The Cleaner

Janet drags the knackered hoover up the flight of stairs to the third level office floor. The soles of her feet ache sharply but she pushes on, eager to get the last floor done and get home. She pushes open the door and sets the cumbersome hoover down, allowing herself a moment to catch her breathe. She glances an eye over the various cubicles, feeling a shiver in her spine. Thirteen years Janet has worked here as a cleaner and in all that time she still hasn’t got used to the unoccupied building at night. The lack of people, low buzz of the drinks machine and overhead lights adding to that eerie feel. Not that it is much better in the day. Zombie like office workers at every work cubicle, shuffling their weary carcasses to and fro, repeating the daily monotony of their lives. She shuffles wearily between the cubicles, heading for the small kitchen at the back of the room. Janet operates her cleaning routine in a very specific order. First she hoovers the kitchen before moving into the bathrooms. This is the worst part of her job. The ladies’ toilets aren’t too bad but the gent’s are horrible. This is also by far the most tiring of all her duties and despite it draining all her energy, she does it second for solely the fact of getting it out the way. Lastly, she takes the hoover round the various cubicles. This is a fairly easy job but tedious, as many of the cubicle desks are littered with empty sweet wrappers and apple cores. Out of the corner of her eye she notices a cubicle with its light still on. A young, lanky man with a couple of zits and greasy hair sits at his computer, tapping away dully at his keyboard. His dead eyes track slowly across the monitor, like a sloth hanging lazily from a long branch. Upon hearing the rattle of the hoover, the young man glances over the top of his monitor. Janet pauses.

‘Do you mind if I…’ She asks, gesturing around the office floor.

‘Oh…go ahead.’ The young man mumbles, turning a little red.

Janet picks up on the young man’s social anxiety and nods quietly before moving off. The young man returns his attention to the monitor, occasionally glancing at Janet shyly from time to time.

The young man waits outside the lift doors, drumming his fingers agitatedly against his leg. The doors scrape open.

‘That sounds promising.’ The young man mutters under his breath and steps inside.

He is reaching for the ground floor button when he catches sight of Janet hurrying towards him, struggling with the cumbersome hoover.

‘Wait.’ She gasps.

The young man debates whether or not to hold the lift before finally pressing down the door button. Janet bustles inside the lift and throws down the hoover, breathing hard.

‘Thank you.’

‘No worries.’

The doors close and the lift starts to slowly descend. Janet leans on the lift wall and massages her side, nursing an aggravated stitch. She glances at the young man and gives a tired smile.

‘Long day.’

The young man gives a polite smile and looks forward. A silence falls between them. Janet’s eyes travel down to the young man’s hand drumming against his leg. The action reminds her of something or someone but for the life of her she can’t think what. The lift lurches suddenly and Janet, thrown off balance, topples into the young man. The young man grabs hold of her arm. The lift screeches to a halt and the lights flicker on and off eerily. Janet and the young man exchange dubious looks before realizing their closeness to one another and move away quickly.

Janet and the young man sit either side of the lift, both looking extremely shattered and fed up. The young man is listening to a music player, whilst flicking uninterestedly through a magazine. Janet inspects the underside of her nails, disgusted by what lies there. Her stomach rumbles loudly, longing for her dinner she knows is sitting in the oven at home. To stave off the hunger, she rummages around in her cleaner apron and pulls out a pack of chewing gum. She offers one to the young man but he doesn’t notice.

‘Excuse me.’ She calls.

He still can’t hear her. Janet nudges him on the shoulder and he looks up startled. He pulls an earphone out of his ear.

‘Gum?’ She offers.

‘Thanks.’ He stammers, taking the chewing gum in a sweaty hand.

They return to silence but the young man doesn’t replace the earphone.

‘I don’t suppose you have any water do you?’ Janet enquirers, licking her dried, cracked lips.

The young man shakes his head with a grim expression and then suddenly realizes that there is a bottle lying at the bottom of his satchel. As before with the lift doors, a moment of hesitation takes hold. Should he share it with her or keep it to himself? It is after all, only a small bottle. Catching sight of Janet’s disheartened expression, he makes his decision and removes the bottle from the bag with a flourish.

‘I do have this though.’

Janet’s face ripples into a relieved smile and she slaps him on the shoulder playfully. This is too much for the young man and he fumbles the bottle. It thuds on the lift floor and rolls away.

‘Sorry.’ He mumbles, looking back at his magazine, his ears burning bright.

‘No worries.’ Janet groans and she leans forward and scoops up the fallen bottle.

Flipping off the lid, she drinks greedily. The young man eyes the draining water pensively.

‘Maybe we should ration how much we drink.’ He blurts out, surprised by the loud pitch of his own voice.

Janet emerges from the bottle, breathing hard and looks at him a little taken aback.

‘It’s just…we don’t know how long we are going to be in here.’

‘Okay…sorry.’ Janet manages, handing the bottle back to the young man.

The awkward silence strikes up again with a vengeance.

‘Come on signal.’

Janet paces back and forth agitatedly, holding out her mobile in front of her. They have been trapped in the lift for several hours now and both of them are growing anxious that no one has come to their aid.

‘What’s the point of having an alarm button if it doesn’t work?’ The young man moans, flinging down his magazine in frustration.

He has read the entire thing twice now and has just been staring at the pictures moronically.

‘It does work Michael, its just that no one is here to answer. Being the weekend and all, everyone has gone home.’

Over the last few hours the two have become more relaxed and casual with one another. Michael is now sitting more leisurely, as opposed to being hunched up in the corner as before.

‘Well they should have a contingency for this sort of thing.’

Janet sighs and stuffs her phone back in her pocket, defeated.

It is the morning after. Janet lies asleep under her coat in one corner, twitching every now and then. Michael is crouched at the other end of the lift, his back to Janet. He is making a slight crinkling noise. Janet stirs and Michael freezes, glancing over his shoulder. She mumbles something inaudible then falls back to sleep. Michael lets out a sigh of relief and turns his attention back to the chocolate bar in his hand. Sharing his water is one thing but food, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. Every man for himself takes precedence with young Michael.

Janet stands against the lift wall, clutching her stomach in her hands, her face scrunched up in an expression of discomfort.

‘I think my belly is trying to eat itself.’

Michael doesn’t respond. He is banging on the lift doors loudly with his fists. It is early evening and both Michael and Janet have been stuck in the lift for nearly twenty four hours.

‘I can’t believe no one is looking for us. Shouldn’t someone be looking for us by now?’ Janet says with a confused expression.

Michael grips the slit in the middle of the lift and tries desperately to heave them apart.

‘There’s no point Michael. Their sealed shut. You will only tire yourself out.’

Michael, red in the face relents and kicks the bottom of the lift doors bitterly.

‘Stop that. Don’t tempt fate.’ Janet exclaims with a deep look of concern.

Michael laughs and turns around, throwing his arms up in the air.

‘Don’t worry we’re not going to plummet to our death.’ He patronizes her.

‘Just stop talking please.’ Janet pleads and closes her eyes.

Noticing Janet’s discomfort, Michael eases off and sits down next to her. He goes to put a hand on her shoulder but pussies out at the last minute.

‘What’s that?’

Michael looks down at where Janet is pointing. An empty chocolate wrapper is scrunched up in a ball. Micheal’s face pales. Janet scoops it up and scrutinizes it between her fingers.

‘What the hell is this?’ She demands furiously. A rather large knot forms in Micheal’s throat.

It’s Sunday. Janet stands with her back to Michael, a hand covering her ear. She paces to and fro agitatedly. Michael sits on the floor. There is a slight cut on his lip. A reminder from Janet of his selfish behaviour. A bag of crisps lies on the floor, where Janet was previously sat. Michael looks from the crisps to Janet then back to the crisps again. He notices Janet is shielding something from view and his eyes widen in sudden horror. He jumps to his feet.

‘Are you on the phone?’

Janet freezes on the spot and slowly lowers the phone. Michael grabs hold of her and spins her round.

‘What on…’ He trails off, catching sight of Janet’s face.

Her eyes are glistening with watery tears.

‘That bastard.’

‘Who?’ Michael asks.

Janet presses a key on her phone and shoves it against Micheal’s ear. It appears to be a voicemail from what Michael can only presume to be Janet’s husband. In the message, the husband is explaining that he had to rush to a meeting with his publisher in London and it snowed so heavily he can’t get back. Michael hands her back the phone.

‘Twenty five years down the drain.’ She yanks off her wedding ring and flings it down on the floor.

‘Maybe he is telling the truth.’

Janet shakes her head woefully.

‘This isn’t the first time.’

Janet and Michael are both asleep on the floor. They have piled both of their coats on top of them to stave off the chill. Janet’s head has drooped onto Micheal’s shoulder. A sudden jolt from underneath wakes them both with a start. The lift is slowly descending. Janet and Michael stare at each other sleepily before the realization hits them and they stagger half drunk with sleep to their feet. Janet’s hair is a bushy mess and Michael’s tie is at half mast and his shirt untucked.

The crowd of bitter faced office employees wait in the downstairs lobby in front of the office lift. Most of them gaze at the lighted display counting down, both eager for it arrive to alleviate their boredom and yet reluctant to get inside. The lift doors open and to their surprise, they find two people standing inside. A middle aged woman dressed in a cleaner’s uniform, carrying a hoover and another office employee dressed in a suit and carrying a satchel. Janet and Michael step silently out of the lift and cut a path through the staring crowd. Neither say a word to one another as they leave the building and head their separate ways.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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