(Image shows hotel room signs reading ‘Please service room thank you’ and ‘DO NOT DISTURB thank you’.)
This is a short story I wrote a long time ago about being a hotel cleaner. Never has the phrase ‘It’s always about the dishes, but it’s never about the dishes’ been more relevant.
At school I had low expectations for myself. Or at least, I would only admit to aspirations that were unquestionably achievable. I would never have guessed I could become a Hotel Cleaner. When I was accepted into Room Attendant training everything changed. I opened the letter and the words ‘Congratulations. Accepted’ floated up from the page and danced. It was a rosy, sparkling, world-as-oyster kind of day.
Six years later and technically, I’m living the dream.
I shove my trolley and let it go. It galumphs forward and comes to rest exactly parallel to the wall, a centimetre away from it. I grab my blue cleaning bucket and rubbish bag. My first room is Room 305, a King Deluxe. I feel good. This room will be perfect.
I knock on the door and say ‘Housekeeping.’ No sounds from inside. I say, ‘Housekeeping’ again. There is still no noise so I grab my key from my pocket and slide it in and out of the slot. I say, ‘Housekeeping’ one more time as I push the door open slowly.
I have learned to be cautious. One day I barged in on a scene. I remember the bouncing breasts, gasps, before I turned and ran back to the corridor where a dreadful sense of incompetence came over me.
From the silence and the darkness Room 305 is empty. Unless there’s a dead person. It happens all the time on the news, and we’ve been trained in what to do, but so far I’ve been lucky.
Certain that I’m not interrupting a living person I push my light card into the slot and the lamps switch on. I prop the door open with the doorstop and look around
the room. It’s messy but there’s no luggage. It’s definitely Vacant Dirty.
I picture Cameron leaning on the doorframe and saying, ‘You really brought the sparkle to this room.’
Inspired, I surge to work. I flush the toilet. I spray the sink with cleaning fluid. I pick up all the towels and pile them near the bathroom doorway. I pick up the detritus of hygiene – the used shampoos, shower cap and soap, abandoned toothbrushes – and throw them in the bathroom bin. I remove the bin liner and put it in my large rubbish bag outside the bathroom door. I spray the shower with cleaner and I tip blue liquid around the rim of the thankfully unstained toilet.
When I’m cleaning a toilet I find it hard to believe that room attending is a respected profession. Although I suppose doctors deal with bodily fluids too, and that used to be a respected profession.
I grab the mop from the linen cart outside and rinse it from the tap in the bath, squeezing out the water. The mop head is dirty and needs changing. I lean it against the wall.
I scoop up the towels from the floor and carry them into the main room and dump them on the bed.
Starting at the door I move in an anti-clockwise circle tidying around the room. I remove all non-hotel-standard materials and place hotel-standard objects in position. I turn on all the lights. I pick up pieces of rubbish.
I go to the bed. I take off the pillowcases and throw the pillows onto the armchair. I strip the doona and throw it onto the luggage rack. Pulling out its corners I use the under sheet as a sack to gather up all the linen and dirty towels. I take them outside and dump them in the bulging linen cart.
Where is the houseman? Bloody Cameron. Not so brilliant after all.
From my trolley I take a king size sheet and doona cover, and four pillowcases. Back at the bed I throw the sheet out across the bed in one movement. It unfolds midair and lands softly, flatly covering the bed. I move around it tucking in the corners, making sure the sheet stays taught and flat.
Cameron and I were taught how to make beds together in Room Attendant training. He was terrible at first, so slow and nobody thought he would make it. But after two months Sandy, our tutor, was calling him a genius.
Guests think Cameron’s good, but they can’t fully appreciate his work. It’s only Room Attendants who can really understand it. When you change one of his beds the corners are so tight that it’s hard to believe that anyone has slept in the bed. It amazes me.
One day Sandy sent me back to Room 411 to re-sheet the bed. I had been warned that I wasn’t tucking the top of the sheet in properly, but I kept pushing the boundaries of acceptability until I became unacceptable. I was upset about it, I confided in Cameron. He offered to help me. He came back to my house and we practised hospital corners in my room.
My housemate thought he liked me.
I explained to her that going into someone’s bedroom doesn’t mean the same thing for Room Attendants. He really had been tutoring me, it wasn’t a euphemism. But she kept asking about him, her curiosity fuelled my hope.
Taking the doona cover from the chair I flick it out so that it unfolds to flatness in the air. I pick the doona up off the chair. This part I am good at. People are stunned by how quickly I can put a doona cover on. It looks like one fluid motion, but it’s really one step after another ending with tying the four sets of strings at the end into bows. I pull the doona up to the top of the bed, moving around the bed to pull up both sides so that it is even. I imagine I have an audience now. They applaud.
Six months ago, I heard a voice as I bent over the doona cover. ‘No-one gets the bed as flat as you do.’ I jumped, surprised, and turned to the door. Cameron was leaning against the doorframe, but only his shirt touched the door, so he wouldn’t leave marks.
‘Shit! Sorry. You scared me.’ Heart beating. A good thing, but it’s more noticeable than usual.
‘Are you coming to lunch?
‘I was going to finish this room.’
‘I’m going now.’
‘Oh. I’ll come now.’
Other people, thrillingly, noticed. Cassie said, ‘You guys always have lunch together. He doesn’t talk to anyone else.’
‘To be honest I assumed you were going out.’
But then only a couple months later Cameron was kneeling, his body tight and compact, tucking in the corners of Room 703. I’d chosen then to say everything. As he knelt and kept working he said a number of things…delightful – friends – thank-you – flattered… though more pauses than anything else. Embarrassment hits me coldly in the stomach, remembering my fruitlessly, stupidly plucked up courage.
Remembering all of this I hiss, ‘I hate myself.’. I give the doona corner a vicious and unhelpful tug adding contours and folds. I pick up the pillows and pillowcases and hurl them onto the bed. I shove the pillows into the bottom of the cases. I place them two by two at the top of the bed. I move around giving two tugs on each side, fixing my mistakes. I stand back to look.
No-one gets the bed as flat as you.
Trying not to think, I pick up a feather duster and a rag from my trolley and clean around the room in an anti-clockwise direction. I dust every surface. I note spaces where hotel-standard objects are missing. When I see a mark on the wall I use the magic eraser from my pocket to scrub at it. I flick the feather duster behind cupboards. In the mini-bar I turn labels to face the front. The Smirnoff is to the left of the Baileys. Make sure there are three (not two, not four) pieces of notepaper.
There are a thousand tiny rules to follow. Millions of unacceptable variations. To place everything within millimetres of its proper place, to remove all marks and all imperfections, to remember everything while hurtling around the room. Most people can’t do it.
I should feel happy to have reached this standard. But I want more. Cameron and I started training together but he’s the houseman now. Superstar.
Last week I was accepted into Room Attending College, the necessary theoretical component to becoming a professional Hotel Cleaner. I worked so hard for it, my parents are so proud. But yesterday, sitting in the lecture theatre all I could think about was the physicality of Cameron in the chair in front of me. He sat with someone else, and told a story I’d heard before about dusting air-conditioning vents. I could barely breathe.
Sandy began the lecture by saying, ‘What makes a truly great Room Attendant is attention to detail. It may seem impossible to master now but remember that great improvement is possible. Some of the best Room Attendants were incompetent as trainees. For example, Karl Studberg once failed to remove a used condom from the bedside drawer and passed the room as Vacant Inspected.’
Cameron nudged the girl next to him. She giggled.
That stupid simpering bitch!
I return to my trolley. I take one piece of notepaper, one robe, one can of coke, one pen, one envelope, two pairs of slippers, and place these carefully in their place. When I first started I always forgot things and wasted precious time going back to the trolley. Then I developed a system to remember. I counted how many items were needed. That way, when I collected them from the trolley I would know if I’d forgotten anything. Other people started doing it that way too, but no one called me a genius.
I go back to the bathroom. I put on my pink rubber gloves. I pour some cream cleanser onto the abrasive side of my yellow sponge and, with the hot tap running, I scrub the bath and tiles. There is a grimy ring around the bath, I doubt it was scrubbed after the last guest left. Tut tut tut. But then I think, As you’re perfect! God, I’m a bitch.
I spray the mirror with window cleaner and use a clean dry rag to wipe it down. I spray on more chemical and then use the rag to dry the bathroom sink and bench. I spray the silver taps with window cleaner, which makes them shine. I remember the first compliment I ever received from Sandy, she said, ‘You really brought the sparkle to these taps.’ For the next few hours I was awash with excruciatingly pleasant feelings.
I pick up the toilet brush, but don’t bother to scrub much as there is no need. I
I dry the shower thoroughly with my towel. Every drop of water is soaked up, starting by shining the taps, then the walls, then the bath itself. I arrange the shower curtain so that it rests inside the bath.
I return to my trolley piling up two towels, a bath mat, a hand towel, two face washers, two soaps, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, comb, shower cap, sanitary bag, and a roll of toilet paper. This is all loaded in my arms when I hear a ding from the service lift.
Resting my load against the trolley I turn.
Cameron steps out.
We nod. He says, ‘Your linen cart’s pretty full.’
‘I’m aware of that.’
‘How are your rooms today?’
‘Fine. This one’s pretty messy.’
‘Yeah, well, they stayed for nearly two weeks.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ But I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t read the information on my board. That explains the dirty bath. Cameron has remembered the occupancy of a room he’s not even cleaning.
‘Could you bring me a new mop head?’
‘Whatever. Just soon would be good.’
Cameron moves to the linen cart and pushes it to the lift. I stalk back into the room. My hands shake a little as I position the soaps and shampoo. I hear Cameron transferring the dirty linen from the cart into lift. Then he pushes the empty linen cart back outside the door. I expect him to come back, look around, notice that my dusting has been particularly thorough. He used to make a point of complimenting me, in a mentoring kind of way. Perhaps I’ve disappointed him, not lived up to what he thought I could be.
But fuck that! He’s only two years older than me and we started training at the same time. We’re both in training college now. Why should I be under his wing? I won’t be patronized.
I fold towels. I position the bathmat and facecloths. I shine the bathroom door handle. I’m wasting time because I’m expecting him back. Eventually, I put my head out and see an empty corridor. He must have used the stairs. A moment passes then the rage. How dare he ignore me.
I’m shaking a bit as I pick up the bucket and wet rags and take them out of the bathroom, leaving only the mop. I go and get the vacuum cleaner and drag it into the room. You are such a stupid bitch, I think as I plug it in. Why would he want to talk to me? I’m horrible to him. I’m horrible. I adore him.
I vacuum furiously jabbing the vacuum under the bed as far as it will go. There is flaky dead skin and a big toenail near the edge of the bed. I carefully move the slippers near the bed to vacuum under them. There are spots on the carpet. I fetch the carpet cleaner and spray it on. After it turns white I jerkily suck at it with the pipe attachment. I vacuum the bathroom. Slurping up hairs lying in puddles of water. I turn the vacuum off and roll the cord up.
Cameron still hasn’t come back, I use the dirty mop head to mop the bathroom floor. I hang the mop back on the cart.
I step into the room for one last inspection. Room 305 is not a masterpiece. As I look at the carpet I see a spot I missed. The slippers aren’t parallel after I moved them to vacuum. There is a streak in the corner of the bedroom mirror, a mark on one of the walls. I can’t fix it all, I’ve already spent 31 minutes on this room, three minutes over schedule. I yank out my light key, take out the doorstop and leave the room knowing that I don’t deserve applause.
Cameron is standing near my trolley with a new, too late, mop head.
‘Thanks,’ I say, trying to be friendly, feeling guilty from before.
‘No worries. It’s my job.’
He’s so casual, so successful. Every day he receives shiny baubles of praise and recognition that add to his magnificence. He wears his confidence like a halo. My chest tightens with the old feelings, but I don’t know if it’s jealousy or love.
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