This is a life that astonishes like no other. Then does it again. Sandra Pankhurst runs a company called STC Services in Melbourne, Australia. STC stands for Specialised Trauma Cleaning. This means she goes in to buildings where something unspeakable has left a mark, which her company will then remove. Marks include those left by “the man who died in the ceiling of his home while spying on his family; … the dead hermit eaten by his dog; … the man who threw himself on a table saw and the mess he left for his family to find.”
Sometimes there is someone in residence among towers of rubbish. (The industry hosts an annual “Hoarding and Squalor Conference.”) That person is often seriously mentally ill, such as the first house the reader enters, occupied by a woman called Kim. “Kim is ‘very angry’”, we are told, “because the previous cleaner got rid of her pets, ‘thirty rats, all dead’.” The waste is often so ancient and compacted it requires crowbars to remove.
Sarah Krasnostein spent four years with Sandra, visiting such properties. She describes this book as “a love letter” to her, such is the effect of Sandra’s compassion towards people such as Kim, or those who live in “the dark homes where people with hardly any human contact wait to die,” but whom Sandra treats with a mixture of delicacy, warmth and courtesy that ought to be taught in schools.
The reader is rendered speechless a second time as Sandra retrieves her own story, an account which gets a little hazy at times. “It is my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,” Sarah writes. Born a boy – Peter – and adopted as a baby, when the new parents discovered they could have more children after all, the boy, surplus to requirements, was marginalised, abused and sent to live in a shed. After marriage and children, becoming one of the first Australians to undergo reassignment surgery narrowed her career options to the stage or the game. She did both.
‘I’ve always set tough standards,” she says. (Her motto is “excellence is no accident.”) “As a prostitute, I was a great prostitute. As a cleaner, I’m a great cleaner. Whatever I do, I do to the best of my ability.’”
(This review is taken from issue 1 of Strong Words. To buy back issues, or any issue, go to www.webscribe.co.uk/magazine/strongwords)