Saturday, December 03, 2011

Shine on

In summer 1988, at the end of my first year at Glasgow University, my boyfriend at the time, who was a medical student, got me a job at Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a domestic assistant (AKA cleaner). "The Royal" was a forbidding, time-blackened Victorian building between the M8 motorway and Alexandra Parade, complete with turrets and long dusty corridors; through the open windows you could see the beautiful, mysterious Necropolis in the distance and could sometimes hear the faint triumphalist piping sounds of Orange marches in the east end streets. A private company had the contract; the domestics, who were almost all women, had to wear a pale purple A-line uniform with white piping. Many of them were hard-bitten women in their forties who instinctively distrusted outsiders; unfortunately I ticked a lot of the wrong boxes, being a student, "English", studying for a law degree, and taking their jobs; I overheard one younger woman hissing to another "I hate that lassie!" as I left the locker room, and another took great pains to tell me that she couldn't afford Christmas presents for the weans this year. Most of them, though, were decent enough towards me under the circumstances; you'd be assigned to a more experienced domestic on each ward, and though a lot of them would set me to Herculean tasks such as cleaning the metal framework under patients' beds, a job clearly done so rarely that it looked like no one had ever attempted it before, and then sneak off to the "domestic services office" (mop cupboard) to stretch out the windows for an illicit fag, I had fun with some of them too and they taught me a lot.

That summer, I learned how popular Neighbours and Home and Away were: they were shown back to back on the BBC and ITV respectively, at lunchtime and just before dinner, and in every ward, even the terrible sweet-smelling burns ward where there were people in pretty bad shape, those who could walk walked, and those in wheelchairs were wheeled, along to the TV room at the end of the ward to watch every single episode, repeats and all. I enjoyed wheeling around the "maxpax machine" and asking patients if they wanted a cup of tea, coffee, hot chocolate or Bovril (a surprising number opted for the latter). I liked talking to the patients. But most of all I loved the glorious moment of clocking myself off at the end of a shift because I really didn't enjoy the atmosphere of fear and distrust, and in some cases bullying from senior managers, that seemed to be endemic within that company. Domestics were regarded by all other hospital workers as being right at the bottom of the food chain and in many cases treated accordingly. Also, the pay was pretty terrible; small wonder that the domestics seemed unhappy. They were doing a pretty important job, but being screwed by the company that employed them and looked down upon by everyone else.

I was pretty glad when the summer ended and I went back to university; I never worked there again, though they offered me a job the following summer. Some skills have stayed with me from that time, though: I can mop like a professional, make a floor shine with the unwieldiest of buffing machines, and leave a sink as clean as new. I also learned to appreciate the unseen, low paid workers who make things clean for everyone else.

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