diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Eleven hours after I get to work, they arrive. Normally I'm long gone by then, but sometimes our two worlds cross. Every evening they gather on the comfy seats in reception, awaiting the signal to proceed inside. Here they chatter to one another, in some mother tongue that isn't English, while the last stragglers of the working day file out of the building. Then it's on through the security gates to the storeroom at the foot of the stairs to retrieve their implements - a cloth, a mop, a pack of binliners, that sort of thing - and they're ready to go. They're the cleaners, and London wouldn't function without them.

The first I ever see, if I'm still around, is a protective blue tunic emerging from the lift. It's nice to have some company when you're working late, even if conversation isn't really on the cards. I watch from the corner of my eye as they empty the recycling bins, clearing away all those pointless sheets of paper we've spewed from the printer throughout the day. Unnecessary emails, unwanted reports, superfluous spreadsheets, jammed A3, all cleared from the premises so that we can waste another small forest tomorrow.

Every desk gets a few seconds of cursory attention. A quick rub down with a slightly damp cloth, the bin emptied, and move on. There's no attempt to dust behind the monitor or give the keyboard a scrub - these might get a once a year special seeing to if we're lucky. And definitely no attempt to move anything, be it a stack of papers or a pile of paperclips, because we'd all complain in the morning if they dared to rearrange our daytime world. They know their place, and we think we know ours.

Eventually the cleaning cavalry approaches my desk. It's a bit awkward because I'm trying desperately to get my day's work finished without interruption, and so are they. A weak smile passes between us, and also a quick "hello" (because it's the only common vocabulary we think we share). I really should say "thank you", but I never do because I fear it might sound somehow patronising. Sorry, you're not going to be able to rub my bits yet - maybe later once I've gone.

I wander over to the photocopier to pick up a copy of my evening's labours. I carefully avoid the trailing cable, the mop bucket and the large industrial hoover left obliquely across the gangway. Positioned directly outside the stairwell is one of those portable yellow plastic warning signs, the sort you're always bumping into in McDonald's. I note that the sign says "Warning - wet floor", which seems a little unnecessary because the office is fully carpeted. I'm sure the poor team are just following instructions.

Returning to my desk I plonk down my still-warm document... onto a fresh damp patch of dilute disinfectant. Never mind, I can always print it out again. My work now complete I start to shut my workstation down, then throw a last couple of screwed-up post-it notes into my waste paper bin. Job creation, I'm afraid.

Time for one last guilty smile towards the cleaners before I go. I suspect I've earned more today than they'll earn all week, or probably longer. I wonder how many mouths their minimum wage has to feed, or how few rooms they and their flatmates have to rattle around in back home. As I stand by the lift, waiting for it to whisk me away to my more fortunate existence, I look back towards my vacated desk. Look, the cleaner's already in there with the hoover, scraping around on the floor, ticking off another of the evening's tiny tasks. I wonder if I'll even think to notice in the morning.

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