The back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card reads:
“Excellence is no Accident”
* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning
If the places we inhabit are like lungs, rhythmically drawing us in and breathing us out, Sandra Pankhurst’s job as founder of Specializing Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. leads her somewhere in between — homes with the lights still on where death, sickness and madness have abruptly abbreviated lives.
I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. Everyone had just poured out of a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of watered-down coffee and plates of sweating cheese. On my way to the bathroom, I passed a table in the lobby where STC Services brochures were fanned out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into a fishbowl for a chance to win a bottle of Shiraz. A small TV played scenes of before-and-after trauma clean-up jobs. A very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, invited me to leave my business card. Hypnotized by the images on the TV (one of which brought to mind the words “feces” and “cartwheels”), I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.
I was surprised to learn from the brochure that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulance crews or emergency services. Instead, hired hands like Sandra handle the clean-up at crime scenes, deaths, floods and fires. Local and state governments, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates and charitable organizations all call on Sandra to deal with issues like long-term property neglect, where homes have “fallen into disrepute” due to the occupier’s drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, aging or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort through their loved one’s belongings.
Performing a public service as vital as it is gruesome, Sandra is one of Australia’s unofficial experts on the living aspects of death.
“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure reads. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, 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 witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”
The Shiraz and the oxygen tank and the coiffure were gone by the time the last conference session finished. But I still had the brochure, which, by then, had grabbed me by the neck and was dragging me in search of the woman herself.
“Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back it would be appreciated, but possibly not today as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow…”
When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me in a deep, rich voice when I would like to meet. I tell her I can work around her schedule. “Okey dokey,” she says, and I can hear her flip open her diary. “How about the cafe at the Alfred Hospital?” She has a couple of hours before she sees her lung doctor.
It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are part of life. Not in a quote book sort of way, but in a voicemail and lunch meeting sort of way. Over time, I learned that this outlook was fundamental to her character. My other first impression of this striking woman, however, would turn out to be wrong.
“I was an adopted child. At the age of seven, I was told that I would no longer be wanted by this family and I had to live in a room they’d built out the back,” says Pankhurst. “I weren’t [sic] allowed by the family to associate with them after 4:30 p.m. and I had to fend for myself and organize my own food.”
Sandra is telling me about growing up on the mean streets of Melbourne’s West Footscray while calmly fielding calls on her cell. We are in the cafe, a place where the sick and dying, and those attending to them, can grab a latte or a cheese sandwich. Everyone is eating except for us. Sandra has to fast for four hours before her doctor’s appointment.
In her sixties, Sandra is very tall and graceful and immaculately groomed. I feel short and frumpy next to her. “I used to suffer a lot with boils and things because I weren’t [sic] really nurtured and looked after,” she says, explaining that the way a starving seven-year-old feeds themselves, if they are smart, is by stealing cans of food from the house when their alcoholic adopted father isn’t looking. And that will work until – petrified of being “bashed with a cobbler stick” – they accidentally burn part of the house down.
“One of my jobs was to light the hot water service and I had forgotten and I panicked,” Sandra says. “I put some petrol mower fuel in and it went and burned down the laundry room.”
She didn’t get beaten for the fire. She got beaten for stealing the cans of food which were discovered – empty, crushed and hidden – when the walls burned down.
“It was like an imprisonment sort of lifestyle. So hence, now I have this need for compassion,” she says.
Kicked out at seventeen, she moved in with another family she found through her church. She could stay with them only for six months but they organized a job for her at a steel works under Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, the second longest in Australia, which was then two years into construction.
“I was working there when the Bridge fell down,” she says before describing the 1970 collapse that killed thirty-five construction workers and could be heard from over twelve miles away. She explains how the light bulbs popped out of their sockets, how she felt the earth shudder, how her first sight of death was over the back fence, watching police throw body parts out of public view.
A doctor sits down at the table next to us and squirts ketchup on a hot dog. The café is noisy but Sandra’s voice is clear above the chaos. When she speaks, she is mostly professional and deliberate. But there is also a cheekiness, a playful flirtiness, which she is beginning to fan out like a peacock’s tail. When she does this, her eyes gleam and she is very beautiful.
She skips over her twenties (which I note is strange, given her candor about everything else) and slips into her thirties, when she became one of the first female funeral directors in the state of Victoria.
“I absolutely adored the job. I loved it with a passion. It was a chance to give back and help people when they needed it most.
“I used to make every member of the funeral party become involved in it so that they would become very emotional. To me, a funeral should be like a play: You get it up to a crescendo,” she says, her long red nail drawing a hill in the air.
“You get everyone’s emotions there,” she says while poking the top of the hill, “they bubble over, then they boil down, and they get on with their life. Otherwise they’re up and down trying to deal with it for years. So, it’s just like conducting a play and getting everyone involved in the scenario.”
Through that work, she realized there was a need for trauma cleaning. “You realize the fire brigade and ambulance really had no time to deal with this. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing it.”
The path to her new career began with her husband of fifteen years, who she met when Sandra, as she puts it “buried his wife.”
Sandra gave up work to travel with him on his business trips. “But I got restless and bored after a while. So I said to him, ‘We need to buy a business,’” Sandra tells me.
She was thinking a boutique. Instead, they bought a hardware store in Brighton, a moneyed seaside suburb, which eventually folded. When the store went under, “We lost everything. We didn’t know what to do, ’cause we’d both been quite independent and strong. We had to start again,” she says.
She started doing odd jobs – a bit of gardening and interior design and house cleaning. But there wasn’t enough money coming in. “So, I stressed over this, and I thought ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll just start trauma cleaning.’”
Their first job, cleaning up the rental property left by a deceased hoarder, came though her funeral industry contacts.
“It was a disaster. Seventy-two hours after two of us working nonstop, we were almost psychotic. We couldn’t believe that people could live like this. It was more of a squalor situation, even though the gentleman had died in the house. It was absolutely disgusting. It was just putrid. We had to take off three layers of flooring, and there was another contaminated layer of flooring underneath. But what happened was, the last layer was not only glued down, but it was stapled down. We’d slice the linoleum and put boiling water on it to try to break down the glue, and then we had to put spades underneath to get it up. Well, our hands swelled up like massive watermelons.”
“We completed it, and they were happy with the job, but we were severely depressed,” she says. “It took three months to come to terms with whether or not I could ever do this again. But as money was tight, and things were not good, I had to grin and bear it, and get up and go for it. And twenty years later, here I am. Still psychotic.”
In the context of talking about her husband, who passed away ten years ago, Pankhurst tells me in passing that she was not born female and that, finally, she’s not ashamed to talk about it.
She worked up the courage to tell him after they’d been dating for a little while.
“I’m transgender,” Sandra said, expecting a punch in the mouth.