Making a pittance as a school cleaner and living on a prayer

She looks anxiously at her wristwatch before she begins to speak. That anxious check was to ensure she would have enough time to foot it back to her job, where she earns a meagre salary, but performs with commitment even during difficult days.

She is 55 years old and employed as a sweeper/cleaner at one of the city’s secondary schools; a job she has done for the past 16 years.

“I got the job through my mother. She knew the headmistress at the time and she tell me to come and it was after about one week running everyday like she get fed-up seeing me face and tell me to start working. I been there since, never get a warning letter, never disrespectful,” Mary (not her real name) said with some amount of pride.

“The salary was $15,000. It was far from enough but wah a coulda do at dah time… I did need the money. Now it grow to $45,000 take home but you know it ain’t enough especially now since me husband dead; he dead four years now.”

She was momentarily silent with a faraway facial expression. She did not say it but the conclusion was drawn that she was thinking about her now dead partner.

“He use to work in the bush and get malaria and dead,” she said in a matter-of-fact manner.

Does she have to pay rent?

“No. Right now, to tell you the truth, I live in a condemned building. I living at the bottom and a man who say he buying the building living at the top. The last time me whole place flood out and all me things damage.

“If you see the flooring but when you get a lil money you really can’t do nothing because it so lil bit. And I have to pay Courts even though the things I tek out damage… I does try to patch, patch lil bit and daub some paint but sometimes I want run away but where a running and go? My family can’t help me.”

She has no minor children, but as it has been all her life, for Mary the struggle is real.

“I have six girls and one boy, the last girl is 26,” she said and quickly continued, “…but you know when you mek dem you ain’t mek dem mind,” seemingly in answer to a question that was not asked.

“None of them have steady jobs really, you know. They does do hair and the boy he in the bush, but they have dem own children to mind. Is 31 grandchildren I have and so the strain deh pun dem too I don’t bother, bother them too much.

“Right now I just want a lil wuk washing for people and so on the weekends so I could try and mek lil more money because as soon as I get pay, me money does done.”

She also has dreams of owning her own home.

“I trying to get a Food for the Poor house or something, because to tell you the truth where I living is not fit. Ah does share the one bathroom and toilet with the man upstairs.

“But is nah because I poor, I like a clean place. I does get up at 3:30 cook and suh then wash down the road in front me and the yard because I want see it clean, I does even clean the gutter in front of me.”

She takes the same attitude to work but it is not an easy work environment.

“I take my work seriously. I don’t make joke to clean the place properly. But the Headmistress now does give me a hard time.

“Wow, is only faith, when you see you reach that school gate you does say ‘Father give me your way.’

“I was to retire. I wish I coulda retire but now deh say till you meet 60… Me ain’t able with that woman. Is fire and brimstone with she. If you see you get a lil salary increase she does believe is she money she does start pressuring you more.

“And she don’t even give you enough things to clean with. Right now I sweeping with a short, short broom and she tell we she can’t afford to buy brooms for we every month.

“Is four of we, but she does give me and another woman a hard time. We does have to meet for 8 and every morning by 7.30 I done deh deh. But the other two does come till about 9 or 10 and she don’t tell dem nothing.

And when me husband dead and the other lady husband dead too, she ain’t even give we no condolence. But one a dem sister dead and she give dem sympathy card.”

By now Mary is so worked up that tears are in her eyes.

“Imagine the other day I mopping the floor, that woman come and walk on it and not even a good afternoon…

“But you see me, I don’t like disrespecting people because at the end of the day she is my boss and one day you might want a recommendation or something but this woman does really push you to the edge.”

Mary is not ready to give up and she yearns for a better standard of living.

“I need a lil help. I need a home, not no big extravagant place, just need some lil comfort. I like a nice clean and neat place. I believe in God and I does read me bible every day now.

“But to tell you the truth one time especially when me husband been dead I use to drink every day. I use to even take the bottle to wuk; that is how bad I was.

But is a day I sit down in me quiet moment and I say no, this not the end of the world I have to lift me self up because he done dead and done. I stop and I even tek one of me grandchildren to live with me and now he is me responsibility.

“Now I does get he with he book and does even send he to a lil lesson because I want he to get a lil knowledge and do something in life.

“You ain’t understand that I had even bank book and suh but when he dead is just so I start teking out a lil money here and there and all done.

Because you know when is two hand clapping you does try but when is one hand is hard.”

She looks at her watch again, opens her eyes wide and gets up to rush back to work. ‘I don’t want give dah lady anything to talk about…”

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