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Home truths: the secret lives of other people's houses



The plumber: Kate, 39, Cambridge

If I could ask all clients to do just one thing, it would be: "Make me a cup of tea." You'd be amazed how many people don't do it. I did one job where the husband was at home in the mornings and he'd make himself a pot of fresh coffee that smelt amazing. Then he would sit there playing on his computer all morning and drink it all to himself. I'd have to wait until his wife came home in the afternoon before I got offered a drink. It wasn't a major problem for me, though - they lived near a Costa, so I'd just down tools and go over there at 10am every morning and take 20 minutes to drink it.

You might think of bathrooms as quite an intimate space, but I can generally tell more about people from walking through their front hall than I can from their bathroom. Most people have a major clean-up before I get there, but not all. I work in a university town, and academics tend to be oblivious to their surroundings; they don't really notice the state of things. Mould on your toothbrush - that's never a good sign, is it? It was the only one in the bathroom, so I assume it was the one they were using. I told them that I'd thrown it away and I hope they took the hint.

If you don't clear up, then it does make my job that much harder. I'm really happy to chat while I work, especially with older clients, because I think they look forward to it. However, when I really have to knuckle down, I prefer it if the dogs aren't wandering in and out, and there aren't any children playing with the contents of my toolbox. I'd much rather clients tell me if they're not happy with something, even if it means ripping down a whole wall of fresh tiles. And remember that my aesthetic opinion doesn't matter, so it's OK to ask me what I think, but it's really up to you. There have been jobs where I've thought, "Urgh, God, that's not going to work", but then sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. Anyway, I've only got to look at your bathroom for the next two weeks: you've got to live with it.

The cleaner: Jessie, 48, Devon

You are always on your guard. If something goes missing, I'm the first person they'll look at, so I am extra careful to put myself above suspicion. One family used to leave crisply folded notes in the pockets of their laundry. I thought: "Oh, here we go." When a necklace went missing, they started making "jokes" about me being from the north. When I found it down the side of a chair, the woman didn't say anything.

By the time I left, they seemed to trust me. The husband would leave all sorts in his pockets, including his drugs. I didn't know if his wife knew what he got up to, so I'd just send him a text saying, "The contents of your pockets are in the top drawer." The things they threw out - unworn shirts from Paul Smith, perfume she'd used once. I used to ask if I could take it, if it was going in the bin, but I'd never have helped myself.

I would much rather work for families from old money. They're a lot more considerate - they're often the ones who have a tidy-up before you get there. With new money, they still secretly think they're more like you, so they behave worse. They start out appreciative, but before long you'll arrive in the morning and the kitchen is a total mess, plates and cups everywhere, no one bothering to pick up after themselves. Skid marks in the toilets. Occasionally I'd get the odd £300 extra in my pay packet, but it didn't go as far as a heartfelt "thank you".

I've never been tempted to have a snoop around. I don't need to - I see enough already. I'd know exactly when some of them had sex, because I'd be the one stripping the bed in the morning. I'd pick up after their dogs. Some people would leave things like bank statements lying around. You can't help seeing amounts, but I'd just shuffle them into a neat pile, and cover up the important bits.

I found a loaded shotgun under the bed once. Well, I didn't know it was loaded until the guy came home and I confronted him about it. He cocked it in front of me and the cartridges came out. I said: "Never leave something like that lying round again." He was fuming, said I shouldn't have gone under the bed. I told him if he didn't like the way I cleaned, he could find someone else.

The private chef: Luke, 38, London

My day starts at about 11am. I leave my flat at the back of the property and go into the house via the garages, past their private kitchen and into my kitchen. I've worked in kitchens for more than 15 years. I've done Michelin-starred dining and this kitchen is more high-spec than most of the professional ones I've worked in. I don't actually know what the rest of the house looks like. You don't wander around. There's a pool near the garage, though. I didn't realise it was a pool for the first few months, because it's one where the floor sinks down before the water pumps in.

There's Mr and Mrs X and their three children, who are nine, four and two. I don't do their breakfast - that's the meal they have together as a family; one of the maids or the children's nannies gets it ready. The driver will take me out to pick up whatever we need. I might go to Harrods or pick up some fish. I get back to make lunch for the two youngest kids - jacket potatoes or pasta - then do the same when the oldest one gets back from school. A couple of times a week, I prepare lunch for Mrs X. Everything has to be organic, very River Cafe. Three times a week, I'll cook an evening meal for the adults, then at the weekends they head out to the country. They have a personal chef there, too, so I get weekends off.

It's weird. Growing up in my house, mealtimes were the one thing we all did together. These kids eat on their own, or with the nannies. I've never seen Mrs X cook a single thing. We're expected to be part of the family, play with the kids, that sort of thing. I don't muck around with them like I do with my own nieces, but we have a chat if they turn up in the kitchen, and I sometimes bake cakes with the oldest one. They're nice kids. Mr X is pretty normal, he made his own fortune, but Mrs X was born into money - a lot of money. I don't think she's ever known what it's like to do things for herself.

They've got drivers, nannies, housemaids, PAs, lots of people in and out all the time. I think we have all been chosen really carefully. When I got the job, they called all my character references, I mean, just about everyone I know.

It's not like a restaurant, where someone's always bitching about someone else. Mrs X can be really rude, but you can't say anything, not even to the other staff, because you're not sure whether or not they're in with her. You're never totally off duty. I never relax in the kitchen because you can't be sure whether someone's going to walk in.

I've cooked for a lot of private clients before, but never had a live-in job. The flat I share with one of the nannies is worth about a million on its own, apparently, but I can't invite people back. I get paid £24,000 a year to do pretty much nothing - that's more than a lot of head chefs earn. When I had my own restaurant, I'd finish at 1am and be back in the kitchen by 8am. Here, I'm finished by 9pm and get the weekends to myself but, my God, it's boring cooking jacket potatoes every day.

The personal assistant: Kate, 40, London

You have a very intimate knowledge of your boss, but they don't know about you. You have to make sure of that. I would never go to one of my clients with my problems. I think that mask is partly what prevents any embarrassment about you knowing all their personal information. If people tell you things in confidence, you have to learn to listen without passing comment.

One woman I worked for was quite emotionally draining. She was very open - you knew everything that was going on, even if you didn't want to. I think perhaps she was a little bit disappointed that I wasn't more open with her in return, but I would never go there. You've got to stay in your lane, as it were. Having a family really helps, because it means you don't form that sort-of-friends relationship. You know you're going home to your children and you don't have the temptation to blur the lines.

I work with five or six clients at a time. Some in the media, some high-flying financiers, some high net-worth individuals. The tasks are generally quite straightforward: booking flights and restaurants, managing household staffing, looking after other family members, expenses. It's all about how you do it. If I were a mind-reader, I would be the best PA ever. You have to write everything down - every time a new person, or restaurant, or place of interest is mentioned, you store it. You've got to be perceptive.

When you're working in someone's home, you have to find your own place. I would never go upstairs at a client's house. I might make a cup of tea for myself, just as I'd do in an office, but I always drink it at my desk. If it's just me and the client, we might have lunch together, but if they have family there or other guests, I would always eat at my desk.

When I told my partner I was thinking of becoming a PA, he said, "It will be the hardest thing you've ever done." He was right. There's no backup. When you're part of a team in an office and something goes wrong, you can generally find a way to fudge the blame a bit, but in this job it's just you. Transparency really helps - the clients I choose to work for are generally honest about what they need doing, but there have been occasions... I worked for one woman who didn't actually do anything and there were times when I wondered, "Why don't you just do it yourself?"

The landlord: Neil, 40, Surrey

Some renters are incredibly house-proud. When they know they've got an inspection coming up, they make the place immaculate. Other people are just the opposite - it's as if they go out of their way to leave stuff out in full view to provoke us. We had one woman who left her sizable collection of sex toys on the bedside table. She must have wanted a reaction, but I hope we didn't give her the satisfaction.

I'm fairly open-minded and I don't want to piss my tenants off. If there are clothes everywhere and it's creating a mould problem, or the garden is totally overgrown, you might say something, but it's not my job to tell people how to live.

Having said that, it amazes me sometimes that, when it comes to the end of a tenancy, people don't even do the really simple things, like run a Hoover over the place. It's actually really hard now for rogue landlords or letting agents to keep deposits, but why wouldn't you make it as easy for yourself as possible? It's just basic cleanliness.

Now that it's not so easy to get a mortgage, the profile of your average tenant is not so different from your owner-occupier. That's no bad thing. We're lucky in that the area we look after is pretty decent, so we don't have too many problems. We used to have a couple of flats above a parade of shops in a more downmarket area, and in one there were new tenants every six months. I remember cleaning it after one lot left and we cleared 26 bin bags of rubbish from one room alone - it was overflowing with dirty nappies. Some people are animals.

You hear about nightmare situations where someone's discovered a marijuana factory in their property - it's happening everywhere, so we look for telltale signs, such as holes drilled into strange places. A guy I know had a property near a military base that got turned into a marijuana farm. It was clever: the police helicopters couldn't fly too close to the base, so they never got picked up on heat sensors. I'm just waiting for it to happen to us.

The dog walker: Ben, 32, Leeds

Homeworkers: dog

'One owner set up a webcam so they could observe how long I was out with the dog. It's hard not to get paranoid'. Illustration: Paul Thurlby for the Guardian

There were some dogs I walked where I never met the owner. It was all arranged through the agency I worked for, and they'd be out at work when I let myself in. Sometimes the client might be working from home, or have little kids and no time to walk the dog. About 60% of the people we worked for were gay, a lot of couples, where the dog was often more like a surrogate child. Those owners tended to be a lot more specific about what they wanted. We had one where the owner had set up a webcam so they could observe what time we picked up the dog and how long we were out for - they'd leave us notes if we came back three minutes early. It's hard not to get a bit paranoid in situations like that.

The idea was to match dogs according to personality, but some were matched because the houses were close together, and sadly the dogs didn't get on well. I had one where the first dog needed to be on the lead at all times, and the other dog needed a ball thrown constantly, so the first one would get really wound up.

There were tricky moments, with dogs that weren't well trained. I looked after a labradoodle who was still quite young and his owners hadn't taught him not to jump up. They're quite big dogs - basically, they look like a man in a panto suit dressed as a dog - so I'd let him off the lead and he'd run off and the next thing I knew, he'd have jumped right up in someone's face. It was a bit awkward if we were in one of the more touristy parks.

You also get the yummy mummy set walking their dogs, who are very precious and a nightmare to deal with. I remember being out with one of my favourites, a lovely placid thing, and throwing a ball for him when this other little dog raced up to snatch it. He barked a bit, nothing vicious, and this woman flew out of nowhere, going mad, saying, "Your dog bit me." It was total nonsense. At times like that, it was difficult to remember that you worked for an agency and couldn't just sound off a string of expletives.

You form an attachment to the dogs, and feel protective over them. When I moved away and stopped doing the job, I missed them so much I got a dog of my own. It was hard, sometimes, when you didn't feel the dog was all that loved. It might be left over from one partner's previous relationship or, in one case, there was a woman who bought a dog for her husband because she knew she was dying and didn't want him to be lonely. Instead, the dog just reminded him of her and he pushed it away a little bit. It was a difficult dog to deal with. In situations like that, you want to say, "You should give this dog away or treat it properly." But how can you?

The nanny: Magda, 31, London

Homeworkers: nanny

'You can't describe the feeling you get when the kids draw a picture of their family and put you in.' Illustration: Paul Thurlby for the Guardian

There are two kinds of families. The ones you make friends with, who welcome you straight away and you never feel like a stranger in their house. Then there's the other kind. I've worked in places where rooms were locked and keys were hidden. It didn't make me feel good. I wouldn't ever consider going into that room if I didn't need to, or going through people's cupboards. I just didn't know what they thought of me. But they trusted me with their kids!

It took some time for me to understand that those families thought of me as a worker, not a partner. But maybe it's easier to work for that sort of person. You know immediately what's acceptable. They didn't want me to socialise with other nanny friends while I was looking after their children, so I couldn't take the children to other people's houses, and I couldn't invite my friends back to the house. They had their reasons. At least the rule was clear. With other families, I sometimes get the feeling that although they say something is fine, they don't really mean it. It can be hard to work out what to do.

It's definitely easier when the parents don't work from home. I always felt, when I had a mother working at home, that she was controlling me, even though she tried not to. All kids have good and bad days, and sometimes, on a bad day, you just need to cuddle them and watch a bit of TV. I'm very fortunate not to have had major problems with the children I've looked after, but sometimes they have bad days and can be a handful. There have only been a few times when I've had to send a child to a naughty step or take away their favourite toy for a day - it always works.

I've always loved the kids I looked after. You can't describe the feeling you get when the kids draw a picture of their family and put you in it. If I'm out with the children, I think it's hard to tell whether or not they're my own. I know it's not like that with all nannies - most of the other girls, I don't think they care as much. I've always followed my instinct when I've chosen whom to work for, and on the couple of occasions when I didn't listen to that instinct, it didn't work out. In one case, the kids just didn't like me. They were unhappy, I was unhappy, the parents were struggling. When we decided to end it, the father said to me, "Maybe it was just a clash of characters." It's hard not to take it personally.

The carer: Ruth, 36, Cambridge

I've been a carer for elderly and vulnerable people, off and on, for almost 20 years, most of them for an agency. Extreme cleanliness always bothers me. When you walk into a house and it's immaculate, and there's a huge list of dos and don'ts pinned up, it suggests to me that everything is going to be very ordered and particular, and that can make it a lot harder for me to tap into what that person really needs. Then there's the other end of the spectrum - you find sheets that haven't been changed for months. Animal faeces on the floor. I once visited a woman who saved milk by leaving it out on the worktops. Some of it was green. It took a good few weeks to persuade her that it wasn't a very good idea to keep it.

Having family around is helpful - maybe not their physical presence in the house, but just knowing they're involved. On the other hand, when there are family who don't allow you any breathing space, you do wish they'd just bugger off. Sometimes, family ask you to tackle things they can't, so they'll instruct you to have a clear out but "don't tell our mum", so you become the Big Bad Carer.

Now and then, family can get jealous, especially if they see that the relationship you have with their parent is very different from their own. I understand that it's hard. I've been described as "the daughter I never had" in front of one woman's real daughter. People might say: "You don't know our mum" but often we don't know our own parents as people. Children's ideas are about what the children want, not what the parents want.

Sometimes, your visit is just 15 minutes, because all you have to do is give them their medication. It's your job to wake them up, get them washed and dressed, and give them breakfast and their tablets and whatever else they need - you're usually allocated 30 minutes for that. The social element of your job - the fact that you might be the only person they speak to that day - is never acknowledged.

I've done things I really shouldn't have done. I sometimes took people to my house. I had a lovely man, one of my favourites, who loved to have a silver service dinner every day. Then, unfortunately, his money started running out, so a manager came in to assess him. They decided to cut his allotted time to 30 minutes, which meant there was only time for us to cook and serve his meal, not sit and talk to him while he ate it. He had to have microwave dinners, on his own. Sometimes he just wouldn't eat it, because he had no motivation to.

There's never enough time. The care service is made up of layers and layers of people who just don't have enough time.

o Some names have been changed.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/24/-sp-home-truths-secret-lives-other-peoples-houses

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