Emily Pope is the third participant in CtC’s Writer-in-Residence programme which was established in October 2017. For this residency Emily has written four short stories exploring class background in relation to labour, from multiple perspectives. The series starts during the recession in 2008 in Plymouth (UK), and ends in London, 2018.
It is 2008. The recession is shutting down businesses so slowly that I don’t notice it is happening. Springfield Nursing Home in Plymouth, a family business for over thirty years, sits on the bottom of Springfield Road. It has been given a new lick of calpol coloured paint, the pink kind, like the custard you got at primary school in the 90’s, and the medicine you are made to swallow as a kid. They had to sell. It has been bought up by Four Seasons, who own over four hundred care homes across the UK and specialise in ‘corporate social responsibility’. They advertise eighty-five rooms, activities and gardening.
There is one ‘experience room’, which boasts a fibre optic lamp. Literally no one uses the experience room. Four seasons have taken on more residents and employed less staff, and everyone is stressed out. I know none of this before I start the job. I am about to go to university and I need a laptop by September. I take the cleaning job because it’s just down the road and there is nothing else. It pays slightly more than minimum wage because it really is not a very popular job.
My uniform is hot, synthetic and it sticks to me. I hate everyone. I hate being made to clean up blood on the floor with an extractor hoover and I hate the day when there is an inspection, I am asked where the bodily waste bin is and I answer honestly, ‘I don’t know we use the ones at the back’. I nearly get sacked for this, but they say they will let it go and that I should pay more attention in future.
I particularly hate the way the old people smell when they die in the mornings. It is already twenty-four degrees inside the building when I have to go and get someone and say ‘I think Maisie is dead’. Normally the ‘someone’ is a care worker who was in my year at school, we didn’t get on, and they really like telling me what to do.
The Hitler Youth was easy in comparison to this. I used to be a model and everyone else here is terribly ugly. It is hot in the summer, cold at every other waking moment of the year and when I complain I am told the solution is layers and that is normally when I start to shout or throw food.
The staff here are terrified of me, I can tell. You have to find pleasure where you can, so I
perpetuate the idea that I am formidably draconian. I don’t tell them about the early parts of my life. They think I am English. Some of the staff may have noticed my accent, but they do not say anything for fear that I will puncture the top of my yoghurt and throw it with reckless abandon. I barely speak, and when I do I am unkind.
I have one photograph from Bund Deutscher Maedels of me in a white tennis dress, with a line of girls, and that is hidden in the back of one of my albums. I choose instead to display later modelling photographs from America in the early 50’s, these are crudely blu-tacked onto my wardrobe (not the framing system I was initially promised) and whenever the excuse for a Reverend visits to try and convince me to re-start treatment, he simpers in a predictable manner. Men do not change.
I cannot fathom why they want me to keep on with this treatment. The so-called welfare state pays the fees to keep me in this bed and I cannot imagine they make the payments on time. I have outlived everyone I have known and the other residents here, if not completely senile, have not had a life similar to mine so there is nothing for us to discuss.
The fish has started to smell in the bath. Every morning I leave it in there and think about cooking it and then I do not have time, so I wash in the sink and go to work. Ryba Po-Greku. Traditional and a bit predictable but, carrots and tomatoes do not cost a lot and the bath is the largest area we can fill with ice. I am waiting until next month and then we will be able to rent a freezer from the town centre. Our landlord does not understand why we keep the fish in the bath, nor does he know that I used to be a florist. I keep the fish where it is, I don’t make any decorative arrangements, and I carry on with my daily routine.
My husband and I leave the house at 5am. From Embankment Road he gets in his cab, and I go to Springfield on the bus. I never ask him to drive me as he would lose an hour of work – the clubs on Union Street shut at 5am so by 5.30 the British drunks, and they uphold this reputation with valiant effort, have had time to get some fast food to soak up the vodka red-bull.The air outside is salty, my uniform scratches. Pink vertical stripes do nothing for a stomach that has produced four children. I sweat when I clean, and I try to avoid catching a cold when I go on a smoking break and the sweat beads are still there, trapped under the nylon.
The only part of the day that really makes me scared is if I am on the ward with Dennis and I have to clean his room. Dennis is an old man who used to be in Dartmoor prison and there, I heard some of the nurses say, he was ‘institutionalised’ so now he cannot live alone. If I am on Dennis watch, I am impatient to leave as he stares at me and talks to me about what he would like us to do together. I attempted to tell the management about this, who ignored me. Now, I enjoy teaching the other girls how to swear in polish, or to greet, cześc, dzien dobry, pierdolić! There is no difference as they can’t pronounce anything, but at least we all laugh about it.
The polish talk funny. I tell everyone at home that. They talk funny, but they clean up shit like they are grateful to do it so…I don’t think they are stealing jobs like the leaflets say. There are lots of leaflets around at the moment; I find the leaflets always come out when everyone gets angry. I can’t be bothered to read them all, this is a navy port, there’s always been people arriving for jobs. I’m getting older, I’ll be sixty-two next month, so… I’m happy if all I have to do is wipe the tables and I get a cuppa at eleven fifteen like Lorraine says.
Lorraine is the boss of the cleaners, although they call us the ‘domestic’ staff now, look there, grab her, she’s a domestic. Lorraine wears her hair in bunches like a prize twat even though she’s only five years younger than me. She’s supposed to look friendly. The young girls on the team look at her like they want to laugh or give her a new do, she ignores them and I think, well, good for her.
There are new people everywhere at work and the pension scheme just changed. I work Monday through to Thursday now, 6am until 1pm, and we do four floors for five pound eighty five an hour. Better than some get it and at least they’ve got everyone on payroll here. Of course, we do the dementia ward with the door codes twice in one shift because there’s no reasoning with them, even though that’s not in the handbook.
Honestly, I’ve been thinking of handing in my notice, either I’m taking the state pension or being the new lollipop lady for the primary school, because I don’t really enjoy it anymore here. There are a lot more forms cropping up about performance and if you want my view, the forms are a bloody waste of my time.
Emily Pope is an artist and writer based in London. Her work explores the female comic as a position to subvert and repurpose. She makes merchandise, audio, film and is currently working on a sitcom. Recent exhibitions & projects include: Episode 4 – The Keyboard Lesson, Becky’s London; the White Pube online residency; ASP, ICA London; Episode 1 – The Court Summons, Ladette Space, London; Tarantellegra, Hester, New York; and together with Ruth Angel Edwards: Got 2 B, a radio show on Comet Radio. Emily has a Masters in Writing from the Royal College of Art, and studied fine art at the School of the Damned, a free postgraduate art course run by and for its students.