Updated: Apr 13
To get windows really clean, you need a good, strong right rotation. You need to crumple the paper, two sheets thick, to just the right density for your fist and dip it, like ink, into the hot water–not too sudsy mind, or there will be streaks. Then you spray the vinegar, sour smelling though she always liked it, and cover the window leaving no area speckle-free. Give the vinegar a minute to work then rub, rub, rub.
This is the lesson Christina has taken from her mother. A woman seemingly born to do nothing else than clean a house till the wooden floors were near polished raw. She could change bed linen faster than anyone and would hit Christina with a wooden spoon on her fleshy thigh if she crumpled the edges.
“They need to be tugged tight for God's sake, child.”
The window cleaning had begun at twelve, or maybe it was thirteen, when Christina was finally old enough to stand on the kitchen chair unaided and reach the top corners, the tricky bits.
Now, arthritis in two fingers makes the task painful but Cristina doesn't mind. She still rings the paper out tight, between white, jarred knuckles and sure, if you can't manage a clean window you might as well give up altogether. It’s dutiful work, makes her feel needed, accomplished even.
She can't run a business like Stan but by God, she has the cleanest venetian blinds on the Uxbridge road.
Housewife. It had become like a swear word, Christina often thought. It was dirty, like a pong when the grease from a fry filled the kitchen and went stale. It was said sneeringly now, with disdain or repugnance. Whereas when she was a wee thing for her mother to proudly declare it to strangers when introducing herself had been a badge of honour – her husband could work, could keep his family, there was dignity in that. It was something to envy, to aspire to. Or so her mother believed.
As she scrubs the glass Christina watches the world. They only have a low wall and a thick prickly bush a few feet high so she can still see the people that walk by, the tops of their bobbing heads, the funny, wee earphone things plugged into their heads like sockets. She sees red heads and shaved heads, afro hair styled high and elaborate, she sees hoods and sunglasses and dark curious gazes. She occasionally sees a copper but that too becomes rarer – they hang around Westfield far more these days, incase of trouble, or terrorists, she supposes.
The paper is crumbling in her fist, it's becoming mulch, no good for the task. She picks up another sheet and prepares to crumple it with a satisfying crunch, but before she does she glances down at the newspaper print, as she is inclined to do, incase there is a sale worth knowing about, and sees the holiday offers for France, the Continent, Spain – splashes of smiling young faces and older couples with good teeth, waving from aboard cruise ships and canal boats, calling to her, sipping wine.
They don’t take holidays. Stan doesn't like foreigners particularly, enough of them in the office he whispers with a sigh over his dinner plate sometimes, and sure why go away when everything you possibly want is here in England? Often, though she wouldn't say it, Christina longs to point out that maybe that’s the problem. She isn't sure if it is.
A woman walks by carrying a toddler. A girl with white blonde thin hair and a pink sweater. The mother is talking to the toddler in that sing-song voice all adults reserve for the tiniest of tiny people, a language of rhythm, dips and crests, unthreatening as simple brains try and contemplate language. The toddler looks no more than two. The woman looks cheerful, content.
Sometimes Christina wishes she hadn't said anything about it. Had kept her big, fat mouth shut tight and just prayed to Jesus it went away. But it didn't, as such things usually don’t. The problem grew and grew within her till she had to tell Stan, and then her parents and then there were no more choices. They had married as soon as Stan had finished his apprenticeship at the Postal depot in Acton. A simple ceremony, to the point, no guests, the registrar unsmiling behind large tortoise shell glasses. She wore cream, loose, down to the knee to cover the swell and he wore his brother's best suit, still a little too large. Everyone avoided looking at Christina directly, or her body for that matter.
She finishes the window and draws the blind down once more, shutting up the light from outside. She carries the bucket to the kitchen, pours the dirty water down the sink and looks at the clock.
There is time to get out the hoover, maybe dust again – the car fumes from outside are making the house greyer Christina thinks, and then it will be near dinner time and there are potatoes to peel.
She had come early. In the bathroom of this house their parents had helped them buy. Tiny, like a doll, the size of a Honey Dew and there was nothing to be done but clean up the blood and wash the floors again. With a good thick bleach and lots of rags. Stan had been at the depot, promoted then, and she had sat there in a shiny, red pool, holding the little thing in shaking, shocked hands, till the neighbours heard the wailing and sent for help.
It's important to respect your cleaning tools, she thinks, carefully replacing the vinegar beside the floor wax and the polishes under the sink. To regularly sterilise your rags, to change your broom head, air the linen cupboard upstairs to avoid moths. Sometimes Christina likes to chop a lemon in half as well, and place the half moons like offerings at an altar, behind the lamps in the living room. She puts the bucket away and pulls out the old reliable Hoover from under the stairs. It's a beast in stainless steel and still works as well as the day her mother gave it to her. As house warming presents go, she knows she could have done worse. The neighbours now are all fancy and young, with big modern extensions and glass roofs over kitchens that illuminate the gardens all around, but Christina has kept this house much as it was when they got it. She has done little to change.
She tugs the cord, careful not to dent the corners as she drags the hoover down the hall. There had been no more babies after that. A few attempts over the months and years, some poking by doctors, and then that was the end of it. Spilt milk as they say. Sure, she couldn't cry about it forever. She had a husband at least, her mother had ventured, and that was better than nothing for a girl like her.
Christina heard something else at the time though, behind her mothers prim lipstick smile, she heard an instruction to be grateful, to show gratitude that he had accepted her at all, even in circumstances
He had played a part in creating. She was the lucky one. Perhaps it was generational, her mothers rational, her fathers blank ambivalence about it. She had pursed her lips, he had shrugged and Christina went on feeling deficient.
The hoover starts up with a howling gurgle, a deafening noise that Christina loves as it helps block out everything else and focus her energy only on the dust balls under the sofa and the crumbs from Stan’s toast. Why the hell did he have to walk in to watch the morning news while still holding the toast
Why not use a plate? There was always one there in front of him.
Twenty-one years gone by in a blink. Punctuated by special occasions that only felt like work, other people's milestones, deaths, Christmases at cramped tables, buying, buying, buying, more buildings, bigger noises, a city she hardly recognised. Christina shakes her head, thrusting the hoover back and forth vigorously. She starts to sweat.
She is told that Stan is still handsome, still 'looks well', it's been said. She shrugs at this. What is she expected to say? When she met Stan he was pimpled and ambitious and just eighteen. Now, he works less but earns more and there is enough to be comfortable but Christina doesn't notice. She unplugs the hoover and winds the cord up. He still had a good head of hair, wavy and blonde once, now mousy grey but thick and still stood tall which was a comfort to her since men all around seemed to be shrinking. She, on the other hand, is no looker, doesn't pretend to be. She did at one time think her nose was straight, her small blue eyes bright, her smile warm–but after years of gazing at photo albums of just the pair of them she sees her nose is in fact bumped in the middle and wonky, her lips don't distract enough from the overlapping canines and her eyes are dull, like smoked glass. She is not fat but she is certainly not thin anymore. Matronly springs to mind. Like a round soft ball around which she ties and tucks her apron strings as she cleans, strutted up like sausage meat.
A siren whirls outside as a squad car rushes by in the direction of Shepherds Bush. Christina stands still for a minute, brushing damp hairs out of her eyes and listens to it. Then she listens to the sounds of this house. A water pipe has groaned above their heads since 1989 but now she doesn't mind. The house speaks to her.
She could go out, take a walk maybe, but she doesn't. There's ironing to be done. She scans the room, replaces the hoover and picks up the duster with its synthetic head. She dusts the frames, the lamp shades, the tops of the mantle piece. There is little dust but Christina doesn't care, it passes the time and the functionality of the action is comforting, even meditative for her. She tries to avoid the round mirror of the fireplace. Who needs to glance at that withered mug anyway? She doesn't need to see the grey hairs on her chin or the ones in her hair line. To be reminded of the wrinkles in her neck and the weary quietness behind her eyes. Desirable is not something Christina has ever felt. She is a housewife. She is married to this house, its bricks, and rot, and age and noises. She sees so much dirt in that face in the glass that she wishes she could scrub it clean, make it better, fresh as she looked that nervous day at the registrar's office. But she can't. So she will clean the house, and that will have to do.
Stan drags his feet. Christina can hear him as he comes up the path and in the front door. She spoons more mash onto the plate, then congealed brown gravy over the chops, before sitting the plate down on the kitchen table and wiping her hands on the dish cloth.
“Hello, love,” he mutters, entering the kitchen, still dragging his feet. “Long day? Did you remember those Brillo pads I asked for?” Christina replies, pouring a short measure of wine. Stan shrugs, taking his seat as Christina steps around the table and sits opposite. “No, sorry,” he says finally, with an apologetic half smile, picking up the cutlery before him and beginning to munch.
Christina watches her husband for a good thirty seconds, all the time toying with her napkin. There is something in front of her she can see but can't. It’s strange. She doesn't know how she knows, but she is certain. Something is different. In the time it took Stan to drop his coat by the stairs and fork his first bite of chop, she knows.
Stan gulps from his wine glass, laid habitually left of his plate. Christina wonders why he's so thirsty. He takes another mouthful of oozing gravy and meat and then stops mid-chew as if the meat were spoilt. “Something wrong?” Christina says flatly, already feeling a distance creeping up the table between them, a wall right there in the middle of the beige, plastic table cloth. She suddenly feels a little drunk, disconnected. She is watching her husband, the flex of his wrist, the way his lips open and close with each bite, and she might as well be staring at a stranger. “I can’t,” he seems to whisper under his breath.
“What was that, love?” she replies, lighter this time, trying to suck her bumpy middle-aged body back into the moment.
“I'm sorry, Chris. I’m so bloody sorry,” he says, louder this time, like somewhere inside him a sob is beginning to rumble towards the surface.
“What have you done?” Christina replies finally, putting down her cutlery, placing the napkin beside her plate. She doesn't ask, what’s happened, or, is everything okay? She can see clearly it isn't. She hears herself say the words and out of nowhere feels a hot flush across her face that stings. Stan wipes his mouth, very dignified, and has the good sense to stand up and step away from the table, giving Christina room to absorb what’s coming.
“I'm in love with someone else...and I'm leaving. I'm going, Chris.”
Nothing changes in Christina's outward expression upon hearing this. She swallows a mouthful of potato, frowns at her plate, blinks a couple of times but that’s it. Beyond that she can process nothing. But then automatically, as she has always done, Christina stands up, picks up the plates and scrapes them into the bin. No point letting the grease harden, make a bad situation worse, she thinks. Stan watches her move, saying nothing. Then she takes the dishes over to the sink and pulls on her new yellow marigolds. There is something so lovely and comforting in a fresh pair of gloves for touching soiled things.
“I still need Brillo pads,” she says.