The front of the house was always in sunlight, the back in shadow. But the back had the water-butt, its soaked wood black and speckled with green mould. Rainwater was always used for the wash because it was softer and saved on soap powder, an economy of which I knew nothing. To me the water-butt was a presence. The shadow’s core, it grew colder as you approached. A wet battery, a condenser, you could almost hear it hum.
The house had a cold tap in the scullery but no bathroom. Even this ordinary water was reserved, a kind of sacrament, to be heated in the kettle and carried up to the bedrooms. In the suburbs of London we were richer in convenience but poorer in ceremony. Entering the front bedroom we shared each summer with our parents was like entering a church. The door opened on to stillness and dark furniture. The water jug stood in a bowl on a white cloth on the washstand, the size of ritual vessels. The china was cold to the touch. It even smelled cold, like geraniums.
In the morning all was warmth and benediction. We would be brought tea and biscuits, and the jug would be taken down to be filled. It returned with a steam fragrance, a vapour that seemed lighter and thinner and sweeter than came from the hot tap at home. Washing had to be by turns, and we would hug the bed, dipping our biscuits in the tea until their half-soaked warmth merged with our half-sleep. When my mother called me up to the washstand, it was rather like taking communion, the same awkward intimacy, the same mixture of complicity and constraint. From my mother or my sister I would inherit warm, soapy water. An initial delicacy gave way to a sense of ease, as if I were still sharing my mother’s blood-heat. It was rather like climbing into my sister’s bath at home. But then came the constraint of not spilling any on the white cloth or the varnished top. The wash became, of necessity, ceremonial, a slow, deliberate laving.