Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Incomparable Mrs Swann

Mrs Swann is a wonder, she really is. She had been employed at an awfully big house in Windsor before she came to us, and I can tell you they were devastated when she left them. She needed the country air you see, and to live somewhere where she could walk by the sea and her eyes could rest upon distant hills, and she could hear the breeze in great trees; because poor Mrs Swann has very delicate nerves. She simply had to get out of Town, and Sussex has been just the place for her. Her little flat is at the very top of the house, so she can see the sunrise and live in a room full of light: Mrs Swann’s soul could not abide a basement. Even now of course she has those times when she disappears into her little apartment with a bottle of gin and we hear snatches of Leonard Cohen songs from behind her closed door, but see nothing of Mrs Swann for a fortnight. Then, bravely and quietly she is once more amongst us, with a sad, resigned expression on her face and a duster in her hand.

She makes this glorious furniture polish. There is usually an old jam jar with some in it, standing in her cupboard, and as soon as you open the door this absolutely celestial aroma wafts over you. Each batch is a little different: she mixes a third white spirit with two-thirds virgin olive oil, then adds lots of essential oils – whatever Eustacia feels inclined to make spare from her little stash. The most recent batch had half a bottle of patchouli oil and a hefty sprinkling of rose absolute. Every now and then she wanders about rubbing it into the furniture; and when Mrs Swann has been feeding (as she describes it) the doors and the bookcases, and Eustacia has been burning the Dalai Llama’s Blessing Incense, one feels Nirvana has taken two steps nearer.

One really hardly likes to confess to looking at daytime television, but if I am to be totally frank I must admit to curling up with a cup of cocoa on a dreary day to enjoy Kim and Agatha (or is it Agnes?) in How Clean Is Your House. The programme is marvelous and I do my level best not to become tyrannical with Mrs Swann under its rigorous influence.

Naturally the advertisement breaks that spasmodically appear in the course of the broadcast are heavily dominated by odes to cleaning products: and there is one that puzzles me no matter how often I see it – the one extolling the marvels of Cillit Bang. Let me be the first to make clear that I have not tried this product myself. It appears to dissolve virtually anything. I once had a rather beautiful woolen scarf with a cheery eastern design in reds and spice yellows and whatnot. I glued it to a potting tray to make a lid for the Desert Box when we were experimenting with Godly Play: later on when I wanted it back to wear I ripped it free with no trouble but it was plentifully marked with ugly and unyielding splodges of dried glue. I had a look in Mrs Swann’s special cupboard and found an uncompromisingly pink container labeled ‘Vanish’ – just the thing, so it said, for removing stains.

The basic information is all I ever feel inclined to discover, and I didn’t have my spectacles with me at the time, so I simply cannot pass on the possible content of the small print. I just squeezed a generous dollop or three into one of Cook’s mixing bowls, splashed in enough hot water to immerse the scarf, and left it there – for three weeks as it turned out, because I went on holiday forgetting all about it the next morning. I did think Cook or Mrs Swann or somebody might have had the gumption to rescue my poor scarf: but Cook was simply grumpy because I’d occupied (as it were) a mixing bowl for three weeks, and Mrs Swann pretended she had thought I was conducting an experiment.

The effect of the Vanish was remarkable. The glue stood firm: but when I started to rinse the scarf it began before my astonished eyes to dissolve! I have felt a deeper respect, bordering on wariness, for household cleaning products from that day.

We don’t have Cillit Bang anyway. Mrs Swann is more of a Borax and Bicarb bunny herself – I think she secretly watches How Clean Is Your House? In the privacy of her sitting room. I hope it doesn’t do anything to exacerbate her anxiety disorder.

But the advertisement on the television shows a buxom blonde person with extraordinarily white teeth flashing in an almost demented smile as she demonstrates the wonders of its strength. She insists that it dissolves limescale – and so it may do, but as here in lovely Sussex we have some of the softest water in the country this information didn’t have me convulsively reaching for my purse. The other things the ad bimbo revealed was the power of Cillit Bang to completely clear all the toothpaste from her washbasin. In fact she showed us. With one sweep of the cloth, all the toothpaste thickly daubed around the entire interior of her basin was eliminated.

The question that lingered in my mind, which intrigues me far more than the alchemical properties of Cillit Bang, is why the dickens any normal woman should devote time to smearing a thick layer of toothpaste around the sink? And a secondary question: is toothpaste normally thought to be difficult to remove?

Personally, I am always very careful not to be wasteful with the toothpaste. My mother brought me up to believe that, even if a person has been blessed with a fortunate position in this world, what we have is ours to steward wisely. This is how we show to God our appreciation: to celebrate the good things in life is our ‘Thank you!’ – to use them wantonly and inadvisedly is thoughtless ingratitude. As Christ said in the Bible: ‘From those to whom much is given, much will be expected’. This applies even to toothpaste – I don’t mean that if you have been given a lot of toothpaste somebody will want a lot of toothpaste back from you, like a terrible pharmaceutical Inland Revenue, I mean that good management extends down from the larger view to the smallest detail of our lives. The Lord sees.

Even so, we must be understanding and gentle in our judgement of others. Mrs Swann’s use of bleach, for example, is on occasion startlingly lavish, but only when her OCD has got the better of her. Then she stocks up with disposable wipes and mould and mildew spray, the entire building acquires the bracing air of a public swimming pool, and for a while all the lavatories flush blue. But when she is well, we go back to the Ecover multi-surface spray and everything begins to calm down.

In writing this I am reminded that it is far too long since poor Mrs Swann had a holiday. I see that The Lady has a competition at the present time to win a housekeeper for the Christmas period. I wonder if I might enter? Oh – while on the subject of The Lady: there has been a mighty pendulum swing. The editor announces herself ‘stung’ to have received correspondence accusing her of being a mouthpiece of the Tory party, and waxes passionate upon the subject of the universalist and non-partisan broad thinking of The Lady in every possible respect. An article on the menopause, a rather bohemian lesbian artist brandishing a cigarette, and a rash of female writers have been included this week to reassure us! I wonder what next week will bring? The Lady has become an altogether more exciting publication than the staid respectability of its former incarnation!

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