Ever since we moved in with the in-laws one thing has become increasingly clear – Reservoir Mother-In-Law’s approach to housework is so different to mine that it’s almost incomparable.
She’s some kind of supercharged mega-cleaner. Her olfactory system is so keen it can detect linoleum's reaction to a drop of my children’s piss the instant it makes contact with the floor. She’s multi-dexterous – I’ve seen her vacuum under an oversized couch, change a nappy and dye her hair a deep brown at the very same time she sets the DVD player to record a full week’s worth of The Bold And The Beautiful. Her sense of order is delicately wired and easily tripped…
… and I’ve tripped it. I haven’t been able to find the milk bottle she keeps for visiting grandchildren for about a month. I’m feeling an intense pressure because she believes that every item in her house is weight bearing and drops to her knees as if the roof is about to fall whenever she opens the plastics cupboard and finds the empty space.
That empty space for me is a serpent reminding me of my inferiority. Its intent is to swallow me up to the shoulders and fling me violently into the eighties-style linoleum floor until my head splits open and spills fresh brain to its slithering spawn.
Reservoir Mother-In-Law is doing the dishes I told her not to do only fifteen minutes ago when she says, ‘Have you found that bottle yet?’
‘You should leave those dishes,’ I reply, ‘they’re mine. I’ll get to them in a jiffy if you just give me a chance…’
‘I can do them,' she says, widening her stance and hoarding the sink and its contents like some predatory wildcat over a recent kill.
When I lift my gaze I take in everything – the corners of the cupboards, the steam rising off the dishwater, the coagulated spaghetti sauce on the plates. For one white hot moment my body prepares to pounce but because I cannot be totally sure of knocking her out cold, I falter. I need time to glove up, wash up, and dry up. If I only daze her and she regains her bearings too early, I could suffer life threatening injuries trying to maintain my place at the sink.
‘Have you found the milk bottle yet?’ she asks again.
‘Not quite,’ I say.
‘Have you looked under all the beds?’ she asks.
In my head I am Dr Seuss saying not in a house, not with a mouse, not in a box, not with a fox and definitely not under the fucking bed but on the outside I say, ‘Yes, I have.’
‘Well, you just better get on your hands and knees and have another look,’ she says.
‘Wow. The last time someone asked me to get on my hands and knees was under completely different circumstances,’ I say, expecting a bit of a giggle. When I get a sarcastic laugh delivered as a statement I say, ‘It won’t be under the bed.’
‘It’s the most likely place,’ she says. ‘You would have been giving Tyson a bottle in the middle of the night and it would have dropped to the floor and then it would have got kicked under in the morning.’
I feel a desperate need to wrestle back some shrapnel of power and say, ‘They were my dishes!’
‘What? These?’ she says, as she holds up an unnaturally clean plate. The light reflects off it and blinds me and the shock of it forces me backwards against the plastics cupboard. Fear becomes a serpent-inspired panic and sends me stumbling from the kitchen to the hall.
I feel my way to the bedroom and suppress the need to scream, ‘Did you mean that? Are you that freaking good?!’
Reservoir Mum is lying on our bed, working on the Lap Top. She watches me rub my eyes dry and then says, ‘What happened? Is this about the milk bottle?’
I fall face down beside her and say, ‘Yes’ into the pillow.
‘Will you just look for the fricking thing?’ she says.
‘It’s all I’ve got left,’ I whisper, desperately. ‘She’s taken all my avenues to power. The cleaning, the kids, the domestic superiority… I don’t know who I am anymore. All I’ve got left is that she’s wrong about the milk bottle. If she tells me to look under the bed and I get down on my hands and knees like I’m her bitch and find that it’s there…’
When I lift my face from the pillow and look at RM I realize she’s been hearing nothing but muffled jibber-jabber and a sense of calm washes over me. I lift myself from the bed, get down on my hands and knees and lower my ear to the fluffy, fresh-smelling carpet. When I stand back up I’m holding the missing milk bottle.
‘Hooray,’ RM says.
‘Maybe I could plant it in her bedroom somewhere…’
‘It’s over now. Take it to her. She’ll be happy you found it.’
‘She has such monstrous talent,’ I say, falling down beside her again, ‘but do you know what makes her the perfect domestic beast… do you know what makes her so formidable? It’s her intent, RM. It’s her furious intent.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘This morning I put on a load of washing and checked on it twice and then I heard it finish the cycle and by the time I got to the machine she was already hanging the washing on the line.’
‘She’s pretty efficient...’
‘And last week Lewis was eating a cookie in front of the TV and I saw a piece falling to the carpet and before I could even form a thought there was a whirring sucking sound and there she was with the Dyson. The only thing missing from that particular scene was her blowing into the end of the vacuum like some crazy cowboy killer from the murderous town of Deadwood.’
‘She’s been following the same routine for several years….’
‘She counters every move I make towards a chore as if she can read my very thoughts…’ I say.
‘Just relax will you?’
When I sit up suddenly and scream, ‘One of the kids must be a fricking mole!’ Reservoir Mum grabs me by the jumper and shakes me.
‘Get over it!’ she says. ‘This is Mum’s house. She’s kept it a certain way for thirty years. She likes to clean and cook and look after everyone. It’s who she is. It’s not a competition. You don’t have to compete with her.’
‘She’s destroying my will to clean,’ I say, numbly. ‘My fear is that I will return to our new house stripped of all the skill I’ve built up over the past six years. You’ll have to push me up the specially built all-purpose ramp to our front door. I’ll be in a wheel chair wearing a helmet and my favorite food will be a choke-safe vitamin-fortified gruel.’
‘If you really want to alleviate your guilt for not doing enough, ask her what she’d like you to do. If she says she’s got it under control, get on with something else.’
I think for a minute before saying, ‘I’d like to learn how to dance. I could perfect The Running Man with a little instruction…’
‘Read more to Tyson, visit cool places with the kids. You have years and years of cleaning to look forward to. Keep helping Lewy to ride without training wheels… remember how great you felt when you taught Archie to ride?’
She directs my memory to one of my greatest days. After weeks of running behind him and holding his bike seat, I simply let go and watch him continue on without me. I feel a thousand feet tall.
‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘I’m grabbing Lewy and we’re heading out now. We’re not coming back until Lewy can ride around the oval and I can beat my chest again.’
As I grip the handle of the bedroom door I’m aware of the furious intent I spoke of only moments before. I have it as well. It’s just that my focus is different.
‘Oh, RD...’ Reservoir Mum says before I open the door. She’s patting her stomach. ‘I’m going to be giving birth in eight weeks or less. Going through labor for a fourth time.’
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘So, just remember whose bitch you are,’ she says, with a smile.