They’d warned me about Gloria’s house, but really, when I get there, it isn’t too bad.
The Extreme Cleaning team has been working most of the morning and they’ve made good progress. There’s a pile of debris in the front garden, the kind of festering mess you might see after a terrible flood, or a swamp exhumation. The teams are obviously hard-working and well-prepared. They have two hi-tech vans, both with side-opening door like tiny fire trucks, one with an aluminium ramp to off-load heavy equipment, the other with a length of industrial hose leading in to a jet wash. The team itself is dressed CSI-style – white polyester overalls, latex gloves, clear plastic face guards and blue hair nets. Before I go in I stop to put on some overshoes and a plastic apron, but I must admit I feel a little under-dressed, like I’m wandering into a slaughterhouse with a cook’s apron and a wooden spoon.
‘Hello? It’s Jim, from the hospital.’
One of the cleaners is hard at work in the front room, operating a stainless-steel cylinder vacuum cleaner so powerful I’m in danger of being sucked up myself when I tap her on the shoulder. She flicks the switch and turns round.
‘I’ve come to see Gloria’ I shout as the noise subsides, as impressively as a hovercraft coming in to port.
The cleaner nods to the far end of the room, then turns the machine on again.
Gloria is sitting on the wreckage of her sofa, a blanket draped over her shoulders. The windows are open either end of the room and there’s a significant through-draft, but despite all this, twenty or so fat and frowsy-looking flies are still dotted round the walls, too stunned by the assault on their home to move.
‘Hello, Gloria. My name’s Jim. I’m from the hospital – come to see how you are.’
I hold out my hand for her to shake. Hers is crabbed-over, the nails rimed with filth.
I make a gesture for her to wait, then go back over to the cleaner, tapping her on the shoulder.
She switches off the machine again.
‘Can you give us a minute?’ I shout.
‘Sure,’ she says, pulling down her face-mask and wiping her forehead on her arm. She’s ludicrously attractive, dark eyeliner, clear blue eyes. ‘Of course!’ she says, smiling. Then nodding at Gloria, she steps outside for some fresh air and a cigarette.
‘That’s better! So – Gloria – how are you?’
‘Fine!’ she says.
‘Good!’ I say, ‘That’s good!’ although I hardly need take any readings to know that Gloria’s only about as fine as you’d expect from someone who’d been living in squalor for years, and hadn’t moved from the sofa since Christmas.
‘Could you get me another blanket for my legs?’ she says. ‘It’s a bit chilly with these windows open.’
Suddenly, the noise in the kitchen subsides, the door opens in a cloud of steam, and the other cleaner comes in, holding the dripping jet-wash nozzle in front of her. When she sees me there she pulls her face mask down, and for a moment I wonder if this Extreme Cleaning outfit isn’t really just a bunch of super-models making a little extra money on the side.
‘Can I help?’ she says, and when I don’t immediately reply – as a threat or a prompt, I’m not entirely sure – she gives the nozzle a little shake.