When people ask me: “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?” – oh ok, actually no one ever has. No one ever would, it’s a ludicrous idea, but let’s suspend disbelief for one moment and pretend they did. I would reply, “It’s no secret why I have a happy marriage (and by happy marriage I mean we are not divorced) it’s because of Stefka, the cleaner.”
The main reason we have a Stefka is that my husband is an uptight arse. He is off the scale of uptight arse-ness. For example, he thinks letters (bills) need to be opened straight away whereas I think they have to be left alone, to fester on various surfaces for a while. Only once they have become a familiar sight, do I feel able to attack them. I eat a lot of biscuits too and I think it’s my right to eat them anywhere. In bed, in the children’s beds, and most importantly over the computer keyboard. He thinks this is “messy” and he always knows I have been at the biscuits, even when I deny it, by the crumbs around my face. (I hate wiping my face because then my make-up will come off.) You can imagine how he felt having Dad to stay. My Dad makes Catweazel appear well-groomed. My Dad’s idea of washing up a cup is to add another tea-bag.
So husband and I are basically very incompatible. The first secret of a happy marriage is to marry someone compatible, so this is very bad news.
The second secret though, is that there are then several options. Give up now – (my usual preference), grind the other person down, (husband’s usual preference) or throw money at the problem (husband’s second preference)
Three years ago, we went the way of husband’s second preference.
Unlike most compromises, Stefka is fab. Once every two weeks, she does all the jobs in the house that I don’t like: short of opening the bills and wiping my face. Oh and she won’t fellate husband. Not for £8 an hour she won’t. But she will iron, dust, wipe and hoover. Husband is happy we don’t live in a, as he puts it, “a shit-hole”, and I am happy because, “what’s not to like?”
On the other hand, I don’t want people to think I’m completely lazy so I don’t actually tell anyone about the cleaner. To get round this, I say, “Oh Steff is over this morning,” and my friends are too well-mannered to ask, “Who’s that?” And if anyone comes over on a Wednesday afternoon after ‘Steff’ had visited, (and that is the only time I ask people around), and if they say, “Cor, it looks tidy here,” I say, “Oh really,” and wave my hand about a bit. “do you think so?”
Is that bad?
I think it is.
As for the fact that having a cleaner is a middle-class identifier. Bring it on. Just as many people feel like a slim woman trapped in a large body, I have always felt like a middle-class girl trapped in a working class world. When I was working at Romford market as a kid, I would dream I was at Mallory Towers: Am I going to object to a cleaner on class-grounds? Hell, no. I have already had to give up pilates so we can have her. I’m the kind of person who walks round Waitrose going: “yes, I’ve arrived,” even if I can only afford a tin of soup.
Stefka loves the children most of the time. She gets annoyed, disproportionately, when they swap clothes and toys. “It’s for GIRLS,” she says furiously to Arnie in a princess dress. “It’s not good for you.” When Mini plays with her cars, she whips them away into the toy box: “You want to hoover now, Mini?”*
And when Ray went to the woods on a school trip, she said, “It’s very good for him. How many weeks he stay there? He make his food in the wild?”"Um , no Stefka, just the morning. He’s got a packed lunch.”
Every other Wednesday night, me and husband hunker down in our gloriously tidy living room and he says, “What did Stefka say today?” And I repeat some funny little Stefka-ism. And we laugh and laugh: See, Stefka isn’t just cleaning the house: she bring us together in so many ways! She’s like a fairy godmother or a dating agency or something. Husband calls her Kafka and says that one day she will turn me into a giant cockroach.
When Stefka first came to us, she would bitch about the other people she worked for. There was the one who lived in the middle of nowhere who made her walk miles through the dark to get to her. There was the woman who wanted her immaculate house cleaned five times a week despite having no children to mess it up – yes really. There was the one who was always late back from the gym, leaving Stefka shivering at the front door.
Recently though, she seems to have ditched the rubbish families and only has “nice” ones left. She tells me about them: “Jane over-pays me. She insists I take the extra £20 every time.” Or “Louise gives me a lift. Even though it’s a fifty mile round trip, she does it.” Or “Mrs Brown made me dinner. She is a wonderful cooker.”
“Cook,” I say, mutinously, because one time, Stefka asked me to help her with her English. “Mrs Brown is quite a good cook.”
I’ve got a bad feeling that our cleaner is going to dump us. That, or she’s going to ask for a pay-rise. And then I panic, eat more biscuits, because there are three of us in this marriage and that’s they way we like it. Then I look for the number for Relate.
*If, like me, you think the secret to a happy childhood is to let boys and girls play with any toys they like and if you are unimpressed with the way some stores are marketing their toys along gender lines, then please support this brand new campaign.