Don’t ask her, she’s just the cleaner

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 36, Winter 1997/98.

Here Norah Al-Ani describes her experience of, and feelings about, working as a cleaner in a Women’s Resources Centre. The piece was originally written in 1987 for a collection of writings by young women, Surviving the Blues: Growing Up in the Thatcher Decade (Virago 1990). Ten years later, Norah Al-Ani still works at the Centre as a course co-ordinator.

When I first started working at the Centre I was fourteen. My aunt asked me one day if I’d like to earn a little pocket money doing some cleaning at her workplace.

I knew nothing about the Centre; I’d never even heard of it before. I started work assuming that my aunt had employed me and that she was my boss, but as time went on — approximately six months — I discovered quite accidentally that the Centre was non-hierarchical and a co-operative.

With this new-found information I was thrown into confusion: (1) Who was I answer­able to? (2) Who paid my wages? (3) Who do I complain to? As time went by the more frustrat­ing the job became. Although I was only there for an hour a day, that was sufficient time to realise that I was a very insignificant member of the Centre. I was never told anything. I’d always be the last one to know when the Centre was shut, when people borrowed the cleaning equipment, etc. It wasn’t until I’d been there a year that, again by mere accident, I found out that men were not permitted to enter the building.

It became quite an adventure finding things out in this way.

Cleaning is one of the world’s most hideous jobs — I HATE IT. If it weren’t for the money I’d have left exactly one day after I’d started! When you do it nobody notices, but when you don’t everybody does. It’s positively degrading picking up other people’s sanitary towels from the floor and scraping out the bottom of a dustbin after someone has thrown up in it.

I found myself apologising for being in a room, for using the hoover. I constantly felt in everyone’s way. I felt too inadequate ever to join in a conversation concerning the Centre. There were also physical difficulties with the job. I would sometimes miss my last bus home simply because I was too afraid to ask people to leave a room because I wanted to clean it. As the Centre is an informal place people would come in late, in distress or just for a chat, and there followed the birth of the art of cleaning around people — one of the world’s most frustrating things ever to exist.

There came a point, approximately one year later, when I began to feel unneeded. I was convinced that someone, somewhere, felt that my job was a waste of time and money.

There followed the skiving stage. A period of time in which I couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, bring myself to go within a mile of the Centre. What with thinking no one appreciated my work and worrying that I was to be got rid of.

I was bitterly ashamed of my job and the Centre for a long time. When people asked me what I did, I’d say ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’. When the question arose as to where I did it, the reply would be ‘in an office’. I didn’t know what went on in the Centre and so felt stupid if asked questions about it.

I had always considered my job as the lowest of the low, and knew that’s how the world viewed it. All the old stereotypes come to mind: Mrs Mop, no brains required for the job, only thick people cleaned up other people’s shit for money. Miserable middle-aged women unfit for anything else.

At first I went into the job knowing and accepting these views, but in no time at all I’d burn up inside when women looked at me in the same way they’d look at the contents of the toilet I was cleaning.

The thing I hated most — and still do — is not feeling a part of anything, not knowing who the people were that I cleaned up after, and most of all feeling guilty about asking for my wages. But above all I hated not knowing who to turn to when someone or something upset me, and so my dearest and most loyal friend, who stuck by me through all my ordeals, the hoover, suffered badly! I have lost count of how many times I damaged the hoover out of frustration. It wasn’t much of a listener.

One such incident stands ont in my memory. I was hoovering the big room upstairs and feeling very sorry for myself about not being able to do anything better than clean. The more I hoovered, the more angry I got about everything. I stubbed my toe on a chair and before I could think I’d picked up the hoover and was just about to throw it through the window. It was held above my head ready for off when I remembered it cost £11 to replace a window­pane and I earned only £10.

I never really truly considered myself as a worker. I can never see myself up there with the teachers, co-ordinator this and co-ordinator that, and I say ‘up there’ because that’s what it looks like from where I’m standing. After all, I am only there for an hour a day. My loss is impor­tant but me, Norah, I am replaceable in a flash. My job may be as important as teaching, but the teacher is more important than me.

Some of these thoughts are stated in the past tense, but many — maybe too many — are stated in the present tense.

Meanwhile time passes, approximately three years, and one fine day my little world of cleaning is turned on its head. What’s this I hear, people actually taking the time and trouble to explain things to me, all those unanswered questions of many moons ago! With amazement I hear people speak in my defence. Is that the sound of concern I hear in the distance? For the first time the centre spotlight was on me!

Everybody ‘understands’. They have done all along, but just forgot to let me know. I am asked my opinion on things, which I forgot I had. Compliments come my way: ‘Why, this is not just a job, it’s an art form in disguise!’ Is that a thank you I hear struggling to make itself heard over the hoovering? And to put the cherry on the top of the cake … A PAID HOLIDAY!

With all my new-found fame and fortune came knowledge! Oh that wonderful milk of life l’d been waiting for from my first day! Know­ledge handed to me on a silver plate. What more could I want? . . . TO HAND IT ALL RIGHT BACK!

Oh yes, I got what I’d been screaming for: ‘All you ever wanted to know about the Centre but were afraid to ask’. And how wonderful it all looked on paper and how magical it all sounded. The ideals, the aims, the very roots of the place l’d been working in for so long. Oh yes, it was all so enlightening, I would almost go as far as to say it was a spiritual experience, but I won’t!

Equality for all women amongst women. The chance to relax and be yourself, express yourself with no fear of ridicule. Non-hierar­chical, ‘everybody is as significant and impor­tant as the next woman’. It’s all very lovely on paper if you don’t look too closely.

But one question remains: if all these policies and ideals founded the Centre and nurtured it, then why oh why have I just written the last three pages? Surely I couldn’t have imagined it all, could I?! It’s harder now than ever it was, simply because of having the knowledge that the Centre states that it intends to do one thing and yet never quite seems to follow it through.

Dare I say it, but wouldn’t it be easier working somewhere that blatantly admits it’s a bastard of a system, at least you’d feel justified to just spit in its face, but working somewhere that wants to be fair and caring but finds it hard to do so .

It’s like potty-training a child, you know you hate them shitting on the Persian rug, but you know they’re trying and that they might make it to the potty in time next time!

I might just say that despite everything l’ve said, I think I can find a place in my heart for the old place, and I know l’ve been treated fairly well and am grateful for the wage I got from it. Maybe I could write another essay one day about all the good times I’ve had. But it’s so hard to see things — anything — nicely when you’re standing knee-deep in other people’s crap.

But with my hand on my heart I can say that one of the nicest things ever to come out of the Centre are some of the people; to hear them thank me and be comforting means more to me than my hoover, and that’s really saying something. But the one thing l’ve come to realise more and more over the years is that cleaning is important — it’s a bastard, but it’s as important as almost anything — but the people who do it aren’t.

So there you have it: what happened, what didn’t happen, what I got, but most of all what I want- forgot to mention it earlier: to work on reception.