Back when I was at university, seven of us lived in a beautiful detached house in a leafy suburb of Winchester for our second and third years. For a student house it was an absolute palace: three bathrooms, parking for four cars at the end of the private driveway; the list of virtues went on and on. Of course, it was too good to be true: the landlady was an absolute headcase. Her heart was in the right place – she had a couple of lovely houses after seeing their own daughters living in some pretty squallid student digs “so that students will have somewhere decent to live” – but she was clearly as mad as a box of frogs.
The house was so lovely that we put up with, and overcame, the first sign of her madness: she wasn’t keen on renting rooms to boys. Apparently they’re just not worth the hassle. (There are days when I know how you feel, dear.) With five girls and two boys we thought it was worth a try so we deployed Basket in full-on sycophant mode to talk her into renting us the house. Marcus was accepted straight away on his teacher-training credentials (ironic, isn’t it?) but she was insistent upon meeting us before she agreed when she heard I was an English student (“why? Is he foreign?”). Fortunately, when the time came we all turned on the charm and home counties accents and the house was ours!
Once we got it the departing students let us into some of Pam’s more freaky ways, namely her strict rules on how we were to keep her house. No annoying the neighbours (fair enough), no blu-tack on painted walls (papered walls were fine, strangely), and no letting the place get dirty. Any dirty at all. Pam was fastidious.
That didn’t bother us really: we were all quite tidy kids (well, by and large) but nothing could have prepared us for the rigour with which she enforced her cleaning philosophy. Within our first week she had visited and given us a thorough run through of the manner in which the house was to be kept. Obvious things such as hoovering, dusting and keeping things tidy were swiftly dealt with before getting down to the jobs that can get easily overlooked: bleaching the skirting, scrubbing the cooker and keeping the larder clean (yes: we had a larder – that’s how nice the house was). By now we were all in awe of her dedication to her cause. Of course, she was just keeping her house in as good a state of repair as she could, but getting me to scrub the grouting in the shower with bleach and a toothbrush is taking things a little too far.
In order to maintain an approximation of Pam’s high standards we instituted our own system: the infamous ‘bin week’. Once in every seven weeks we took our turns to empty the kitchen bin, put them out for collection once a week, clean the kitchen floor and wash all the bathrooms. You became the house bitch for seven days, but then you got six weeks to scold everyone else for not changing the bin bag. I thought it was a fair deal (it was my idea). Cleaning the kitchen floor could not be done with a mop – oh no, far too inefficient – but manually with a scrubber on your hands and knees.
Like fools, we stuck to this and the other rules in case Pam should pop over. She only lived 8 miles away and her husband – the diminutive but charming Kingsley – would come and cut the grass for us so we thought it best to be prepared at all times. No matter how hard you tried it was always a disappointment: we had always overlooked something and the oven was never clean enough (it turns out she was only happy after it was cleaned with caustic soda of which she had a seemingly unending supply. Perhaps she had a crystal meth factory in the garage; either way none of us were up for the risks of chemical burns or blindness so the cooker remained sub-standard for the whole two years.
Despite all this, I still look back and chuckle because however funny we thought it was then, I still do some of the things she drilled into us nearly ten years ago. I spent all Sunday afternoon with a bucket of bleach and a scouring pad, wiping down the paintwork and scrubbing the floor. Our flat has very little carpet and lots of lino so it’s no small job, but had it not been for Pam and her manic interest in maintaining a tidy home I would still be looking at the mess now. She may not have taught me anything I didn’t already know about how to clean, but spending two years doing it week in week out made me realise that there’s no easy way around it. It’s not a fun job, there’s very little thanks and it needs doing again almost as soon as you’ve finished, but Pam did teach me that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if you just to knuckle down and get on with it. Put on the marigolds and let me at it!
Finally, congratulations to Jon (my sister’s boyfriend) who graduated this week with a 2:i! All the brain cells used have subsequently been killed off after the celebratory party: I still do not recall the last three hours of it.
Next week: Tuesday is my birthday! A week of events including wine-tasting, a big party and eating out all over the place. Hurray for me!