Chapter Five: Better Living Through Bath Towel Symmetry
(The Making of a Martha Stewart Wannabe)
[WARNING: The following post contains first-world problems that some readers may find exceptionally silly. Discretion is advised.]
I stepped back, took stock of my efforts, and let out a heavy sigh. Nope, still not quite right. The spouse and I had just bought two new John Lewis bath towels, Dusty Green™ and Dark Steel™ to match our bathroom tiles, and my mission was to get them to hang together perfectly on the radiator/drying rack. I expected nothing less than precise straight lines and crisp right angles, with the towels displayed in a fetching stair-step pattern – the dark grey towel on the top rung to the left and its green mate peeking out underneath to the right. But the several attempts I’d made thus far had failed to meet my stringent standards. This time, the one on the lower rung drooped at an unacceptable slant. Gingerly, I tried to straighten it, which only succeeded in making them both go cockeyed. What was I doing wrong? Perhaps there was a YouTube tutorial on tandem towel hanging that would help me find the elusive balance I sought. Or maybe I should tap into my long-dormant high school geometry skills and plot their positions with a protractor, compass, and ruler. With growing impatience I snatched both towels off the radiator and, saying a prayer to the gods of Egyptian cotton, painstakingly re-folded them over the rungs. I held my breath, stood back and… Yikes! Not even close. I lost all track of time as I continued to wrestle with those recalcitrant towels. Finally I had to compromise with a result that, while not 100% spot on, at least didn’t make me cringe. Perfection would have to wait for another day.
Ever since my husband and I moved into our current home, a renovated Victorian property in southern England that we bought in the autumn of 2019, I’ve found myself, to my complete surprise, engaging in more and more persnickety tasks like this. I’ve always had a rather grudging relationship with housework in the past and until recently my decorating style hadn’t progressed much beyond the man-child aesthetic of my college days. (The secondhand futon, the milk crates packed with albums – you get the picture.) But suddenly no surface smudge, bedspread wrinkle, or puff of carpet lint is safe from my fervent fussing. And I’m arranging throws and decorative pillows like I’m expecting photographers from House Beautiful magazine to show up unannounced at any second. The other day I caught myself rotating the bottle of hand soap in the downstairs loo so that the front label faced directly outward, making the brand name fully visible to anyone standing at the sink. Why did I do this, dear reader? I assumed buying our place would change me – make me more domestically mindful and hopefully elevate my taste level a bit – but I had no idea it would turn me into Martha Stewart!
Obviously the months and months of COVID quarantining have only intensified this tendency to tidy up. Being housebound has narrowed my attention to my immediate surroundings, magnifying minor imperfections that I might have otherwise let slide. And like many of you, I’ve had way too much time on my hands this past year, so I’ve tried to find a sense of purpose anywhere I could, be it in baking, blogging, or nitpicky home décor chores. If I can’t, say, take the train into London to browse the record shops in Soho, why not while away precious minutes rearranging the knick-knacks on a shelf in our sitting room, pausing to consider whether the new arrangement makes sense visually, then putting them all back where they were in the first place? (Yes, I’ve done this, more than once.) And if popping out for brunch with friends isn’t in the cards right now, why not go around the house karate-chopping the throw pillows? The hubby and I saw the staff of a stately Scottish hotel do this on a BBC travel show and we were inspired to try it on our own. We gave each of our pillows a firm chop, creating a “V” in the top half. Both of us agreed that this made them look pleasingly posh, so now the £10 pillows that we got on sale at the local big-box home improvement store always bear dents worthy of a five-star resort.
Yes, my quarantine partner has grown noticeably more house proud as well. The hubby is obsessed with decorating websites and frequently regales me with his latest findings on solar patio lighting or functional yet stylish kitchen storage options. But his pride and joy – his baby really – is our collection of indoor and outdoor plants. Previously in our life together, we’ve mostly just stuck a few potted plants on a windowsill and watered them only when we remembered to do it. Now, thanks to the spouse’s loving ministrations, we have a lush variety of indoor foliage and the courtyard in front of our house is festooned with geraniums, snowdrops, snapdragons, and more. Dead or dying leaves are his bête noire; the second they start to go yellow, he whips out his trusty secateurs – that’s pruning shears to us regular folk – and snips away. He worries over the plants like a helicopter parent, even going so far as to create a spreadsheet that details care instructions for each, with columns labeled “light,” “water,” “propagation” and so on. While he hasn’t gone so far as to start talking to them just yet, I won’t be shocked if someday soon I find him giving our cyclamen a pep talk, or trying to boost the self-esteem of our parlour palm. (“Oh, Palm-ela, what big fronds you have!”)
But COVID restrictions are only partly responsible for the emergence of our inner Marthas. It’s also that we’re more emotionally attached to our cozy Portsmouth maisonette than we’ve been to previous residences. (I touched on this in the first post of this series. Give it a read! Go on, you know you want to.) Even though the hubby owned other properties before we met, I know he has the same feeling as I do. This one’s special. The process of hunting for a house together and at long last finding one, then securing a mortgage and moving in and fixing it up and making it our own has bonded us to the property in a profound way. We’re proud of the way it looks and we’re very invested in keeping up its appearance. Whether we’re overly invested is open to debate.
Mind you, we’re not total neat freaks just yet. We still wait to defrost the freezer until we have to chisel our leftovers out of the ice. And there are some high bookshelves in the bedroom that don’t get dusted as often as they should, because you have to stand on the bed to reach them and stretch up with a duster and it’s a real pain in the backside. (But they do get cleaned eventually. We’re not animals.) Still, I never thought I’d find such deep personal fulfillment in good housekeeping. Which brings me back to those towels. Weeks went by after my first bout with them and I had just about given up hope of ever getting their placement exactly on point. Then one night before bedtime I went into the bathroom to wash my face. I dried off with my towel and, with my mind on other things – the fate of mankind, tomorrow’s lunch, whether the hand soap was facing the right way – I perfunctorily draped it back across the top rung of the rack, where it slid into place over the towel beneath it and… Gasp! Suddenly, there it was, the perfect tandem hang. Each towel in faultless harmony with the other, with all the corners and sides lined up the way God intended. It was a wonder to behold. I knew it wouldn’t last – come shower time the next morning they’d be skewed anew. But for a fleeting moment all was right in my little locked-down world, and that night I slept like a baby.
[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat living in Portsmouth, England, with my British-born spouse. We moved to the UK together a few years ago and stayed in rental accommodations for a time, but eventually the property bug bit us and we purchased a place of our own – a first for this fifty-something vagabond. Here you can read about the adventures in decorating and DIY that have followed. Check back soon for the next installment in the series!]
- Chapter One: The Uninvited Guest
- Chapter Two: Sump Pump Panache
- Chapter Three: The Dreaded Shed
- Chapter Four: Kitting Out Our Courtyard
Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged UK Newbie