Office Tales: The Cleaner

The post of part-time toilet cleaner required an interview with the man from the council. Soon after we shook hands, a chance remark uncovered a mutual interest in cross-country running.

I’d competed competitively at school and he was a born-again jogger, in the honeymoon phase. He pressed me enthusiastically for training tips and about my greatest moments slipping and schlepping around the local park. He was enthralled, his bored office face melting into one of childish glee. I simply enjoyed the attention as most of my races had been witnessed by one unimpressed man and his dog.

The interview was almost up by the time I wrapped up reminiscing on my less than Olympian career. Exiting our daydream, we hastily discussed the job – he muttered some stuff, I nodded in a trustworthy fashion. Like an old friend, he waved me off, with the words ringing in my largely irresponsible teenage ears: ‘Not to take it too seriously.’ The gig was mine.

The friend who ‘recommended’ me had said it was an easy £15 for an hour’s work. I remembered hazily from the interview that I was meant to lock up the town’s one public lavatory one night and open it the next morning, before cleaning it on Sunday. But I could dramatically improve the efficiency of my labour by not locking up Friday night and circumventing the need to unlock them in the morning. This adherence to the principles of FW Taylor meant I could reduce my three visits to one, and the total task duration down to 30 minutes.

The scene of the grime was a small, unprepossessing concrete block on the edge of the town cricket pitch. Its dim, dank interior soon revealed that its few users were either desperate, drunk or recently injected – the detritus that slipped beneath the radar of a ‘respectable’ Home Counties town. Despite my regulation Marigolds, there were few things I was prepared to touch with my hands – an instinct I immediately upgraded to a working principal.

So the runner’s feet that had impressed my boss so much now worked tirelessly in the cause of civic duty kicking the untouchable flotsam and jetsam out the door into a waiting binbag. Well, for a weekly six minutes anyway, following further time and motion improvements. This made me an impressive £2.50 a minute – a rate I’ve sadly never since matched.

As well as keeping me in fish suppers, the job taught me that working success was not always about bringing the relevant skills to the task. I passed the reins onto Maria – a friend who sadly did not share my success in the public convenience world. This was a surprise as not only did she enter this Stygian bog a ‘number’ of times a week (I lost count, horrified), she even got down on her hands and knees to scrub the floors. ‘So what happened?’ I asked. ‘I was sacked,’ she replied tersely, ‘apparently I wasn’t doing the job well enough.’

I didn’t tell her about the glowing letter of thanks I’d been sent by the same man in which he’d praised my excellent work. Perhaps she just didn’t interview well.

The Guardian 2007