Michele Kirsch: My life as a cleaner in London

As a cleaner, Kirsch brings insights from her writing career to her current job – and reveals some home truths

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The Independent Online

If you go on looking for things, you will never find them,” barked Crispin, a hearing-aid refusnik pensioner with Parkinson’s disease, and one of my former regular clients. He had hired me to clean his flat for two hours a week – though, in truth, he had so very little to call his own after 80 years of living that I wound up cleaning for one hour and listening to his stories and philosophy of life for the next. “The trick is to not look for things, and then you will find them.” 

This sounded deeper than it was probably meant to be, but as a low-waged, low-skilled worker, I am always looking for meaning and wisdom through work. It might be as banal as noticing that the more ecologically correct the cleaning fluid, the less effective it is; you can do your bit to save the planet, but it won’t look tidy. Or it might be unintentionally thought-provoking, as was often the case with the ramblings of Crispin. He made me think of all the people living out their eighties in not too splendid isolation, spending his days writing stories from his childhood for pleasure (though the stories often involved his lunatic father beating seven shades of s**** out of him) and leaving three-day-old bizarre and inedible burnt dishes near his sink or cooker. He was trying to perfect his version of stargazy pie, with chopped-up tinned sausages standing in for the heads of fish, poking through the tar-black pie crust.

I have been cleaning flats and houses in east London for a little over a year, picking up the dirty pants, the snotty tissues that missed the bin, and making up beds, the likes of which would make Tracy Emin’s look like she had OCD. I wipe concealer and toothpaste off the bathroom mirrors, I wipe the tiny beard hairs off the floor – I live and work mainly in Shoreditch, unofficial home of the high-maintenance beard – I  wipe up scattered chia seeds, spilt coconut oil and protein powder off the shelves of the Nutribullet brigade. I scrape off the hardened bits of cat sick that have lodged between the stair railings. I dust the frames of posters or signs that say stuff like “Hell is other people”. I line up all the remote controls in an orderly fashion. I wipe up spilled milk in the fridge, and I take off all the fridge magnets, wipe down the fridge door, and put the magnets back in the wrong order. Partly so they know I’ve cleaned it, partly because I can’t remember if the Lady of Spain postcard went over or under the poetry fridge magnets.

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They go out to work, or school (yes, students hire cleaners, too) and I let myself in with a key, the working world’s wife. If they are out while I am cleaning, I put on my radio, tuned to a 1970s station, so that I can pretend I am still young and will get a real job, eventually. When a friend’s nine-year-old son asked what I did, and I told him I clean houses, he said, “I thought you had to be Eastern European to do that. No offence.” 

I think what he meant was that his mum’s cleaner was from Eastern Europe. That cleaning is a low-status, low-skilled job, the thing you do when you can’t really do anything else, or the thing you do while you are making plans to do something else. This may or may not be true. What is definitely true is that I am never short of work, and I’m not even a “great” cleaner, or a treasure. I’m a good cleaner. I do skirting boards, light switches, polish the smudges and grease off kettles and toasters. I do the stuff other people don’t have the time or inclination to do. I’ll take all your boyfriend’s work shirts back to my flat to iron if your electricity is on the blink. I will go the extra mile, because the work is honest, very physical, and at the end of the day, I sleep the deep sleep of the justly tired. I might write about my working day on Facebook, because I find other people’s stuff interesting or, being of a writerly disposition, sometimes depressing.

 I once burst into tears while doing the flat of an obsessive Italian shoe-hoarder. He had hardly any stuff except the basics – bed, fridge, cooker, telly – and hundreds of boxes of Italian designer shoes. The only “art” on the wall was a yellowing Polaroid of himself as a boy in Italy, smiling at the seaside. Tanned and shoeless, young and carefree. How did he go from that to this, working 70-plus hours a week to pay rent on his nice but pokey flat full of shoes? It might look like cleaning, but every job feels a bit Miss Marple-ish. I am looking for clues, though I’m never really sure what the crime is.

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I think of Crispin often, not because his stuff was interesting, but his thoughts were. He would follow me around for the whole clean, his life story spilling out between my scrubbing the urine stains round the loo and trying to match up his seasonally themed Primark socks. “No, that’s a shamrock, the other is Christmas holly. Can you not see, woman, that they are not a pair?” I think, sometimes, I was the only person he spoke to all week.

The few things he had were broken or useless. These included a long-dead Hoover, a very burnt saucepan , a 5kg sack of long-past-its best-by date basmati rice, a moth-eaten, rolled-up rug, a still-wrapped 12-CD set of Great Classical Composers and, most touchingly, a shelf full of double-bed fitted sheets, which slid off his narrow, single divan. It occurred to me that the real meaning of his wisdom was: if you never throw anything away, it will turn up eventually. And mock you.

His only newish working things were his computer, his recorder – which he practised diligently but never got any better at – and an A4 picture of Dolly Parton. He followed me round the flat,  tooting his recorder and asking me to name that tune. 

““Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”?” I would ask, scratching my head. 

It was the only song he knew.

Twice in the nine months I worked for him,  Crispin told me Boris Johnson was getting rid of all the old people in London and putting them into homes in the Cotswolds, and that he would have to go there for a “recce”. It seemed plausible. During one of these recces, he did decide to get rid of one old thing: me.

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As well as working for long-term clients, I do one-off jobs, often frantic pleas to clean up before a move, or before the tidy person gets home. One was a flat off Brick Lane. This was a biohazard job: matted, badly stained carpets, never-been-cleaned fridge and cooker, loo out of Trainspotting. But the guy himself was ebullient, friends with all the neighbours. He just exuded a joie de vivre and genuinely did not see or care that he had been living in a shithole for years. Facing a big, brown dubious stain on his carpet, I asked, “Is this poo, vomit, or curry?” “Possibly all three,” he said, honestly, gleefully. A life well lived. Messily, but happily. 

There have been unhappy messes as well (but it’s hard not to make sweeping statements when you are sweeping). A couple living in complete chaos, the wife seriously ill, the husband her carer. In the morning, I can hear her in the wheelchair-adjusted bathroom, coughing her guts up, calling for her sad-eyed, tired-looking husband. A framed photo on the wall shows what a beauty she was before this illness ravaged her. Much of their stuff is within arm’s reach of the bed, including lots of new things: clothes, medical devices, hardcore porno mags, stuffed hastily into carrier bags. Sometimes, as with the porn, you have to leave it where they left it, so it looks like you haven’t seen it.

Another client did not so much not get rid of things, but had little collections. He lived high in a tower block in Bermondsey, and on a cloudless day you could stand on the balcony and see all of London stretched before you. The first clean did not go well. I was dusting his collection of Six Million Dollar Man action figures (which look unnervingly like Guantanamo Bay dolls –I guess it’s the orange jumpsuit) and decided to get some air on the balcony. The feather duster dropped out of my hand, falling gently 20 or so storeys down, silently, like the plaintive journey of a flightless bird. It stuck in the railings of someone else’s balcony, its pink-feathered arse sticking out ungraciously. His shelves were full of Lonely Planet guides to all the places I guess he’d been to, and maps and globes. The guy had vision and yet – still, with his action figurines – one foot in the past. The flat itself was always spotless. 

Again, what saddened me was the mark of boyhood, the Six Million Dollar Men. I imagined this immaculately suited, mid-forties executive: brisk, efficient, having an on-paper successful life, but a lonely one. 

Another guy rang me, frantic, with instructions to clean a very swish but messy flat in the City. It belonged to his father, and the son was recuperating there after a brief spell in hospital. In pride of place was an immaculately polished piano, which had belonged to his dead mother, a well respected concert pianist in her day. He had set up camp in his father’s room, still, touchingly, festooned with the deceased wife’s jewellery, old bottles of scent in dusty atomisers and at least a dozen old teddy bears, all lined up on the bed. The dad was obviously trying to freeze a moment in time. The son was more concerned about getting rid of the evidence of his messy stay. I cleaned solidly for five hours and made an executive decision to put the teddies in the closet, as they were dusting up the changed bedclothes. I got a text, all in capitals: “WHERE ARE THE BEARS? WE MUST HAVE THE BEARS.” It sounded like the title of a Suede song.

Then there are the young couples so very much in love. They leave love notes to each other. One has Post-It notes everywhere (“Don’t forget your lunch, sweetie”). In a former clean, there were lots of notes to “Babycakes”. I love these flats of love. You can feel it in the air, the limerence, the shiny newness of new love, before the rot sets in and it’s less about not forgetting a lovingly made lunch, more about whose turn is it to do the recycling.

 I despair of flats with no books in them at all. I take John Waters’ line on this: if you go to someone’s house and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em. I mean, I wouldn’t, anyway; nor them me. I am old. But cleaning in a bookless house is slightly soul-destroying. These are the work all day, work all night, make enough money for a deposit and holiday you can show off on Instagram, no-funsters. And they are dogged in their pursuit – to work as hard as possible, to buy maybe a bigger flat to put no books in.

Increasingly, my younger clients are also working out, or at least have the stuff to make their young, generally lithe and fit bodies more beautiful. Exercise gear, yoga mats and blocks, free weights, trainers, supplements, protein powders, gym schedules fixed to a notice board, lots of shake-mixers and juicers. There is simply no time to chew, from work to gym to shower to catch up on paperwork to Netflix, these whippersnappers are so driven, such slaves to the extortionate rents or mortgages they pay, that there is very little time to chew. I want to say to them, “Sod the report, go out, go down the front at a gig and dance your arse off.” Except we don’t have those kind of conversations. And besides, if they did all that stuff, as I did, they could retort, “And look where it got you. Hoovering up the dust balls under MY bed.”

My mother was very close to her cleaner in New York. She came in all the way from New ’ersey, her heavily accented New Yorkrican leading to some comical exchanges: “Missus Joyce, you must stop writing the cheques and give the cash so I can put it straight into my c–” My mother gasped before realising Betty, her treasure, was talking about an account.

They both had been ill with bouts of cancer, and looked after each other, Betty whipping up strange Puerto Rican purées, baby food for my mother’s then-cancer-ridden bowel. Betty died of hers, and my mother lost a good friend. I think she loved her.

I am not sure these types of relationships exist anymore. I like some clients more than others, but to be matey feels like breaking some unwritten rule. A beautiful jazz singer who I “do” for was having a hard time in her personal life. She looked distraught and I wanted to give her a hug, but it felt wrong. With my mother and Betty, just because money changed hands and virtually no cleaning got done, it didn’t mean it wasn’t a beneficial relationship for both. 

At a recent interview for a cleaning job, I was asked if I liked cleaning. I had to say that I did not have a passion for it, but that I did like being a cog in a wheel, that I liked – whatever chaos was going on, and there is always chaos – that there are fresh sheets on the bed, the loo is clean and the floors are clean enough to eat off of or shag on; only I couldn’t say that, for this cleaning interview was for a church.

I walked out of two marriages, one of which produced two lovely children. My own life was in chaos when I started cleaning. I think by trying to be East London’s good wife, I am trying to make order of other people’s lives, trying to be a good wife in general – even though I am a crap one, specifically. My own life is a work in progress – and, since you ask, my own flat is a tip. Who wants to clean when they come home from work? 

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