The thing with the hoover was typical of the way Carl’s stubbornness became such an issue. Carl had had that old Henry for years, since well before she moved in with him at the old house, and it was past its best. When they moved in to the new house, Robyn thought it seemed like a sensible time to get a new hoover too, but somehow they ended up taking the old one with them.
The problem for Robyn wasn’t an image or status thing – she’s not one of these Good Housekeeping type women who needs to have a brand new, sexy vacuum cleaner on show for when her friends come around – the main problem was the smell; it had that very distinctive old-hoover-smell, and it didn’t just give off the smell when it was in use, it gave off the smell so powerfully that it would linger around the house for the whole rest of the day. Robyn didn’t even like to wonder exactly what makes that old hoover smell.
The other thing was that the hoover hardly even worked anymore. And so in the new house with the new sofas, and the dog and two cats who were all getting older and starting to malt, there was a real pet-hair problem. She couldn’t get the pet-hair up with the old hoover.
But Carl was an old-school socialist type, a trade unionist. He was in his fifties at this point, so he’d calmed down a lot, but still if they had to go anywhere at all upmarket or fancy (which they very rarely did), he would put on a very creased and crumpled shirt, so as to make at least a small statement of reluctance to go along with consumerist societal expectations and that kind of thing (often there would be a great deal of pet hair on the shirt also). He thought the hoover was fine. It did the job. It was past its best, he admitted, but as long as it still worked he didn’t see the point in wasting money on a new one, not because they didn’t have enough money (they did), but because this was exactly the kind of consumerist-society wastefulness that really got his goat, and would move him to do the thing where he would contort his face into an expression of incredulity and shake his head with a world-weary sigh (an affectation of his which really started to bother Robyn).
She would be doing the crossword and she’d start to think about it. She’d be getting so worked up that she wouldn’t even be doing the crossword anymore, just looking at it while she thought about the pet-hair, and the hoover, and the whole issue of his being very stubborn. Then she would resolve to take a few deep breaths to calm down so that her tone would suggest a degree of irritation and overall fed-upness much less severe than actually was the case, lay the newspaper down on her lap, turn to him and say, ‘Honey, let’s just get a new vacuum cleaner.’
At which he would do the incredulous head-shake thing and say, ‘Why bother? That one still works.’
To which reply she would shake her own head, exhale, and say, ‘Fine.’
This exchange would lead to what she would later refer to as The Hoover Impasse, where Carl would turn silent, retrieve the old Henry from under the stairs, and start to hoover the whole house, always starting right there in the living room where they had been sitting prior to them reaching the Impasse. He would hoover purposefully, in regular strokes but with varying degrees of aggression and conviction. It was a rhythm Robyn always thought was reminiscent of the way you’d beat a hostage tied to a chair. And during this prolonged, passive/aggressive hoovering, it would be very clear that he was conducting arguments with her in his head, and so she found it very difficult to sit in the same room as him while he did it, because it was as though she was in an argument in which she couldn’t argue her side, but also because of the noise and the smell. So instead of sitting there and watching him hoover and argue with her in his head, wondering exactly what he was thinking about when he made an especially forceful motion with the hoover, shoving its nozzle hard into one corner of the sofa, she would take the dog out for a very brisk walk in the fields behind the house, and the whole time she would argue with him in her head about the hoover.
Usually when she got home from her brisk walk, he would have finished hoovering, but the house would be full of a kind of stillness like you imagine happens after a bomb goes off – the silence would seem not to be silence at all but just the absence of hoovering. The smell would be everywhere. The other thing was that he would always leave the hoover out for a while, rather than putting it back in the cupboard under the stairs, so that when she came through the front door, she would be hit by the eerie silence, the powerful and noxious smell, and the sight of the hoover just sitting there, even though Carl, at this stage, would be doing some job out in the garden that involved snapping branches or attacking an invasive weed.
When she told him she was leaving, he said, ‘Tell me why.’ And she told him a lot of things. It wasn’t all about the hoover. There were other things too, of course. But she got to the hoover eventually.
After she left he didn’t know what to do. In the evenings the cats and the dog would sit and watch while he drank strong ale and cried. Then about three weeks later, he went and bought a brand new hoover, a Dyson Vax U90-MAR Air Reach Multicyclonic – all the reviews said it was the best on the market when it came to getting up pet hair. And it was quiet too. It was almost silent.
‘The Hoover’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.