I have to start somewhere, so, I’ll start here.
Of weekly baths, washing machines, smelly shirts, underpants and funerals.
(In an effort to explain why I am where I am at a particular point in time which will also explain what is to follow.)
Wrinkled like a prune
(Somewhere in the early 70’s) The washing habits in our house were pretty close to those of wartime Britain (meaning minimalist). As kids, my brother and I got a bath on Sunday nights and during the week there was a daily “dab” with a soapy flannel. I was never conscious that we smelled bad and it never occurred to me that things might be different in other families.
Mum always maintained that there was no point in having more than one bath a week. Too much bathing was bad for the skin, it washed out all the natural oils. “If you have a bath everyday, you’ll end up all wrinkled like a prune,” she’d say. Besides we had swimming lessons at school, so the once weekly dip in the local pool was just s good as having a second bath.
The main maternal argument against over-washing though was based on expense and wear and tear. Mum claimed that she didn’t have the money to go heating up water for baths everyday. Hot water was a Sunday treat. If you wanted a bath on any other day, it had to be cold. “You know the boiler’s on its last legs and I haven’t got the money to repair it or get a new one.”
Sunday bath night ritual meant that mum always got the first bath around 6pm, so that she could get dinner cooked. Next up was my brother and if he wasn’t too claggy that particular week, I would get his bath water.
“The water’s freezing!” I’d scream down the stairs, at which point mum would boil up a kettle and a few pans of water to pour in the bath.
I tried to convince mum to get a shower installed on the grounds that it would use far less water. A few days after my suggestion, mum came home, clutching a rubber shower attachment for the bath. (Very common in the 70’s. The kind of attachment actually designed for washing one’s hair). The rubber accoutrement had two tubes equipped with adaptors to fix it to the hot and cold bath taps. The aforementioned tubes then joined into one long tube, at the end of which was a small showerhead. “There’s your shower,” smiled mum, thrusting the rather perverse looking attachment into my hands one Sunday evening. I hooked it up as best I could, but the damn thing never stayed on the taps long enough, the first sign of any water trickling through the tubes had the shower thing spurting off the taps and flailing round the bath like a two tentacled squid.
Why do I need a washing machine?
Mum’s maxim on personnel hygiene also extended to the washing of clothes. We never had a washing machine.
“Why do I need a washing machine when there is a perfectly good laundrette down the road? Besides …” Yes, a washing machine was an unnecessary expense, even a luxury and if we had one it would only break down. Makes me wonder why we ever had a car or a TV.
So, like us, our clothes got washed once a week. It was the Saturday afternoon family outing. We would hump big bags of dirty washing down to the laundrette, shove everything into the same machine (coloured and whites together) then mum would feed the machines vast quantities of change that she had got from the bank on the Friday afternoon. The average family wash cost around a tenner. For the fifteen years or so that mum did the weekly laundrette wash, she could have bought herself several washing machines and avoided a lot of hassle. So went my thesis. Mum’s antithesis …” It’s all very well washing the stuff, but I’ve got nowhere to dry it, so I’d just go down to laundrette anyway to use the tumble dryers.”
I have to add at this point that mum never ironed anything. “You don’t need to iron clothes when they have been in the tumble dryer.”
Manners and Ironing.
Now, I know we had an iron. Mum showed it to me when I was 9, after a “lecture” on “manners and ironing” from my class teacher, Mrs Perkins (it went as follows)
“When raining, It is good manners for the gentleman to walk on the outside of the pavement nearest to the kerb and let the lady walk on the inside. In this way, if car comes along and drives in a puddle, it will splash up water on the Gentleman’s clothing and no on the lady’s. Of course the lady will have to wash and iron the gentleman’s affairs.”
There then followed a “poll” – whose mother has an iron? – “I don’t know if my mum’s got an iron,” I sheepishly told Mrs Perkins, when I was the only member of the class not to eagerly thrust my hand into the air to prove that my mum was just as normal as everyone else’s. Mrs Perkins therefore asked me to ask my mum.
After school – “Mum have you got an iron?”
Mum rummaged through the cupboard under the stairs and produced a brand new iron sitting in an unopened box. She then put it back and we got on with life.* Tumble dryers were as good as irons and mum hated ironing, as she did all household chores
Jiving with the monster
Mum’s hostility to washing machines was probably based on her first washing machine experience. When mum and dad got married in June 1960, one of their wedding presents was … a washing machine – An enormous, circular, top-loading monster that made a noise like a helicopter lifting off the ground at close quarters. As far as I can remember it was a Bendix model that incorporated a spin dryer. When dryer kicked in, the machine would shake, rattle and roll, and occasionally jive and jitterbug its way across the kitchen. I can’t remember it being plumbed in to anything. When mum did the washing, she would drag the machine as close to the sink as possible, then attach a tube to the tap to let the water in and then put the outflow tube (or pipe) from the machine into the sink. It was hassle, and, the machine broke down on several occasions. Far easier to go to the local laundrette.
Of course, the weekly wash meant that you had to wear clothing for longer than was healthy. School shirts were a problem. I only ever had one school shirt that did me right through secondary school. In winter when it was covered by a sweater and a blazer it was fine, but in summer, when the school authorities allowed pupils to strip off their winter layers and work in shirt sleeves – danger YELLOW ARMPITS.
“Er, mum, any chance of you washing my shirt tonight, erm it’s got erm ….”
“If you think I’m humping big bags of laundry down to the laundrette, you’ve go another thing coming.”
“What about a new shirt…?” I ventured
It was a typical mum solution to the problem. She put some bleach on a sponge and proceeded to wipe away the yellow patches. This was just one of many shirt solutions – if, for example, a button fell off, she wouldn’t sew it on, she’d just tell me to use a safety pin. By the time I left school, my shirt had home in the armpits where the bleach had eaten through, and it was held together with safety pins. And when the shirt got too smelly … just zap it with some spray-on deodorant and leave to air over the back of a chair.
I never got a new shirt because … (according to mum)
“Why bother with a new shirt, I mean you only wear it for school.”
“You don’t need a new shirt, you’re only at school for another couple of years. It would be a waste of money.”
A pair a day
There was however one article of clothing which mum insisted we change regularly – UNDERPANTS – a clean pair everyday.
“You never know what’s going to happen to you,” the standard maternal lecture. “Imagine if you had an accident and were wearing dirty underpants? What would people think?” Mum was deadly serious. It seemed to matter little to her that I get run over wearing a stinky shirt or smelly socks. Clean “undies” though – that was a different matter. It seemed that social standing could be measured in terms of the cleanliness of one’s underwear. Presumably only children from “bad” homes had skidmarks. So, I never got a new shirt, but I had draws full of underpants, and when there were no clean ones left, mum would go out and buy new ones.
Anyway, today, I have no clean underpants left and on this damp, overcast, breezy late October afternoon, I am in Marks and Spencer’s buying underpants. I can’t wear dirty pants to mum’s funeral, it just wouldn’t seem right.
In underpant terms, I have been here for 21 pairs. The outcome of my journey was obvious, mum only had a few days to live, however, I did not expect the mechanics of death to take so long.
Now, I know what you are thinking – couldn’t I have washed a few pairs? Well, no. Mum’s washing machine died on the same day she did.
End of the cycle
I owe you a washing machine explanation.
In 1994, when it was pretty clear that my brother and I had finally left home, mum sold her crumbling semi in Bromley and moved in to a new flat in Beckenham. (Leaving one sinister part of south east London for a slightly less sinister part) The flat had a new fitted kitchen (mum’s first ever) and fitted in the kitchen was a washing machine and a tumble dryer. Both appliances worked and mum used both, she even said on occasion that if they broke down, she’d just buy new appliances – “you get cheap washing machines now, no point in getting them fixed if they break down.” For 14 years, the machine worked perfectly, then in 2008 it started to malfunction, roughly the same time that mum did. In and out of hospital for two years with no time or inclination to sort out the machine, it was never used until the evening of her death, when it became clear that I would be over for far longer than expected and thus decided to wash a few things. Besides, I needed to do something practical to take my mind off things.
Mum quietly faded away at the end of her cycle. The machine stopped in mid cycle. It made a horrible clunking sound and died.
Apart from phoning family and friends to break the news of mum’s death, I also spent part of the even scooping water out of the washing machine, wringing out soaking laundry and trying to find enough radiator space to dry it all. Then I had a brainwave – go to the laundrette – well, in the coming days I spent hours traipsing round Beckenham, humping a big bag of sodden laundry and … no laundrette. It took about four days to get everything dry, which of course meant nipping into Bromley by bus to buy some interim clothing.
Now after a failed washing cycle, here I am on this damp, breezy, overcast, late-October afternoon in M&S choosing new underpants for the end of mum’s life cycle.
I‘m quite enjoying this most bland, banal and boring of activities. I need the familiarity of High Street names. I need to know that life goes on. Mum is gone but Marks and Spencer’s is still there. I need everyday actions that come as refreshing distractions after weeks of dying. Buying underpants in M&S –
JUST A THOUGHT – JUST HOW MANY HUNDREDS OF BLOKES ARE THERE UP AND DOWN THE UK CURRENTLY BUYING UNDERPANTS IN M&S? HOW MANY OF THEM ARE BUYING CLEAN UNDERPANTS TO GO TO A FUNERAL?
From M&S I head down to the bookshop. I need to read something inspiring and life-changing. I need to escape into words, though not words of comfort. I’ve had plenty of those recently, mostly from family members with whom I am very uncomfortable. I need … A TRAVEL BOOK. I need that sort of book that tells the story of someone who only packed a few pairs of underpants because he didn’t think he was going to be away for as long as he actually was and do even half he things he did
Perusing the numerous travel books, I notice there are plenty of books about people who have been many different, distant, far-flung exquisite and exotic places. There are also a few books by writers who haven’t been anywhere far off, exotic, decent or even interesting. I suppose the point being that they have written about places no one would ever dream of going because they are so dreary, and this fact alone makes them of interest.