Oct/Nov 2004  •   Fiction

On the Subject of Window Cleaning

by Duncan White

At the window with her class, the schoolteacher saying, "This is where it happens."

"Where are we miss?"

"We are where it happens. Where things take place."

The class stretching in one direction. Alfred saying, "I can't see too much. There's not much in there I can see." Alfred is into it, Timmy on the other had, couldn't care one bit.

"This is useless. Why aren't we at the zoo?"

"My dear Timmy. What would you expect to learn at the zoo? Our field trips are precisely that. Field trips. The zoo is not a field, it is a confined space in which expectations are satisfied unfailingly."

"But there is nothing here. A house with a window. I live in a house with windows. So what?"

"Now Timmy, we should begin where things begin. Does anyone remember where things begin?"

"With questions, miss?" Excitedly.

"Right you are, Alfred. Anyone struck by things they do not know?"

"Is this where people live?" Lindsey, small for her age.

"Where are they?" Robert.

"How do lives take place?" Sam.

"When is lunch?" Timmy.

"Is it cold at night?" Andrew, a ruddy faced boy.

"How can windows be so clean?" Simon, a repeat truant. Out of earshot. Looking the other way.


Measuring what lies between the window and the bed, Burt is asking Sylvia where she has been all night.

"Last night?"

"You were not here. You were somewhere else. Where?"

Sylvia's eyebrows high on her face.

"If you already know the answer, why bother asking anything at all?" She sits down, then stands up. The tape measure snaps back.

"Ouch," Burt says.

"What are you doing?"

"What does it look like I am doing? I am measuring. I have been here all night, alone. I have not slept. This has rendered in me certain anxieties."


"Not least concerning the dimensions of this room."

"It is a large room."

"But exactly how large, and according to which experience of large? The sea is large. The sky is large. Is the room then also large? Besides, the television isn't working."

"I don't know anything about that."

The tape-measure snapping back again.

"Why does nothing ever work?"


"Who are they, miss?"

"Call them the object of our study."


Sylvia lights a cigarette and looks at Burt scrabbling on the floor. Then she looks at the floor.

"Do you think it helps anything, all this scrabbling? All your scrabbling around?"

"Where were you last night?"

Having been sitting down, Sylvia is observed rising then sitting then standing again. She paces the large room in apparent frustration.


"How do we know she is frustrated?"

"She is sort of stomping, miss."


"And throwing back her head."

"Excellent. Anything else?"

"She can't look at him, miss," Lindsey, being heard to say.


"I think I will have to go out again tonight."

Burt, a pencil between his teeth, is first arranging numbers in his head and then on the page.

"Again?" Looking up.

It is in the way Sylvia stops circling the bed when she asks, "How does that make you feel?"


"Did you notice how she stopped circling the bed?"

"We certainly did."


"Drama, miss."

"It is like watching the television, and on the television there is a soap."


"This is real."


"Very little."

"Try again, Timmy."

"But miss, I want to go to the zoo. At least at the zoo the animals do things."

Then butting in, "Anything can happen."

"That's right, Alfred. Are you listening, class? Did you hear what Alfred said? Anything can happen. But we must learn from the world. We must see in its confusion, form. We must thread patterns in the way of a seam. A fabric. We must wear it like a
dress. Anything can happen, and it will."


"Burt, tie me to the chair."

"Tell me where you were."

"First, I want you to tie me to the chair. I am afraid if you fail to hold me here, I will leave abruptly. I will disappear before deciding I should do so. In such haste I will surprise even myself."

Dropping the tape-measure, finding rope behind a chest, approaching the chair where Sylvia is half-way sitting, half-way standing on her feet.

"Strip me naked."

"What is this?"

"You won't tie me tight enough. But I will not leave without my clothes."

"I will tie you tight."

"Must I remove my own clothes?"

Carefully peeling away that in which she is dressed. A red T-shirt, cotton shorts, plastic sandals, a tiny pair of pants. She sits. Firstly, he ties her arms behind her, then binds her ankles to either chair-leg, then lashes her middle to the chair-back and the seat.

"Thank you."

"Where were you last night?"

Sylvia sighs and can be observed shaking her head.


Timmy, interested now, saying, "What is happening, miss?"

Simon, the truant, snarling at the glass, "She wants to go away." Lindsey holding his hand.

"He wants answers," Alfred, confident, attempting a guess. "She won't tell."

"Where was she last night?"

"I don't know, Andrew," the teacher says. "But the question we must ask ourselves if we are to come any closer to learning in the field, is not where she was. We should deal first with what we know: she was elsewhere, meaning she was not with Burt. But what is being with Burt?"




"Perhaps. In any event, what we think we know is in fact the least of what we know."


"Let us review the facts."

"She is naked, miss."

"The first naked woman you have ever seen, no doubt."

No answer, no doubt.

"Other facts?"

"The bed."

"The chair."

"Her clothes."

"The rope."

"The tape measure."

"A drawing of a horse."

"In other words, a mess. A mess and an allegation. She was elsewhere, but elsewhere in this case is more crisp in definition than the room in which we can all see Burt."

"We can all see Burt."

"We can all see the room."

"We can all see the drawing of a horse."

"And the tape measure."


"On the floor."

"So you say; so you are."


"This isn't going to work." Burt observing as he is observed pacing the room in a most undecided and erratic fashion. He sits on the bed, lies back, then lifts himself again. He cannot see where the tape measure fell and appears to have forgotten all about his notes. There are several pages filled with numbers and arrows and lines. Sylvia cannot move.

"I feel fine."

"Where were you last night."

"You must settle down. You are scrabbling again."

"How can I settle down? I should have known. If I tied you up, there would be no one here to tie me up as well."


A window cleaner is an interruption to the scene, splashing the glass with water and suds. The children are taken aback.

"What is this? He is in the way!"

"Now children, remember where you are. This is a working world. Here is work in its purest form. Observe. Now you may learn from the process of a necessary deed and the activities it will produce.

"I cannot see."

"Patience, Timmy. Wait until the window is clean. In time you will see all the more clearly."

"Enjoying the show?"

The class nods at the window cleaner and admire how he works. All except Timmy, who wants to look at Sylvia. Now that she is out of sight, he realizes there are certain things about her he hadn't taken in. The length of her legs, for example, in relation to her feet.

"I am here to entertain," the window cleaner saying.

The teacher smiles, and he sees she is good in nature and kind. He may have known her once before. There is a time between rarities, and he knows it is the passing of life. He doesn't smile back.

"Won't be long."

But before he is finished, there comes a tap on the glass, and he is gone.

The class waits. They gasp. In the cascading water and suds there is the window cleaner, lashing Burt, now naked, to a table close to the bed.


After some moments of silence and despair, Burt at last: "What was this supposed to achieve?" When he inhales, his wrists and ankles rub. The window cleaner has tied him too tight.

"It would stop all the scrabbling."

"I am in some discomfort, you know."

"No doubt it has removed your anxieties about the room. Perhaps now you will have a new perspective on things. What can you see?"

"The ceiling."

"I can see children at the window watching everything we do."


The window cleaner climbs the tree across the street to get a better view. He knows the value of clarity and good light. He knows what people will pay for it. He thinks of windows as a collection of verbs.
In the tree across the street, reciting to himself: "To rub," "To clean," "To scrutinize," etc. Making himself comfortable in the bend of a branch. It is not enough to have light coming in. What counts is how the light is used. Great view from the tree. Everywhere he looks, clean windows. He imagines a time in an old landscape, free of windows, where a high vantage was a position in time. Where you could see the future and the past. You could see what was coming and what was now going away.


Where they are, a great increase in traffic, alarms, drilling.

"It is so noisy."

Simon taking books from his bag, piling them in neat piles.

"Is it because of the overwhelming commotion that you are arranging your books so neatly?"

"Nope. I am off-loading. These books represent an incredible weight. I will get far further far faster with an empty bag."

"Your attendance is appreciated and valued. You know that, don't you Simon?"

"Yes, miss."

A disappointed pause.

"They are not doing anything in there," Timmy moaning now. "Why aren't they doing anything? What are we supposed to learn?"

"We must learn new definitions. A catalogue of those filled with hopeless despair. Show the items you brought."

Lindsey holding up her pot. The pot belongs to her mother and is riddled with cracks.

Voices not passing neatly through the glass, they must lip read.

"Manhole cover," Sylvia says.


"Did you invite those kids to come and look at us like this?"

"I most certainly did not."

"What do you think they want?"

"How should I know? An explanation, perhaps. Goodness knows I could do with one."

"What are they doing?"

"They are holding things up."

"What are they?"

"They are what they are."

"Don't play games with me. You know I cannot see. I am lying on my back, and still I feel quite dizzy and faint."



"Manhole cover."


Simon is gone. Being the more sensitive of her peers, Lindsey suggests he is on the other side of the house. Should they look for him? They could if they wanted to. The scent of lemons is carried in the breeze between the smeared glass and their faces half-reflected there. The window cleaner has not done his job, and now Simon has disappeared.




The children are gone, the sun is setting, and the light switch is a long way out of reach. Burt is glad he cannot move, and it shows when he asks Sylvia about the world outside.

"I can see a woman on her own."


"And a window cleaner crying in a tree."


When the children return, she tells them not to worry. Books are like streets.

"We went out into the streets, miss. There was nothing there. Why should we turn to our books?"

"That is precisely why you should turn to your books. In your books you will find what fills the streets. You will find the life and lives you thought were only the play of sunshine and its shadows. You will hear in noise voices so clear as to break your heart in two. You will be in every way implicated."

"Why is the window cleaner crying in the tree?"


Other verbs the window cleaner used:

"To draw." "To wipe." "To demystify." "To soap." "To shine." "To glean."


"The window cleaner loves you, miss. Why do you look so sad?"

She had an idea as to her apparent sadness and as to her appearance there at all. There is sadness in not being able to organize things into a unified whole. How would she approach teaching that to them?

"As feelings become familiar," she is saying, "but fail to go away, then you will learn how you are at best a rub in the motion of the world. Learn the unfamiliar, kids. The familiar is not the same as where you are."


In disappearing, they could not move for the thickening dark. It is the way it feels: the way the world had handled them. The field trip had been a great success. Homework? Yes, sir. A light bulb that would come on in the way of a voice.

"There can be no greater definition than this."

Or so it would say.