The Cleaner - by Jane Seaford

Jane Seaford

One

Lucy rang the front doorbell and heard its mournful sound coming from way back inside the house. She waited. No one came. She took the little notebook from her pocket where she recorded details of the jobs she’d been given. She turned to check the page for the day. This was the place she’d been assigned; this the date and time. She looked up at the height of the three story terraced house: dirty London brick;  a bay window on the ground floor, another above it, a crack in one of its panes; paint flaking off the woodwork that had once been white; a piece of guttering dangling loose. She rang the bell again and turned to face the street lined with parked cars and lime trees planted at regular intervals; their leaves dusty, their roots pushing up the pavement tiles. A small wind gusted and a plastic bag bumped up the path of the neglected front garden. Dead geraniums sat in pots on the ground floor window ledge. One of the two dustbins was lying on its side. Normally the places where Lucy worked were well-kept houses in smart suburbs, the owners glossy and patronising.
     The door opened as she reached the gate, about to leave.
     ‘Yes?’ said the woman standing in the hallway, leaning on a stick. Her hair, her face, her clothes were grey. Her shoes were big, bright red and very old; the leather cracked and in need of polishing.
     ‘I’m Lucy. Come for the day. To clean your house. And whatever else you –’
     ‘Ah. Yes.’ The woman pushed her head forward, peering out. ‘You don’t look old enough.’ She spoke with a slight accent. Maybe German.
     ‘I’m nineteen,’ Lucy said. Perhaps it had been a mistake to make two plaits out of her long blond hair.
     ‘Thirteen! Goodness you are young to be working. My name is Mrs Gordon. Thirteen, my, my.’
     ‘Nineteen,’ Lucy said. But Mrs Gordon had turned and was walking back up the hallway. Lucy stepped inside, closed the door and followed the woman as she shuffled through to the back of the house, puffing heavily as she sat at the table that was in the centre of the room.
     Lucy stood, clasping her hands in front of her. The place was dark and smelled of damp and cooked meat. It was cold, too.
     When Mrs Gordon said nothing Lucy asked, ‘What would you like me to do?’
     ‘Clean the place,’ the old woman answered. She snorted. ‘That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’
     ‘Yes. Um. Where shall I start? Where are the cleaning things? The hoover…’
     ‘I thought you were professional and would know what to do. Everything is where it should be, under the sink. Except for the broom and the hoover, which are, as you would have found out soon enough, in the tall cupboard in the kitchen.’ Mrs Gordon looked at her watch. ‘It’s already 9:15 and I asked for 8 hours work. You can have two fifteen minute coffee breaks and half an hour for lunch. So I expect you to be here until 6:15 or I can’t pay for a full day.’
     ‘Fine,’ Lucy said. She’d been a cleaner for over a month now, working for a man called Julian. Every Friday afternoon, after she’d finished her last job, they met to settle up. Usually there were one or two others he dealt with before it was her turn. He took the money she’d been paid by the clients and gave some back as wages together with a list of assignments for the following week. Lucy walked past Mrs Gordon and pushed open a door that she assumed would lead into the kitchen. It did and she felt a small moment of triumph.
     She was finishing the bathroom when she heard the sound of feet on the stairs. One step, the click of the stick, a pause, another step. She imagined the red shoes bringing the old woman to her. She emptied the bucket of dirty water down the lavatory and pulled the flush. Mrs Gordon reached the landing and stopped, breathing heavily.
     ‘I am coming to inspect,’ she said and started moving again. Lucy moved out of the bathroom. The old woman stood in the doorway, her mouth pursed.
     ‘Not good enough. It will have to be done again.’ Lucy frowned. ‘I will stay and check you this time.’ Lucy shrugged. She would have liked to have looked at her watch to see how long she’d been here but that might antagonise Mrs Gordon.
     ‘Right,’ Lucy said. She took a cloth and a bottle of bathroom cleaner and started on the bath. She scrubbed and rubbed, taking care with the plug hole, the overflow drain and the taps. She rinsed and polished, she knelt and dealt with the tiles on the side of the tub.
     ‘Very good,’ Mrs Gordon said. She was wobbling slightly as she leaned with two hands on her stick. This second scrubbing was no better than the previous one but Lucy didn’t say this; she smiled and continued on: the lavatory, the basin, the walls, the cupboard doors. Finally she swept and washed the already spotless floor.
     ‘Why couldn’t you have done that the first time? Now I’m going to make you coffee. You can start my bedroom – the one at the front – and come down in ten minutes.’
     The front bedroom was crowded with dark heavily-carved furniture. There was a cream satin eiderdown on the bed and a pile of pillows covered in the same material with wide frills. Delicate china figurines in pale colours were everywhere, some of them chipped, and on the dressing table ivory-backed brushes and cut-glass pots with stained and mottled silver tops. The room smelled of powder, mould and stale flesh. Lucy opened the window and set to work. Before she went down for her break, she collected the pot tops and took them with her.
     Mrs Gordon was again sitting at the table in the back room. There was a fresh yeasty smell combined with that of coffee.
     ‘Come,’ the old woman said and indicated a tray on which she’d put a cafetière, milk jug, sugar bowl, two large cups and saucers and a plate of bread rolls. 
     ‘Have you Silvo?’ Lucy asked as she placed the pot tops gently down on the table.
     ‘Good girl. You are coming on. You are noticing what needs doing. The Silvo is also under the sink.’ Mrs Gordon nodded as if with pleasure. ‘Please, now, will you do the pouring?’
     The coffee was just right and as she bit into a roll, Lucy found that it was sweet and spicy, light and delicious. Mrs Gordon was smiling at her.
     ‘Thank you,’ Lucy said.
     ‘I can still cook. What I can’t do is get around and clean everywhere. Make sure you go under the bed thoroughly,’ Mrs Gordon said.
     ‘Yes,’ Lucy said. If the old woman went on like this, it would take days to finish the house.
     ‘I am dying, by the way,’ Mrs Gordon said. She was staring at Lucy, blinking quickly. Lucy saw that her eyes were big and, in spite of her age, a dark and penetrating blue. Her eyelids were like mauve butterflies.
     ‘Ah,’ said Lucy. She shivered and took another bite of the sweet bread roll.
     ‘Yes,’ Mrs Gordon nodded, agreeing with what she was about to say. ‘So sad.’
     Lucy examined her feelings, searching for compassion. She found none. Did she care that this old woman was dying?
     ‘That is why you are here. I don’t want to leave this house in a mess for my son.’ She paused. ‘He lives in America now.’
     ‘Well,’ Lucy said. She should be getting back to work.
     ‘Of course he is a good son. Very kind to me. Writes often. At least once a month. He paid for me to go and see him. After his first child was born. When you clean the drawing room you will see the photos of Eric, my son and his three boys, Anthony is fifteen now, then there is James, nearly twelve and the baby, Benjie. He came late, is not yet five.’ Mrs Gordon was smiling. But her eyes were watery and Lucy turned away not wanting to see the sadness, not wanting to be affected by it. ‘Also are photos of my husband, George, who died, and our daughter. Amelia she was called.’
     After she’d finished the front bedroom, Lucy decided to deal with the top floor. Here there were three rooms and a lavatory. She went into the first room, which contained nothing but a single bed. In the second room were two metal open trunks with all sorts of bits and pieces spilling out of them: old clothes, an ancient hairdryer, some silver spoons tied with a ribbon, a pink and white apron with a ruffled bib. There was a pile of tablecloths and napkins on the bed; some embroidered, others edged with lace. The third room was full of overflowing bags and stacked boxes, one had fallen on its side and there was a broken teapot by it.
     Later, when she had scrubbed the lavatory, Lucy heard Mrs Gordon climbing the stairs to the first floor, and she waited on the landing, peering down. Mrs Gordon went into her bedroom and Lucy carried on with her cleaning, waiting for the old woman to say that she’d not done it right, and she must come down and be watched as she did it again.
     Instead the call came, ‘You have done a great job with my bedroom. You must come down now for lunch.’
     Mrs Gordon had scrambled eggs. They sat creamily on toast, arranged with a grilled tomato and a few mushrooms garnished with parsley. On another plate was a slice of buttered bread with a triangle of soft cheese and in a little bowl, a banana and a tangerine. Fresh coffee was in the cafetière.
     ‘Sit, eat. A girl so young must have a good lunch.’
     ‘What about you?’ Lucy asked. None of her other clients had cooked for her. Some didn’t even offer a hot drink.
     ‘Me? I already had something. A little sandwich. With jam. I can’t take in much anymore. Even coffee I am not really supposed to have. Now that I am dying.’ 
     ‘Ah,’ Lucy said. She was supposed to ask the old woman about her illness. But. She didn’t want to know.
     ‘Well, Lulu,’ said Mrs Gordon. Leaning forward, her hand on her cup. ‘I think one day is not enough. I think you will need to come back maybe three times more to get the house ready for Eric when I’m dead.’      
     ‘What about your daughter?’ Lucy asked and immediately regretted the question.
     ‘Amelia. Yes.’ Mrs Gordon said. ‘Her father adored her. Adored her. After she’d gone, he couldn’t bear to live anymore. He left Eric and me to look after each other. Hm.’ She paused, staring into the distance. She sipped her coffee, winced as if in pain. ‘You know, Lulu, even with Eric, I was very alone.’
     ‘Lucy,’ Lucy said.
     ‘Yes, Lucy. Alone. I don’t think the young today know about being alone. When I first came to England I was alone. I was eighteen. It was the year Elizabeth was crowned. George brought me here. He fell in love with me – I was beautiful then, full of life and colour – and I came with him to where he lived. I spoke hardly any English. It was hard to make friends. In the evenings there was my husband and I loved to cook for him. Then the children came but always I was the outsider. Always. You wouldn’t understand.’ Mrs Gordon leaned back. Once more she stared into the distance.
     I do know, Lucy almost said. I know how hard it is to be an outsider. She swallowed the last of the banana, wanting to go back to the cleaning, push the memories back into the hidden places where she normally kept them.

***

Lucy knew the routine now. She’d done it often before. Each time they moved to a new place there was also a new school. When her father was working abroad, it had been a boarding school. This time it was a girls’ day school. It was best when you started in September then there were other new children. But it was the beginning of the summer term and Lucy was the only one. In her class at least. They had bought the new uniform, she and Meg who she was supposed to call Mother and couldn’t. Meg ticked things of the list while she talked in that bright silly voice that she only used with Lucy.
     ‘Such a lucky girl, and she doesn’t appreciate it,’ Meg said once to Lucy’s father, talking about Lucy, who’d known that she was being discussed but not what Meg meant. Once Meg had been pregnant but she’d gone into hospital and came back without a baby. She had cried so much it made Lucy feel sick and Meg had been meaner than ever. But not when Dad was around.
     When Lucy was a very little girl Meg had said, ‘Your father is an important man and doesn’t want to be burdened with your troubles.’ This was before Dad married her.
     Now Lucy was eleven and being introduced to her new class by the form teacher, Miss Pollock, who had short hair and a long scrawny neck. She wore big glasses and a shirt and tie like a man. But you could see her bosoms. There were thirty-one pairs of eyes staring at Lucy before Miss Pollock told her to sit down and showed her the desk she was to share with a girl who had blonde hair like Lucy’s but almost black eyebrows. Her name was Sheila and she didn’t smile back when Lucy smiled at her. Everyone was older than her. Once she had been put with girls her own age but she had already learned what they were learning and was moved up a class and then another.
     ‘I’d rather be pretty than clever,’ Lucy had once heard Meg say to a group of her friends who had come to have tea. Lucy can still hear the thin chink of the china cups and the tutting voices of the women as if they were criticising her. 
     Miss Pollock was the form teacher and after she’d introduced Lucy, she welcomed the others back to school, passed around the timetable for the term. The bell went, lessons began for the day, Miss Pollock left and another teacher came in who was to take them for English.
     In the classroom, Lucy didn’t put up her hand when she knew the answers but she got good marks – she couldn’t help it – and the others made faces when the teachers praised her. It was all right; the learning part, the homework, writing compositions and doing tests. It was the breaks that were the trouble. Walking about the school grounds as if she had chosen to be on her own. Turning away when she saw a teacher she liked in case they noticed she had no friends. When Sheila told her she smelled and made the others laugh, Lucy didn’t say anything. She knew she didn’t. Sheila did. None of the girls liked Sheila much, but they liked Lucy less. Sitting at her desk, looking at the blackboard, Lucy felt she knew what each one of her classmates was doing and thinking. Sometimes she thought of her real mother who she hadn’t been able to keep. She remembered her saying to Dad, ’Lucy is like a snail without a shell. How will she cope when I am gone?’ Then she cried and so had Dad; Lucy stored the words away and brought them out sometimes to consider.

***

‘I’ll go and continue with the top floor now.’ Lucy stood up.
     Mrs Gordon nodded. ‘I am sorry if I was rude to you earlier. I… have learnt to protect myself.’
     ‘It’s OK,’ Lucy said not wanting the old woman to let anything else spill out. Before she left that day she cleaned the silver pot tops and took them back up to the bedroom. When she came downstairs, Mrs Gordon gave her some extra money and asked her to come back the next week.
     ‘You need to finalise it with Julian, but I will mark it in my book,’ Lucy said.
     ‘And the week after. Every Wednesday until… until it’s all done, perhaps?’

Two

‘Hello Lulu,’ Mrs Gordon said, opening the door to Lucy. This time she’d answered the bell the first time it rang. She looked less grey and was wearing different clothes. But still the red shoes. Lucy would like to take them off the old woman’s feet and make them shine.
     ‘Do you have any red polish?’ Lucy asked when they were having their coffee. Mrs Gordon had made pastries filled with apricot jam.
     ‘Why should I have red polish?’
     ‘For your shoes.’
     ‘Ah. My shoes. For my protesting shoes.’ Mrs Gordon laughed. She opened her mouth as if to explain, but instead she said, ‘Time to get back to work, I think, I will come with you. We will sort all my things on the top floor. Some of it we will keep, some of it you will take to the charity shops. The curtains must come down and go to the dry cleaners. Ahhh… Such a big house, so many years of my life stored in bags and boxes.’
     They started in the room with the over-laden trunks. Mrs Gordon made a space on the bed and sat while Lucy sorted. She found evening gowns with low necks and wide skirts, sets of soft silk underwear, a dozen or more men’s shirts in loud colours, a man’s checked suit, smoothly folded bed linen that looked unused, huge thick towels, kitchen and tableware that had been fashionable in the fifties and sixties. Mrs Gordon’s legs didn’t reach the ground; she swung them back and forth till the red shoes fell off revealing knobbly, bunioned feet. She made a decision on each item as Lucy unpacked the trunks.
     ‘This house. George wanted it. He wanted a big house. He wanted more children… ‘ Mrs Gordon paused. ‘I did not,’ she said eventually. ‘He wanted to live in Hampstead but… not enough money. I didn’t mind because I didn’t want to be here at all. I am not yet seventy, you know, Lulu, these days too young to die. I don’t feel old, just ill and… worn through with being on the outside.’  
     For lunch Mrs Gordon made a wonderful soup, warm, spicy and full of vegetable flavour. And there was a square of blue cheese, triangles of toast, the banana and the tangerine.
     ‘You know. Lulu, maybe you should call me Amy. Really I am more Amy than Mrs Gordon.’ She sipped her coffee, made a face as if of pain.
     ‘Are you all right?’ Lucy asked.
     ‘Of course not. I’ve not been all right for a long time. Perhaps for ever. It gets no better, life. No better at all. I thought it was hard once but then it got worse. And worse. And worser still. I think I am a bad person. I’ve done very bad things. So bad. Each time I am punished. After Amelia. After George. I thought there would be people wanting to be with me. Do you know what it’s like to make a feast and no one comes to share it?’
     She did, Lucy thought. Oh she did. She bent her head, dipped the spoon into her bowl, moved it to her mouth, felt the soup warm and thick against her tongue and wanted to cry. Wanted to stretch her arms along the table and sob. She was hurting. The old woman – Amy – was making her head hurt and she didn’t know quite why. Her sorrow is not mine, Lucy thought but more pain came, sharp as cold metal pressed against her side. Before she could stop herself she gasped and dropped her spoon.
     ‘You are understanding what it is like to be me,’ Amy said.
     ‘No,’ Lucy said. ‘No, no. Not at all.’ She picked up the spoon and carried on eating.

***

Meg said that she could have a party for her sixteenth birthday. She told Lucy as if she were giving her something precious.
     ‘I… don’t… want one,’ Lucy said. Afraid.
     ‘Of course you do. All girls like parties.’
     Lucy swallowed. She wondered who she could invite. She agreed with Meg’s ideas for the food, the fruit punch with ‘just a touch of rum’ added. She gritted her teeth and smiled when Meg said, ’So exciting! It’ll be a wonderful evening.’
     When, the Friday before the party, Lucy came back from school to find that Meg had bought her a blue taffeta dress with wide swinging skirts and a big sash, Lucy told her she would not, could not wear it; it was not what girls wore these days, it was babyish. She was in her room doing homework when she heard her father arriving home from work. Meg greeted him, and then her voice rose in complaint. The door of the living room banged shut and still Meg’s voice came, high and shrill.
      At supper her father said, ‘Meg says you’ve been rude when she’s been kind enough to buy you expensive clothes. Please apologise.’ Lucy mumbled sorry. She looked down, a lump in her throat, unable to eat the fatty lamb chop on her plate. ‘Remember, your mother has a wonderful dress sense, and you have not yet developed one.’ Her father leaned across and patted her shoulder, smiling. He started to eat. ‘Delicious, darling,’ he said to Meg.
     It happened as Lucy knew it would. Only two of the girls from school came and they stood in a corner, whispering and giggling. They wore short skirts and tight tops. One had high-heeled sandals, the other big laced boots with thick soles. The other guests were the two boys from next door, both younger than Lucy, shy and spotty, and Meg’s niece and nephew. She’d also invited several of her friends’ children; three of them came as the evening was ending.
     ‘I don’t know what happened to the others,’ Meg said next day as she and Lucy dealt with the leftover food. She sighed. Even she couldn’t pretend the evening was a success. That day Lucy decided to leave home as soon as school was finished for the summer.

***

‘Ah well,’ Amy said. Lucy, peeling her tangerine, wondered what the older woman had been like at eighteen. Amy was a young girl’s name.
     ‘Maybe everything is my fault. Certainly I should not have married a man I could not love. I thought, even so, he could make me happy. Now. Wash the lunch dishes and then we will carry on taking my past to little pieces.’

Three

‘I forgot your polish,’ Lucy said drinking her morning coffee the following week.
     ‘Polish?’
     ‘For your shoes. To…make them better.’
     Amy stretched out her foot. ‘Perhaps you could polish me and make me better.’ She laughed. Lucy wondered if she really was dying. Maybe she’d said it for sympathy. By the door in a bin bag, ready to go to charity shop, were Amelia’s clothes. Beautiful smocked dresses, pairs of tiny soft leather shoes. As she handled them, Amy had sighed and wiped away a tear. But Lucy felt the grief was not quite real. Since she had spoken of her husband and the things he’d done to her, Lucy could not think of this woman as Mrs Gordon.
     ‘Ah, my dear Lulu I have done so many bad things. Very bad. Do you know I did not even tell my husband that probably Amelia was not his daughter? I let him fall in love with her even though she looked just like my lover. George adored her so much when she was born that there was no more room for me in his heart, or wherever it is that strong feeling lives. Maybe stomach. Or loins. All the time I was crying inside, sadder than ever. Not because of George. Of course not. Because my lover did not love me. Probably never had. Since I told him of the coming baby he…’ She sighed. ‘Do you know what it is to be abandoned by a lover when you are already lost and alone?’
     ‘Yes,’ Lucy said but so softly Amy probably hadn’t heard.
     ‘Of course not. You are so young. Only thirteen.’
     ‘Nineteen,’ Lucy said and in her mind she heard Simon promising her the moon, as they side by side staring at its pale light through the open window. Then he looked at her in that way; head on one side, smile not quite coming, eyes guarded, and told her that he loved her. But months later when he said he was leaving because, ‘It was only a passing interlude, for both of us, wasn’t it? Time to move on,’ he was looking at her in that very same way. Now she started to cry.
     ‘My life is sad, no?’ Amy asked. ‘You are a good girl to understand so well.’
     Lucy shook her head. She imagined one day living in a house like Amy’s, her life stored untidily in its rooms. She wondered if she’d get so far as to have a husband, a permanent home, children, memories of old lovers. It’s me I’m thinking about, she almost said.

***

After Simon left, her insides hurt with grief and she tried to understand why she wasn’t enough of a person to keep him. She told herself she was over the moon; over the moon, the sun and the stars. Over life, everything really. He’d promised her the moon. He’d promise her anything, anything while it was dark. Words, floating in the air, spoken at night… flown away by morning. He promised her stars and that they would twinkle for ever. But all he did was light a candle (cheap, white). She had found the candle and lit it again. Between her legs hot wax dripped. When the candle flickered and went out she knew she was on the edge of madness. She fell asleep wondering how long before she fell over this edge. It was what she deserved.

***

After morning coffee, Lucy took loaded bin bags to the nearest charity shop. Walking back to Amy’s house she felt so tired she considered not working that afternoon. She thought about Julian and the way he counted the money she gave him, licking his fingers and then counting again, flicking notes into a wedge to give back to her. He had greedy eyes and greedy hands.
     Amy was waiting and lunch was ready. When Lucy finished eating, she closed her eyes.
     ‘Now you must have a rest in my bed for a little while. All this work is not good for a person so young,’ Amy said.
     ‘Ah,’ said Lucy and for the first time felt a swell of sympathy for the older woman. More than sympathy. Almost love. Love for a mother. She imagined resting her head on Amy’s bosom, hands stroking her head. Once Amy had had a daughter: once Lucy had had a mother.

Four

The following morning Lucy bought red shoe polish ready for her next visit to Amy’s house. It would be her last full day.
     ‘We have done enough to settle my past, but I will miss you,’ Amy had said. So they arranged for Lucy to come for two hours every week.
     ‘No need to tell Julian. A private arrangement between us,’ Lucy said and Amy laughed.
     There was coffee ready when Amy let Lucy in and the same warm sweet rolls she’d had on her first day there.
     ‘We will start with refreshment. Maybe we won’t do too much today. I will talk to you. Tell you things that I want said,’ Amy said.
     ‘First, your shoes.’ Lucy took the polish out of her bag. She had also brought a cloth and a brush. She spread newspaper on the table. ‘Pass them to me,’ she said reaching out to Amy.
     ‘Ahh. Such a good girl.’ Amy smiled and did as Lucy had asked.
     ‘These are my protesting shoes. A little while after Amelia died I needed… I needed some colour in my life. It had all drained out of me. I went to the shops. I bought the shoes. I wore them home. My heart was still broken but there was a bit of brightness to make me see that I could go on. George. I should have hidden them from George. He… threw them in the dustbin. He said I was wicked to buy them so soon after Amelia. I told him that they were my protest against the way my life was turning. All he did was howl. Like a mad man. He was a mad man. I rescued my shoes but I could not rescue him. He took himself away from me a few days later. I wanted to wear the shoes when we buried him but I didn’t because of Eric. He was twelve years old then. He said that English people didn’t wear red to funerals. Even Eric thought I did not belonging here.’ Amy shook her head.
     Lucy rubbed polish onto the shoes. She brushed them to make them shine. She started again with the polish, the cloth and the brush. Then she did it for a third time. The shoes didn’t look new but almost. Lucy passed them to Amy who laughed and said, ‘You have made me happy. Truly.’
     That evening Lucy thought about Amy’s red shoes. This made her smile and filled her with hope and determination.