How do I work the dishwasher again? Writer Hunter Davies, 82, reveals how he is finally learning to cook and clean following the death of his wife
- For 55 years, HUNTER DAVIES admits he barely lifted a finger at home, leaving wife Margaret to cook, clean and even run his bath
- In part two of his bittersweet memoir about life as a widower, he’s finally learning to look after himself, one burnt steak at a time…
Over our bedtime cocoa, my wife Margaret and I often used to discuss what each of us might do if our jobs as writers were to dry up. How would we live? How would we earn money?
I used to say I would have a market stall somewhere, buying and selling, starting off with selling my own collections of things. Margaret said she would go out and be a cleaner. There is always work for cleaners, especially someone so quick and efficient.
She was not a slave to cleanliness, did not pride herself on all the nooks and crannies being dust-free, all the paintwork spotless, unlike some of our dear neighbours, but the house always looked clean and bright — mainly because it was colourful and artistic and interesting. That was all her doing. I have no artistic leanings and am colour-blind.
During these past three years, since Margaret’s death in February 2016, it has been one of my biggest struggles, the cause of endless groans and moans, keeping on top of this house, trying to keep it reasonably in order.
She never had a cleaner, even in the years when we had three young children, a large house and she was struggling to write her novels. She always said she did not want to boss any other woman around.
I never realised how much time Margaret spent behind the scenes, just keeping the house ticking over. I also now know how boring it is. I scream with the utter tediousness of it all.
Shiny clean dishes gleam in a dishwasher that has been properly operated
THAT’S IT. I am never using the dishwasher again. Her instructions listed three things I have to shove in at various times: a tablet, rinse aid and some water softener. I opened it and could not work out which were the correct orifices. Or what the flashing lights meant. It would be easier to operate a spacecraft. Not my fault. Her instructions were rubbish.
What is the point of having a dishwasher anyway when I am on my own, eating on my own, usually using the same plate, mug, knife, fork and spoon?
Margaret also pinned long and elaborate instructions over the top of the washing machine, which, of course, I ignored, as I ignore most instructions, convinced I know how things work.
The first time I did the washing I opened the washing machine door, thinking the cycle was finished, and water and wet clothes flooded out, not just over the floor of the downstairs lavatory but right along the hall to the front door. Oh God, how stupid.
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Her fault, her rubbish instructions. When you are on your own you can blame anyone. They don’t answer back.
Then I did some ironing, which was a right battle. I could not open the ironing board, so I did the ironing with the ironing board flat on the kitchen floor. My back was aching like hell, with all the bending over.
Yes, I know, it is all pathetic. Even more pathetic and reprehensible is that during more than five decades of marriage I contributed eff-all to our domestic life — neither washing nor wiping, cooking nor cleaning.
My defence, such as it is, is that when we first got married we had divvied up the domestic load and I got, well, very little. Yes, I did the driving, looked after bills and finances, attended to jobbies when things went wrong in the house, which mainly meant ringing a plumber or electrician.
Till my knees went, I did climb up on the roof once a year and check the slates. I cleared drains, mended leaks, shoved black tar stuff on cracks.
And I did the garden — not very well, but I did it.
Young men may do their own ironing these days, but reprehensibly in five decades of marriage I contributed eff-all to our domestic life
When we got married in 1960, it was still that period in social history when men did not do cooking or cleaning or changing nappies. That was my excuse, which I clung to for 55 years, despite the world and my own family moving on.
All that has changed, of course. My son Jake does the cooking in his house and my daughter Flora’s husband is the main cook in their house. My older daughter Caitlin and her partner Nigel take it in turns. I would have called them soft 50 years ago, muttering about them not being real men.
One of the many things Margaret provided for me in our married life was to bring me tea in bed every morning. She would appear, as if by magic, when I was still half asleep and lean over and put the radio on for the Today programme, for I do find putting on the radio terribly exhausting.
Then she would switch on my bedside light, carefully place my mug of tea in the correct place at the correct angle, then just as carefully exit the bedroom, ever so quietly, and close the door.
I would then hear her downstairs, grinding the beans for her cup of coffee. Oft times I can still hear her downstairs when I wake and am still in a half-dream, grinding her coffee. I even imagine I can smell it. Which is mad.
But the best, most lovely thing she did for me, and which I miss terribly, was to run my bath. Oh, I did so love going straight to have my bath, getting in without having to run the water.
Today, it is probably the single most annoying thing that hangs over me every day. The moment I get my eyes open, check I am still alive, then roll back under the blankets again, it then slowly dawns on me that I will have to run my own bath. Oh God.
Our boiler is a right pain. The hot water in the bath tap seems to have a life of its own, suddenly running cold for no reason, turning itself off, or it is suddenly so scorching hot you can’t touch it and have to have the cold on as well to get it right.
Margaret was quite content to sit there, for the whole five or six minutes it takes, to stare out of the window, keeping an eye on the water to regulate it till it was perfect. I don’t do sitting. I don’t do waiting. I have no patience. I have gone through life always in a hurry.
For weeks after she died I tried to sit there stoically, waiting in the bathroom for the bloody bath to fill up. Then I decided to go off and do some little household jobs, rushing back and forth to see it had not run cold.
I come home, go into the kitchen, look in the bread bin and think, What should I make for supper? I know, I will just have some toast
Now I seem to have got some sort of system, setting the hot and cold taps at the right level, then rushing downstairs, opening the curtains, getting the paper out of the front letterbox, putting my muesli into a bowl.
Then I rush back upstairs to the bathroom, check the water has not overflowed, altering the cold tap if necessary.
I then rush into my office and turn on the computer, look to see if any interesting messages have come in overnight.
Sometimes I get distracted if they are too interesting, forget about the bath, then belt like mad to the bathroom to find the water up to the top, which means I can’t get in without flooding the floor. Or behind my back the bath has filled itself with totally cold water.
The worst thing of all is cooking for myself. I hate it.
I come home, go into the kitchen, look in the bread bin and think, What should I make for supper? I know, I will just have some toast. Toast is nice. Toast is good for you. Toast is easy. Finally, when I open the fridge, thinking, No, I can’t make toast for myself yet again, there is often something lovely inside, which wasn’t there before, left by the food fairies.
My three children, and also two of my neighbours, have keys. When they have made something for their evening meal they often do an extra portion — of lasagne, bolognese sauce, quiche, stew, nut roast, or whatever it is they are having. I usually eat half for my meal that evening, then put half in the freezer.
All the same, unless I am going out for dinner, which I try not to do as I have gone off going out in the evening, there can be six nights of the week when I have to make something for myself. If I have been out to lunch, which I love, saying yes to all invites and lunching out at least once a week, in the evening I usually just have a salad or pasta or a sandwich.
When out for lunch, I usually order meat. I like to keep my meat intake up, but I don’t like cooking it at home. When Margaret was in a hospice during her last four weeks, and I was struggling to cook for myself at home, I bought some fillet steak. Not cheap.
The next day, when I went to visit her, I got out my notebook and asked her how she cooked it, what sort of pan I needed, what were the things she cooked with it, how would I know when it was ready . . ?
‘Oh spare me,’ she said. ‘I am too tired to think about anything like that. You will manage. You will be fine.’ I had left it too late. If only during our married years I had watched her carefully or, even better, attempted to cook things myself when she was around, I would surely have learned enough to do simple cooking.
I did cook that very expensive fillet steak, and it was horrible. I burned it, yet the onions were still raw. I have not bought steak since.
I do eat a lot of salads, but very often, especially if the tomatoes are half-decent, I don’t put any dressing on. I do know where the balsamic vinegar is. Found it by chance at the back of a cupboard. But I can’t remember how she mixed her salad dressings, so normally I do without these days.
Partly it is because I am such a messy eater. I tend to sit on the couch reading the evening paper while I have my evening meal and knock back the wine.
After 55 years of being cooked for, cleaned for, and tidied up after, Hunter Davies is fending for himself
I usually manage to drop or spill something on to my shirt or pullover — and if it is salad dressing, that is a killer. I have to do the washing these days, worst luck.
During those last four weeks in the hospice, when I was first struggling to feed myself, I decided to buy a microwave oven. Margaret never had one. She refused to consider it, believing they were an insult to proper cooking. She was a bit of a snob in many things.
When I confessed I had got one, and was using it, in her kitchen, she was appalled. She immediately told her next visitor, complaining to her about what I had done and giving a very long sigh.
‘So that’s it,’ said Margaret. ‘I will never be coming home now.’ And of course she didn’t.
ALL our married life I lolled on the couch from six to seven each evening reading the evening paper and having a drink while Margaret got on with her magic in the kitchen. I would not even ask: ‘What’s for supper, pet?’ I liked her to surprise me.
And not to interrupt, please, I am still reading the paper.
I still try to re-create that hour from six to seven, having a drink. Being in the garden in the summer I love best of all. I still often forget I am on my own, and have no idea what it is I will be eating for supper, when I have finished the paper.
When I do make something, and catch myself sitting eating it alone, in my own house, in silence, I think to myself, How did this happen? How do I come to be here, alone in this house? I am still taken by surprise by my situation. I wonder if that will change as the years go on. Will I become used to being on my own, and no longer aware of it?
Margaret gave up drinking in the last few years. The chemo and the drugs seemed to affect her taste buds and she no longer had the desire for wine.
In the old days, we had a bottle every evening and would fight over who had had most, marking with pencil on the side of the bottle if she had poured herself a particularly large glass. Since she died, I have gradually upped my wine intake, drinking for her as well — in her honour, in her memory.
Every day, all round the year, I now consume a bottle of wine. I drink a large glass at lunchtime and three in the evening — one before the meal and two during. Sometimes more, if I have been out, though I try to restrict myself to a litre a day. I do have limits.
I never miss meals. I always eat something, even if it is just a frozen pizza. Actually I now hate frozen pizzas so have stopped buying them. The taste in my mouth seems to linger on long afterwards.
Margaret always made her own pizzas, which were delicious. All ready-made supermarket meals seem to leave an aftertaste and a coating of fat and preservatives on the roof of my mouth. And they are so full of salt and sugar. Is it age? Have my taste buds changed? Or have I got more sensible?
I get tempted now and again in Morrisons or Marks & Spencer by two meals for £10, or whatever it is, and the lasagne looks so tempting. Then I regret it and usually end up with items I don’t really like or want. I now just want simple, fresh food. I don’t buy or cook potatoes, which Margaret always did for me, as I loved them. I can’t be bothered now with any potatoes. I also don’t eat bread with every meal, which Margaret did.
Reaching 80 coincided with the death of my wife, the novelist Margaret Forster, after 55 years of marriage. I suddenly had to cope with being a widower, a single person living on my own, trying to manage all the domestic stuff I had never bothered to learn
So perhaps cutting down on spuds and ready meals accounts for my recent weight loss of over a stone. I hope that is all it is.
I read the other day that with age men’s ears grow bigger. I don’t believe that for a moment. I think it is just that they have less hair.
But I do have a theory that people, especially men, get thinner with age, regardless of what they eat. I suppose it is the lack of physical exercise, or their body receding, getting smaller.
When I used to moan about my tummy, complaining I was overweight, wondering how on earth I could get rid of all those extra pounds, Margaret would roll her eyes: ‘I have told you a hundred times. The solution in your case is very simple. Stop drinking as much. You will lose weight at once.’
I long to speak to Margaret, show off my tum, and say ah ha ha ha, look at me, look how slim I am, yet I am drinking twice as much, you was wrong, ah ha ha.
IF Margaret did come back —and I often think she will pop in to check on me, and her house — she would be appalled by various little domestic changes I have made. I now leave the clothes line up, with all the pegs still on, all the time.
She always took down the clothes line, once the clothes were dry, rolling it up neatly and putting it away out of sight. She hated looking out of the back window and seeing a clothes line, even if there were no clothes on it.
I thought she was potty, taking her aesthetic tastes and sensibilities to silly levels. It does not offend me, seeing the clothes line up all the time. In fact, I am not aware of it.
The plates and mugs and glasses are more stained and grey than they used to be. I put the dishwasher on only once a month. If that. I tend to wash my plate after a meal in cold water, just a quick rinse. If the plate is too dirty, I have found that using my fingers without plastic gloves to wash and clean it is just as effective and quick and easy as using a dishcloth or a brush.
After all, your skin is the most miraculous creation. It lasts longer than any cloth and does not stink and harbour germs the way Spontex cloths do. I was always buying new ones. Now I am saving money by using my own hands. They dry so easily.
I am sure there are many other ways in which I have let her standards slip, not doing things the way she did them. But Margaret is gone. It’s just me here now.
n Adapted from Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, published by Simon & Schuster on March 21 at £16.99. © Hunter Davies 2019. To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid to 28/3/19; P&P free on orders over £15), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.
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