Between the Sheets

I own four bedsheets and four towels. This is the result of years of very vocal admonitions from the son and more circumspect comments from the husband. Yes, it really does take that long for men to learn the meaning of ‘circumspection’. A typical argument during the time the son and I lived together in London would run thus:

Me: ‘I need to change your bedsheet.’

Son (still absently looking at his mobile phone screen): ‘Why? You changed them just last week.’

Me: ‘That’s a whole week’s dirt on that sheet. And your pillow cases are so greasy! I can’t imagine who you get your oily skin from!’

Son (without a blink): ‘From Dad. You said so.’

Me (trying to making a dignified recovery): ‘So, your sheets…’

The son sighed and put down his mobile: ‘Mum, we go through this every week. You don’t have to change the bedsheet every week. Tell you what? We’ll do it in turns…’ My eyes brightened. He was going to offer to change the bedsheets every second week. Oh my son! ‘…we’ll do your bed one week and mine the next. And I’ll even do the pillows for you when you do my bed.’

Six months later, I was changing his bedsheet according to his mandate when the husband walked in. ‘Look at this!’ I moaned dolefully, pointing at his pillow case. ‘He won’t let me change them every week…’

‘Very sensible!’ the husband cut in swiftly. ‘You really don’t need to change bedsheets every week. Especially not in the UK where there’s so little dust.’

Looking back at my life, I find most of it has been lived according to the prescriptions of what other people think I should do with my bed linen. When you think of it, a bedsheet is just a covering for a mattress. You change it when it gets dirty. And that should be it. But no, we seem to have built a whole branch of sociology around it, classifying people according to their beds and how they keep them. Don’t believe me? Just Google ‘How to make a bed’ and see. I guarantee an instant inferiority complex.

A bed was just somewhere to read, and occasionally sleep, before I went to boarding school. Once in the clutches of the nuns at the convent, I learnt about the existence of bedcovers and their importance. Making a bed was a whole chapter in the science of homemaking, as I was taught it. Mitred corners, hospital corners, aligning the creases of the bedcover just so, folding it up just so – the list of dos and don’ts was a long and bewildering one.

Seven years later, by the time I got to Year 2 of college, my inner gypsy had rebelled and decided to hold no more truck with bedcovers. Sheets were changed according to the peripatetic schedule of the dhobi and that was that.

The Ma-in-Law, when she made her appearance in my life, was shocked by this daughter-in-law she had so summarily acquired minus bedcover. Having brought up only sons, she did not know quite how to react to not finding a bedcover with which to make up our bed. Luckily, being a woman wise for her years, she did not seek the answers to her questions in Amma, who’d long ago thrown up her hands at getting me to do anything.

Instead, on our first anniversary, the Ma-in-Law got us a bedcover. She was profusely thanked. A week later, I saw her peering into our room, hope writ large on her face, only to emerge disappointed. The bed still had no cover.

Then the son made an appearance, as did muddy feet and trails of crumbs in the bed. Try as I might, I could not get that child to wear slippers in the house and, sometimes, even when he went out to play.

I sat up in bed suddenly one night, staring at the muddy trails left by little-boy feet on the bedsheet, and cried, ‘We need a bedcover!’ It was a moment of epiphany for me. It was also past midnight and the husband had just settled in for the night. ‘Go to the linen cupboard. Mom has given us at least four, at last count,’ he mumbled before turning his back to me.

Thus began the years of feverish bed covering to make up for all the lost years. I succumbed to an orgy of bedcover shopping as I discovered a whole new world of materials and textures, all of which could be brought home. And then there were the sheets to go with them. I was blown away by thread counts and Egyptian cotton. When we built our own home, the only cupboard I had designed to my specifications was my linen cupboard, which was expanding by the day now, engorged with all the shopping I had done.

When I visited the son’s room in college, I was hit by a strong sense of déjà vu, along with whiffs of other strong smelling things. He was truly my son – his pillow was under the bed, the cover half on, half off, the sheet was crumpled into the foot of the bed, and he was using his blanket as a makeshift pillow.

I rescued the pillow and smoothed the cover back on, then hastily removed it. It had a definite odour about it. ‘Oh that’s where my pillow went!’ said the son walking into his room. ‘Thanks, Ma!’ Needless to say, I was glad to return to Delhi, to the safe haven of my treasured linen cupboard.

Then we moved to the UK. ‘Two sheets and one duvet cover – that’s all!’ warned the husband, threateningly. I knew when discretion was the better part of valour, but managed to smuggle in one thin bedcover nevertheless. Only to have it lie in the suitcase, unclaimed and, well, not forgotten, but definitely unmourned. We were now in a country where duvets were a round-the-year phenomenon and not a seasonal ritual, like they were in Delhi. And there was little sense, even I, the bedcover fanatic, had to admit, in putting two lots of covers on one bed. On following trips to Delhi, however, I did get in two more bedsheets, bravely ignoring the long-suffering sighs that emanated from the husband when I unpacked them.

I had the last laugh though when the son moved to London. ‘See, we have enough bedsheets for all of us now!’ I gloated.

‘And which one of them will you give him? What about his oily skin?’ the husband asked. I was struck dumb, then looked at him hopefully, ‘Maybe a trip to the linen shop?’

The husband was in an amiable mood. After all, we were moving to Swansea in a few months and the son would have to be stocked up before we left. At the linen shop, I discovered fitted sheets. It was love at first sight. And the son ended up with all my Delhi sheets – Egyptian cotton, 300 thread count et al.

A year later, we visited the son in the Big Metropolis. ‘Oh look, he’s made his bed!’ I gushed.

‘Mum, will you stop messing up my room?’ The son glinted fire at me. ‘You can’t spread your stuff all over like that!’

My eyes shone with unshed tears. ‘Our little boy has grown up!’ I whispered to the husband. He pressed my hand tenderly in reply.

First published in Democratic World in November 2015.