Image by [ henning ] via FlickrSome years ago I went to see a friend and found her husband gloomily clearing up in one of his sheds. Boxes of this and that were accumulating and it looked as if he would be down to about Troy level seven by the end of the day. He had been given an ultimatum....if he wanted another collector's car, he had to clear a shed for it. And while he was about it, he could clean and paint the shed. He was on stage one and it was going to be a long job. He stopped for a beer, offered me one like the parfit gentil knight that he was and groaned.
'Asticage! J'en ai marre!', translated loosely as 'Cleaning! I've had it up to my back teeth!'
Now it was a number of years ago and I was at the stage of French where anything that sounded like a word I knew had to be linked in some way. I knew what 'asticot' was. It was a maggot, thus asticage had to be something to do with maggots...but he was not handling maggots, was he? Was it some slang use of maggots, with the idea of picking everything clean?
No, as it turned out it wasn't...it just meant cleaning things by rubbing enthusiastically...but to this day I think of cleaning as maggotry.
How did maggotry differ from normal cleaning up? He explained. It was the sort of spit and polish routine to which young men doing National Service had been subjected.....polishing brass, whitening belts, cleaning the insteps of boots, painting coal, cutting lawns with nail scissors and washing themselves and everything else in freezing water at an early hour of the morning. In other words, work for the sake of it rather than for a useful purpose. That still sounds like cleaning to me, but the sort of cleaning indulged in by those who announce that you could eat your dinner off their floors. Why, in the name of all that's wonderful, would you wish to do anything so uncomfortable? Have they never heard of plates?
These days, women...well, the lucky ones...have careers. The unlucky ones have jobs. In the past, the woman who was not obliged by poverty to go out to work would justify her existence by the way in which her house and family were kept. Knickers starched to a razor's edge.....the European version of female circumcision...the stove blackleaded until it shone like a mirror, front step bluestoned to be whiter than white and certainly whiter than next door's, and the floors polished to within an inch of your life. Don't step on the rug. The better off ones had charwomen...Mrs. Mops...to do what was euphemistically referred to as 'the heavy'.
I had relatives who lived like this...their husbands spent most of their time at work or in their sheds and one rebellious soul refused to come out of the pub until closing time. I liked him...he would give me a florin as a tip when he came to visit, before taking my father out to stay in the pub until closing time.
I don't waste much time thinking about cleaning normally, but my sister in law has been visiting and was describing her epiphany when she realised that the sky would not fall on your head if you did not clean the kitchen ceiling once every six months. From being a tense, obsessed personality, for ever on the watch for a fly about to leave a spot on the windowframe, like, it seems, her mother and aunt, she became a normal, relaxed person and started to live. Well, if that's the definition, I have always lived. Apart from which if you started worrying about flies in France you would quickly qualify for the bin....someone somewhere in France must have a Common Agricultural Policy grant to breed the things with an inbred heat seeking device to find you in whichever room you are sitting in at the time. Some indication of my attitude to cleaning was the time I met a friend in the supermarket and she saw a brush for cleaning behind radiators in my trolley. Thanks to Michelle I now know that her reaction could be best described as roflhao. She was amused. I was defensive....the dog had eaten the last one and there were things in behind there that I needed.
When we had the gites, I had to take cleaning more seriously, but it never approached maggotry. I began to realise that perhaps my lack of obsession was because we didn't make much mess in the first place. I was astonished at the state of the baths some weeks - you'd think that a tanker of suntan oil had been cleaning its' bilges - while the loos are best not mentioned. Not, of course, in the majority of cases. Most people were clean, careful guests, but the exceptions do stick in the mind. Like the things they left stuck to the furniture. It was fun, we met some great people, but we got too old for it all and gave up. I can't say I missed the cleaning, but I did miss the odd moments like the time the man in my life volunteered to change the beds, and I heard cries for help from the end bedroom. Running in, I met something running out...in the gloom of the corridor, it looked like ectoplasm....fluid and in movement. He had had a problem with the duvet cover which had taken advantage of his inexperience and attacked him. He has never changed a bed since.
There are times when I would love to have a cleaning lady...but they cost a fortune in social security payments and anyway they baulk at getting up on ladders to clean the windows and remove the fly spots from the frames, so there isn't really much point in wishing. Don't even mention 'the heavy'. My tactic for keeping the house clean and tidy is to confine the man in my life to the rooms with tiled floors if he is handling paint tins and to keep the doors shut on all the glory holes.
What the eye does not see the heart does not grieve over.