Sometimes a personality comes into your life, touches you in a way you can barely describe and then leaves, never to be seen again. You’re left with an indelible mark on your soul which the years cannot touch and you simply can’t deny, even if you wanted to, though words might fail.
Angie was just such character; and a ‘character’ she certainly was. To this day, I can’t see a cleaning woman without automatically thinking of her and I have gone out of my way, time and again over the years, to chat with – even befriend – the women who clean up after us day after day. I can’t imagine what some of them must have thought of me, a strange, gawky chap not merely not ignoring them – as most tend to – but spending real time with them, chatting, finding out who they are, their lives, their loves – what matters to them. To find out one is having problems with her wayward son at high school, another is saving up to marry her boyfriend or that one recently divorced while some other has just recovered from cancer. They’re all different; all unique.
Undoubtedly, I made not a few feel uncomfortable; not, I hope, through being creepy or pervy in some way, but because I’ve engaged with them in conversation at all and treated them like genuine real human beings – which they are, of course. It has always seemed completely common sense to me that cleaning women do a valuable job and deserve respect.
Most of us don’t clean up our office spaces, our hospital wards, our school classrooms yet somehow every day when we come to work our bins are empty, the floors are clean, the cobwebs are gone and we pay absolutely no attention whatsoever to all this when we begin our work. These women come in hours before we do or stay for hours after we leave so that we only glimpse them coming as we’re going or vice versa. What a lonely existence it must be?
We only notice, it seems when (shock, horror) our bin hasn’t been emptied properly for the second time that month and we’re outraged that these imbeciles can’t even do something as simple as that correctly – without once considering the irony that we contribute nothing to the clearing of our mess and 100% to creating it in the first place. Our little hissy fits about the missed bins are as silly as a baby telling off its mommy for not quite wiping off every bit of gloopy food from its chin after she’s fed it every mouthful. So I try to make sure any cleaning woman working on my area knows I acknowledge them as a human being and I’m grateful for their work which makes my job possible.
You may think I’m being sexist to refer to them as cleaning women and you may have a point; but in nearly twenty-five years of working life I don’t think I’ve met a single cleaning man (though I’m sure they exist). If I met one, I’m sure I’d try to accord him the same sense of dignity and worth I feel for the women. But I’ve never met one and so, for the time being, I’ll continue to refer to cleaning women rather than the androgynous ‘staff’ or ‘person’ no matter how politically correct such terms might be.
Please don’t make the mistake that I’m being ‘holier-than-thou’ with all this selfless, charitable behaviour: I’m not; really I’m not. If it wasn’t for Angie having been there so early in my life I am absolutely certain I would ignore and disregard them as most of the general public do. I only think of the cleaning staff because each one immediately makes me think of her and I smile at them almost as a reflex action. I’m also painfully aware that there must be many other kinds of people I meet out there in the real world who I pay scant attention to. Who thanks the dustbin men who take our rubbish each week? Who notices the beautifully stacked shelves in our supermarkets? Who pays any thought to those who make sure gas and electricity make it to our homes each day? Who thanks the bus or train driver for getting us to our destinations swiftly and safely? Who is grateful for the lorry driver – blocking our way on the road though he may be – for hauling goods all over the country so we can have our luxuries at home? Not I, I am ashamed to admit. I suspect you should be ashamed too.
I thank God for Angie, however. More than anyone else at the Home, she was the one who made me feel safe. She made us all feel safer – and that was no mean feat.
To continue reading this story please buy the book ‘The Old Man on the Beach and other stories’ available January 2015.
Copyright © 2014 D K Powell