AGE - Winner

Christine Griffin

Cleaning the Step


Christine enjoys all forms of writing, particularly poetry and short stories. She is widely published including in Acumen, Snakeskin, The Dawntreader, Graffiti Magazine, Poetry Super Highway and Writing Magazine. She has performed her work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival and the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Cleaning the Step By Christine Griffin

Ada waits until they’ve all gone – to school, to work if they’re lucky, to fritter away their pensions in the betting shop or sit in the sad little café on the main road, nursing cups of tea and remembering. Better to wait out of sight. Not everyone in the street understands her. The kids laugh at her and their sloppy mothers think she’s batty.

You don’t want everyone knowing your business, Mrs Arkwright used to say which was amusing considering Mrs Arkwright knew what the whole street was up to. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, Mrs Arkwright said. It’s like a prayer. You need to concentrate. She always made it her business to be first out in the street cleaning her step once the men had gone to the pit. In the foggy early dawn you could smell her carbolic.

So Ada waits. She gathers together the donkey stone and the bucket then boils up the kettle for the hot water. Through the net curtain she sees the cans and sweet wrappers lying by her front door.  She makes out the word WITCH scrawled on her path.  Same every morning. The kids have taken to hanging around by her wall at night and Ada sits frozen in her kitchen with the wireless on low praying for them to go. In the old days one of the neighbours would have seen them off, but not now.
She knots a turban round her head and goes to the outhouse for a cardboard box. Her scrubbing brush is looking the worse for wear. Bald patches everywhere and flattened bits.
You’re only as good as your tools, Ada love.
Maybe when she’s finished she’ll wander down to Billy’s in the market and pick one up. He doesn’t think she’s strange and he’s the only one she knows who still sells donkey stone. He’s had a box out the back for years. Not much call for it now, he says.
Mrs Arkwright always got hers from the rag and bone man.
I’ve got one for your mam, she said, walking into our kitchen one morning.  Where is she? What could I say? Mam had been up all night coughing and after the boys had gone off to work she was having a bit of a lie-down. We could hear the wheezing and rasping up above. And the step not done. The shame. Mrs Arkwright took pity on me. I’ll see to the step, Ada love. This once. And I’ll bring some broth round later. Good job she’s got you, eh, the poor soul.
I watched her go off down the street, a covered pudding basin in her hands. Going to Tommy Daly’s, no doubt. Everyone knew about Tommy Daly though no-one had seen him for years. He lived in an armchair so they said. Never got over the war. Something to do with a railway.  Mrs Arkwright was always taking him a bit of something as she called it. A saint, that woman, mam said.

Outside, the cold nips at her fingers. Ada pulls her cleaning coat more tightly round her. The coat’s a bit like the scrubbing brush, patchy and mangy like an old dog. But she’s had it for years and it’s served her well. Anyway, you don’t go round throwing good stuff out. Especially as the rag and bone man never calls any more.
She starts with the cans and papers, though she has to be careful as sometimes the dog next door uses her front as a toilet. And once she found a syringe. Used to be lovely this street, she thinks. Everyone looked after their place and made sure no-one went without. Doomed to be re-developed now and lots of people have already moved out. The house opposite, Billy Walters’s old house, is empty now. All boarded up and covered with graffiti.  They want to build modern homes for families. That’s what it said in the leaflet. Ada doesn’t count as a family. The hot water swills over the step and the night’s accumulation of spiders scuttles for cover.
The mothers are starting to drift back from the school now, calling out to each other, laughing, smoking.  They don’t even see her down on her knees, scrubbing. A cigarette butt lands on the pavement just outside her gate and when they’ve gone past, Ada gets up and puts it in the cardboard box.
Her dad had been a worker. Always whistling and fixing things when he wasn’t down the mine.

I’ll say that for your dad, Mrs Arkwright often said. He was a worker that man, God rest his soul. And as for your poor mam… She always let that hang in the air. My poor mam, coughing her lungs out day and night.  She’ll not see Christmas, Mrs Arkwright said to Bessie Hardcastle that foggy November when she didn’t know I was listening. And then what’ll become of the lass, the Lord knows. But I knew. I wouldn’t be the first sixteen year old left to keep house for her three older brothers. There was no-one else after all.
And we knew plenty about death in our street. It was with us all the time. Dad killed in the mine. Our Joe killed by a motor car. Miss Ripley the teacher from number 10 dead on her own front step. Mr Arkwright, a walking saint, cut down in his prime by a wasting disease.
But mam not seeing Christmas. I cleaned the step extra hard that day hoping that some of the godliness would rub off on her. It didn’t.  On a freezing December day, Mrs Arkwright came in to wash mam’s body while I stood in the kitchen, rigid with shock. I’ll see to her, Ada love. She’s in a better place now.  No coughing in Paradise. Not allowed.

Ada knows when it all started to go wrong. When the mine closed, they had a brazier at the end of the street and they’d all gather round keeping warm and chanting. Funny thing to say, but in a way they were good times too. And you never went short of anything. The neighbours saw to that. But of course it all came to nothing. Them all standing round a brazier didn’t change anyone’s minds. The boys drifted away and she never sees them now. She had a letter a while back to say that their Bert had died but as for the other two, they could be anywhere.

She leans back on the kneeling pad, satisfied with what she’s done. Her hands sting with the cold but at least she can get on with other chores now she’d finished the step. From the corner of her eye, she sees the man walking up the street. The same man who called a week ago. From the Council. He’s carrying an important-looking briefcase. Quickly she gathers up her cleaning stuff and goes inside, hoping he hasn’t seen her.

Mrs Arkwright walked into our kitchen unannounced. I’ve had the wind taken out of my sails she said. And that’s how she looked - as though someone had let all the air out of her. She looked old and I felt a clutch in my heart. Going to Tommy Daly’s I asked, even though I could see she wasn’t carrying a pudding basin.
No lass. I’ve been there all night and I’m right done in. They’ve been and taken him off to a home. Begging me, he was to stop them. It’s for your own good, they kept saying. And there’s folk can use this house. It’s not often you see a grown man cry. I give him a week at most.
Another one gone, I thought. And strange people taking their place. People who didn’t care for the ways things were done. Didn’t keep their places clean. Didn’t respect the old people. And there, in the kitchen that morning I felt old too. Best go, Mrs Arkwright said. The devil makes work for idle hands.
From behind her net curtain, Ada watches the man with the briefcase drawing nearer.  She takes a long look at the street that has been her home for seventy-one years. And there they all are, walking up and down in their overalls and clogs – her mam, not coughing for once, Mrs Arkwright, Bessie Hardcastle, Miss Ripley, Billy Walters whistling as he sets off to work on his bike.  
Mrs Arkwright is trying to tell her something.

Think about it, Ada.  Those new places aren’t so bad. There’ll be plenty of your sort there, It’s getting too much for you now, love what with the step an’ all. To everything there is a season. It’s in the Bible that, so it must be right.

The man knocks on Ada’s door and the figures turn to look at her then they slowly thin away to nothing. ‘Please, Mrs Jones,’ he shouts through the letterbox, one foot planted firmly on the clean step. ‘We need to deal with this.’ He’s holding her donkey stone. ‘And you’ve left your soap outside.’
Slowly, she eases back the bolts. No use fighting this any more. If she’s learnt anything from the miner’s strike and from Mam, Mrs Arkwright, from Tommy Daly and all the rest of them, it’s that her sort never win.
 ‘You’d better come in,’ Ada says to the man. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I’m ready to hear about the new place.’
She takes the donkey stone from him and puts it with the bucket ready to take out to the shed. She’ll have no more use for that now.

Judges Comments

The past is captured, with a gritty, hard-won nostalgia, in Christine Griffith's wonderful short story 'Cleaning the Step', the well-deserved winner of WM's Age Short Story Competition.

The viewpoint character, though whose eyes Christine shows the changes time has wrought on a once tight-knit community, is 71-year old Ada, who has lived in the same house her whole life. The narrative choices - close third person to convey Ada's present, and present tense interior monologue for the passages that conjure memories of the past - work exceptionally well to show how Ada's life is experienced in overlapping layers, with what has gone before informing her outlook on her present circumstances.

In her old age, Christine uses Ada's memories to show how she is haunted by the ghosts of her past: bygone people and bygone ways that she doesn't want, or know how to, part with.

The changes in Ada's street are vividly illustrated largely by the figure of Mrs Arkwright, one of the legendary doughty matriarchs who held working class communities together, helping out and lending a hand, stepping in in times of trouble and providing an example to Ada of the standardds that were expected - the scrubbed front step that 71-year old Ada still clings to as a talisman of respectability, and that Christine uses as a motif to illustrate how many things - not just the cleaning of the step - have changed, disappeared, and been replaced with other things.

Even in Ada's old age, when change is inevitable and Ada has to movel the redoubtable Mrs Arkwright exerts an influence. Ada is reluctant to leave her street, the old ways, and her memories, behind but the imagined voice of the ever-practical Mrs Arkwright reassures her that it's time to move on. It's beautifully done, just like the rest of the story: not a whiff of sentiment, but wrought with insight and humanity.



Runner up and shortlisted:

The runner up in WM’s Age Short Story Competition is 'The List' by Katie Kent, Bicester, Oxfordshire. You can read her story at:
Also shortlisted were: Clive Aldridge, Great Notley, Essex; Dominic Bell, Hull; Barbara Hunt, Queensland, Australia; Phil Gilvin, Swindon; Kathy Goddard, Spalding, Lincolnshire; Kim Gravell, Llanidloes, Powys; Lee Irving, Abingdon, Oxon; Jennifer Johnson, Penylan, Cardiff; Liz Knaggs, Billingham, Stockton-on-Tees; Peter Linfield, Newton, Cheshire; Catrin Mascall, Oxford; Chris Morris, Dundee; Nicola Wiggins, Codicote, Hertfordshire