On the Saturday morning of the Ascension Day bank holiday, I swung down the stairs and ladder to the little bedroom-cum-book room and did the ironing. For me ironing is therapy. If the internal critic becomes too negative or noisy, I stick a playlist on and steam flatten the commentary line by line. On Saturday morning the internal critic was going full blast.
‘That’s it, mate. You’ll be brown bread by Michaelmas and forgotten by Christmas. What a shame you fizzled out like that. Lazy and unfocused right to the end. All those bright hopes you entertained to change for the better, to make some money to pass on, to open an honest dialogue with God. You’re all mouth and trousers. Always have been. That woman who did your astrological chart years ago was spot on — “diffuse”, she’d said. Flibbertigibbet. Well, you’ve had your chances to cut the mustard. You have wasted time and now time hath wasted you.’
‘Oh, shut up,’ I said.
I set up the ironing board, dribbled water into the iron and stuck the music on. First up was ‘Oh Yoko!’ by John Lennon. I like the jolly piano and the loopy lyric, and whacked up the volume. The bottom bedroom is a windowless cell about nine feet square. I flung open the outside door and dragged the ironing board into the doorway so that my right hand and half the board were in sunshine, and eased myself into the job with an easy pillowcase.
The door opens on to a public footpath that runs beside the house. On the far side of the path is a 100ft drop. A bank holiday weekend and sun after long rains had brought the tourists up the rocky trail in battalion force. A procession of French families filed past this dotard in his pants, with bed hair, ironing a pillow case to the rhythm of ‘Oh Yoko!’ (‘In the middle of a bath I call your name/ Oh Yoko!’) Every one of them wished me a good day.
I used to march up to these visitors with simple friendship in my eyes. Now I’ve trained my ear to hear them clambering up the path from the village below and I hide. The French are an extraordinarily polite race and if you don’t hide you must offer a bright ‘Bonjour’ to every mummy, daddy and child traipsing through your garden, and smile for the camera. And I don’t always feel bright. My pleasure at hearing how transported these visitors are by our ‘paradis féérique’ — the words used most often to describe our troglodyte house and garden — evaporated a long time ago. If I’m caught out in the open when I hear them coming, I dart behind a palm tree.
But this morning I felt differently. This morning I had no dignity or pretensions. I had an excess, almost, of non-pretence. They could take me as they found me.
I wasn’t halfway through the first pillow case when a French family trooped past: mother, father, two little girls and the mother-in-law. I gave them the ‘Bonjour’ times five and got five back with interest. But instead of pressing on, and fascinated by the horrible, the little girls lingered to watch me iron, their attention fixed on my womanly breasts, which wobbled with the vigorous back and forth of the iron. Father, mother and mother-in-law were arrested also and paused to watch the elderly troglodyte ironing in his underpants. They watched warily, as they might have watched an undomesticated animal of doubtful temper. I put finishing touches to the pillow case and flourished the iron after each stroke.
‘It’s a very small house that you live in,’ he observed.
I looked up from my ironing board and showed the tired face of a saint lit with a foreknowledge of his ultimate reward. ‘We have other rooms,’ I said. ‘In fact, two other floors. As you will see as you proceed.’ ‘And are all the rooms as small as this one?’ he said, forcing his point.
Stung by his tendentious criticism, I bared my teeth grotesquely at his little girls. ‘And you live in a château, I suppose,’ I said. ‘Is it one I might have heard of?’
‘But so small!’ he insisted to his family. ‘Come on, let’s go.’ And he led on. Prick. However, the mother-in-law decided she wasn’t going to jump to it. And perhaps to reassure me that she belonged to an older, saner generation for whom size didn’t matter, and which preferred wit to orthodoxy, she lingered to say: ‘Of course it helps that you aren’t fat.’