Although I'm in favour of a healthy outdoor life for children, there are some days so blighted by thunder and lightning and gale force winds that despite my best efforts with waterproof clothing, I have to throw in the sponge, the towel and my sanity, and prepare to entertain them inside.
One morning last week was just such a morning, when the storm clouds jostled for position directly over our house. The kids picked over their Lego, pulled the sheets off the bed, chewed up a few crayons and wondered what to do next.
I suggested painting, and we got out the paper and paint-pots and enjoyed thirty-eight seconds of quiet.
"I don't know what Peter's doing," observed Alison.
I glanced across at his painting. There was a large, black, angular structure dominating his paper.
"I'm doing a bird of paradise," he said. "What does a bird of paradise look like?" he asked me.
I knew that if I showed him a picture of a bird of paradise he would become so demoralised he might abandon the whole project and do something worse. So I said, “Oh, you know, they're black and look a bit like a pile of logs. Very like," I looked over at the fire-damaged totem pole on his page, "very like what you've painted so far. You just need some brightly coloured feathers on it and..."
"That's not the bird," he said, incredulous, looking at me as if I'd taken leave of my senses (which I had), "that's the tree. Can you draw the bird?" he asked. "And I’ll colour it in."
"You'll do it better than I can," I warned.
''No," he said, "you do it,"
I cannot draw, but l took great pains over it. After a minute of attention to detail, I realised I had drawn a cat with a beak and a long tubular tail arching from its back.
Peter looked from me to the mutant cat. "You've drawn an elephant," he said, considerably pained.
“It’s a bird," I insisted. "Look at its beak and its tail."
"Elephants don't live up trees," said Alison.
"So it must be a bird," I said.
"It's an elephant of paradise," said Alison. "That's what it is. Look at mine now. I've done a door. What I have to do now is lift this end up and fold it over like that." So saying, she took hold of one corner or her soaking wet paper and delicately peeled it off the table. Little rivulets of brown water cascaded down each side of the paper. She let the top half go and slapped it down on to the bottom half, and repeated the sandwiching process twice more. Then, placing one hand on top of the other, she squashed it flat and squeezed out all the excess water.
"There," she said, picking it up and dropping it into the water-jar, "that's that one done."
I gave her another piece of paper.
"What shall I do now?" she asked, taking her brush and stabbing it into a random selection of paint-pots. Her brush has been hit on the head so many times that all its bristles radiate outwards like the spokes of a wheel.
"Now what shall I do?" she asked again, her brush poised, glistening and tense above the page.
It was entirely academic but I gave it some thought.
"You could paint a fire engine. Then you could put lots of bright red on it, and a black ladder and some big round black wheels."
"I'll paint a fish," she said.
Fair enough. I went back to the sink and put some more hot water in the washing-up dish.
"Does this look all right now?" asked Peter. "Come and see.”
Perched on one of the charred cross-members of the tree was a wild frenzy of furious colour, a mythical beast sporting every appendage known to the animal kingdom. It had a beak and wings, a tail and talons, large pointed ears and a probiscis wrapped casually around its trunk. Peter looked more closely at it. "Where's its face?” he asked.
The problem with its face was that although the position of its beak indicated that its head was in profile, there were two eyes, a nose and a mouth clearly situated in the semi-circle of head to the right of its beak. So either it was a Janus-like creature with a face on the other side too, or its beak had slipped.
"It’s beak is on sideways," he said. "It's coming out of its ear."
A beak in the ear was the least of its problems, but once again, I tried to help.
"Paint a beak on the other side and pretend they are sticky-out ears."
"I can't do that," he gasped. This was no dual-beaked freak. Peter handed me his brush: "See if you can put its beak in the right place."
Addressing myself once again to the deranged hybrid up the tree, I hesitated to perform major surgery for fear of interfering with one of its other vital organs.
"It looks very happy," I said, pointing out the roguish grin halfway down its trunk. "I think we should leave him the way he is and hang him up on the cupboard door."
Alison put her fist in the water-jar. "You can hang mine up too." But she couldn't find them, so we put the jar on the window-sill.
I was glad to be rid of that bird. I gave them each a lump of Plasticine. "Make a pretend birthday party," I said, "with cake and sausages and sandwiches."
Alison set to at once, bashing hell out of her Plasticine with a rolling-pin.
Peter glanced up at the cupboard door. "I think," he said, "I'll make a model of that bird.”
Punch Sept 4, 1985
CALL THAT HOUSEWORK?
Who's in charge of what about the home?
Are there His jobs and Her jobs?
And who decides which is which?
The domestically despotic JANE IONS kicks off our new series
I am a domestic despot in absolute control of my housework. It is understood by my husband and indeed by my children that periodically I will deliver an edict concerning the state of the house which will go unchallenged. I may pronounce it clean and tidy, or I may pronounce it chaotic and messy, but other members of the family need not trouble themselves trying to make out the difference.
If I deem certain areas of it in need of attention, I and I alone will attend to it, thus ensuring at a stroke that what needs to be done is done to my entire satisfaction, with none of the irritations attendant upon delegation. I would no more use a man to do housework than use a whisk to make the bed. They are simply not the right tools for the job.
Consider, for example, the utter foolhardiness of using a man to clean the cooker. My husband offered to clean the cooker some weeks ago, and it was with great unease that I left him to it and settled down in the adjoining room with a book. Seconds later he appeared at my side. Did I have a stick, flexible, thin, yet strong with a pointed end?
I did not have about me such a stick. I can read books without sticks and I'm pretty sure I could clean cookers without sticks. However, I got up to assist in the search and did manage to produce a series of sticks which were variously too short, too brittle, too thick, bent, or disadvantaged. I hadn't realised until then that I was such a rotten judge of sticks. After the rejection of my nth, piffling stick, he discovered another way around the problem and I went back to my book.
Minutes later he was back. Would I just come and look at this, it was incredible, he could hardly believe it.
I myself could hardly recognise it. The cooker lay about the bench tops, horribly dismembered. Wires poked out of its remains like blasted saplings.
"What have you done?" I asked faintly.
"Oh, nothing much;' he waved his hand, wrapped massively in a blood-spotted tea towel, just sliced his thumb wide open with a screwdriver, I could get him an Elastoplast or something in a minute. But just look at that— he indicated my disembowelled cooker with his mummified hand — and with quantities of manly scorn he asked me: Which idiot designed that?
I frowned. I knitted my brows together with two of my pointed sticks, but I could not remember the
name of the idiot who had designed that cooker. Looking at it then, I could hardly remember what I used to do with it.
Anyway, I could fetch him an Elastoplast and make him a cup of coffee and then I could come and watch, if I liked, while he finished cleaning it, as long as I didn't get in the way.
But I wished he wouldn't clean it any more. I feared he might clean it into smaller and smaller component parts, until eventually it was so very clean that it would slip down behind the bench-tops and become fully integrated with the foundations of the house.
It is true that there was no permanent harm done, and that I was quite happy with the cooker once I had mastered the new functions of the control knobs. However, I suspect that it may not be quite over yet. There is a tendency among men to labour frequent references to their contributions on the domestic chore front, for if they did some housework and you forgot about it too quickly, or worse, didn't even know about it, it would be so very, very depressing. Indeed, later that same evening, two hours after my husband had reassembled the cooker, he looked at his watch and asked me incredulously whether it was really two hours since he had reassembled the cooker.
I might come home one afternoon after a trip to the supermarket to find a note: "Got back early so have Hoovered all floors!! Don't go upstairs until I have re-laid carpets (underlay in bathroom). Gone for new gasket for Hoover. Amazing, incompetent design. Take a look, (dining table)."
If I were out of the country he would send me a Telex. "Have washed all curtains. Amazing incompetence, all now too short. Take care on return, window frames stacked against fridge."
No, I make no apology for steering my husband firmly away from the housework. He is unskilled, he overworks it, and worse, he needs ancillary staff. There is some sort of terrier instinct at work in him which threatens the delicate domestic symbiosis between those things which must be disturbed, and those which are better left dormant. When I give him free rein in the house he goes snapping at the heels of tolerable levels of grime and worrying my labour saving devices. And it would cut both ways. He would be the first to complain if I went to work with him in the morning and asked him to make the coffee while I dismantled his secretary.
There are only two domestic responsibilities which are his alone. I do not clean shoes, and I do not concern myself with blockages. Blocked, for me, is synonymous with broken; but for him, it is a challenge.
Once something is declared blocked, I turn aside and he bounces into action, delving, ferreting, fetching sticks and shaking things until they fall apart.
He is happy because, along with everything else, his resources are being properly channelled. More so, I feel, than they would be if I were to wrap him round in a plastic apron and allow him to molest the house like a delinquent squeezy bottle, unable to distinguish housework from demolition.
I prefer to see him doing those jobs I know he likes best. I like to indulge him in those jobs which give him real fulfilment. Jobs like mowing the lawn, unbunging the guttering, mending my car and earning money. Jobs like weeding the borders, painting the outside of the house, washing my car and earning money.
I may have forfeited my claim to be one of the New Women. However, anxious not to lose out, I lay claim here and now to be one of the even newer, Pragmatic Women, and a mistress in the art of sharing. For whatever sort of women we are — New, Nearly New, Pragmatic or Automatic—successful work-sharing is one of the keys to a good working relationship, keymatically speaking. And speaking for my sisters in pragmatism, I can say that it works very well for me to do most of the housework while my husband does most of everything else.
He shares the money with me, and subsequently I may share some of it with someone else who may share some of my housework in return. While not engaged in my share of the housework, I may do some baking, and then we will all get a slice of the cake.
Things Are Looking Up
FOR some weeks now, I expect, you will have spent a good hour out in the garden just before bedtime looking for Halley's comet. Like myself, you have probably taken your cocoa out there and stood in the centre of the lawn, scanning the heavens for the once in a lifetime cosmic streaker.
This will shock you, but I think we should give it up. I think we are going to be disappointed.
Maybe I began with unrealistic expectations. I admit, I had half hoped for some sort of display. Not fireworks exactly, but something in the Roman Candle line, fizzing across the night sky in an arc, showering, you know, small stars or something. I did think it would be more of an event, and that we'd all come inside afterwards and eat baked potatoes and say what a hell of a good comet it had been. And that afterwards, events would be classed as having happened before the comet, after the comet, or during the comet. And maybe its impact would have given rise to a crop of comet-inspired similes like, as cheerful as a comet, or something else.
I decided to do a bit of research into comets, in a very minor way — I'm not funded or anything — simply because I like to keep abreast of heavenly things. I've done some reading on the subject and discovered that comets are made up of quantities of cosmic specks and motes held together so firmly in a gaseous mix that they become trapped in the gaise.
There are two main groups of comets, periodical and non periodical, that is, those with regular periods and those with periods so irregular that they have not had two within the scope of recorded history.
There is a great temptation to push comets and shooting stars together into the same astronomical pigeon-hole. You must try to avoid falling into this trap. A shooting star bears about as much similarity to a comet as a banana does to a water vole, which should put the whole thing into perspective for you.
And speaking of water voles, another thing about comets which I know will interest you is that they only have tails close to the sun. Millions of light years out in space they don't bother with tails, and who can blame them.
Let's put things on a more scientific footing at this point and start referring to the tail as an arm. Why call it a tail when, for most of the time, it does not trail behind the comet but sticks out from it sideways, pointing away from the sun? It is fundamental to our understanding of things, that things stuck on to other things sideways are arms, not tails. If I said to you, I have a head, two legs and two tails, you would say to yourself, here is a woman with a very serious problem. It's important that we name things correctly otherwise we have no idea what we are talking about.
Actually, it may help your understanding of comets to think of them as immensely vast balloons, or grapefruit, travelling at very high speed and emitting a thin stream of exhaust gases which may, depending on the position of the sun, leave the grapefruit at right angles to its direction of travel. Over the centuries, the loss of exhaust gas weakens the grapefruit to such an extent that it disintegrates into a shower of grit and becomes inedible.
There is more to it than that, of course, and I could go further and launch into eccentric orbits but I won't because this will make us dizzy. All I really wanted to do was to help you grasp the fundamentals. Having grasped them, you may wish to take them up, examine them and possibly do something more with them. It would be marvellous to think that even if the comet itself is an anticlimax, this little article of mine may inspire someone to eat more grapefruit.
Punch March 12, 1986