The second story in my debut short story collection Remember Me To the Bees is The Big Clean. An earlier version was published by The View From Here literary magazine. The artwork is by Louise Boulter.
I’ve always been interested in the way different people’s minds work, and at what point those differences become defined as madness. This story takes the point of view of a small boy who is witnessing his mother’s latest ‘episode’ and worrying about how his dad will react when he gets home.
In an homage to earlier tales of women’s madness, such as the outstanding The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the story also contains echoes of the understated sexism of yesteryear.
A short excerpt from The Big Clean
Mum’s gone mad again. That’s why I’m sitting in the tree house. It’s just a few planks of wood nailed together, but it feels safe up here. When the wind blows the branches creak and I imagine I’m on a boat sailing far away. We had an astronomy lesson at Scouts today, so I can use my telescope to navigate by the stars.
Dad’s not home yet, but when he gets back from work I know he’s going to go mad too, not in a crazy way, like Mum, but in a shouty, angry way.
He hates it when Mum gets like this. I wouldn’t mind her madness so much if it wasn’t for the way it makes Dad so cross. Sometimes when she’s mad Mum’s magic to be around. The usual rules disappear and life becomes a game. I never quite know what to expect. Right now though, she’s busy digging up the garden and filling the house with soil. She’s doing it ever so thoroughly, sprinkling a fine layer of earth over every single thing and making the whole house smells damp and dusky, like a cellar. She calls it “the big clean”.
When I walked into the kitchen earlier, she told me to be careful not to get dirty footprints on her nice clean floor, so I tiptoed across the soil to the counter and tried to open the biscuit tin without tipping any of the chocolate-brown mud off. I couldn’t do it though, and half of it fell on the floor in a heap, but Mum just smiled brightly, passed me a custard cream and layered the earth back on top of the tin.