Monday, June 21, 2010

Wipe Clean Surfaces

Photo courtesy of Will Wiles.

Maria kept wiping the plastic cover on her armchair with a damp sponge, until the repeated application of diluted washing up liquid wore through the seat cover. Rather than stop with the sponge, Maria simply added a second plastic cover directly on top of the first. There was, by this point, a third sheet of wipe-clean PVC on the coffee table and dining table. And she was so afraid of soiling her bedsheets by touching them, there was a clear plastic dustsheet over the bed, on top of which she laid newspaper and her second best blanket, so she could sleep without spreading her biological contamination to her precious soft furnishings.

She was taking things too far, her son and daughter agreed at Christmas. Maria had served them Christmas dinner in compartmentalised plastic trays, the kind schoolchildren and prison inmates are given as a sort of aesthetic and culinary punishment. When Margaret tried to combine turkey, stuffing and a scrap of charred bacon onto the same forkful, Maria burst into tears and accused Margaret of ruining the meal. Rob accused Maria of becoming a mad old woman who no one wanted to visit. It was an unfortunate cue for Maria to blurt out what she had wanted to say to her two disgusting children for years: "I don't want you to visit me, you horrible, filthy, dirty people!" So they stopped visiting Maria and Maria continued to wipe all her wipe-clean surfaces in a gruelling daily regime.

Five years passed. Rob had two children. Margaret moved in with her boyfriend. It was time to make peace with their mother, who deserved a place in their lives, no matter how mad and difficult she had become since that calamitous Christmas. They agreed to visit together and support one another through the usual traumatic, exhausting cleaning ritual Maria insisted on each time they came; multiple hand-washing, a shoe then foot inspection, two different types of mouthwash, a complete change of clothes, hairnets, face masks, goggles, and absolutely no contact with any furniture, walls or undesignated areas on the linoleum floor. They stood at the door, nervously debating who should press the doorbell and subsequently have to endure an extra cleaning exercise around the fingernails.

The door opened without either of them pressing the doorbell. Maria had clearly been standing in the corridor for a while. She lowered the extending arm she had used to open the door, and remained in the perfect centre of the hallway, exactly halfway between all the rooms in the flat.
"Mum? Can we come in?" asked Margaret tentatively. Maria mumbled something in reply. Rob looked at the plastic sheeting on the floor, the walls and over each doorway. "Mum, are you okay? Can you... can you move?" asked Rob. Maria again mumbled something in reply, her voice seeming to rise slightly. Margaret and Rob began to panic. Whereas she was infuriatingly mad before, this was scary and creepy mad, and her muffled voice was indicating something drastically awful had happened since they last came to visit. Fearing a stroke or other paralysing medical malady, Rob rushed forward into the flat towards his mother, feeling a sudden burst of filial duty towards the impossible old woman. "I'll take you to the doctor, Mum, I'll make sure you get better!" he cried. Maria shot out the extending arm and caught Rob full in the face with an antibacterial spray, making him drop in the doorway in spitting, pine-scented agony. Margaret recoiled in horror, from her hacking, wheezing brother and her horribly still mother who was standing in the middle of the hallway, unmoving, unmoved by the surprise attack on her own boy.

Forgetting every stringent rule in the house, Margaret strode angrily into the flat, batting away the extending arm and antibacterial spray her mother was brandishing at her, determined to reach the old cow and make her speak up, speak clearly and explain herself. Margaret was strong; she had lately taken up military fitness classes in the local park and was proud of her new resilience to the mud and the sweat and the grass stains of her training. An old woman with a cleaning obsession was not going to upset her, and she ruthlessly wrestled the old woman down to the shiny plastic sheet covered linoleum. "What are you doing, Mum?" she screamed as she got Maria onto the ground. Maria gave off muffled, incoherent cries and Margaret lost her temper: she pulled the face mask off her mother's face and felt her fingers slide, almost frictionless across a smooth plastic surface. She saw her own spittle on a piece of heavy plastic sheeting, beneath which her mother's furious face glared at her. The plastic sheeting extended into a tight seal around her neck and continued down her body underneath her lab coat and tracksuit bottoms. She rustled and squeaked as she tried to get away from Margaret. Margaret backed away as best she could from this horrible wipe-clean hybrid her mother had become. Wordlessly, she tried to get up and get out of the flat but the floor was covered in plastic sheeting and she slipped, again and again and never made it to the door.

Rob, through his streaming, stinging eyes, watched helplessly as his mother donned a third pair of rubber gloves and dragged his sister across the hallway into the kitchen. He could see four or five bottles of bleach lined up by the sink and a neat stack of scouring pads on top of the fridge. He cried out hoarsely at his sister but she had been effectively knocked out by Maria's combination of brute force, toilet wipes and a heavy blow from a steam cleaner nozzle. "Don't do this Mum! Don't do this to Margaret! Let her go!" Maria turned to Rob in the doorway and shook her head, almost sadly, then turned away. As the door closed, Rob heard the faint squeak of plastic on plastic as Maria trudged into the kitchen to begin her new cleaning project.

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