Firstly, the quiet. The mere skittering of an empty crisp packet across the tarmac is enough to startle. Solitary footsteps click-click-clicking nervously down corridors, flanked by peeling displays on the walls.
Then, the revelation of a wider world beyond: waste collections vans, police sirens, the screech of breaks before traffic lights- all of those things that a frenetic microcosm usually walls out.
Finally, the space. Empty rooms that, now deprived of bustling, shoving, heaving adolescent bodies, are hollow and neglected. At random moments, the draft catches dog-eared notices of abandoned clubs, productions that have already been performed and packed away, meetings that have been yawned through and actioned. Lost holdalls hang like corpses over the sides of lockers, guts of festering kit spilling from within. Well if you don’t bring it home, it doesn’t get washed, sunshine… Nearby, the teacher’s desk: a semi-ransacked box of Cadbury’s Heroes – Thanks for putting up with us for two years, sir! – balances upon a slanting stack of unmarked books, rotting in the Summer heat.
So still. Bereft of soul!
Yet, one solitary figure takes strange comfort from the scene. Twenty years, man and boy, he’s pounded the corridors, flashed his torchlight across the vacated desks, watching over the place. By day, transparent wraith; by night, watchful sentinel.
There was just him doing the job for a long while – it was the old Head who’d first taken him on. Mr.Rhys-Davies was the real deal – unlike the one in there now, floating around with her Hiyas!and Watchas! as if she was some queen of the place. Mr.Rhys-Davies was your proper headmaster.
He remembered having a celebratory glass of sake with his Japanese father when he’d learned that the job was his. You care-taker, my boy. Think on words. You ‘take care’. Grounds. Buildings. Whole school! Back in Japan – my father – your grandfather – he caretaker too of very important Hall. Job of honour. No mind Rhys-Davies-san. You in charge, boy!
Own bungalow on-site, decent budget for some shiny new hardware, big old shed to tinker within at the back of the site: that first day on the job, he’d walked in bursting with pride and a headful of ideas. Sure, the bungalow had been run-down – but he had all the time and the tools in the world to fix the place up: evenings, weekends, those long, long holidays! And if he met someone, and they wanted to start a family? Well – plenty of room, right?
He’d started with the Head’s wishlist: fixing, patching, panelling, painting. Spirit levels held steadily against four-be-twos, dripping cans of tar lining the sills. Nothing too ambitious – just mending and fixing. Every Thursday morning, he would report to the Head’s office, where one of the ladies would bring them both in a nice cup of Earl Grey. It became a ritual between them almost: the pleasing thin trickle of tea from the spout; the placing of the cup carefully back on its saucer; opening his notebook, licking his pencil to begin. Don’t like the look of that boiler in the Science Building, sir: if she blows… well… Air sucked through teeth to suggest unthinkable consequences. The two men understood one another.
There were things he had to tolerate too. Granted, the staff had not been as warm to him as he’d imagined; indeed, they didn’t pay much mind to him at all until there was some kind of emergency – and then he was everybody’s friend. Can you go and fetch Ken? Anyone seen Ken? Where is the man when you need him? Hey, Ken! Good old Ken! Gets the job done! Chippy, Sparky, Brickie, plugging the leaks, filling the holes, cleaning the brushes – a tuneless whistle, a jingle of keys and a whiff of white spirits from around the corner and there Ken was, tools to hand. But they were also wary of him, in an indifferent kind of way.
There were all of the kids too, of course. Some were ok, but often, if they spared the gift of a glance, it was as though the were looking at something they’d scraped off their shoes. And they tried to rip the hell out of him – if it wasn’t the limp, it was the pebble glasses, or the denim dungarees. They called him Fooey – something cruel to do with a TV cartoon. Bet Fooey gets paid peanuts? Crap job – wouldn’t catch me doing it for a million years. He’d retain an expressionless, stoical disposition, and then when they’d disappeared into lessons, chuckle to himself. Sure: they were all going to be Richard Bransons or Oprah in time.
Ken was first introduced to Darren in his tenth year at the school. Mr. Rhys-Davies had ushered him into the office at the end of a busy day – no Earl Grey this time. I’ve taken someone on to help you! You’ll notice a huge difference: he’s a qualified electrician – you won’t have to do any of those kind of jobs any more, Ken. Or plumbing! And he’s got management skills… But Darren had turned out to be an OK-kind-of-bloke. Young. Bit cock-of the roost. But OK.
The rot set in with the misfortune of a slipped disc in ’98. Three months on his back in hospital. He returned to find everything in a different place. Metal racks where his recycled jam jars had been, favourite tools either tidied into plastic boxes or discarded. Couldn’t lay me hands on anything, mate. Had to sort the place out. Thought you’d be pleased. And now they were called the ‘Site Team’. Team. It all sounded very American. Which never came to any good. He preferred to work alone.
So. No more taking care.
During Ken’s spell in hospital, it also transpired that Darren had become ‘Site Manager’. They would’ve interviewed you as well but…well – you were banged up in hospital, mate. What could they do?
Still. He still had his bungalow. That’s always yours, Mr. Rhys Davies had said. Even when you decide to retire – it’s the least the School owes you. Later that year, Rhys-Davies left to become an OFSTED inspector, and, suddenly the bungalow didn’t seem safe anymore.
Regimes came and went. Ken stayed on. And Darren stayed on, too. Darren had also hired a sidekick. You’re way too creaky to get up that scaffolding, Ken. Me and Lance’ll sort it – why don’t you have another go at that drain behind the changing rooms? And then there was her: the Wicked Queen. With her jewellery and flouncy scarves, expanding her empire inch by inch. He’d only seen the plans for the new buildings when they’d gone out in a letter to parents. And there, lurking on the edges of the blueprint: a dirty great footprint stomping right across his bungalow.
Late Summer. The last night on the job. Sat on a tall stool in a deserted science lab, looking across the site to where the sun sinks behind his bungalow. Within, shadows of crates and packing boxes – a life packed away. Inside the front pocket of his dungarees, he feels the estate agent’s details of a small flat in town burn.
Never did get round to having that family, after all. Too much to do for the school. Too much to ‘take care’ of.