By the sweat of your brow shall you eat

close up photo of holy bible
close up photo of holy bible
Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

My wife gets anxious at the weekends. But not just because she has to spend more time with me. She likes to GET THINGS DONE and with the working week behind her, she hunts around for other things to fill up her time. And ours.

It’s not enough for her to drift her way through the weekend like a jelly fish, happy to float along with the tide whichever way it ebbs or flows, which is how I would choose to spend my Saturdays and Sundays, if I had the choice.

Time and tide wait for no one

No, in her world, time is precious and must be used purposefully. Pleasure should be earned. Lists must be drawn up and ticked off. In our house, the clock never stops tocking for ticking.

It was different during the summer when Gavin Williamson was flip flopping across the education system in his muddy sandals, changing his mind every few days about the exams. Then, she spent the weekends working out which way Gavin would jump on Sunday night and what impact that would have on her school plans on Monday morning. She simply didn’t have time to worry about other things like the laundry, the empty light sockets, the coffee stains on the skirting boards and the permanent imprint of my backside on the sofa.

Now schools are back to the new normal, her usual weekend urges are returning. In fact, I wonder if the return of a new series of ‘Taskmaster’ is really just a coincidence?

Plans preen like horses in a paddock

It’s Saturday morning. We’re in bed and I can hear several plans for our weekend preening themselves inside her head, like horses in the paddock before a race.

‘I don’t want to fritter away another weekend doing nothing,’ she says.  

‘You say to fritter, I say frittata, let’s call the whole thing off,’ I sing, Fred Astaire to her Ginger Rogers.

I’m hoping that a pre-emptive strike of breakfast buffoonery will put her off her stride.

‘By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground,’ she says, citing the Bible.

‘Fake news!’ I say. ‘No need to sweat. Simply order online at ‘Just Eat’.’

‘It’s a metaphor, not the post Brexit farming policy.’

‘Can’t we be lilies of the field? No toiling. No spinning. Just lounging around.’

She’s heard all this nonsense before. It’s the usual sound and fury signifying nothing, except the fact that I haven’t grown up yet. She’s already put her coffee mug back on the dresser beside the bed, swung her legs out from under the duvet and is standing up sounding reveille. Metaphorically, of course.

It’s two hours of cleaning for everyone

‘The house is dirty. There are coffee stains all the way up the stairs. Can you ask everyone to do two hours of cleaning up? And I mean proper cleaning: washing floors etc. Piling things in tidier heaps doesn’t count.’

Muck In to Muck Out,’ I say.

‘What?’

‘It’s today’s slogan. Muck In to Muck Out. Like Rishi’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ only for the indoors economy.’

‘Do you need a slogan to do some housework?’

‘It’s motivational. Like songs on a chain gang.’

‘I’ll be back in two hours. You will remember to tell them?’

And with that, she is dressed and gone.

Downstairs my son is playing ‘Mortal Kombat’. He looks at me as I come into the sitting room.

‘She said I could do ten more minutes when she left,’ he says, getting his retaliation in first.

He knows it’s 11.05am and, according to the family by-laws, wearing pyjamas downstairs after 11am is banned. We call it the Pyjama-Shed. It’s like the TV watershed only for clothes.

It’s time to Muck In to Muck Out

‘OK,’ I say. ‘But after that we all need to ‘Muck In to Muck Out.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Two hours of house cleaning. For everyone.’

From the kitchen, my daughter shouts out: ‘Why don’t you just hire a cleaner?’.

I explain to them that this weekend the house is going to be run like a Kibbutz not a Fun Fair, which means everyone needs to help make a success of Project Clean.

‘If everyone chips in it will all be over quicker,’ I say.

‘I’ll chip in £5 for someone to do my share’ says my son.

‘By the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say.

‘That’s just so typically pompous of you,’ says my daughter.

‘The sweat part really worries me,’ says my son.

I decide I must persuade them, not just bully them into cleaning. So, while I make them a second round of pancakes for their Saturday brunch, we discuss how we are going to implement operation ‘Muck In and Muck Out’ together.

They start by saying that leadership will be crucial and that I need to set a good example on how to GET THINGS DONE.

I am the Pater Familias

‘You are the Pater Familias, after all’ says my daughter.

They are young, they say, and haven’t developed the skills yet necessary to clean a whole house by themselves.

They are sure that if I can start and show them how to do it they will ‘pick it quickly’ and will soon feel ‘empowered skills-wise to join in’.

‘Why don’t you start by washing the kitchen floor and we’ll come down once we’re dressed,’ says my daughter. 

I am impressed by the way they have listened to me and I think I have their support when my son asks if I have a Health & Safety Policy.

‘Health and safety policy?’ I say, flummoxed.

‘You’re asking us to handle dangerous substances: bleach, cleaning fluids etc. Surely you have a health and safety policy? This isn’t Victorian Britain,’ he says.

This reminds me that I haven’t renewed my life insurance.

‘Just get dressed and get back down here to help,’ I say, a little peeved.

I look at my watch. My wife has been gone an hour and nothing has been achieved. If she walks in now, I will pick up my first yellow card of the weekend. I have no more time to waste. Even though I am still in my pyjamas and in breach of family by-law, I immediately start sweeping the kitchen floor.

An hour later, the kitchen floor is clean. The sitting room has been hoovered and the cobwebs in the window frames are gone. I haven’t seen the kids since our chat, but I am pretty sure I am demonstrating leadership and they would be proud of me if they were here to see me scrubbing away.

Rufus Norris couldn’t have staged it better

I am wiping away the tea and coffee stains on stairs when the front door opens and my wife walks back in. Frankly, the timing is perfect for me. Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre, couldn’t have staged it better.

I am still in my pyjamas, so it looks like I have been cleaning ever since she saw me last in bed. I’m sweaty and grubby from the effort and the wooden floors are wet and smell slightly of pine, so I clearly haven’t just started. Cunningly, I have even hoovered up the cobwebs in the front door frame. First impressions count when you’re creating an immersive drama.

‘In the sweat of your brow shall you eat,’ I say, a complacent smile running all the way to my ears.

‘Good job. Thank you,’ she says.

‘It’s looking much better, isn’t it?’

‘Where are the kids?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know. I’ve been so busy down here.’

‘Did you tell them they had to clean, too?’

‘They said they’d help once they felt more empowered skills-wise,’ I say.

She puts down her shopping bags in the hall with a thud.

‘Enough of that nonsense. It’s time for them to Knuckle down and Muck In.’

Muck In to Muck Out,’ I correct her.

But she doesn’t hear because she’s halfway up the stairs, bounding two steps at a time, to find the children.

This article first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar

Published by Man in the Middle

This is the diary of a man balancing the needs of his aged Mother and family as they struggle with multi-generational living. It's about what happens to your life when your Mother moves in.

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