Escaping my messy childhood: ‘There were apple cores down the sofa and slugs in the sink’

Growing up, my parents’ home was filthy. Could I ever learn to love housework?

Last Christmas, while I was visiting my parents at the house where I grew up, I watched Mum throw away some spice mix. Much of it missed the bin and the seeds, spices and herbs scattered about the kitchen floor. Mum didn’t notice, or didn’t care, so I grabbed a dustpan and brush. As I swept, I found plenty more down there: breadcrumbs, cheese, ham, porridge, dog hair, something sticky. Later, Mum mixed cocktails. I had come prepared, so, before taking a sip, I whipped a baby wipe from my pocket and gave my glass a surreptitious clean. Mum and my stepdad started talking about their plans to become Airbnb hosts, at which point I nearly choked on a cashew nut. They simply can’t see mess, I thought, and then I remembered that, until quite recently, neither could I.

When I was growing up, the house was always untidy. There were piles of clothes on the landing, toys all over the living room, black marks on the hall tiles where coal had fallen from the scuttle we lugged in from the shed, dust on the surfaces, apple cores stuffed down the back of the sofa, discarded crisp packets, breakfast bowls on the coffee table, yellow gunge on the kitchen radio, and entire rooms we couldn’t enter because the doors were blocked shut by stacks of furniture, sculpture, paintings. I didn’t care: mess was all I knew, although there were hair-raising moments, such as when I was washing the dishes and saw something orange working its way up through the plughole. It turned out to be two slugs that had somehow got into the overflow. One Christmas, I accused the dog of having nibbled a bar of chocolate under the tree: “It was probably a rat,” said Mum, casually.

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