Status anxiety

The daily I miss every day

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

Not a day passes in which I don’t regret firing Irena. She was my ‘daily’ from 1991 to 2004. I don’t think I could have asked for anyone better qualified. Until she came to work for me she had been a professor of geology at a Russian university, but she lost her job when the Soviet Union collapsed and became an economic migrant. In spite of this setback, she never displayed any bitterness. On the contrary, she was remarkably stoical — something to do with the Russian soul, no doubt. Her only shortcoming was that she never called me by my correct name. She’d misheard me when I first introduced myself and after I’d let it go for a few weeks I became too embarrassed to correct her. So for the duration of her 13-year employment she always referred to me as ‘Terry’.

By the time Caroline moved in with me in 2000, Irena had become a kind of surrogate mother. I think it’s fairly normal for middle-aged dailies to develop a maternal affection for their bachelor employers, but in the case of Irena it went slightly beyond that, possibly because she’d left her own grown-up son behind in Russia. I became equally fond of her, particularly after my own mother died in 1993. But the upshot was that she was a bit suspicious of Caroline. She didn’t think she was good enough for her ‘Terry’.

At first, Caroline put up with Irena’s obvious hostility. She was amused when Irena tut-tuttingly corrected her attempts to do the laundry, explaining that ‘Terry’ liked his shirts ironed just so. We used to joke about it, but I was secretly relieved that she didn’t ask me to get rid of her. Caroline had passed the Irena test, even if Irena found her wanting.


Unfortunately, relations deteriorated when Sasha was born in 2003. The problem was, Irena insisted she knew better than Caroline about every aspect of motherhood. No matter what it was, Caroline could do nothing right. In the end, this became intolerable and Caroline gave me the ultimatum I’d been dreading: ‘It’s her or me.’

Sacking Irena was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and to sugar the pill I paid her six months’ salary. Weirdly, she didn’t seem to mind. Either I was mistaken about how attached to ‘Terry’ she was, or it was that old Russian stoicism again. Probably a bit of both.

We’ve been through several dailies since, none of them a patch on Irena. Our latest one, who’s been with us since Freddie was born, was called Maria. I had a reasonably high opinion of Maria, which is why I said yes when she asked if she could house-sit for us while we were away in Kenya. She explained that her two children were coming to stay from the Philippines and her current flat wasn’t big enough for all of them. I had no reason to think she’d be an irresponsible tenant, particularly as I’d been paying her tax and National Insurance for five years.

I’m sure you can guess how this story ends. The house was relatively clean and tidy when we got back last week, but we’ve gradually been discovering more and more things wrong. The first thing we realised was that she’d used up various household essentials without replacing them: washing powder, dishwasher tablets, Fairy Liquid. Then we discovered that our larder was almost empty — no rice, no condiments, no cooking oil. After that, it became more serious. None of our bins had been emptied and the outside bin, the large plastic one that gets emptied by the rubbish men each week, had disappeared completely. The washing machine was broken, as was the shower in the children’s bathroom. Sasha discovered that someone had eaten all her Christmas sweets.

There was a note. She thanked us for our kindness over the years and announced that she’d found another employer and wouldn’t be working for us any more. No forwarding address, nothing about any of the breakages. I tried calling her, but the number is no longer working.

I daresay she thinks we’ve got off lightly, given how hard she’s worked. And perhaps we have. At least she didn’t steal anything. But it makes me realise just how special my first daily was. Irena, if you’re reading this, please get back in touch with ‘Terry’. As far as his wife is concerned, all is forgiven.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Grrrrr

    Oh where to get decent help? – How lovely to be in a position to delegate life’s unpleasantness to those less fortunate.
    Congratulations on reaching a new level of pomposity and irrelevance.

  • Robbie Burns

    A delightful story. It takes a particularly unpleasant type of person to turn employment and affection into slavery and exploitation. Grrr!

    • Grrrrr

      Why am I an unpleasant person for pointing out that people in domestic servitude might not be too happy with their lot? I imagine if you asked ‘Irene’ how she felt about cleaning up after ‘Terry’, you might get a different perspective on the story.

      • Vir Cantium

        Well, given that she did it for fourteen years, was not forced to, and was paid for it, I suspect her answer would not be that of the downtrodden slave that you imagine.

        If you can’t bear working for someone else, then fine … as long as you’re not living off my taxes as an alternative.

        • Grrrrr

          Stockholm Syndrome?

        • jonny

          That’s nothing. Children do stretches longer than that all the time. They want to be slaves though. It’s the remuneration.

          Child slaves are paid with love.

      • Pedropuss

        Grrrrrr………that was her job, you idiot! And trust you to call her Irene when her name is Irena, she loved her job, and do you know why, look where she came from, Eastern Europeans are the hardest and most grateful workers that ever existed!

        • Graham Thompson

          Yeah, I wish I could escape my dead end job as a professor and finally taste the freedom of being a skivvy. I’d be so grateful.

          • Pedropuss

            Why don’t you then? Profs, the most boring people on the world!

        • Grrrrr

          I’m the idiot? Are you sure?

          • Pedropuss

            The woman didn’t have the choice that many of us do, I don’t know what country you live in, but I am thankful my parents immigrated to where they did to make a better life for me and my sister, so you and the good professor figure it out!

          • Grrrrr

            My original post wasn’t knocking Irena’s motivation for doing the job, or questioning the work ethic of East Europeans Immigrants (I happen to be a child of one BTW), my original comment was an ‘eye rolling’ aimed at the pompous prick that wrote this crap, who like most winners of economic Darwinism think that underpaid skivvies are like something from a Victorian chocolate box Shangri-la, instead of the harsh reality, which is paying somebody (I imagine) very little to clean up your mess, because they have no choice. Someone who by his own admission was vastly over qualified for that role, and would probably have been a lot happier and have been more beneficial to us all by doing what she trained to do.

  • Calorus

    How wonderfully vile.

  • Cellarman

    wot a knob!

  • steffanjohn

    I think people need to read this in the voice of Alan Partridge to get the full flavour of knobiditude on offer.

  • haroldx


  • AlexAnansi

    Oh my God! Someone took your fairy liquid! It could only get worse if that horrible maid put up a windfarm in your garden!!!

  • mango

    Standard “if you were rich enough you’d hire a cleaner too” comment. I would.

  • RoadrunnerNick

    I used to have a cleaner and the house got cleaned. Now I don’t and it never gets cleaned because there are always other things to do such as joining online debates.

  • Gareth Murray

    She also stuck your tooth brush up her bum Toby.

  • nickyboy

    Amusing as usual I thought, I miss Auberon Waugh dreadfully but people like Toby Young do show that literate, mischievous, liberal-baiting column writing is not yet a dead art

  • Lesley Farrington

    Is this a parody or are you actually serious?

    • wp200

      I think he’s serious.

      Being foreign I’ve never heard of mr. Young until now and I just had to look him up in Wikipedia.

      His father was a Labour life peer who coined the term “meritocracy”, and he got into Oxford after he was sent an acceptance letter by mistake.

      With that history you cannot hire professors to iron your shirts unless you are a total twat.

  • Lesley Farrington

    If this is a pitch to write for Private Eye’s ‘It’s grim up North London’ strip, you need to be more pithy sweetie.

  • Maurice Mcleod
    • Emanuel Souvairan

      Hilarious Maurice!

  • Villefort

    clearly human beings were never meant to be ‘dailies’ and you’re morally reprehensible for shamelessly ’employing’ them