Saturday, January 10, 2009

On Stone Floors

I spent two mornings last week on my hands and knees first scrubbing, then waxing thirty-five square metres of stone-flagged floor. (Are those mutters of 'masochist' that I hear?)

The task took me right back to Ireland. At eighteen I moved to Galway. I worked five days a week looking after thirteen horses and teaching riding out at Claregalway, and one day a week cleaning the stable owner's mother's house.

The journey from Salthill – where I lived in a caravan – to Claregalway was long and complicated. I would get up at six, cycle about five miles through town and up the hill to the last house on the Claregalway road, leave the bike in the yard, and hitch the next six miles, walking the last half mile of boreen to the stable. I was paid by the day, so if I couldn't get a lift (unusual) I would cycle the whole way. In the evening, I did the journey in reverse, getting home by about six.

Summer weather made the trip pleasant, but winter's dark, pouring rain, or the westerlies that howled up Galway Bay could turn it into a nightmare.

The stable work was easy. Take out dirty shavings, put in clean. Feed, water, hay, exercise. In the afternoon do the same, less the exercise. Teach a few classes in between.

Working in the house was another story.

Attracta, the mother of the girl who owned the stables, came from somewhere in Antrim and spoke with an accent as broad, heavy, and cutting as a battle-axe. Her voice stood at odds with her fairy figure and delicate golden curls. She ran the house like a military operation. My Mother-in-Law has nothing on her.

On my first day I started in the kitchen. I had washed the dishes, cleaned the hob and all the surfaces, done the windows, swept the terracotta tiles, and had just started to mop when I heard the tapping of her stillettos and she came in to check my progress.

“What are y'doin' wuth a mop in yer hand?” Wasn't it obvious? “Doin' th' floor that way might be guid enough fer the horses, but it won't do fer the people in this family! Did y' no' see the scrubbing brush and the floor cloth in the pantry?”

I had. And I had wondered what they were for. But in response to her single raised eyebrow and laser glance, I went to collect them.

“No, no! Not like that!” she tutted in frustration at my ineffectual dabs and scratches. Then kicked off her stillettos, hitched up her tight navy skirt, and got down on her hands and knees beside me. “This is how y' scrub a floor... and this,” she demonstrated, doubling the heavy floor cloth, doubling it again, twisting it, then rotating her hands in opposite directions, is how y' wring out a cloth!

“Got it? Good!”

She watched me like a hawk for the next forty minutes as I worked my way across the tiles of the kitchen, pantry, and mud room before eventually conceeding with a sniff and a nod: “You'll do!”

My thoughts turned to Attracta often last week. More than two decades may have passed, but my body and hands remembered her lessons.

'But why scrub a stone floor these days?' I hear whispered questions from the more sensible, practical housewives in the audience. “Because nothing else works quite as well,” is the honest answer.

We have a beautiful floor. When we built the Mud Mansion, I had wanted a floor like the one in the old Turkish-Cypriot house that we rent in the hope that if a settlement to the Cyprus Problem re-inforces the status quo with respect to land holdings, our keeping it will off-set, to some extent, the family's property losses in the North. That house, almost a ruin, has a white concrete floor that was stained with yellow ochre, then finished like satin, giving it a mottled, honey-coloured sheen. My father's floor in Hawaii had also been white concrete, its expanse broken by lines of bricks.

But no-one in Cyprus knows how to do old-style concrete floors any more, and after several abortive experiments, we opted for stone.

Our favourite tiles were Cypriot, quarried near the town of Kalavassos. Off-white to pink, with tiny flashes of quartz, they were lightly veined with grey, and at £17 per square metre, seemed like a good deal. But when we placed an order, we found that they became inexplicably unavailable. The same shop had similar stones from Syria: at £12 per square metre, they were cheaper, almost as nice... and available. A team of Russian Greeks laid them, a team of Bangladeshis grouted them – with limited success, and spilled oily crumbs from their cheese pies, setting off a search for a non-toxic sealant.

We decided on wax.

Well, as anyone who has seen The Karate Kid knows: “Wax on, wax off!” The wax goes on and is polished, but sooner or later wears off, and has to be renewed. And the time had come.

Best Beloved did a section two weeks ago, and the effects of his cleaning and rewaxing were a joy to see and step upon. But the grout was still not clean, and I knew, deep down, that the rest of the floor was waiting for me, my scrubbing brush, and my floor cloth. As I dipped the brush, wrung the cloth, and began the once-familiar bending, stretching, and circling movements – first right hand, then left hand, then both together, I could almost hear Attracta's Antrim tones bridging the decades.

“That's the girl! I think you're getting the hang of this!”

Thank-you, Attracta. Twenty-five years later, to you I dedicate my living room floor.

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