A Story Entirely Unrelated…

…to Lady Macbeth

By J J Bennet

I love to wash my hands. Other people probably enjoy the sensation of washing their hands: it is an undeniably pleasurable feeling, as well as being a hygienic necessity and a habit ingrained in most from early childhood. Such a routine and effective action are almost definitely going to end up becoming something of an enjoyable experience for other people. I have accepted this. 

But I love to wash my hands in an entirely different sense. The succour I receive from the simple act of washing my hands cannot be compared to the mild inclination for clean digits and unspoiled palms that I acknowledge is found amongst the population at large. Yes, everybody enjoys washing their hands a little bit, but this is dwarfed by my own unparalleled sensations. Everybody who passively takes a small pleasure in the washing of their hands could conceivably arrange a selection of musical notes in an order that would make a passingly melodic phrase – this does not make them Beethoven. 

My metaphor there makes a rather clumsy comparison between levels of skill rather than sybaritic pleasure, comparing the average compositional ability of ‘ordinary’ people with one of the greatest composers of all time. While this may seem like a poorly chosen analogy that badly conveys just how much more I enjoy washing my hands than everybody else, what I wanted to say was – do you not think that Beethoven took more pleasure in music than his ‘peers’? A blind genius hears moments in a symphony that would be lost to most, and revels in the beauty of the sound all the more because of it. 

Staying with this LVB comparison, it is certain that clues to his musical prowess can be found in his biography: just as his childhood full of music influenced the life of the composer, so to can my own handwashing history be traced back to my otherwise uneventful youth. I must have only just reached double digits when, eager to please and impress my mother for her birthday, I decided to make her favourite meal from scratch, and set about baking a home-made pizza. The first hurdle was the dough, and in my young naivety, I added considerably too much water to the mixture. This resulted in an infinitely sticky paste that stubbornly refused to be worked into a dough, or to be wrestled into anything other than a wildly messy substance that coated my hands as well as every work surface and wall in our kitchen. If this food hadn’t been for my mother’s special day, I would have jumped ship and swam to an entirely different island of my future. Driven on by filial love, however, I persevered, making more and more mess as I attempted to correct my mistake. Tears of frustration mixed with the flour and yeast but I keep going, battling with the devilish gloop that had coated my hands and spattered my clothes, determined to conqueror my slippery foe. 

I realise this sounds rather grandiose. It was actually just a little kid making a massive mess in his parents’ kitchen; a pretty common occurrence, and hardly important if not for the formative influence this would have over me. When I’d finally managed to add enough flour to control the dough, I set everything aside and went to wash my hands. I can still picture this action in my mind; the steel sink, the small metals taps that were stiff to turn on, and the half-empty bottle of pink soap just within reach of my short arms. What happened then was the most significant experience of my life so far. I do not think I can capture the pleasure in words. Yes, I don’t think I’ll even try. 

Ever since, I’ve loved washing my hands. I don’t want to say it’s the primary focus of my life – I still do the things other people do. I have a job entirely unrelated to hand washing. I go to the cinema. I have travelled to some far away and exciting places. I have a few friends, none of whom suspect my passionate relationship with hand washing. I am not known as a ‘clean freak’ or a ‘washing weirdo’ around my office. If you thought about my handwashing habit as a drug addiction, you could say I am the functioning alcoholic who drinks heavily without anyone noticing, or even the successful businessman propped up by amphetamines. Luckily my own habit, however strange and unconventional, has none of the dangerous consequences of these obsessions. None ever died from washing their hands too much. 

That’s not to say it has been smooth social sailing for me. Other children could always sense there was something not quite right about me, something slightly unsettling that they couldn’t place but nevertheless knew how to get rid of. As a result, I spent my tumultuous teenage years on the other side of a high wall. I don’t blame them. This was a dark time. I purposely performed basic hygiene tasks badly so that washing my hands would be more gratifying, even combining my hand washing fanaticism with the urges of my teenage body. Alone, I’d eat lasagne with my bare hands. 

As I grew up I began to understand that this was unsustainable and that my life would be destroyed by its greatest pleasure. Desperate to avoid this ironic fate I decided to clean up my act if you’ll excuse the expression. A strict regime was implemented, enforced by the authoritarian figure of my own crippling loneliness. This loneliness moonlighted as an abrasive drill sergeant, a drug addict’s sober sponsor, and an underpaid NHS counsellor trying to do their best. My fear of isolation enforced brutal time constraints for how long to spend at the sink. It was always there to talk me down from burying my hands into wet soil just so I could rinse them off under the icy water of the outside tap. It would make me a cup of sugary tea and sit patiently while I tried to delve into the root cause of my hand washing fixation. This trio dragged me through university under the guise of normality, and for the entire three years, no one in my dorm blew my cover. 

Gradually, like a stage name that slowly erases the performer’s identity, my disguise became my reality. A trite phrase, but true: I faked it until I made it. I would no longer stand above a basin and scrub for hours in joyous rapture. I could clean any accidental mess without devoting the next hour to dripping hot candle wax over my hands and frantically scouring my skin until it was brushed raw. In my new state, I can limit myself. I am restrained. I spent more money on an exaggeratedly large stone washbowl than I did on the rest of the kitchen, but it is only used when called upon. Occasionally I might treat myself and scrape the grinds out of my cafetiere by hand. Everybody needs some small vice. 

I don’t want this to be misunderstood. I’m not trying to wash away the symbolic blood of some hideous crime. When my hands are clean I stop and have no illusions or hallucinations about stains that cannot be expunged. There is no guilt behind my love of washing my hands, only pure pleasure. Despite years of self-analysis and reflection, I’m no closer to knowing where this passion comes from. I have merely come to accept it, and I hope you can too.

Writer of short stories and stage plays. Cat person, but not in a weird way.

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