Is a stain necessarily a bad thing? If so, then I think we have only one kind in mind: the accidental stain. Tomato sauce on a shirt. Wine on a sofa (the ex-boyfriend of a close friend of mine introduced me to the useful phrase ‘wine crime’ to describe such situations, usually uncovered the morning after). But wood is also stained, intentionally, for aesthetic effect. And we ‘stain’ with dyes for medical and other reasons.


Stains mark effort as well. In every TV advertisement for a washing booster there is always an improbably forbearing mother trying to get grass stains out of her son’s cricket uniform, but presumably if said stains are present it at least means he wasn’t just standing around in the field all day. Sweat stains, as repugnant as they are, could be said to similarly attest to the exertion of those who sport them (and perhaps their poor choice of clothes, in the case of, say, a particularly unforgiving shade of blue).


As a child I was exceedingly prone to nosebleeds until a cauterising operation in my early teens staunched the flow. A hot day would be enough to bring a bleed on, or even a gentle bump. In summer it wasn’t unusual for me to wake up with a pillow covered in blood, as though I’d strayed out of some dreaming crime scene into a real life one. The covers could usually be soaked and cleaned, but inevitably spots would remain on the pillow itself as enduring reminders. Stains are generally defacing, but I suppose this is a quality that perturbs us about them too: their potential immovability, and what in their permanence they might remind us of.


Stains are sad too. They speak of loneliness and neglect. Imagine a shit-stained statue, or a bicycle stained with rust. Forgotten things.


Stains are small and large. The Holocaust was a stain on humanity.


Stains are large and small. People used to like to say that there was a character in the children’s television show Captain Pugwash called Seaman Staines, but it wasn’t true.


What if we left them there? It would be like a blanket of memory drawn over everything, a record of the things we ate and drank, the labour we did, the places we went to, and the people we loved. In the world of television advertising stains are things we are to be protected from (by women, because that is apparently their province). Perhaps we’re just frightened of being reminded, of being shown to be human.


There are whole books devoted to the getting rid of stains. One of them, I remember, mentions apple cider vinegar over and over again. I’ve often used soda water. I ask the internet why this works: almost everyone, it says, seems to have a story.


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