Onion Skins and the Paranormal (or: A Short Stint as an Ethical Cleaner)

Note: I found this piece of writing in my folders and was quite excited because I never got around to writing Part 2 when I started it about four years ago. So now I’ll finish it at some point, but it might not turn out the way I originally intended.


I was secretly pretty happy about the fact that I was doing a cleaning job, and a Masters at the same time. Though I did neither particularly well, I liked the fact that telling people about it – if I got the tone right- made me sound serious and conscientious; the type of person who ended up quietly damaging their health permanently through overwork, but of whom people said, “She’s just so….inspirational. She just gets on with it and never whinges or complains.” Since this is not and has never been the case (I complain loudly at any given opportunity) I didn’t really tell too many people about the cleaning job at first, waiting instead to fine tune the aura of saintliness. Launching in with it too soon probably also would have spilled the truth; that it was actually a whole lot of fun. This would have reconfirmed the absolutely correct impression people have of me that I will avoid anything looking like genuinely hard work.

The cleaning firm was run by a bright, extremely tall and angular woman called Nettie, who dressed as if on route to a Cath Kidston catalogue shoot and whose pert, pretty range of multiple children (I never quite worked out how many, there were loads of them distributed throughout the house at different times) had names like Jemima and Albie. Jemima wore designer corduroy trousers at the age of two, and her bedroom was bigger than mine was at the time.

Nettie was an ex-banker, who went on maternity leave from an ethical banking firm and had an epiphany. She entered the world of cleaning- that is, paying other people to clean, while making money from it- when she found it impossible to get her own sink scrubbed by a firm that used sustainable, ethical, natural products. It was a sweet little revolution, and I couldn’t help being enthused along with her about the burgeoning success of the cleaning firm, even though I wasn’t passionate about the principles especially myself. I was at that point a student, pretty poor, and living with another guy in a messy stoner’s house. It was lucky if we had toilet roll in, let alone cleaning products; I was liable to wash my hands using dribbles of bathroom bleach squeezed from a bottle bought circa 1999 when I’d run out of hand soap. Both me and Jeff, my housemate, went for quantity over quality on every front (social and sexual activities included), using laundry detergent so cheap and toxic that even though I used it in increasingly ludicrous amounts, my clothes still smelled and felt like musty tea towels in a seaside youth hostel.

But people on the verge of making their dream come true are pretty much irresistible to be around and I got totally swept up in Nettie’s; commenting once that I, also, thought the scent of parsley in my toilet bowl would be “really refreshing.”

SpongeNettie grew her own herbs on windowsills and had a silent, numb husband called Charlie who eyed my breasts with mute interest as I hoisted his children into their prams. I never heard him say more than a sentence, even when I began cleaning Nettie and Charlie’s own house; he would arrive in the kitchen as I polished his taps, ask how I was, stand like a crash-test dummy listening to the answer, and then leave, commenting: “Well, I’d best sort that shutter out. Nettie will kill me otherwise.” He liked to give the impression (as so many men seem to when they have utterly forgotten what it’s like to be alone and unwanted) that the relationship he’d worked hard at, the partnership and love from which his family had sprung, was a constant battleground. This rather than what it seemed to me; a comfortable absence of any real drama.

Judging by the amount he looked down my top or at my behind when I was cleaning skirting boards, I imagined that Charlie really was happy in his marriage; I figured he would never have had the confidence to ogle me that openly, without also being certain that his wife wouldn’t flip out if I brought it up with her in the monthly chat about getting new detergent supplies. Given this, I quite enjoyed the creepy staring, telling myself “Hey, you’re the hot cleaner. A-ma-zing.”

Nettie interviewed me for the job in a family-run vegan café near her home, over ginger and Earl Grey-infused gluten-free muffins, as we struggled to hear each other over screaming babies. “I source the cleaning products from a woman in Glasgow,” Nettie told me. “She handmakes them in her garden shed, and she’s very careful about only using natural scents and colours.” You could tell this was true because the detergents all looked and smelled pretty appalling. I kept this opinion to myself, but seriously, green algae sink cleaner? The products came in twee bottles with a hand-drawn font and logo, designed to look like they’d come from the magic fountain pen of a happy flower fairy, who lived in a rose bush and had no interest in making money. I was given my own supplies, taught how to clean to Nettie’s standards, and then set loose on the houses of Nettie’s first few clients.

The first house I cleaned for Nettie was a shared house in a dank and grey part of town that always slightly reminded me of the streets you might see abandoned after the zombie apocalypse; full of overturned bins, weeds emerging from cracks in driveways, the occasional truly unexpected thing like a half-built puppet theatre or a surfboard perched in the gutter. The house had a landlord who had paid for Nettie’s expensive cleaning service; I speculated perhaps he was a Chinese zillionaire who had only seen carefully angled agency shots of the place that made it look like it was worth the investment.

I never saw one of the guys who lived in the house: I turned up, scrubbed their bath with a lemon-scented goo, wiped their surfaces with green algae and wrestled with their vacuum cleaner, then left the house as quiet and lonely as when I had arrived. It was an odd feeling to poke about in someone else’s bathroom and clear someone else’s many, many pubes from around the rim of their bath. Strangely, it was not unenjoyable, mainly because it allowed me to fine-tune my image as a cute cleaner who was…. so much more than just a cleaner. In my long, scrubbing reveries, I idly pictured the guys (THE GUYS) spraying themselves later that evening with Lynx, and gelling their hair in front of a vinegar-scented mirror (the vinegar was in fact effective). As they got ready for the night out, they’d say to each other, shouting between bedrooms and bathroom: “Man, this cleaner is really good. She hasn’t left, like, a single mark on this mirror. I wonder what she’s like?” Then one day I would bump into them; they would be off work for a day, and I would turn up and say “Don’t mind me!” (as I casually scrubbed their bathroom floor in a slightly coquettish manner, my hair falling casually from a messy ponytail). After wowing them all with my intellectual chat about American foreign policy and we bonded over our shared love of obscure radio podcasts, I’d glide out of their front door and out of their lives; leaving them staring after me, feeling curiously invigorated- no, inspired- by my personality and unique approach to life. They wouldn’t mention it to each other- of course not, they’re THE GUYS- but they’d all find themselves thinking about me on and off for the rest of the day. “That’s no ordinary cleaner,” they’d all be thinking. “That girl is…SOMETHING SPECIAL.”

[End of Part 1]

cleaning lady

I went to find a stock image of a cleaner to manipulate for a little cartoon, but then came across this, which is so arresting I need you all to see it in its original glory. W.T.F.


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