Subcontracted cleaning services is a murky business that can hide a myriad of astonishing arrangements – but should employers be outraged when they find out the truth? BMA writing competition runner-up Jo Cannon tells her story
Once I heard him singing: that toneless drone when people wearing headphones don’t realise they are overheard.
As he emptied waste bins he crooned along to music on his phone. I was pleased to see him animated. Usually he was dispirited and murmured brief replies to my greetings with downcast eyes.
William was not much of a cleaner but the firm that employed him was cheap. We paid for two hours a day. As I tend to work late, he cleaned around me, and I knew he finished in half an hour.
His technique was not quite spit and polish; rather tap water on a scrunched paper towel rubbed vaguely in a circular motion.
One evening I asked where he came from and we got talking. Naming one of the hell holes of the world, he said he was a refugee. His father had been a politician and William, then in his twenties and a government administrator, had spent time in prison.
‘I will never tell anyone what happened to me. I don’t want my children to know.’
William had, literally, lost his son: his 13-year-old boy had disappeared into the war. His wife had vanished too. He had a new partner now. Tribal differences meant they should never have got together but in UK it didn’t matter.
He took his two young children to school every day and closely supervised their education.
He told me that he wasn’t employed by our cleaning firm but by another man with whom they had a contract. He earned less than the minimum wage – a quarter of the fee we paid the firm every month.
That evening I emailed my partners. Why shouldn’t we just employ William directly rather than pay the middle men who took their cut? Yet I couldn’t refute the first objection: William was a useless cleaner.
Although I hoped that the conversation would improve our rapport, William and I returned immediately to minimal greetings. He never used my name. With him I felt despondent and uneasy and relieved when he finished his token attentions to my room.
The Care Quality Commission loomed. Having spent a fortune replacing carpets with lino that was rarely washed, and blinds with wipeable plastic ones that were never wiped, cleaning nonetheless remained a topic for which we lacked energy.
We had no time to consider William. Our practice manager was busy auditing everything, from the laundry schedule of the curtains, to the ritual opening of taps to counter Legionnaires' disease.
Next, she audited our burglar alarm, which is activated by punching numbers into a keypad when the last person leaves the building. She wondered whether I had forgotten to turn it on sometimes, which I admitted was possible.
‘Every evening for a year?’ she asked.
The surgery had been opened at about 9pm every night and closed again around 6am. In the cleaning cupboard, she found a bag containing underpants, a razor and a file of William’s papers. For months, our cleaner had secretly lived and slept at the surgery.
Our building is not energy efficient. Opening the door in the morning, I am struck by a wave of heat. An examination couch makes a hard bed but there is a toilet and kettle and hot water for a strip down wash at the sink.
Surely this was a victimless crime by a homeless person and the fact that our insurance was nullified merely a first-world problem.
Yet I didn’t like the timing of the entrances and exits to the building, which so closely mirrored mine. Someone was watching me, and I didn’t know whether he was alone.
The war William fled is so complex and vicious that no one survives unbrutalised. The roles of victim and perpetrator blur and a moral line between their use of violence is wishful thinking. I had dismissed the warnings of my body’s unconscious CCTV that told me to beware this man.
Within hours, William was brought to the surgery by his employer. Miserable and silent, he handed back the keys and took his bag away. Now we have a new cleaning firm.
William lied, but why should I feel entitled to the truth? After that hour of pressured speech, he said he felt lighter for the talk. I guess his narrative, partly true, helped him make sense of a difficult and damaged life.
I wondered about the existence of the new family and the detail of the school run: was it history, or merely the poignant fantasy of a lonely childless man?
And I reflected on our contribution to his dejected life. We had allowed our dirty work to be done by a cheap firm who passed it along until responsibility was lost. We knew nothing about that, did we?
Names and details have been changed
Jo Cannon is a GP in Sheffield. She won the BMA writing competition in 2012 and 2015