‘It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.’ Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat.
Every once in a while, say about once in every four or five years, the distaff side of the family decides that it is time to do a spot of spring cleaning in our modest apartment. Now you might be forgiven for harbouring the impression that this involves some general cleaning up, perhaps a bit of polishing of the furniture here and there, and a lick of paint on some of the walls that may have developed a crack or two, owing to the inexorable ravages of time, as I once heard someone describe it. Perhaps a couple of days of minor inconvenience, but well worth the small effort and expense. And before you can say ‘Mansion Floor Polish,’ it’s all done and dusted. Everything back to how it was, only much cleaner and more spic-and-span. With any luck, I should have been lolling back on my cushions, a bag of crisps and a glass of chilled beer at hand, watching Nadal and Djokovic slipping it across their rivals at the Australian Open.
That, of course, was the pious intention as we started out on our getting-the-home-shipshape project, but matters have a way of running a somewhat different course. Man proposes and the wife disposes. My goodness, you won’t believe the amount of stuff there was to dispose, but more of that anon. I was all gung-ho for getting this job done on the quick-and-easy method, but I reckoned without my better half’s cunning plan to lull me into a false sense of security. Now that we are well stricken into our 70s, it was always fully understood that hard manual labour will necessarily have to take a back seat even at the cost of minor compromises on the cleaning up, painting and polishing side of things. There are able-bodied men who can be paid to do the heavy lifting, quite literally. However, as The Beatles once so tunefully put it, I should have known better (with a girl like you).
It’s a funny thing about cracks in walls. I am never able to spot them, however much I squint. ‘Cracks? What cracks? Where?’ Remember that memorable line from Leonard Cohen’s song, There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That just about sums up my wife’s side of things when it comes to blemishes on walls. Cracks, chips, peels, damp, discoloration – none of these apparent symptoms of degeneration catches my eye. My bad, as today’s generation might inelegantly put it. And yet, there’s my good lady wife, leading me by the nose with a powerful torch-light trained on those very spots which obviously need urgent attention. ‘This will involve scraping the walls in the affected areas, applying putty, and finally painting the walls with two coats. Colour matching is vital and we will have to watch these workers like hawks.’ The Oracle has spoken. Things are only going to get tough from here on in.
The thing of it is that, during my innocent childhood, stuff like wall painting, furniture polishing and redecorating the home never even remotely formed part of my consciousness. If such things did happen, I was blissfully unaware. I led a sheltered life. My wife came from a different background, where work was worship, preferably with hands – an article of faith. Her family members would speak with an easy familiarity about things like spirit levels, sandpapering, paint rollers, drill bits, steel wool, rawl plugs, putty knife and many more such items which were nothing less than Double Dutch to me. I was thrown into this mysterious, arcane world, which now became a part and parcel of our lives. I will leave it at that.
Wall painting (sounds so simple, does it not?) has many allied consequences of the temporary kind in order to enable work to proceed on an even keel. For starters, all the furniture has to be covered with every available bedsheet to avoid paint blotches from falling on the wood. The furniture must needs be moved to a central position in the room to enable the painters to move about without let or hindrance. More bedsheets must be found to cover all the curios and artefacts that we have collected over the years. To say nothing of our TV set, desktop computer, refrigerator and so on. And why on earth did I buy so many CDs, nearly 500 of them! Had I known that Spotify would have every piece of music for me to enjoy for just a small subscription (if I didn’t want the intrusive adverts), I could have avoided all the expense. Then again, Spotify was not even a twinkle in the eye of its discoverers when I first graduated from LPs and cassette tapes to CDs way back when during the early 80s. When we travelled abroad, I would nip off to Oxford Street or Orchard Street, depending on whether we were in London or Singapore, and come back with an armful of CDs, sometimes hidden from my better half. These things tend to accumulate over time. Anyhow, the stacks of CDs needed to be covered as well to prevent dust from slipping through. And I haven’t even started on the books yet.
Then there were the books, on cue. If you thought the CDs were coming apart at the seams, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Every available shelf space in our home is crammed with books. My wife is a student of English Literature, so she started collecting books long before we even got married. From Jane Austen to Kafka, Camus to Blake, Dickens to Chekov, Trollope to D.H. Lawrence and everything else in between. Not to mention the de rigueur, voluminous Complete Works of you-know-who. And given the amount of travel we had done over the decades, light reading in the form of P.D James, Robin Cook, Dick Francis, Robert Ludlum and their ilk as well. To start with, the space allotted to me among the tomes was small. Wodehouse and some books on cricket and tennis were my oeuvre, but as the years passed, I too dived into the reading habit with vigour. With online ordering making things easier, I have been buying more books than I have been reading. I have now cried a temporary halt to this insane buying and decided to start reading some of the books that are still snug as a bug in a rug in their original Amazon packaging. There is Kindle of course, which is cheaper and only takes up data space on your mobile, but somehow it is not quite the same thing. The smell and tactile experience of a printed book can never be matched by anything that comes online. Rather like the look and feel of a brand, new long-playing record as opposed to the instant convenience and gratification of Spotify.
Now that I have taken your breath away with our in-depth love for music and literature, allow me to turn to art and nature through some of the canvasses that adorn our walls and thence, finally on to plants. Seriously though, the idea is to share the physical challenges of moving and protecting these precious possessions while sprucing up our wee home. To start with the paintings, and without dropping names, let me just say they are the works of some of India’s finest artists who ever dipped a brush into a pot of paint. More to the point, in their glass frames, they are heavy. To remove them from their parent walls, place them delicately on an unoccupied bed and cover them with bedsheets is a task that can test the strongest. Once the walls have been given the once (or twice) over, the whole process is to be reversed, which is even tougher. And if we have been able to achieve all this without breaking or damaging any of these master works, we can sit back and take a long draught of iced Coke and heave a huge sigh of relief.
Finally, there’s the plants, which require special attention. Shift them, if you must, but with care. One false move, a snapped twig and there will be hell to pay. They come in all shapes and sizes. Tall plants, ferns, creepers, small potted plants – these are all very much the good wife’s area of competence. What I know about plants can be written on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill. Oftentimes, she and the domestic staff do all the lugging and heaving, leaving me out of the action altogether. Her charitable explanation being that I have a sore back and should not risk a crick or two amidst the lower vertebrae. She does have a point, but I suspect the real reason is her concern over my tendency to operate on two left feet, and the disastrous results that could follow.
Now to the ultimate challenge, while all the painting and cleaning is being completed. ‘It’s a good time to get rid of some of the rubbish we keep sitting on purely out of silly sentiment. They take up too much space and it will mean nothing to whoever ultimately inherits all this.’ That pearl of wisdom from the wife, naturally. She says that every time we do up the house. While I agree wholeheartedly, the actual process of getting rid of the rubbish is more challenging than we had envisaged. So, what else is new? ‘How about this set of 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, gathering dust for 32 years? The local library would love to have them,’ I tentatively suggest. ‘No, we can’t give that away. It was a present from my much-loved aunt.’ ‘Right, how about those two rickety rocking-chairs. Nobody ever sits on them and the termites are feasting on them.’ ‘Yeah, they can go. Only I bought them on a charity sale run by my dearest friend. It will be a wrench. I can have them repainted.’ ‘Surely, that battered HMV record player can be given the heave-ho. It does not work and we don’t play records anymore.’ ‘I agree, but it is a genuine antique, and that dealer down the street said he could crank it up again. Could fetch a decent price at an auction house. What’s more, we still have those old Bach, Satchmo, South Pacific, G.N. Balasubramaniam and M.S. Subbulakshmi vinyls on LPs and 78 rpms.’
Ten days on, our home looks as good as new. And nothing went into the scrap heap. We are sitting on our own scrap heap, greatly treasured.