Most of you who know me in real life (which is, let’s face it, all three of you) probably think that I’m a fairly laid-back, relaxed type of person. I remember a flat-mate once saying she liked watching me cook because of the way I just sort of floated around the kitchen. She didn’t say ‘and then there’s this amazing meal’ or anything, but there must have at least been food of some description at the end. Point being, I’m not exactly your classic Type A personality. I don’t zoom around energetically, I’m not driven to do anything much except get to bed with a book, and I don’t really care about the details.
Then recently an entire lifetime of lack of control-freakery all came upon me at once and I went ‘Woah! Uptight!’ and spent days zooming around energetically in a driven fashion paying attention to details to a ridiculous degree. Something else about me is, I’m not much of a housekeeper. I find it boring and pointless because it gets un-kept as soon as I wander off. Whenever I read the part in ‘how to survive with a newborn’-type articles where it says ‘Lower your house-keeping standards for a few weeks, it’s much more important to get extra rest’ I laugh because baby, there’s nowhere for them to go. And yet when I had my plot-loss and turned into the domestic equivalent of Margaret Thatcher I found myself doing things like cleaning the inside of the fuse-box.
What, you ask, could bring on such a dramatic change? All these years of conversing with people who say things like ‘I’m tired of colouring in; my neck’s got all tangled’ have finally driven me around the bend, perhaps?
Well perhaps, but that wasn’t the issue here. What happened was, we had a house-guest. This particular guest comes often and always has my best interests at heart. His mission while he’s here is to lighten my burden as much as he can. There have been times when I’ve gone out to work in the morning and come home to find dinner on the stove, the floor vacuumed, the washing folded and the kids thriving and I’ve thought, wow! This must be what it’s like to have a wife! (Not one like me, though.) There have been times when he’s mentioned going home and I’ve begged – literally – for him to stay a few more days. Just, you know, until the kids have grown up and left home.
For all his kindness and wonderful housewifing skills, the one thing he’s not totally on top of is doing anything with economy. He just doesn’t see the point. He’s a generous person who really does not do moderation under any circumstances at all. Usually this doesn’t cause problems of the sort that would lead to me changing my entire personality but this visit coincided with a time when we needed to be really, really economical. We aren’t even talking moderation here, we’re talking the merest hint of the whiff of an oily rag. From a distant galaxy.
This happens occasionally here. I have developed mad, mad frugalising skillz. The trick is, you just don’t go anywhere or buy anything. You eat whatever you can find in the cupboard, garden or freezer and you make every last lentil do for three meals. If you have carrots in the garden then you eat carrots. If you have mince in the freezer then you eat mince. If you have neither carrots nor mince then you eat eggs and parsley which never seem to run out. The kids’ lunchboxes look like the unusual cravings section of a pregnancy book – a carrot stick, a boiled egg, some old sultanas from the bottom of the baking ingredients box, some parsley, a wax crayon which is kind of like a honey sandwich. Some milk powder which you tell them is a dehydrated Milky Bar. Some laundry powder which looks like milk powder. They’re not going to eat any of it but whatevs, at least nobody can say you’re not sending your kids to school with a full lunchbox. More realistically, you make a lot of pikelets and muffins and things which don’t need much butter.
Not only were we at this stage with food but we were there with water too. There hadn’t been rain for months and the tank was very close to empty. I understand that when your water comes out of a tap connected to a municipal water supply you are not programmed to think about every drop every time you turn it on. Being that conscious is a habit you develop over time and only when you really need to.
Our house-guest does not approve of the dish-washer. He does all the dishes by hand even though we tell him that we really, really wish he wouldn’t. When you’re used to the way that dishes come out of the dishwasher sterilised it’s quite hard to go back to having them washed at the much lower tap water temperature. He regards it as a little bit indulgent, letting the machine do all the work, and certainly extravagant. We have tried to explain that modern dishwashers use a ridiculously small amount of water but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Again, usually a difference we can all accommodate, but on this occasion it started to do my head in. His method of saving water was to rinse every individual item that he used under the tap and then put it away believing, I think, that the longer it took to fill up the dishwasher and have to turn it on the better. I found myself lurking around the sink saying things like ‘NOOO! STOP! Just put it in the dishwasher! Now you’ve used probably two litres of water on one knife! If you’d put it in the dishwasher it would be one of maybe a hundred things which use, like, fifteen litres between all of them! STEP AWAY FROM THE KNIFE!’
As hard as I tried I could never quite beat him to the dirty dishes. I think he was quite well aware of me hovering around ready to snatch the coffee cup from his grasp as the last mouthful passed his lips, and tried to humour me, but still didn’t quite get the point. Likewise, because of his kind determination to give me a few nights off cooking tea (and goodness knows I’d usually be happy for a passing tramp to cook if it means I don’t have to) I never quite managed to get in before him. I’d arrive home from school pick-up to find the empty packaging from several days’ worth of meat, the peel from half a bag of onions, the unusable parts of every vegetable in the fridge and the empty tins from about six meals’ worth of tomatoes all over the bench, and somehow their contents combined to create only one meal. Unfortunately no food is nice enough, though, that the memory of it alone will keep our stomachs full for the rest of the week until payday and I began to get seriously strung out. Or he would say, ‘Right. Let’s go shopping. We need some lettuce, some capsicum, some chicken and some bacon. I’m going to make (insert here some delicious dish involving all those things)’. I would say, ‘But what we have is carrots and mince. Why don’t we have something using carrots and mince?’ ‘But this will be nicer’. ‘Yes. But we have carrots and mince’. We were speaking the same language and yet we weren’t, if you know what I mean.
Because I’m grateful in general for his help I bit my tongue and tried to keep out of the way so I couldn’t see our precious water running down the drain and my next two weeks’ worth of carefully rationed ingredients being flung around with magnificent abandon. Then when he went home I flipped out. I stomped around the kitchen finding further evidence of profligacy and texting Josh each time (because he just loves it when I do that). And then all these weird things started happening.
I dug into the back of cupboards that had had things stuffed in when we moved here five years ago and found things I’d forgotten we owned. I got a chair and took all the crap, mostly empty boxes (Josh is a hoarder. You know: next time we move it would be so handy to be able to pack it back into the original box it came in fifteen years ago…) (Melissa Craig, if you’re reading this, remember the beautiful Edinburgh crystal you gave me for my 21st? Eighteen years ago? And the lovely box it came in? No? Never fear, it’s STILL HERE!) from on top of the pantry. I went through the medicine cupboard and threw away anything whose expiry date preceded my last two children (I don’t like to play into their hands by being too literal about it), a bunch of old batteries and used candles and about fifty thousand bendy straws that someone once gave us and which had managed to locate themselves in fifty thousand separate corners. I tipped out the huge drawer full of little teensy plastic containers and drink bottles and matched twenty-four thousand of Systema’s best with their lids. I filled up a rubbish bag and chucked the rest in the garage so I’d have something to work with next time this happens. And yes, I went all bunny-boiler with a Chux cloth and cleaned inside the fuse-box among other completely pointless places. Then I stopped for lunch.
It took me a while to work out why I was filled with this manic and deeply uncharacteristic desire to sort and clean. Then it came to me: I can’t bring back the wasted water and tinned tomatoes but I can be absolutely in control of the contents and orderliness of the kitchen cupboards. For at least ten minutes until one of the Trevs comes and wrecks it all again. But still. I know that there is nothing wasted here – not space, not time looking for a container lid which is long gone, not anything. It is streamlined and efficient.
Now I am sane again and back to not caring about the inside of the fuse-box. I don’t think we’ll be having our guest back for a while though. The consequences are just too scary and unpredictable.