books

Life as a trauma cleaner: One day your office is a meth lab. The next a homicide scene.

This is what it says on the back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card:

‘Excellence is no Accident’
Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean Up * Squalor/Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odour Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mould, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. A gaggle of public servants, lawyers and academics had just emerged from a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of crappy coffee and plates of sweating cheese. I passed a card table in the lobby where brochures were spread out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into an ice bucket for a chance to win a bottle of shiraz.

Next to the ice bucket— silver, with a stag’s head on either side—a tiny TV played scenes of before and after trauma-cleaning jobs (which brought to mind the words ‘faeces’ and ‘explosion’). Sitting behind the table a very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, fanned her hand out and invited me to enter my card. Hypnotised by her smile and her large blue eyes and the oxygen mask she wore like jewellery and the images on her TV, I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.

Sandra is the founder of Specialised Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. Each day for the past twenty years, her job has led her into dark homes where death, sickness and madness have suddenly abbreviated the lives inside.

Most people will never turn their mind to the notion of ‘trauma cleaning’. But once they realise that it exists—that it obviously has to—they will probably be surprised to learn that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulances or other emergency services. This is why Sandra’s trauma work is varied and includes crime scenes, floods and fires.

In addition, government housing and mental health agencies, real estate agents, community organisations, executors of deceased estates and private individuals all call on Sandra to deal with unattended deaths, suicides or cases of long-term property neglect where homes have, in her words, ‘fallen into disrepute’ due to the occupier’s mental illness, ageing or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort, disperse and dispose of their loved ones’ belongings.

Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die physically and emotionally, and the strength and delicacy needed to lift the things we leave behind.

***

‘Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back on [number] it would be appreciated, but possibly not today as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow, maybe, on [number], thank you. Bye for now.’

When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me when I would like to meet. I tell her that I can work around her schedule. So she says, ‘Okey dokey,’ and flips open her diary. ‘How about the cafe at the Alfred Hospital? ’ she suggests, explaining parenthetically that she has a couple of hours next week before she sees her lung specialist. It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are a part of life. Not in a Buddhist koan sort of way, but in a voicemail and lunch-meeting sort of way. Over the next few years, she would reveal to me how this unrelenting forward orientation, fundamental to her character, has saved her life.

ADVERTISEMENT
(Image: Facebook)

***

As the heartwood of a tree sings to you of thousands of sunlit days and rainy hours—specific symphonies of soil and the seasons of weathering and revival that will grant you the structural strength to reach for your share of the light—the rotten core of Dorothy’s house is a whispered scream that hurtles you backwards through decades of pitch darkness.

Dorothy’s house is located around the corner from a cafe that makes its own raw almond milk and a boutique that sells a 280- dollar grey sweatshirt. Sandra and I and four of her cleaners arrived just before 9 a.m., and the first thing the cleaners did was take the front door off its hinges. This was because it would open only partially before it hit a solid, sloping mass comprising empty champagne bottles, newspapers, fast-food wrappers and small grocery bags of rubbish that reached a metre and a half up the walls and surged down the hallway like a great and frozen river.

The next thing the cleaners did was quickly don their face masks and thick rubber gloves, bend low at the waist and start scooping the rubbish into industrial-sized black plastic bags. This technique soon proved extremely inefficient.

All the discrete items of rubbish had fused together over the years—partly as a result of drowning in and drying after the rain that poured unimpeded through holes in the roof; partly by being constantly compacted by Dorothy walking over it to fetch an item balanced on top (a pair of white sneakers, reading glasses, a magazine) or to settle on whatever softer part of it she used as a bed. So the cleaners used rakes to chip away at the mass, and a shovel was wielded like a pickaxe, and Joanne called out to Sandra at one point asking her to please pass the crowbar.
‘See, people think “cleaning” and that you need a bucket of water and a cloth,’ Sandra said as she went to fetch it. ‘We need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer…’

ADVERTISEMENT

It was 2016 when I entered through the kitchen window, my fingers digging into both sides of the peeling white frame and my sneakers scrambling ridiculously for purchase against the crumbling bricks. It was 2016, and I could hear the drone of the talkback radio station Sandra had tuned in to on her portable radio. But when I lowered myself into the kitchen, my feet landing not on the floor but on a deep and shifting layer of cheap champagne bottles, it was 1977. Or so said the calendar on the wall and the His Master’s Voice refrigerator and the brown newspapers folded neatly on the kitchen table amid huge piles of rubbish and rubble from the collapsing roof.

Outside, Sandra, arboreal in the morning light that fell across the overgrown garden, was picking her way over the broken beer bottles glinting in the grass. In a new pair of blindingly white canvas sneakers worn, as always, without socks, and a blue and white silk blouse fluttering in the breeze, Sandra should have been setting off from her Santorini hotel to buy souvenirs. Instead she leaned in through the kitchen window and took in that boneyard of empties with one hard look. ‘The only thing that happened here after 1977 was the bottles,’ she said.

This is the home of Dorothy Desmond, who slept here like a stillborn until yesterday, and of her mother before her. Dorothy, who has lived here for at least thirty-five years, probably longer, who is in her early seventies and who very recently came to the attention of the community organisation that contacted Sandra to clean her home. Dorothy, who is the subject of concern, definitely curiosity, also pity, maybe affection and possibly fear from neighbours who have known her for as long as she has lived in this house, but who have never once been inside. Dorothy, who, like her house and like Sandra here today working on her behalf, is at once too foreign and too familiar to be easily understood.

Besides the flamboyance of cheap champagne bottles, passage around Dorothy’s kitchen is blocked by a haphazard mound of wine boxes that buries, entirely, one of two chairs at the kitchen table. But you can clearly see that the room is a time capsule: the newspaper reports that Evonne Goolagong is playing in the Open and that Jimmy Carter is gloomy about the American economy. A box of Arnott’s Uneeda biscuits is on the counter, cans of Guinness and bottles of Foster’s bear their retro logos without irony. There is the bag from the McDonald’s Southern Fried Chicken that was phased out in the mid-eighties. There is no water or electricity, the toilet is outside: a board with a hole in it. Sandra finds it, using a process of deduction, behind a thick veil of foliage.

ADVERTISEMENT

Leigh is working in the kitchen, his heavy boots balancing on the shifting surface of bottles as he wobbles back and forth under spiderwebs, thick as dreadlocks, that dangle from the light above the kitchen table. We are surprised to find out, after he inquires, that we are the same age. He says I look younger; I think he looks older. For long stretches, there is just him and me, the crowded ghosts of Dorothy’s life and their strange music, which is the clear clinking of glass on glass and abandoned cutlery and empty cans and the rustling of newspapers when wrestled up into a new plastic bag. Sandra coughs violently outside.

ADVERTISEMENT

The scale of the squalor is striking but not as unusual as you might expect. It is similar to an apartment nearby that Sandra cleaned last year: same type of client (female, later sixties, office worker), same mountains of empty champagne bottles choking each room, same ammonia smell, same years without electricity. The neighbours at that job had complained because of the rats that started climbing up the building. It took six people, including Sandra, twelve hours to complete. It took eight people to move the three tonnes of rubbish out of the apartment. At the time, I asked Sandra what the woman looked like.

‘She just looks like an old lady,’ she replied. ‘Is she unwell?’ I asked. ‘I think she’s just lonely,’ Sandra said. I wobble up the glacier of glass and garbage out of the kitchen and grab the lintel of the doorframe for support before descending into the lounge room. From my vantage point atop this mountain, I look down onto a gold-framed painting of gum trees hanging over the fireplace. There are two black and white TVs in one corner of the room and as I stare into the rubbish, two broken chairs emerge from the accumulated detritus like dolphins in a magic eye picture. In addition to the hundreds of empty bottles—champagne and beer and wine and gin—that reach up to the light fixture, there are also numerous empty packets and cartons of Marlboros. An ashtray over- flows on the mantelpiece; a few butts have burnt themselves out in the stuffing of a pillow. Against one wall a long, low display cabinet bares its rusted nails like fangs where the wood has rotted away. On its surface, amid the rubble from the caved-in roof, are cassette tapes of classical music and dirty pennies so worn the Queen’s face has been erased. Behind its glass doors the good plates are still neatly stacked.

‘It’s making me look like a fuckin’ idiot,’ Sandra seethes into her phone, pacing in front of Dorothy’s house. ‘I’m trying to keep my cool, ’cause you know how angry I get. We can’t afford to be fucked around and I gotta get down to a double stabbing in Dromana soon. OK…So, how far away are you then?’

The bin company was supposed to deliver two skips by 9 a.m. It is now after eleven, so the cleaners have had to stack Dorothy’s open garage full with bulging rubbish bags. More bags line the fence along the front of the house. Not only does this violate local council laws, it will waste time later in double-handling the bags to load the skips when they finally arrive. Sandra, who always ensures that she shows up to appointments early or, at the very least, punctually, is incan-descent. Rule of Pankhurst: do not waste Sandra’s time.

An older woman walks a small white dog towards the house. She is snow-haired, pink-scrubbed and wearing a sensible vest. As she passes, Sandra leans down to coo at the dog and the woman looks at her and the STC van and the mountain of black rubbish bags but she absolutely does not look inside the house, although the doorway is a few feet away from her sturdy white sneakers. In a small voice, the woman asks after Dorothy by name, with quiet alarm. Sandra reassures her that Dorothy is being cared for. Telling Sandra how she has lived in the neighbourhood for forty- seven years, the woman recalls when Dorothy lived here with her parents and how Dorothy’s mother died forty years ago. Moulding the dog’s lead in her soft, white hands, the woman explains that Dorothy has no family now.

ADVERTISEMENT

‘She lives in her own world…’ the woman says, her eyes drifting across the many rubbish bags, in search of somewhere familiar to rest. Finding none, she walks on saying, mystified, ‘But she’s such an intelligent person…’

Dust billows out like smoke from the front doorway as Rodney and Jade chip into the solid glacial mass, calving large icebergs and smaller loaves that can be thrown into bags and carried away. Two hours have passed since they started and, through this back-breaking effort, they have cleared about a metre into the foyer, excavating, in the process, the ancient mosaic of the carpet, worn down to white thread except for a few patches where the deep reds and blues of the original design are just visible. Swaths of exposed brick run along the walls where the paint and plaster have crumbled away.

Windows of blue sky appear through the missing slats in the ceiling and the holes in the roof.
Sandra walks back around the house and leans through the kitchen window to check Leigh’s progress. Through nonstop labour, his morning’s achievement has been to clear one small patch of kitchen floor—the linoleum is black and slightly moist, a clearing in the forest. He shows her where he just fell through the floor, also the other spots where the supporting boards have rotted away from the rains which poured through the roof, filtered through newspaper and bottles, pooled for a time and slowly seeped away. Sighing, Sandra zips one long, apricot-coloured nail across the screen of her phone and dials the job contact. ‘I think there might be a bit of a problem if she wants to come back here because the floors are rotted through…’

Another neighbour stops out front. She has lived in the neighbourhood for thirty-five years and asks with concern after Dorothy. Sandra says lightly that she’s just here today to help. ‘I can’t believe it,’ the woman says, dazed. ‘I was just speaking to her last night. She was sitting right outside here. She’s clever, very clever. She travelled the world when she was younger, had a good job…’ She starts wringing her hands in a way that makes the sunlight flare on her Fitbit. ‘You know when the gas went off?’ she asks, referring to a two-week outage in 1998. ‘It never came back on here.’

I think of the pot of bleached chicken bones on the gas stove in the kitchen, the holes in the roof, the razorwinds of eighteen winters. I think of how Dorothy passed dark time here surrounded by every- thing and nothing while the deluge of rubbish inexorably submerged her life like a village drowned. Though she remained inside her childhood home, changing nothing for forty years, that place was as far from her as the moon. ‘We all live our own lives, you don’t pry,’ the neighbour says haltingly. From the footpath, I look up at the corroded gutters lining the roof; they have deteriorated so badly they look like lace. ‘Sorry, my heart is hurting at the moment,’ the woman says, palming her chest before walking on.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s all still here. The tin mail organiser on the kitchen wall with neatly folded gas bills from 1971 ($3.51, PAID), the Australian Women’s Weekly reporting how Jane Priest stole a kiss from Prince Charles, the polystyrene Big Mac containers, the neatly wrapped brown paper packages on the shelves in the fridge, the good dishes, the rubbish that hasn’t been taken out for decades. But despite the food wrappers and the alcohol dregs and the pyramids of cigarette butts, you smell none of these things.

‘Newspapers are broken down, furniture’s broken down, every- thing’s broken down,’ Rodney mutters, hefting a bulging rubbish bag out the door. ‘As soon as you start movin’ it, it falls apart.’ An elderly Greek neighbour in an adorable pink cardigan wanders over eating an ice-cream, despite the early hour. Rule of Pankhurst: ‘There’s always a stickybeak.’ She smiles at everyone and then her face folds down like an umbrella as she peers for the first time in thirty years into the house six metres from where she sleeps. ‘What happened?’ is all she can say.

Gripping my arm like a bird on a branch, she insists on leading me through her front garden and into her house, where she takes me on a tour. The layout is exactly the same as Dorothy’s. Except the floors are mirror shiny and sunlight fills the rooms like music and there are photos, everywhere, of her children and their children. ‘I see her, sometime, up there.’ She motions towards the main road at the end of the street, shaking her head and looking bereft. ‘I say, “Why don’t you go home?”’ Then she starts speaking only in Greek, which I do not understand.

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein, $32.99, is available from Text Publishing and all good bookstores.

00:00 / ???