Jess was lugging the vacuum cleaner along the hall when the front door opened. Mrs Ritter called up the stairs, ‘Is that you, girls?’
She was the kind of woman to whom all women, even those collecting their pensions, were ‘girls’. ‘I had the best girls’ night out on Saturday,’ she would say, her eyes rolling with mischief. Or, ‘So off I went, to the little girls’ room …’ but they liked her. She was always cheerful, and wore her money lightly. And she never treated them like cleaners.
Nathalie and Jess exchanged looks. It had been a long morning, they’d done two ovens already (what kind of people roasted pork on holiday?), and Mrs Humphrey’s tea tended to be the colour and consistency of stair varnish.
Ten minutes later they were sitting round the kitchen table, while Lisa Ritter pushed a plate of biscuits towards them. ‘Go on, have one. If you eat them, I can’t be tempted.’ She squeezed a non-existent roll of fat over her waistband. Nathalie and Jess could never agree if she’d had work. She was the kind of woman who floated somewhere in the carefully maintained hinterlands between forty and sixty-something. Her tinted chestnut hair was set in soft waves, she played tennis three times a week, did Pilates with a private instructor, and Nathalie knew someone at the local salon, who said that she was waxed to within an inch of her life every four weeks.
‘How’s your Martin?’
‘Still alive. To the best of my knowledge,’ Natalie said.
‘Oh, yes.’ She nodded, remembering. ‘You did tell me. Finding himself, was it?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘You’d have thought he might have found himself by now. There was enough of him.’ Mrs Ritter paused, and gave Jess a conspiratorial smile. ‘Your little girl still got her head stuck in a maths book?’
‘Oh, they’re good children, yours. Some of these mothers round here, I swear they don’t know what their lot are doing from dawn till dusk. That Jason Fisher and his friends were throwing eggs at Dennis Grover’s windows the other day. Eggs!’ It was hard to tell from her voice whether she was more shocked at the act of aggression or the waste of good food.
She was in the middle of a story about her manicurist and a small, incontinent dog, breaking off repeatedly as she was overcome with laughter, when Nathalie held up her phone. ‘Mrs Humphrey’s tried to call,’ she said, pushing back her chair. ‘We’d better get off.’ She slid off the stool and made her way out to the hallway to fetch the cleaning crate.
‘Well, the place looks lovely. Thank you both so much.’ Mrs Ritter reached up a hand and patted her hair into place, briefly lost in thought. ‘Oh, before you go, Jess, you wouldn’t give me a hand with something, would you?’
Most of the clients knew Jess was good at practical things. There was barely a day where somebody didn’t want help with some grouting, or picture-hanging, jobs they swore would only take five minutes. Jess didn’t mind. ‘If it’s a big job though I may need to come back,’ she said. And charge, she added silently.
‘Oh, no,’ Lisa Ritter said, walking towards the back door. ‘I just need someone to help me with my suitcase. I cricked my back on the plane, and I need someone to get it up the steps for me.’
‘I went to see my sister in Mallorca. Well, now the children are at uni, I’ve got all this time to myself, haven’t I? I thought it would be nice to have a few days’ mini-break. I left Simon to it, bless him.’
‘So when did you get back?’
She looked at Jess blankly. ‘You saw me! Just now!’
It took a couple of seconds to hit. And it was a good job that she was already headed outside into the sun because Jess felt the colour actually drain from her face.
That was the problem with cleaning. It was a good job on the one hand – if you didn’t mind other people’s stains and pulling lumps of hair out of other people’s plugholes (she didn’t, funnily enough). Jess didn’t even mind that most of those who rented holiday homes seemed to feel obliged to live like pigs for a week, leaving mess they wouldn’t sit in at home because they knew there was a cleaner coming. You could work for yourself, organise your own hours, pick and choose your clients when times were good.
The downside, weirdly, was not the crappy clients (and there always was at least one crappy client), or the dirt, or that scrubbing someone else’s toilet somehow left you feeling like you were one step lower on a ladder than you had planned to be. It wasn’t even the constant threat from other companies, the leaflets through your clients’ doors and the promises of cheaper by the hour. It was that you ended up finding out much more about other people’s lives than you really wanted to.
Jess could have told you about Mrs Eldridge’s secret shopping habit: the designer-shoe receipts she stuffed into the bathroom bin, and the bags of unworn clothes in her wardrobe, the tags still firmly attached. She could tell you that Lena Thompson had been trying for a baby for four years, and used two pregnancy tests a month (rumour had it she left her tights on). She could tell you that Mr Mitchell in the big house behind the church earned a six-figure salary (he left his payslips on the hall table; Nathalie swore he did it deliberately) and that his daughter smoked secretly in the bathroom and lined up all her cigarette butts in neat rows on the window ledge.
If she was that way inclined, she could have pointed out the women who went out looking immaculate, hair faultless, nails polished, lightly spritzed with expensive scent, who thought nothing of leaving soiled knickers in full view on the floor, or the teenage boys whose stiff towels she didn’t want to pick up without a pair of tongs. There were the couples who spent every night in separate beds, the wives insisting brightly when they asked her to change the spare-room sheets that they’d had an ‘awful lot of guests lately’, the lavatories that required a gas mask and a HAZCHEM warning.