Another Caretaker Jack Nicholson in The Shining

Another Caretaker Jack Nicholson in The Shining

I’ve been trying to get out of the cab game for some time. To this end I’ve been working towards becoming a Health & Safety Adviser. I gained the NCRQ Certificate in Applied Health & Safety in 2019, and I’m over two-thirds of the way through the full Diploma. I’ve been looking for an entry-level job since April 2019, but have yet to find something. Maybe that’s what you get when you try to change career at 57 and you’re unable to show any recent work experience apart from driving.

While looking for a start in Health & Safety, I signed up to a local employment agency just before Christmas. I figured a bit of current office experience might help my employability. After just a few days I was offered the position of Assistant Caretaker at a local secondary school. Not what I was expecting, but after a little thought I signed up. It could prove useful because of all the Health & Safety involved. Also, it might be more interesting than the packing vacancies the agency were looking to fill. It didn’t pay much, but it would help get me through the cab trade’s Kipper Season; the traditionally flat-as-a-kipper period after New Year. I could walk there in twenty-five minutes with the wind behind me, so it would save me £20 per day on diesel and 2 ½ hours on my usual commute in and out of London.

A school caretaker

A school caretaker

On arrival I was given a map of the school site. It’s a big school. The Caretaker said he’s known people take five years to learn it. It was like learning the cab drivers’ Knowledge of London. I only learnt two runs on my first day. I was left alone for most of the morning as my supervisor had to go off somewhere. I spent the time collecting about ninety chairs from two different places, and on two different levels; then depositing them somewhere else. It was a devil, of a job. I just hoped I’d picked up the right chairs and took them to the right place. I fretted about this all evening. If got this wrong it would be a detention for sure; perhaps even a caning. Well no, caning has been bombed and banned since I was at school in the 1970s. Still, it would be no less than I deserve had I got it wrong. I would have thanked the Master administering my punishment with a “Thank you, Sir”, as depicted in those old films set in Edwardian public schools.

I spent ten years visiting schools as a Careers Adviser, before leaving to go back to my old job as a cab driver in 2010. I only got to see a few select rooms and it was a shock today to see how big secondary schools really are. The staff-only corridors featured many rooms with fancy job titles on the doors. I don’t recall anything like that at my school: there was a Headmaster; a deputy; and the rest were teachers. We barely knew that cleaners and maintenance staff existed. Take away the kids and you’d think you were in a regular office.

On my initial perambulation there were surprises in the classrooms too; such as a hair & beauty department. The only department that resembled my 1970 Comprehensive housed the woodwork and metalwork rooms. These were reassuringly familiar and scary at the same time. Science labs have always been alien, but after viewing the crafts workshops, I wished I had paid more attention at school and learnt something useful. I was interested in the Art, Music and Cooking rooms – this was more like it.

A school metalwork room scary

A school metalwork room scary

I was surprised to learn how involved a caretaker’s job is. My man was highly organised, and worked fast. Neither of my degrees provided any job awareness, or any practical skills. I realised long ago that I can’t do practical work. Even unlocking the school gates looked complicated. I’m best kept away from drills and hammers; and anything else that proper men are meant to be able to handle. I can’t even dress for practical work. The caretaker had to lend me his waterproof coat. I only have clothes suitable for sitting in a cab with the heater on, or going out on the town. I don’t have anything for the wet and cold. It was a humbling experience. I’ve always been in awe of people who can do stuff, and not just think or write about it. I thought a caretaker would sit in a shed all day drinking tea before changing a couple of light bulbs and perhaps move a TV set in a cabinet into a classroom. Taking down the Christmas tree would provide a bit of extra work in January, but I was prepared for that. The poor chap was rushed off his feet, and this is where I came in as an extra pair of hands (he told me changing light bulbs takes a full two days). When he left me on my own I just hoped the boiler lights didn’t turn red, or there was an outbreak of Legionnaires disease (such eventualities have to be prepared for).

The caretaker rarely features in popular fantasy. I can only think of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and look what happened to him. As someone who tried, and failed, as a student teacher, this is another school role I have the utmost respect for.