Washing and hoping

There’s a low sun in the garden. If you place the chair between the shadowy oak tree and the overgrown Laurel bush on the other side of the fence you can get a warm few rays.
The smell of autumn pervades.
I took the broom to the front garden this morning and swept up piles of acorns – signs of prosperity and good luck – I swept them into a mound behind the hedge. The squirrels will have a field day this year.

The old man stacked the logs in the woodshed, then he set about concreting my washing line post into the ground. I can remember moving to our house in Hertfordshire when I was seven – 1956 when life was simpler – well not for the poor old Hungarians as the Russians did to them what they are doing to the Ukrainians now – Old Ruskie men with TTS – Territorial Testicular Syndrome – aggressive old men playing war games. Fucking arseholes.
But I digress.
1956, I learnt to ride a bike, climb a tree and speed down the hill on a book balanced on a roller skate. The twelve houses in our road were built on old farm land. The earth a sticky, yellow clay. When we found shards of china – it was like finding buried treasure.
The back garden was a big rectangle of land. We backed onto the other new council houses which had been built for us uprooted slum dwellers. I flicked bedroom lights with Peter Knight – infamous fiddler player for Steeleye Span – he went onto a fantabulous career playing all around his hat and living in France. I went into popular telly. He still lives in France and is still touring with his band ‘Gigspanner’, I’ll go and see him at the Assembly rooms in Tunbridge Wells.

My father had never gardened in his life, whilst my mother read up on horticulture he continued his journey into pugilism. He built the first garage gym. A punch bag, weights and boxing gloves. He bench-pressed and skipped and taught me uppercuts and jabs.
Tying a spotted silk scarf round his neck, he took his shiny new spade into the garden. Puffing on a fag, he dug through that yellow clay. Starting from the end of the garden up to the French doors – well just beyond. The 34-year-old boy from Stepney laid a patio and a long concrete path for my 33-year-old mother’s washing line.
He laid a concrete path round the lawn which he had grown from seed. He double dug the clay and rooted out all the ceramic debris. He bought a lawn mower and a big roller and he nurtured the grass till it was neat as a new pin.

The hand laid path around the lawn meant you could walk round the grounds in two minutes without walking over his newly mown grass. He had a petrol mower that had a recoil starter which he pulled before the engine chugged like an old steam train. The fumes hung over the garden. On Sunday mornings twelve houses in a row tended their lawns, after which Yorkshire pudding and a chicken roast was served up at the kitchen table. Twelve husbands carved twelve birds. Twelve kitchens entertained nought point four children in their nuclear families, as the Sunday papers waited to be read. Twelve kitchens with condensation and a granny and grandpa at either end of a table laden with jars of piccalilli, horseradish sauce and mustard got stuck into Sunday eating. Weird that 60 years on some folk can’t even afford to put the oven on.
Each year, as the lawn established itself, it was home to a table tennis table that was dismantled after each ping-ponging session. A makeshift badminton net, and sometimes a mini football pitch. Grass clippings were taken to the end of the garden, near a wooden shed of gardening paraphernalia, and left in mounds. I still love that smell of new mown grass.

My mother planted gooseberries and peas. When the summer sun came we would sit, colander between her legs, shelling peas and picking gooseberries. Lettuces and potatoes, blackcurrants and rhubarb. The peasants had arrived, beetroots and onions growing on top of well mulched earth. My mother pushed wheelbarrows of earth around. Once whilst weeding she announced that she felt like an Egyptian slave. Now, when I pull a few weeds I can hear her kvetching.

The washing line was attached to poles either end of the concreted path. My little mother would stand on tip-toe as she hung out sheets and pillow cases, his shirts flying and flapping in the wind. Tea towels, which my mother called dish cloths, table covers which my mother called table cloths. Her errant husband had whittled a perfect prop out of a wooden branch, up again on her tiny toes my mother would place the prop under the washing line and push until the clothes were flying higher than a swallow. As the laundry danced on the line my mother would plump the cushions on her Ercol furniture and sing along to Perry Como.
The Northern git has just walked through the kitchen door to tell me that the concrete has been poured into the ground and the washing line is now stable although it can’t be used for a week until it’s set. Time takes on a different pace when you are over 70 and there’s nothing else to do but wash and iron, garden and write, weed and wonder.

My mother ironed on the kitchen table covered in blankets, thats the table not her…. No steam iron then but a jug of water which she dipped her hand in so she could sprinkle droplets of water over the clean laundry. My grandmother had a pressing iron which she heated on the gas stove. A great big heavy IRON pressing iron. It only occurred to me last week that the pressing iron was made of iron which is why it was called an iron. I bet she never had one of those in Minsk, Pinsk or Omsk.

The washing in our Hertfordshire home would be hung out to dry once a week. No tumble driers then. No spinning washing machines either. We had a tub that thumped up and down. Out came the wooden tongs and the washing was heaved into a spin drier. Water dripping on the floor. The spin drier manoeuvred its way round the kitchen until the load was done.

‘Better than a bleedin’ mangle,’ said my mother.

We didn’t have disposable clothes then, just a few things – I always wished that my white socks came out white, like the Gentile girls at school. My socks and knickers were a depressing shade of grey. My mother put everything in together. She did her best but housewifery was a chore. She’d rather have been reading and dreaming than scrubbing and bleaching. Black pullovers, red skirts, blue jeans, everything went in a Persil wash and came out a pinky grey mess. She’s not around to argue with me, but she’s the reason my whites always come out white.

Our washing line was put up last week, a temporary measure until the concrete arrived. The dawter saw the sheets flapping and felt nostalgic. I’ve no idea why since we’ve never had a proper line only one of those whirligig types. But she stood watching as the old git’s shirts blew in the wind, the towels somersaulting, the sheets billowing and I know what she meant. Washing on the line is like ‘Listening with Mother’ it’s like crumpets and honey. It’s like peace and tranquility. It’s like a life we had before the life we have now when things took their time, and kitchens had tables and politicians told the truth – ah! thems were the days.

1 thought on “Washing and hoping”

  1. Back in the early 80’s, I had a neighbour friend who used to say he (sic) loved watching women hang up their washing. He felt that each woman approached it differently. Shirts by tails or shoulders, pegs shared between items or each item having their own pegs. Trousers by waist band or legs. Towels hung vertically or horizontally, ditto pillowcases. He believed each woman’s methodology told him a great deal about the woman. And yes, of course it was a man, and yes, I did fancy him. He knew a thing or two about how to get a woman’s interest.


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