Copyright © 1987 C. A. HOCKING

Dedicated to all mothers/fathers/grandparents stuck at home with children in the school holidays – with love and understanding.

 (Note from the author: this was written in 1987 before tablets, devices and cell phones. The gadgets may have changed, but children haven’t. Now my children have children of their own – and they’re making they’re own deals!)

1987 Strathalbyn, South Australia

As a single parent on a low income with four young children in a small country town, going away for the school holidays was out of the question. So we took a holiday at home. Goodness knows we needed it. We were all tired after a year of work, school, chores, responsibilities and a tight routine that I adhered to strictly in order to survive.

We talked about what each of us needed in order to achieve some real time out. It wasn’t hard to come to an agreement as each of us basically needed the same thing – to sleep in every morning with no timetables or alarms, eat what we wanted when we wanted, stay up late to watch the all night movies or play on the computer, have meals on our laps in front of TV, play or garden outside when the weather was good, read or watch videos inside when the weather was bad. No normal washing, ironing, cleaning, tidying up or shopping. Fast food and bad habits for two weeks.

Sounds like bliss and it was!

I relaxed supervision of our usual rules and regulations, ignored the consequences and we slobbed it for two weeks. It was easy and it was fun, but, oh dear, the mess at the end of the fortnight had to be seen to be believed. Two weeks of goofing off, four active children and a spate of wet, cold weather had combined to create an environment worthy of any pig.

Sunday came, the day before school started and I was to go back to work, and it was clean-up time. We had agreed on this at the beginning of our holiday-at-home. Didn’t seem like a problem at the time, but now it looked daunting. I made up the normal Duty Roster for the coming week, stuck it in its usual place on the fridge door and circled the children’s duties for Sunday so that they knew exactly what had to be done. I called them into the kitchen and pointed out what each of them was assigned to do.

I would tackle the laundry, the ironing (what a nightmare), my bedroom and ensuite. I assigned the other rooms to the children according to age and, in my opinion, ability. Each was responsible for their own bedroom, including changing the sheets. In addition, Mr. 13 took the kitchen which looked as if it might need a blow torch applied to it; Miss 11 had the family room which appeared to me to be buried under more STUFF than I ever thought we possessed; Mr. 8 was assigned the bathroom, toilet, and passage; and Mr. 5 took the lounge room which I considered to be the easiest, as we had spent most of the time in the family room and hardly used the lounge room.

There was an immediate uproar.

“It isn’t fair! He/she has got it easier than me/us!” And so the day began.

13 and 11 started to argue about where the kitchen ended and the family room began. After a few minutes of this, they agreed to do the kitchen and family room together as they figured it would be quicker that way. 8 whinged about having to clean behind the toilet. After all, it wasn’t he who “missed” all the time and glared at his younger brother. 5 immediately objected – he wasn’t the only one who “missed”. Everyone “missed”. Female 11 put him right very quickly on that one. An argument ensued in the middle of the passage and didn’t stop until I intervened. Finally, a deal was made. 5 would clean behind the toilet and do the passage if 8 would do the lounge room.

Loud noises from the other end of the house. What now? 13 and 11 simply could not tolerate working together. OK, fine, so work separately. Then who does what? The family room looks easier than the kitchen, so based on age alone, I give the kitchen back to 13 and the family room to 11. Much wailing and gesticulating. Not fair! 13 says 11 is taller than him, so she should get the hardest room. 11 says 13 is older than her, so he should get it. They can’t agree. I say, “You aren’t expected to agree, just to do it. You made the mess, you clean it up.” They’ve heard that before.

Compromise. 13 says he’ll do the kitchen if 11 sweeps and mops it when she is sweeping and mopping the family room. I say, “If you spent the energy on cleaning up that you spent on arguing, you’d have it done by now.” They’ve heard that before, too.

8 ventures into the fray (on his way to the kitchen for more cleaning equipment, he assures me) and mentions, just in passing, that his friend at school NEVER has to clean up at HIS house. His mother does it all for him. I say, “More fool her,” and remind them all that mother is not spelled S-L-A-V-E! They’ve definitely heard that before.

I finish my bedroom and ensuite and hang out the fourth load of washing. The line is full and there are at least six more loads to do. I set the tumble dryer going.

Time to check the children’s progress. The house is too quiet for anything of real value to be going on, housework-wise, that is.

13 is sitting on the kitchen bench, swinging his legs, drinking cordial and reading next week’s TV guide. The dishwasher is half packed, but nothing else has been done.

11 is reclining on the family room floor, playing with the puppy who should be outside. The broom lies idle next to her.

8 is diligently cleaning the bathroom wall tiles with a toothbrush and toothpaste. That should keep him busy until the year 2050.

5 is – where is 5? A quick search finds him asleep on a pile of cushions behind the lounge sofa.

I explode. Everybody jumps and, for a few moments, I am hopeful.

“We’re hungry, Mum. Can we have lunch now?”

I’m hungry too. “Sure, as long as you all promise to get stuck into your chores as soon as you have finished eating.”

“OK, Mum, it’s a deal.”

Vegemite sandwiches and cordial at the table, humble fare, but the children treat it like a six course meal. An hour and a half later, we are ready to begin again. New deals have been struck during the lunch break. The children say they have it all worked out, but do they? Let’s see, just what do we have here?

13 will tidy the table; 11 will clean and polish it; 13 will clear the kitchen benches; 8 will scrub and polish them; 11 will finish packing the dishwasher; 5 will press the start button; 8 will wash the pots; 5 will wipe them; 13 will put them away; 11 will sweep the floors; 8 will mop them; 5 will vacuum the passage; 8 will vacuum the lounge room; 13 will wash the finger marks off the doors; 11 will wash the upper half of the walls, 8 the lower half, 5 the skirting boards; 13 and 5 will do the bathroom together; 11 and 8 will do the toilet; 11 will straighten the bookshelves; 8 will move the family room furniture back into place; 13 will do the same with the lounge furniture; and 5 will straighten the toothbrushes.

I smile at my clever little darlings and say encouragingly, “Sounds terrific.” I’m interested to see how far they all get before good intentions give way to petty bickering, for I’m just a little sceptical. I’m half way through the ironing when the first fight breaks out. It sounds like 8 and 5, but before I can set the iron down, 13 is in there, mediating. I hear him say, “Sshhh, quiet, don’t upset Mum,” and all is well again. There is peace in the house. Well, a sort of peace.

13 has his portable CD player set up at one end of the house. 11 has her portable CD player set up at the other end. Both going full blast. 8 has the radio going, also at full blast, somewhere in between. They don’t seem to notice the competition of sounds and beats. As for me, I don’t mind in the least. I am ironing in my neat and orderly bedroom listening to my favourite opera through the headphones attached to my own portable CD player.

At last, the opera and the ironing are finished. My back is killing me. Time for a coffee. Better check on the tribe first.

Mmm, bathroom and toilet look good, passage and lounge are lovely and the family room is spotless. The kitchen is – well, it’s a definite improvement. I can see that they have done their very best and I am proud of them. I’ll put the finishing touches to it after they are in bed tonight.

They are still scrubbing walls. So what if they have left a few water marks running down the walls, they are so pleased with themselves that I cannot bear to criticise. I make afternoon tea for us all and we sit down with great relief. We are all tired and it seems too much effort to begin again. But we must. The children haven’t done their bedrooms yet and the thought of cooking dinner is as intolerable to me as cleaning their bedrooms is to them. So more deals are made.

11 will do 5’s and 8’s bedroom; 5 and 8 will do 11’s bedroom; I will do 13’s bedroom; and 13 (bless him) will cook dinner. Oh no! That will mean messing up the kitchen again. The thought is too much for any of us. So 13 will ride his bike up the street and pick up fish and chips for dinner. Sounds good to me. We shake hands on it.

An hour later, we all sit in front of TV, picnic fashion on a tablecloth spread on the floor so that we don’t mess up the freshly polished table, and enjoy our last holiday video with fish and chips. We’ve had a wonderful rest, and thanks to my clever children’s clever deals, the house is clean and tidy and the washing and ironing up to date. I kiss them all good night and tuck them into their freshly made beds, ready for a couple of hours to myself with a cup of tea and the Sunday night movie.

There is a knock at the door and my neighbour pops in to join me for the cup of tea. She has also been home with her two children for the school holidays and is most admiring of how clean and organised the house looks. While I make her a second cup of tea, she uses the toilet at the children’s end of the house. She returns with a strange smile on her face. “Have you checked the toilet?” she asks.

“Yes, it looked spotless to me. Why?”

“Did you look up?”

“Up? What do you mean?”

“Go see,” she says with a chuckle.

I go see. Miss 11 and Mr. 8 had done an excellent job of cleaning and disinfecting. I look up and gasp. They had  taken my box of tampons from the cupboard under the toilet vanity, dipped the tampons in the toilet water until they swelled, then flung them upwards so that they stuck to the ceiling. It must have happened reasonably early in the day because they were already drying, their strings hanging down limply in a decorative fringe. All twenty of them.

My little dears had gone through the whole day without giving it away. They must have been waiting for me to notice. Did they think they’d get into trouble? In the normal course of events, they probably would have. But we’d just had two wonderfully relaxing weeks together, they’d worked hard all day to make our home liveable again, and I wasn’t about to do anything to spoil that. So what are a few tampons on the ceiling? Nothing more than an aberrant moment’s fun in an otherwise exhausting day.

I am too tired to laugh. Instead, I just sigh and make a deal with myself that that’s a job which can wait until tomorrow.

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