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June 10, 2011 10:10 pm

It all comes out in the wash

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There is something comforting about doing the dishes absolutely right

I’m standing at the sink, in the kitchen, somewhere in the middle of washing up, when I am struck by two alarming thoughts, in quick succession. In my left hand is a frying pan, which I’m tilting into a stream of warm water; in my right hand is the brush, halfway through its lifespan, bristles softened, but not yet splayed or crushed. The radio is on, but I’m not listening. I’m in the moment.

I’m describing circles with the brush, around the inside of the pan, and then the rim, and then the outside, not forgetting the bit where the handle joins the pan, and I hear a voice in my head, and it’s my father, and he’s saying, “Not just the inside of the pan, but the outside, and this bit here,” and I look into the sink, which contains cutlery and crockery, and another pan, and this is when I have the first alarming thought. It is: “I’m enjoying this!” I’m actually happy that I’m only halfway through.

This is crazy. I play the brush over the bottom of the pan, rinse the pan and wipe it with a freshly laundered cloth, and place the pan on the hob. This is stupid. Get a grip. Above me, on the drainer, are the mugs and glasses I’ve just washed up, lined up in ranks according to size and shape. Folded on the mugs is another dishcloth, for when the first one gets too waterlogged, which I’ll twist into a cone and corkscrew into the mugs and glasses to achieve a perfect state of dryness. Then I’ll line the mugs and glasses up on the shelf.

That’s when the second alarming thought hits me. A few years ago, I remember interviewing this woman, Isabella Rossellini, about various things, including the fact that she’d been dropped as the face of some make-up or other, and the one thing I remember about our conversation is the things she said about washing up. She said she loved putting the washing-up brush into her dirty wine glasses, and washing the insides of the glasses, doing it just so, getting it absolutely right. She said she found the whole thing comforting.

This, I remember thinking, will never happen to me. At the time, my washing up was, it must be said, pathetic. It was never finished. If I lived on my own for any length of time, the sink was usually full of an evil-smelling brown broth, at the bottom of which were my pans, plates, knives and forks. In a way, they were always in the process of being washed up. I would put my hand in and explore the depths for what I needed, as and when I needed it. Sometimes I’d unplug the lot and pour a few kettle-loads of boiling water over it to stop the rot. If I had a visitor, I might hoist the wet, gunky bits and pieces into a cupboard to get them out of the way.

I will never get like Isabella, I thought. It seemed to me that, for her, washing up was a part of her life she could control, when so much else was out of her control. Marriage, divorce, taking on David Lynch roles involving nudity, being hired, and then dropped, as the face of some make-up or other – this, I thought, must be a stressful way to live. No wonder she squeezes a few crumbs of comfort out of sliding the brush into the wine glass just so, and making those glasses all shiny, and then rolling the freshly-laundered dishcloth into a cone to catch the last few drops.

When things got really bad, I got a dishwasher. I thought the dishwasher would do everything for me. It didn’t. I’d load it up, and time would pass, and ... in any case, I’ve never seen anything more revolting than the inside of a neglected dishwasher. What I needed, I thought at the time, was a dishwasher-washer. That, I thought, is a product soon to come on the market. It will make somebody a great deal of money.

But that was then. That was before I became the sort of person who takes comfort from tilting and twirling and rinsing and lining things up in neat ranks on shelves. I look down into the sink. The suds, let me say, are perfect; just the right consistency. There’s another pan. There’s a voice on the radio, but I’m not listening. I’m back in the moment.

William Leith’s next book is about entrepreneurs, to be published by Bloomsbury. Robert Shrimsley returns next week

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