Mum was sad. Mum was often sad. She could be heard crying, great big sobs that once heard couldn’t be unheard. Those sobs frightened me. She never said why she was crying. I assumed it was something to do with me. Even if it was Dad it would usually lead back to me somehow. I didn't understand how or why but just that it did. It meant that it was my responsibility to try and do something to make up for it, to make her happy. I spent many long days thinking up things to do that would magic that happy into being. One of those things was what I came to call.... washing day.
We lived in an old cold cottage on a country lane. The only warm place was in the dining room at the Rayburn. The kitchen was a galley kitchen. It was dark and damp and the sun never reached the windows. It had a large china sink. One day when I was home alone and I was busy thinking up the next happy plan I suddenly thought about the pile of dirty washing at the top of the stairs.
The stairs were steep, my legs short. It felt like climbing a ladder only with no sides to hold on to. At the top of the stairs I gathered up the very large armful of sheets, underwear, shirts and trousers that lay in a heap there and carried them all gingerly back down the steep staircase leaving a trail of fallen washing behind me as I went. Once back in the kitchen I couldn't find a bowl but the sink looked clean enough. I dumped all the washing into the sink and turned the cold water tap on. Actually it didn’t matter WHICH tap you turned on the result was the same. Cold, very cold water. Leaving it running I returned to collect up the line of washing still charting my path from the top of the stairs to the kitchen and added it to the already full sink.
Once full I poked it and stirred it with a wooden spoon in just the way I had seen my grandmother doing with her boiler stick. When I thought it had been poked and stirred enough I emptied the sink and the hard job of wringing it all out began. My hands were red and smarting from the coldness. Eventually it was all on the draining board still in its wrung out position. I piled it all into a bucket and dragged it down the back passageway and up the garden path to the washing line. It was a steep garden and I felt out of puff by the time I had reached the top. Looking around for the peg bag I realised it wasn't hanging on the line where it usually was. What to do now? Not one to be daunted by a challenge I worked out that as the washing was heavy with cold water it would probably be heavy enough just to stay hung there on the line. After what seemed an age and a bit of a wrestling match it was finally all on the line.
Returning to the kitchen I felt I was on a roll so I looked around for more things to wash. After all, more clean things equalled more happiness in mum right? I saw Dad's filthy shoes all caked in mud. In the sink they went. I returned upstairs and found the towels in the bathroom, hot water bottles, blankets and a few jumpers. Several trips up and down the stairs later and they were all floating merrily in the large kitchen sink. It was a pity there was no hot water but the cold would have to do. Several pokes and stirs later and one more for good measure and the wringing out began again followed by the long drag of the bucket up the garden path. Finally all the washing was on the line and I returned inside to wait for mum. I couldn't wait to see her happy face when I told her.
At last I heard mum's key in the door and I ran towards her, face full of excited anticipation. 'Mum, I did the washing for you!' I proudly stated. But mum's face did not show happy. I could feel the confusion on mine. 'Mum, I did the washing' I repeated again in case she had not heard me properly the first time. 'Oh my god!' she shouted as she suddenly burst into action running out the door and up the garden path, me following closely behind so as not to miss the happy expression I was so sure I would see once she realised the good job I had done. But instead of clean washing flapping merrily in the breeze there was now washing all over the garden, in the mud, on the vegetable patch, on the grass. I couldn't believe my eyes. Mum burst into tears. Told me to go to my room, wait for my father to get home.
I never saw the clean-up operation. I never saw my tea. I only saw the ugly leather belt I received when Dad finally came home. I wish I could say that that was the last time I tried to make her happy. It wasn't. But I figured that one time it would have to work wouldn't it?
Helen Bee works in her own Virtual Assistant business helping sensitive and empathic solo entrepreneurial women to achieve a better work/life/family integration, manage overwhelm and get back to the aspects of their business that they love by supporting their admin, research, social media and organisational needs.