I left the hotel when I became unable to go to sleep at night. I would lie in bed watching the red numerals of the alarm clock dripping slowly towards another day and finally drift off to dreams of bathroom sinks and hospital corners when I knew it was already too late to get a full night.
Another morning getting up at 3.45, making coffee and then slipping unshowered (no point in washing if you’re doing a cleaning job) onto my bike and slogging the 8 kilometres through the summer dawn to the City. Many colleagues got in early to avail themselves of the free breakfast in the staff canteen but I rarely made it. It was as much as I could do to get in to the break room, change out of my shorts into my green polyester pinny, the pockets still full of miniature toiletries, cleaning cloths and used tissues from the day before. My nose ran all that summer, and I had headaches all day at work.
Dressed and ready to go, I would join the 5am queue for printed sheets of our days’ rooms. If you hadn’t worked fast enough the day before or a manager had asked you to do a room over, you would get fewer rooms to clean that day. The printer was old and beige and ran faint green print over that old kind of paper with spool holes on each side. Towards the end I often came in last in the morning queue, with 10 or 12 rooms to do while other women had 25 or 30. Ten rooms was £20 before tax. A good-looking Italian couple, only five or six years older than me, who were living in London for the summer and had the rather more prestigious job of cleaning the corridors and the lobby, told me it was because I wasn’t ‘hungry’.
I wasn’t hungry enough to make beds with the lightning speed of the other women, humping a double or a king-size mattress into the air to tuck in all the sides, seemingly simultaneously. I wasn’t hungry enough to do a double shift- stay on from three for late arrivals, departures, room changes- and leave the building at midnight to return five hours later. I balked at cleaning toilet bowls with a cloth and my bare hands because it was quicker than using the brush, so I always had to waste precious time cleaning the toilet brush and the toilet brush holder. Heaven forbid a customer returned to discover evidence of their own shit inside the chrome toilet brush holder.
The blue powder we used on everything was basically neat bleach. Shake some over the chrome bathroom fittings; taps, towel rail, shower cord; and rub it off with a towel dipped in hottest water and they’d shine. Splash it onto the bathroom floor diluted one to five- the last thing you did before backing out of the room and flipping the ‘housekeeping’ sign on the doorhandle- and scrub backwards on your hands and knees. We all used the hand cream we left in the rooms in every break, but my hands were puffy, white and gradually the skin started coming off around the nails in chunks. We used the shower gel, soap and shampoo too, but our bags were often spot-checked on the service stairs after work. Sometimes a police officer was present at these checks.
When I finished at two or three in the afternoon I’d go to the canteen and eat mountains of food, enough to let me subsist on crème caramels and spaghetti hoops after work. The canteen fed all the staff in the hotel, not just the agency cleaners. I would have a big bowl of salad, bread, curry or hotpot or fish and chips and then every day there was a different cake. Banoffee pie, Black Forest gateau, sticky toffee pudding. I often had two pieces.
That was the summer of the first Big Brother. I can’t remember why we had a TV in the house that year- maybe Jay brought it when he came to stay?- but it was on every evening at nine o’clock. So six days a week, I would cycle home, switch on the box, drift off and then when it was time for Davina and Dermot to bring us the evening round-up, my brother would wake me up and we’d watch it together.
When I started crying every day on the cycle ride into town, I gave my week’s notice to the shift manager and skated through the last week. On my last day I got into terrible trouble with a supervisor, who found dust all along my skirting boards and a piece of toilet paper I had left in one of the toilet bowls. She made me go round all fifteen rooms with her, shouting at me all the timee she was ostentatiously straightening up the mess I had made. I went happily to the office to hand back my filthy pinny and my name-badge.
‘You’re working tomorrow,’ she told me.
‘No, I gave notice last Saturday,’ I replied confidently.
‘If you were leaving, it would be written down.’ She was pretty angry at me.
‘But I told J----!’
‘Come in tomorrow if you want to be paid for this week.’ So I did.