Now I know, I know the Meaning of it All

My daughter has just left home. She has gone to train as a Nurse in an extremely famous hospital, and I couldn’t be prouder of her. But in a rash moment this morning I set myself to tidy her room.

Perhaps mothers understand the internal economy of a girl’s bedroom. As a father I spent the morning in a state of constant amazement. Male untidiness is notorious; women never stop talking about it. All men (except sailors, interior designers and the terminally fussy) work on the same system. What is put down remains where it is until not a single empty surface survives, at which point a day is spent tidying up. Thus Sherlock Holmes was able to date his correspondence by the thickness of the dust it had gathered. The method is pleasant and rhythmical, only ever interrupted by the complaints of some woman or other, who always wants to tidy up for the wrong reasons — because it’s Spring, for example, or Mother’s coming to stay, or it ‘looks untidy’. Men, of course, who don’t look, never mind.

But a girl’s room is like those ancient mounds in the desert, where the destruction of a city is followed by the building of another on the rubble of the old: or like the town I lived in one year in the mountains of France, where all the streets moved upwards a few inches at every snowfall. It is an old joke that in every girl’s room there is a pile of clothing with yesterday’s most fashionable item at the top and a nappy at the bottom: but it is a joke perilously near the truth. Girls, like ancient Sumerians, do not tidy up when all surfaces are covered: they trample the rubble flat and begin to rebuild. I was tidying up in late January. Close to the top of the pile I found the wrapping from the presents in her ladyship’s Christmas stocking; I trust, this last Christmas. I found, indeed, the stocking itself. There was no nappy, but a pair of knickers and a pair of tights nestled companionably

beneath the 0-level Chemistry notes she discarded two years ago. Papers, I was interested to notice, were filed entirely by the Holmes method, though in the depths of a cupboard I found two very handsome filing boxes, both in pristine condition with their divisions unlabelled and their spaces unfilled. I removed thirty-seven books lent by parents at various times. Several had been written off and replaced over the passing years.

And the mystery of the coat-hanger is solved at last. The world can now be told. One had always wondered where all the hangers go: you put two in a wardrobe in the hope that they will breed, and they elope together. This was known, but the whereabouts of the hangers’ Gretna Green was not — until today. All the spare coat-hangers in the world are in my daughter’s wardrobe. She will deny it, of course, she will claim she never knew. "Hangers? No, Father, not I. Pray, should you find any, let me have one." Lies, all lies. She has been harbouring fugitive coat-hangers. I found fifty-three. Heaven knows how many escaped through a secret door at my approach.

I have consulted other fathers, of all ages: all had observed the same system in use by their daughters. Yet all mothers deny ever having used it themselves. All wives, they tell you with hands on hearts, were scrupulously tidy as girls. Yet consider. Those very women who nag a man half to death if his space is untidy, allow their daughters to get away with the ancient-city methods I have described. They insist only that the growing girl hide the state of her room by forbidding visitors to enter it.

And now I understand. Oh, the wasted years that lie behind me! Alas, had I only known! Those coy maidens of my youth, why were they coy? Why was I never invited to the delights of their intimate chambers? Could I only have guessed, how different might my youth have been! They didn’t let me into their bedrooms because their bedrooms weren’t fit to be seen. Young, I imagined neat little bowers, all pink and warm, with a soft sweet bed exhaling the perfume of my dreams. The refusal of this paradise was the tragedy of my youth, and now in my age I know the reason. Their bedrooms were tips of sedimentary rubbish, they were sties walled with discarded clothing, they were quarries of ancient papers; and their mothers, to preserve their virtue, had permitted their daughters all, on condition that no strangers be admitted.

What a relief. I always thought it was my pimples, my bad breath, my unfortunate armpits. 1 must remember to thank my daughter. Thirty years too late, she has restored my self-esteem.