Before I started school there were some days when essential and time-consuming chores meant that my mother and I couldn’t visit the shops. Washing took a whole day out of our week. Home became uncomfortable on washdays. My mother was preoccupied and easily irritated – wanting to get the mountain of work over with as quickly as possible. The kitchen was fully occupied until the whole process was complete; the kitchen floor became an obstacle course dotted with piles of dirty washing and random splashes of washing water; the kitchen windows were as steamy as a cold bathroom on a winter’s morning and the whole flat smelt damp. It was even worse in the winter when the condensation on the kitchen windows ran in rivulets. My mum would open the windows to try and slow the deluge, but all that did was to chill the entire flat.
Before she could begin washing, any clothes with stains had to be hand scrubbed with a large bar of green soap. Then the washing machine had to be dragged unwillingly from under the draining board and filled with hot water (very hot if my father's white shirts were being washed). Washing powder and dirty clothes were added in that order and poked underneath the steamy surface with wooden tongs. The washing powder my mother chose changed now and then, but none of them smelt at all pleasant. In fact, if I put my face too close when I sniffed the box, it was like diving into a swimming pool and filling my nose with chlorinated water. One of the powders my mum bought was called OMO, but the one we used for the longest time was Persil because my Mum liked the plastic daffodils she got with each box.
Once the machine was full of dirty clothes, hot water and washing powder, the machine’s heavy metal lid would be dropped back on top and a large handle clipped to it. My mum had to keep heaving the handle backwards and forwards, moving around the clothes inside again and again until she was satisfied that they were thoroughly washed. The clean clothes had to be lifted from the hot water with her wooden tongs as they were simply too hot to handle. Sometimes she dropped the tongs into the scalding water and if that happened, the dog and I made ourselves scarce.
Clean, steamy clothes arrived with a slap on the metal draining board, the dirty water was siphoned out of the machine and the clothes were rinsed by hand in a sink full of cold water, ready for the wooden mangle clipped on to the side of the machine. The mangle was hand turned and clothes were fed between the rollers one item at a time, folded in thick layers so that as much rinsing water as possible was squeezed out, back into the machine. The clean washing was now ready to hang out and the last dregs of rinsing water siphoned from the machine into the sink. My mum worked her way through each load until it was all done. It took hours.
My Auntie Jessie firmly believed that hand power was the only correct way to wash clothes. Even when, years later, Uncle Arthur bought her an automatic washing machine, she swore that it didn't get the clothes properly clean. Every Thursday evening Aunty Jessie would go down to her local wash house where she scrubbed, rinsed and wrung everything by hand.
There were washing lines downstairs in the gardens of our flats but it was often easier to dry things on the balcony. In colder weather, the washing was sometimes forgotten overnight. My father’s shirts would finally be retrieved, stiff with ice, sleeves aloft as if surrendering to their fate. The only solution then was to hang them on the wooden clothes airer in front of the fire whilst they softened and ultimately dried enough to be ironed. In fact, for most of the winter, the combination of wobbly wooden clothes horse and living room fire was the way most of our laundry was dried.
In wet, wintry weather it wasn’t just clean washing that found its way into our living room. We had no radiators or tumble drier so our coats and scarves and gloves often needed space in front of the fire to dry off from the day’s rain or snow. This was a late-night job. Just before my parents went to bed, damp clothes would be loaded on to the airer or hung over the backs of dining chairs and left overnight to make use of the last glimmers of warmth from the dying fire.
Ironing was another chore to be added to the long list of my mother’s regular activities. There was a temperature dial on the top of my mother’s iron, but it relied on my mother’s skill to do its job properly. Shirts and other cotton items had to be ironed whilst they were still damp enough to press out any creases – filling the room with the lovely smell that only comes from clothes dried in the fresh air. When she was ironing woollens she would put an old tea towel, dampened and wrung out, between the sweater and the iron’s surface so the creases were removed without scorching the garment. This released a much less appealing smell – a bit like a wet dog. Flat things like sheets, towels, hankies, were all ironed and put away in the big cupboard at the end of our hall with its slatted wooden shelves. My mother referred to it as the airing cupboard, but as our flat had no boiler, I can’t think that the cupboard did much to keep anything warm and dry.
Our kitchen had both a pantry with shelves and a tall storage cupboard. The latter was home to the ironing board, iron and assorted mops, brushes, dusters and polish. My mum bought her polish from the Betterware man, whose whole job was selling cleaning products door to door. The Betterware man had a suitcase filled with an amazing range of cleaning goods, all of which smelt wonderful. Best of all was the Betterware lavender polish which came in a large round tin with a tiny complimentary version for me. It was meltingly easy to rub onto a polish cloth, even when the temperature was at its lowest and it made the whole flat smell like a stall at a Christmas bazaar. (One of the favourite offerings at the charity bazaars where I did most of my childhood Christmas shopping, was a stall selling little homemade bags of lavender to freshen the wardrobe and airing cupboard.)
Our six flats were contained in a red brick cube. The building was constructed at a similar time and in much the same style as my father’s new workplace and the nearby grammar school which I would join some years later. The only difference, in our case, was the thoughtful addition of a long concrete window box outside each flat’s living room. Sadly, this attempted gentrification was not well thought through. The large window which overlooked the window box was fixed. There were two smaller opening windows, one on either side of it but, without climbing on to the box itself, its centre could never be reached. The architect’s hopes for floral embellishments never materialized. This was also why paying for a window cleaner was an absolute necessity. My mother cleaned the insides of our windows regularly but simply could not reach to clean the outside of the large static window pane.
Our regular window cleaner was really, truthfully, called Mr Leather. When he was ready to clean our windows he would knock on our front door and hand my mother his bucket which she would fill with water and put out on the window box. He washed our windows with something that made squeaking noises as he worked and which looked like a very holey old piece of yellow cloth. He called ‘me shammy’. It would be years before I found out that this was actually called chamois. He worked alone, climbing an extending ladder to reach our second floor flat without any safety gear and without anyone to foot the ladder for him.
There was always a part of each of my mother’s days which had to be used for cleaning, and there were few ways to lighten her workload. We did have a reconditioned hoover, but as we had very little carpet it helped but didn’t address her two main problems, coal dust and dark brown linoleum tiles. Coal fires produced thick black dust which needed to be removed every day. There was just no way around that. The dust added to the footmarks on the lino which had to be cleaned and, if possible, polished. One Saturday afternoon when my mother was out, a friend of mine came around to play. We tied dusters to our shoes, stood in polish and turned the kitchen floor into a shiny skating rink. My mother was delighted and did all she could to encourage us to keep up the good work but without success.
There were times when the children in the flats did not help the ongoing war with dirt. The Thomas family had moved into flat 3 a little after we arrived. Their son, Stephen, had blonde curls and a deceptively angelic expression. My mother (privately) renamed him as ‘ripwreckandruin’. On his first visit to our flat. Stephen ventured into our bathroom and discovered a reachable tin of Vim which he emptied over my head and his own and anywhere else he could before its contents ran out. Vim was a highly abrasive white powder used for scouring away the grey ring around the family bath. Luckily none of the powder went in our eyes but it took some time to wash it out of our hair and it permanently removed the surface colour from a few of the linoleum tiles.
This incident could have been overlooked as the careless placing of a dangerous product by an adult, but it was not the end of the boy’s talents. Unfortunately, Stephen had also developed a habit of biting his peers without warning, leaving tell-tale teeth marks. None of us children escaped his toothy ninja attacks and he might have continued his rampage had he not been caught in the act of biting Nicholas Webb. Nicholas’s mother, Joan, was a no-nonsense nurse who reacted quickly, snatched up Stephen’s hand and bit him back. Joan was immediately mortified by what she had done and went to apologise to the weeping child’s mother. Expecting to be met with righteous indignation, Stephen’s mother, Muriel, met Joan at the door with profuse thanks. She and her husband were becoming desperate for some remedy for what was becoming a horrible habit. Muriel was a very quiet, gentle lady and Stephen was something of a shock to her system. One cold morning I remember her warming her pearls in front of the fire before she fastened them around her neck, ‘Just to take the chill off’ she explained.
Sometimes the radio would be on whilst my mother cleaned, with ‘Housewives’ Choice’ providing background music. At other times she would just sing to herself. I knew that my mother was particularly happy then. Not much of what she sang made any sense: ‘Don’t throw bouquets at me’ and ‘Chattanooga choo choo’ or ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy’ all had words that seemed really random, but the songs meant that she was happy and her voice was pleasant to listen to. My rapidly balding dad would sing too: ‘Moonlight becomes me, it goes with my hair’ which would make my mother and I giggle.