Wednesday, 27 May 2015


I'm starting to keep notes. On who I talk to, on their behaviour. Do they stand up to management? Are they popular? How long have they been here? 

There's one woman I've warmed to instantly. She's Bulgarian and her name is Galina.* A tiny mother of two, 36 but looking older; she's got large green eyes, olive skin, and could be Roma. She wears little dangly gold earrings, dark eye makeup and crimson lipstick. She smiles all the time. Genuinely. Some of her teeth are missing and she's vague about her past, but she throws herself into the work, with a swagger almost.

I like her because she stops to talk when we pass in the corridor, or if we bump into eachother on a dash to the pantry for more linen. We swap fatigue sighs and shaking heads over the empty cupboards, the inevitable Sunday deluge of D N Ds (Do Not Disturbs) where you push your trolley from closed door to closed door to closed door....

                                                No linen, a common sight...

Galina has some kind of rift with Elena, the pretty spiteful supervisor from Lithuania. A couple of mornings now I've seen Galina shout, in Bulgarian and broken English, at the icey boss squabbling over baskets of tea gear, bathroom tat and spare dusters over the counter.

“Hey, HEY”, she's bellowed to Elena and they've tustled over the tray. “I don't speak English, why you speak me in English?” Shouts Galina. Elena will hold back the tray and look at her wearily and disdainfully. Galina will become animated, eyebrows all over the show, and reach over to snatch the tray.

“STOP it”, Elena will say like an icepick, holding it firm.

“Hah? Hah? Yyeeeeah, Yyeeah”, Galina will say sneeringly, tauntingly, returning the waves of disgust that could almost be lapping around them right now.

Elena will eventually give over the tray, but not before raising her hand and pointing hard on Galina. “The last time, this is the last time”, she will say in an attempt to rescue her authority but, the girls have all seen it, and half of us have loved it; Galina's resistance, to the pettyness, to the humourlessness, of all of this.

I back up Galina by standing beside her and fixing Elena with a look of, “That's abusive”, but she barely notices. The term 'face like a slapped arse' fits her well.

I wish I could speak Bulgarian.

Over lunch we try and understand each other, mostly empathising over how much we dislike Elena, saying her name, wrinkling our faces and giving each other the thumbs down.

“We need a Union”

She furrows her brow.

I put my hands together, and clasp my fingers over my knuckles.


It's hard to explain it.

“Us”, I say, pointing to me and her and around the sullen canteen. “Us, together”. I make a fist.

She smiles and shrugs and laughs warmly.

She'd be one to get it I'm sure. We eat, separately smiling together.

Back in the rooms it's just non-stop yo-yo-ing in and out. I almost always forget something and keep clicking in and out, in and out. My knuckles are getting sore from reaching into my pockets for the card key, reaching deep into duvets and pillows, the stiff cotton rubbing on my hands, worn by the chemicals and the towel folding and just the constant motion.

A cut I thought had healed on my finger springs a leak and I'm terrified of getting blood on the perfect white sheets. I try and continue with toilet paper wrapped around the wound but it's too risky. I look for a plaster in the pantry, call on the supervisor, and when noone shows up after 10 minutes I eventually trapse all the way down to the office, 4 floors, and all the while thinking how this is eating into my allotted cleaning time.

I go through a few plasters this day, a combination of sweating in the gloves when I wash up cups and glasses, as well as the dripping sponges and shower water, and just the constant flurry and contact of my hands.

In the changing room at home time, I'm one of the last. I've tried to strike up conversations here but it's not easy. People are partially clothed. Chatting in your undies and over your steaming sweaty shoes and clammy socks isn't something I feel that comfortable with. But the four Romanian room attendants that swing in noisily, pay no mind to my mousey modesty and shed their grey polyester uniforms to reveal really foxy, lacy, super-sexy underwear. Like, lingerie catalogue sexy. I can't help but look. I know I'm blushing. I kind of treat this job as a workout and wear sports underwear. These women, they're made up and sassy and laughing amongst themselves. They're barely aware of me shyly looking over. To me they're a manifestation of resistance to the drudge; joy and resistance to all the dirt and monotony. Under the grey there's a riot and they know it.

I want to talk to them but I know zero Romanian.

I get a text.

“Talk to Jola, the supervisor, she'll be in in a moment”.

It's from Grzegorz, the chef....

*All names are changed for protection

Sunday, 17 May 2015


I get Wanda's number and she takes mine. We talk some more, confiding in eachother now, about love and men and how she is absolutely done with them, no more, never, ever again. She can't and doesn't believe in love anymore. Her eyes grow wide and wet. You can get burned forever can't you? 

I listen out through another cigarette.

There's nothing worse than violence at home. Up close. Violence from a partner or a parent or all of it. Violence in a place you can't escape from. Because you're too young. Because you're too in love. Because you're too poor. Because you have nowhere else to go. The deep shattering of trust and with it all hope and confidence. Because no safe space means no safe space. Where can you go? When home is hell. And even when you leave, violence leaves its' trace. It's remembered in the body; buried, but staying, latent and inflamed again with the flex of instincts which fear have got to,  triggered by the most banal of encounters. 

People leave their mark. 

Wanda didn't go into detail. But I'm used to recognising trauma. The way people talk with enhanced animation, the wide eyes, the re-live, the still undigested shock rising through the body and the voice. 

I've seen it in women and I've seen it in men who had their lives destroyed - or almost destroyed - by other men, because they fought back, because they refused to accept injustices. They stood up and felt the full force of a company, or the police, or an army, and a state, and often all of it hurricained into one, long, nightmare. But if you saw them, on a building site, or in their homes making a tea, or in the pub, you'd never know they were at war. Likewise the woman cleaning your room, walking past you pushing an overstacked laundry trolly, or picking up biscuit wrappers in a chandeleir-lit atrium. Soldier.

Wanda hadn't just gone through hell in home and home in hell, but also another terrible experience, a different form of war on her. One to do with European border regimes and the people who can exploit them and profit from them. And they have guns. One to do with her poverty and precarity. A deal she'd entered into. She started shaking and shouting when she told me.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Go Home - continued

             No, it's really nothing like this...

The manager is livid.

'AM I SHOUTING?' she says in a raised, pointed voice.

'ISTHISABUSIVEBEHAVIOUR?' She's directing her comments, not towards me, but to the girl next to me. The girl, from Sri Lanka and probably one of the most precarious workers in the whole place, looks to me and then to the boss. She pauses. 'No ma'am you are not shouting', she says as if this is the most obvious thing in the world.

I'm seething. Trying to pit her against me, intimidating her to intimidate me, deny that this whole abusive power relationship is playing out before our eyes.

Leva the supervisor turns to me and says bluntly, 'You need to change your attitude' and turns away.

'No, YOU need to change your attitude' I snap back.

I stand there with my elbows on the sign-in counter glowering at her back.

She turns around in disbelief. The manager starts shouting again.

Leva softens slightly and cutting through the noise, says, 'Look, I had to do your rooms, I had to follow the girls around all of the day asking who could do extra rooms, and it was hard for us'.

'So there's no rooms for me today?' I say, swallowing nervously.

'No, there's no rooms for you', says Leva in a gentler tone.

'So..... I should just go now?'


'And come back tomorrow?'

'Yes, if you want to...... Do you want to come back?'

Fucking hate this place and I dread coming here.

'I do yes, I want to work'.

'So we'll see you tomorrow'.

I nod, semi-earnestly, and walk back to the locker room. It's in bad shape. The lavs are always missing toilet paper, and the doors don't shut properly. Notices on the walls above the sinks say 'PLEASE RESPECT YOUR COLLEAGUES AND DO NOT WASH YOUR FEET IN THE SINK'.

I still don't have a locker or a pass, so my stuff just sits in a pile. I get changed and put on my rucksack and decide to come back to the office to apologise.

The Manager is sitting primly above paperwork.

'Look, I'm sorry', I say.

'This didn't happen', she snaps without looking at me. 'Forget it'.

I'm seven hours free but seven hours down on my pay. I won't get paid for coming in today – or will I?

I see Wanda outside having a smoke at the staff exit. I've taken up smoking since I started here, to get time with people. Smoking areas are ideal for talking to people because you've got the time it takes to roll or spark a cigarette and smoke it to strike up a conversation. You've got a reason to be there. It's natural to chat. Every other space is either full of people getting dressed or people in the lift, people struggling to eat before they have to be back out on the floor, or just getting out of the hotel fast. Here, at the exit, there are smokey pauses.

I retell Wanda the story and how I lost my cool with the bosses.

“I used to work at the (X) in Euston”, she tells me. “There, they treated me badly. There was a supervisor there who would order me around, and bark at me as if I were a dog. But, as I was raised to stand up for myself but to never shout and to keep dignified, I told her, calmly and clearly: 'Listen, you do not speak to me like that. You do not disrespect me in this way and I will not allow it.' And you know, I complained about her and they did listen to me and I ended up getting transferred here. I won't take any crap of anyone. I know my rights”.

I take a short drag on my rollie and smile straight at her. Have I met a potential activist here?