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My Cleaner

by Jubbly 

Posted: 25 September 2004
Word Count: 2698
Summary: This has been posted before some time ago, I re wrote it recently for a comp and wonder if I've done the right thing. All comments appreaciated.

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My Cleaner

There they are again, in my hallway, the 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. 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 starters 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 - a dazzling domestic ballet. Sometimes I catch myself watching her with fascination. 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, as if you had 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.

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 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 was brilliant with the kid’s 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 arrived 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 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 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 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 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.

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, "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.

"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 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. " 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. 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."

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.

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.

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, I can live with my dirt…just stop!!

I hate her, my cleaner; I've never loathed anyone so much in my life. 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, 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 old brown cardigan around her lean Olive Oil frame.

"Good bye....

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

"Yes of course Danuta, wait, what shoes 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 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.

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 07:58 on 26 September 2004  Report this post
Hi Julie,
I remember the title from the first time around, but not the details. You have captured the 'relationship' between the two women very well. The feeling of being analysed and judged, shown well with the knickers scene. I guess it's a reflection on the confused role of the new woman - we know we should be down on our knees scrubbing - like our mothers did - but we have the means to pay someone else to do it. It doesn't stop us feeling guilty though.

all these bits of coloured plastic and unidentifiable shapes that mean nothing to me and everything to them = wonderful!

I was surprised when you mentioned a daughter as there deosn't seem to be much evidence of her in the house (football boots et al)I don't quite get the age of the children either. They have plastic bits, they fight but the daughter is capable of sneering.

my families dirt and slime = family's (it's possessive rather than plural)

all tied together by several gold rings = I couldn't see rings tying - how about held together?

I love the imagining about the other woman and how he met her.

I also found the ending strong - the fact that she didn't really smash the vase, almost made it stronger and bringing the shoe theme back round at the end - very skillful.

Good un, Julie


the kid’s room = kids' room (because kids are pl?)

Jubbly at 08:24 on 26 September 2004  Report this post
Thanks Elspeth, it's amazing how many mistakes I've made I must be word blind. Anyway I've sent it off now so too late for corrections this time round. I see what you mean about the kids, initially they were older - teenagers, then somewhere along the way the got younger, I guess it's that in between time when they've still got lots of things from when they were young and won't part with them but don't really play with them. She's in her early forties and the kids probably 11 and 13, does that make sense?

Thanks for reading and commenting as always.



Anj at 17:18 on 26 September 2004  Report this post

I loved this. I don't have time right now to go into detail, but I will if you want. But it's wonderful, melancholy, touching.

Take care

Becca at 22:42 on 26 September 2004  Report this post
Hi Julie,
I remember this story too. I think there are bits you've filled out? It's reading well and the juxtaposition of two very different women with different experiences of the world is vivid. The cleaner, though, is a foil for the MC to introspect against, (if that sentence makes any sense to you!)
The part about the husband's two timing oddly seemed to get in the way of something here for me, not quite sure I've worked out why. One of the things explored was the selflessness of the cleaner, (wanting to give the shoes to her sister), and the difference in the two women's expectations of life. I think the MC's problem with the husband seemed to lead off on a tangent and I wondered if the kind of relationship she had with him, (so well described in the line about how could he know the shoes were the wrong colour), could be woven in more to story and that something about Danuta's hubby be included as another opposite between the women. Just thinking out loud there because I feel that there's stuff in this story that needs surfacing and hasn't quite yet. Does that resonate, or am I off beam?

Jubbly at 10:18 on 28 September 2004  Report this post
Thanks Andrea and Becca, I'm glad you liked it. No Becca you're not way off beam, but Danuta hasn't got a husband, perhaps you're confusing her with the Burmese cleaner. I'll think about it again and see what I can do, shame I've already sent it off. Oh well.



scottwil at 08:34 on 29 September 2004  Report this post
Just wonderful, Jubbly. Your eye for detail is extraordinary and you've woven an utterly compelling story from tiny fragments of the cleaner's physical attributes and personality. To me this is great, great writing.
And this made me laugh: 'another geezer bird, they hunt in pairs.'

Couple of pickerty snicks:

'off white slip on pumps' I thought both could be hypenated?

'starters whistle' missing apostrophe for the possessive.

'My, you must give me the name of your cleaner' I tripped over the language here. This feels like such a contemporary tale that the use of the word 'My' feels odd to me, giving it a weird kind of fifties delicacy. A very subjective thing though.

'what shoes size are you?' - shoe-size?

Lovely Jubbly. Good luck with the comp. Hope it's not one that I'm entering though, I may have to withdraw.



'fifties fastidiousness' is what I meant to say

Jubbly at 08:31 on 01 October 2004  Report this post
Sion what absolutely lovely comments. Thanks so much I'm very flattered. Oddly enough my American spell check told me to hyphenate that lot but in a fit of anti American feeling I decided to disregard. Please don't even think of withdrawing, whoops went a bit Carry on there, it's a women only mag.

All the best


Zigeroon at 16:07 on 01 October 2004  Report this post


I was enthralled by the detail compressed into such a short piece. The two women and their different roles in the husbands life; somehow it seemed to revolve around him as he was the one who 'chose' the cleaner by acceptance and her hatred of the cleaner built to a cresecndo upon the realisation of his affair.

Enjoyed it.


Harry at 02:55 on 15 January 2005  Report this post
Hi Julie

I have been meaning to read this since I joined Fiction 1, so sorry for the late comments.

Like everyone else I thouroughly enjoyed it. You have a great eye for detail and the description is great.

How did the comp. go?

All the best


Jubbly at 07:49 on 15 January 2005  Report this post
Thanks Harry, it made it into the last fifty considered for publication but that's as far as it went. I was very pleased because it is quite a prestigeous magazine so I'm going to polish it up and try another one.



mabel at 21:33 on 20 May 2005  Report this post
Hi Julie,

Just finished reading this and was blown away like the others with the intricacy of detail both in the relationship between the two women and reference to domesticity / drudgery whichever way you see it.

I really felt for this woman, your prose depicted her overwhelming sense of uselessness brilliantly. Wonderful build up from her being possessive, grateful, awe-inspired and finally " I hate her my cleaner..." actually I hated her for you, and her husband, even her kids..........

The use of shoes/ sizes / design / value was perfect as a reflection of the women's lifestyle and class difference.

Fantastic !! And top 50 ? !! You should have walked away with it !!!!


Jubbly at 08:09 on 21 May 2005  Report this post
Thanks for such positive words Mabel, i'm thrilled you liked it.


choille at 09:21 on 03 June 2005  Report this post
Yes what a marvellous descriptive piece. Was a bit shocked that the cleaner only got paid once a month. That didn't enamour me to Mrs Cooper at all.
I think the observations are great and I liked the weakening of the MC's confidence.
I thought the ending was a little weak. I liked the shoes thing, but not the last sentence, but then I read it again and thought yes that is what she would think.
I especially liked the dialogue and the cleaner with her gauntness and cheeriness and mobile. Yes it's very well written.

Elbowsnitch at 17:13 on 17 June 2005  Report this post
I felt an initial resistance to this story, simply because of my prejudice against the narrator as a well-off middle class woman employing a cleaner - but reading on, I quickly became enthralled by all the detail (very convincing) and ended up feeling sympathetic to both the main characters. This is a great story, though it leaves me wanting to know a lot more about the cleaner. Could Mrs Cooper possibly pursue Danuta into HER home environment?


Sascha at 18:26 on 02 October 2005  Report this post
Sorry coming to this so very late,

Congrats on the progress in the comp, have you placed it elsewhere since?

The reader just really gets sucked into the head of the MC.

I found this intriguing partly because I have lived in several third world countries more as a local myself with many ex-pats, whose nationality I shared if nothing else, would go through these same issues and justifications in their dealings with the foreign presence of a local domestic helper in their home. Particularly, the thought about being lucky for the fiver an hour rate and that the cleaner had come to rely on them, so really the only "right" thing to do, would be to carry on, etc.

Great eye for detail and very emotional feel to your descriptions.


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