How I wrote ‘The Janitor is Crying in the Gents’’ / Natalie Ann Holborow

‘The Janitor is Crying in the Gents’’ emerged from long hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms and car parks, quietly observing life around me, largely ignoring the stack of dates magazines at my side. There are the amazing staff we see on the TV every day – the nurses and doctors, eyes crinkling into a polite smile as they pass. But there are those too, rarely mentioned, twisting mops along the corridors or pushing beds between rooms with a joke or a whispered word of reassurance – the ones who barely get a mention.

I come from a family of many NHS workers; healthcare assistants, porters and carers. Living with type 1 diabetes from the age of 8, hospital appointments have been fairly frequent and I have a huge amount of gratitude for the healthcare staff who have helped me over the years – whether it’s the nurse who closed her shaking hand around mine and taught me to inject insulin or the consultant who told me to stop being so hard on myself, they reminded me that I’m a person, not just a patient.

I wanted this poem to focus not on the person behind the patient’s problem, but the person behind the healthcare uniform – more specifically, the uniforms we barely notice, and like the janitor in the poem, the person behind that ‘name badge swaying from a lanyard’.

As I watched staff mop the hospital floors, I began to wonder what they saw every day. Who they talked to. How this environment affected them. Hospitals are strange places, where everyone, no matter their background, becomes acutely aware of their own mortality.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, my mum would put on her uniform and go to care for terminal cancer patients as the rest of us locked ourselves away, sanitising our hands or disinfecting our groceries in the sink. The janitor in the poem, like my mother and all those going out to work in terrifying conditions, ‘must retain an air of professionalism’ despite that human need to express emotion.

Like all the medical-themed poems I’ve written, I’ve tried to keep it pared-back and let the subject’s action do the talking as significant moments happen around them – ‘a slosh of Dettol over the skidding rush / of sons and daughters, phoned suddenly / to come and squeeze a hand’ or the ‘miracle in the labour room’ providing brief ‘relief, the screw of a mop barely registered’ as the janitor dutifully cleans the corridors outside.

The natural world still makes its way as a symbol of hope in the poem, the ‘sunrise unpeeling the flowers / at the hospital entrance’, although he fears ‘they would recoil at the first heavy drop, / shrug themselves back into earth’ should he reach for them with his sore and soapy hands.

I’m not going to use the word ‘hero’ here – the nurses who held my hand when diabetes gets too much or the healthcare assistant who let me cry to her as she took her lunch break on a bench outside the hospital were not fictional superheroes. ‘The Janitor is Crying in the Gents’’ is a homage to the humans who quietly go on helping behind their professional uniforms.

You can watch Natalie read ‘The Janitor…’ here.

Natalie Ann Holborow is the author of And Suddenly You Find Yourself and Small (Parthian) and co-author of The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass (Black Rabbit Press). She currently works in marketing and is both the editor of the Cheval anthology and a proud patron of the Leon Heart Fund.