In this second excerpt from his book Read Rees, Gareth Rees relates the daily challenges of cleaning out HM Naval Base, Portsmouth. Having written a letter to protest ‘village fascism masquerading as robust management’, Gareth is dreading the fallout…
During a long four-day weekend I went on an outing to Bosham with my friend Charlene. We picked some apples from a tree whose branches protruded over a garden wall, and tried to feed them to horses. Then we sat on a little bridge and dangled our bare feet in the water. It always seems that the sun shines on our outings.
A lot of that long weekend though, I was living under a cloud of infantile emotion. It was like being nine years old again when, instead of watching out for the safety of the boy running to leap over the wooden horse in the gym, I made silly faces and distracted him so that he fell badly and broke his arm. I spent the whole weekend fearing the attention of the headmaster on Monday morning and a probable caning. The caning never happened though, demonstrating that worry is probably a waste of energy. But did I learn that? Decades later, I am dreading the face of my line manager – I’ll call her M1 from now on – when I return to work, sure in the knowledge that she will have read the letter I’ve sent to management. She is probably going to push me into my cleaning materials cupboard and force down my throat an undiluted, lethal dose of Hard Surface cleaner!
This doesn’t happen. On the contrary, when I arrive for work, I am greeted with the utmost friendliness. Is it fake though? Later in the morning, another member of the workforce says how he’d greeted M1 with a ‘Good morning’ but received no reply. ‘She blanked me,’ he said.
I wonder if the letter I sent was actually received? It must have been. The Royal Mail is very reliable. Anyway, I’ve had no response. I think I read somewhere that company policy is that a reply should be received within three days. The lawyer in me says to check this out.
As usual, I fill in the form showing what cleaning materials I needed and, as usual, I haven’t received them.
I report a broken hand-towel dispenser. No action on this. Broken hand-towel dispensers don’t look good. This eats at the remaining residue of pride in my work.
My “wet floor” sign has disappeared. It’s nothing short of outrageous. If I mop without one, management gets upset. But I shouldn’t mop anyway with the toxic beast I’ve been using for weeks, even though I’ve been asking for a new one for what seems like an eternity. Had an explosion of dust when I checked my vacuum bag. No-one has offered me a replacement bag. I can’t vacuum then.
I overheard M2 say to a cleaner, ‘Supplies may be difficult this week. I’m on my own.’
The bell is tolling nine a.m. from the clock tower on the other side of the parade ground. The parade ground is a car park now. I wonder about history. Isn’t this place the oldest military base in the world? Did sailors parade here before setting off for the Battle of Trafalgar?
I was going, once again, to report the woeful supply or non-supply of cleaning materials but it’s getting boring and I think the point has been made.
A military base in peacetime can’t help reflecting an apathy of spirit. And it’s hardly likely to be the location of an inspired, creative management team. So I’ll try and lay off grumbling for a while.
The people on my floor are only here for the short-haul and hardly have a stake in promoting a pleasant environment for themselves. That’s why, when they come in at night pissed, they sometimes piss on the floor instead of down a toilet bowl.
Some people are doing their last days before leaving the Royal Navy. Some are being chucked out after a court martial. One guy I spoke to yesterday was just staying the night, having flown from Bahrain to attend a course. When he arrived they had no record of him so he had to make his way back to the Gulf.
There are marines here waiting for flights to Iraq and Afghanistan. Once, I found a bullet left in a drawer. It was snub-nosed, not pointed, so as to effect, I was told, not a ‘clean’ but a very messy entry into the body of the enemy.
It’s not a happy atmosphere. What do people read? The Sun, the News of the World, Nuts magazine. Those going to Iraq receive pamphlets which describe the history of Iraq and its customs, Arabic and Islamic.
Upstairs, where I used to work, it’s brighter, probably because the residents, being trainees for the Royal Marines Band, are musicians first and soldiers second and only then because it’s a way of being paid. Their eclectic collections of CDs impressed me. They’re a mixed group of men and women whereas my floor is all-male and I’ve never been one for all-male environments.
At about eleven p.m., whilst taking out rubbish, I bump into M2 and, with little hope in my heart, I ask if she can sort me out with a vacuum cleaner bag and a “Wet Floor” sign. ‘Yesterday,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t put away my sign as the floor was still wet when it was time to go home.’
‘It went walkies, did it?’ she said. In no time, she sorted me out with a new sign and a vacuum cleaner bag. She was most affable.
But then my fellow cleaner Chris came to get some floor cleaner fluid from me. She expressed bitter things about management. The same old story; lack of supplies and a managerial view of cleaners as inherently lazy and, as such, in need of constant policing.
Chris said how her mother brought her up to tell the truth so she was really upset when management expressed disbelief over something she’d said. M2 had rolled her eyes which had upset Chris. I said exactly the same had happened to me, that I was made to feel like some kind of hopeless case because I hadn’t known where the tea room was. I’d said, ‘There’s no need to roll your eyes. I’m part-time. I don’t have a break so I don’t have a need for a tea room.’
Residents depart and leave things behind. Apparently, it’s theft to pocket any of this stuff. A lot of people disdain copper change and today, I was sat on the floor with my shoes off counting a load of pennies and two pence pieces seemingly just flung about. M2 arrived on the scene. She looked at me for a while, searching for an appropriate comment. At last, she said, in a tone of light admonishment, ‘Please put on your shoes, Gareth.’ She’d come bearing wonderful news. She had for me a new mop-head. When I went to attach the good news to a handle though, I had difficulty so I went upstairs to seek assistance from Chris. She had the necessary technique and when she’d done the job for me she reckoned she was deserving of a kiss.
One bloke had scattered his small change before departing. Another had left behind a load of technical stuff which fell under the label “Restricted”. It was all about electronic warfare and I resolved to sneak the stuff out – I’ve not been searched in the three years I’ve been here– and do the rounds of the embassies in London, starting with the French.
Espionage begins with rubbish bins, doesn’t it? Once I found a piece of paper depicting the electronics of a brand new naval ship. Another cleaner told me she found out from a rubbish bin how a ship sailed all the way to the gulf only to find that its weapons didn’t fit their launchers.
Today, along with all the stuff on electronic warfare, I found a copy of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and a book by Robert Graves called The White Goddess.
If Robert Graves wrote Goodbye To All That then I’ve read him. After he experienced the hell of the trenches in World War I, he went home to write about it in the middle of the night, the only time he had available because, in the day, he had to look after his four children, his wife being absent as a result of a breakdown of some kind.
In The White Goddess, he refers to Job in the Bible asking what I’ve always been asking. ‘Where shall wisdom be found and where is the place of understanding?’ I love Graves’ answer. ‘The answer is under the apple tree, in the season of apples, by pure meditation, on a Friday when the moon is full.’
It’s looking like I could spend years studying this book but it’s over five hundred pages of small print and I really need to go and scrape some naval shit from a number of toilet bowls and then go to London with my secrets.
It’s ten a.m… Eat a banana and then a little outing to the rubbish bins to break the monotony. Weather dank and grey. Inner weather much the same. Maybe a result of too much beer last night.
A marine was packing his bags and I said, ‘Off to Afghanistan?’ He said, ‘No. Not long back from there. Off to London.’ A part of me wanted to engage in conversation, to find out about his experiences. Maybe he’d done some killing. But did I really want to hear about that?
When I arrived at work, M1 said the head manager wanted to see me at a quarter to nine. I went to his office and he showed me the letter I’d sent two weeks ago. I agreed, of course, that the complaint made against me had to be investigated and that I was guilty, that I had been sitting on a bed glancing at a book. But I said how I’d been exasperated because I couldn’t get on with my job due to lack of supplies. I don’t come to work to kill time. I have plenty of time for books at home. I come to work for a rest from cerebral matters through physical work.
A burning ball of a sun was rising as I walked to work today. Golden trees in the park and a white squirrel. A departing resident left behind a packet of McVitie’s chocolate-coated digestive biscuits. They were delicious and I felt it was only right to share them.
I ascended the stairs to find other cleaners. Abdul, on the third floor, declined a biscuit. I couldn’t find Marjorie on the second floor. I found Chris on the first floor and she accepted a biscuit, saying she’d eat it later. I wondered if she was being polite. She’d told me she’d been to a dieting club so perhaps she was thinking of throwing it away. I told her I’d unsuccessfully tried to hunt down Marjorie so I could ‘give her one’. I heard some giggling and turned round to see Marjorie standing at an open door. She’d heard what I’d said and apparently found it funny. I mentioned Abdul. He’s one of the very few male cleaners here. He’s quiet, good-looking, an Afghan. I wonder what he thinks when he cleans the rooms of soldiers going to and from his country. I’d like to talk to him more but am shy of being intrusive. Who knows what pain I might evoke if I asked him what made him leave his faraway home. He has told me he’s married and has four daughters. He also said there’s a north/south divide in Afghanistan. The Taliban come from the south and he was from the north. There’s another bloke called Kieran. I’ve not spoken to him but Chris has told me he’s funny and that he’s been to university in Spain and Cambridge.
And there’s David. Chris told me that, like herself, he’s been treated for depression. When I’ve spoken with him though, he’s full of good cheer. On summer days, he likes to take his guitar and miniature amplifier down to the rock gardens to play. He’s also got a boat which he takes as far as Chichester Harbour to do his fishing.
Well, this is the first entry for ages because the oppressive regime which prompted the diary seems to have gone. Sadly though, there was some unpleasantness today.
Every now and again, the Navy inspects the buildings we clean and, of course, management, fearing for its own good name, puts the pressure on the bottom caste, to see to it that everything is more spick and span than usual. There is an insinuation that when inspections are not afoot we are our normal feckless selves. This is not quite fair and I have to put on the record that the new M1 has expressed appreciation for the workers on more than one occasion. The old regime never once did.
Today though, it felt like the old days. The new M2 called together all the workers in my building and we assembled on my territory which was then inspected. That heavy word ‘filthy’ was employed yet again and of course it was a comment on my work – or lack of it. It wasn’t mentioned that my place of work is the most soul-destroying and the most difficult to keep clean in the whole establishment. It also needs to be said that these ‘filthy’ remarks were made in front of Kieran and Mandy. That wasn’t good management.
Mel, a fellow cleaner, told me that her husband had committed suicide. I didn’t ask questions, didn’t ask her to expand. But we both got talking to Chris about how you can or can’t recover from shattering events. Jodie was talking about her difficulty with trusting men after having been abducted and sexually abused by a man when she was four.
And then Mel spoke about losing her husband. And this time I did ask her about it. They were on their honeymoon in Spain. Mel, on her own, was just coming into the hotel when she heard something crash behind her. The receptionist thought somebody had tossed a suitcase from way up in the high-rise building but Mel instantly knew it was her husband. She was amazed how intact his body was considering the great height he’d fallen. But his brains were leaking out and there was a lot of blood. Using his blood, she made a sign of the cross on his body because she was concerned that he’d not been baptised. Talking to me, I think about ten years after this event, Mel told me she had feared for him beforehand because she knew her husband had a fascination for death. It cost £5000 to bring back the body.
Another cleaner I’d spoken to some months back suffered in a similar way. She’d also been talking about the love of her life in the past tense so I asked her how the affair had ended. She said her lover had become a crack addict and she’d been saying but not meaning that she was going to leave him if he didn’t get off the drug. He jumped from the window and it was another high-rise situation. This too had happened about ten years ago.
When Mandy finished her story, she looked at me a while and then exclaimed, ‘I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve been able to talk about this without breaking down.’ She seemed pleased, perhaps liberated even.
The above is an excerpt from the book Read Rees by Gareth Rees, published by 137 Albion Road books. Buy it here.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.