He was one of those people you see every day and start to believe you know when in fact you don’t. You have the arrogance to believe they’re part of the fabric of your day because you exchange a glance or a smile. You feel they have somehow become part of your life when in fact you have almost nothing to do with them and know nothing about them and haven’t made any particular effort with them at all.
He had close-cropped hair. He had black eyes. There was a kind of fluidity to them. They were bright, alert, mobile eyes.
He swept our floor each day. Before the company rehearsed he swept the floor meticulously – I might even say with love. It was part of the ritual of the day to thoroughly clean the working space. It was part of our company ethic and of the notion we had of discipline. We believed that discipline must matter in the kind of theatre we were hoping to create. We didn’t think you could just rock up to rehearsal. Preparing the space was as important as the rehearsal itself.
He swept our floor. He swept it with such love that we stopped sweeping. Before, the task had always been shared. It was part of our ethic that it should be shared. Each actor would be pleased to sweep because each actor knew that sweeping was part of the process of approaching any piece of theatre: the preparation of the space and the readiness for work.
It was because he loved to sweep that we stopped sweeping. It seemed impossibly rude to insist on our right to sweep when he was doing it with so much love. And I’m not being ironic.
I am trying to remember how he came to us. I think he came with the space. We rented the rehearsal room, of course. It was in the very centre of the city, near the Berwick Street market where they sell the bread with herbs and olives and those scoops of avocados and plums and whatever’s left over at the end of the day for a pound. It was a beautiful space. High up with the rooftops. It must have been a warehouse conversion. It was a broad expanse to work in as an actor. There was enough room to really hurl yourself about. It was so broad that you could create whatever stage space you needed. And up above you it was all skylights – this incredible glass-panelled roof. Like a huge greenhouse. And because you could almost be overwhelmed by the light up there – I mean, if it was sunny it could be intensely bright and hot – there were these expanses of creamy cheesecloth suspended beneath the glass to filter the light. And this cloth would billow like sails – it was like being on a tall ship or something – it was quite wonderful when the breeze came through from the skylights and filled the cloth out. The light would filter through and make the whole place glow, with just the odd shaft of bright light cutting through a gap somewhere and hitting the floor. We were very lucky with this space.
But yes, I think we assumed he must have come with the room. And I remember the morning when the handover, if you like, happened – when it became clear that we would no longer be sweeping for ourselves.
We had all just arrived and were stretching and talking and making coffee and loafing around and Paul I think went to the cupboard in the Green Room and pulled out the wide broom. They’re not strictly brooms, but I don’t know another word for them. Sweeper, perhaps. But for spaces like this the wider the better – and they have something like dusters rather than bristles so they run smoothly and don’t scratch the surface of the sprung floor. So Paul had taken the sweeper and was just getting started when this man appeared out of nowhere and walked up to him and took it from him and silently started work. And the strange thing was that he did it with such authority that – not that Paul would really have fought for the broom – but that none of us dared question him. He belonged to the rehearsal room, quite evidently. And his work was to sweep.
I have to say too that it was almost impossible not to watch him when he swept. It may sound silly or strange or both, but from that first day I found myself drawn to him. I know the others felt the same. I’m sorry to repeat myself but I’ve told you that he swept with love and I think that had something to do with it. He was intent. He was rapt. He was so completely focused that watching him was like watching theatre. I am trying to explain to you just how impressive he was. It’s important for it to make sense – for you to understand how valued he was – because of what happened later.
Though we watched him, he didn’t watch us work. He swept in long slow lines across the floor and when he had covered the whole space he left the rehearsal room until the next day. There was no discussion about it. We simply accepted that this was to be the arrangement from the first.
We named him Joe. I realise how it sounds but we never actually found out his name and it got past the point where it would have made any sense to ask. That’s why we called him Joe. Not to his face. But we couldn’t keep calling him ‘the man’, or ‘the sweep’. We could have made enquiries I suppose. We could have contacted the landlord but it didn’t seem necessary – there was no problem. Joe made no demands. He just showed up.
What was strange perhaps was that he always swept in front of us. He didn’t do it before we arrived. It didn’t matter to us at the time. But for one of us to sweep in front of the others was slightly different because we took it in turns and worked together as a company all day.
You know those horrible plastic chairs you get in assembly rooms and rehearsal rooms and classrooms all over the country? You know the ones that bend in the back where you would hope to have some support from your chair? Well I have the memory of being curled up in one of those chairs inasmuch as you can curl up in one of those chairs: curled, with coffee, script in hand, watching Joe. And the light was coming through the square-paned side-windows and shafting across the floor and it looked like he was walking across sand. He looked as if he was one of those beachcombers with a bleeping treasure-hunter that picks up signals from lost wonders. It looked like he was walking on golden water. He was completely agile and fluid in his movements as he pulled this great sweeper behind him back and forth across the room. I had a completely dead leg when I came to and realised I’d been staring.
I have said we didn’t really speak with Joe. Well, I always said ‘hey’ to him, I’m sure, or gave him a smile or a glance that said ‘hey’. But our dynamic wasn’t about chat. And I know it was clear to him how much I admired the way he worked. You don’t stare at someone the way I did without good reason.
I soon found that I couldn’t imagine rehearsing without first seeing Joe. It sounds ridiculous, but I couldn’t think how we’d managed before. Our working day now had about it that sense of ritual we had aimed for but never properly achieved. Somehow, with Joe’s presence each morning, our work seemed more significant. We approached rehearsals with a greater sense of pride and sobriety. We didn’t arse around as much as we’d used to. We were more focused. We got more done.
I realised I associated Joe with that room, and with the feeling I had there of space and of the ability to work so willingly and well. The light, that lofty ceiling and Joe’s fluid movement and strong focus and bright eyes – all of these bound together in my mind. I couldn’t imagine him existing anywhere else. And I loved that space. I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. I felt so blessed to be there with the cries of birds and the sounds drifting up from the market and the small, cool breeze that came into the room with that liquid light.
Then one day Joe was late. There had never been any trouble with timing. But this one day he was late. And I felt – we all felt – that we should wait for him. It was maybe crazy, but it just didn’t seem right to start without him. It would’ve felt like a jinx. So we were holding on waiting for Joe and feeling strangely compelled to wait. We didn’t even run lines. We hung around and did nothing. We were actively waiting for Joe so that we could begin.
So we waited, and he was an hour late. The fact is we should have got on with the rehearsal or bloody well swept for ourselves but we didn’t and so wasted precious time. And then he arrived and made no apology and went straight for the broom to start sweeping. And as he did, John said loudly in this ridiculously stupid Queen’s English voice, ‘Buck up, old chap!’
Joe took the broom from the cupboard, as always. He held it aloft with one steady arm as he made his way out of the Green Room, stepping over the feet and bags and cups of coffee that cluttered the floor. With his other arm he pushed open one half of the swing doors that led into the rehearsal room and as soon as he was through he pulled the two long arms of the sweeper into line, lowered them until they were suspended about an inch above the surface of the floor, and after the briefest of pauses let them drop and started work. Nothing in what he did would have given away that he was hurt.
But from that day I saw a change. There was an awareness that he was sweeping in front of us. He was self-conscious somehow, as if he didn’t want to be watched, as if we weren’t welcome any more. He was as thorough as ever, but his sweeping seemed pointed in a way it hadn’t before. I guess I was hurt. It didn’t seem to me now that he swept with love, and I got less and less pleasure from watching him work.
It just happened that at this point the company started working longer hours. We were coming up to a preview performance, and the pressure was on a little more than usual. It is at these times that routine matters more than ever as it works against the inevitable jitters. It is however also at these times that it is most tempting to let routine go to hell and cut out any preamble to rehearsal that doesn’t seem essential. As certain as we felt that sweeping was a crucial part of our rehearsal ritual, it was always one of the first things to go when we were under pressure.
It wouldn’t have been a big issue one way or the other if we’d been the ones doing it. We simply would’ve stopped. However, it wasn’t us doing it, and because John had been rude we felt stuck. We simply couldn’t find it in ourselves to tell Joe to stop.
So instead, worse than that, we gradually, inevitably, morning by morning, made it clear how inconvenient it was. You can perhaps imagine the scenario. Those annoying little things that people have it in them to do: a cough here, a glance at a watch there or, with actors, a session of ostentatious stretching beside the rehearsal room floor. Not a word spoken but a prevalent, malevolent sense of focus on this one person who has become an obstacle. None of it made him stop. He continued his routine as if we were not there. Instead, strangely, we felt more and more selfconscious. We felt we were being watched. We felt sure that his black eyes were fixed on us from somewhere beyond the swing doors as we rehearsed.
Our desire to put an end to the sweeping soon developed into a complex. In our conversations we confirmed for each other that Joe was freaking us out. Not only that, but he had taken what was ours away from us. It was for us to do. He had no right. It was part of our process. He wasn’t an actor. We could see that it was of the utmost importance that we should reclaim this activity which had been stolen from us, leaving us impotent and quarrelsome just days before our preview. Did he not have the sensitivity to realise that he should just leave?
It had reached the point of the ridiculous. We drew straws one evening over drinks and it fell upon John to speak to Joe a second time. ‘No. I’m sorry. This has gone on long enough,’ is what he said, sternly, the next morning in the Green Room. ‘You’re not welcome here. Can’t you see you’re not wanted? You’re going to have to leave.’ I think that is pretty much what he said. We were all gathered for the big moment, clutching our coffees and bottles of water for reassurance.
But Joe, impassive, broom in hand, crossed the room, and said only, ‘No. That won’t be possible.’ That’s all he said.
I don’t think any of us could believe it. John for once looked lost for words and just stood there watching as Joe made his way yet again through the swing doors to the rehearsal room. I looked at John and the others and it was obvious that no one was going to say or do anything and I was so furious I could feel this buzzing in my head and I followed Joe through the swing doors and walked right in front of him so that he would have to stop sweeping and look at me. I was so angry I could feel my heart pumping and my cheeks flushing and then there he was, just looking at me steadily with those bright, black eyes, saying nothing, so I took a step towards him and brought up my hand and I slapped him hard across the cheek. I could see the colour changing on his cheek but it wasn’t changing fast enough so I slapped him again.
I’d hit this man whose name I didn’t know because he wouldn’t stop sweeping for us for free. It was impossible then to stay – in that space up with the rooftops and the light and the window drapes that billowed like sails.
And so I left