried hard to confine his studying to the nine to five life of a university student, he still needed to bring work home and to study on weekends, especially around exam time.

I remember well the resentment I felt as I watched him tap away at the keyboard in those days on one of the first computers that then existed, while I swept the floor or chopped vegetables. In those days we had no room for a study and he worked in the central living area, which continues today as the place in this household where people gather to eat, to talk and to play. I felt left out then, as if he were engaged in deep conversation with a beloved friend and there was no room for me.

I think of this memory often these days because now it is my turn to be so deeply involved in conversation with my keyboard, and others – my husband and my children – are the ones who must suffer from this sense of exclusion.
‘That’s all you ever do,’ my children lament. ‘You tap away at your computer.’

I resist a defensive response. I know it is true. If you want to find me these days, if I am not in the kitchen preparing food or tidying up after adult children, who still sometimes neglect to return the lid to the vegemite jar or fail to put their dirty dishes into the dishwasher, you will find me here, where I am now writing down endless words, writing into the ether to an imaginary audience.

I drive my car past my old primary school often. We still live in the neighbourhood where I spent a large chunk of my childhood, from five to fourteen years of age.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, OLGC sits alongside the church of the same name on Whitehorse Road in Deepdene. It is a prestigious neighbourhood. It is now, it was then, maybe more so now, but even as a child I knew that our neighbours and the children with whom I struggled to learn every day were from well to do families who seemed not to understand the struggle that my parents endured daily.

We lived on the fringes of the zone that took in the catchment area for this school. In more ways than one. Each day we walked to school, past the mansions on Mont Albert Road and the well appointed houses of Camberwell. We wore a typical uniform, the girls in blue and white gingham dresses in summer, tunics and pale blue shirts in winter, the boys in blue shirts and grey trousers, shorts all year round while at primary school. Our school jumper was grey, our school colours blue and gold. Hair ribbons were meant to be pale blue but somehow such ribbons if they ever found their way into our house soon found their way out, and more often than not, I tied my hair together with a rubber band, which the head mistress of the school, Mother Mary John, despised.
‘You’re a disgrace to the school, without wearing the proper school uniform and that includes the regulation ribbons’.

On Sundays we walked to Mass through the same tree lined streets but this time accompanied by our mother who gazed longingly into people’s gardens day dreaming of the time when she might own a house of her own. At that time we rented and already I knew the stigma attached to renting a house in Australia, the country in which home ownership is a must.

When she was a girl my mother lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, Holland. Her parents employed a housekeeper to help her mother with her five sons and two daughters. My mother was the oldest. She told us often of how she would spend hours on her bed with a book avoiding the work that had been allocated to her as the oldest girl, notwithstanding the housekeeper. She hated housework then, as a child. She hated it as an adult when she was in the care herself of nine children and could ill afford the help of a housekeeper. Here I am more than half a century or so later complaining of the same lot.

I am the most slovenly of my three sisters, perhaps even of my five brothers, four of whom have wives who might clean up after them. I have given up on the call to domesticity, I am ashamed to say, but proud as well. It is an act of defiance.

In one of my writing classes many years ago, our then teacher, Olga Lorenzo, talked about the need for us women writers in particular to forgo the demands of domesticity and even of paid work in other fields to make time to write.
‘What do you want to have written on your gravestone?’ she asked. ‘That she wrote that she kept a tidy house or that she wrote a good book?’

The answer is obvious.