Posted: 09 November 2005
Word Count: 3729
Summary: This has been uploaded before but how has now had an extensive rewrite. If anyone can bear to read it again or if anyone else can comment I'd be very grateful. Think I've made a bit of a hash of my tenses.
There they are again, in my hallway, her calling card of saintliness. A pair of off white slip on pumps, frayed and worn yet capable of all duties required - just like their owner. They’ve moulded to her feet, no one else could ever wear them now or would want to, they are hers and hers alone. They look so wrong and out of place next to the family shoes, Wellingtons, trainers, sandals and assorted flip-flops, all neatly positioned as if waiting for the starter’s whistle to herald the race. She arranged them so I didn’t ask her to. Her poor pathetic pumps are strangers to our expensive shoes; they will never be properly introduced or accepted, the caddy to the golfing champion. Her tread is so light, a spectre; she leaves such sombre footfalls in my house. She is extraordinary to watch - the way she scurries about my home, duster in motion - her hand moving so fast in and out of nooks and crannies over surfaces behind ornaments – it’s a dazzling domestic ballet. At first she was faceless just a name I kept forgetting - Deema or was it Lina? She Polish; and such a thin woman - ghostlike, almost translucent, she’s probably about thirty although her body is like that of a prepubescent girl’s, her pale drawn face belies any coquettish charm; it’s clear the years have been hard to her. She has wisps of light brown hair mingled with a few presumptuous grey strands, and her bony hands seem linked together by watery blue veins inside tissuey white flesh all held together by several cheap rings.
At first I'd come home from work and know immediately she'd been there. My house was clean and breathing, in its Sunday best, all done up ready for a date - relieved of the weekly build up of dust and dirt.
I leave her money in an envelope on the table on the last Friday of each month and she leaves my house in an immaculate condition.
"You must give me the name of your cleaner, isn't she a marvel?" Friends often remarked when visiting.
"Yes of course, it's Deema or Lina or is it Dora? Oh dear, I'll have to check.”
But I never did, I wanted her for myself, my little treasure, my special find - so discreet, imperceptible but for her housewifely skills and the occasional glimpse of those all purpose shoes. She became the conscience of the house, without whom we would have sunk deep into a filthy chaos of our own making.
She’s brilliant with the kid’s rooms, all those bits of coloured plastic and unidentifiable shapes that mean nothing to me and everything to them are always tidied up, dusted and sorted into their proper place; where ever that is. Odd socks and dirty football boots, disappear, and then reappear as good as new. Books are filed and straightened and the Dewey system installed.
My husband likes her too, and he’s very picky. He didn't approve of the last one we had. She used to arrive with her husband, he would sit and wait outside in the car while she toiled. She told me he wasn't well, had a bad hand and could no longer work so it was up to her. But she was slap dash and didn't always do her time.
"She's not bad this one, leaves things alone, doesn't move every bugger round so you can't find anything, and only a fiver an hour, we've lucked out here love."
Then things came undone. I didn't have to go in to work any more; they didn't want me to in fact they'd rather I didn't bother at all. Redundancy they said, lucky you my friends cooed; we envy you, think what you can do with all that spare time.
And I do, I sit and wonder. I make a coffee then another and I wonder all day long. And of course I watch her...we rarely speak.
" Hello, how are you, do want a drink?"
No, no, she shakes her head; she is a machine, a well-oiled machine. Five hours she does in total each week, yet not a morsel of food passes her thin lips, sometimes she sips from a blue plastic bottle she brings with her in her old backpack, along with her work clothes, which to be honest but for a brown cardigan are not all that different from her ordinary clothes. Plain beige tracksuits tops and grey bottoms, worn and cheap, they fall from her tiny body, like a child’s discarded party dress on a doll.
My cleaner carries her mobile with her all the time, sometimes it rings and she purrs away in her own language, words that are indistinguishable sounds to me. She smiles and nods when she passes me on the stairs or in the kitchen, she must think me a terrible nuisance, what am I doing, just sitting around drinking coffee and wondering - while she's bent double scrubbing the dirt and slime from my floor, my dirt and slime, my family’s dirt and slime, yet here I sit, no need to move a muscle, for I am paying for the privilege.
One day she had a cold, her eyes were puffed and her nose red, she sniffed and coughed and I tried to ask her to go home, to come back when she felt better, but no, she shook her head, “ No, no, I have other jobs, must do you today."
And on she went, her hacking cough burrowing its way through my skin and into my soul.
We could still afford the luxury of a cleaner even without my wage and after all she’d come to rely on us. I protested that I could do it just as easily, especially now, but my husband shook his head. She’s set a standard you see and he knows I could never complete.
"Why don't you write a book?" my husband said, "You've always wanted to do that. "
"Do some volunteer work, " sneered my daughter.
"Go back to school." added my eldest son.
“School? She’s way too old.” Jeered my youngest.
Yes, endless possibilities, but still I sit and wonder.
What could I do now, at my age? I've done what I set out to do, and they sent me home, didn't need me, made that quite clear. I was just another pen pusher anyway, not someone important, I didn't save lives I saved people’s reputations, I covered for their mistakes, I kept everything rolling, ticking over - they needed me. Now a computer does my job and a very attractive addition to the office it is. Never complains, doesn't gossip - unless programmed otherwise, a thoroughly good egg. There was a time when I was going to be a nurse, but my mother said I wasn't cut out for it. I wasn't afraid of blood, which never sickened me; I was ice to injury - that's what they all said. But I didn't have the compassion apparently, couldn't empathize, wouldn't know what to say in a crisis or terrible moment when their loved one had passed over and they’ve reached outward and upward, beseeching them not to go, not to leave them, demanding them not to die. No I 'd just stand there, numb, unable to offer support or condolences, I'd be embarrassed you see, mute in the situation, unable to help or even attempt to. I was cut out for something altogether less dramatic.
Which is probably why I went into advertising instead.
Another time I saw she’d been crying.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes, yes." she nodded. "I am carer, you know?"
"Carer? No, what do you mean?"
"I am carer in home for the old people, one of my ladies she die, very sad, I sorry, please get me more this." She held up an empty bottle of Ciff and smiled...again.
One day I came back from the shops just after she'd been, I could smell the polish and disinfectant, she herself, smelled of nothing, nothing at all, a spirit that's what she was, a sylph lingering in my home, invited but invading all at once. Then I saw, in my room, on our bed, a neat pile of clothes, my clothes, all folded, pristine, awaiting me. I rushed to them, and blushed with shame.
She'd taken my clothes out of the dryer and folded them. My things, my nightie, my mixed washed t-shirts, my underwear. Oh not my smalls! The shame of it...they're all so old, and baggy and so distant from those frilly, delicate, seductive garments I once coveted. How can the Royal family live this way? Having every personal article inspected and laundered I most certainly cannot. I grabbed at my knickers and scanned them to make sure they were clean. Oh no, how could she - this slight woman from somewhere else, bringing her strangeness and foreignness into my home and doing it all so much better than me? The humiliation washed over me, the intimacy was too much, I felt naked and stupid and useless and every other negative emotion that had resided inside me for so long took its turn in coming forward that afternoon. When I looked up I saw her, standing in the doorway. I dropped my sorry knickers and gasped.
"Hello, " she said, her ever present in my presence smile fading on her insufficient lips. "Pardon, I forgot my ring, I left it in bathroom, so sorry."
She smiled again, that smile, the one that seemed to say, I know who you are, I know you have failed, you need me, you can't cope without me, you can't even keep your pants clean. You need me.
My husband was out a lot. Business jollies, leaving drinks, projects that just had to be put to bed. I didn't like to take the hints, the late night phone calls and bleeps heralding private text messages - I played dumb, tried to smile, like her, how the hell does she do it? When he said he had to go away for the long weekend, I did it, I smiled, "Oh good, that should be great fun, bring me back ...something?"
"Yes, " he nodded; surprised that permission was given so easily, "Maybe a scarf, or what perfume do you wear?"
He left on Thursday night, the children were jumpy wouldn't settle, fought, argued, made up, screamed, ignored my pleas for peace, gave in and went to bed, then I began to wonder.
That morning, all alone; house to myself; I pictured them together, my husband and his preferred acquaintance. Not as simple as you'd imagine, I didn't even know who she was - I didn't really know if she existed at all, but I knew exactly what she'd be like if she did - she'd be nothing at all like me. He often joked about Karen, the geezer bird they called her. Karen could down pints with the best of them - it was Karen who walked away with the trophy at the Summer Go - karting works do. Karen probably shared her flat with another geezer bird; they hunt in pairs. I visualise the pair of them, -in their late twenties, sharing a flat, one has an excellent job as an account handler with a major advertising agency, the other - a trainee nurse, sweet, pretty, full of the milk of human kindness. He most probably met her in the pub near the office. "Won't you have another, my flat mate’s joining me, right after her shift, she's ever so nice, a lovely girl."
Let’s call her Jenny, yes that's her. She is petite with a toned, bronzed midriff and of course a de rigueur pierced navel. He has his Jenny and I am alone, they are together, and my children will blame me. Yes, that's the way it will be.
I’ve too much time on my hands now; I was always too busy to think such dreadful things, now I see darkness where there should be light.
Oh God, how can she smile when she is on her hands and knees scrubbing our lives from the floor. Of course she only smiles when she sees me, perhaps the rest of the time she is as miserable as I am. But I don't really know anything about her - maybe her life now is a vast improvement on what it was and because she is so grateful - she simply can't help smiling.
When she left that day I followed her. I waited cosy in my car while she stood shifting from foot to foot at the bus stop. She alighted in an area that will never be described as desirable and walked another two blocks to a place where even buses are not welcome. I parked behind a white van and watched her climb a flight of weathered stairs to the front door of a typical four storey Victorian house bereft of any former grandeur. Where once a family of five and a maid and cook lived in harmony now resides a mish mash of immigrants with little or no English between them jostling for space in overcrowded bedsits and squalor. My cleaner went inside and I realised what a fool I was. I watched a group of youths in hooded tops who should have been in school or some other institution and silently counted my blessings; then the door opened and she came out again. This time she was not alone, but holding hands with a child, a little girl of about 8 or 9, a child with the same pallor as my cleaner but fleshier and with a thick head of dark brown hair. The child was laughing and my cleaner looked almost human to me. They were joined by an older girl, maybe 18 or thereabouts, very pretty, even the hoodies noticed her and called out something like – buff, but I could be wrong. She threw them a brief glance and ran her hands through her long blonde hair. She wore a very short skirt that clung to her hips so that her pelvic bone jutted out and claimed your attention. Her top was bright pink and revealed her belly button; I could just make out a jewel glinting in the afternoon sun. When I was a young I thought it brave to get my ears pierced these days girls have a much broader selection of displayed body parts to perforate should they desire. Her lips were broad and greased in gloss, inviting some would say. On her feet she wore the highest of highest heels I’d ever seen on a walking woman. Strappy gold numbers with a suggestion of diamante. Once she’d negotiated the steep steps she did a little twirl on the footpath and the hoodies cheered. My cleaner snapped at her in their shared language and grabbed hold of the child in a tight grip, the three of them walked down the road and into another house, this time via the basement. Then I came to my senses and drove home.
“Do you have children?” I ask her the following week.
She looks confused; I hold my hand waist high in the air and repeat, “children,” and point to her. She blushes and for once loses her ever present composure.
“Yes,” she nods, “One, Rosa, she live with my Mother back home.”
“Oh, “ I say, “Do you ever get to see her?”
She looks me straight in the eye and that slow smiles creeps over her lips.
“She has just been visit, she go back now.”
So that was her daughter, now I know, but I want to know more.
“Where do you live?”
She straightens up now clearly agitated at being interrupted.
“You live alone?” I press on.
“No, with many people, I share room with my sister.”
I think back to the girl I saw her with in the street, what an unlikely pair of siblings, chalk and cheese, satin and glass, Jesus and Lucifer.
Her phone rings and she smiles politely to give the impression that but for the call she’d like nothing better than to chat to me. I've never been like that; if I smile I'm usually drunk.
She's here again - my cleaner and that noise is crashing right through me Leave that bloody carpet alone! Good God! If she keeps it up she'll saw right through to the floorboards, it's clean, it's fine, I can live with my dirt…just stop!!
She seems unreasonably cheerful today; I heard her singing as she stuck the filthy toilet brush down the latrine. Singing in broken English, something from the charts I think. She stopped when she saw me though, I embarrassed her and rightly so. I pay her wages to clean not to sing, she knows she makes me uncomfortable and I think she enjoys the feeling of power it grants her. It’s not my fault her life is so hard, I asked for a cleaner not a martyr. It’s not my fault that I’m here all day doing bugger all, it’s not as if I don’t want to be somewhere else doing something else, being someone else.
I hate her, my cleaner; I've never loathed anyone so much in my life, what right has she to make me feel such a failure in my own home.
I walk toward her, glide I daresay, not a sound do I make, there she is stooped over my Dyson, she doesn’t hear me approaching. I pick up Tom's mother's old china vase, heavy and too big to maintain any grace in a suburban living room, ugly, huge and solid as a rock and hold it aloft - then bring it down hard on her head, her skull crushes and she falls back and the noise of the vacuum cleaner hums away like a macabre soundtrack to this disjointed dark thriller. She’s stopped smiling now, finally, her beige top and grey trousers infused with dark orange as her lifeblood drains from her body and floods her clothes. I stand, still, frozen, no longer sitting and wondering; now I know.
Then I hear them, pit patting through my spotless home, those Eastern European, cheap, unstylish slippers that she wears on her feet like a second skin.
Are they walking on their own? Coming for me to avenge their innocent mistress? Will they walk over me, leave footprints, attach themselves to my feet so that then I will know what it’s like to walk in her shoes?
"So, Mrs. Cooper, I come Thursday next week if that is OK, I busy Friday, OK?"
What, what, who said that?
There she stands unstoppable, Mr Sheen in one hand, dust cloth in the other.
"What, yes, of course, Thursday, that's fine."
""Goodbye, Mrs. Cooper." she nods as she wraps her old brown cardigan around her lean Olive Oil frame and struggles with the heavy front door.
"Danuta...my name is Danuta, you know?"
"Yes of course Danuta, wait…what shoe size are you?”
She frowns and shakes her head, I mime, use my hands and point at her feet, and she shrugs her shoulders.
“Take these.” I say, offering her an unworn pair of court shoes from Russell and Bromley, a present from my husband, not my colour but how was he to know?
“Please, for you, or I’ll just throw them away, please.”
She smiles and clasps her hand over her mouth, making little choking noises that might be sobs or even giggles.
“Thank you, thank you, I give to my sister, thank you Mrs Cooper, thank you so very much.”
I watch through the curtains as she walks away, relieved I had not acted on my veiled malevolence.
I sit down again - afraid and wonder, how could anyone ever think such terrible thoughts and yet still be considered sane, I wonder.
A week later I followed a detour to avoid road works and took the wrong turn. I found myself beside a small and unpopular green. There were no swings and roundabouts and burned out cars had replaced cultivated trees. I scratched about for an A to Z and willed myself invisible, and then I saw them – those distinctive tarty gold high heels. One planted firmly on the road the other tilted upward in a contrived seductive pose. The owner of the shoes leaned through a car window and spoke softly with the driver. Her skirt barely covered her knickers and her skinny legs were more pole dancer’s poles than human limbs. A sequinned bra hung off her scrawny body – revealing empty cups where there should be breasts. Danuta climbed into the passenger seat and the car drove away.
My cleaner looks tired these days, I ask her if she’s working too hard what with her other job at the old people’s home, but she shakes her head and smiles.
“I need to work, my daughter is to come here and live and I need more money you know?”
Humiliation forces me to up her pay, I offer her an extra pound per hour, she is eternally grateful I say nothing about what I saw, besides I’m very good at jumping to conclusions, according to my husband I do it all the time.
Danuta didn’t show up to clean that week, or the following week.
“Perhaps she’s gone home to see her daughter.” I say to my disappointed husband.
“What daughter?” he replies.
“She’s got a little girl called Rosa who lives with her grandmother in Poland.”
“How very interesting.” He says in that sarcastic tone he reserves for me when I’ve bored him.
A few weeks later whilst scanning for the small ads in our local paper I saw a face I recognised. A passport photograph of a gaunt young woman stared at me blankly, incongruously placed beside a headline that shouted – Polish Prostitute found strangled on the Marshes. Followed by a detailed description of her clothing and jewellery and a short list of the people she’s left behind – a mother, a sister, a daughter.
My cleaner will no longer need the meagre weekly wage I pay her, at last Danuta has stopped smiling and I finally begin to cry.
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