The man who polished our ground floor

I’m sitting in the middle of a tiered lecture theatre in a building called Senate House in a university in Johannesburg. Sitting around me, men and women wearing grey and red uniforms, or green overalls, are singing complex harmonies. Some of the women are banging on the desks, quite hard, in rhythm. Others clap, gently. I can hear the old man behind me providing a superb baritone. The songs are sung in minor scales, I’m sure, though I’m no musician. And they are sung with extraordinary power, with crescendos and staccatos, breaths and pauses, always introduced by a solo female voice.

These cleaners, these gardeners, these workers who quietly mop, wipe, shine and polish, who empty the bins, pick up the trash, and fill the plastic, who swing the swirling grey hoover across the ground floor of Richard Ward building every morning, every morning, every morning… Here they are, singing together, songs of praise, of worship, of mourning and celebration, for their colleague, E, who died on New Year’s Day. They sing for over an hour, dipping slowly when MC Zodwa raises her arms into a ‘T’, to signal fade down, my friends, fade down, and let me speak, and let our friends speak. And a silence drifts gently across the room.

Prayers are said, and a few colleagues provide memories and moments of the late, lost E. His employers – the subcontracted cleaning company, Supercare – also spend a few minutes at the front of the hall to praise the man. They don’t mention the pensions they’ve taken away, or the fact they want cleaners here to be constantly changing shifts and changing which department they work for, in order to stop any collaboration or relationship being established between university staff and Supercare staff. ‘I only met him once,’ begins the Supercare rep..

A union leader speaks passionately in Xhosa and Zulu, and I understand just a few words. ‘He was a strong, good guy.’ Then the Word of God is spoken by a lady in a yellow-and-brown dress and matching wrap around her head, and over her shoulders. Her eyes zoom into mine and she holds up her arm towards me: ‘There are some people here, who don’t understand what’s being said. You cannot come to a Memorial and not understand what is being said. So I will try to make some of what I say clear to the lady, so she can understand what’s being said.’

The lady. Me. The one White in her own clothes in the congregation. I struggle not to blush, and attempt a smile and nod. I might want the ground to swallow me up, but I don’t. I feel proud to be here with these people and honoured they allow me to attend this service, despite the fact I know only one of them and have met just three of them. I’m just the straggly blonde from the top floor. But they make me feel welcome, they go out of their way to ensure that the stranger is mentioned, is introduced, is acknowledged. You are here with us. I am here with you. We are all together.

People close to me are dying now. I think of their funerals. I think of a stranger coming. I think of the services in England that will be held. I think of the singing. The prayers. The language. I think of the speeches. The sadness. I think of the organ. The books. The hymns. I think of the vicar, robed, in white and purple. The collection for the church, that’s falling apart.

After perhaps 70 minutes, the service comes to an end. MC Zodwa brings things to a close, thanking everybody for coming, and thanking the management of Supercare. And then she looks up at me, and thanks ‘The lady’ for coming, noting that I probably understood just a few words. She thanks me in total three times, describing the last thanks as ‘extra special’. We all stand up. A prayer is said. We shuffle to the end of our row, and walk down the aisles on either side of the lecture hall, and slowly pass out, back into the corridors, into the main hall, past the sandwich café, past the Post Office, past the student health advisory rooms, into the cool air of the university grounds.

I try to calm my walk, to slow my rhythm, to take it easy. I head for the far end of the grounds, to buy a sandwich and maybe a Coke or a Super M chocolate milk. I grab an apricot stick, and chew on it as I pay for the conserved lunch. I wander away from the small shopping mall, back towards my office. I pass a man in grey and red, pushing a trolley stacked with sprays in shiny metal cans, dusters, a bucket, a long grey mop and a selection of short and tall brooms. We shyly catch the other’s eye as we pass, and smile. As I approach my building, I see three ladies outside, talking in a secret circle, all wearing grey and red and one in a matching red head scarf. I’m so big, so conspicuous, so clumsy. I long for their uniform, and their colour. I pass and smile. They turn and nod, and I’m not sure what it means. I keep going, into the building. I pass through the door, onto the large mat. I stop, and wipe my feet carefully backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. This is E’s old floor.