The morning bustle of workers moved down the hallway from one meeting room to another.
‘Susi,’ Lavita hissed, wrinkles creasing her brown forehead. ‘Put it in your bag before they see. Silly woman.’
‘Relax.’ Susi looked down the hall at the men and women in their neatly pressed suits. They’re too busy to see little old Susi and Lavita. She shoved the Rolex into her pocket, as a woman in a white button-down shirt and dress pants strode past and narrowed her eyes. The watch caught on the edge of Susi’s pocket and panic bubbled in her chest as she fumbled with it. The timepiece was worth more than an entire year’s wages for a cleaner. Her fingers wrapped around it, safe inside the pocket. She grabbed a paper towel from the trolley, wiped the sudden sheen of sweat from her brow, and breathed through the adrenalin rush.
Head lowered, she walked softly, as if she could creep her way through the deception.
‘Excuse me.’ A clipped voice from behind.
Susi’s body tensed.
‘Hey, you. Wait a minute.’
A hand touched her shoulder and she gasped, her spirit leaping out of her skin in shock.
She turned slowly, heat rising beneath her cheeks.
‘The coffee machine is empty, and I’m already late for my meeting. Can you refill it?’
‘Of course, sir.’
Susi reset the coffee machine while Lavita wiped the remains of a salad from the bench. ‘All done, sir.’ Susi steeled herself then opened the dishwasher, wincing as a hot fist of steam flew at her face.
A tall man swaggered into the kitchenette wearing a three-piece suit and shoes as shiny as obsidian. Lavita leaned toward Susi and whispered in Samoan. ‘O lo’u tama lea, e tolu afe le pelaue o le tamaloā.’ There he is. Mr Three-Thousand-Dollar Suit.’
Susi stifled a giggle. ‘Might need a new one when we’re finished with him,’ she whispered back.
The man reached past her, dumped a dirty cup onto her tray of clean dishes from the machine, then left.
A voice from the hall: ‘Seen Tania’s team, Andy?’
‘Nope. Just came from the kitchen, nobody down there.’
Susi slammed the dishwasher shut with a clunk.
She leaned the vacuum cleaner hose against the fifth-floor window. The night sky was the black of the tithe-sucking priests back home. Silence hung over the office floor, interrupted only by the sound of water pattering on leaves as Lavita tended to the plants lining the wall.
‘What is it today, Sus?’ Lavita paused and stretched. ‘Another watch? A phone?’
Susi smiled. ‘The earrings. They’re just so pretty.’ She fingered the small dangling earrings in her pocket and giggled.
Lavita shrugged and carried on watering the plants. ‘Any smiles today?’
‘Just the one.’
‘The guy with the rash on his face?’
Lavita nodded. ‘The sad-looking ones are always the nicest.’
Paul stood on his toes, stretching his calves. The sooner he got the meeting over with, the sooner he could get to the gym.
Susi, the larger of the two Pacific Island cleaners, entered the meeting room late, and sat. ‘Sorry, boss.’ She smiled. ‘Hard to get the kids to my sister this early at short notice.’
Paul raised his eyebrows. ‘I know it’s just you and the kids, Suzy, but it’s important to be on time. Lanita was here early.’ He looked at his watch and sighed. ‘Some personal items have gone missing from the Hammerson offices.’ As if the thieving ingrates didn’t already know. ‘Jewellery and electronics, mostly. We’re investigating this at the moment, and should be finished doing so by the end of the week.’ He looked straight at Susi and held back a grin. It was always so much fun watching them squirm. ‘I just wanted to remind you we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to theft.’ He hadn’t wanted to remind them—would have preferred to catch them without warning—but HR had too much say.
Susi looked at the ground. ‘Okay. Thanks, sir.’
Paul strode from the meeting room. Maybe he’d make the spin class after all.
Susi reached the lift as the doors started closing. Mister Three-Thousand-Dollar Suit was inside. He met her eyes, then looked back down at his phone.
Susi opened her mouth but the doors whooshed shut. Arsehole. That smile will be coming off soon. She caught the next lift down. Her uniform looked out of place in the elevator’s mirrored wall, its dirty, worn fabric pressed against clean suits and blouses, but her black hair was oiled and immaculate like her grandmother’s on Sunday. Susi’s smile showed teeth as white as cowrie shells. She inched over so the expensive headphones in her bag didn’t knock against the wall.
She rushed through the lobby, sat down on a bench in the smoking area and lifted the hood of her jacket against the wind.
‘Only twenty minutes left for lunch,’ Lavita tsked from the seat next to her.
Susi grunted in reply and took the leftover chop-suey from her bag. She shovelled the first cold spoonful down without a thought.
‘Dunno why we’re not allowed to use the kitchenette.’ Lavita looked behind her at the lobby’s giant screens showing clips of white people shaking hands. ‘It’s not like they’re worried about the electricity bill for the microwave.’
‘You know why,’ Susi said in a stern voice. ‘They don’t want a couple of PIs sitting next to them. Might tell them how to do their jobs.’ She cackled.
Lavita guffawed and nearly spat her lunch on the step.
Paul entered the room late and sat. He hadn’t expected them to confess, but this would certainly speed the process along. ‘Suzy. Lanita.’ He smiled. ‘Oh, and Alice. Morning.’ He was surprised to see his manager there but could understand why they would want to tell her at the same time. Pull off the Band-aid in one go.
Susi raised her eyebrows. ‘It’s Soo-see, Paul. Ess, not zed. I know you haven’t been working with us long, but it’s important to use the correct name when addressing others.’ Her steady voice was like a judge’s addressing a courtroom.
Paul frowned in annoyance. He’d never heard the cleaning woman string so many words together.
Looking at the shiny watch on her wrist, Susi sighed. ‘Lavita and I haven’t been completely honest with you.’
Paul nodded, trying to keep the knowing smile from his face. Here it comes.
‘We came in to do a job, on Alice’s request.’
That wasn’t entirely correct. Alice didn’t have time to organise the cleaning staff personally. But Paul let her continue.
She handed him a sheet of paper. ‘We wanted you here when we gave the findings to Alice.’
The printout was a series of timestamped screen grabs from a video and showed a well-dressed man standing over someone’s desk in the otherwise empty office. Paul squinted. Was that Andy from Accounts?
‘We’ve been investigating the reported thefts in the Hammerson offices for some time now,’ Susi said. ‘Posing as cleaners gives a certain level of invisibility to PIs, sorry, Private Investigators … in firms like your own.’
Paul repeated the words slowly in his head. What?
‘In the images you can see one Andrew Saunders helping himself to a pair of earrings I planted on the desk,’ Susi said. ‘This is all the evidence Alice needs to begin disciplinary proceedings against the staff member. I’m sure you’ll be involved in the process.’
Paul glanced up to find Susi staring at him. His cheeks flushed warm and he shifted in his seat.
‘I’ve noted some of the … challenges we found in carrying out the investigation, Paul. Your assumption that we committed the crime, without any evidence whatsoever, is concerning. There are lots of courses available on unconscious bias, Paul. I’m sure Alice will chat with you more about that.’
Paul looked at the paper trembling in his hands. He could feel his ears flushing with heat.
Ia fa soifua, manuia lou malaga.’ Susi said. ‘Goodbye and good luck with the rest of the process, both of you.’
Susi strode out of the meeting room. The fluorescent light of the hall glinted on her gold watch. A gift from her mother after graduation, there was no need to hide it now.
3 thoughts on “The Cleaners – Pera Barrett”
Hahaha mean bro loved that ending
Such an engaging story revealing bias perceptions.
So true. I’ve worked in many places where the cleaners are both ignored and blamed. They are invisible until there is a problem, and then obviously they are the cause of it. Or so think the arrogant amongst us. All work is important and meaningful – it should be valued and so should those that do it. Don’t ignore them, but get to know your colleagues who are helping and supporting you. And just because they do a menial job on a lower wage does not mean they are thieves. There is good and bad everywhere – look for the good and don’t judge until you have all the facts.
In a world where you can be anything be kind.