How best to describe it – the ache in my chest? There were the wings of sunlight through the blinds, the pearlescent sky; the smell of weed, like mouldy teabags. The sound of pigeons passing overhead, less a presence than the passage of time in a stirring of shadows over the yard, with its silently-standing fleet of white and blue.
I stood at the window and took it all in. So soon, so far behind. I was awake hours earlier, waiting for the tinge of dawn to bring answers. Caught between work and money, fear and doubt (in myself, in others, in every single decision I have yet to make – a crumpled sheet can never be smoothed out completely), head and heart.
I have a job to fall back into, albeit on reduced hours because of budget cuts. I’ve another job to tack on the side, to make up hours. It actually works out quite well, spreading shifts out and allowing me time to write (rather than waiting until evening, when I’m likely to nod off over the laptop.) I’m back with the friends I know; back with a company I trust only slightly more than the cunts who let me down at the research centre.
I’m going to the Citizens Advice Bureau to see if I have a case for compensation on the grounds of unfair dismissal. The fact I hadn’t “kept in contact” in the two weeks between interview date and first day, is – as I suspected – a negligible point, used to cover their own backs. The way the contractor tried to lump the blame on me says everything about the standard relationship between cleaners and recruitment staff. A sheet full of nameless numbers is hardly an organized approach to dealing with people’s lives and income. The saccharine laugh and fumbled joke of “well, at least only you turned up,” settled my decision to make an example of her, and the company she works for if possible. Any compensation I might receive would ease up my current financial crisis; the satisfaction of seeing them discredited, would ease up my mind if it forces them to review their treatment of staff.
Trouble is, all too often hospitality staff will be abused in this way because they don’t know how to question management, don’t have a clear view of their employee/contractual rights, or have no wish to cause trouble.
I’m going to cause trouble. Ten years in this line of work, dealing with a variety of characters and situations, has taught me enough to know what questions to ask and where to go for help. I can guarantee that if this company has shafted me, they’ve done it to someone else, if not several someones. And they’ll continue to do so, maybe even if I make a claim and win – but at least I can say I tried.
Four and a half years is a chapter of a life. I knew about the move long before my own cleaning company did. Suffice to say, they didn’t have the sort of contingency plans in place to persuade me not to look for other work. I knew about the budget cuts to the constabulary as much as anyone else – how it would affect not only the duties of officers on the beat and in the backrooms, but their numbers, as well as civilian staff, facility arrangements and wages. I would’ve been hard pressed not to notice the shift over the years. How everyone has had to change and adapt to fit government prescriptions of what policing is. How, in general, they just roll with it all and get on, as ever, working to as high standards as possible in the face of depleted means and (to my mind) policies lacking common sense. I can read about it all and still not fully comprehend how it must feel, to know you are getting less while expected to give more.
I had the privilege of knowing the station in her better years. The fellow at front desk, with eyes like wicked light on water and a dry-gin laugh; he was always on hand to help a frightened youngster come to pick up lost property, or a gruff fellow on bail. Standing in the slatted sunlight last Friday, I looked around and wondered at the small echoes, the spin-twirl of dust motes fetched up on my breath. I heard his laugh again, and knew us all as ghosts. Even when that building finally falls silent, when the gates close and are locked behind us, we’ll still walk as shadows over the walls. Our voices will ring down the corridors, the dice will rattle in the box for tea and coffee runs; printers will murmur, our footsteps will ring down the stairwells where I once stood at the corners, to listen and breathe in the moods of the day.
(Develop a knack for diving out of the way.)
Places like that leave their marks on you, on your mindset. That doesn’t come into the job description. I was and am part of a working family, for the first time in my life – I accept the company of others and am glad of it, for humour like the blackest coffee (wham in the chest and burn at the throat), the random treats and Post-It apologies (to let you know you’re human) and the nights out under the twinkling blue lights of the city, across a sprawl of pubs and bars – after a long shift, there’s nothing quite like soaking up the light of an afternoon in a beer garden, or listening to the chink of glasses that shine white and gold under lamplight.
With tottering towers of plates and mugs at the sinks, I learned the crucial difference between taking on more than my usual duties (as we all must, and theirs include the sort of reaction times that warrant more responsibility) and saying No, I’m not your bloody mother. Those musty teaspoons helped to loosen up my fastidiousness around eating and drinking, as per obsessive compulsions; and when you’re tearing around trying to keep up with whoever’s tracked in clods of Whatever on their boots, it pays to be flexible. Food becomes energy, not the Bad Guy.
This correlates with my gym exercise, which has progressed from a serious need to burn off everything I eat to a desperate urge to gain muscle, to keep up with my workload (and lay down crucial bone minerals for later life – I live in fear of being stuck in a wheelchair again.) I’ve gained about 2.5 kilos, hitting my “target weight range” in 2013 – that is, the swing-point deemed healthiest for my height and build, after sticking at the same low anorexic level since 2004. This is in no small part down to the practicality of the people I work with. I can’t honestly say they’re all the healthiest eaters in the world, but they get on with the job because they have more pressing things to attend to, and not a heck of a lot of time to do them in.
I’ve learned to do the same, though admittedly in a less pressured environment. But it means I can walk into a supermarket and not spend up to an hour agonizing over what to have for lunch or for a snack. These days, I’m just as likely to grab a Double Decker bar as a bunch of bananas. That kind of flexibility… I couldn’t dream of, even a year ago. It pays to keep pushing boundaries, to see how far you can go. It helps along the way, to feel a bit uncomfortable. Resignation also plays its part. I am approaching 30, have known illness and restrictive behaviours for almost half my life. As I was told in hospital – and I didn’t believe it at the time – there comes a point when you must face the consequences of your actions, asking *Who am I trying to impress, with this lifestyle? This body? This mindset? What am I running from, trying to deny or to control, when it’s only inhibiting my life?*
(Boredom, fear, anger, frustration at seeing others progress while leaving you behind … they all add up.)
When the new owners move in, or workmen with bulldozers, or whatever, they’ll find the remnants of Blu Tac over the door and walls of my cupboard, where I kept snippets of the inside of my head. Articles nail-torn from papers, and postcards of the German town where I once lived, given as presents by my favourite guv’nor. Battered photographs of my family. A little sticker of a marked car that had the misfortune to be drawn in such a wicked way, I dubbed it Christine. The small window with its old-newspaper light, set too high up on the wall for me to see anything other than a swatch of sky, with gulls and kites wheeling past like clock hands to mark the shift from afternoon to evening.
That sky became another world. Standing on the top floor, listening to the shifting stir of the wind through cracks in the ceiling, I could watch the sun move from one point of the horizon to another over the hours. Pearl dawn – afternoon haze – sunset fire. The windows cranked open with a shattering of paint, like chipped little teeth, to reveal a rushing blast of air that lifted my hair up and set all the birds to flight.
The horizon is a bluish line, calling me still. The bronzed buildings make a city skyline. All of our tomorrows, done up in heat and surging traffic and voices. Behind me, only the silent shades of another time – those desks and chairs and bins from offices below, long since emptied, brought to stand and wait for the end. Name plaques on walls, each letter filled with dust.
A vague smile, as I remember one friend (since moved on) who told me about the skipper who’d died of a heart attack on site, leaving his ghost to wander the top floor between the bar and the pool table. Of course I laughed it off; of course my skin riddled up, each time something moved at the corner of my vision.
Lamplight softens the world and makes jagged lines of our faces – unnatural shadows. The skirling blue of lights is an imprint of memories on the wall. The blip of a siren is a raised hand, as I wander home through the fall of snow – or at 2am from London, in need of a lift. For someone who’s grown accustomed to isolation, keeping my head down to get on with the job, it was an achievement to gain a nickname. I will always be “Rach” to a certain number of people.
You’ll have your own experiences and prejudices and fears. I won’t denounce or deny them, but only offer this – behind every fluorescent jacket is a life. Mistakes, hopes for improvement, if not appreciation. Behind the stern face is a person looking forward to seeing their partner, family, pets, home again, when shift is over. And when one of them does fall, it’s up to their colleagues to hold the line. With heightened security threats across Europe, solidarity is needed more than ever.
I still can’t know what it means to walk towards danger when others are going in the other direction. Standing behind tinted glass, I see the world but can’t claim to know how it all feels. The tape, the pub fights, the moments caught between aggressors who want nothing more than to cave in the other’s face. The glint of a knife. The smell of raw blood, the slow surge of blackened mould.
But I know the tired smiles and the humour, the hand-squeeze on the shoulder, the quiet cry on the sofa, the well-sugared tea and the coffee that could strip paint off the walls. The cake runs on birthdays, the laughter at ingenious presents for Secret Santa. The shadows under the eyes of night-shift, returning after an early (late) RTC.
The gentle giant who showed me around on my first day, spoils me with book tokens and bottles of my favourite rum, keeps his team going on healthy snacks… and has bailed me out on deliveries when no one at head office picks up the phone.
Every creak of the walls, with tears of rain running down green and black for an old lady quietly weeping with age when she thought no one was looking. Tilt of the air, the wind whip-whining about the outside corners and over the courtyard. The light moving over the walls. The way each office has its own personality.
Four and a half years to find I can let go of inhibitions and fears, and know empathy for people I’ve never met. To learn how to read across faces and between lines, where all our lives go, those hidden places. Teamwork is the difference between life and death. Family becomes synonymous with chaotic mess, the closest bond without blood.
No, there’s nothing in the job description about all this, and I’m glad. Some things, you can’t anticipate. You just take life as it comes.