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  • Jamie McCarthy

Going With My Mum To Her Cleaning Job.

21st October 2019.

My Mum had various jobs when I was little. The longest one was as a Nursing Assistant on nights (two or three nights a week) in a Psychiatric Hospital. (Odd fact: the town I grew up in had, for a while, the highest concentration of people in psychiatric hospitals in Europe). She was a dinner lady for a while at the infant school next to the secondary school that one of my sister’s went to and which was just across the road from us. (My sister reminds me that she was a dinner lady at our own school St. Joseph’s as well, although I’d forgotten that). I liked the dinner lady job, because sometimes Mum got to bring home left over puddings – like the time she brought back a whole tray of butterscotch tart and a kind of non-dairy cream that we all called ‘shaving cream’, which was my favourite school pudding.

Epsom, in Surrey, where I lived until I left home at nineteen is a quite a wealthy place, but of course, it also has pockets of less wealthy people: there was the Ebbisham Estate where we lived, some parts of the Wells Estate where my Auntie Chris, Uncle Bill and their family lived and the Longmead Estate, which was built much later … 60’s or 70’s I think. There were others, but those were the three that loomed large in my world as I was growing up.

Another job my Mum had was cleaning in the posh houses down Woodcote Side. I remember two people she cleaned for: Mrs. Shilston and Mrs Brown. I was the youngest and before I went to school, sometimes I ended having to go along with my Mum to her cleaning jobs. The houses were very different to ours. We had five children, two adults and occasional relatives over from Ireland living with us in a pretty small three-bedroom house. There wasn’t a lot of space, although we had a great garden at the front and the back of the house. The house was pretty much always noisy and full of people and at the times when it wasn’t, there was something about the house that still meant it felt really full of energy – lived-in I suppose.

I remember particularly going to Mrs. Shilston’s house. I didn’t like it. It felt unnaturally quiet and tidy. There were expensive-looking vases around on shiny tables. I felt uncomfortable being there – like I had to stay really, really still and not breathe too much in case I broke something. I think Mrs. Shilston had a husband and children, but I don’t remember them and I don’t remember having a sense of their presence. The house, with its polished wooden flooring and acres of space, felt like it was sort of empty, like it wasn’t meant for people to live in, but for people to look at.

I’m sure Mrs. Shilston must have said ‘hello’ to me when we arrived, but I don’t remember her engaging with me more than that. There wasn’t any sense that there was an interesting new little person in the house, just that my Mum had to get on with her job and that perhaps I was slightly inconvenient to that being achieved. Her ‘hello’ was polite, but even at that age I sensed it as being cold, distant. If it had been a working-class person’s house that we were in, although I wouldn’t necessarily be fussed over or ‘catered to’, looking back I think I always felt a sense of being acknowledged and there being a warmth and acceptance of my presence there. Perhaps there were other times when the Shilston’s house was full of life, but whenever I was there it felt like a mausoleum.

My Mum told me years later that she’d turned up late to one her cleaning jobs (I don’t know which one) because I’d been really sick and she had to take me for an emergency appointment to the doctor’s. She was half an hour late, but her boss docked all her pay for that day, despite the fact that Mum still did all the cleaning she was down to do. I’m sure she did it with a politely smiling, un lived-in expression though.

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