“The Cleaner” by Sharon Dempsey

Silvia sits on the back steps poking at the clogged head of the cleaning stick with her knitting needle. She feels pleased with herself for thinking to bring the needle with her. As usual, the machine is sucking up nothing at all, just blowing dust back at her. The rotating bristles are a mess of tangled hair, pieces of elastic, and dust. She dislodges a plastic brick toy, as yellow as an yolk. It scoots across the ground and lands in the groove of the paving.

When she first got the job Lara had introduced her to the contraption with a misplaced pride as if the cleaning stick would do the work for her, that really Silvia would have very little to do, just straightening up cushions and walking around with the stick in front of her. “Look, you don’t even need a lead, just click and go!” she had said as if she was sharing some miracle of the modern age. The cleaning stick would stand in its recharging bracket awaiting use but more often than not Silvia resorted to a brush and a pan to sweep up the crumbs of their life, lived beyond Silvia’s viewing.

She shook out the remaining dust and balls of hair, placed her knitting needle into the pocket of her apron—a present from Lara. “It’s Cath Kidston,” she’d said handing over the package at Christmas, clearly delighted with herself. Silvia had opened it and almost laughed at the garish polka dots dancing in front of her eyes but she wore it every day just as she knew Lara had intended her to do.

With the cleaning stick returned to its bracket, Silvia moved on to the kitchen. The large slab of pale grey polished granite, like a horizontal headstone, stretched out in front of her telling her what they had had for breakfast. Flakey crumbs of some sort pastry, one of those French ones he liked, and a half empty glass of orange juice sat beside the cereal bowls and the two empty coffee cups. The children’s uneaten cereal congealed into concrete barnacles on the sides of the bowls. She swept the dishes away to the sink and began to rinse them out. She hadn’t patience for the dishwasher, another modern miracle that failed to live up to its promise. Silvia couldn’t see the sense in using a machine that took longer to wash the crockery than she did.

She moved on to the front room where she wiped a damp dust cloth over the mantle piece. This room is north facing so it is always cooler, more so now that they have decorated it in shades of grey and white. Silvia thought white was white but apparently there are whole arrays of whites, pointed white, great white, white slipper, bone white. Lara had spent weeks deliberating over the exact shade settling at last on a shade called “clunch.” “It’s Farrow and Ball,” she said as if that explained everything. Silvia had wanted to tell her that she had seen the decorator mix it himself in the back of his van, that it couldn’t possibly be an exact match to the colour chart she carried with her everywhere, checking it in the light as it changed throughout the day. She said nothing in the end, happy to know that “clunch” was no more that off white.

Lara liked to read in the front room, she would sit with her folders of important pieces of paper, her glasses on the top of her head holding back her freshly washed blonde hair. She liked to remind Silvia that she worked for a charity, that she wasn’t really “a corporate suit,” that her work “mattered” and that it made her a better person. As far as Silvia could see she still had the same benefits of being a corporate suit. The car, the house, the clothes, the food, the holidays.

Lara also liked to tell Silvia that her job made her more empathetic, that she knew how Silvia felt. Silvia enjoyed that one, since she herself often didn’t know how she felt. Lara used words like “displaced,” “discrimination,” “rootless,” “immigrant” as if she could take one of her white sticky labels and plaster it straight on to Silvia’s head with the words “not from here” scrawled in her important handwriting.

Silvia would like to have the words, or to be more exact, the inclination, to explain that it wasn’t a cultural displacement she felt but one borne out of economics. Her place in the world was determined by money alone. She cared little for what anyone thought of her heritage. Pah! What is heritage worth if you have no money to feed your child?

Her child. Elena. Growing by the day. So many things she needed. Books, pencils, clothes for school, clothes for after school. Silvia tried to tell her how she had two dresses growing up and one of those she shared with her sister. The child’s shoulders would rise up in her anger, as if Silvia was trying to hold out on her. She didn’t see the cost of the things she so readily believed she needed.

The children of this household don’t know want nor need. For them it is all about have. Clothes packed off to charity shops before they are wore out, books lying unread, schools bags replaced just because a new school year comes around. Nothing is worn until it is too small, or threadbare, nothing falls apart through use. Things are bought to replace things that are acquired just because. Silvia had never known such senseless need before she had come to this country. Now she could see the same want fester in her daughter, this need to acquire.

But what to do?

It was as if in travelling all these miles they had replaced hope and longing for need and demand. But Silvia wasn’t going to give in to it. She could retain that bit of herself for as long as possible.

*

On Monday morning when Silvia put her key in the door she knew instantly all was not well. The silver jeep was still parked in the driveway. Lara was home which would mean one of two things.

Lara stood in the doorway of the cool grey front room. Her normal work uniform of smart, tailored trousers and her silk pale pink blouse, instantly told Silvia that the children were not ill so that ruled out the first option. Number two would not be good.

“We need to have a little chat.”

Silvia carried her shoulders back and walked past Lara into the front room. The sofa needed rearranging, the cushions had been squashed down and the curtain tie back wasn’t set just so as it should be. Someone had left a coffee cup on the side table and had failed to use a coaster. Silvia could feel her fingers itching to remove the offending cup and soothe away the ring of stain with a spray of polish and some rubbing.

The envelope sat on the coffee table like an unexploded mine. Harmless enough until tampered with.

“It appears that you have taken the liberty of using our home address in applying for Elena’s place at grammar school. Now I am sure you don’t need me to explain how wrong and inappropriate this is.

“The school places are fairly allocated on ability. If Elena’s scores are good enough she will get a place at a grammar school. I fail to see why you felt the need to be,” she paused for just a fraction, “dishonest.”

Of course she would fail to see why.

When Silvia had first asked Lara about the exam system she had been told how fair it was, that Elena would have the same opportunity to get into a good school as Lara’s own children. How the exam measured their intelligence and ability, not their background or family income. How fair it seemed when Lara had explained it. At first Silvia was relieved; living in rented accommodation in the wrong end of the city would not impeded Elena’s chances. It was moths later that it slowly appeared to her that the other children in Elena’s class had other advantages. Extra maths lessons after school, violin on Wednesdays, piano on Thursdays, a home tutor at weekends. But Elena was a bright girl, she worked hard and together they labored over the practice papers, totting up the totals and rejoicing when she scored high.

Plenty of her classmates would achieve the top scores too. Silvia worried about how they would designate the limited grammar school places. What harm would it do to give her the extra advantage of an address in a good area? Silvia spent nearly as much of her day in 93 Broomhill Gardens than she did in the terrace of Somerton Row.

Silvia had worked out the odds. If the letter had arrived during the week, Lara would have been none the wiser. Now it sat on the cherry wood coffee table, the envelope ripped along the top in one easy tear. The letter determining Elena’s future snug inside.

“I had no choice but to let the school know that you don’t live here. You must understand that propriety is everything in my job, I can’t be seen to be aiding and abetting a fraud.”

Her words jangled through Silvia’s head ricocheting from side to side like pinballs not knowing where to go.

“It’s a matter of fairness. Surely you can see that. What if one of my children or one of their friends lost out on their place to Elena?”

Silvia closed the moss-green door behind her with a final clunk. She made her way down the gravel driveway with her hand in her pocket grasping the envelope. Maybe one day Elena would have the nice house and the gravel driveway, a husband and two children. This new place they have found themselves in might give her those things and leave her wanting more.


Sharon Dempsey is a Belfast based writer of fiction and non-fiction books, with four health books published. She facilitates therapeutic creative writing classes for people affected by cancer and runs a creative writing group for young people, called Young Scribblers. Sharon studied Politics and English at Queen’s University and went on to City University to do a postgraduate diploma in journalism. Through the Arts Council NI’s Support for the Individual Artist Programme, Sharon was awarded funding, to be mentored by Irish crime writer Louise Phillips, while writing Little Bird, her first crime novel.


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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