I can panic-clean an entire house in 10 minutes flat

Edel Coffey: Lockdown’s end signals unexpected visitors’ return – and with them the Big Tidy

Recently I had a sharp reintroduction to the panic-clean, that short-notice, frenzied once-over you do when the arrival of an unexpected guest is imminent

Recently I had a sharp reintroduction to the panic-clean, that short-notice, frenzied once-over you do when the arrival of an unexpected guest is imminent

 

Amid all the celebrations about visiting each other’s homes again, I was pulled up short by a sobering realisation. If people were visiting again, we would have to tidy our houses again too. And not just the cursory tidy that I have been doing for the last year, but The Big Tidy.

There’s nothing like seeing your house through other people’s eyes to give you a fright. Recently I had a sharp reintroduction to the panic-clean, that short-notice, frenzied once-over you do when the arrival of an unexpected guest is imminent.

I got the text when I was in the car waiting to pick up the children from school, suggesting, that as the weather was good, perhaps this afternoon would suit to pay a visit. Well, of course it suited. That’s another downside of the pandemic – you can rarely plausibly be doing something else because, well, there is nothing to do.

I spent the drive home planning The Big Tidy. I would start at ground zero – the hallway – and move through the rest of the house like a SWAT team commander shouting ‘Clear!’ as each room was made safe for visitors.

Twenty minutes in I was sweating profusely and hopelessly behind. I commissioned the children to help – there are many benefits to having four children and turning them into a team of merry maids is just one. But they weren’t focused enough, I needed them ruthless, so I bribed them with extra Minecraft minutes for every chore they completed and, honestly, I had never seen them so motivated in my life.

I dumped a basket of random toys out of sight in the utility room, along with the ironing pile which I endearingly call The Wall after the towering structure from Game of Thrones. The house felt impressively ordered and tidy. Or maybe it was just relatively tidy, which might mean it was still horrifyingly untidy, but there was no time to worry about that now.

A little smug

As the doorbell went, I was feeling calm. I even started to feel a little smug, thinking that I might just be able to pull this stunt off. Maybe my guest would buy into the ruse that my house was always this tidy, and that I was an easy-going, barefoot, makeup-free kind of woman who was confident in her own skin and home.

Everything was going well until the woman’s child toddled over to the utility room and opened the door. His mother, sensing danger as mothers do, followed him into the ghastly scene. Two weeks’ worth of ironing teetered above the child’s head, a pile of random toys spilled over the top of the plastic basket, a snarl of obsolete phone chargers lay in a tangle on the sideboard. The wizard behind the curtain was exposed.

One of the many things the pandemic destroyed is our sense of orderliness in our own homes. As our homes became multi-disciplinary spaces, like offices and schools and bars for Friday night Zooms, they also became overused and untidy. The removal of the threat of visitors was the killer blow. Without the possibility of public shaming for our slovenliness, what else was there to keep us in check?

Without the possibility of public shaming for our slovenliness, what else was there to keep us in check?
Without the possibility of public shaming for our slovenliness, what else was there to keep us in check?

I used to be so good at panic-cleaning. You know the way some people can put on a full face of makeup in three minutes? Well, I can panic-clean an entire house from top to bottom in 10 minutes flat. I collect detritus with the efficiency of those open-mouthed fish that collect food along the ocean bed. I scoop up toys and abandoned jumpers, underwear and paper airplanes until there is no sign that people actually live in my house.

Rumpled bed sheet

My mother was a great fan of the panic-clean too. Whenever the doorbell rang, she would tell me in a whisper-hiss to run upstairs and close all the bedroom doors lest any guest might catch a glimpse of a rumpled bed sheet or an unfolded jumper.

I had to do this in the time between the doorbell ringing and the door being answered in order not to arouse any suspicion that we might be frantically straightening the house, that our house might not be visitor-ready at all times.

Quite often it would be an innocent caller who wouldn’t cross the threshold but we always felt that we had averted a crisis by maintaining the illusion of being a decent, civilised family with a perfect home.

I should add, of course, that we were a decent, civilised family and my mother’s house was always very clean and tidy, but to this day if my doorbell unexpectedly rings I look in horror at my partner and have to suppress the urge to run upstairs and close all the bedroom doors.

It’s easy to understand why we persist in perpetuating this illusion that we live in perfectly tidy houses, ready to receive visitors at any moment. Our homes are our most intimate spaces, they reveal our unguarded selves. They are the inner sanctum, our safe place, our comfort zone, and how they look says something deeply personal about us.

So maybe it’s a good thing that the menacing possibility of the unexpected caller has returned to threat-level midnight. It might just be motivation enough to return our homes to their former tidy states.