Many years ago when I was young and lithe and an usher at The Royal Court, the first play I worked on was Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (which ran in parallel with Shopping and F**king). This was when the Court was in the West End at The Ambassadors and The Duke of York’s while the Sloane Square theatre was being refurbished. The Ambassadors had been turned into two spaces and the whole design had a spit-and-sawdust, temporary feel, which went some of the way to explaining why the stairs in the main space were so irregular, steep and tricky to negotiate if you had any kind of leg or eye difficulty. Those with leg or eye difficulties tend to be elderly, tend to have hearing difficulties and tend to want to sit at the front of a theatre, so there was an awful lot of helping the aged up and down those steps. One of the first of the many audience members whose arm I took was an elderly gent, who was terribly excited about coming to see Ashes to Ashes, very unsteady on his feet and deaf. He was with his sister, who was slightly less elderly, almost as unsteady on her feet and very used to talking to a deaf brother. As I helped her down the stairs she advised, with regard to her brother’s enthused chatter, in a booming stately-home tone, ‘Don’t mind him – he was shot in the head as a boy’. Conversation-stoppers over with, the elderly siblings settled in their seats and the play began with Stephen Rea and Lindsay Duncan on stage in complete silence. The audience sat, rapt with anticipation, also in complete silence, until the atmosphere was shattered by the elderly gent turning to his sister and remarking in the most spectacular stage whisper, ‘Ah-ha! The Famous Pinter Pause!’
A giggle-wave washed over the auditorium and I swear I saw Lindsay Duncan’s mouth ripple.
The reason I mention this is because I appear to be having a Famous Pinter Pause. The kind of pause which, to the casual observer, might look like there’s nothing going on but, behind that public silence, everything’s privately working furiously.
I’m, rather sadly, privately working furiously on giving my father a hand clearing up his house.
Clearing up isn’t quite right. Clearing out is better.
There’s a name for the problem: Diogenes Syndrome.
It’s a great name, but doesn’t quite give the right impression. Diogenes lived in a barrel and shunned material possessions; sufferers of Diogenes Syndrome tend to live in a space considerably larger than a barrel and hang on to material possessions for dear life.
There are years of incident, habit and family circumstances that have lead to the current situation, but cutting to the chase, in early August, I went over to my Dad’s house, bathroom cabinet in tow, with the idea of helping him tidy up a bit and putting the bathroom cabinet up.
The front door was unlocked, but I had to squeeze myself in sideways as it would only open a few inches. Once in, it was like being in a partially built newspaper warren. There was a narrow path leading straight ahead to the kitchen, to the right up the stairs and to the left into the front room. There was a smell of decay. There were a lot of flies. Mostly there were newspaper-and-plastic bag mountains. Daddy called hello from his seat in the front room. I couldn’t see him because he was sitting on the far side of the table, in a tiny valley in the mountains of stuff surrounding him.
That first day was spent removing the surface layer of decomposing matter. Bags and bags of shopping, which had just been dropped on top of the heap. Unidentifiable masses of organic mulch in plastic bags. More recent purchases of a pepperami and a loaf of bread in varying states of decay. I didn’t know bread could rot in so many ways. A fascinating research opportunity for a bread scientist. Completely green within the bag. Completely solid within the bag. Completely liquid within the bag. Rolls like pebbles. Remarkable.
Small bags with rotten tomatoes in. Bags of desiccated potatoes. Eggs, dropped on the newspapers on the floor, creating wonderful breeding grounds for flies. The paintwork in the kitchen looked like it was spattered with black paint, but it was just covered in flies. Pupa cases everywhere. About the size of a grain of wheat. Red. Once home to pupating maggots. Or still home to pupating maggots. Hence the flies. Whilst picking up all this rubbish, I had to kid myself that these cases were actually red-stained grains of poisoned wheat as there was quite a lot of that lying about too – for the rats, you know, though, luckily, the rodents seemed to have given up and moved out.
It was quite interesting to note how rapidly you develop the necessary clinical detachment and calmness needed to perform this kind of task. For example, quite early on I saw a maggot crawl into my shoe. This would, under normal circumstances, (not that I would classify maggots crawling into my shoe as a particularly normal circumstance) make me squeal like a girl, but I didn’t squeal; I stood on one leg, removed shoe and extracted maggot whilst slowly repeating ‘I am not happy about this’ in an extraordinarily deep monotone.
I filled 30 black rubbish bags and also managed to excavate a second chair in the front room.
I think now that I should have taken pictures, because I honestly don’t think words can convey quite what it was like. But my clinical detachment didn’t reach that far.
The thing is, there is logic and reason behind it all:
Q: What do you do if the clothes you’ve been wearing for a considerable amount of time are smelling dreadful?
A: Buy new ones.
Q: What do you do if you’ve got a bowl of uneaten food that’s attracting flies?
A: Buy a tin of fly spray.
After that first day of being faced with huge piles of crap, I escaped to the theatre to see Enron, which only continued the trend.
This was just the beginning. Days more of the same followed (without Enron – a repeat viewing of that would quite possibly have sent me over the edge) and my mother valiantly, kindly, astonishingly, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-dutily joined in.
Deciding how to go about the operation was a problem in itself. Where do you start in a house that’s full, filthy and almost impossible to move in? We started by clearing the table in the front room. Daddy has his computer at the edge of the table, the keyboard on a piece of wood resting on an open drawer and the rest of the table covered in a mountain of stuff (and matter). The table and some of the nearby floor took me and my mother, both extremely vigorous types, a whole day to clear.
Then we went for the kitchen. The stuff on the floor had started to compost itself, so the very bottom layer was like soil. Bizarre. Oh, and there was no water connected in the kitchen due to rats eating washing machine parts and there being a leak in the sink. So we cleared for a day, using water in buckets from the bathroom when we finally got down to kitchen surfaces that could be cleaned. At the end of the day we admired our handiwork – the surfaces were clear and the floor was visible and, as my mother put it, in a declaration which prompted us to disintegrate into almost hysterical giggles, we’d managed to get it to the level of ‘absolutely disgusting’. Which was a major achievement.
Then came the end of August and, poetic as always, Daddy pretty much stopped working over the bank holiday weekend and checked himself into hospital. And he’s been in intensive care since then.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, we carried on trying to clear and sort the mountains of stuff. We threw out 200 black sacks of rubbish. And stacked and boxed and piled the good stuff. What was in the mountains apart from newspapers and plastic bags? Hundreds and hundreds of model aircraft engines. Model aircraft plans. Model aircraft. Balsa wood for making model aircraft. Kettles. Packets of paper napkins. Wax candles that had been half-eaten by creatures with small teeth at some point in the past couple of years. Anglepoise lamps. Lawnmowers. Cutlery sets. Hessian shopping bags. Pocket anemometers. Forgotten sandwiches. Pepperami wrappers. Binoculars. Batteries. Did I mention the engines? And the bubble wrap and the Jiffy bags. And telescopes. And notice boards. And endless light bulbs. And bottles empty of vodka and full of pee. And bottles empty of cola and half-full of pee. The traditional car engine in the kitchen.
And in amongst all this, heartrending purchases that are too bloody sad to think about. Bumper boxes of 100 Christmas tree baubles. Boxes of quirky dinner party napkin holders. Packets of little tiny charms for little tiny charm bracelets. Yo-yos. Rolls and rolls and rolls of wrapping paper. Packets and packets and packets of Christmas cards. A packet of six tiny champagne-bottle-shaped ‘celebration’ candles.
And in the back room, more of the same, with the addition of a fridge which was full of rotten food. The freezer compartment and the top fridge shelf were filled with a block of ice. The block of ice was filled with frozen flies. I half thought they might come back to life as their cryogenic chamber melted.
This is how my Daddy was living.
It’s easy to be blinded by the astonishing state of squalor but, of course, leaving aside for the moment the terrible, terrible state of his physical health and the blimmin’ alcohol, there remains, once you’ve cleared away all those piles of papers and engines and rotting malt loaves, a giant elephant in the room. Surely he must be unhappy beyond words to be living like that? Or is he really ok with it? Whichever, he’s now in intensive care being largely operated by machine.
That’s the reason for the Famous Pinter Pause.