September 30, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: This Means War

It was two weeks after starting the job at the base. They had her cleaning the building used by the army band, with its plate glass windows, floor to ceiling. 

He came in, with his cronies - a sergeant or staff sergeant of some kind, she doesn't remember the rank - and looked her work up and down.

"Lovely job you've done here," he said, taking out a tub of butter. He smeared it on the windows and with the cronies, began to play a game of tic-tac-toe.


When she went back into the labour market, it was because the kids had gone to school. She was thirty-eight years old and she wasn't keen to be a cleaner, but there weren't many options for a woman who'd spent years as a housewife.

They started her off cleaning fire-damaged buildings. "I liked getting out of the house, and making it easier on the bills. The work itself? Well, I didn't mind."

Even if the fire was contained to one part of a building, the smoke would permeate, leaving an oily residue. She cleaned thousands of doorknobs which were smoke-stained after a fire in a factory; had to open up and meticulously clean tyre-balancing equipment which needed to be resold; in one woman's home, the owner had simply used an extinguisher on a burning stove. The fire wasn't a problem, but the powder extinguisher had discharged fully. It was a week's work removing the white traces, from the pantry to the bedroom at the other end of the house.

She never complained. 


She put the sergeant or staff sergeant or whatever he was in his place soon enough. They had him doing PT - walking to the top of Enoggera Hill - so she came in early one morning.

There was a phone call for her in the tea room later that day. An aggrieved sergeant was on the line from the summit.

"Hello," she said sweetly. "Did you gain a few stone today?"

They came back down from the hill and he found her still cleaning. He upended his pack and shook the rocks she'd placed there, all over the floor.


After the fire-damaged buildings she got work stewarding at a bowls club on the southside. She lived on the opposite side of the city and it was split shifts, ten to two and six til ten. She'd make sixty sandwiches a day, serve in the bar, clean up after the buffet.

"You'd have to watch the clients. Health regs meant you couldn't take food home. This one old lady would fill her bag with food from the buffet."

This was before mobile phones with their own alarms, so she'd take a little clock with her and park up near the police station in Logan City. She'd read if she felt like it, or sleep in the car til the alarm sounded for the second part of her shift.

She kept at it until the army job came up. There was cleaning - four floors of the barracks to mop every day - but also the possibility of going into catering.


The vacuum cleaners ran on long power leads in the barracks. Occasionally the machine would die when she was mid-clean. She'd walk back to the power socket and find the sergeant there, plug in his hand, timing how long it had taken her to return.

The sergeant was a notorious practical joker and she became popular for giving him a taste of his own medicine. 

One morning, he rushed into his office to answer a ringing phone and, picking up the receiver, he realised it was upside down.

By the time the call was over, he realised that she'd flipped over everything in the room, like a Roald Dahl book.


Later, on a work trip, he opened his luggage, unballed his socks, and fistfuls of the paper dots from a hole puncher rained down like confetti.

The cleaner had outsmarted him again.


She liked working at the barracks. She belted out songs in the band's building and ate the four course dinners on offer from army catering school graduates seeking to practice their skills.

"I was blind drunk by the end," she admits, "cocktails, wine, schnapps: the CO's wife had to take me home."

The soldiers were fun to work with. She enjoyed their games - stealing each other's office mascots, kidnapping the commanding officer's chickens to use as the prize in a chook raffle - and held her own in the teasing, pranking environment.

She was sent to work in a "secret squirrel building" where they had to close all the office doors when she cleaned, turn off computers as she entered the room, and a soldier supervised her at all times.

They made her an honorary member of the army band and gave her a plaque for serving in the unit.


"Cleaning woman wasn't my first career choice, but it was the only thing I could get. Even though I didn't want to do it, there was progression: from the bowlo to the army, from cleaning to the canteen, and finally to the hospital."

I think about those secret army offices, and all the things she might have seen, in homes and private offices too. 

She laughs. "I didn't take any notice. In my eyes, that would be a breach of trust. If I put headphones in when I work, it's so I don't hear what they're talking about. The less I know, the more I don't want to get in trouble for knowing."

"I don't enjoy the job, but the relationships you build with the people count, even if it's just for a couple of weeks in a burned-out building."

"Some people don't want to associate with a cleaner - but I've always made them take notice. I think it's sad not to be part of the place where you work. Cleaning is a demanding job, a physical job - and a mental challenge, too, if you work alone."

If people imagine that magic fairies are cleaning up after them, she makes sure that they know she exists.

"Staples drive me nuts," she tells me. "This one office, there'd always be staples in the carpet, which are really had to get out."

"There was a whiteboard next to the desk where it happened. I got the shits, had really had enough. I drew evil eyes on the board, with a warning: I AM WATCHING YOU - DON'T PUT STABLES ON THE FLOOR, PUT THEM IN THE BIN."

"The staples stopped after that. And they left the evil eyes up there!"

She works in customer service now, but her last cooking and cleaning job was in a rehab hospital. She remembers some of the capers almost as fondly as the old army stories, like the klepto who would take away the dishes after dinner, wash them in the ensuite, and store them in a chest of drawers.

But the one patient who sticks with her was nineteen years old, "her brain fried on drugs". 

"I'd bring her brekkie every day. A lot of staff didn't bother to acknowledge her, because she seemed totally unresponsive. But she followed me with her eyes as I pottered about the room, saying what a beautiful day it was and here was her meal."

"After a month, I came in one morning and asked how she was - she said, 'I'm good, thanks.' My jaw nearly hit the floor. A few weeks later and she'd get up, dress herself, and go and interact with the other patients. And five weeks after that she was gone."

"I don't pretend I made all the difference, but I think it was worth my time and energy to tell her hello every day, to notice her as a human being."


One more story from the army days: her nemesis went to work as 2IC in someone else's office. When it got to his last day, she set up a final trap. She'd saved scrap paper for weeks, stuffed it into a garbage bag, and then tricked it out over the office door with a paperclip that would rip it open when he entered.

Something went wrong and when he stepped through, the bag remained suspended there. He saw, and felt bad. Slashed it open himself, and let it scatter all over him.

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