The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs


By Christina Hopkinson

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Hopkinson pens a hilarious and acutely-observed novel about marriage, motherhood, children, and work and readers everywhere will find Mary’s trials hilariously familiar as they cheer her on in her efforts to balance home, work, children, and a clean bottom stair!

What’s the thing you hate most about the one you love?

Mary doesn’t know whether it’s the way he doesn’t quite reach the laundry basket when he throws his dirty clothes at it (but doesn’t ever walk over and pick them up and put them in), or the balled-up tissues he leaves on the bedside table when he has a cold, or the way he never quite empties the dishwasher, leaving the “difficult” items for her to put away. Is it that because she is “only working part-time” that she is responsible for all of the domestic tasks in the house? Or, is it simply that he puts used teabags in the sink?

The mother of two young boys, Mary knows how to get them to behave the way she wants. Now she’s designing the spousal equivalent of a star chart and every little thing her husband does wrong will go on it. Though Mary knows you’re supposed to reward the good behavior rather than punish the bad, the rules for those in middle age are different than the rules for those not even in middle school…


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


The Pile of Stuff

The solitary jigsaw piece sits in the corner of the living room, daring me to ignore it. It is a battle of wills between me and it. I try to stare it out, but the corner section of a 32-piece puzzle of a dog flying an airplane wins, of course.

"What are you doing?" asks Joel, who is setting up our latest DVD box set, a classy American import with impenetrable dialogue.

I'm rifling through the shelves to find the puzzle that it belongs to. "I can't watch TV knowing there's a stray jigsaw piece. Think how annoying it will be next time we do the jigsaw and the last bit is missing."

"Chillax, Mary."

"Chillax? What are you? Twelve? Don't you think that vampires are, like, the coolest things?"

He laughs and gets on with his episode selection.

The world divides between those who can watch television knowing there's an isolated jigsaw fragment lying on the floor and those who can't. While I'm down there I look under the sofa to see if there are any of its colleagues and I see something else: a cup. I look inside it and realize that it's been buried there for weeks, but the tide has finally washed it ashore. I think it once had coffee in it, but it's hard to tell now that a mold lathers up its sides like a green-tinged cappuccino froth. Since I drink only expensive soy lattes, I know it belongs to my husband.

"Look at this," I say as I thrust it in his face.

He doesn't recoil, but peers at it with interest. "Don't you think it looks like one of those foams that they put around food in fashionable restaurants? I don't know, hand-stacked quail confit with spume of snail extract." He looks closer. "We should show it to Rufus. He'd be really interested to see how spores form."

"Are you going to take it to the kitchen?"

"How do you know it's mine?"

"Because this is the mug you always use because it's so big, which is great because it means you can always leave some at the bottom for someone to spill." He shrugs and presses play on the DVD. "Well, aren't you?" One, two, three, I count slowly, just as I learned in an article I read recently about anger management.


"When later?"

He turns the sound up on the TV. I increase the volume of my sigh and stare at him hard. I crack first, I always do, and take the mug to the kitchen. I tip its contents down the sink and manually squish the bits of mold through the sieve that guards the plughole. My husband's cup overflows with fungi. Mine with fury and irritation.

"Joel," I shout on my return, having dispensed with both the mug and any attempts to avoid being angry. "I'm fed up with living in this squalor." No response. "If you just tidied up as you went along…"

He's entered that trance that our sons do when placed in front of a TV. I half expect him to go and sit with his face six inches from the screen. I try again, this time actually stamping my feet like Rumpelstiltskin. "You never do a thing around here, you're worse than a child; my life would be so much easier if I had only two boys to contend with. You, you," I splutter, groping for the best example to illustrate his total blindness to the quantities of detritus that I sweep away for him, "you don't see how much I do. And how little you do."

"Like what?" he says, finally.

"I don't know, it's not like I keep a list," I said.

"Maybe you should."

"Maybe I will."

A list, I think the next day, maybe I should keep a list. One with all the things he does or doesn't do around the house. I can't see any other way of making him understand the state we're in. What would I do with this list? Is making a list yet another thing that falls onto my plate, while the only thing on his is large hunks of meat?

I'm distracted by Gabe, who has retreated to the corner of the kitchen with the look of a mathematician thinking about the world's largest prime number.

"Gabe, what are you doing? Wait, don't do it, wait, wait, wait, let me get the potty. Here it is." His trousers are whipped off and his bottom planted just in time to catch the daily event around which my life seems to revolve. "Well done," I exclaim brightly, though in reality it's more my triumph than his. "You are such a clever boy." I hug him, which is ill-advised as I haven't yet done a thorough wipe. "And clever boys get stickers."

I go to the chart on the fridge door that proclaims to the world all of my second born's successful encounters with the potty. There are not very many of them. "Here we are, football or dinosaur?"

We've had four months of more poo than a pig farm but we finally seem to be getting somewhere. I've always been skeptical about star charts, but our newly instituted one appears to be effective. He gets a sticker or a star for every potty success, every painless exit from the house to get Rufus to school and every prompt bedtime. There are no black marks for misdemeanors, not because Gabe is the sort of child who is free from sin, far from it, but because we're the sort of craven parents who can't bear to tell our children off. (And when we do dare to give them the meat of criticism, we have to douse it in the ketchup of endearments. "I'm not sure everyone else in the restaurant wants to hear you make farty noises, darling," "Sweetheart, Mommy doesn't like it when you hit her.")

"Superstar Gabe, you are well on your way to getting that Thomas the Tank Engine Aquadraw Deluxe set." If only Joel were so easy to train.

And that's when it hits me. Of course: that's what I can do with the list of everything he does to annoy me. I will make the spousal equivalent of a star chart. Except because he's 38, not two and a half, he won't get a star for every good thing that he does, but a black mark for every bad one.

I shall compile a list of all that he does to irritate me and then I'll note how often he commits one of these sins. It will be an accurate account of every balled-up tissue left on the side, every empty carton of milk put back in the fridge, every pile of laundry ignored, every time I've had to put my hand in the kitchen sink to pull out those grotty bits of yuk he never seems to notice. It will be a spreadsheet detailing all misbehavior over a period of, let's say, six months.

I haven't felt such excitement in years. It reminds me of how I used to feel when in the early stages of developing a new format at work. Everything is falling into place. It is brilliant. I am brilliant.

My list will be a thing of beauty and efficiency, a work of art of Excel and observation. If it were published, it would be admired, but I'm not going to stick it up in the kitchen like Gabe's star chart, amid the party invitations, school dates and shopping lists. Joel's not a potty-training toddler, but a grown man with more than a fortnight to prove himself. And he won't be getting a Thomas the Tank Engine branded treat as a reward, no he won't.

If my list, his star chart, proves him to be an asset in this house then he gets to stay in it. If it doesn't, well, I suppose that means he doesn't and we will have to rethink everything we've ever believed about this marriage.

So here's the thing, Joel: all you have to do is avoid making me angry.

The problem is, I'm angry most of the time. I'm so permanently irritated that I feel that my life is narrated in CAPITAL LETTERS.

I know I'm not supposed to be angry. I am supposed to be able to "manage" that emotion, just as I manage people and budgets at work. Anger is not fashionable or righteous anymore; we are not storming barricades and taking pride in it. It is an "inappropriate" emotion.

It's not as if I'm entirely one-dimensional; my moods are nuanced. I can range from mildly irked right through to incandescent fury, but anger is the umbrella emotion under which these gradations shelter from many things that provoke them.

Things that make me angry include: the phrases "too posh to push," "methinks she doth protest too much," "reader, I married him" and "it is a truth universally acknowledged"; baby girls with slutty whores' names like Lola, Delilah, Jezebel, Lulu and Scarlett; any use of the word "mummy" unless uttered by a child to its mother (yummy mummy, mummy tummy, slummy mummy); people talking about size zero and middle youth.

I'm angry that I work; I'd be even angrier if I didn't.

Most of all I'm angry at you, Joel. And if I could distill this anger to its purest essence, it would consist of some bracken dishwater with floating bits of lamb chop grease in it to represent your total inability to help around the house. So not very pure at all; in fact, not so much an essential oil as an oil slick of filth polluting my hearth and heart.

It's not my fault I'm angry. I was always destined to be so. My parents used to tell me that I was born during the Winter of Discontent, which I believed and I think they did too. I grew up with tales of how my parents had battled through streets stacked high with uncollected rubbish and stench to a power-cut hospital unmanned by striking midwives. Then I read that the Winter of Discontent actually occurred some years later and I had merely been born during a freakish cold snap and it was snow rather than rubbish that was piled high. But the myth was there, that I had been born during a national strop, a collective temper tantrum. "You're just like a union leader," my parents used to tell me, "always whining." They'd snap "Life isn't" at me, whenever I uttered the phrase "It's not fair."

How much sunnier I would have been, went the family joke, had I been born during the Summer of Love instead.

And just to compound matters, my parents named me Mary. As in quite contrary, which my mother tells me I was from a preternaturally early age. Even in the womb, I reacted furiously to any food other than white bread and water, giving my mother violent morning sickness morning, noon and night for the full nine months of pregnancy. Once born, I refused to drink the cheapest brand of formula. I refused to be laid down on my front, as was prescribed in those medically incorrect times, but screamed and screamed until put on my back. I frowned until furrows lined my face, but failed to smile until almost three months old. I scratched myself so much I was forced to wear tight mittens all the time. My colicky crying time was not limited to early evenings, but lasted all day and much of the night. My bottom, my mother tells me, was an angry red too—so bad was my diaper rash that it bled. (Looking back, it seems evident that I was suffering from an extreme dairy intolerance that would have been easily rectified had I been breastfed by a mother prepared not to drink cow's milk herself, and, yes, I am a bit angry about that too.)

These facts alone were enough to ensure my choleric temperament, but then my newborn head's colorless fuzz soon gave way to bright red hair. Not auburn, nor titian, nor merely "warm," but proper red. Otherwise referred to by well-meaning folk as "At least it's not ginger," a shade of hair color also known as "Well, it's OK on a girl" (this latter frequently said in the presence of my similarly flame-haired firstborn boy child). Red hair, like big boobs and poker-straight tresses, is one of those things that people strive to achieve through artifice but decry if natural. Think of all those millions spent on henna and hair dye and yet when you've got it naturally you just get "Well, at least it's not ginger." And when the child with red hair first throws the standard toddler temper tantrum that all do some time after the age of one, everybody says, "Ooh, isn't she fiery?" instead of "Look at that toddler throwing a tantrum as toddlers are wont to do." To this day, I'm not allowed to show the slightest ill temper without someone referring to my hair color. I'm a "feisty redhead" if liked and a "ginger whinger" if not.

So, you see, it really isn't my fault I'm so angry. I was born this way.

I'm 35, though not for much longer. Thirty-five: the age at which fertility falls off a cliff, apparently, and so looms large in the forward planning of any early thirtysomething. It's the age that we women must skirt and plot around. Thirty-five, the midpoint of your thirties, the decade in which you must both churn out children and soar in your chosen career. The crucial decade when lawyers become partners, journalists become editors, doctors become consultants and teachers become heads and deputy heads. One small decade, only ten years, just like the rest of them. What bad luck for women that these biological and professional imperatives should coincide and collide so exactly. This coincidence double-glazes the glass ceiling.

The thirties are also a woman's peak time for death in mysterious circumstances. Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Paula Yates, Jill Dando, Anna Nicole Smith. It's a wonder that any of us make it through alive.

Actually, I'm not sure there is any mystery to Sylvia Plath's death. She hadn't really set out to kill herself, she'd just been examining the inside of the oven to see whether it needed cleaning or not and on finding it quite so filthy with the fat spat from the sausages that Ted Hughes had cooked before dumping her for another woman, she decided to switch it on and keep her head in there.

I'd never kill myself. Though I might kill Joel. The list is my attempt to avoid blighting my sons' lives with a dead father and a mother locked up for his murder.

At least Christmas is now over. I don't know why they said that the First World War would be over by Christmas when there's no time of the year more likely to spark battles and hatred. A dozen explosions and skirmishes daily over the festivities: me buying all the presents for your numerous godchildren; the fact that you don't "believe" in Christmas cards so I have to do them all as well as sit over Rufus as he labors over one for each of his classmates; your mother sitting on her ample behind telling me how lucky I am that she brought up her son to be such a hands-on father and fabulous cook. "Yes," I spit, "he's so wonderful, I'm so lucky."

No turkey could have been stuffed as full as this house was by discarded wrapping paper and toys with itty-bitty constituent parts. Each time a present was opened, which was approximately every three seconds, I'd wince at the challenge of finding somewhere to put the vast plastic monstrosity or cringe at the tiny, easily lost parts that spilled out. I tried to feel happy as my children squealed with delight, but instead I'd be filled with dread. Each time we played with one of these new games, I'd interrupt with "Don't lose that counter, darling, it won't work without it," "No, you're not allowed a hotel until you've put up three blocks," "Gabe, if you choke on that I'm not going to be the one to take you to the hospital."

I've got three weeks to go until my birthday, which falls on the last day of January. See what I mean about my life being destined to complaint? Fancy having a birthday at the exact point in the year when everyone feels most depressed. When half the people at your so-called birthday celebrations are on the wagon or detoxing.

For my birthday, I'd like teeth-whitening, a week off from bottom-wiping both real and metaphorical and a subscription to Interiors. For my birthday, I'll get a homemade card, a croissant in bed and a "kiss that money can't buy." My first words on turning 36 will be "Don't get crumbs on the bed."

For these three weeks I shall be thinking of every irritating thing that Joel does and compiling them into a list. I will then organize these misdemeanors into logical sections on a spreadsheet. After my birthday, from February onward, the six-month trial period will start as I mark his behavior against the debits outlined in the document. The system will be rigorous and able to withstand scrutiny should I ever show it to Joel, which I might if he needs to see proof. It has to be as perfect as our home and marriage is imperfect. It shall be a feat of Excel formatting and punchy punctuation. It will be definitive. It will be scrupulously fair even if, so I'm told, life isn't.

Let the list-making begin.

Here is my dream of a perfect Saturday. The boys are such champion sleepers that I have to wake them at nine, whereupon they wolf down their quinoa porridge before settling down to some educative but tidy art activities. A shadowy employee with wet wipes for hands hovers in the background, cleaning away, freeing me to engage fully with Rufus and Gabe, who greet all my suggestions with enthusiasm and don't get cross when I try to make their abstract daubs "look more like something." We join our good-looking friends and their good-looking offspring for a jolly brunch and afterward our children are whisked away by the delightful and loving nanny-housekeeper figure long enough for me to enjoy my freedom from them, but not so long that I miss them too much. Perhaps a shopping expedition to pick up a party frock for the evening's event. A little trip to the cinema. To the hairdressers for what Americans call a "blow out." An hour spent getting ready, moisturizer, primer, foundation, highlighter and blusher; three different sorts of eyeshadow; lip liner, lipstick and gloss. The party—tinkling laughter, champagne, cocktails, tipsy not drunk. Home at midnight, safe in the knowledge that my darling boys will not wake until late on Sunday, when the four of us will lie together in our vast, specially designed bed before having a playful fight with our pillows covered in 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton cases.

Or, welcome to the reality of my Saturday.

Having played our usual game of nocturnal musical beds, Joel is on the floor in the boys' room, while Gabe has taken his place in the marital bed. Except he's cunningly expanded his tiny two-and-a-half-year-old body to ensure that at least two of my limbs overhang the edge. I look at the clock and at least the time begins with a six, though only just. The street light pours through the bit where the curtains fail to meet and shows me more of my surroundings than I want to see.

Our bedroom looks like a terrorist attack in the Gap.

1) Leaves clothes anywhere but the laundry basket. Or, rather, either of the two laundry baskets that I introduced for a new system of separating whites from coloreds. When I explained the new system, he said he wasn't going to practice laundry apartheid and then went off giggling at his wit. He made a similar comment about repatriation of socks and the extraordinary rendition of his last remaining clean underpants that I held hostage in a bid to get him to contribute help as well as clothes to the laundry. He keeps claiming amnesty from the totalitarian regime of my impotent laundry systems.

Though I suppose I should be glad that he's consistent in dropping his clothes on the floor, in a little crumpled ring at his feet. My friend Jill's husband puts things in the laundry basket on the days they're both working, but on the one day she works from home and at weekends, he leaves them on the floor, like then it's her "job" to pick them up.

It's symbolic that Gabe has taken Joel's place in my bed because in many ways he's also annexed the place in my heart that contains what's left of my patience, generosity and indulgence. Gabe and I are always going off on old-fashioned dates, sharing a decaf latte in the café and splodging the frothy soy milk onto one another's noses, wandering around farmers' markets and playing hide-and-seek in museums, before settling down to share a bed for the night. He's currently sprawled on top of me and any sensual urge I may have for physical contact from Joel is sated by Gabe. Joel once said he felt like he'd been superseded by a younger and cuter version of himself.

An odor winds its way up to my nose. This younger and cuter version of Joel is also incontinent. I've been sharing my bed with a male packing a full, oh let's see, actually overflowing, excrement-filled diaper. "Sweetheart, can't you tell me when you've done a poo and I'll change you, or even better let's go to the potty. You know you get a sticker if you do that." He gives a look of satisfaction, akin to that of a ten-year-old who's just done a "silent-but-deadly" fart over his little sister's face. He's supposed to be potty trained, night as well as day. Mitzi's kids are always dry through the night by this age. "And hasn't anybody told you it's the weekend?" I mutter to him. He continues to bounce on the bed, shaking that perilous diaper as he does so. "That hurts. Mommy doesn't like it when you jump on her, please, sweetheart."

"Breakfast, breakfast, breakfast," he sings to an indeterminate nursery rhyme tune. They're kind of all the same, like hymns.

I've drawn the short straw today with this boy child, since he wakes up a full hour before Joel's charge.

"Good afternoon," I say, when he and Rufus eventually come down to breakfast.

"I know, the decadence of it, quarter past seven."

"Still, an extra hour."

"Sleeping on the bottom bunk of a bed made for dwarves. Every time I sit up I get my hair caught in the springs above me."

I watch him get breakfast for Rufus. He rips the packet like he's wearing gardening gloves and a blindfold.

2) Sprays cereal around the kitchen as if he's turned on a leaf blower near an open packet of Special K.

3) Puts used tea bags in the sink. Why do people do this? Sometimes they have little bowls for them instead, which is marginally less annoying, but still, why not just put them straight in the bin—or, if you're being environmentally sound (which of course you should be and everything, but sometimes I just can't be bothered to go to the recycling box and I love my tumble dryer, I really do, I shall definitely be getting custody of that in the divorce), in the compost container?

4) Puts used tea bag in the sink after making a cup of tea for himself without offering to make me one.

5) Can't remember how I have my tea. Soy milk, no sugar. Not that difficult, is it?

6) Calls herbal tea "boiled pants" because that's what he says it tastes like. Better than one bloke I went out with who consistently referred to it as "lesbian tea."

"I don't like the tiny bits of Shreddies," says Rufus.

Gabe shares this opinion but expresses it by coughing the crumbs up onto the table.

"That's disgusting," observes Rufus, correctly.

"You make them better," says Gabe, pointing at me. "You make them big. Make them big again. I want big Shreddies."

"There's a word missing, Gabe? I want big Shreddies…"

"NOW!" he screams.

"No, that's not the answer I was looking for. I want big Shreddies…"


"No, 'please'—'please' was the word I was looking for. You've had two pieces of toast already, do you really want cereal too?"

"We're running out of Shreddies, by the way," says Joel.

7) Tells me stuff is running out in a really accusatory way. After it's already run out. And won't chalk it up onto the shopping list on the section of kitchen wall painted in blackboard paint, something I copied off the interiors magazines I can't stop myself from buying. Except in the magazines someone has always scrawled "I you" in those pictures, alongside a shopping list that includes Goji berries and champagne.

"I'll nip down to the shop to get some more," I say.

"No, I'll do it."

"No, really, I'll go."

"No, I insist."

We look at each other. "First to the door," he shouts and being a man, he already has his wallet in his pocket, good to go, and beats me to it.


On Sale
Apr 25, 2011
Page Count
352 pages

Christina Hopkinson

About the Author

Christina Hopkinson is a recognized journalist in the UK, where she has written articles for publications including the Times, Guardian, and Daily Telegraph. She lives in London with her family.

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