From the writer of the play "Marooned"
The schoolyard was empty as he crossed its playground. Slightly bent, the old Anglo-Indian man observed the concrete through thick glasses with thick frames for any and all dropped litter.
Fifteen years he’d been doing this job: cleaning the primary school's two sets of toilets, tidying the playground. Sometime in the early morning other professional cleaners serviced the classrooms and offices. There were rumours that they had put in an offer to encompass his duties as well-rumours Mr Kynyatta wouldn’t have heard unless they had been communicated through graffiti on one of the lavatory walls.
For all his fifteen years he had had little contact with anyone in the school. Segregated by time he was to many teachers that small bent figure with a wheelie bin picking up litter in the dusk as they were leaving. To the children he simply did not exist.
Playground finished he'd move to the toilets. Broom, mop and bucket, rags and bottle of mentholated spirits, he’d start with the boys'.
Down the years he’d wiped off volumes, crayon, pen, pencil whatever left a mark. Someone loves someone. Someone is an expletive. There wasn’t an expletive he hadn’t wiped from the walls.
Piling all his gear near the door he’d peruse the white walled cubicles and enjoy his first cigarette of the night. There was a peculiar silence to an empty public lavatory. A silence that by its nature called upon him to be quiet.
Savouring his fag he studied the walls.
I want to die
It was scrawled below the drape of the toilet paper in the girls' toilets last cubicle. He sat on the loo wondering. He did not want to wipe the tiny writing away yet knew he was expected to. He briefly pondered telling the Head Mistress but what could she do? Who was the girl? Little girls get upset, Mr Kynyatta. Plus hadn’t it been over two years since he and the Head Mistress had spoken? And that had been only 'hello' and 'good bye'. Regardless the statement disturbed him. He did not want to wipe it off but he did. It cleaned it until you couldn't tell it had been there.
As he wiped the communal mirror and the sinks below, the discomfort followed him. Finally, about to leave, he returned to the cubicle, took out his own pen and wrote;
He did not sleep but tossed and turned in the sheets then rose to the kitchen where he made himself a cup of tea and sat at the table. His wife’s picture was stuck on the fridge. He had to visit her tomorrow. The nursing home always had something on on Tuesdays.
'Why?' he repeated, and shook his head smiling.
There was no reply. His why? was there untouched, unread. He smiled, cigarette in lips, and wiped it away.
He didn’t tell his wife. He sat instead and drank a cup of tea as she slept in the nursing home's chair while the music man from the Salvation Army sang old songs.
I think I would be happier in heaven.
He was stilled by. Dropping his cigarette into the loo he sat and read it again.
Who wouldn’t? he thought, removing the toilet roll to see it complete.
She had a nice hand.
For half an hour he sat there but every reply sounded ineffectual. He wrote three only to immediately wipe them away. Finally, after finishing the rest of his work-and thinking as he worked, it was written. He put the roll back and was gone leaving a lone huntsman spider to find his reply printed on the wall.
Perhaps I am God.
It was two days before he received a reply. He had begun to feel embarrassed yet had altered his entire cleaning routine to begin at the wall and finish with the playground.
You don’t know?
He smiled to this and slapped his knee.
Perhaps you are an angel.
I’m too fat to be an angel.
He smiled hard, stood and patted the wall, silently laughed, sat, read it again and smiled even harder.
All my angels have problems.
He sat in front of this for over an hour. Time passed in three slow cigarettes. As he withdrew the last he studied his hands. His fingers were dark and stained darker at the edges with tobacco. The palms had deep cracks in their mounts from the ammonia and metho' and other things forgotten. One was still holding the pen. It remained there smooth and plastic. He could feel his face with just his weary nerve ends. Removing his glasses to scratch his eyes, he found he couldn’t see his hands at all. Putting his glasses back on he wrote.
I don’t know.
There was a three-day gap before the next reply. He thought he’d frightened her away. He hated this. He felt young and ridiculous. Then on the fourth day the reply came, scrawled in big letters.
I’m an angel?
The next day there were two messages.
This is my best friend.
Can I be an angel too? luv Kylie
His smile dislodged his glasses.
You are already an angel.
That night he dreamt of a school yard full of angels. There was light and wings and laughter.
The headmistress waited for him the next evening. She stood in the playground, her modern-style habit ominous in the evening light.
His skin tightened to her waiting presence. 'Good evening Sister Rosa.'
'I've been waiting for you, Mr Kynyatta.' There was no smile.
'You have a problem?'
'Will you follow me please?' And with this she led him across the empty schoolyard.
'Have you a complaint concerning my cleaning?' he prised, but received only silence.
She had a march to her step. A stature not to be messed with. A language free of excess words. She hadn't shouted, yet he found himself recoiling. And when he realised where they were going, he asked no more questions.
When she charged into the girls' lavatory he wished he were anywhere else but there. And when she pointed into the last cubicle and asked, 'Can you explain this?' he was sure he was crumbling.
He edged to the door, listing frantically in his head all the credible excuses he could think of. He took a strengthening breath, peered around the door and found flowers. Yellow daisies, ripped up from the oval's grass were spread across the floor and on every spare piece of wall and even on the cistern. And the same question in a hundred little hands.
Am I an angel?
Am I an angel, too?
Most had signed their names. Some had overlapped.
'What’s wrong with your glasses?' Sister Rosa snapped as he took them off and turned from her.
'They’re a . . . They're a bit dirty,' he replied softly, pretending to wipe them against his jacket’s sleeve.
'Yes, well, little Miss Pagano informed me that she received a message from God in here informing her that not only was she an angel, but that his favourite angels were fat. Have you any idea who could have written those messages?'
Mr Kynyatta could not look at her eyes. 'God?' he replied, timorously.
'Mr Kynyatta, we have a church on the grounds. Do you really think God would appear in the girls' latrine?'
He made a pathetic short laugh then, 'I really think you should be asking a priest about these things. I am only a cleaner.'
And she saw in his shirts breast pocket the pen.
'Oh my God,' she went and moved back as though he was diseased. 'It was you. And I've got.'
Suddenly he could hear others voices in the yard.
'Don't you say a thing. You hear me? Not a word!!'
'Ah, here you are,' she went and approached the pair.
'Lena,' Sister Rosa said and bent down to say it. 'A little earlier I called you father to see if he’d be so kind as to bring you here.'
The small, bent, Anglo-Indian man lifted his eyes and took in the young, tall Italian man and his small plump eight year old daughter. Lena had her head on a slant as she studied Mr Kynyatta.
'Lena, this is our cleaner, Mr Kynyatta. He’s the only person who comes in these toilets once you go home. He is the man who cleans the graffiti off the walls.'
Lena looked from Sister Rosa to Mr Kynyatta who began to bow his head slightly. Everything about him seemed frail.
'Are you God?' the little girl asked.
Unable to look directly at her, and with Sister Rosa glaring at him, Mr Kynyatta made them wait a moment then slowly shook his head.
'So you see, whoever was writing to you must have been one of the other children playing a mean little joke. I'm sorry Lena.'
Mission accomplished, the father nodded with a sad grin then began to lead the confused little girl to the door. Sister Rosa sounded as though she had begun to breathe.
Mr Kyntatta could not stop looking at the dark expression consuming Lena’s face. 'But he was here.' His gentle voice stopped everyone. 'I believe he was visiting his most favourite angels.'
The girl accepted the information in the way the wrongly accused accept the information which exonerates them. The father looked at him suspicious but puzzled and then they left.
Alone, Sister Rosa went on to inform Mr Kynyatta about the serious repercussions paedophile charges can have on a private school’s reputation, let alone the revelation that a cleaner was trying to convince the pupils he was God.
'What were you thinking?' She didn’t require an answer.
She went on to inform him that under the circumstances, the school had no option but to accept the other contract cleaners offer to take over his duties.
For the last few years Mr Kynyatta had been on three-month contracts-contracts that for the last two years he had failed to sign. This afforded her the right to give him only a single shift’s notice. She was professionally methodical. She left him to his evening's work and the promise that if she ever saw him near the school again she would call the police.
He went to say something but didn't.
Subdued and exhausted he did not get off the toilet until he heard her car leave. Dazed, he took his time collecting his bin before clearing the playground of all its litter, taking care with corners and under the benches. From there he moved back to clean the toilets, starting with the boys' and leaving the girls’ cubicle till last. The flowers and the writing took over two hours to remove.
The amount of metho he had to use left him feeling to giddy to drive so he sat in his car for a while.
Out of the dark a Fox appeared. He watched it as it stood up against then looked into the bins. Alone it crossed the school yard in a crisscross pattern stopping here and there to sniff and nibble at things he couldn’t see. Then the fox saw him and lifting its head it stopped. For a long moment they looked at each other without either of them moving, then it lowered its head and continued on towards the greater school were it slipped from his view forever.
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
18 - 28 September 2019