Homes left in stomach-churning squalor
WE SHOULD really never complain about our jobs again - because Sandra Pankhurst's is far worse. She has to deal with houses that look like this.
From the house of the dead hermit who was eaten by his dog, to another where a man threw himself on a table saw to the home of the woman who had a cat farm in her living room. Pankhurst knows no bounds when it comes to cleaning up the detritus of human existence.
Author Sarah Krasnostein followed Pankhurst through scenes like these to chart the Melbourne director of Specialist Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services's amazing life.
That life - from husband and father to transgender woman funeral director and trauma cleaner with extreme compassion for hoarders and outcasts - is outlined in Krasnostein's new book.
In writingThe Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster, the authorspent several years following Pankhurst into disgusting scenes.
For the past 20 years, Pankhurst's chosen occupation has "led her into dark homes where death, sickness and madness have suddenly abbreviated the lives inside," Krasnostein writes.
As frank as she is empathetic to the poor souls she cleans up after, Pankhurst writes in her STC brochure about the power of human decay.
"People do not understand about body fluids. Bodily fluids are like acids," Krasnostein's book quotes the brochure.
"They have all the same enzymes that break down our food.
"When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishings, deterioration is rapid.
"I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture, and I have witnesses the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress."
Whereas ordinary cleaners take cloths, sprays and vacuums, Pankhurst suggests "crowbars, rakes and a sledgehammer",
Krasnostein tells the story of one house belonging to a lady in her early 70s, where the
only possible access was taking off the door "by its hinges".
Behind the door was a "solid mass" of empty champagne bottles, fast food packages and grocery bags of rubbish reaching a metre and a half up the walls.
The roof was collapsing in, the calendar on the wall said 1977 and as Pankhurst told Krasnostein the only thing that had happened in the intervening years was the layer of cheap champagne bottles.
The smells which assail the pair when they enter a property don't seem to worry Pankhurst, who eschews the white hazard suits and the breathing masks.
The team enters the fly-covered flat of a girl, who died from a heroin overdose more than two weeks earlier during summer.
Unmasked, Pankhurst calmly collects personal items that the dead girl's relatives might appreciate keeping.
At another house the occupant, a bus driver, died by bleeding out through his nose.
In the living room, brown blood stains the couch and the carpet which is strewn with cigarette butts, eggshells and dried dog faeces.
In a third house, a woman called Janice lives in an environment so mouldy the walls have gone sofa.
Janice's toilet overflowed in 2010, but she didn't call anyone to fix it.
There's faeces on the light switch and sepia coloured walls, bags of rubbish, cat food tins, old tea bags and all the hallmarks of a hoarder.
Pankhurst bargains with the woman to dispose of her accumulated flotsam and jetsam.
She sympathises that Janice collects because "you see yourself as rubbish. Time to start seeing the good in life".
The Trauma Cleaner describes how Pankhurst's flair for re-establishing clean, calm order on the homes she enters relates to her painful, chaotic childhood.
Pankhurst was the adopted son of a violent alcoholic air force clerk and was made to live in a shed in family's Melbourne the back yard
Starved and beaten with his father's fists or a copper laundry stick, he was not allowed in the family home after 4.30pm.
Evicted even from the shed at 17, Pankhurst goes on to become a husband and a father of two sons.
Then a light bulb goes on in his head, and he starts taking female hormones, wearing make-up, a wig and female clothing.
Pankhurst has gender reassignment surgery in 1980 and becomes a prostitute in Kalgoorlie.
She moves on later to become Victoria's first female funeral director, before finding her forte in trauma cleaning.
The Trauma Cleaner, One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster, by Sarah Krasnostein, Text Publishing, $32.99.