zero hours

Zero-hour by Alex Williamson

We saw your cv online and thought you’d be perfect for this. It’s a large construction site, outside of Aberlour. Do you know where Aberlour is? Good. The site needs a deep clean ready for a client inspection. Do you know what a ‘deep clean’ is? Fine. There are seven days work to start. If they are happy with you, happy with your work, there will be five days on, two days off going forward. Do you have your own car? Excellent. Do you have a CSCS? Don't worry. Do you have safety boots? You will need to bring them with you. They will not let you on site without them. First I need you to register with us. Can you fill in these forms and get them back to me by the end of the day? You will need to meet Jim, the team leader, at nine thirty tomorrow morning. His number will be in the body of the email I will send you. You will need to call him when you arrive on site. Then you will need to be inducted and get your PPE. Jim will tell you what to do after that. 

He arrived on site just before nine, and tried to find a parking space. The size of a rugby pitch, the car park was already crowded with vans and utility vehicles in various states of dirtiness or disrepair. On the edge of the car park was the small portakabin encampment, the size of a small hamlet, which accommodated the site reception, canteen and toilets. The ground around the village was a quagmire, soil churned into cloying mud by caterpillar-tracked vehicles, endless trudging boots and near-persistent rain. Today, happily, the sun was out. A perfect day.

He met Jim, the team leader, a flamed-haired, softly-spoken Scot from Edinburgh, who had spent the previous day on site. Jim was less than positive about the day ahead. Its absolutely soul destroying, he said.

With Jim was Miranda, a spiky blonde woman in her late thirties from Inverness, who seemed particularly aggrieved. Did you speak to B----? She asked. He’s full of shit. He told me this was a cleaning job. It fucking isn’t.

The site they had been sent to clean was a vast distillery in the heart of Moray. Hundred of millions of pounds had been sunk, or invested, into a colossal hole in a picturesque glen. Much of this money had been spent on poured concrete and reinforced glass, and thousands of manpower hours. A leading firm of architects had designed the distillery, a subterranean cathedral with geodesic roof in celebration of this centuries-old, high-end brand of Scotch.

The construction company was pushing to get the site ready for a visit from the architecture firm’s project leaders. This meant that every area, every surface, every nook and cranny had to be cleared of grime and dust. While construction work carried on around them. The materials favoured by the architects served a dual function: to act as a magnet for grime and dust, and to resist cleaning. It was, in other words, an impossible task.

You clean a floor and someone else just walks all over it, lamented Jim.

We spent all morning yesterday cleaning one room, came back after lunch and it was worse than when we started, said Miranda. We had to walk for miles to get water. Then there was a fire drill, and I wasn’t allowed off site. They told me to keep working.

The three of them were joined by two men in their early twenties, who had driven two hours over the Cairngorms from Stonehaven. They were Lucas, a bullish, bald mechanic, and Lee, a laid-back indie-boy-cum-welder. Both had been unemployed for over a year after the bottom fell out of the oil industry in Aberdeen. They carried an air of fecklessness typical of young manhood. He admired it, recognising something of his younger self in them. They were also permanently stoned. Lee rolled the joints while Lucas drove, in a barely-roadworthy two-door BMW. Lee had just been to Benicassim festival, and still had the entry pass around his wrist.

They sat in the canteen, waiting to be inducted. There was a handful of workers around them, slowly chewing their breakfast and staring into space. A portly man called Simon did their induction, before showing them a health and safety video pertaining to the finer points of being safe on a construction site. 

After being successfully inducted, and presented with the hard hats and yellow high-vis vests that constituted their PPE, Jim took the four of them into the site.

Together they tramped slowly down the long entry ramp to the construction zone. Everywhere he looked were men in the same yellow hi-vis vests attending to a range of tasks. Men snipping wires, wiping walls, welding pipes, raising ladders. Men collapsing scaffolds, screeding floors, sawing timber. Men scoring plasterboard, hammering nails, fixing screws. Men drilling holes, tightening nuts, drawing out a tape measure, making a pencil mark. Men shouting and swearing and throwing tools. Men laughing and joshing and patting each other on the back. Men clomping past them in black boots, hands stuffed in their pockets, off for a fag break or to the canteen. Men weaving between and around and underneath plant machinery, mobile street cleaners, cherry pickers. Men clocking the blonde woman as she moved among their number, staring open-mouthed, unabashed. Men surveying the posse of contract cleaners arriving on with a glance of disdain and a low murmur of annoyance.

There was a group of men in orange vests conferring and gesticulating. Jim approached them. One, a Welshman with the sharp features and physique of a middle-aged cycling fanatic, broke off his conversation.

Right. How many have you got here, Jim? Five? Okay, good. Right, go to the storeroom, get as much cleaning gear as you can, then go up to the public toilets, back where you were yesterday, I’ll see you up there, we’re gonna redo those rooms properly, then I’ll have two more rooms for you when that’s done. You'll need scrapers. There's mastic all over the floor. We need to get it off pronto.

They trooped down to the storeroom to collect the cleaning gear, passing a series of huge copper whisky stills. Miranda and Jim leading the group, Lucas and Lee following, him at the rear. The storeroom was a small electricity cupboard, with a ‘Danger of Death’ sign on the door. Everything in the storeroom was covered in a thick layer of grey dust, including the cleaning materials, the mops, cloths and scourers, they were to use to clean the rooms upstairs. There were several industrial hoovers and floor washers, none of which were in working, according to Jim. They each took a mop and bucket. Jim grabbed a bag of cloths and an industrial sized bottle of lemon-scented cleaning fluid. He showed them two metal scrapers and said, These are for the mirrors and floor. Whatever you do, don't let them out of your sight.

Attempting to ascend a circular staircase to the upper levels, they were turned back by a gang of irritable sparks. They doubled back and ascended a metal staircase which led to a raised walkway parallel to the sills. They passed through a fire-door which said ‘Do Not Enter’. As they reached their destination, they entered one room to find it still being painted. They backed out and tried the other room, where two electricians were about to start commissioning the overhead air conditioning units. The Welshman came in, and told the electricians to leave. He turned to Jim and said they were to clean the room from top to bottom. All paint and mastic had to be scraped off the cauterized floor, and the residue of tape picked from the mirrors. All dust had to be wiped from the paneled cladding. The floor had to be scrubbed and mopped and scrubbed and mopped again. Then gone over with the motorized floor washer. No cleaning fluids were to be used. Hot water could be collected from the tea urns downstairs. There was no running water on site yet.

When he started cleaning the toilets, he saw that some had been pissed in. The liquid in the bowl was a lurid yellow. 

Jim said to the Welshman, Before we start, have you seen this?, and opened the door to one of the cubicles to show him the sledgehammer-shaped hole that had been smashed into the cubicle wall. Don’t worry about that, we’ll get over that with some filler, the Welshman said. He didn't say anything about the piss.

They walked their buckets to the tea urns. There were two tea urns to service the hot water needs for the entire site. According to Jim and Miranda, this was an improvement on the day before, when there was no hot water. One of the urns was empty, the other two thirds full. As they were filling their buckets, a man in glasses approached Jim and said, Oi. Cleaner. Don’t you fucking use all my fucking water. Then he walked off.

They took the buckets back upstairs and cleaned the room, five of them cramped together. Jim dusting the undersides of the sink. Miranda wiping the mirrors. Lee scraping the floor. Lucas mopping the cubicles. The only job left for him was to run a mop over the walls. Conversation ebbed and flowed. Miranda wanted to be a yoga instructor. Jim had once owned a high-end menswear store that went bust. Lee was a musician and producer. Lucas had no car insurance.

Partly because he was reading a book about Hemingway's boat and partly because he'd always believed it to be true, he told them he was a writer and Jim asked him, looking up from scrubbing the floor, What are you doing here then? He couldn’t answer. Something had happened, and there he was.  

All that day they swept and scrubbed and swiped and scraped. They brushed and mopped and dusted and pushed a motorised floor washer around in ever-decreasing concentric circles. Then they crossed the small corridor to the other bathroom and began again. After finishing that room, they checked back on the room they had finished earlier. The floor by now was crisscrossed with muddy boot prints and a painter’s emulsion-flecked ladder stood squarely in the centre of the room, a can of paint at its feet.

On the second day he developed a kind of delirium. Cleaner’s Fever. He was light-headed, unsteady when standing. He couldn’t get a handle on the work, couldn’t perform a meaningful task without falling over Miranda or Lee or Lucas trying to do the same. There were too many bodies in too confined a space. He felt claustrophobic, nauseated.

Jim had gone back to Edinburgh that morning, leaving the four of them on their own. Without Jim, a new rhythm imposed itself upon the day. It was Miranda who had told him that contract work required a certain languor. Look busy, but don’t over-exert yourself. Walk swiftly, but not quickly. Don’t rush. Take your time. If a job’s worth doing, its worth doing slowly. Only work your contracted hours, not a second more. They took an hour for lunch, rather than the requisite thirty minutes, sandwiched between two half hour fag breaks.

They returned to the public toilets they cleaned the day before. Since they left, the plumbers had completed their commissioning. There was sawdust in the sinks and over the floor. I asked them not to do that, the bastards, said the Welshman. Then he pointed at the mirrors. Alright boys you need to get those bits of tape there. All the little bitties. They really wind me up. They had already lost both the metal scrapers and had to cadge one off a painter, which they promptly lost.

The entire site was utterly chaotic. Every trade that they spoke to said that it was the worst site they had worked on. Which was why one of their number had smashed a hole in the cubical wall. They’ve fucked so many people off, said one of the painters. The painters had been there for months, painting the same walls over and over, only to find that someone had scraped something along them.

That evening another agency worker, a labourer with a thousand yard stare who it later transpired had been on site for six months, accused him of stealing a box of scrubbing brushes. Earlier in the day, he had seen the same labourer screaming at his orange-vested leader, railing against some work-related injustice. He looked perpetually furious and they kept well out of his way. Miranda dubbed him The Angry Man. He knew how he felt.

By the third day the team had taken to calling him Nigel, on account of his refusal to reveal his real name to the Welshman. Nigel was soon commuted to Nige. You're a fair boy, Nige, said Lee. The Stoney boys revelled in attributing the false names to people. Joining himself and Welshie were Tired Mike, Little Ian and Paedo Steve. These were the more favourable names. Burning ire was reserved for that fucking B---, the faceless face of the agency.

There was still some uncertainty about the hours they were expected to work. On the fourth day, while Miranda was on a yoga course, the Welshman asked the three of them to stay late. He, Lucas and Lee spent the evening cleaning the perimeter of a huge floor area, using cold water and mops, while the senior facilities management team took it in turns to drive round on motorised cleaning machines. The company gave them fish and chips for dinner. He left the other two, still working, at ten o’clock. Lee texted him later to say they had been given three extra hours pay and tomorrow off for staying late. They left an hour after him.

The next day, the fifth, he returned to site with Miranda only to be told by the Welshman that they were not needed. The site was now ready for the client inspection. However, as they were already there they should make themselves useful and dust the metal balustrades in the sills hall. They took a blue roll of hand towel paper and two spray bottles of window cleaner, and worked their way along a hundred foot long stretch of galvanised steel handrail, wiping away the thin layer of dust that had gathered on its horizontal elevations.

Miranda removed her helmet and sat cross-legged on the floor. Her working methods were like her conversation: forensic, but noncommittal. She’d worked as a cleaner for Global for a few years, until the oil industry went belly-up and they paid her off, in her words. Now she was focusing on her yoga. She had a son, who was in his twenties. He was making two thousand pounds a week as a welder in Stornoway. He would be home for his birthday in a week. She was deliberating what to get him. She asked him, what do you get someone who earns two grand a week? Something ironic, he suggested. He’s lost lots of weight clean eating recently, she said, so I’ll probably bake him a chocolate cake. That ought to do it, he replied.

The clients walked by while they were wiping. Three architects in stretch chinos and pointy shoes. Square-framed designer glasses. One hundred pound haircuts. How he dressed in his last London job. He observed their comfortable ease navigating in the vast space they had designed, their knowledge and familiarity with the minute aspects of the design. The two male architects spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the interior of a lift. The female architect walked a couple of steps behind, taking notes.

He thought of the small variations in fortune that had brought him here, wiping dust of metal with a blue cloth for ten quid an hour to feed his children, while three architects ten or more years his junior were putting the finishing touches to a multimillion pound project, a huge milestone in their careers, before flying back to London later that week, back to well-apportioned neomodernist flats in some new build high-rise, in Hackney perhaps, or Southwark, overlooking the Herzog de Meuron extension at Tate Modern, midweek Michelin-starred microcuisine and Phedre at the National, VIP passes to Glastonbury and Coachella, citybreaks in Copenhagen and New York and villas on Santorini and Ibiza.

He looked at Lucas and Lee slouching and shambling below him, chatting as they refilled their buckets. The right parents, the right school, the right university. Small variations.

They worked three further days, and were given the weekend off. Expecting more work, Lucas and Lee booked local accommodation for the rest of the month. Lee was going to teach Lucas to play guitar. And they were going to get stoned.

When they returned after the break, things had soured. Arriving on site they were told again they weren’t needed. Lucas was particularly vexed, phoning B---- at the agency before hanging up and calling him a fucking paki. Before the day was out Lee was doing the same. He considered asking them if they had heard of Rene Girard's theory of the scapegoat. He didn’t. Not because he was a coward, but because he didn’t want to sound like a cunt.

The next day brought further confusion: Miranda showed him the print out of an email sent to B---- from the site manager the week before. In the subject line: Competency of the cleaners. The body of the email was a list of tasks to be carried out as part of the next phase. It suggested that there was enough work for another month at least, mainly in the vast sills hall. Mainly dusting and wiping. It was tedious work, but the income would solve his family’s financial woes for the immediate future.

After a morning of cleaning steel struts with extendable mops, Lucas stormed off to sleep in his car. He didn’t return the next day. Instead Lee turned up with another friend, Andy, an unemployed chef with a croaky voice. Tired Mike told them again that they weren’t needed. Instead, he gave them the job of picking duct tape off the floor of the distillery. Removing the tape meant scraping at the surface of the floor until it was gone, leaving a white scar in its place. It was as futile a task anything they had done on the first day.

That lunchtime Lee and Andy shared a spliff. He almost joined them. Instead he spoke to B----. There won’t be any more work after today, he said. They’re hiring their own cleaners to complete the work. They think they can get people to do the same work for less. I don’t think they can. But that’s up to them. Between you and me, they’re not that happy with the work that is being done. I’m hearing there are health and safety issues. Miranda won’t wear her hard hat.

And that was that. He was disappointed, but not surprised. Lucas and Lee had asked every orange-vis for more work, and they had been rebuffed. He wondered if the agency had got wind of this. But he couldn’t really complain. For the bare minimum of effort he had made good money at the cleaning job, enough to see his family out for the next few weeks. And had there been more work he would have kept up the hour-long drive to Aberlour. He was fortunate to have found the work at all.

He bade farewell to Miranda, Lee and Andy, and drove away from the site. As he left, he passed a gang of men planting saplings on the slopes overlooking the distillery.

On the outskirts of Elgin, he spotted the flashing blue light of an unmarked police car in his rear view mirror. Pulling over to let them pass, he was surprised when it drew alongside, and the window lowered. Facing him in the passenger seat was a female officer, but it was the male officer who spoke, leaning across her to address him.

Good afternoon, sir, he said. We’ve been running checks on the cars driving through this area. Our records show that you are driving without insurance. Would you mind following us?

As he sat in the back of the police car, he castigated himself for his stupidity, his arrogant assumption that he would not get caught. They had him bang to rights. He had delayed renewing the insurance. Because he was broke. Because paying it would have left him short for something else. Something more important. Because he thought he was a good driver. Safe, attentive, assertive. He’d taken a calculated risk, and it had cost him. He had broken the law many, many times before, too many to mention, but this was the first time he had committed a criminal offence for the want of money. Not that the police officer gave a shit about his situation. He was too busy revelling in being right, on the right side of the law. Morally circumspect. Condescending. Unsympathetic. He resented the traffic policeman’s officious persona. He had forms to fill out and boxes to tick. Other drivers to nick. He wondered if the officer had read Girard. Or Thomas Hobbes. It seemed unlikely.

When he tried to explain why he hadn’t renewed the insurance and where he had been working this week, the officer pointed at the child’s seat in his car and said, You’ve got kids. Imagine if you had a crash, they lost a leg. Imagine if that happened to the person you hit. Imagine if it was their child. You wouldn’t be insured. You’d be liable. You could go to jail for dangerous driving. Now how much was the insurance again?

He had a point. After a long lecture from the traffic officer he was handed six penalty points and a £300 fine. He now had nine points on his license. Three more and he would lose it altogether. He could forget finding work after that. It would cost £150 to recover the impounded car. He had had his old address on his license and might receive a fine of £1,000 from the DVLA. He could also expect his insurance premium to double.

He handed over the key to his car, and started walking towards the station. Then he phoned his wife to give her the good news.