She was shuffling around her apartment in her old gown, quite dishevelled like a bag lady who had given up on it all, but just trundled along like she had always done. Sheila was only in her 60’s, not that old for nowadays. But she had had too many of life’s blows and not enough people to love and care for her. She thought her days were coming to an end now. The plastic bags she stuffed under the sink had brought the plumber in now. Her landlady had insisted when she realised the scraps and remnants of food were really swimming on the kitchen floor due to the broken sink.

Sheila just kept everything. She said she was into recycling but it was well beyond all that. It was obsession and hoarding. She said she had lots of things to do with her empty tubs of aspartame sugar sweetener. When we came in to clean up we couldn’t imagine what she’d do with 50 of the wretched things. She wouldn’t put them out with the recycling bin. She insisted she needed them.  We later found them hidden in all sorts of places: cupboards, in odd socks and shoes and behind the piano. She kept her money and cheque books in them. If ever there was a safe place it was inside one of those miserable little aspartame sweetener tubs she tended to continually repeat. Perhaps she’d make her coffin out of the rest of them we used to giggle behind the settee. But it wasn’t really funny. Sheila was wasting away and we couldn’t even start to talk about anything healthy. She just didn’t want to know.

I told Geraldine we should mop up the kitchen floor before the plumber arrived. It was likely he would slip or get disgruntled about the whole job. As the ‘Cleaning Fairies’ we would have done this anyway. She liked our company name, it somehow made the whole thing a bit more magical for her. But we weren’t really magical at all. It was just a marketing ploy, like the Aspartame sweetener which claimed to be a help to dietary control. She thought it meant you could eat as much of the sickly stuff as you liked but not put on any weight. We didn’t tell her about the dangers of Aspartame. She didn’t like people telling her what to do.

‘Sheila, where’s the mop for the kitchen floor please?’ She handed me a pair of black and silver sparkly trousers, ‘No, the mop to clean the floor please!’ I shouted a bit, so as she could hear me properly. Maybe I spoke with a bit of a muffled voice sometimes, just lack of confidence really. I wasn’t expecting her irritated reply though. ‘Just mop it up with these. Don’t bother with the mop! They’re old ones.’

‘But…’ She almost scowled at me and I could see it was no use arguing with her over any logic of the whole situation.

Geraldine filled the bucket with our eco-cleaning liquid and I squirmed awkwardly with the thought of using these lovely trousers on the dirty, wet floor. They were flared at the bottom and had gold sequins all the way up the outside. I could imagine Sheila dancing away in them to John Travolta in the 70’s. They were those kind of things. But hey, John, they’re on the soggy wet kitchen floor now! Maybe there was some metaphorical meaning to that.

Geraldine beckoned me quickly to the pokey little little living room with sheepskin rugs all over the floor and walls. Stacked on shelves and behind the doors were mountains of portraits, all self portraits it seemed and figures dancing – they were self portraits too. Shirley was in the bathroom and we sneaked a preview of it. Maybe she had been a dancer. There were pictures of her twirling and leaping, arms thrown up in the air and being caught by some typical princely looking man. We looked at them in awe and wonder and couldn’t quite relate the shabby bag type woman shuffling about in her dressing gown now.

The bathroom door opened suddenly, ‘Have you mopped it up yet fairies?’

‘Sorry Sheila, we were just admiring these paintings. Did you do them?’

‘They’re all me, when I was young. No good at painting any more, never was a good painter. Better at dance but not that good. Not good at anything much. Put them away and get on with the mopping. No point staring at the past. It’s all gone now. Gone away for good. Forget it and mop the floor will you?’

We did as she said but I was deeply curious about her past life as a young dancer and artist and wanted to know more, maybe for myself. Maybe because I’d always wanted to do more with my own life, more than just being a fake fairy cleaner. But it had never quite happened. Yet I had more life left in me than she did. I had a future, she didn’t much. She may live another 10 or 15 years yet, but with her dodgy bones, arthritis and whatever else she had I doubted she would be able to do a lot really.

She was on the phone calling the plumber and Geraldine was madly scrubbing the floor with the seventies sparkly trousers. There were other garments lying about the kitchen floor: jumpers, odd socks, underwear and t-shirts. All of these were part of her system for drying the floor. I opened a cupboard in search of a decent drying cloth. I wish I hadn’t. A whole pile of those annoying Aspartame sweetener tubs fell out, some stuffed with twenty pound notes, others with buttons, sweets and marbles. It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The marbles crashed to the floor, some falling in the bucket of frothy water. ‘Oh my god Susan, what are you doing? Clear it up quickly!’

I found the sticky, sickly looking dustpan with no brush and searched endlessly through the mounds of carrier bags, Aspartame tubs and plastic bottles piled high to the ceiling, until I found the broom. I threw the whole lot in the bin and hoped she wouldn’t notice. How could she? There was enough stuff in this kitchen that you wouldn’t notice a thing if something went missing. I saw Geraldine eyeing up the twenty pound notes. ‘She wouldn’t notice if one of those went missing,’ she whispered across the room. ‘Stop it Geraldine! We’re not thieves and I don’t want this business turning into a dishonest one.’

I decided to sack Geraldine that very day, not because I was the boss, but I wouldn’t work with anyone with such a dishonest attitude. It worried me what else she might get up to. It could be the ruin of us. I liked this Sheila and wanted to get to know her more. Maybe she still played with her marbles but I doubted it. Anyway, I’d wait for the right opportunity to talk to Geraldine and make a break away from her. She was hardly a fairy was she?

Sheila had only called us because of the plumber and sink issue. Basically the kitchen was flooded. She didn’t think she needed cleaners but I could see that she did. Cupboards were full of cups and saucers, milk jugs, a collection of china teapots, sugar bowls and lacy cotton serviettes. It looked like she was the lady of a manor from all this. There were Wedgewood china plates and bowls all stacked up next to the Aspartame tubs, packets of tulip and lilac bulbs unopened in this high rise flat in the middle of a London suburb. Amidst these delicate items I could hear the roar of traffic racing in the busy street below. She’d tried to shut it out with her classical music and radio 4 plays. But it was a severe nuisance for her. She blocked out most sounds with her deafness. Sometimes she just seemed to take her deaf aids out and sit staring at her pot of flowers. I glanced at her now and then through the crack in the kitchen door while trying to get on with the messy job of cleaning her up as well as her kitchen floor.

It seemed as if that was the case. Whenever we did cleaning for anyone there was always an element of helping them clean up themselves as well as their homes. For us, it was a satisfying job. We came into a mess and cleared it all up so it was sparkly and bright. We took our eco-cleaning products too so that brought in a brighter and cleaner energy. I was really into energy and how physical cleaning was also energetic cleaning, like Feng Shui. I studied that at college and it really did work. So you see, I tried to implement it a bit in my work. Always trying to find a new way forwards for people, so they could remove blocks from their lives and move on. This Sheila needed some severe help, I could see that.

(notes: bottle of cider by bed, washing feet, throwing bin bags out of window onto pathway as too far to walk downstairs – other landlady/tenants make official complaint)