Getting on with it

When I was a kid and my mum had lost patience with the state of my bedroom and insisted I clean it, I had a last-resort technique if procrastination, sulking and tantrums all failed. I think the corporate speak for it is ‘leaning in.’

I was a really messy child so we’re talking substantial levels of leaning in here. By the time my mum put her foot down the state of my room had hit alarming states of disarray. Grotty sheets. Layers and layers of dirty washing scattered haphazardly on all surfaces, including the floor. Mouldy sandwiches under the bed, various dishes, and old drinks long since evaporated into an unrecognisable film of filth growing on glasses. Mum’s patience usually snapped when the crockery count under my bed exceeded that available to the rest of the family.

When there was nothing for it but to crack on, I was good at concocting elaborate scenarios to help me get in the mood. Storylines were gleaned from various books I had read. My particular favourite for cleaning my room was neglected waif at the mercy of a) evil mother, b) evil stepmother or c) evil witch; whatever worked on the day. I’d don a “thin shift” in which to shiver – an old nightie, a threadbare cotton dress, preferably faded, extra points if also torn. From the kitchen, a hunk of rough brown bread and a wedge of cheese for my meagre lunch. I’d romantically channel my inner put-upon drudge and I’d clean. It got the job done. If my mother indulged her nasty habit of poking her head around the door from time to time, to laugh wildly, clap and say, “Exit stage right, Gillian,” well, that’s on her conscience.

I employed similar tactics on regular cleaning days in our house. Whatever else we had going on in our lives, Saturday mornings were religiously set aside for housework. We were all assigned tasks and expected to complete them before hanging out with our friends or in my case, returning to my room to read and add to the ever-increasing mess. If you had the loungeroom for example, it was your role to sweep out the fireplace, chop wood and set a new fire for later. Wash the ornaments, (we owned a lot of Wembley Ware acquired from various swap meets and Fremantle op shops) dust, vacuum, clear away any bottles and glasses and put the records back in their plastic sleeves and their covers and back into neat alphabetical order on the shelf. There were always lots of glasses to clear and records to put away on a Saturday morning. Mum and her boyfriend, Baker enjoyed late-night parties which involved loads of music, no small amount of weed (it was Fremantle in the 70s) and vast quantities of home-brew beer and cheap wine. I was an excellent if not enthusiastic cleaner by the time I was 12.

It was these skills that were brought to bear this week when we arrived at our overly rustic French gite in the Pyrenees for a stay of eight weeks after spending almost three months in a charming newly renovated apartment in the old town of Montpellier. The mountain gite was less charming, more rodent-infested dust trap. It had clearly been shut up over winter and smelt like Nosferatu’s armpit. We spent a night panicking, trying not to turn on each other, apologising, trying not to turn on each other again, wondering how we could cut our losses, gamely attempting to sleep and simultaneously holding our breath in order to avoid inhaling centuries of murk. Then we decided to make the best of it. Spurred on by both the world-class mountain views outside and the fact that we had invested the remains of our travel fund into two months’ accommodation here and didn’t have much choice.

To be honest, things didn’t look much better in the morning, from the inside at least. The house was still dusty, manky and there was still mouse poo in the toaster. But every time we started feeling a little overwhelmed with the task ahead we nipped outside and copped another look at the startling landscape. Mountains for days. Snow-capped, stony-peaked mountains. Rolling green mountain hillsides. Trees. Burbling brooks, roaring rivers, so clear you could count the pebbles on the riverbed from a distance. Cows wearing bells gazing at us placidly from our front garden. When the clouds cleared, there were mountains behind the mountains. And more after that. So, so beautiful. One-dollar house, million-dollar views.

We started to think we might have a shot at making this work.

We have since cleaned the place within an inch of its life. Bedding, kitchen stuff, ornaments. Man, there are some weird ornaments here. I’m not sure what would win, the coconut monkey couple or the antique cow-bell complete with bone donger dangling from the ceiling. We scrubbed the oven with dishwashing tablets and steel wool, (I’d read something about the dishwashing tablets, maybe in the New York Times which I mostly visit for Wordle. Anyway, it worked. Huzzah.) Happily, there are plenty of cupboards so once cleaned, most of the knick knacks could be put away, clearing some surfaces and giving the place less of the air of an abandoned, overcrowded barn.

And believe it or not, underneath decades of dust the place isn’t all that bad. You might even call it beautiful. The oven is definitely circa the 1970s and an ugly mission brown but the colour of it hides the dirt we can’t scrub off, so, you know, out of sight, out of mind and all that. And it works really well. The stone walls of the gite are actually very charming and the fireplace is big, open and inviting.

Random things are inexplicably clean. All the windows are sparkling. Some of the rooms are lovely. Our bedroom is plain but clean and very comfortable. The bathroom could almost claim to be modern. It has a deep bath with water hot enough to make tea if you fancied doubling up on the washing of your person and a four-fruit herbal. Plus, there’s a view out of the bathroom window from the bathtub across the mountains. Mind you, every window and doorway here has a view across the mountains. You could say the local vista is showing off.

One of the piles of strange paraphernalia we found stacked up in a corner of the loungeroom turns out to be garden furniture, so we drag out two tables, a few chairs and a lie-low and give them a wipe. An outdoor umbrella is so crusted in grime we lather it up with dish soap and hide it out of sight behind the shed waiting for the next rain shower.

We take a run into the nearest large town about half an hour’s drive away and pick up a few essentials. Wine. A new toaster to replace the one riddled with mouse droppings. Wine. A new kettle to replace the one that wasn’t supplied to start with. Wine. New white pillowcases, white tablecloth and fresh tea towels. Wine. And cheese. Sorted.

We stuff everything else we don’t like in the spare bedroom and shut the door. Arrange our new things in the house, Glynn chops wood and sets a fire for later while I spend a wonderful afternoon picking flowers in the garden. We have buttercups, daisies, grape hyacinths and something called ‘Siberian Bugloss’ which is a tiny, cornflower blue flower with a bright yellow centre. The flowers that grow wild here in paddocks and on roadsides are joy. I have stuffed old glasses and jugs full of them and laid them out over every surface and windowsill. The sills are gloriously deep here. You could easily sit in them. If I owned this place, and I’m increasingly wishing I did, I would make window seats everywhere.

The seeds of a new storyline have been sown, and I can feel the green shoots of them peeking through the surface of the soil, turning their faces to the sun. In this story, I’m not so much of a spoilt Australian grumbling because our holiday house deep in the Pyrenees in rural France wasn’t as clean as I’d have liked. In this story, I’m a cross between a farm wife and an older French version of Heidi, with maybe a touch of Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music where the music swells and she sweeps into sight, arms outstretched revelling in a spring mountain morning.

Not to say there’s still nothing to be concerned about. More for the locals obviously, than for us. I’ve started eyeing the neighbour’s cows, wondering how I’d go at milking them. Or making my own bread. Churning my own butter. Frolicking about the hillside. Increasingly, the cows seem uncomfortably aware of my scrutiny and are starting to look slightly alarmed. We have named them Bonnie and Clyde.

What I’m reading.

I’m reading Margaret Atwood, Old Babes in the Wood. This book is a joy. I’m halfway through and I’ve started slowing down to make it last longer. There is such a wild, sparkling range of stories here, from an Octopus-alien, tasked with entertaining imprisoned humans by retelling old fairy-tales, a young girl trying to work out if her mother is a witch and a wonderful conversation with Atwood and George Orwell, channelled through a medium. They’re interspersed with stories about a married couple in their later years, Tig and Nell, and these are beautiful. Margaret Atwood is 84 now, and her husband and life partner, Graham Gibson, to whom the book is dedicated, died as the book was being written. Death is threaded through these stories and it’s deeply sad and raw, but it frames grief as a lens through which to measure love. A kaleidoscope of ordinary moments both before and after loss, that together offer insight into what it means to love across a lifetime. It’s the most perfect collection I think I have ever read. I can never decide if I think Margaret Atwood or Helen Garner is the greatest writer ever born, and with this book, I am tipping slightly more toward Margaret. I know that will change the second I pick up Helen again, but I love the tussle.

What Glynn’s playing

Glynn’s in charge of the fire and our Pyrenees playlist so here’s a selection of what we’ve been listening to.

The Broken Circle Breakdown Bluegrass Band: Wayfaring Stranger

Francoise Hardy: Le Temps de L’Amour

Jacques Brel: Ne Me Quitte Pas

Yusef, Cat Stevens: Lady D’Arbanville

Serge Gainsbourg: Bonnie and Clyde

The Liminanas: Maria’s Theme

Dinah Washington: What a Difference a Day Makes

Simon and Garfunkel: April, Come She May

12 thoughts on “Getting on with it

  1. Thanks for this, Gillo. It transported me to a wonderful place. So real, so raw. You and Glynn deserve it all (except the mouse droppings) 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done the Cleaning Duo. Glad to hear the view and the cows won out over the mouse droppings.
    I like the play list. My fav French songs are sung by Pomplamoose. Nataly has such a beautiful voice, and the bands antics are worth watching out for.

    You’ll find them here . . .


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Whats a bit of mouse pooh ? The flowers are the winners for me . Clean spaces with cottage flowers is a glorious image . A glass of wine , a beautiful view , cheese etc etc …. Dont send the address … we’ll all be there . X

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love your candour Gillo , so happy you stuck fat and made it work making your own rendition of the Sound of Music the hills certainly look alive and beautiful lifetime memory

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A timely reminder to make the best of everything and see the donut not the hole😂
    Most impressed by the elbow grease the pair of you have expended to create a comfortable bolthole in such a fairytale place. Make wonderful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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