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Chapter 1 of "The Cleaners - An Adventure in Filth"

'Only when one has begun to see filth does the possibility of cleaning exist.’ The Cleaners

“Yet again, same bars, same booze, same bimbos and same bullshit…

“A never ending cycle of saying and doing a thousand stupid things that I didn’t wish to say or do, but did them anyway…

“Always this feeling of being out of control, of utter helplessness… Eating a bullet must be better than this?”

Black thoughts always accompanied these episodes from a life that I didn’t feel to be mine.

A so called ‘success’—at least that’s how my family and friends saw it. Wealthy, good looking, and even charismatic on occasions. I could be charming. But I felt nothing. My world was empty. I lived a life that I was not even there for.

I only functioned from the neck up. Sure, a sharp intellect and the gift of the gab, but I was filled with everything except myself.

It’s tough living in the fast lane. You’re either full throttle or full stop. It’s the full stop that most are afraid of. This is all I know, and as far as I can tell, I’m good at it.

But something was always gnawing away at me, especially in quiet moments— so I avoided them. The gnashing only grew louder with time.

“Is this what I have to endure for the rest of my life?” And now, not even the anesthesia of activity could prevent the inevitable.

One Sunday night, looking out my thirtieth floor office window, and tears of remorse flowing down my cheeks, I gently placed the gun in my mouth. And for one last time, tried to picture a favorable future.

“That will be difficult to clean up,” a calm voice said behind me.

I turned around in a dumbfounded silence.

“You might want to put that down, it’s safer that way.” These words of quiet authority resonated from a man standing at the doorway.

Without thinking, I unloaded the gun and put it down. Not skipping a beat, I wiped away the tears and for the first time a feeling of clarity poured into me.

There was complete freedom from anxiety. I understood at that moment that all I needed to do was to stop and listen.

There was a deep silence, and in a very graceful and grandfatherly way he simply offered a warm smile and said “Go home. You need rest.” With that, he left, and so did I.

I didn’t remember how I got home. I assumed I drove. Slept like a log and woke up the next morning feeling unusually refreshed.

I showered, got dressed and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. Walking towards the fridge it suddenly dawned on me what had happened. The full terror of the situation hit so hard I had to sit down.

Swarming thoughts ricocheted in my head. The searing pain was tightening my chest. An old film was being played in my mind. I couldn’t make sense of it, but it seemed to be a B-grade version of my life.

I saw everything, all at once, but could remember little afterwards. How I felt when my parents were fighting. Being picked on at School. The ‘education experience’—competing for grades, fame and fortune—and all the disastrous relationships that left me scarred and guarded.

It was dotted with peculiar and unfamiliar footage of when my insensitivity and selfishness caused pain to others. Peculiar, as I had no recollection of causing suffering to anyone.

The most disturbing part of this retrospective movie was the faint taste that all the critical events of my life were somehow connected. But in what way I wasn’t sure.

I couldn’t understand how in one moment all seemed lost. Yet in another, the thought of being lost was terrifying.

Last night, in a state of remorse and self-loathing, all I’d wished for was the end to the relentless misery.

And now, the thought of putting the gun in my mouth sent a strong sensation through the body. It made me itch and squirm, like ants crawling in my blood.

My thoughts steered themselves to a way of escaping. The only thing that made sense was to go to work, continue as normal. Maybe the forces of habit and routine would be strong enough to subdue the inward chaos.

It was only driving to work that the tide of my inner world had gone out enough to take a breath. At last I was beginning to feel myself again.

“Hey, did you hear about Rick Burns?” These words came from Bob Carter, a colleague of mine well known for his love of office gossip, innuendo and rumor. I didn’t feel particularly receptive to this kind of conversation after what had happened, but figured anything that could take my mind off it would help.

“Who’s Rick Burns?” I said

“You know him, the over paid consultant we used a few years ago on the Innovation Project,” Bob replied sarcastically.

“Oh yeah, What about him?” I asked.

“Apparently he quit the consultancy game and is working as a cleaner in the TXU Building across the other side of city,” Bob explained. “I always thought he was a bit odd, but what the hell was going through his head to take up a job as a cleaner? He must’ve really hit rock bottom. What a nutter!”

Bob’s words cut right to the quick. It stirred me. I tried my best not to show it, but his comments about Rick Burns’ low point rang the sound of empathy.

Normally, I’d have joined in the predicted barrage of wise-cracks and belittling that would’ve followed his remark. Today, however, was a different day. All I could muster was a pretend smile and continue to my office.

Bob made some joke at my expense about getting out of the wrong side of bed, or something like that, but it didn’t matter. I sat down at my desk and for a long time couldn’t even marshal the strength to turn on the computer. All I could think about was Rick Burns. What could have made a successful, intelligent, and up-and-coming executive quit the game to become a lowly cleaner? It didn’t make sense.

Within a day, two mysteries had presented themselves. First, there was my precarious situation which was a long time in the making. Though I’d survived, I still sensed I was not out of the woods yet.

Second, the strange turn of events for Rick Burns’ life. I couldn’t help thinking that they were somehow connected. Maybe it was just hope… hope that I wasn’t the only sorry sod going through something like this.

I eventually turned on my computer to begin work. The buzz I usually got from seeing my appointment book filled with clients was replaced with a heavy sigh.

The competitive streak ran strong. The challenge of finding new ways to shear the ordinary ‘punter’ of their hard earned cash was a measure of success. The ethos was simply ‘Kill or be Killed.’

The thrill had gone. What was the point? The measure I used didn’t seem to measure much any more. Maybe that’s what happened to Rick Burns? Did he finally loose the buzz and ask what was the point of it all? I wondered if he, too, was close to blowing off the back of his head?

I was momentarily filled again with a clarity of feeling and remembered, vividly, the mysterious man who’d stood in my doorway. His words, his presence, had stood between me and a bullet.

I felt angry. How the hell could I forget this Samaritan? He’d saved my life. Who was he? I must……Before I could think any further the phone rang. Habitually, I picked it up.

“Hello,” I said tentatively.

“Good morning, your ten o’clock is here,” said a sweet voice from the other end. It was our receptionist, Mary, I think. She seemed to be a hard worker with a pleasant smile. I didn’t really know her, but then again, I hardly knew any of my staff. My principle of managing people was simply ‘pay them well…greed is a great motivator.’

I opened the office door and standing outside was John Quigley, a client I’d known for many years. I regarded him as a smart man, savvy in business affairs, with an exceptional drive for getting things done. I admired him, even modelled myself after him.

“John, good to see you,” I said, and was surprised how quickly I slipped into client-business mode.

After the customary handshake I asked him to come in and sit down.

“How have you been John?” I said, expecting an equally insincere response.

“Umm…OK,” he said hesitantly.

Normally I would have moved right into the business of the meeting but something in his voice made me ask, “Just OK?”

“Well….”, again John hesitated as if to find the right words. He looked at me and continued, “My wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. We only found out a few days ago and it’s… you know… strangely… you’re the first person I’ve told. I don’t know what’s going to happen but….”

I could see the tears begin to well in his eyes, and his skin flush but, true to being a Captain of Business, he found the strength to contain the emotion. In mid-sentence he stopped with a strange silence, and began to talk business.

I played along and we finished the meeting without event. I ushered him to the door and shook hands. We were about to say goodbye when he looked at me longer than usual, as if his eyes wanted to say something. I felt like asking him what he wanted but before I did my attention was diverted to saying polite goodbyes.

Gazing at him as he walked away, I sensed that this man, a conqueror in the business world, was right now a fragile, little boy who needed a hug.

I stayed at work until lunch, but didn’t get much done. How could I? I went home, apparently sick, and felt so tired I went to bed.

The next morning I woke up feeling better. I attempted to follow the same routine, trying to keep to a routine. Still, the thought of Rick Burns and the stranger that helped me was at the forefront of my mind.

I was confused. Why did I think there was a connection? I felt like I was going nuts. Maybe Bob was right, if Rick Burns is a nutter, maybe I am too?

This stranger though. What was it about him? I remember so clearly what he said and did and how he helped, and at the same time any detail about him was opaque. It was like something happened but didn’t happen.

All morning at work, though it was business as usual, these questions grew and would not leave me alone. Finally, it was becoming clear what I had to do. I had to find both of them.

I took a few days leave. My boss, the CEO of the company, was none too happy. I made up an excuse about someone dying in the family.

My boss was a traditional tough nut in the game. He sued his daughter once for breach of contract in some business venture they did together. Apparently, it was around the time of his wife’s death. His daughter hadn’t delivered on some service for obvious reasons, but her father sued her anyway. He claimed that business was business and family was family. He was even proud of the lengths he went to. As I said, he was a tough nut.

I wanted to ask Bob where he’d sourced the information about Rick Burns, but knew he’d ask all the wrong kind of questions. I could’ve called to make the enquiries but a phone call just didn’t seem right. I had to see him in person.

At 9:00am I presented at the front desk of the TXU Building where Bob said Rick worked and politely asked where I could find him.

The person at the front desk informed me that there was no record of a Rick Burns working in the building, but suggested I try contacting the cleaning service they used, if indeed he was a cleaner.

I politely smiled, said thank you, and took the piece of paper that had the contact details.

I walked outside to ensure uninterrupted phone coverage and opened up the piece of paper. The company was called 'Commonaim', a strange title for a cleaning service.

I called the number but was put through to an answering machine. I left my details and the intent of the call. That was that. I had to wait.

It was excruciating. In a profession where any information was at my finger tips, waiting for someone to get back to me was annoying to say the least.

What to do? I was in the city so decided to go for a walk. Maybe I’d find a nice café or something to wait.

As I strolled, I quickly came to a quaint little book store where a book in the window had caught my eye. With nothing better to do I entered for a closer inspection. I forget the author but the title was something like ‘Why are we living for?’

I was never drawn to all the fanciful titles parading in the ‘New Age’ section. There was something about them that elicited repulsion. Not that I didn’t believe there was something more to life than just living, but it seemed that all the authors promised much. Did they deliver? I doubt it.

I must admit that much of my childhood involved going to church on Sundays. I heard all these great things like 'love thy neighbor', 'turn the other cheek', and the rest. All things we should try to do, at least in theory.

All the evidence I saw was to the contrary. The senior people of the church, friends and even my own family seemed to practice the complete opposite to what was preached. How could I do it if no one else could? What hypocrites!

Just before I had a chance to pick up the book for a cursory read, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and hoped it was the cleaning service calling back.

“Hello,” I said nervously while exiting the book store.

“Are you the one looking for Rick Burns?” asked what sounded like an elderly lady.

“Yes, that’s me. Does he work for you?” I said.

“Why do you wish to speak to him?” she replied promptly.

For a moment I was caught. What do I say?

“Umm…I’m a former work colleague of his, and…err…was in town and thought I’d catch up. I heard he worked for your company and wanted to know where I could find him?” I said with relief.

She replied, this time in a very affirming tone, obviously not accepting the bullshit I just served her, “What is the real reason you wish to speak to him?”

I was on the back foot. I didn’t know what to say. In my job I would have given her a blast and spoke to the manager to get what I wanted, but this was too important to risk.

The uncomfortable silence was killing me. I was tossing and turning inside. What the hell do I say? Maybe I’ll hang up and find some other way to contact him? There was such an unusual feeling of urgency and importance. I knew I had to respond.

Finally, in what seemed like an eternity, something changed. It was like I had reached the eye of a storm. I felt calmer, more relaxed and something came through that I didn’t recognize but replied in a solemn voice, “I really need to talk to him.”

For whatever reason, she was happy with this and said Rick wouldn’t start work until 7:00pm that evening. She said that he’d be informed of my arrival and to wait in the main foyer of the building. I agreed.

I was perplexed why she went to all the effort to interrogate me for wanting to talk to one of the employees. It wasn’t like cleaning staff were part of a royal entourage or anything.

Why didn’t she just give me his phone number? And then to offer to set things up for what apparently seemed like a formal business meeting? I didn’t get it. I assumed that the old dear must have lost a few marbles.

As it was still quite early, I drove home and waited for the appropriate time.


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