Class Monitor: the cleaners

We're with the cleaners on the 5am shift, finishing up the first cup of tea of the day in the half-light of the large Victorian pub. "Better start, then," declares Maureen, unofficial leader of the three-woman team. Her mug clanks down on the bar and Maureen, Julia and Mary begin.

The utility cupboard is unlocked and the cloths, disinfectant, bleach and furniture polish are brought out. Buckets are filled with hot water and the tables moved.

Opposite the pub, on the north side of the river, the night service crews are leaving the line of glittering office blocks and the young Africans and Slavs rush along the Embankment to their next jobs. But Maureen, Julia and Mary are calm - they have spent years cleaning this pub.

Julia starts the floor beneath the optics, but the Smirnoff and Jack Daniels remain untouched. There was a time - she says as she mops - before the closed-circuit cameras were installed, when they went round the optics with a glass. A nip here, a nip there. But not taking the piss.

Now everything the three women do is watched, measured and timed. And as they have only an hour to clean the pub, no one looks out to see first light on the still, silver surface of the Thames.

A cry comes from the toilets, "Another one!" Once again a female customer has left a used sanitary towel behind the water pipe, provoking satisfied opprobrium from the cleaners. "Filthy," says Mary, grabbing it with a small plastic bag. "Dirty," adds Julia. "And it's the posh ones that are worst."

But how to distinguish between common and posh in this pub, now the divide between lounge and public bar has gone? The partition was knocked through when the brewery stopped making beer and became a property and entertainment company, at the same time replacing the landlord with a manager. A manager who sits upstairs, chain-smoking in front of the CCTV monitors.

Bullied and spied on himself, he in turn bullies and spies on the cleaners. But rather than radicalise them, his regime confirms their view that they
are not at the bottom of the pile, but holding it up. "We wipe," says Mary, holding aloft a bag of tissues and tampons, "the world's arse."

As the light grows, the cleaners quicken their pace. Maureen rushes to complete the carpets. Her Henry vacuum cleaner, belying its idiot smile, cannonades around the fine dining area, until it catches the ankles of the manager as he comes down to inspect.

Yellow-eyed, almost ill with mistrust, the manager can find nothing wrong with the shining room where he will sell sour beer and overpriced wine to the men and women who work in the office blocks across the river.

So the cleaners go, and with them all that remains of a world that was.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD