Last Christmas, while I was visiting my parents at the house where I grew up, I watched Mum throw away some spice mix. Much of it missed the bin and the seeds, spices and herbs scattered about the kitchen floor. Mum didn’t notice, or didn’t care, so I grabbed a dustpan and brush. As I swept, I found plenty more down there: breadcrumbs, cheese, ham, porridge, dog hair, something sticky. Later, Mum mixed cocktails. I had come prepared, so, before taking a sip, I whipped a baby wipe from my pocket and gave my glass a surreptitious clean. Mum and my stepdad started talking about their plans to become Airbnb hosts, at which point I nearly choked on a cashew nut. They simply can’t see mess, I thought, and then I remembered that, until quite recently, neither could I.
When I was growing up, the house was always untidy. There were piles of clothes on the landing, toys all over the living room, black marks on the hall tiles where coal had fallen from the scuttle we lugged in from the shed, dust on the surfaces, apple cores stuffed down the back of the sofa, discarded crisp packets, breakfast bowls on the coffee table, yellow gunge on the kitchen radio, and entire rooms we couldn’t enter because the doors were blocked shut by stacks of furniture, sculpture, paintings. I didn’t care: mess was all I knew, although there were hair-raising moments, such as when I was washing the dishes and saw something orange working its way up through the plughole. It turned out to be two slugs that had somehow got into the overflow. One Christmas, I accused the dog of having nibbled a bar of chocolate under the tree: “It was probably a rat,” said Mum, casually.
Nowadays, I share a flat with my wife Lucy, and I’m tidy – perhaps obsessively so. As I scrub the floors and put things away after a meal, or use the vacuum’s special nozzle to suck up far-flung specks of dust on Sunday mornings, I think about how the untidiness I grew up in has affected important areas of my life – my studies, work, relationships. I’m nervous of broaching this subject with Mum, as I don’t want her to think I have complaints about my upbringing (I don’t). When I eventually ask her about it, Mum laughs and quotes my dad’s parting shot from 1988: “It would have been easier to stay if I’d been able to find a clean teaspoon.”
Then she recalls a Friday evening when she took my brother Casper and me out for fish and chips: “I left the radio playing, the lights on, front door unlocked. When we got home, two neighbours were coming down the stairs. They said, ‘Thank goodness you’re alive.’ They thought the house had been ransacked and some terrible In Cold Blood-type scenario had happened. But the house was just in its usual state.”
Mum also reminds me that, as a child, I liked looking at estate agents’ ads, particularly for new-build bungalows. “You wanted a house like Gary and Kevin’s,” she says of the charismatic twins at my school, who lived in a spotless beige house on a cul-de-sac. It’s true, I envied Gary and Kevin, but I thought that was because they were good at football. I never thought it was about tidiness. And anyway, when Kevin came to do some plastering at our house last year, he told Mum: “I used to love coming here as a kid.”
On the other hand, I remember times when I did feel self-conscious about our home. A sleepover had to be abandoned when an asthmatic friend reacted to the dust. Another mate came for tea, refused to eat anything and the next day at school said our house was “scruffy”. We had a fight about that, so I must have been hurt. But we made up and, throughout the summer holidays, went fishing together and came back to my house at lunchtime, traipsing mud and pond water inside, to eat the sandwiches that Mum made for us.
A few miles outside St Ives in Cornwall, the house was never squalid and remains full of colour, warmth and books. It’s a nice place to be. During the festive period, guests come over almost every evening for elaborate dinners and sit around the table long into the night, laughing, arguing and drinking mum’s damson gin. The living room walls are papered in Ordnance Survey maps of places of personal significance – north London, where Lucy and I lived; Yorkshire, where we both studied; Barcelona, where Casper lives, and various sites of my parents’ own formative years. The maps overlap, creating a disorienting family geography, while the flickering fire casts shadows across them. But why exactly has the house always been such a mess?
Mum, a 68-year-old painter, sees it simply. “I could always think of something better to do than cleaning up,” she says. “It’s fruitless, completely non-creative. Tidiness is about fear of letting yourself go, but I think letting yourself go is when you can really be yourself. Both my husbands were useless about housework – but while women are judged for being untidy, men never are.”
Did she ever feel embarrassed when people came over? “I hated it when they turned up unexpectedly. Certain friends always arrived when I’d just set something on fire.”
So how exactly did I learn to be clean and tidy?
I ask my university housemate, Will, for his memories of the year we spent living together. “I’m amused to hear you say you’ve become obsessive about cleanliness,” he says. “I’m not sure you even knew what cleaning was. I remember after about three months, I discovered you dragging the bins through to the front of the house, juice dribbling on to the hall carpet. You didn’t know the bins were collected out the back, because until then I had taken them out every single week.”
The following year, I moved back into university halls, in part because Will warned a potential flatmate that I was a nightmare to live with. I felt ashamed when I heard about that, but by then I’d started seeing Lucy.
The first time Lucy came to my room, I explained that I only had one cup, so we would have to take it in turns to have tea. I had never washed this cup; I figured I was the only one to use it, so – why bother? Fifteen years later, I remind Lucy of this and she says, “I didn’t drink the tea because the cup was disgusting. It was calcified brown, like a toilet bowl in a manky pub.”
Still, Lucy enjoyed my company enough to see past the mug and we moved in together after graduation. Apparently I hadn’t improved. “It’s true that you didn’t see mess,” she says. “You moved through rooms, only seeing what function things had for you. You’d go in the bathroom, leave the toilet seat up, your towel on the floor.”
Is that so bad?
“I had to teach you basic things. I couldn’t understand why you were so ill-equipped for life. When I was a kid we took turns washing and drying after dinner. I learned lifelong skills, but also a lot of conversation with my parents and siblings happened around domestic chores.”
What did she think the first time she visited my parents’ house? “I loved the jolliness, the friendliness, the colour. But I was taken aback by the dirt. I grew up in suburbia and knew people who kept plastic covers on their sofas. Your mum’s cooking was amazing, but the plates had congealed food stuck to them from the previous time they were used. The wine glasses were greasy.”
Like Mum, I could always think of something better than housework to do. In our early years together, I’d tell Lucy to leave it, but she refused and ended up doing it herself. When I mention this to Alison Pike, a psychology professor at Sussex University, and co-author of a study about household chaos, she says: “If you don’t care about housework, you’re just not going to be the one who does it. Caring about stuff is gendered. There’s an argument to say that, instead of bellyaching about how men should do more housework, women should just stop doing it.” This is, in effect, what Mum did – her husbands did no housework and she refused to do much herself. (She did all the cooking; once, when she was unwell, my stepdad made her a cheese sandwich which turned out to be a chunk of parmesan between slices of stale bread.)
Circumstance forced me to take responsibility about five years ago, when Lucy started a job involving a long commute at the same time as I began working from home. I got quite good at cooking, which meant keeping the kitchen clean. I began to enjoy doing little things like sweeping crumbs or chopped herbs from the floor after dinner, polishing the hob with French lavender spray, wiping the wall behind the cooker, bleaching the sink after washing up and never leaving anything on the worktops lest we get mice. It’s rewarding, the nightly sense of completion involved in making things gleam, and Lucy says it’s a relief to know she no longer has to do everything. Although part of me can’t help but feel like I’m wiping away a connection to my past with every swish of the sponge.
Today, my brother Casper is a chef, so he knows all about keeping kitchens immaculate. I’m curious to know what he’s like at home and how he remembers the house we grew up in. He Skypes me from Barcelona, where he lives with his partner Nici and their two small children.
“I don’t think our house being untidy upset me,” he says. “I didn’t find it embarrassing when friends came over. My first girlfriend used to say, ‘Oh, I like it – it’s homely.’”
Do Casper and Nici argue about housework? “We used to,” he says. “And maybe I was more relaxed about it than Nici. To solve it we hired a cleaner.”
When Nici joins the conversation, I sense she feels more strongly. “Little things I don’t understand,” she says to Casper. “You open a chocolate bar and throw the wrapper into the sink. Why? And I don’t like it when you leave the food that falls from the children’s plates under the table.”
“It sounds like we still have issues,” he says, before adding: “I guess I’m fairly comfortable in mess at home.”
I want to know how far back the legacy of messiness goes, so I ask Mum what her childhood home was like. “My mum was always cleaning,” she says, “but she didn’t pass on her domestic skills. I think she wanted something different for me, but I probably took that on too wholeheartedly. I feel guilty about not passing on any domestic skills, especially now that you have become very domesticated. Your flat is a nest kept perfect. Would you have liked it more if we’d been very tidy when you were growing up?”
I’m inclined to say no, but I know my untidiness cost me when I left home, and possibly earlier. At school, teachers said I was bright but disorganised in my written work. I’m a slow learner, which might have something to do with being untidy, and for a long time I felt as though my body was marked with some indelible dirt.
It took me decades to learn that my untidiness was taking its toll on me and on others around me. But blaming Mum would be unfair. As Casper says, “She made up for it in other ways.” Mum created a stimulating, loving home and, like the mess in the house, our family relationships are out in the open – imperfect, and I think more beautiful for being so. Still, my dad and stepdad should have done a lot more housework. Later, Casper and I should have helped. Perhaps it’s not too late, although I am alarmed to hear that, if the Airbnb plans get off the ground, my stepdad is planning to make breakfast for the guests. I won’t be reading the reviews.
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