Some years ago, I worked as a house cleaner for a local council. I had no training as a cleaner, just common sense and a few books for reference on difficult stains and other cleaning nightmares. They didn’t always help. How was I supposed to get the sheet in between that heavy mattress and the elaborate carved bed? A spatula from the kitchen turned out to be the answer. Could I clear away the stinking mats of fur and kitty litter in the bathroom without chundering? No. What the hell was that stuck on the wall? I never found out but I wore holes in two pairs of gloves trying to get it off. Now how would I do the rest of the chores in my allotted time? Cleaning other people’s houses is always a race against time.
I preferred to clean when the client had left the house but some people wanted to stay and watch. Like so many service jobs where the worker has extended contact with the client, the nominated job became only one aspect of the work. Some clients didn’t really want me there for cleaning. They wanted company. They had things to say and no one to listen, so when I arrived with my mop and brushes and cloths they would follow me around, talking nonstop, offering me cups of tea to tempt me to sit down.
I gave them attention as I worked, encouraged them to keep talking while I sluiced water around the bathroom and scrubbed away the mould or lifted the condiment jars to wipe off the crumbs and tiny food scraps that had drifted there. In one flat I heard the same story every week, a tragic retelling of a child’s death that needed to be aired so it didn’t become a solid, unspeakable weight.
House cleaning is an intimate encounter that demands respect from the cleaner. I felt that my position was privileged – I probably knew more about my clients than some of their closest friends – and along with the privilege came a responsibility to be discreet. The collection of latex animal masks under the bed? Look away. The porn site that started up with its pumping and moaning when I accidentally knocked the edge of the computer desk? Same. The piles of unpaid bills and red notices, the blood on the bed, the cupboard full of empty whisky bottles, the bitter note from the ex-spouse – not my business.
Communication with my clients was brief. They knew what I knew about them, and it was vital to keep our conversations professional and impersonal. Yet sometimes difficult things had to be said. The second time I had to clean up a human turd from behind the bedroom door of the eight-year-old boy, I realised the parents didn’t know this was happening. Leaving a note seemed cruel, and I certainly didn’t want the boy to discover it. I rang in the evening. By the tone of the mother’s voice I guessed she knew something was wrong and this news confirmed her fear. She apologised that I had to clean it up, but there was no need. I felt for her.
Along with the difficult moments, house cleaning provided some happy surprises. One woman laid out a few items of clothing on the bed and told me to take what I wanted or they’d go to the op shop. We were about the same size. I wasn’t too proud to take these clothes that were far more expensive than I could afford. I’d never looked better.
Someone else left a funny note about how my cleaning had saved her marriage because she no longer had arguments about the division of workload with her husband. I was being paid for my work, yet these gestures of appreciation meant a great deal.
The cleaning work was physically challenging and by the end of the day I was exhausted but leaving a house sparkling and fresh for the return of its owner gave me more satisfaction than many other jobs I’ve done. The kitchen and bathroom were pearly pure, the floors shone, free of grit and splodge, the bins were emptied, the dishes were done and put away, the sheets smelled of soap and sunshine.
In my own house now, the depressing sight of dust gathering, spills on the floor and grime building on the sink makes me think it’s time I hired a cleaner. She – and it will probably be a she – will not only do the housework but will keep my secrets. She will care for my precious objects, let me know if something seems awry and gift me time for other things I need to do. I’ll walk into my freshly cleaned house and my spirit will lift.
Paddy O’Reilly is the author of four novels, two collections of award-winning short stories and a novella. Her latest novel Other Houses is out 29 March through Affirm Press.