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My Cleaner

by Jubbly 

Posted: 30 October 2003
Word Count: 2320
Summary: A short story

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My Cleaner

She was extraordinary to watch - the way she scurried about my home, duster in motion - her hand moving so fast in and out of nooks and crannies over surfaces behind ornaments - a beautiful domestic ballet. Sometimes I'd catch myself watching her with fascination when I should really be somewhere else altogether. At first she was faceless just a name I kept forgetting - Deema or was it Lina? They said she was Polish the agency - that is. Such a thin woman - ghostlike, almost translucent only about 30 years old. Her pale drawn face belied any girlish charm, the years had been hard to her. Wisps of light brown hair mingled with a few presumptuous grey strands, and her bony hands seemed linked together by watery blue veins inside tissuey white flesh all tied together by several gold 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. My clothes were neatly folded on a stool by the bed, like when you'd just returned from the beach to your hotel room after the maid had been. I almost looked on the pillow to see if she'd left a chocolate or rose, as is the custom in some countries.

So we rarely met each other, I left her money in an envelope on the table on the last Friday of each month and she left my house in an immaculate condition.

"My, you must give me the name of your cleaner, isn't she a marvel?" friends would remark when visiting.

"Yes of course, it's Deema or Lina or is it Dora? Oh dear, I'll have to look it up."

But I never did, I wanted her for myself, my little treasure, my special find - so discreet, imperceptible but for her housewifely skills. She became the conscience of the house, without whom we would have sunk deep into a filthy chaos of our own making.

She was brilliant with the kidís room, all these bits of coloured plastic and unidentifiable shapes that mean nothing to me and everything to them were always tidied up dusted and sorted into their proper place; where ever that was. Odd socks and dirty football boots, disappeared, then reappeared as good as new. Books were filed and straightened and the Dewey system installed.

My husband liked her too, and he was very picky. He didn't approve of the last one we had. She was Burmese I believe, she came with her husband, he would sit and wait outside in the car while she worked. 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. My neighbour, Barbara said she saw her leaving after only a couple of hours, so of course she had to go.

"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."

Then things came undone. I didn't have to 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 horizontal 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 that different from her ordinary clothes. Plain, beige, tracksuits tops and grey bottoms, worn and cheap, they fall from her tiny body, like a Childs 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 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 there drinking coffee and wondering - while she's bent double scrubbing the dirt and slime from my floor, my dirt and slime, my families 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.

"Why don't you write a book?" my husband said, "You've always wanted to do that. "

"Do some volunteer work, " sneered my daughter, "For a refuge for battered women, you'd be good at that."

"Go back to school." added my son, "Re train."

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 peoples 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 that 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 has passed over and they reached outward and upward, trying to call them back, beseeching them not to go, not to leave them, no I 'd 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.
Alas, I went into advertising instead.

Another time I saw her crying - that's what I thought anyway.
"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 also old, and baggy and so distant from that frilly, delicate, seductive objective they once symbolized. How can the Royal family live this way? Having every personal article inspected and laundered I most certainly can not. I grabbed at my knickers and scanned them to make sure they were clean, free from any stains that you care less about the older you get when you know they will be no surprises ever again. Oh no, how could she - this slight woman from somewhere else, bringing her strangeness and foreigners 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. " Sorry, 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, I began to wonder.

That morning, all alone; house to myself; I pictured them. 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. Someone named Jenny or Lisa, the two 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. They most probably met in the pub near the office. "Won't you have another, my flat mateís joining me, right after her shift, she's ever so nice, a lovely girl."

Jenny, yes that's her. 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.

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 me. 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.

I've never been like that, if I smile I'm usually drunk. My lip curls up on one side, it's a twisted nerve I think. When my children were small, they'd drive me mad, constantly asking what I was laughing at.

"Nothing, I told you I'm not laughing."

"Yes you are."

"I'm not, believe me, I've got nothing to laugh about."

Now that noise is crashing right through me. She's here again - my cleaner. 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, just stop!!

I hate her, my cleaner; I've never loathed anyone so much in my life. I walked toward her, glided I daresay, not a sound did I make, there she was stooped over my dyson, she couldn't hear me approaching. I picked 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 held it aloft - then brought it down hard on her head, her skull crushed she fell back and the noise of the vacuum cleaner hummed away like a macabre soundtrack to this disjointed dark thriller. She stopped smiling now, finally, her beige top and grey trousers infused with dark orange as her lifeblood drained from her body and flooded her clothes. There I stood, still, frozen, no longer sitting and wondering; now I knew.

"So, Mrs. Cooper, I come Thursday next week if that is OK, I busy Friday, OK?"

What, what, who said that.

There she stood unstoppable, polish in one hand, dust cloth in the other.

"I have funeral to go to, so sorry, I come Thursday? Ok? "

"What, yes, of course, Thursday, that's fine."

""Goodbye, Mrs. Cooper." she nodded, as she wrapped her lean Olive Oil frame around her brown cardigan.

"Good bye....

"Danuta...my name is Danuta, you know?"

"Yes of course Danuta, see you next week."

And she was gone. The phone rang, "Hello darling, everything alright, bloody boring this end, missing you, bye "
I sat down again - afraid and wondered, how could anyone ever think such terrible thoughts and yet still be considered sane.

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 06:38 on 31 October 2003  Report this post
Hi Julie,
The story brings out issues about some of the differences in the way one woman and another lives that women's mags like. I'm glad she only imagined murdering the cleaner though, because had it been real it would have stretched credulity.
The story is really about the main character's unhappiness, - with the cleaner as a focus point for it, so for me there was something about the way it's balanced at the moment that was troubling. Perhaps it's a matter of deciding between the two strands. You could edit down a lot about the cleaner and bring to the foreground the main character's loss of her husband, or mention the aloneness of the main character in passing in the context of writing mainly about the cleaner. For me the interest lay with the cleaner, and you write about her tenderly, but any real drama or action lies in the other story about the relationship. It might even be that there are two separate stories here? So I was left a little adrift not quite knowing where it was going.
I think if you had another look at where the commas are going in the sentences and maybe take a few out, there'd be a better flow.
I do think the story's got something going, there's a lot of poingnancy in it and a sense of mystery around the cleaner, those would be the bits I'd work on, that's where you're most poetic. The husband leaving wife story is an old one while the possible refugee cleaner with unknown family is a much newer one, and I might be completely wrong, but I sense that it's the one you like better too.

Jubbly at 09:26 on 31 October 2003  Report this post
Thanks for your critique Becca, there are two stories going on, the cleaner was my first thought and came quite easily then the woman's misery seemed to creep up, so I'll have another look at it and see if I can balance it all out.

Nell at 08:22 on 02 November 2003  Report this post
Hi Julie,

I thought this was really special, there is some beautiful writing here. Loved the mystery of the cleaner and your descriptions, especially of her hands, also the small personal details which take the reader into the narrator's mind. The pace of the piece seems just right up to the imagined murder which seems almost too sudden; I'd have liked to feel the narrator's emotions a little more vividly immediately before that point.

I can see what Becca means about the two stories, but I believe this one is very nearly just right, and personally wouldn't like to see it drastically changed. I would like to see the same story written from Danuta's point of view to read one after the other, or even cut together just as an experiment/exercise to see what happens.

Did you decide about that novel? (The modern/urban/funny one?)

Best, Nell.

Account Closed at 21:36 on 02 November 2003  Report this post
Hiya. I enjoyed the story too, enjoyed its sense of emptiness and domestic mystery. I found the line when her husband asked ; 'or what perfume do you wear?' very poignant. It seemed to encompass the sadness of the story, a husband not even knowing what perfume his wife likes.

The imagined murder scene was good. Obviously the cleaner is the target of Mrs. Cooper's sense of worthlessness, and this scene was developed well. It led you to believe it was happening, but didn't overstate it, and the switch back to reality was timely and effective.

The pace could be better with a bit of editing, and a few grammatical changes, but overall, the story worked well and was an interesting read. It's also short enough to go in a magazine. Have you tried any?

James x

Jubbly at 14:02 on 03 November 2003  Report this post
Thanks waxylyrikal and Nell. I will do another draft incorporating both your comments. As for publication, no James I haven't sent it anywhere, not yet but perhaps I will. Nell, re the novel debacle - I'm going to wait awhile, look at it with fresh eyes again. I don't intend to start another, and haven't had the encouragment I'd hopef for via the agent. I did,however respond to Katie Williams request and hope, after the postal strike, to here from her.



Nell at 15:26 on 03 November 2003  Report this post
Good luck.

Elsie at 23:05 on 03 November 2003  Report this post
Hi julie
I don't usually go for short stories, but this really drew me in. Your descriptions of the cleaner were so, so true to life. When the story brought in the relationship with the husband I felt such memories flood back from my previous marriage - the husband and cleaner both quit on the same day..
Really enjoyable writing.


Ralph at 18:25 on 23 November 2003  Report this post
This is beautifully written. The descriptions in it really depicted not only the cleaner, but the way in which the narrator looked at her.
I started underlining the lines I really liked, but then the manuscript started to get soaked in ink.

I also liked the distance your narrator maintains; there's a quality to it that really works in terms of expressing her sense of being ostracised without you having to over-emphasise it.
And the way that her changing feelings about her sense of self are expressed in her sentiments towards Danuta... beautifully done.

The only thing that really struck me was the suddenness of the ending, perhaps because your writing is so good that I wanted to keep reading, but also I think because of the extremity of the swing.

Punctuation was another thing I marked out. I know it sounds like a piddly thing to be commenting on, but your narrator had a very real voice here, one that I could actually hear being spoken as I was reading the piece, and the commas and full stops withdrew a little from this because it didn't seem to me that they were always in the places where the narrator would have been drawing breath, pausing etc... Having said that, to maintain such a strong voice despite this says volumes about the quality of your writing here.

All the very best with it



Jubbly at 20:44 on 23 November 2003  Report this post
Ralph, thank so much for your lovely comments. You are right to point up the punctuation errors, I am trying to improve. I was very touched tht your manuscript was covered in ink.

Best Julie

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