The language of washing up

7 04 2013

I once asked Jen the following question: If she or I ever hosted Come Dine With Me, what kind of entertainment would we provide? She answered in a flash: ‘We’d let them watch the kids do the washing up.’ 

Oh yes. The washing up. I could visualise the scoring. They’d sit there in that taxi, all blurry-eyed because we’d plied them with alcohol and, if I’d hosted, the comments would go something like: Tried her best, food okay, took a long time, but top rank entertainment. I give her a 7 because the entertainment was so good. If Jen hosted, the comments would go something like: amazing food, top rank entertainment. I give her a 10.

Seriously, though, Jen does do a great haddock starter. She could go on that show if she weren’t so mortified at the thought of it. But I digress …

The ‘washing up situation’ started ten years ago. In the beginning, we tried to be fair. The girls were old enough to start doing a bit, although I had a hard time convincing Ella that washing up did not consist of holding items, one by one, under a running tap. They learned as time went on, and this became an after dinner job, so that some kind of routine was established. When Max turned seven, he joined the team, and so, after another year, did Vinnie. 

If you’d been around at that time and saw how they ‘negotiated their roles’, and if you are a liberal-minded do-gooder who only thinks the best of the world, you’d probably say it was a valuable exercise in learning about democracy, turn-taking and individuality. We didn’t see it like that. We viewed the atomic explosion that characterised ‘doing the kitchen’ as something we might be able to change if we intervened. We were wrong, so shut the door on them and left them to it.

And that’s how things continued. We would eat, clear the table, get them all in the kitchen and shut the door. We became used to the screams, hurls of abuse and loud banging noises. One night, a friend was in the lounge, chatting away to us when suddenly he stopped as if listening to something. We didn’t know what had caught his attention until we realised it was the usual background noise. ‘Are they all right, Carol?’ our friend asked. ‘Yeah, sure!’ I said, ‘they’re just doing the washing up.’

We learned early on that children brought together in the way ours had been make their own rules about how to proceed. Much like the stories I heard recently about hierarchy on the school bus (Year 9 at the back, Year 8 in the middle, Year 7 at the front), our four developed their own hierarchy, and this was regularly played out during the washing up.

We moved house after three years. We found a house that was detached, but cheapish, and, best of all, set apart from its neighbours. The benefit of this was, and still is, that nobody has to put up with the swearing. The downside is that the kitchen, where the ‘washing up’ is still done, serves also as a kind of sitting room, especially in the winter. This means it is not so easy to shut the door on them and leave them to it. It also means that the whole event has provided entertainment for guests on many an occasion. Jen’s late grandfather, for instance, used it to suss out each child’s tactic – Vinnie’s penchant for walking around the kitchen with a tea towel across his shoulder, or Vinnie’s habit of disappearing to the toilet for ‘a long ‘job’ as soon as the tap was turned on, for instance. Funny how it’s usually Vinnie …

But onlookers make assumptions. The periods of inactivity by one or other member of this kitchen team could be misleading. I made the mistake one night of questioning it:

Carol: Why are you just standing there, Erica, when those two are getting on with it?

Erica: There’ s nothing for me to do yet.

Carol: There’s loads to do. Max and Ella are hard at it, and where’s Vinnie?

Erica: Yes. I’m waiting to do my job.

Carol: Why? Why don’t you just help Max and Ella dry up?

Erica: Because I’m putting away. 

Carol: But if you help with the drying up now, they can help you with the putting away. Where is Vinnie?

Ella: He’ll be in the loo.

Erica: You don’t understand, Mum. We each have our jobs. We do our jobs.

Carol: But that’s stupid. I don’t understand why you can’t all do what needs doing at the same time and make the whole thing about five times quicker.

Erica: Because we each have our own jobs, Mum. We have a system and it works.

Carol: No it doesn’t because you’re standing around doing nothing.

Erica: Yes! But I’ll be putting away in a minute. And Vinnie will do sides and table.

Carol: Why can’t Vinnie dry up? 

Erica: Because you can’t dry up if you’re doing sides and table, and you can’t put away if you’re doing washing or drying.

Carol: So what determines who washes?

Erica: Whoever did the dishwasher.

Carol: I don’t get it. 

Erica: (sighs heavily. This is such hard work) if you do the dishwasher, you don’t wash. You can dry, or put away, but you don’t do sides and table because you only do that if you don’t do the dishwasher.

Carol: So what’s Vinnie’s job tonight? And where is he? (shouts) Vinnie!!

Erica: He’s doing sides and table.

Carol: Because he did the dishwasher?

Erica: (sighs again) No! You only do sides and table if you didn’t do the dishwasher. 

Carol: But if he’s not here washing or drying, he’s getting away with half a job.

Ella: I owed him half a job from that time I had to go out straight after dinner.

Carol: Do you keep some kind of tally, or what?

Max turns round.

Max: Mum. We’ve got a system, and it works. Leave us alone.

Carol: But it takes you nearly an hour to do what I could do in ten minutes! I want to watch the TV in peace!

Erica: (finally beginning to ‘put away’) You couldn’t do this job in ten minutes, Mum. You just couldn’t.

Carol: I could.

Erica: You could if you’d cooked, but Jen’s cooked.

She had a point. Jen and I are very different when it comes to preparing food and the kids have mixed feelings about who is cooking. If it’s me (because I do, occasionally, cook dinner) they’re happy that there won’t be much washing up (as I’ll have done most of it whilst cooking,) and if Jen has cooked, they know that there will be a big washing up job (because she tends to leave it), but at least they’ll have had some decent food.

We’re ten years down the line in this relationship/blended family/Waltons/Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing. The rules are still the same. Did I mention that the exchange described above happened about two weeks ago? (And Vinnie is probably still in the loo …)

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