Those who live in an Edinburgh tenement, like me, will have experience of the shared responsibility for maintaining ‘the stair’. I think I may have written about it before. It’s the common stairwell that leads – in my tenement – into eleven different flats: two in the basement, and three on each of the first, second and third floors. There is a weekly rota to brush down and wash the stair and my turn comes around every eleven weeks. Except it has been much longer than that because there has been ongoing renovation work to one of the top floor flats. For months all cleaning was abandoned, deemed a Sisyphean task, as no sooner was the stair swept and mopped than it became, straight away, coated with dust and dirt. The work is complete now, though, the rota restated, and I resumed my turn this morning.
As I brushed I stirred up dormant dust, which rose in plumes and began to choke me. I needed one of those little facemasks that Japanese tourists wear around Edinburgh in the summer. Poor construction workers, this must be common for them – I thought, as I began to splutter and sneeze. My black runners were turning a lighter shade, the air had become hazy and I was getting mad. The person who had undertaken the work to their flat had promised to do a deep clean after the dust settled. Clearly it hadn’t happened. The dust was up and so was my temper. It made me brush all the more furiously, serving only to raise a powder plume of dirt high into the air. I choked through my frustration. I turned to the task of mopping. After only three rinses, the hot water in my bucket was the colour of run off from a potter’s wheel. I scrubbed at dried-in patches of thick, sticky, dark red, lumpen masses in the corner of the ground floor entrance, the provenance of which I didn’t dare think about. By now I was hot and sweaty. I was coated in a thin film of mortar dust and stoutly fed up. I fantasised about the email I would write, how I might couch my complaint, feeling very self-righteous and worthy about my hard work versus the slovenly renovator, until I caught myself. Big deal, so what, inconsequential, trivial, unimportant, not worth worrying about, blown out of all proportion, and the final command to self – catch a grip! I have a brush, a mop, hot water, arms and legs that work and time to do my chores – what’s the problem? Talk about sweating the small stuff – I was sweating over particles of dust, and you can’t get much smaller that that! How quick I was to turn from lying in bed last night in the dark listing to the midnight news about the unimaginable horror of people with everything – everything – washed away from under them, and just ten hours later I’m getting bolshie about a dirty stair. As the saying goes, I don’t know I’m living. And I’ll do it again, I know I will, but hopefully I’ll catch myself sooner, and re-calibrate my out-of-perspective attitude as to how irksome my first world problems are.
I will not hyper ventilate the next time my cheesecake won’t set and sloshes about in the dish like something for the cat. I won’t become frustrated by whoever has taken the extension lead so the bedside lamp doesn’t reach the side of my bed. I won’t feel peeved when I have to walk on to a second shop to search for cannellini beans because Scotmid didn’t have any. And I will not have a meltdown over an extra-dirty stair. I remind myself because of how easily I forget.
Glad of These Times, by Helen Dunmore
Driving along the motorway
swerving the packed lanes
I am glad of these times.
Because I did not die in childbirth
because my children will survive me
I am glad of these times.
I am not hungry, I do not curtsey,
I lock my door with my own key
and I am glad of these times,
glad of central heating and cable TV
glad of email and keyhole surgery
glad of power showers and washing machines
glad of polio inoculations
glad of three weeks’ paid holiday
glad of smart cards and cash-back
glad of twenty types of yoghurt
glad of cheap flights to Prague
glad that I work
I do not breathe pure air or walk green lanes,
see darkness, hear silence,
make music tell stories
tend the dead in their dying
tend the new-born in their birthing
tend the fire in its breathing
but I am glad of my times
these times, the age
we feel in our bones, our rage
of tyre music, speed
annulling the peasant graves
of all my ancestors,
glad of my hands on the wheel
and the colour of grit as it rises
where JCBs move motherly
widening the packed motorway.