Rinse out that mop one last time. Put down the vacuum-cleaner skirting-board attachment. Britain’s army of cleaners are being sent back to work: and thank goodness for that.
Having to wash my own sheets, scrub my toilet and dust for cobwebs these past couple of months – things I’ve not done for 20 years – came as a bit of a shock. Who needs the gym?
Not that I ever underestimated the work my brilliant cleaner does – because I used to be one. It’s an experience I have never forgotten. When I became one half a lifetime ago, I stepped through the invisible glass floor that separates the professional classes from the rest.
It was in the deep recession of the early 1980s, and I was in a bad way. I’d just left my job as a graduate trainee in a top advertising agency, a world I loathed almost instantly, one that subjected me to Weinstein-levels of sexual harassment and robbed me of my confidence and any sense of who I was.
I had a handful of arty friends who were also working as cleaners, just as we worked as shop assistants, waiters, gardeners and carers, and it was not difficult to find employment. I found mine via the pages of The Lady. My first job was in Cheyne Row, Chelsea. working for Lady M.
“You don’t sound like a charlady,” she said, as soon as I opened my mouth. “How do I know you won’t run off with the family silver?”
However, she was desperate. I was handed an ancient Hoover and found a bucket and yellow dusters. I had brought my own Marigolds and a pack of Spontex sponges. Some furniture polish was rooted out, and a crusty bottle of Jif bathroom cleaner. For five hours, I toiled up and down the stairs. The Hoover was like a geriatric elephant, and its bag inflated with an ominous burning smell. I scrubbed, polished, wiped, dusted, emptied, tidied. Anyone can sweep round in a couple of hours and give the appearance of cleanliness but the real thing, which involves the inside ledge of toilets and kitchen bins and hoovering behind sofas and under beds, is hard work.
I soon learnt no matter what you do as a cleaner you are almost always found wanting. If you wipe down the skirting boards near the floor, you are taking too long, but if you don’t dust the tops of pictures you are slovenly. I raise my eyebrows when friends tell me their cleaner is “useless” because she (and it usually is a she) can’t keep their giant home sparkling clean with just two hours a week.
I’d done a top job for Lady M. Even so, she rang me a week later to shout: “You’ve broken my Hoover, you stupid girl. Don’t come back.” Not, I’d imagine, so different from the way many cleaners are still spoken to today.
But I found other employers: a mildly creepy hospital consultant, who began to proposition me; a former Deb of the Year whose focus was on my polishing her multitude of silver-framed photographs; an eccentric mother of four whose chaotic home in Fulham was my favourite because it was full of affection (“Thank God you’ve arrived to save us from our filth!” she remarked.) I would cycle to each one, and hope that they’d remembered to take out some cash. “Can I pay you next week?” they asked, gaily, unaware that for me the £20 was the difference between eating and not eating.
I was a cleaner for over a year, while writing my first novel, and it’s what has inspired the heroine of my new one The Golden Rule, whose heroine like myself is a graduate trainee in an advertising agency who becomes a cleaner is desperation. I stopped once I found work as a journalist and got a publisher, and was relieved to do this.
But, for the main part, I enjoyed the work: its physical exertions kept my mind free.
There were of course downsides. It was never pleasant being treated with so much suspicion: this was perhaps understandable, since, being the person changing your sheets, scrubbing your toilet and emptying your bins, you will know better than anyone how many times (if any) you have sex, whether you suffer from incontinence, what you drink, how badly brought up your kids are and whether you are in any financial trouble. Are those small piles of loose change left on top of dressers and mantelpieces a test of your honesty?
The worst thing was the assumption that, because you worked as cleaner, you must be stupid. I suspect this is one reason why so many British people resist doing such work and similar jobs in the service sector. Until you have been dismissed as stupid, you have no idea how horrible it feels, and how quickly you can come to believe this must be true.
A cleaner is not the luxury it once was. Students and flatmates club together for a few hours’ cleaning a week. Some take their cleaner for granted; some people, often women – since women are still expected to shoulder most of the housework – are embarrassed by the fact they have a cleaner. Yet unless you are able to do all your cleaning yourself, which many people can’t, someone has to shift that filth.
At a time when hygiene is at the forefront of our minds, cleaning is, we have all come to realise, vital work. It always was, even before the virus showed us that it might make the difference between life and death. It is the way we impose temporary order on disorder, protect ourselves and our families, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens in the simplest, most humble, most essential way.
My cleaner came back this week. I feel no guilt about employing her. Of course I continued to pay her full salary, on standing order, during lockdown, as I do all year round. I pay her holiday leave and sick leave – and I trust her completely.
I respect and understand what it is that cleaners do. I know mine is honest, reliable and too bright for this work. The people who go into battle against dirt, germs and chaos are essential, and heroic. If they’re not getting a Thursday evening round of applause, the least we can do is leave the correct money out for them.
Amanda Craig’s new novel, The Golden Rule, is published on July 2 by Little, Brown