Multi-tasking, Elizabeth Taylor style

Okay, best case scenario , at this moment, is that we’re trapped, for our own good, in our homes. Am I the only one who spent the first couple of days hoovering out-of-sight places that generally remain untouched for months, and dusting?

William McGregor Paxton 

Maybe that was because the first week coincided with clear skies, and the bright sunshine was revealing. Maybe, because usually when I’m home in daylight hours I’m focused on paperwork of one kind or another. My gran had an expression that may have helped influence this lackadaisical attitude, though it doesn’t do credit to the degree of pride she took in her approach to housework: ‘I’m giving it a lick and a promise,’ she liked to say, if ever I asked what she was doing.

Now that I’m beginning to embrace on-line teaching I’ve got unused travel-time to factor into my schedule. Some days, there’s quite a lot of it, enough that I don’t begrudge using it for the chores I had been avoiding.

The upside of cleaning jobs, done in my fashion, is that they don’t require much concentration. Maybe, more diligent housekeepers focus on the task. My aim, is to fall into a rhythm of movement that allows me to daydream.

It’s a tip backed up by one of my favourite twentieth century writers, Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed to work out most of her stories while ironing.

Elizabeth Taylor is, perhaps, one of the most under-rated authors I’ve come across. Her short stories are subtle, often needing two or more readings to see how the layers of symbol and detail redirect meaning. She had a keen eye for humour (dark and light), which, in my opinion, made her delicately subversive.

So often story writers are advised to use ‘telling details’. What many of Taylor’s stories demonstrate is how much also depends upon the delivery.

I doubt whether I will ever forget these three teenage girls, of the 1950s, getting ready to go to a dance. The first paragraph is admirably economical yet telling, but look at how the second paragraph leads us neatly to that simile in the third.

Natalie, Frances and Katie had been in the bathroom for nearly an hour and could hardly see one another across the room. Bath-salts, hoarded from Christmas, scented the steam and now, still wearing their shower-caps, they were standing on damp towels and shaking their Christmas talcum powder over their stomachs and shoulders.

‘Will you do my back and under my arms?’ asked Katie, handing to Frances the tin of Rose Geranium. ‘And then I will do yours.’

‘What a lovely smell. It’s so much nicer than mine,’ said Frances, dredging Katie as thoroughly as if she were a fillet of fish being prepared for the frying pan.

This story, The Rose, The Mauve, The White takes place over one day. It is delivered in glimpsed scenes. All the characters will attend a dance, which is a big landmark for the teenagers. In the process of moving towards it, the contrasting hopes and insecurities of three generations are exposed.

Taylor has often been described as wielding a scalpel-like pen. It’s a useful idea to hold onto, when entering one of her stories. The unwary reader could easily be lulled into assuming they were entering a place of safe, middle-class comfort.

Except, Taylor’s narrators are always precise. Charles, the seventeen year-old who opens the story goes out in the morning to practice calling for three cheers, which he must do at the end of the dance, that evening.

His voice had broken years before, but was still uncertain in volume; sometimes it wavered, and lost its way and he could never predict if it would follow his intention or not.

Practicing seems a safe, and even sensible thing to do, but such moments are always rife with possible humiliation. If we’re noticing juxtapositions, then the fact that he chooses a spot next to a patch of rhubarb and lawn-clippings might seem significant.

…he put on what he hoped was an expression of exultant gaiety, snatched off his spectacles and, waving them in the air, cried out: ‘And now three cheers for Mrs Fresham-Bowater.’ …a bush nearby was filled with laughter; all the branches were disturbed with mirth.

Katie’s mother, Mrs Pollard, sharing tea with her teenage children and their friends, tells herself that, ‘tea was such fun… though one minute she felt rejuvenated; the next minute as old as the world.’

In the next breath, the narrator moves us on again:

To them, though they were polite, she was of no account, the tea pourer-out, the starch-provider, simply. It was people of her own generation who said that Charles and she were like brother and sister – not those of Charles’s generation, to whom the idea would have seemed absurd.

The dynamics of the family, the insecurities of each age range, and the moments of self-revelation, are offered for us, like fillets of fish with the flour wiped off. We see them, perhaps we see ourselves, as we are, and maybe, as we have been…

‘The one who was wearing a kilt?’ Natalie asked, with more composure. She wondered if Charles was thinking that she must be older than the other girls and indeed she was, by two and a half months.