I’m thinking about home
I’m thinking about faith
I’m thinking about work
The city is different at this hour. The office clerks and counter staff are still in their beds. The bairns are just beginning the long holidays. And the sky is soft and expansive over the Tay.
Where the Nethergate and Marketgait meet, the pavements are a reek of fags, and a bustle of women in jeans on their way to the early cleaning shift.
Thatcher is barely out the door, and good riddance. Meantime, the only women to be seen in the management corridors at Tayside Police HQ on Pitt Street are the ones hoovering and dusting it.
I’m on summer cleaning cover there, July to September 1991, just ahead of my final year studying Philosophy at Dundee University.
My colleagues, Ruth and Helen, are sisters in law, pals, who married two brothers. They scan ‘The Tully’ The Evening Telegraph each week for news of weekend weddings, and compile a hit list. Then on Saturday, the two of them don smart coats and hover around kirks in the nether regions of the city, waiting for newly wed strangers to emerge.
On our Monday morning tea break, they report on veils and flowers, voile and lace extravaganzas, and gravity-defying hair-dos.
Sometimes there’s an autopsy.
Should’ve seen the state of that bride at Ardler, says Helen, thon looked like an under baked meringue.
Aye, and hardly a penny for they bairns, says Ruth, Roosty pooches! The disgrace of it!
The scrammie, or scramble, the tossing of coins for luck as the couple get into their bridal car, is a matter of some honour.
Ruth works Forensics. It’s my favourite shift, with floors you could check your make-up in, not that I wore any at the time. Ruth does, mind you. She’s immaculately turned out every single day. Suntan. Gem crusted rings. Hair curled and piled high on her head, Bet Lynch style.
Forensics is the only department with a buffer.
You know that rush of air that goes past you as a kid when, after weeks of shoogly stuttering, suddenly, you can ride your bike, all by yourself? Mastering the buffer is like that. For half an hour it’s a wild beast, clattering the skirting of the Forensics lobby. And then, click! It’s as if Torvill and Dean have swept across the ice.
Buffing a floor is a delicious meditative drone. I can tell from the way Ruth shadows me that she feels the very same. And takes pride in the literal sheen of her work. She wouldn’t swap this patch for any other in the building.
By contrast, there’s no glamour whatsoever in cleaning policemen’s lavvies. Marianne’s shift is in the basement. Same level as the cells, where she works as an occasional turnkey too.
Jakies and junkies, she says, when I ask her what it’s like working nights. The jakies are mostly older men, homeless, drunk and harmless. Poor souls that reek of pish, says Marianne, just needing a bed.
The addicts are different. More volatile. You have to watch for needles when you’re frisking, she explains, with the AIDS and that.
At the time around half of Dundee’s intravenous heroin users were HIV+. There was a lass in my first year philosophy tutorial class who disappeared for a few months because she was indeterminately ill. She came back the following year, and made public that she was HIV+. Her boyfriend had been using. She’d got it from him. It was a bold thing to tell at the time. We were all so scared still, and so ignorant.
In the basement bogs at Pitt Street, the standard-issue cleaning product was a tall aerosol canister of thick white foam. It absorbed the urine traces from the seats and tiles, turning it yellow, like snow that a dog’s been at. The best you could say of the job was that it made a palpable difference.
It was muggy down there, and it reeked of stale sweat and testosterone. The basement housed the shower block, which was the only part of the building where I didn’t feel entirely safe. There was a PC who cycled to work, and he’d shower before his shift began. I never cared for the way he looked at me, at my bare legs, with his chin up and his head slunk back on his neck. I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was hoping I’d walk in on him, hairy and half naked at a bench.
He’d never have tried any of that patter with Marianne, I tell you.
Martha is almost certainly not much older than me, and morbidly obese. Her size and inflexibility make it impossible for her to get into some of the manky crevices that a cleaner needs to get into. Everyone knows this, because they’ve all covered her shift at one time or another, and found it dangerously wanting.
When she’s out of earshot, they moan something terrible about it, and about the coke cans and sweeties that she stashes all over the place. But still the others reach the parts they know she’ll miss. Discretely, they clean up after her, so she won’t be found out.
It’s kindness. And pride. And solidarity.
This, after all, is the city of Mary Brooksbank, an ex-Communist mill worker, labour activist and songwriter, whose jute-mill inspired song Oh Dear Me will, less than twenty years hence, will be etched into Iona marble on the Canongate wall of a new Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
Oh dear me, the warld’s ill-divided
them that work the hardest are aye wi least provided
It will happen so soon, this new Parliament. And yet, in the summer of 1991, we can scarcely imagine it’s possible at all.
But imagining is where it all begins.
At tea break on Mondays, after Ruth and Helen’s bridal lowdown, Martha talks about Paolo. He’s from a well-to-do Italian family in The Ferry, she tells me, pulling a photo of a handsome dark haired young man from her pocket.
He looks nice, I say.
Ruth shoots me a glance. And when Martha’s lumbered away again, she turns to me, sharply,
Paolo disnae exist. Just so you as know, she sighs. But let the lassie have her boyfriend.
This revelation from Ruth is neither a mockery nor a betrayal. No. She’s telling me this in order to protect Martha. So we all have the measure of each other. So we all have each other’s backs.
Let the lassie have her boyfriend.
Dundee has its very own localised word for dick. Toby.
The desk sergeant is a toby.
Thinks she’s fucking stupid, says Ruth.
Front desk is Betty’s patch. Betty looks like a younger version of my granny, with her Tweedy skirts and bottle bottom specs. She has a studied line in vacuity. I reckon I would’ve figured this out myself. But Helen and Ruth put me right before I have to.
See Betty, says Helen, always playing the joker. Christ knows it’s easier that way.
But you, Ruth spins to point an immaculately manicured nail right at me, don’t you think for a minute you’re the only clever one here.
Betty writes letters to the editor of The Evening Telegraph. Indeed, she’s only recently been engaged in a printed spat about the merits, or otherwise, of the first Gulf War. The target of her pen is a regular letters page correspondent. Double-barrelled name. Ex-military.
She was the Dux at the school, says Ruth, Douglas Academy.
Could’ve done anything, chimes Helen, anything.
Had a bairn, says Ruth.
It’s not clear that Betty has ever mentioned her letter writing to anyone. It’s discussed in hushed tones. She writes under her maiden surname, and Sunday-best Elizabeth. This is not writing in order to be noticed. Or applauded. It’s writing from a deeper place, for a deeper purpose.
Nevertheless it’s noted in the caretaking staffroom. Quietly. Proudly. The front desk sergeant doesn’t need to know. It’s an act of invisible defiance that he doesn’t.
At the end of my second summer of cleaning at Tayside Police HQ, six weeks after picking up an MA in Philosophy, Derek, Head of Janitorial Services, offers me a full-time job as a turnkey in the cells.
It’s better paid than the cleaning, he says. I’m flattered by the offer. It means I’m trusted, and liked, and that Marianne, down in her sweaty basement patch, thinks I’ve enough steel in me to manage the poor souls and addicts on the night shift.
I never took up the offer, so I’ll never know if she was right. Instead, I took a part time post as a philosophy tutor at the University. The worst I had to deal with was the occasional indignant young guy who couldn’t bear the idea of a young woman in green steely Doc Martens critiquing his Wittgenstein essays.
I felt anything was possible then. And one of the greatest advantages some of us have over others is this belief that you can, that you’re entitled to try.
And when all things are not possible, we do our best.
Ruth’s Forensic Department floors were gorgeous. And in her weekend wedding watching with Helen, she went fishing for glamour outside those churches on the edge of Dundee.
Martha cherished the photo of the non-existent Paolo that she kept in her overall pocket (let the lassie have her boyfriend). And those women around her looked out for her, and looked after her.
And Betty wrote lucid letters to the papers whilst allowing the desk sergeant to think she was a total daftie. It was a question of survival, of self-respect.
Maybe the dream itself is everything?
Maybe it’s enough?
Maybe it’s a start?