Sometimes defeating ‘The Man’ just takes some patience and a tin of shoe polish.



Some years ago, when I was still a Firefighter, I had a Governor (Line manager) who showed little tolerance for our station cleaner. In this particular blog this Governor will be playing the role of ‘The Man’.

The cleaner, whose name was Bill, was not in the best of health. Also he had lied about his age when he first applied for the job as he would not have been able to work beyond 65 at that time and, though I was never really sure of how old Bill was, he was certainly in his 80’s when I knew him.

‘The Man’ used to run his finger every so often over surfaces in order to see how clean they were and would often speak to Bill about how shoddy his workmanship was. Bearing in mind that I’m not talking about food preparation surfaces here or sinks and basins etcetera, I mean areas above doors, along the tops of picture frames and at the back of the television. It should also be noted that sometimes The Man would have these discussions during the ‘stand down’ period so would have to go to the effort of getting himself out of his chair and interrupting a busy days’ schedule of television watching to go and criticize Bill’s poor workmanship.

And so it was that this cycle continued for many years as Bill’s shoulders dropped lower and lower with failing health and greater despondency.  Eventually he got to the point where he would come into work, push the dirt around with a broom, wash a few sinks, then trundle off back home whilst The Man would inspect the floors and moan about how badly they had been cleaned. To be honest, Bill wasn’t the best cleaner nor was he in the best of health but he did manage to keep on top of the cleaning generally and the little job that he had meant a great deal to him. Without it he probably would have gone home and simply shut himself away from the world.

One of the constant bones of contention for The Man was the state of the floor downstairs in the corridors which was covered in light coloured dimpled vinyl tiles. The problem was that the Firefighters’ boots had black soles and the two did not mix.  Therefore it was almost impossible for Bill to keep that floor clean. One day The Man decided that enough was enough. He’d had to witness ’poor cleaning standards’ and ‘lack of effort’ from the comfort of his easy-chair for far too long so decided to do something about it. I didn’t know he’d decided to do something about this until I was just coming out of the office, at about one in the morning, to go to upstairs when I spied The Man at the end of the corridor scrubbing one of the dimpled tiles outside Bill’s cleaners’ cupboard. The Man had recently mentioned to Bill a few times how clean he expected these vinyl tiles to be but Bill had defended himself saying that he’d been trying harder and harder to clean them but that he could not make them look any better. It seemed clear to me, standing there at 1 o’clock in the morning, that The Man intended to scrub one of the tiles outside Bill’s cleaning cupboard to prove that it could be done and to also illustrate the level of effort he expected from Bill in future.

Now, I’m not generally one for disobeying orders or working against my line managers (well…generally) but, having carefully backed myself into the office, and, having taken the time to consider what The Man must actually be doing and then realising his intention to give it to ‘The little Man’ the following morning, I decided to wait up until The Man had gone to bed and to restore balance to the universe.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING: I was in the office with most of the watch as we’d just finished washing off the Fire Appliances and were discussing what we were all going to be doing with our days off. Suddenly Lemon, our Sub-Officer at the time, dashed into the room in a giddy schoolboy-like frenzy. “Ohhhhhh…” he said, “*****’s really not happy. Someone’s made a right mess of the tile outside Bill’s cupboard. Who was it?” Lemon then searched the room with a beamed smile until it landed squarely on me. I had turned instantly bright red at remembering what I’d done and realised my gamble may not have paid off quite as successfully as I’d hoped.

FLASHBACK TO PREVIOUS NIGHT AGAIN: Having watched The Man slope off to bed I decided that I really wasn’t happy with what he was clearly planning to do the following day. I therefore decided to ‘re-dirty’ (don’t bother looking that up, I’m sure it’s very likely a real word) the tile outside Bill’s cupboard. Having seen how well The Man had managed to clean it I was almost reluctant to undo his small mindedness. However the thought of The Man towering over Bill in the morning wagging a judgemental finger at him overrode that reluctance. I had taken a tin of boot polish from the gear room and dirtied the tile up a bit. The effect of this dirtying was not quite as subtle an effect as I had hoped. Nevertheless, I was committed so continued to dirty it until I was satisfied.

FLASHFORWARD (BACK TO THE FUTURE STYLEE) TO THE OFFICE AGAIN, THE FOLLOWING MORNING: As I sat on the workbench in the office with one leg bent up under my chin I wondered if The Man would then come to reproach anyone for the act. He did not. And in fact…it was never mentioned…ever.

FLASHBACK TO PREVIOUS NIGHT (WOW, TARANTINO WOULD LOVE THIS S**T!): As I looked down at the tile…I wondered…’The Man has stayed up until one in the morning just to try to give it to The Little Man. Should I do something about this? Hmmm.’ And then it dawned on me that, though I was still up at about two in the morning deciding whether or not to re-dirty this tile, the following morning, if he was angry about it, The Man would then have to admit to the whole watch that he was the sort of person that was prepared to stay up until one o’clock in the morning just to pick on a Little Man.

FLASHFORWARD TO OFFICE (THIS IS THE LAST FLASHFORWARD, I PROMISE): Lemon stared at me and began to chuckle, “Oh no…Ned, it was you! I didn’t know you had such a rebellious streak in you!” I said nothing and continued to glow indignantly.

FLASH FORWARD TO ME SITTING HERE ON MY LAPTOP (SORRY, I FOROGT ABOUT THIS ONE): Well, it has been about 15 years now since this happened. The Man retired, Bill sadly passed away and I now find myself at work in the position of being The Man myself. I have remembered moments like this however and it has shaped me accordingly into my role as The Man…I hope.

The original Man never did mention it, not to The Man above him, not to Bill, not to other members of the watch. But he probably did know it was me…and he probably knew that I’d know that he knew. I never did admit it to him and, oddly, we actually grew to respect each other as people as time went on and these days, I always remember to say hello to the cleaners at work and make sure they get a cup of tea for their troubles.

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