My loss, Galicia's gain: Cleanliness in her case was not just next to godliness, but a step ahead

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CARMEN, my cleaner for the past four years, has returned to Spain. It's the culmination of a 16-year dream for her, but it leaves me bereft. No one will have her demon hand with the bleach. No one will iron shirts as perfectly or as fast, or spin round the flat as cheerfully in order to make sure that nothing remained unpolished for the weekend. We parted with hugs and tears and the promise that I would visit her in Santiago de Compostela.

Hers is a 20th-century fable of effort and hardship and ultimate reward, worthy to stand beside that of the poor woodman's son who found fame and fortune with only his axe, his cat and his two strong arms. Carmen arrived to look for work in England with her husband, Emilio, in 1976. She was 18, he 20. They had grown up in the same small village in northern Spain. 'My family was poor,' Carmen always related proudly, 'but ours was the cleanest house in the village]' I bet it was. Cleanliness in her case was not just next to godliness, but a step ahead.

They had married when she was 15, he 16, and their first child was born a year later. The young parents - literate but otherwise uneducated and unskilled - came to this country in search of work, leaving the baby in the care of Carmen's mother. The address of a relative in London was their only anchor in an utterly foreign land.

For a dozen years they both worked day and night, seven days a week; saving, always saving. Carmen cleaned offices from 5-7am; then worked as a hotel chambermaid until noon. In the afternoons she would clean in private houses. After that she had a couple of spare hours for her own chores and shopping. In the evenings she would wash up or serve at table in the restaurants where her husband worked. He graduated from dishwasher to waiter, from waiter to cook, and eventually became manager. They were home by midnight, if they were lucky, and Carmen would be up again at dawn five days a week.

When their son was born five years later, Carmen took him, too, back to her mother. Every week they sent money home to pay for their children. Everything else was saved.

In time they rented their own flat: two rooms above a major intersection out of London. Six lanes of traffic roared past day and night. Carmen got used to the noise, she said, but not to the petrol fumes, which coated everything in oily grey dust and offended her immaculate standards of hygiene. But it was cheap.

Over the years they saved enough money to buy a house outside their village; then the land around it; then for water to be piped to the house. They acquired furniture and, finally, a car. Carmen - though not her husband - started to spend a month in Spain every summer. She would buy presents for every member of what seemed to be a huge extended family; exquisite baby clothes for the newest arrival; crisp, pretty dresses for her nieces and expensive trainers for the nephews.

Eventually, she brought the children to England. The boy was nine; his sister 15. 'My daughter, she get to be a big girl. She need her Mummy.' The clever Maria-Carmen was not to be allowed to marry young. Her mother kept potential boyfriends at bay to give Maria time to pass exams; go to college; be qualified. Carmen made sure both children spoke decent English. 'In my jobs,' she explained, in an accent it took me months to decipher, 'I only work with foreign peoples. How to learn English?' She did, though: in particular, she could curse with startling filth and fluency, which gave me an insight into the people among whom she worked.

A couple of months ago, Emilio returned to Santiago to look for a restaurant they might buy and run. Within a week he had found the ideal place. 'Costs three million pesetas,' she told me, 'and we pay rent. But we will do good business, and save, and soon all be ours]'

Between them, Carmen and her husband must have saved at least pounds 50,000 in 16 years. Before she left, I asked why they had come to England to work. 'Or we come, or we starve. In Spain then, was no work.' What did she think of the English now? 'Most people are good, kind, polite. But some . . .' her abuse was colourful and explicit.

Over the last few years she has cleaned for the same five or six households twice a week. I am certain she left their houses as immaculate as she invariably left mine. Three of her employers arranged to be out on her final day, so as not to have to say goodbye, or give her a farewell present.