Show Hide image

Personal story: Cleaning the lives of others

As a cleaner, people gave me the keys to everything they held dear. I emptied their bins and stripped their bedsheets, then popped their tramadol and ate their chocolates.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Around the time that my first book was published, I cleaned houses for a living. I hated the way people reacted when I told them I was a cleaner, as if what I was ­doing was the beginning of an argument that they hadn’t prepared for. I guess people imagined that, because I’m a difficult person, I liked the way that this ruined dinners. Actually, I found it boring and wished I could tell them that I worked in, say, media – or, more accurately, I wished that the question “What do you do?” wasn’t a necessary part of introductory parlance at all.

The man I was dating at the time said I was “very Bukowski”, I guess because he didn’t know any famous working-class women writers, which is of course not his problem but the world’s. People find an educated person doing an “unskilled” job interesting – indicative of grit or tragedy. You become a case study. Why would a person choose to work hard and be broke, too? Fascinating.

I liked working as a cleaner more than I’ve liked some other jobs that I’ve done, and much less than others. There was a satisfaction to be had from being physical, seeing the way that work affected my body – tauter muscles, scabbing hands – and from falling into a deep sleep at night because I was bone tired. But I’m not a noble person because of being born to a lower social standing, or whatever the narrative is that makes people talk in these terms. I worked hard, in fits and spurts, but I also stole sweet foods and prescription medication, kicked dirt under the fridge and lay in other people’s beds. I liked to describe myself as a working-class hero as a bit, to make people feel more comfortable at parties. Really, I just hadn’t found any type of work other than writing to be fulfilling, hadn’t yet written enough to prove that I was worth paying, and needed money.

I was set up to fail in the world of work. Not only did you have to complete the tasks assigned to you but you also had to be cheerful and regard your boss with good humour no matter what kind of a person they were. I didn’t want to turn up to the same place every single day, and sit on the same chair, pretending to give a shit about anything, and did what I could to avoid it.

Instead I turned up to other people’s houses, at odd hours of the day, dressed however I liked, in whatever mood I woke up in, unchaperoned. People gave me the keys to everything they held dear and didn’t think of it for a moment. I passed through those houses, like an occasionally useful, occasionally malevolent spirit, granting some wishes and denying others. I popped their tramadol and ate their beautifully wrapped chocolates at Christmas, emptied their bins, spat in their toilets and stripped their sweaty bedsheets.

Most of my clients fade into one. But I had my favourites, made my judgements. My first regular gig was for a single mother living in a nice, airy flat above a shop in Surbiton. I liked seeing evidence of her and her daughter’s life together. They grew things from seed on the dining room table, had a big TV, a pile of games, colourful plastic lunchboxes stacked neatly in the dishwasher. I liked the way that hoovering her daughter’s pink carpet left thick track marks, reminding me of hoovering my own pink carpet when I was a kid. I did my job tenderly and well, wanting to preserve their domesticity. But there were still times I sat on her big, soft sofa, anxious and tired in that peculiarly paralysing way, overwhelmed by mundane tasks, wondering what I was doing with my life, staring at a stack of World of Interiors.

I was fond at first of the old lady who didn’t believe in cleaning products. She gave me microfibre cloths that stank of mildew, and I did my best with those while she sat on her sofa and listened to the radio, complaining. She was Jewish, and we lazily bonded over that. Due to my grandmothers being dead, I had an opening for an old lady in my life. Eventually, she started complaining about immigrants, and I stopped going. She left me a voicemail, “I hope it wasn’t something I said.” It was, though.

There was a group of rich 20-something men who existed on a steady diet of Domino’s. I had to send them a text asking them to please wrap their condoms before they put them into the bathroom bin. I prefaced it by saying “Glad you guys are being safe!” Somehow worse was a guy who always left piss in his toilet. I would stand looking at it, incensed, my little fists bunched up at my side. Then I’d just flush it away. I couldn’t afford to get fired over a bit of piss.

I could tell you everything one couple ate every day, because they would simply put their week’s worth of dirty plates to one side, not even scraping them. For an hour I would have to dispose of moulding sauces, wash, dry and put away, and I was jealous that it cost so little for them to behave in an unbelievably decadent way. They weren’t rich-rich, but they represented the gulf ­between having money to survive and money to do what pleases you. It was a gulf that for me seemed to stretch for miles and I felt sore – sunburnt and exhausted – just imagining the scale of it.

Working near home meant that I could save on bus fares, but travelling to more affluent areas worked in my favour. The places were already clean when I arrived; the medicine cabinets and the fridges had good things in them. I grew wary of one-off jobs that needed me for three or four hours. Usually they were in a state: dead mice, floors covered in dirty laundry, brown water sitting in the bottom of a rusty toilet pan, one empty bottle of Dettol under the sink with which to tackle it all. I learned to avoid those jobs unless I was desperate.

I read Lucia Berlin for the first time in Mexico, a trip I could afford because I’d been given the advance for my first book. I lay in a hammock and read about a woman like me, rough and reliant on substances, scraping a living together. She wrote, “We don’t want the change in the little ashtrays,” and I laughed aloud because it was true. I just wanted my moment of stolen pleasure. If I stole it was because I was desperately hungry – not starving, like others in my situation, but insatiable for stimulation, or sometimes just incensed at my position in the world. I ended up phasing out cleaning. I got paid writing gigs, and then I moved out of London and started working in a ­restaurant, which suits me better. I gave back everybody’s keys. The eczema on my hands cleared up because I was no longer wearing rubber gloves for hours each day. When people ask me what I do I have an ­answer that pleases them. 

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour