Take my partner and my son - normally civilised chaps, at least under the home roof. They have just spent a fortnight alone together in my house in France, building a wall.
The old wall had stood for a good 200 years, but last year my partner detected an ominous bulge, which, measured against a spirit-level, showed it to be some five-and-a-half inches out of true. The local builder, invited to come up and inspect it, made a lot of Peter Mayle pouting, oofing noises, opined that it would stand for another 30 years or more and came in for a glass of wine. My partner, however, is a perfectionist. Nothing less than a new wall would do.
The old wall was at least 4ft thick, but when demolition began, it proved to consist of one course of local stone on the inside and outside with a torrent of ancient infill keeping the two apart. Mouse roadways led between the cascade of ancient mud, gravel, horse hair and sand, linking several mouse estates and a rank mouse latrine. Tiny lizard caves, inhabited by deep-frozen, scarcely breathing lizards, had been tunnelled through the loose pointing between chunks of stone. All this, apparently, had to be demolished and a strong, new, lizard- and mouse-free wall built.
It has been constructed over the past 18 months in three successive stages taking about 10 days each. Son and partner drove down to the cottage whenever work was slack and in return for copious draughts of good red wine and the occasional luxury dinner out, they have now replaced the crumbly old Gruyere of a wall with one that stands straight enough to last another couple of centuries. Do not inquire about the mice and lizards.
I went down for 36 hours last weekend to admire this new wall. My son - knowing his mother's exacting standards - had already left on the previous train for a weekend in Paris. My partner, tanned and muscular with newly flat torso, greeted me at the station and drove me to the cottage. O wall] I said, O sweet, O lovely wall] and having duly praised their splendid wall in terms Shakespearian and Lambertian, I went indoors.
The squalor] The squalor] Three days' worth of washing- up stood piled beside the sink. Three frying pans, thick with congealed olive oil, formed a shaky pile. The cooker was splattered with last week's pasta sauce. The less said about the bathroom, the better. The soap was grey, as was the basin. A single, shared towel bore witness to the fact that wall-building is a dirty job. Mattresses leaning side-by-side at one end of the room showed no one had bothered with bed-making.
My partner, seeing my face, said airily, 'Sorry - meant to clear up - don't worry - won't take a moment.' How could I complain, in the face of such a wonderful wall? We opened a bottle of wine and when I'd consumed half of it and was dizzy with alcohol and tiredness, I cleared up. It took hardly more than two hours and I felt a lot better afterwards. My partner couldn't understand why. To him, the point of their stay had been to build a wall. The wall was built. What had housework, cleanliness, order and tidiness to do with it?
His question and his innocence are, on the face of it, perfectly reasonable. Their task did not require them to inhabit a nicely domesticated house with fresh flowers, clean sheets and a sparkling basin. They worked 12 hours a day, ate and drank enough to assuage appetite and ensure a good night's sleep, and got up at seven the next morning to carry on labouring. Yet I cannot imagine two women working together reverting so thoroughly, certainly not so guiltlessly, to caveman standards.
Why do we bother? We may think we're doing it for the benefit of our families and loved ones, so that they shall be cherished and cared for in a home to be proud of, but clearly it is not so. Neither children nor yet grown men choose to live in an orderly fashion. It is imposed upon them.
I take little pleasure in housework and huge, breathtaking pleasure in writing; yet I cannot live or write in a state of disorder. Am I brainwashed by generations of women permitted no other function but nest-building, or is this a genuine difference between the sexes?Reuse content