‘Ooh, don’t you feel better after a good clear-out?’ my mother Zelma would ask, rhetorically, after leaning on me heavily to go through my wardrobe for a good cause. I’d curl a lip, as was my wont when she was alive to see it, and return to the serious task of learning funny accents and opening fetes.
Now, as so often — and as she darkly predicted I would — I find myself in total agreement with her. I’ve just freed a corner of my overcrowded kitchen counter from the detritus of eight years of squalor. Having read somewhere that aged spice racks are one of the greatest storehouses of bad bacteria, I opened, sniffed, sneezed and threw away with increasing zest. Out went the Chinese five-spice, grey oregano and dusty dill tops that I’ve religiously failed to use; then I cleaned away the crusty circles from beneath the removed jars.
This led me to rethink the wine bottles, which were at various stages between ‘I’ll keep that for cooking’ and ‘If wine’s been opened, does it still improve with age?’ and to relocate the tomato puree-stained recipe books into a cupboard so high up the wall that I might as well have set fire to them and scattered their ashes over a branch of Carluccio’s.
The vacuum I’d created in 25 minutes stood there, glowing. And you know what? So did I. I felt the same sense of achievement that comes from an article written or a play opened. (Well, almost.) My generation grew up eschewing the very thought of housework. We looked down on those who bothered about the scent of freshly aired duvets or caused themselves repetitive strain injury by dint of dust removal. All my wedding presents were domestic but I paid others, sometimes considerably more than I was earning, to wash and iron because I thought housework was demeaning and I was too busy fulfilling myself to care.
Make no mistake, I’m writing this now in my chaotic stage set of a study while twice-weekly cleaner Michelle pads about another room crinkling up receipts and wiping surfaces. I haven’t bought a gingham pinny — heaven forefend — nor am I trilling ‘A Woman’s Touch’ from Calamity Jane as I tickle away a cobweb with a pristine feather. Zelma’s diaries consisted of Monday; Washed windows. Tuesday; Turned mattress; Wed; Silvo’d cutlery. Plus endless trips to Bernard the hairdresser. I almost never go to a hairdresser but I’m beginning to notice dust, and the drop-in centre was certainly pleased with what I dropped in. I’m starting to realise that a wave of happiness may not depend on getting a new script when someone of the same age doesn’t, or watching a grandchild negotiate a soggy soldier around a boiled egg.
Of course ‘a good clear-out’ had another, metaphorical, meaning in my childhood years. ‘Have you been?’ was a frequent question in our house, often loudly posed as you were about to leave the house in the company of a cool friend. ‘Show me your tongue!’ my mother would say. ‘Eurgh — come back in, and sit down and count to ten.’ (Superstition demanded counting, if one was not to go under a lorry.) ‘I’ll get you some syrup of figs.’
Syrup of figs was all one wanted, given the state of the lock-free school toilets, so I’d leg it, white-tongued but continent, down Northfield Road. Three-quarters of my family seemed to have sensitive stomachs. Zelma was a laxative junkie by today’s standards and Dad refused to eat anything other than meat and two veg or he’d be ‘on the edge of the bed all night’. I was prone to croup (whatever happened to croup?) and nocturnal bilious attacks. Someone in my mother’s family had coeliac disease and I reckon she had a touch of it too, as she often complained of feeling ‘blown up’ after meals and was prone to ‘hot sweats’ after food and occasionally fainting clean away in restaurants.
‘Why don’t you try giving up wheat for a week and see how you feel?’ I once suggested. ‘It could help the arthritis in your hands too.’ She stared at me and said, emphatically: ‘Wheat! I don’t eat wheat! I never buy wheat! I don’t even buy bread these days. I don’t bother.’
There was a momentary pause, and then she added brightly: ‘Is toast bread?’
I’d never actually fainted in my life but this year in Marakkesh I had a strange ‘do’ which channelled Zelma. I blacked out in the Yves St Laurent Gardens — (a location she’d have loved.) Carted off to hospital, tests on my heart, BP and brain revealed nothing wrong.
It was with temerity that Dr Lipman put forward her own diagnosis: felled by muesli! Muesli, I explained, is a breakfast I never eat. At the astonishing buffet that morning I’d devoured three different kinds, each more delicious than the last. One hour later I passed out, and on recovery it passed through me like a dose of Syrup of Figs — whoosh. Back home in London, more tests revealed even less wrong. I’m as fit as a spring springbok, it seems. However, as I see it, if cheese and chocolate and MSG can precipitate my migraines, and braised rhubarb with brown sugar can alleviate morphine ‘brick up’, why is it out of the question that an overdose of soaked cereal could make me pass out?
Of course, the only way to prove it, would be to munch my way through a bag of muesli in the doctor’s office, pass out on his parquet and race to his loo with the evidence. And in my head I hear him say: ‘Ooh, don’t you feel better after a good clear-out?’