Peter Ross: Scene of the grime

Lesley Wright, left, and Marie Fagan dispose of a fetid mattress. Picture: Martin Hunter
Lesley Wright, left, and Marie Fagan dispose of a fetid mattress. Picture: Martin Hunter
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MURDER, suicide, lethal overdose… meet the extreme cleaners who take a personal pride in clearing away the nauseating aftermath of violent death without a trace

‘HOW are you with smells?” asks Marie.

The chaos of a hoarder's kitchen. Picture: Martin Hunter

The chaos of a hoarder's kitchen. Picture: Martin Hunter

She has the back of her van open and is reaching inside for a face mask. We are standing on the street of a large Scottish city, in a canyon of tenements, about to visit the flat where, two or three days ago, a man bled to death.

Marie Fagan, a sharp-eyed, blunt-­spoken woman of 40, runs Clean Scene Trauma with her partner Billy Pillar. The company offers a professional cleaning service in the aftermath of violent crime, suicide, accidental death and any scenario in which blood, bodily fluids and harmful items need to be removed. They go into the bland rooms of budget hotels and clean carpets crimson with the evidence of drug deals which became knife fights. They lift dirty needles from filthy squats and from the floors of fast-food toilets. They clean up after those obsessive hoarders whose homes are mouldering mausoleums in which lie interred the husks of their own neglected lives.

Most people would find this sort of work impossibly vile, but Marie has two of the most important qualities for an extreme cleaner – a strong stomach and a strong interest in life on the margins. “The worse it is,” she says, “the better.”

We climb the stairs of the close. There are big splinters on the landing floor from where the police battered the door. Marie and her colleague Lesley Wright, 45, change into white protective suits; masks and goggles and double-gloves. It’s better not to do this on the street. Too many folk would be wondering. ­Discretion is what this job’s all about.

The key in the lock. You hold your breath as you go in, unsure what you’re about to find. A tiny flat. Junk mail at one end of the hall floor, stained footprints at the other. The bathroom is an atrocity; the sink full of blood. You want to look and you want to not look. You want to know and you want not to know. What the hell happened here?

“We don’t ask,” says Marie. “To me, it’s not right to ask. When you’re on the job you can’t help but wonder. But you ­never really know, and the questions kind of float about your head forever.”

On entering a home, Marie likes to find a photograph of the deceased. Likes to know their face. Not out of nosiness. Out of what? Compassion, maybe. And as a kind of comfort. Somehow, knowing something about the person – a name, an age, their appearance – lessens the sense of dreadful absence by giving a glimpse of the life that has ended. It is also a way of dignifying the labour. Say the property is a rented flat. The work is being paid for by the letting agency. But Marie, in her head, is really working for the deceased and their loved ones. She’s cleaning so that when the family come by to uplift belongings, they don’t see anything that would upset them. Her job, in a way, is telling white lies.

Here, though, is the truth. Blood, when it’s been lying a while, is dark as a ripe plum and has the consistency of jelly. You never quite get used to the feel of it rising up your gloved wrists. The smell rises, too, as you start to clean. Forget jelly. This, as Marie puts it, is like the back of a butcher’s shop. The stink clogs and clots at the back of the throat.

Not everyone could do this job. But don’t make the mistake that the people who can do it are cold and hard. “You do feel sad,” says Marie. “I’m not really religious, but I always kind of say a wee prayer. It’s just a bit of respect for the person.”

It’s strange to be in the flat. There’s a touch of the Mary Celeste about it. Fags unsmoked. Clock unwound. A birthday card lying in the kitchen, addressed but never sent.

“For a man, that’s a nice clean wee cooker,” says Lesley, nodding approvingly from within her white hood.

“Aye,” says Marie, “he’s kept the flat tidy. He seems to have been a nice clean-living man. It’s a shame.”

Marie photographs his wallet, on a table in the bedroom, to prove that she has not touched it. She cuts away an area of stained carpet and checks the floorboards. She strips the bed, bundling the duvet and sheets into bright orange clinical waste bags for incineration.

She and Lesley between them heft the mattress down the close stairs and out to the van. In the street, life goes implacably on: people and traffic; the shrill joy of kids at their playground games. This is the thing about extreme cleaning. You very quickly become­ aware of aspects of society – the quiet tragedies; the dim sadnesses – which never make the papers. “We had three suicides last week,” says Marie. “One was a guy who’d drunk salt and his kidneys blew up. One was heroin. The third was a girl who’d slit her wrists.”

The extreme cleaners know things. They know that heroin users, when they’ve found a nice dark spot in which to shoot up, say a burned-out derelict underground bar, will sometimes live there for a long time, laying down on the cold floor a new flattened cardboard box each time the present layer grows too dirty and damp, and creating for themselves a sort of nest. Cleaning such places, Marie and her team will peel back each layer, careful as archaeologists, finding needles and scorched foil in each. Recently they found the passport of a young woman and handed it in to the police; another piece of flotsam from another shipwrecked life. When lifting needles they wear pierce-proof gloves and boots with metal soles. They are vaccinated against hepatitis B and C.

Extreme cleaners know what poverty means; the desperate things it makes you do. “We had a job at Kinning Park,” says Marie. “Bad winter. Two or three years ago now. The guy had been breaking into factories. Stealing lead. But the roof was covered in snow so he didn’t see the skylight and fell right through on to the concrete floor. Seemingly he was quite a youngish guy. I bet he had a couple of weans and was skint and trying to get money for Christmas presents.”

There can be a kind of very dark comedy to extreme cleaning. Laugh or you’d cry. Marie recalls a man in his twenties in Glasgow who had mental health problems. This particular Saturday, he had got himself a carry­-out, sat down to watch one of the Saw films, slashed his arms, bled into cups and thrown blood all over the walls. He was known to have hepatitis C, so his carers called the cleaners. When they turned up, the man was quite the genial host, blithe among his bloodstains, offering wine and cider.

“This was always my dream,” says Marie. Her family have been in the industrial cleaning business for more than 20 years, but she long had a fancy for this particular niche. She used to watch the CSI shows and, rather than try to work out whodunnit, she would think, “I wonder who cleans that?”

Most of us would probably assume that the responsibility for cleaning up the aftermath of violence or drug use would lie with the police. But this is not the case. The police do often make ­arrangements, but they are not obliged to do so. Assistance is available from Victim Support Scotland for families ­affected by violent crime who cannot ­afford to pay for specialist cleaning.

Marie did the course at the National Academy of Crime Scene Cleaners in ­Bristol, learning about pathogens and pest control and needle sweeps. “People laugh at me,” she says. “A lot of my pals like to go online and look at shoes and bags, then they come to my house and I’m on the internet looking for mattress bags and the best stuff to clean blood. I can’t explain it, but I’m passionate about it.”

She takes a particular pleasure in dealing with hoarders, of whom she speaks with affectionate pity, sometimes having to spend weeks negotiating and gaining their trust so as to be allowed into their properties. She knows their quirks: their abhorrence of cleanliness; their love for labyrinths of piled papers; the way that many hide caches of booze and own far too many cats. One old hoarder from Argyll was terminally ill and sent home from hospital to die. Marie was asked to gut his flat so that it would be safe for his carer. She remembers pulling down a vast cobweb, yellow with nicotine, which covered the whole kitchen ceiling, like a silken ochre mantle.

“Time had stood still for that wee man,” she says. “He didn’t sleep in a bed. He slept on the same bit of the floor of the living room, on an old-fashioned rug in front of the fire, for years and years since he was a boy.”

It is teatime when Marie and Lesley finish cleaning the blood from the flat. Dusk has turned to dark and fallen leaves have choked the gutters. Soon, they will drive back to Moodiesburn with the stained mattress in the back, satisfied that the dead man’s family need not see what they have seen. The kindly gift they bestow, with sanitising spray and disposable wipes, is ignorance. “There’s a lot more goes on out there,” says Marie, “than people would believe.”

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss