Even before Pinter, caretakers seemed to have the monopoly on eccentricity. School caretakers were particularly weird – the one at Strutts was very small and looked like Bugs Bunny in dungarees and played the bugle at the school Remembrance Day service. He was actually a serious musician, and (this could only happen at Strutts) even had a music degree. No slacking in the qualifications department there. The caretaker at Allestree Woodlands when my mother taught there kept ducks and grew mushrooms in the boiler-room.
Library caretakers were the best, though. The one at Sandiacre had a hump, and used to sidle round you, looking up with a demented expression, exactly like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. I appreciate this sounds a little unsympathetic and non-pc, but he never struck me as being a nice person. The caretaker at Nunsfield House, Alvaston, was equally bizarre, though I can’t remember what he looked like. I think it was probably too dark to see. What I CAN remember is that he seemed to have a whole family with him, strangely malformed cackling degenerates who squatted in a tea-spattered alcove full of steam and hissing kettles, somewhere off the main corridor. The building was creepy and unsettling enough as it was, without the fear of meeting up with an alcove-full of potential axe-murderers. Nunsfield House itself, in those days, was a dark and creepy place, and you had to wind your way through shadowy Georgian corridors to get to the children’s library which was somewhere at the back. The kids must have come round the outside somewhere after we opened, but the staff had to go through the main building to collect the keys, so encountering the degenerates was a hazard to be contended with.
The adult library was across a yard, an odd looking building which might once have been a coach-house and was notable for having an upper floor but no stairs. It was about 30 years later, when I went back for an interview, or something, that I noticed there was a set of stone steps on the outside, not visible from elsewhere.
I only worked in there once, the one memorable moment coming when I startled by a woman who broke wind like a thunderclap as she stood next to me.
Margaret, our caretaker at Chaddesden, was a big lady with a big heart and an impressive stock of scandals, suspicious stories and highly entertaining reminiscences, who tended to scrub down the counter with a bucket of water while we were still trying to issue books. No-one ever dared ask her to desist. The caretaker at Wollaton Road (or Windy Ridge, Windy, as it was known for short) was a highly excitable Maltese lady who would throw a wobbly if you so much as looked at her and was always phoning someone to complain. I’d no idea she was Maltese until another member of staff told me, as she had a strong Derby accent, but I can’t remember her actually doing much, apart from complaining. The words Maltese and Cross naturally spring to mind. Margaret, by contrast was a sort of one-woman industry who never stopped, not even when she was talking, which was much of the time. She stoked the boiler, polished the floors and looked after us well.
The caretaker at Borrowash was a lovely old man called Mr Dakin, who was a bit of a Mr Malaprop. Whenever a delivery of books arrived, which was known as the BD, short for Branch Delivery, he would lean round the door and bawl, “Hey miss, the VD has come!” which always raised a few eyebrows. Borrowash Library was in an old chapel with a garden, and always smelled of wallflowers, Pears soap and coke. I was pleased to note recently that it’s still there. The boiler, tended lovingly by Mr Dakin, was something of a historical wonder and was either eventually either carted off to the Science Museum or blew up, I forget which.
The caretaker at Bold Lane in Derby itself was normal enough, and actually comprised 3 separate entities, Mr-Something-Beginning-with-M, his wife, and a dog called Laddie. We rarely saw them. It was the cleaners who were more entertaining, if totally repellent, and they changed from time to time as more exciting job opportunities came up. Originally there was tiny, wizened Alice, foul-mouthed and resembling a shrivelled walnut, her mate Hatchet-face, real name unknown, who always wore a maroon squashy hat and smoked like a chimney, and later Big Barbara, who was absolutely enormous and the only one who did any work. She was a nice lady, unlike the other two, who were unfailingly horrid and spent most of their time gossiping and blaspheming while leaning on a mop, occasionally chucking a bucket of dirty water about just for effect. They did empty the bins, though, always careful to resurrect the extinct biros we’d put in there, just in case we really needed them. They unfailingly deposited their fag-ends into our toilet before departing, which endeared them to us even more. Other than that, the only sign they’d ever been there, assuming we hadn’t passed them on their way out as we were on our way in, was a few muddy footprints and a pile of ash. If one of them had spontaneously combusted before 9am, I don’t think anyone would have even noticed. Big Barbara, on the other hand, got on with the work, and her rear view while scrubbing our stairs, attired in a very short skirt and a tiny g-string was a sight to behold.
Like Borrowash, Bold Lane, too, smelled of coke, some kind of strange mould or fungus which climbed up the walls, and the horrible carbolic soap, covered with grit, which the council supplied for us to wash our dainty hands. And, of course, the star turn, the truly disgusting cloakroom incinerator in the Regional HQ down below which sent its fumes drifting alluringly up the stairs, causing the uninformed to enquire cautiously,
“Ah, can I smell coffee?”
PS: At time of writing, 8a Bold Lane is currently empty, yet again, having gone through various incarnations as a magistrate’s court and latterly, two or three different restaurants, all of which went up the spout amazingly quickly. Could it be the ghostly spectres of Hatchet Face and Alice, Barbara’s bottom or the lingering aroma of the dreaded incinerator? Could our friendly local poltergeist be responsible? Or have a few of our less appealing readers been spitting in the soup? Of all these, more to follow some other time….