He Cleans | Valeria Gordeev | Granta

He Cleans

Valeria Gordeev

Translated by Imogen Taylor

He cleans. Cleans the sink, cleans the plughole, takes out the sink strainer and cleans the underside. He takes the strainer apart, lifting the rubber washer and removing the foul ring of dirt that oozes out at the edge. He also cleans the washer, spraying it with vinegar cleaner and dabbing it on both sides with kitchen paper (he made the vinegar cleaner himself out of vinegar concentrate, distilled water and a few drops of Japanese mint oil – the mint oil is his trademark). Then he screws the parts together again and stands there for a moment, the impeccably clean sink strainer sparkling in his hand, polished to a shine. The overflow holes are next: five vertical slots at the top of the sink, only a few millimetres wide, designed to prevent flooding. The sink is rarely filled to this point, so a lot of mouldering dirt builds up undisturbed behind these slots. If he had the choice, he’d use a stainless-steel cleaner. As well as cleaning the sink this weekend, he’d decided to polish all the stainless-steel surfaces in and out of the kitchen – to clean them, care for them, make them as good as new, using the cleaning agent that is no ordinary cleaning agent but more like a polish (it’s astonishing how seldom and sloppily household objects and surfaces are cleaned when they’re made of stainless steel). All through his seminar this morning he was going through the flat in his mind for possible objects, pots and pans, casings, door handles, but someone – his mother – must have knocked the bottle over, spilling the contents all over the cupboard under the sink. She must, he supposes, have taken the bottle out, opened it, sniffed at it sceptically and then failed to replace the lid properly. This laziness when it comes to screwing on lids! It would be a blessing for humanity if people could learn to screw them on properly, but no – unscrewing lids is just about within their power but screwing them back on is beyond them. The result: a hardened puddle that has spread to every corner of the cupboard, sticking the cloths and sponges together and coating the bottoms of all the other bottles of special cleaning agent. A mess. Now the rinsed containers are drying on a clean tea towel, and later, when the cupboard under the sink is dry – he took the opportunity to give it a thorough clean, together with the filthy U-bend (the ew-bend) that hangs down into the cupboard, easy to take apart but tricky to put together again (it was clogged with clumps of hair and globs of slime and should have been done years ago; the surfaces get the odd once-over, while the hellhound is left to lurk in the drain), and as for these frayed, greying cloths, cut out of old clothes (he recognises a pair of underpants, his childhood pyjamas) who, in this century, still cuts clothes into rags to make cleaning cloths? – later, when the gleaming, fresh-smelling cupboard is dry, the bottles of cleaning agent will go back in. Until then, he’s happy to have them drying at his side, his allies in cleanliness; he’s arranged them, skittle-like, into a diamond, and the sight gives him pleasure. The glass cleaner, the glass sealant, the furniture polish; a few bottles of soft soap for everyday use (he’d experimented with different kinds); a wholesale floor-care product for industrial cleaning which coats surfaces in a protective film; a canister, only a third full, of isopropanol; a power gel oven cleaner he’d had high hopes for, but which doesn’t live up to its name and has no impact on the burnt-on carbon residue even when you leave it on overnight; a disinfectant spray (bleach-free, because there’d been complaints, but there’s just no comparison) and, of course, DanKlorix, the (admittedly stinky) bleach bomb for fighting mould and other forms of rebellion, a weapon of mass destruction that eliminates all germs and spores, the Jupiter of germlessness in a sky-blue bottle, punishing the slightest skin contact with smarting and stinging and prickling, with thunderbolts that turn your hands red and eat their way into the lines of your palms, making them itch like mad. Even if you wear gloves, your hands itch afterwards, a slippery feeling as if a thin – milli-millimetre-thin – layer has peeled off your skin wherever it’s come into contact with the bleach, or even bleach vapours, a micro-dermis stripped off in the service of cleanliness. Washing your hands – the most effective weapon in his arsenal – only makes it worse; you’re better off applying hand cream, a thick panthenol ointment. He shouldn’t use the bleach-based agent anymore, but he reserves the right to send it onto the battlefield now and then, in exceptional cases – when he defrosts the fridge, when he cleans the extractor fan, or when he gets down on hands and knees to tackle the crack between the dishwasher and the stove. Into this crack (El Grotto or the Loathsome Valley) he will not venture without bleach-based reinforcements; the place is crawling with spiders and grease and dust, not to mention the congealed gravy dripping down from the counter that would develop into regular stalactites if he didn’t swing by from time to time and get rid of the worst – every Friday or every other Friday, depending on whether he has exams coming up. For the overflow holes, however, which he’s starting to tackle now, he’s happy to settle for the ordinary ja! Citrus Fresh Cleaning Cream (pretty bland smelling, so ‘citrus fresh’ must refer to the colour). He’s squirted a dollop onto a plate and into this he dips a cotton bud which he inserts into the slots in the sink to clean the inner edges and the back of the grid. If you bend the bud in the middle, you have a great tool for reaching all those places that are hard to get at – like an extra-long finger, bent at an acute angle. He runs it slowly up and down, behind the sink. As expected, the ends of the cotton buds turn grey. What’s special about stainless-steel cleaner is the fine-grain quality of the abrasives; coarser-grain cleaning agents can scratch the steel surface, so he exercises caution, doesn’t put too much elbow into it. His mother, Nadja, our mother – recently Lada has taken to referring to her by her first name, no idea why – works as a receptionist on Fridays and won’t be home before two. He’s to call if he needs anything. In the past, he almost always argued with his mother on cleaning days. He was angry even before he’d started to clean; her fierce sarcasm and scorn at his need for order – very different from hers, he’s not denying it – were, it must be said, one reason why the time before he left home, when he was doing his community service and later when he started at university, has stuck in his mind, at least as far as his mother is concerned, as an almost non-stop argument, interrupted only occasionally and always flaring up again at the next provocation. Things are much better now. He no longer takes it as a personal insult when the sponges are disintegrating, the sink is blocked and the hoover bag hasn’t been changed. He simply puts in a new bag and feels a certain satisfaction in knowing he’s needed. One day, he thinks, he’ll take out the entire sink and check out the back, even if it does mean having to replace the silicone seal – quite a major project. For the time being, he contents himself with the area around the overflow holes, managing to clean a fairly decent radius with the help of the cotton buds.

The tap. Typical limescale stains – jagged-edged, dully-mottled, white-translucent encrustations. Each stain a hardened drop of water. Surface tension. The mineral components sink to the bottom and form a layer of sediment, crystalline structures, a sign of water quality: aeons of geology leach into the groundwater until a powerful surge, overcoming millennia, carries them up a cul-de-sac to the surface where they’re siphoned off into branching pipes and sent gushing back, cool and clean, into people’s houses. You can’t not like limescale. In his flat-share kitchen he doesn’t often have the chance to get a closer look at it because he’s usually got rid of it before it’s matured, but here, around the leaky fittings, it’s developed into a veritable coastline – from the mixer tap, in and out of the dips and ridges of the draining board to the edge of the sink. Vinegar cleaner is limescale’s enemy; he gives the limey crust a good, long spray. Once, he inadvertently dissolved the nubs on the showerhead by soaking it in citric acid – Lada must have been about two at the time and his mother was away on a retraining course. He remembers bathing his sister in a bucket afterwards, so she wouldn’t have to shiver under a trickling shower – a tall, oval mop bucket; she fitted in nicely. After that she was always dragging the bucket through the flat and putting it down in front of him, wanting more. The mistake he made was to leave the showerhead to soak for too long. That was what ruined it. He takes a cotton bud and pushes a block of limescale over the cliff; the block crumbles.

He has to hide the cotton buds from Lada. She’s sitting in front of the TV with a friend, watching ER; they’re already on the second episode. The painful theme tune drifts out of the living room; he feels stressed just listening to it. Clattering trolleys are pushed frantically in and out of doors; stretchers are folded and unfolded. She must have slipped, someone says, she was lying unconscious in the corridor. . . Internal bleedings‚ sixty systolic – whatever that means. Weakened breathing, hypersonic percussion. A woman’s voice counting down, doors swinging open and shut. He recorded it for her because she asked him to and because he knows what it does to kids’ TV habits if you try to impose bans. Two episodes per video tape and a bonus episode of Once Upon a Time . . . Life – this last a brotherly suggestion, no obligation. Platelets whoosh through the bloodstream, talking and chattering, each one different, each platelet with its own little face. Cool, being able to see inside someone like that. Antibodies fly past; intruders have been sighted, staphylococcus germs, but three-wheeled waste-eaters are called to the rescue and soon wipe them out. (It wouldn’t hurt her to have a little more respect for the world of bacteria – cue remote control; he cleans it with interdental brushes, cotton buds and isopropanol, and puts it in the freezer for a night.) A friendly, efficient, functioning society, equal to the challenges that face it – not a permanently overstretched system that fully deserves its 16 rating. There are never enough doctors, never enough beds, never enough operating theatres – as if it weren’t possible to organise more beds, employ more doctors, get more doctors trained. A catastrophe of civilisation. The last time he was in the living room – he’d been looking for cups for the top rack of the dishwasher and knew that the bookcase behind the sofa was the most likely place; they use the shelves as a repository for dirty dishes: cups, plates, bowls encrusted with leftovers . . . he found a yogurt pot, a YES! bar wrapper and high up, on the second shelf from the top, a shrivelled banana skin which at first glance, before he tried to pull it into shape, he mistook for a glove, a black leather glove – the last time he was there, standing on a stool, collecting rubbish, and happened to look down, the TV was showing a throng of paramedics wheeling a boy into hospital, we’re talking a baby here, with a coat hanger stuck in his throat; the tearful, Spanish-speaking father was sending hurried prayers up to the hospital ceiling. Another glance at the screen revealed a man with blood gushing from his mouth and pouring down his chin, while he hurled insults at the nurses around him. After that there were no more glimpses of hospital life because he decided to put off collecting any other dishes that might be lurking in the plant pots or the wall unit and return to the kitchen.

When you listen to the series without seeing what’s happening on the screen, you’re struck by how consistently the scenes alternate between shock and comfort: shock, comfort, shock, comfort, shock, comfort. You could call it the carrot-and-stick principle, except that it’s always the other way round: the carrot isn’t proffered until the stick’s done its work. It goes on for the entire episode. Screams and excitement and medical jargon are followed by phases of calm and respite, friendly jokes and water-cooler conversations. The staff arrange to meet up, discuss their after-work plans, talk about the weather. A nurse who acts in an amateur Shakespeare ensemble amuses his colleagues by reciting his lines. (Rather disconcertingly, one of the doctors – the slimy ladies’ man – is dubbed into German by the actor who does the voice of Star Trek officer William Riker.) Then a door swings open and off it goes again: hearts stop, ulcers rupture, alarms beep in counterpoint. He’s particularly repelled by the noise of the defibrillator paddles being rubbed together before a patient is shocked back into life. If the idea of the series is to reconcile people in search of relaxation, distraction and entertainment to the comparatively innocuous challenges of their own lives by confronting them with a deliberately grisly depiction of work on an emergency ward, he’s prepared to grant it a certain legitimacy among adult viewers. But why the hell does his sister put herself through it? These mind-blowingly depressing stories: dying mothers, dying fathers, farewells to a brain-dead child. Of course he’d feel happier if Lada watched something more age-appropriate, or at least a cookery show – she adores cookery shows – but he’d be a complete newbie if he tried to curb her enthusiasm by imposing bans. You just have to look at the friend she’s brought home from school – sits there in a trance, as if a spaceship had landed in front of her; he’s ready to bet she’s never watched TV at home. And if he doesn’t tape the episodes for his sister, she stays up to watch them at night and falls asleep in front of the television – it’s better if she catches up in the afternoon. He closes the kitchen door a little so that he can still hear whether the TV’s on but doesn’t have to follow the dialogue or the plot. Meanwhile, the sink fills with water.

The cotton buds are a different story altogether. He and his mother have made a deal. She’s promised to stop buying cotton buds, so as to encourage Lada, her daughter, to clean her ears with warm water like any sensible person. After all, it’s what the doctor recommended when he took Lada to see him; those things put all kinds of bacteria in your ears, stuff them full of germs and viruses and yeast infections – cleaning doesn’t come into it. It’s taken his mother a long time to take the problem seriously – to accept that a bit of parental rigour will be necessary to stop Lada from injuring her barely ten-year-old ears by doing . . . whatever she does in there. The cotton buds – she calls them ear buds – disappear into her ear canals, under her hair – it’s no wonder it’s such a tousled mess around her ears – and she sits there in a dream, her mouth open, literally drooling, one hand going round and round, the other clutching a bunch of clean buds. The skin in your ear canals isn’t made for that; cotton buds have no business in there. He wouldn’t be surprised if she had a stash of them somewhere; they shouldn’t be on sale, those ear-wreckers – they go in so deep, too. He’s told them both, his sister and his mother – and let’s be honest, his mother no longer hears as well as she did; you exaggerate, she says, ты преувеличиваешь, but he knows what he knows and while he can’t dictate to her how she treats her own ears, he’s surely entitled to a say in what Lada does – he’s explained the dangers of this deep diving into their heads (the human ear canal is only three and a half centimetres long; a cotton bud is seven); he doesn’t want, he says, to have to take them to A & E with damaged eardrums, but it’s what will happen if they carry on like this. Just the thought of it makes him feel dizzy: his little sister, his tiny little sister, losing her hearing, getting an infection – all that’s over now. He picks up the bent, dirty, pink-stemmed ear-wreckers – they look, he thinks, like a pile of swastikas – and throws them all in the bin. Nazis out!

Speaking of the bin, he’s noticed that neither his mother nor his sister ever puts the lid back on properly, just as they never put the binbag in properly – it makes him wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave the lid off altogether in future. Better no lid than a filthy lid. He takes the bag out and knots it shut. The bin looks quite a mess too; there’s an old teabag stuck to the bottom, bits of carrot peel, a metal pull tab. The voices coming from the living room are louder now – the commercial break. He hears Lada say something that makes her friend laugh. She’s very funny when she imitates advertising slogans. He could go in and ask if the friend’s staying to dinner. If she is, he’ll have to think about what they might eat because there probably won’t be enough fish fingers to go round. In the hall, next to their school bags is a blue violin case – since Lada’s started secondary school her friends always come carrying instruments. He sees the two girls on the carpet in front of the television and knocks at the open door.


Image © Giles Moss

Valeria Gordeev

Valeria Gordeev is an author and illustrator living in Berlin. In 2023 she won the prestigious Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize for 'He Cleans', an excerpt from her forthcoming novel with S. Fischer Verlag (autumn 2025). This manuscript has already received several awards, including the Floriana Biennale Prize for Literature in 2022.

Photograph © Franz and Henriette Friedrich

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Translated by Imogen Taylor

Imogen Taylor is a London-born, Berlin-based literary translator. Her translation of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s Beside Myself was shortlisted for the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2020 and the 2021 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. Other work includes How We Desire by Carolin Emcke, Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself by Florian Huber, and Two Women and a Poisoning by Alfred Döblin.

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