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Friday, June 09, 2006





Heidi Hi was half Chinese, half Dutch and half the age her mother had been when she died. Heidi lived with her gardener partner Walter Blomfield, one hundred percent Dutch, in the gardener’s cottage on a grand country estate deep in the Range Rover heart of Scotland. “Holland, where we come from, is a very flat country” said Heidi “very flat and not very dusty, in Holland we have little in the way of dust. Our wonderful hard wooden floors show only muddy marks and clumps of fluff and there is seldom a household dust problem”. In Scotland, Heidi had encountered a surprising amount of dust that she could not explain. She had also noticed a great deal of dust in Lisbon during a short stay there when Walter worked for the Prison Service. “The Portuguese know nothing about chimneys,” she would say. “They simply don’t know how to build them, we had to show them, but still there was a lot of dust”. They had also stayed in Paraguay for six months but hadn’t really been aware of dust problems there particularly. “The equator and our proximity to it may be to blame”, said Heidi. “It could also be the rainy season or the amount of magnetism generated by the ancient tram cars that sizzled and sparked past the windows of our apartment, we cannot be sure.” She thought that excess magnetism should keep dust suspended in the air, not allowing it to settle and preventing from being a problem, except of course for the difficulties raised by breathing it in.

When Walter went to work and Heidi had the house to herself, she could think about her own routines, start on her housework whenever she liked and of course tackle the dust. It was eight thirty and he had just left to spend the day working on the restoration of the walled garden that flanked the great house. “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” sang Heidi as she combed her spiked and tousled blond hair. She then began to wonder what the first book ever to have been written on a typewriter was, and then what had been the first book to have been written on a word processor or a laptop. She stopped the thinking for a moment and made herself some green tea. It was going to be another long day but she would sit down and map out a plan.

She picked up some scrap bits of A4 and doodled on them with a brown fibre pen; she drew clouds, birds and flower heads. Then she wrote in the blobs that were the clouds, lists of tasks and things to do, shopping to buy, clothes she needed to fix, things to remember. There was a housework cloud, a Tesco cloud, and a lunch cloud. The clothes cloud was still empty, she preferred not to think of sewing or ironing or mending. There should have been a friends cloud but she hated even having to draw that one, that and the going out cloud. The edges of the clouds grew a darker brown as she struggled to find appropriate fillers. They stared back at her like angry empty sandwiches denied their spoonfuls of coronation chicken or tuna mayonnaise. The hot tea was the best thing about this little process.

Once she had finished her tea she gathered up her tools and began to search for dust. She had her vacuum cleaner, her dustpan and brush, her aerosol cleaner, a duster, an anti static wiper and a feather duster. Most days the dust appeared firstly by Walter’s side of the bed, then the toilet, then to the shower cubicle, then back to the bedroom, into the wardrobe and by the chest of drawers and then down stairs towards the kitchen. The stairway could be particularly bad; it had an old heavily patterned carpet that Heidi did not like and many elaborate pieces of woodwork and cornicing on the walls, banisters and doorframes. The kitchen was dusty from the stove to the fridge, to the cupboards then to the hall and then out to the back door. The tracks of Walter’s pre-work morning routine was marked by his boot dust trail every day.

Walter was quiet most of the time and tired the rest of the time. He had black fingernails from soil and oil and manual toil. He seldom touched her in a way she appreciated, when he did she thought mostly of the dirt ground between the flesh and the nails, tainting and colouring the skin, caking the cracks and scrapes in his hard working nails. His touch, once an electric arc of pleasure was now something of a familiar numbing pain; she gripped the handle on the vacuum cleaner, fingers coiling round it and dragged it along behind her like a stubborn child. A slight cruel shiver ran down her spine, the feeling almost made her want to squeal. There was a glint in her eye nobody would ever see.

Heidi stopped by the hall mirror and gazed into her reflection. Dark Chinese eyes, slight slant and a look that came from her Chinese father, also there was her a small eastern mouth and pointy chin. She studied her flat Dutch nose, red cheeks and mousey blonde hair, genetic gifts from her Dutch mother. She touched her nose, pulled at the tip and tried to stretch it to make it longer and sharper, to reshape it’s annoying flatness. For a few seconds she admired her new profile and then let go as her flat nose sprang back into shape. For the meantime she blanked out the look of her hair. Now back to the dust and disappointment of discovering more.

She sniffed at the house air, she sucked and pulled in housey air and allowed it to resonate around the inside of her nostrils, she imaged dust, visible as if in a wind tunnel, circulating and spiralling in her nasal cavities. “Too much dust in this house and much of it living in my flat as a wardrobe door nose!” She sneezed into a Kleenex tissue four times, encouraging each extra spasm and then closely inspected the matter caught in the fresh tissue like a fisherman inspecting a newly surfaced net for the catch. “Pollen, mainly pollen, but also many microbes, tiny unwelcome visitors invading my house”.

The cleaning routine began as she folded the tissue and placed it in her apron pocket. She tapped the folded bulge and reached again for the waiting vacuum cleaner. It was a red “Henry”, not the best or the most stylish, a workhorse really but effective. She selected the small pointy tool head, inserted into the waiting chrome pipe and switched on. She felt a hum of physical excitement as Henry’s song of collection began to be sung by his whirling motor. She inserted the nozzle like some surgical implement into nooks, crannies, crevasses, along skirting board tops, behind sleeping appliances and white goods and deep into the floorboard cracks.

“Very little of our modern dust originates on this earth, 97.5% of dust is true cosmic dust, space debris and particles driven across the universe, blasted for light years and over billions of miles by great magnetic winds and the pull of mighty stars and planets. Then sieved, strained and pummelled through the pressures and heat of our outer atmospheric layers, down through extremes of heat and cold, through cloud and rain and lightning strikes, hurricanes and storms until it settles on earth in the homes of homo sapiens.” Heidi liked to think of these words, words her mother had taught her many years ago as the two of them cleaned their farmhouse kitchen, a kitchen thick with agitated dust, gathered from all corners of the universe but still running. Her mother was cremated now and resided in a jar at the bottom of the wardrobe. Her silent soul allowed the screwed lid to remain precisely in place as it stubbornly refused to soar. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

Almost freed from the tyranny of the hall mirror she lapsed back into thinking about her hair. Her thoughts were turning an unhappy colour. Heidi though her hair was not quite right, (she thought some more and flicked her tongue across her top lip), not coloured in the places it should be, not thick where it should be. It had outgrown its last unplanned cut. One in a series of cuts and styles that had led to this unfortunate point, as all styles seem to, where the hair is not right. Now her eyes saw two things, the predictable gathering of the dust and the irritating reflection of hair that was not what it should be. For dust there was instant, quick hoovering and removing solutions, dust could be dealt with, albeit effort was required. Hair was different; there never would be any quick solution to the feeling of bad hair. The continued, disciplined and pointed pursuit of dust might just numb those hairstyle thoughts however. Lose yourself in a muddle of cleaning, a flap of dusting, a sniff of dust gathering. She looked down and around, scanning the room.

She picked up a single short hair from the floor, idle against the skirting board. Blond is the colour of dust, blond is the colour of this internal vacancy, blond is the colour of domestic slavery, and blond is the colour of blond hair that needs more vibrant blond colouring and some frantic, white hot cutting. Her hair, the dust, the atoms that made them both up seemed almost visible, spinning in the sunlight as the bright morning invaded her routine. These moments of focused clarity, this pure thought only came in unexpected, unpredictable spasms, like an athlete’s high, a rush gleaned from a special achievement, the perfect rapport of a musician or and artist with an instrument or a brush. They were gone before they could be fully savoured, like a dirty and forbidden dream.

Heidi had an itch. Heidi’s eyes glazed and her concentration on cleaning, seeing the details in the dust and the patterns and geometry in her housework broke. Heidi’s hands were feeling itchy; she stopped her hoovering, right there at the foot of the stairs. She put down the appliance and returned to the kitchen, opened a pine fronted cupboard and reached in for the bottle of hand cream. It had a white plastic push down applicator top; she liked its shape and how it felt. With the flat of her hand she pushed down on the top and squeezed a great glob of pink perfumed viscosity onto her left palm. She slapped her right palm against it and squashed the lotion into her hands with a circular motion working it into each crease and pore. Her eyes were now closed almost painfully tight, her mouth a straight line of concentration, some sweat was now visible on her brow and she was warming up. She rubbed her hands together more and more allowing the heat to build. The hand cream oozed between her fingers and ran to the tips; she was almost tempted to lick them but resisted and rubbed more. She rubbed fifty times, then another fifty times, rubbing with all her strength. As she rubbed more and applied more lotion, she began to stagger, her ankles seemed to disagree with her vertical stance, they closed like pliers, shutting at an odd angle. Her hands were melting together as she stepped backwards and sideways. Her elbow knocked over a plant, her heel skiffed the waste paper bin as she kept on moving around, oblivious of her surroundings. Worlds made of internal dust; sunlight and rainbows were orbiting and spinning endlessly inside her head. She felt herself to be in the middle of her own brain but still aware of the external need to rub more and more in order to continue to heighten the experience. Finally as she looked deeper inwards, she began seeing everything that mattered to her as smaller and finer than ever, from the tiny to the microscopic in this new and bright personal cosmos.

Then with the hardened auto-mechanical movement of a fifties sci-fi robot Heidi stopped the rubbing and allowed her hands to part and she stared at her palms. They were hot, red and seemed larger than life and dazzling and bright to her. Sensing that there was now no way of rescuing herself she slapped her hot hands against the inside of her thighs and resumed the rubbing but now grinding against the fabric of her skirt and through to the skin. She was trembling and she was almost dropping to her knees, fifty to five hundred was the count, mad figures running parallel with the rhythms she was making. Then behind her the tapestry cushion couch suddenly opened up its welcoming arms like a mother at the playground gates and she fell backwards. Five hundred to…

At six thirty Walter came home. He parked the white VW pickup in the usual place casually stubbing out his cigarette butt in the ashtray as he slipped the keys from the ignition. Over the wall and across the fields a dog barked and close by two pheasants careered past the garden hedge clucking and squawking, obviously agitated by his arrival. The sun was still warm on the courtyard flagstones and Walter was distracted by the thought of taking a cold beer from the fridge as he slammed the pickup cab door shut. He walked across the yard and opened the kitchen door, looking in he saw there were loose papers on the table, dirty teacups, breakfast dishes, the hoover and assorted cleaning materials on the floor in the hall. Nothing appeared to have been done all day. “Heidi?” he cried.

Heidi was lying on the couch in a foetal like position, a towel across her head; she appeared to be fast asleep and at peace with the wide world. Only partly hidden by the towelling shroud a glimmer of a smile could be seen running across her face. “Hard day?” Walter whispered and laughed, a little unsure of what he should be saying. “You said that we would have an early night tonight.”

Heidi opened her eyes, cleared her throat and grinned, looking at Walter close up and squarely in the face “I have had such a fantastic day”, she began to giggle a little, strangely amused by her own words and the sound her voice made, “ I have discovered that if you rub enough, all of the dust just disappears.”