Five burnt matches. Some cold candle wax for the picking. Stray poppy seeds on the table from five nights ago, a tissue. Two pint glasses with tepid dregs of tap water, one with a lipbalm smear round the rim. A cushion on the floor just because. Scattered papers, some nail varnish with the lid half unscrewed. Pens. Blankets. A gnarled dog chew.
That’s just some of the stuff I’m looking at currently in flagrant disarrayment in my lounge.
I’m surveying it all quite proudly. I feel like taking off a sock and draping it coquettishly over the lampshade. Just because I can.
The other day at the pub, I casually mentioned something to do with cleaning and a friend raised his eyebrows in surprise and said “Huh. I never had you down as domesticated.”
I felt like I’d been struck. I wondered if he imagined I cocked my leg at the coffee table or wiped chicken fingers on the curtains. I turned to my other friend with my mouth open indignantly to intimate a “can you believe the cheek?” but was met with a blank look. Then I realised that both friends were relatively new ones. And that they did not know.
They did not know about Old Sadie. About the Old Sadie that spent years being a bit too, shall we say, pernickety. They did not know that I was to domesticity what Lady GaGa is to couture; on occasion more than a bit OTT. They didn’t know that I used to have a demi-obsession with limescale, and would glaze over with psycho eyes staring at a tap that had those disgraceful white crusts. That if I was home alone I would seldom sit down because I would always be searching for something else to clean or clear. That nothing made me feel as good as when a room was utterly spotless. That dust would be constantly polished away, sides disinfected, windows and pictures shined of smears. That bathroom suites must permanently look like they had never been used. I could go on. They didn’t know that I spent way too much money on cleaning products, that I would over-stock the cupboards with emergency sprays and gels and cloths and sponges, would sometimes have several duplicates or even triplicates of the same item, and would worry that a product I especially liked might suddenly be discontinued without warning. I could go on. They did not know that I had a near photographic memory for the way I had arranged things and that if a cushion was moved, a broom re-propped, an ornament re-angled, a book removed from a shelf and put back (dare they) in the wrong place, I would know. And I would put it right again, quietly, without delay. I could go on. And on.
A friend told me once back then during the sparkling years that they sometimes felt like I judged their house, and their mess. I was hurt because not only would I never have judged their mess (because it was not my own), but that I liked it. It was homely and comfortable. Free.
Years later I can see that all that endless faffing wasn’t that I was a clean freak at all. I don’t think a bit of dirt does us any harm and I tut at people who bang on too much about germs and hygiene. I think kids should be allowed to get grubby, that washing up can be left overnight if you have better things to do, and that the time I used to spend constantly retracing my steps like an OCD cuckoo clock doll in marigolds was an affront to the limited time I have on this planet.
The ‘dirt’ was not my issue. I think I just wanted to make everything ‘nice’. I think for a very long time I threw myself into cleaning because staying physically busy took my brain and heart off other things, that I wanted to preserve (or, more likely, feign) order in a chaotic mind, and that cleaning was a psychological trick; ‘everything’s fine and shiny – you are fine and shiny!’ It was something small I could tackle when the important stuff couldn’t be usorted.
It’s all pretty standard. A lot of people have similar things. There’s probably lots of textbook psycho-babble about ‘control’ that would fit perfectly to it.
But I think having someone essentially say “I always kinda thought you might be a bit of a skank, Sadie” (as I over-translated my friend’s casual observation that night) was the first time I’d acknowledged the extent of the polarised change. Feeling aghast that someone could perceive me to be in any way domestically ‘relaxed’ was an outflinging from the buried erstwhile me; for one moment I cared that anyone could have made such a wrong assumption. Then the new me shrugged it off, and was even a little flattered. Where once friends thought I loved nothing better than staying in and being a bit manic with a duster, now they think I am far too busy doing other, ‘better’ things.
That means I’ve come a long way. I am not the fussy girl you don’t want poking around your kitchen anymore. I will leave your bathroom alone. My brain won’t twitch if I see a mess unfolding in a room; I let it be. I don’t need the cleaning. I can let some sauce dry on the chopping board with the best of them. I can leave things lying around, unwiped, uncleared. I am free to enjoy my space and let my space take on who I am and am happy to be. I can leave signs of life lying around because I am happy with the life I live.
Maybe I’ll even turn into the kind of happy slob who can leave the toilet seat agape and stalagtites hanging from taps, who keeps a fried egg stuck to the wall for later and wears spinach in their teeth like lunchtime tinsel, who nicknames their e-coli spores Betty and Sam, and takes the loo brush out for long country walks. Here’s to dreaming, eh.