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The solitary jigsaw piece sits in the corner of the living room, daring me to ignore it. It is a battle of wills between me and it. I try to stare it out, but the corner section of a 32-piece puzzle of a dog flying an airplane wins, of course.
“What are you doing?” asks Joel, who is setting up our latest DVD box set, a classy American import with impenetrable dialogue.
I’m rifling through the shelves to find the puzzle that it belongs to. “I can’t watch TV knowing there’s a stray jigsaw piece. Think how annoying it will be next time we do the jigsaw and the last bit is missing.”
“Chillax? What are you? Twelve? Don’t you think that vampires are, like, the coolest things?”
He laughs and gets on with his episode selection.
The world divides between those who can watch television knowing there’s an isolated jigsaw fragment lying on the floor and those who can’t. While I’m down there I look under the sofa to see if there are any of its colleagues and I see something else: a cup. I look inside it and realize that it’s been buried there for weeks, but the tide has finally washed it ashore. I think it once had coffee in it, but it’s hard to tell now that a mold lathers up its sides like a green-tinged cappuccino froth. Since I drink only expensive soy lattes, I know it belongs to my husband.
“Look at this,” I say as I thrust it in his face.
He doesn’t recoil, but peers at it with interest. “Don’t you think it looks like one of those foams that they put around food in fashionable restaurants? I don’t know, hand-stacked quail confit with spume of snail extract.” He looks closer. “We should show it to Rufus. He’d be really interested to see how spores form.”
“Are you going to take it to the kitchen?”
“How do you know it’s mine?”
“Because this is the mug you always use because it’s so big, which is great because it means you can always leave some at the bottom for someone to spill.” He shrugs and presses play on the DVD. “Well, aren’t you?” One, two, three, I count slowly, just as I learned in an article I read recently about anger management.
He turns the sound up on the TV. I increase the volume of my sigh and stare at him hard. I crack first, I always do, and take the mug to the kitchen. I tip its contents down the sink and manually squish the bits of mold through the sieve that guards the plughole. My husband’s cup overflows with fungi. Mine with fury and irritation.
“Joel,” I shout on my return, having dispensed with both the mug and any attempts to avoid being angry. “I’m fed up with living in this squalor.” No response. “If you just tidied up as you went along…”
He’s entered that trance that our sons do when placed in front of a TV. I half expect him to go and sit with his face six inches from the screen. I try again, this time actually stamping my feet like Rumpelstiltskin. “You never do a thing around here, you’re worse than a child; my life would be so much easier if I had only two boys to contend with. You, you,” I splutter, groping for the best example to illustrate his total blindness to the quantities of detritus that I sweep away for him, “you don’t see how much I do. And how little you do.”
“Like what?” he says, finally.
“I don’t know, it’s not like I keep a list,” I said.
“Maybe you should.”
“Maybe I will.”
A list, I think the next day, maybe I should keep a list. One with all the things he does or doesn’t do around the house. I can’t see any other way of making him understand the state we’re in. What would I do with this list? Is making a list yet another thing that falls onto my plate, while the only thing on his is large hunks of meat?
I’m distracted by Gabe, who has retreated to the corner of the kitchen with the look of a mathematician thinking about the world’s largest prime number.
“Gabe, what are you doing? Wait, don’t do it, wait, wait, wait, let me get the potty. Here it is.” His trousers are whipped off and his bottom planted just in time to catch the daily event around which my life seems to revolve. “Well done,” I exclaim brightly, though in reality it’s more my triumph than his. “You are such a clever boy.” I hug him, which is ill-advised as I haven’t yet done a thorough wipe. “And clever boys get stickers.”
I go to the chart on the fridge door that proclaims to the world all of my second born’s successful encounters with the potty. There are not very many of them. “Here we are, football or dinosaur?”
We’ve had four months of more poo than a pig farm but we finally seem to be getting somewhere. I’ve always been skeptical about star charts, but our newly instituted one appears to be effective. He gets a sticker or a star for every potty success, every painless exit from the house to get Rufus to school and every prompt bedtime. There are no black marks for misdemeanors, not because Gabe is the sort of child who is free from sin, far from it, but because we’re the sort of craven parents who can’t bear to tell our children off. (And when we do dare to give them the meat of criticism, we have to douse it in the ketchup of endearments. “I’m not sure everyone else in the restaurant wants to hear you make farty noises, darling,” “Sweetheart, Mommy doesn’t like it when you hit her.”)
“Superstar Gabe, you are well on your way to getting that Thomas the Tank Engine Aquadraw Deluxe set.” If only Joel were so easy to train.
And that’s when it hits me. Of course: that’s what I can do with the list of everything he does to annoy me. I will make the spousal equivalent of a star chart. Except because he’s 38, not two and a half, he won’t get a star for every good thing that he does, but a black mark for every bad one.
I shall compile a list of all that he does to irritate me and then I’ll note how often he commits one of these sins. It will be an accurate account of every balled-up tissue left on the side, every empty carton of milk put back in the fridge, every pile of laundry ignored, every time I’ve had to put my hand in the kitchen sink to pull out those grotty bits of yuk he never seems to notice. It will be a spreadsheet detailing all misbehavior over a period of, let’s say, six months.
I haven’t felt such excitement in years. It reminds me of how I used to feel when in the early stages of developing a new format at work. Everything is falling into place. It is brilliant. I am brilliant.
My list will be a thing of beauty and efficiency, a work of art of Excel and observation. If it were published, it would be admired, but I’m not going to stick it up in the kitchen like Gabe’s star chart, amid the party invitations, school dates and shopping lists. Joel’s not a potty-training toddler, but a grown man with more than a fortnight to prove himself. And he won’t be getting a Thomas the Tank Engine branded treat as a reward, no he won’t.
If my list, his star chart, proves him to be an asset in this house then he gets to stay in it. If it doesn’t, well, I suppose that means he doesn’t and we will have to rethink everything we’ve ever believed about this marriage.
So here’s the thing, Joel: all you have to do is avoid making me angry.
The problem is, I’m angry most of the time. I’m so permanently irritated that I feel that my life is narrated in CAPITAL LETTERS.
I know I’m not supposed to be angry. I am supposed to be able to “manage” that emotion, just as I manage people and budgets at work. Anger is not fashionable or righteous anymore; we are not storming barricades and taking pride in it. It is an “inappropriate” emotion.
It’s not as if I’m entirely one-dimensional; my moods are nuanced. I can range from mildly irked right through to incandescent fury, but anger is the umbrella emotion under which these gradations shelter from many things that provoke them.
Things that make me angry include: the phrases “too posh to push,” “methinks she doth protest too much,” “reader, I married him” and “it is a truth universally acknowledged”; baby girls with slutty whores’ names like Lola, Delilah, Jezebel, Lulu and Scarlett; any use of the word “mummy” unless uttered by a child to its mother (yummy mummy, mummy tummy, slummy mummy); people talking about size zero and middle youth.
I’m angry that I work; I’d be even angrier if I didn’t.
Most of all I’m angry at you, Joel. And if I could distill this anger to its purest essence, it would consist of some bracken dishwater with floating bits of lamb chop grease in it to represent your total inability to help around the house. So not very pure at all; in fact, not so much an essential oil as an oil slick of filth polluting my hearth and heart.
It’s not my fault I’m angry. I was always destined to be so. My parents used to tell me that I was born during the Winter of Discontent, which I believed and I think they did too. I grew up with tales of how my parents had battled through streets stacked high with uncollected rubbish and stench to a power-cut hospital unmanned by striking midwives. Then I read that the Winter of Discontent actually occurred some years later and I had merely been born during a freakish cold snap and it was snow rather than rubbish that was piled high. But the myth was there, that I had been born during a national strop, a collective temper tantrum. “You’re just like a union leader,” my parents used to tell me, “always whining.” They’d snap “Life isn’t” at me, whenever I uttered the phrase “It’s not fair.”
How much sunnier I would have been, went the family joke, had I been born during the Summer of Love instead.
And just to compound matters, my parents named me Mary. As in quite contrary, which my mother tells me I was from a preternaturally early age. Even in the womb, I reacted furiously to any food other than white bread and water, giving my mother violent morning sickness morning, noon and night for the full nine months of pregnancy. Once born, I refused to drink the cheapest brand of formula. I refused to be laid down on my front, as was prescribed in those medically incorrect times, but screamed and screamed until put on my back. I frowned until furrows lined my face, but failed to smile until almost three months old. I scratched myself so much I was forced to wear tight mittens all the time. My colicky crying time was not limited to early evenings, but lasted all day and much of the night. My bottom, my mother tells me, was an angry red too—so bad was my diaper rash that it bled. (Looking back, it seems evident that I was suffering from an extreme dairy intolerance that would have been easily rectified had I been breastfed by a mother prepared not to drink cow’s milk herself, and, yes, I am a bit angry about that too.)
These facts alone were enough to ensure my choleric temperament, but then my newborn head’s colorless fuzz soon gave way to bright red hair. Not auburn, nor titian, nor merely “warm,” but proper red. Otherwise referred to by well-meaning folk as “At least it’s not ginger,” a shade of hair color also known as “Well, it’s OK on a girl” (this latter frequently said in the presence of my similarly flame-haired firstborn boy child). Red hair, like big boobs and poker-straight tresses, is one of those things that people strive to achieve through artifice but decry if natural. Think of all those millions spent on henna and hair dye and yet when you’ve got it naturally you just get “Well, at least it’s not ginger.” And when the child with red hair first throws the standard toddler temper tantrum that all do some time after the age of one, everybody says, “Ooh, isn’t she fiery?” instead of “Look at that toddler throwing a tantrum as toddlers are wont to do.” To this day, I’m not allowed to show the slightest ill temper without someone referring to my hair color. I’m a “feisty redhead” if liked and a “ginger whinger” if not.
So, you see, it really isn’t my fault I’m so angry. I was born this way.
I’m 35, though not for much longer. Thirty-five: the age at which fertility falls off a cliff, apparently, and so looms large in the forward planning of any early thirtysomething. It’s the age that we women must skirt and plot around. Thirty-five, the midpoint of your thirties, the decade in which you must both churn out children and soar in your chosen career. The crucial decade when lawyers become partners, journalists become editors, doctors become consultants and teachers become heads and deputy heads. One small decade, only ten years, just like the rest of them. What bad luck for women that these biological and professional imperatives should coincide and collide so exactly. This coincidence double-glazes the glass ceiling.
The thirties are also a woman’s peak time for death in mysterious circumstances. Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Paula Yates, Jill Dando, Anna Nicole Smith. It’s a wonder that any of us make it through alive.
Actually, I’m not sure there is any mystery to Sylvia Plath’s death. She hadn’t really set out to kill herself, she’d just been examining the inside of the oven to see whether it needed cleaning or not and on finding it quite so filthy with the fat spat from the sausages that Ted Hughes had cooked before dumping her for another woman, she decided to switch it on and keep her head in there.
I’d never kill myself. Though I might kill Joel. The list is my attempt to avoid blighting my sons’ lives with a dead father and a mother locked up for his murder.
At least Christmas is now over. I don’t know why they said that the First World War would be over by Christmas when there’s no time of the year more likely to spark battles and hatred. A dozen explosions and skirmishes daily over the festivities: me buying all the presents for your numerous godchildren; the fact that you don’t “believe” in Christmas cards so I have to do them all as well as sit over Rufus as he labors over one for each of his classmates; your mother sitting on her ample behind telling me how lucky I am that she brought up her son to be such a hands-on father and fabulous cook. “Yes,” I spit, “he’s so wonderful, I’m so lucky.”
No turkey could have been stuffed as full as this house was by discarded wrapping paper and toys with itty-bitty constituent parts. Each time a present was opened, which was approximately every three seconds, I’d wince at the challenge of finding somewhere to put the vast plastic monstrosity or cringe at the tiny, easily lost parts that spilled out. I tried to feel happy as my children squealed with delight, but instead I’d be filled with dread. Each time we played with one of these new games, I’d interrupt with “Don’t lose that counter, darling, it won’t work without it,” “No, you’re not allowed a hotel until you’ve put up three blocks,” “Gabe, if you choke on that I’m not going to be the one to take you to the hospital.”
I’ve got three weeks to go until my birthday, which falls on the last day of January. See what I mean about my life being destined to complaint? Fancy having a birthday at the exact point in the year when everyone feels most depressed. When half the people at your so-called birthday celebrations are on the wagon or detoxing.
For my birthday, I’d like teeth-whitening, a week off from bottom-wiping both real and metaphorical and a subscription to Interiors. For my birthday, I’ll get a homemade card, a croissant in bed and a “kiss that money can’t buy.” My first words on turning 36 will be “Don’t get crumbs on the bed.”
For these three weeks I shall be thinking of every irritating thing that Joel does and compiling them into a list. I will then organize these misdemeanors into logical sections on a spreadsheet. After my birthday, from February onward, the six-month trial period will start as I mark his behavior against the debits outlined in the document. The system will be rigorous and able to withstand scrutiny should I ever show it to Joel, which I might if he needs to see proof. It has to be as perfect as our home and marriage is imperfect. It shall be a feat of Excel formatting and punchy punctuation. It will be definitive. It will be scrupulously fair even if, so I’m told, life isn’t.
Let the list-making begin.
Here is my dream of a perfect Saturday. The boys are such champion sleepers that I have to wake them at nine, whereupon they wolf down their quinoa porridge before settling down to some educative but tidy art activities. A shadowy employee with wet wipes for hands hovers in the background, cleaning away, freeing me to engage fully with Rufus and Gabe, who greet all my suggestions with enthusiasm and don’t get cross when I try to make their abstract daubs “look more like something.” We join our good-looking friends and their good-looking offspring for a jolly brunch and afterward our children are whisked away by the delightful and loving nanny-housekeeper figure long enough for me to enjoy my freedom from them, but not so long that I miss them too much. Perhaps a shopping expedition to pick up a party frock for the evening’s event. A little trip to the cinema. To the hairdressers for what Americans call a “blow out.” An hour spent getting ready, moisturizer, primer, foundation, highlighter and blusher; three different sorts of eyeshadow; lip liner, lipstick and gloss. The party—tinkling laughter, champagne, cocktails, tipsy not drunk. Home at midnight, safe in the knowledge that my darling boys will not wake until late on Sunday, when the four of us will lie together in our vast, specially designed bed before having a playful fight with our pillows covered in 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton cases.
Or, welcome to the reality of my Saturday.
Having played our usual game of nocturnal musical beds, Joel is on the floor in the boys’ room, while Gabe has taken his place in the marital bed. Except he’s cunningly expanded his tiny two-and-a-half-year-old body to ensure that at least two of my limbs overhang the edge. I look at the clock and at least the time begins with a six, though only just. The street light pours through the bit where the curtains fail to meet and shows me more of my surroundings than I want to see.
Our bedroom looks like a terrorist attack in the Gap.
1) Leaves clothes anywhere but the laundry basket. Or, rather, either of the two laundry baskets that I introduced for a new system of separating whites from coloreds. When I explained the new system, he said he wasn’t going to practice laundry apartheid and then went off giggling at his wit. He made a similar comment about repatriation of socks and the extraordinary rendition of his last remaining clean underpants that I held hostage in a bid to get him to contribute help as well as clothes to the laundry. He keeps claiming amnesty from the totalitarian regime of my impotent laundry systems.
Though I suppose I should be glad that he’s consistent in dropping his clothes on the floor, in a little crumpled ring at his feet. My friend Jill’s husband puts things in the laundry basket on the days they’re both working, but on the one day she works from home and at weekends, he leaves them on the floor, like then it’s her “job” to pick them up.
It’s symbolic that Gabe has taken Joel’s place in my bed because in many ways he’s also annexed the place in my heart that contains what’s left of my patience, generosity and indulgence. Gabe and I are always going off on old-fashioned dates, sharing a decaf latte in the café and splodging the frothy soy milk onto one another’s noses, wandering around farmers’ markets and playing hide-and-seek in museums, before settling down to share a bed for the night. He’s currently sprawled on top of me and any sensual urge I may have for physical contact from Joel is sated by Gabe. Joel once said he felt like he’d been superseded by a younger and cuter version of himself.
An odor winds its way up to my nose. This younger and cuter version of Joel is also incontinent. I’ve been sharing my bed with a male packing a full, oh let’s see, actually overflowing, excrement-filled diaper. “Sweetheart, can’t you tell me when you’ve done a poo and I’ll change you, or even better let’s go to the potty. You know you get a sticker if you do that.” He gives a look of satisfaction, akin to that of a ten-year-old who’s just done a “silent-but-deadly” fart over his little sister’s face. He’s supposed to be potty trained, night as well as day. Mitzi’s kids are always dry through the night by this age. “And hasn’t anybody told you it’s the weekend?” I mutter to him. He continues to bounce on the bed, shaking that perilous diaper as he does so. “That hurts. Mommy doesn’t like it when you jump on her, please, sweetheart.”
“Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast,” he sings to an indeterminate nursery rhyme tune. They’re kind of all the same, like hymns.
I’ve drawn the short straw today with this boy child, since he wakes up a full hour before Joel’s charge.
“Good afternoon,” I say, when he and Rufus eventually come down to breakfast.
“I know, the decadence of it, quarter past seven.”
“Still, an extra hour.”
“Sleeping on the bottom bunk of a bed made for dwarves. Every time I sit up I get my hair caught in the springs above me.”
I watch him get breakfast for Rufus. He rips the packet like he’s wearing gardening gloves and a blindfold.
2) Sprays cereal around the kitchen as if he’s turned on a leaf blower near an open packet of Special K.
3) Puts used tea bags in the sink. Why do people do this? Sometimes they have little bowls for them instead, which is marginally less annoying, but still, why not just put them straight in the bin—or, if you’re being environmentally sound (which of course you should be and everything, but sometimes I just can’t be bothered to go to the recycling box and I love my tumble dryer, I really do, I shall definitely be getting custody of that in the divorce), in the compost container?
4) Puts used tea bag in the sink after making a cup of tea for himself without offering to make me one.
5) Can’t remember how I have my tea. Soy milk, no sugar. Not that difficult, is it?
6) Calls herbal tea “boiled pants” because that’s what he says it tastes like. Better than one bloke I went out with who consistently referred to it as “lesbian tea.”
“I don’t like the tiny bits of Shreddies,” says Rufus.
Gabe shares this opinion but expresses it by coughing the crumbs up onto the table.
“That’s disgusting,” observes Rufus, correctly.
“You make them better,” says Gabe, pointing at me. “You make them big. Make them big again. I want big Shreddies.”
“There’s a word missing, Gabe? I want big Shreddies…”
“NOW!” he screams.
“No, that’s not the answer I was looking for. I want big Shreddies…”
“No, ‘please’—‘please’ was the word I was looking for. You’ve had two pieces of toast already, do you really want cereal too?”
“We’re running out of Shreddies, by the way,” says Joel.
7) Tells me stuff is running out in a really accusatory way. After it’s already run out. And won’t chalk it up onto the shopping list on the section of kitchen wall painted in blackboard paint, something I copied off the interiors magazines I can’t stop myself from buying. Except in the magazines someone has always scrawled “I you” in those pictures, alongside a shopping list that includes Goji berries and champagne.
“I’ll nip down to the shop to get some more,” I say.
“No, I’ll do it.”
“No, really, I’ll go.”
“No, I insist.”
We look at each other. “First to the door,” he shouts and being a man, he already has his wallet in his pocket, good to go, and beats me to it.
I’m left to deal with the ongoing tantrum of our second child, the dauphin, whom our lives revolve around. When I have calmed his fury over the tiny bits of Shreddies and distracted him with alternative sustenance, he demands that I get the yogurt out of his stomach and back into the pot. I am then admonished for having got the spoon out of the drawer for him. I put it back and invite him to get it out. It’s too late then, of course, I’ve already ruined everything. He has turned me into some sort of Arthurian knight who is set a series of impossible challenges in order to win his hand. I am asked to rid sausages of the brown bits, make fruit slices drier, reattach clipped fingernails, make rainy days sunny and change the colors of the clothes in his picture books. In our house, the devil wears Primark boys’ combat trousers in a 2–3 and a secondhand stripy T-shirt from Baby Gap.
Calm has been restored when Joel returns with the new packet of un-crumbled Shreddies.
“What are we doing today?” he asks—because I’m his PA, obviously.
“Rufus’s swimming lesson. You take him every week.”
“Oh, right. Where’s his stuff?”
“In the bag in the cupboard by the door.” Where it always is. “And then it’s Mahalia’s party in the afternoon. Have you got her a present?”
He looks very confused. “Mahalia? Remind me.”
“Mitzi’s second kid, bit younger than Rufus.”
“I can’t keep track of them.”
“Molyneux, he’s six or seven, Mahalia, then the twins, Merle and the boy one. What is his name? Begins with an M.”
“I was joking about the present; don’t worry about it, I think there’s something in the present drawer.” Present drawer. I have a present drawer. When did I get to be the sort of person who has a present drawer? “Milburn, that’s the boy twin’s name, Milburn.”
8) Puts milk bottles and cartons back in the fridge if they’re empty. That’s not fair—mostly he makes sure there’s a couple of drops left in them to save them from unequivocal emptiness. But weirdly, he will always leave the bottles with lots of milk in them out on the counter in order that they go sour.
9) Takes the stickers off bananas and apples and sticks them on the kitchen table.
I whirl around the kitchen picking up, wiping, depositing and washing as I go. I make sure Rufus’s swimming stuff, coat and outdoor shoes are ready at the door while trying to phone Mitzi to check what time the party is.
“Have you seen the car keys?” Joel asks me. Most of the sentences we utter to one another start with the word “where” or some such variant.
10) Asks me questions when I’m talking to someone else on the phone.
“Sorry, Mitzi, I’m being summoned. Aren’t they on the hook in the kitchen where they’re supposed to be kept?”
“No, that’s why I’m asking.”
“Well, I always put them back there. You must have left them somewhere else.”
“I haven’t used the car in ages.”
This is true. I scurry into the kitchen, hoping that I’ll find them on the hook where they’re supposed to be. Which they are, although partially obscured by a mug.
11) Asks me where something is and I tell him and he doesn’t look properly so I have to go and find it for him myself. If I say something’s in the fridge, he won’t see it unless it’s in the front of the fridge, as if it’s too much effort to move the jar of chutney that’s permanently rooted to a piece of prime fridge real estate.
“Oh, look, on the kitchen hook, where I said they were.” I hand them to him and make a dash for the safety of the sitting room, doing what he’s usually better at doing than I am—leaving the children and assuming that someone else (me) will look after them. I sort out the time of Mahalia’s party and then start hunting around.
“Joel!” No answer. “Joe-WELL! Which one of these effing cables is for the laptop?”
“The black one,” he shouts back, eventually. I look down at the nest of vipers at my feet, a coiling mass of unmarked and mostly black cables. These phone, camera and computer chargers have joined old keys as things we can no longer throw away for fear that the moment we do so, we’ll discover both what they are for and a need to use them.
“I told you to mark any new ones with a label and then put them all back in their original boxes together with their electronic husband.”
“Oh well,” he says. “Looks like they’re getting a divorce.”
You may joke, I think, with a strange jolt of satisfaction at hearing him say the word out loud. “I know it sounds like I’m being anal, but I say it for a reason. Now I can’t find the laptop charger and it looks exactly the same as the one for the camcorder and we’ve got five different mobile chargers and I can’t work out which one is for the old phone. And what’s this?” I pick up a lonely white cable.
“For your old toothbrush?”
I stomp off, though he doesn’t notice as he’s become engrossed in playing back some footage on the camcorder that he shot of the boys on holiday. “Bugger,” I hear him shout. “The battery’s gone. Where have you put the charger?”
12) The way he leaves all the phone chargers and cables out so that I can never work out which electronic item they belong to.
My path away from him is impeded by a blockade of shoes, buggies, scooters, bikes, helmets, the recycling box and the disgorging contents of a mini packet of raisins that I manage to further squash into our neutral-colored and, in retrospect, far too pale sisal carpeting.
The stairs provide a new hurdle. At the bottom of each flight and half-flight in our house are small foothills of debris: slippers, books and clean clothes on their way up; old newspapers, empty glasses mottled with evaporated wine and dirty clothes on their way down. They say that the peak of Everest has become strewn with rubbish. I bet it looks like the landings of our house.
13) The way he can ignore the pile of stuff at the bottom of the stairs.
Like a driver reversing his 4×4, Joel has a dangerous blind spot when it comes to the stairs that allows him to trot past these stations without ever thinking that perhaps he should pick this stuff up; an ignorance of the fact that humans are the conveyor belt that will carry it home. I once decided to let it all pile up to show him how much I was frantically shoveling to keep this house clear. Gradually the possessions silted up our stairs until they formed barricades. Still he managed to ignore them, actually vaulting over to reach his destination. Then, one day, poor Rufus slipped on an empty packet of Kettle Chips and hit his head against the balustrade and we ended up in the ER. I felt guilty, of course, but it was Joel’s fault.
I lock myself in the bathroom, hunch over the laptop with its fast-fading battery and click on a document called “House admin” (it’s a safe bet that Joel will never open that one). I type furiously in all senses of the word, finishing off with a last flourish:
14) Never hangs up the swimming stuff but leaves it in the bag to go moldy.
I’m obsessed with cleaning and housework, but my house doesn’t appear to reflect my pathology. If I described someone as being obsessed with cleaning, you’d assume their house to be spotless with vacuumed upholstery and cupboards filled with alphabetized Tupperware for their extensive rice collection. No, I’m obsessed with cleaning and yet live in a filthy home, which is a raw deal, much like it is for my friend Daisy, who complains that she was built with the ample curves of an opera singer, but with a voice so bad that she has to mime “Happy Birthday” so as not to ruin anybody’s party.
Nobody talks about cleaning. Why would they? It’s bloody boring to do and even more boring to talk about, but it’s there. It’s a dirty secret that we don’t want to admit to. Well, I’m going to come clean. I spend more time on sweeping, tidying, home management and wiping than on anything else in my life. It’s my hated hobby, my pastime. Now that I’ve gone part-time in the office, I think I may actually spend more time on housework than paid work. You’d never know the extent of my cleaning load by my conversations with others or by my outward appearance, and least of all by the outward appearance of my house. Nobody ever talks about cleaning or seems to show that they do much, yet they live in spotless, ordered houses. It’s as if their houses are cleaned by osmosis, or fairies that come in the night, or mute Brazilians on ₤7 an hour.
Everybody bangs on about sex, but I spend many more minutes cleaning, doing laundry, tidying and bill-paying than I ever will having sex. It’s very likely that I spend more time thinking about it too.
Nobody talks about cleaning except my mother, and lord how my sister and I despised her for it. Jemima and I didn’t do cleaning, you see, because we were feminists. The funny thing about feminism is that it hasn’t actually decreased the amount of washing to be done and surfaces to be wiped, nor does it seem to have increased the amount of time men spend doing it, either.
Where do other people put their phone chargers? Where do they lurk? I don’t understand other people’s houses. Where are the odd socks and junk mail? Where have they secreted the broken toys, incomplete jigsaw puzzles and spare coats? Other people’s homes look as if they are on permanent standby for estate agents and buyers’ viewings when they are not even on the market. If we ever wanted to sell our place, then we’d have to hire another house just to hide all our clutter.
Perhaps that’s the secret. That the owners of all these inexplicably perfect homes have another place down the road that’s a moldering mess of outgrown baby clothes, broken toys, unopened mail, half-filled handbags and muddy shoes. It’s the house equivalent of the picture of Dorian Gray, allowing their owners to present their perfect lives while hiding their increasingly squalid parallel home.
When I talk about perfect houses, I suppose I’m really thinking about Mitzi’s. In Mitzi’s house, there’s a place for everything except unsightly door knobs. Instead, kitchen doors just ping open at your touch to reveal a bespoke compost repository or a recycling area pre-divided into cans, papers and bottles. Since marrying into money, Mitzi has come to believe that windows are the windows of the soul, especially when they are draped with curtains made from reclaimed Welsh farmhouse bedspreads.
Mitzi’s house has hallways off hallways and a separate utility room with space to hang up clothes to dry and so avoid using the tumble dryer, thus offsetting the carbon used on all those skiing trips and half-term jaunts.
Rich people turn left to first class when they get on a plane. When you go to houses like Mitzi’s you don’t just walk into the kitchen, but are automatically spirited upward to begin the tour of the house and to admire its latest incarnation, which either involves stripping back or reinstating the original fittings, depending on the year. There is no interiors trend too fleeting to have not been embraced by Mitzi. One wall covered in ornate Timorous Beasties wallpaper at a hundred pounds a roll—check; reinforced glass balcony—check; oddly sized black-and-white photos of her children gliding up the staircase—check. Then there are the quirky individual touches that the rest of us swoon over, which usually testify still further to the perfection of her life and love. The coffee table papered with an antique map of Sicily, where she and Michael spent their honeymoon. The subtle pattern below the cornicing in the hall that is made up of a series of interlocking Ms. The wallpaper in the downstairs loo that is their wedding invitation blown up to a hundred times its original size. The same room’s industrial concrete floor with each member of the family’s footprints immortalized, including the tiny ones of whichever of the brood was newly born at that time (these redecorations tend to coincide with the arrival of a new baby, but then, as Mitzi has had four of them over three pregnancies, most things do).
Mitzi’s current project involves the greenification of her 4,000-square-foot house with wind turbines and solar panels, rather than just ugly old loft insulation like the rest of us. Her new-found mania for all things environmental has opened up whole avenues of consumerism that she is enthusiastically motoring down in her brand-new Lexus hybrid.
I like to go to Mitzi’s house and sneak upstairs while the other women are having handcrafted organic flapjacks in the kitchen and peer into all the bedrooms, half hoping to find them a shambles, just this once. I always offer to help make the tea as an excuse to thrust open the cupboards and admire the way that her foodstuffs are arranged in the larder (a larder! Just imagine), with flour that comes dressed in old-fashioned sackcloth and jars filled with exotic dried beans.
Later in my Saturday I cook lunch. Or lunches, since every member of the house has a different food issue. Rufus at a ridiculously young age has decided he doesn’t eat anything with a face (bless him for his emotional intelligence but curse him for the hassle); Joel doesn’t eat anything without one. Gabe won’t eat anything at all, really; he has the dietary habits of a Hollywood starlet, all uncooked frozen peas and rice cakes. I have whatever anybody else leaves over. Unless of course it’s dairy, because I’ve got a proper intolerance to that rather than all these made-up allergies that the males in my family claim to suffer from.
“Joel, can you clear up a bit so we can actually eat?”
15) Puts wet tea towels back in the clean tea-towel drawer. When something does spill on the floor, he uses a tea towel to dry it up rather than the mop.
16) Goes on about how he does all the cooking, which he doesn’t. He does all the grandstanding, while I do all the boring everyday stuff—the reheating, rehashing, pureeing. When he does cook, he expects me to be some sort of sous chef to him, fetching, carrying, chopping and washing up his saucepans as he goes along. When I cook, I cook alone.
17) Calls saucepans and pots “the scary ones” and doesn’t touch them when it’s his turn to do the washing-up.
“How was swimming?”
“Good, thank you,” says Rufus. I have a suspicion that Gabe will remain in touch with his inner tantruming two-year-old for the rest of his life, but Rufus can sometimes sound as if he’s channeling the spirit of a taciturn octogenarian. He is like everybody’s favorite granddad and I adore him for it (though wish at the same time that he might tell me just a little bit more about his day at school).
“Who was there?”
“What, not even the teacher?”
Rufus rolls his eyes. “The teacher was there, silly.”
“And about six other kids,” adds Joel. “The mother with the string bikini.”
“And the heeled flip-flops?” I add. “And the extraordinary abs?”
“That’s the one. And the really fat woman with the bleached hair.”
“And the inexplicably hot black partner? I don’t get that one at all.”
“Actually, can I say something?” asks Rufus. “It’s not appropriate”—he pronounces the word as if it’s filled with “b”s—“to talk about the way people look. Even if they are a fat pig. Why are you squeezing me, Mommy?”
“Because you are so sweet and serious.”
He wriggles away from me. “It is serious. We’re not allowed to say nasty words.”
“Oh my god,” he whispers.
“Is that what they teach you at school these days?” asks Joel. “Of course, they’re completely right.” I catch Joel’s eye and we both stifle smirks before I’m distracted by a pile of unscraped and unwashed plates piled precariously on the worktop.
“Can’t you put these in the dishwasher?”
“Nah, it’s already full.”
18) Dishwasher—never empties it, although he has been known to take out a couple of clean items should he need them. Or sometimes he just takes a few things out in order to put some dirty things in amid the clean ones. Or just leaves those dirty ones on top of the counter with the words “the dishwasher’s full.” Or, on the rare occasions he does empty, he just puts the clean things on the side in piles for me to put into the cupboards properly. And if he should deign to put something in, stacks from the front so I have to reorder everything.
Any feeling of closeness to Joel evaporates and I feel exhaustion wash over me. “If I take the boys to Mahalia’s party and give you a break then, can I go and have a nap now?” Of such horse-trading parents’ weekends are made.
“Me sleep with Mommy,” says Gabe. “Please, Mommy. Me a little bit tired.” Oh, the unfairness, I think—first, that both his childcare stints today will consist of pushover Rufus, and that even while napping I will not be spared the demands of our second born. What I lose in sleep, however, I will gain in the human hot-water bottle warmth that my chubby cherub provides.
19) Tells me it’s bad to let our sons watch too much TV (of course, his mother, Ursula, didn’t even have one in the house when he was a boy, and he would go and stand outside the TV rentals shop for hours to stare at the magic moving images. Which is probably why he’s ended up making programs to go on it as a grown-up) and yet when he’s on duty, it’s permanently switched to CBeebies.
“Fine, but if you come into Mommy’s bed you have to sleep, OK? No mucking around. Really, I mean it.”
Some time and no sleep later, I am trudging to Mitzi’s house. While pushing a buggy, you always trudge, never trot. It’s not far away geographically, but light-years away socially.
I almost expect a maid to let me in, given the house’s imposing double doors, but this type of rich person tends to keep her servants a secret. That’s not to say she doesn’t have any. Mitzi has such a large retinue that running her house is like managing a small corporation. She occasionally complains in hushed tones about one or other of her staff—the nanny, the au pair, the masseur, the cleaner, the acupuncturist, the guy who does the lawn—and I try to feel sorry for her, but it’s really hard to sound like a nice person when one is talking of the modern servant problem.
Michael opens the door. I wish I could say that he’s short, bald and fat, but he combines money with height and dark hair that’s graying at the temples in the way that Hollywood make-up artists apply fake white to denote age and distinction. I think he’s what you’d call a silver fox.
“Good to see you,” he says. I can’t tell if he means this. Some of my friends’ husbands have never morphed into the mates category. He retains all of the scary elusiveness that schoolfriends’ dads used to when we were children. Without even asking, you know he’s going to have a special kitchen chair with arms that nobody else is allowed to sit in and might get grumpy if you mess up the newspaper before he’s read it.
Mitzi doesn’t have to relocate her children’s parties to the local church hall, so cavernous is her kitchen-dining-family-whatever room. When Mitzi invites you to a dinner party, she always says it’s “just a kitchen supper.” Which is like calling her kitchen “just a kitchen” when it is in fact a 40-by-20-foot glass-cased temple to food, families and the good life. It’s got the same stuff in it as our kitchen, what they refer to in department stores as white goods—except of course in Mitzi’s they’re not white, they are galvanized steel, and everything is twice the usual size: a double oven, a two-doored fridge, a reclaimed medieval refectory table that comfortably seats 20, a separate utility room. We’re all about eating at home these days, but filling our kitchens with industrial catering equipment.
People seem to be breeding a need for more space in their house, don’t they? Children don’t share bedrooms. Their rooms must double up as sort of kiddie offices cum leisure centers with a desk and a computer, a TV and a DVD player. We need enormous rooms to do everything in as a family, but then we realize how grim it is to do everything as a family, so we yearn for all these private anterooms: the home cinema, the library, the gym. Except Mitzi doesn’t yearn—she has.
20) Doesn’t earn shedloads of money in the City so that I can have a vast number of rooms that somebody else cleans for me.
I scratch that one from my mind and vow not to include it on the list, feeling a blast of shame. I’d hate to have one of those big money banker type husbands. It’s not as if money buys everything. Though it does buy quite a lot of handstitched soft furnishings, I can’t help but notice.
Michael ushers me into the kitchen palace where women who look too skinny to menstruate let alone give birth sit sipping champagne (champagne! Not just sparkling or cava), while children dressed in exquisite clothes frolic. I recognize a few faces from the book group I go to and from all the birthday parties and christenings and celebrations of Mitzi and Michael’s fecundity that have been held over the years. We friends of Mitzi are like readers of a celebrity magazine, invited regularly into her lovely home to coo at newborns and new extensions.
Mitzi canters over to me. “Mary! How brilliant to see you.” She manages to make it seem like she really, really means it. That’s the thing—I want to mock Mitzi, but then she’s like this, so effortlessly disarming. She’s doing casual but is glammed up by her trademark vermilion lipstick. Everything is trademark in Mitzi’s world. It’s like the way she doesn’t buy things, she “sources” them.
“And vice versa. Have you bought another new car?” I hate myself for having noticed the G-Wiz parked next to the Lexus. I hate that I care what car they have parked on their off-street parking. I hate that I care that they have off-street parking.
“Dear, isn’t it? It’s so miniature, the kids love it. And so environmentally sound. I don’t have to pay the congestion charge and I can practically park it anywhere. Now we’ve got the Lexus hybrid and this one so we’re really cutting down our emissions.”
“Gosh, two environmentally friendly cars. I guess that makes you twice as green as us with our crappy old petrol-using estate.”
“Actually, since you don’t have even one green car, that makes us infinitely greener than you, if my math serves me correctly?” She grins and I think she’s being ironic. I’m trying to remember exactly how it was that Joel had told me it’s better to drive an old car, however rubbish its engine is. Something about carbon costs of production, but Mitzi’s in full flow. “To be honest, we’re trying to save money as much as the planet at the moment, so it’s a bonus that there’s no car tax or congestion charge on it.”
“I don’t think of you as being on an economy drive.”
“Every little bit helps,” she says. “Austerity Britain and all that.”
“And there was I imagining that you thought austerity Britain was just a vogue for expensively home-produced veg and lovely Second World War light fittings.”
“Indeed, one must keep calm and carry on.”
“Carry on spending,” I say, “apparently, to help the economy.”
“I like to do my bit,” she says and laughs.
Gabe is clinging to my leg like some sort of rutting terrier, while Rufus, too, remains connected by an invisible umbilical cord. I try to shake them off, literally in Gabe’s case, but they hover.
I look around at the dozen or so children. “It’s so great that you don’t feel you have to invite Mahalia’s whole class from school.”
“But I have,” Mitzi says brightly.
“Blimey, those private school class sizes really are a lot smaller, aren’t they? Worth paying ten grand a year just to avoid having to have thirty kids at your birthday parties.”
“No, silly,” she says. “Mahalia’s having two birthdays.”
“Like the Queen?” Well, she is a bit of a princess.
“I suppose.” Mitzi makes as if to frown, but her brow remains remarkably unlined. I have a permanent frown mark etched on my face now. “I’m having a separate party for all Mahalia’s schoolfriends. I thought it would be a bit hectic if I had all her home friends and her schoolfriends in one bash. Are there really thirty kids in Rufus’s class? There are fifteen in Mahalia’s. And two teaching assistants. And it costs more than ten grand, what with all the extras. Over twelve.”
Twelve times four children out of taxed income. My very-gifted-at-numeracy elder son would be able to make that calculation in a trice, but I settle at the vague answer A Lot Of Money. A lot of money that everyone else at the party is happy to pay, it seems. I wonder, as ever, what it is other parents know that I don’t which means Rufus going to the local state primary condemns him to a life of crack addiction and a career in armed robbery. I worry that he can’t write out his birthday cards in the medieval-monk-of-Lindisfarne perfect illuminated script that Mahalia’s privately educated friends have written out hers (“Have a delightful birthday” one reads. Delightful?).
21) Doesn’t worry enough. I have to do all the worrying for our children’s future while Joel just says that they will probably turn out fine and there’s not a lot we can do about it anyway.
I regret wishing that Gabe would detach himself from my leg now that he has and is approaching the art cupboard with dangerous intent.
“He’s very boisterous, isn’t he?” says Jennifer, whose child appears to be on Mogadon. “Have you thought of getting him tested?”
“For what? He’ll do enough tests when he has to start going to school.”
“Attention deficit disorder,” she says. “I know a great educational psychologist.”
“We had to see one of those for Oliver—you know, because of the gifted and talented thing,” says Alison.
“Well, he can’t get his hyperactivity from his father,” says Mitzi. “He’s so laid back he’s upside down.” Everyone laughs. Hang on, I think, you’re not allowed to slag off my husband. Or my son, who is not hyperactive, he’s spirited. “Have you met Joel?” she continues. “He’s this totally adorable slob.”
Less of the slob. And less of the adorable, while you’re at it. “Actually,” I say, a word I’ve caught off Rufus, “Joel’s a very successful executive TV producer-director.”
“I know he is, darling. And you know how much I love him.” Again, she turns to her audience to explain, “Joel and I have a special relationship.”
That’s what I can never work out. Whether the sniping between Mitzi and Joel is born of antipathy or some sort of heat between them, like they’re characters in a 1930s screwball comedy. Joel had the choice between us when we met all those years ago. Does he ever regret his choice? Looking around the vast acreage of the house and garden, I’m sure Mitzi doesn’t regret hers.
At last it is time to go. Rufus and Gabe get a goody bag made out of actual cloth to take away, while my own leaving present is the familiar sense of both inadequacy and disdain. This particular cocktail of emotions is fed further by the discovery that one of the myriad gifts in the goody sack is the book that we’ve just given Mahalia as her birthday present. Except ours was wrapped in newspaper as we’d run out of wrapping paper, while this one is in beautiful handmade and recycled paper with perfect hospital corners and a ribbon. “Horrible materialism,” I say to Joel later. “Horrible material,” he says, pointing to the patchwork of silk remnants that makes up the party bag.
I’m thinking about Mitzi’s larder later that evening, as I sit in bed flicking through the latest Lakeland Plastics catalog. Just looking at its storage solutions section offers me the promise of a well-ordered home and I turn down the pages of color-coded Tupperware that will revolutionize my cupboards. Family life is a constant storage challenge in search of a solution.
22) Has a constantly growing collection of glasses by his bed. Each has a different level of water left to stagnate within and it looks like he’s trying to get enough to be able to do that music hall turn of rubbing the rims to make different notes.
I stare at Joel. Even in bed, he’s untidy, flinging his limbs across it, mummifying himself in the duvet and throwing off pillows. His face is sandpapered with stubble. His face is crumpled in a frown.
23) Checks his BlackBerry in bed. Is important enough at work to be given a BlackBerry, while since my part-time downshifting career choice, I don’t even get given a company mobile.
He senses that I’m looking at him. He mistakes my disgust for lust and leans over to me.
24) Checks his BlackBerry in bed and then expects me to have sex with him when he puts it down.
25) Checks his BlackBerry while having sex with me, on occasion.
“Piss off, J.” He looks wounded. “I’m tired and you can’t just switch me on like a BlackBerry.”
“It’s Saturday night.”
“It’s just not that sexy to use your BlackBerry in bed.”
“But reading about Tupperware is the height of eroticism, I suppose,” he says, gesturing at my catalog.
“It’s work, too. The difference is that it’s work I have to do when I get home from my job.” I roll away from him, feeling so angry that my skin tingles with it. I’m not quite sure why I do or where it comes from.
My life is going down the drain, and it’s a drain clogged with swollen Shreddies, solidified globules of grease and a dried-up piece of Play-Doh.
Excerpted from The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs by Hopkinson, Christina Copyright © 2011 by Hopkinson, Christina. Excerpted by permission.
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