Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Big Clean - Judy Darley

Mum’s gone mad again. That’s why I’m sitting in the tree house. It’s just a few planks of wood nailed together, but it feels safe up here. When the wind blows the branches creak and I imagine I’m on a boat sailing far away. We had an astronomy lesson at Scouts today, so I can use my telescope to navigate by the stars.

Dad’s not home yet, but when he gets back from work I know he’s going to go mad too; not in a crazy way, like Mum, but in a shouty, angry way. 

He hates it when Mum gets like this. I wouldn’t mind her madness so much if it wasn’t for the way it makes Dad so cross. Sometimes when she’s mad, Mum’s magic to be around. The usual rules disappear and life becomes a game. I never quite know what to expect. Right now though, she’s busy digging up the garden and filling the house with soil. She’s doing it ever so thoroughly, sprinkling a fine layer of earth over every single thing and making the whole house smell damp and dusky, like a cellar. She calls it “the big clean."

When I walked into the kitchen earlier, she told me to be careful not to get dirty footprints on her nice clean floor, so I tiptoed across the soil to the counter and tried to open the biscuit tin without tipping any of the chocolate-brown mud off. I couldn’t do it though, and half of it fell on the floor in a heap, but Mum just smiled brightly, passed me a custard cream and layered the earth back on top of the tin.

The custard cream tasted a bit gritty, but I ate it anyway. I know there won’t be any tea tonight. Mum was concentrating on spooning earth into saucepans when I came back outside.

There are huge holes all over the lawn where Mum has been attacking it with her shovel. It looks as though we’ve had an invasion of dogs searching for bones. The thought makes me grin, but as I look down at the craters from my tree house, I know this isn’t normal. 

No one else at school or Scouts has a mum who behaves like this. My friends’ mums clean their houses using soap and water. I think it should bother me more than it does, but I suppose I’m used to it. The first time I remember Mum doing something like this I was just five years old and I’m eleven now. That time, Dad was away at a conference. Mum made dinner like usual, and then suddenly decided to take the lampshade off every light in the house and burn them on a big bonfire in the garden. Instead of eating the pasta she’d cooked, we ate piles of marshmallows toasted over the flames. I thought it was fantastic – I boasted about it the next day at school, but the teacher didn’t seem so impressed. She phoned my dad and told him what had happened, and he drove straight home, stressed and angry. That’s when I realised I should keep Mum’s mad moments to myself.

From where I’m sitting, I can see the front of the house as well as the side where the kitchen is, and I watch the street lamp outside the front door begin to glow as the sky grows dark. Dad arrives home, parking at the front of the house and walking towards the front door. The size of the house means I can’t see him go inside, but I can imagine his face as he feels the soil crunching underfoot, and realises that everything around him is now dark brown. 

I didn’t go upstairs earlier, but I bet the bedrooms are heaped with earth, each pillow smothered in tiny granules of ground, worms wriggling their way over the softness of sodden duvets. I wonder if I can sleep up here tonight. I could tie myself to a branch so I won’t roll off.

I crouch down at the very edge of my planks, trying to see what’s happening inside the house. Mum is bobbing around in the kitchen. I think she might be dancing even though there isn’t any music playing, except, perhaps, inside her own head.

She stops wiggling suddenly, and I see that Dad’s come into the room. He’s not shouting, though. He’s just standing in the doorway, looking at her. I pull my telescope out of my school bag and try to focus the lens on his face. At first he’s so blurry he looks like a pinkish moon, but then he snaps into focus and I see he’s looking sad and very worried – not angry at all. 

He takes a step towards Mum and holds out his hand to her. She beams at him, lets him take her in his arms, and then tries to waltz with him around the earth-covered tiles. She’s wearing an apron, which is streaked with soil, and Dad very gently unties the bow, lifts it away from her and drops it over the back of a chair. Then he leads her through the kitchen door, out of sight. I stare up at the windows at the top of the building, but none of the lights go on.

When they reappear at the front of the house, Dad is carrying Mum’s small flowered suitcase. I stare through the telescope and I can see that he’s crying, very quietly, hardly moving his face at all. It’s as though the tears are just leaking out of his eyes. 

Mum looks a bit anxious; she keeps touching his face where the tears shine, but she gets into the car when he opens the door, as obediently as can be.

They drive away into the night and I know that when Dad drives back he’ll be alone. I put the telescope away in my school bag and sling it over my shoulder, then climb down the rope ladder to the rutted lawn. The kitchen seems eerily quiet without Mum in it.

She’s left the wheelbarrow and the shovel by the back door; so, I slip her apron on over my head, covering up the Scout’s uniform I’m still wearing, and I begin to do the kind of cleaning my dad understands. 

-Judy Darley's Biography: I began making up stories as a tiny child, long before I learnt to read. Studying journalism at university taught me to edit my ramblings, and until September 2008 I was features editor at Spanish Homes Magazine. As a freelance writer I've written for a broad range of publications, including Writing Magazine, The New Writer and a variety of travel publications. Previously I’ve had short stories published by Quality Fiction Magazine and Open Magazine. I'm the editor of, a website for writers and word-lovers, and, a website for the travel media and travellers. My main distractions are Twitter, trashy TV and my husband, James.

-Photography by Christopher Barrio.