new job

The Second Day

Going to work on my second day, I feel quietly confident. Head Porter seems to genuinely like me (he was the one who conducted the job interview, after all) and I think I got on very well with my only other female companion, Receptionist. One of the Porters was even quite nice to me. And this evening, the Junior Bursar has invited me to attend the annual guided tour of Old College, which he conducts at the beginning of every academic year and is strictly invite only. Head Porter has never been on one of Junior Bursar’s tours and I feel fairly smug about this.

If I stop to think about it too much, there is an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt that is prickling away at me; I have absolutely no idea what I am doing here. It seemed like rather a twee idea at first and applying for the job was a complete punt and not something I ever really thought about too deeply. I needed to find work nearer to home and wanted more family-friendly hours than I had been working. I didn’t really expect to get the job and yesterday brought the realisation that I am ever so slightly out of my depth.  What if I couldn’t do the job? What if I ended up looking like an idiot? I reason that I had looked like an idiot many, many times in the past and it really hadn’t been too damaging. In fact, on occasion it had worked in my favour. As the majestic gates of Old College yielded to my coveted ‘gate buzzer’ (a privilege afforded to so precious few in the College) I decide to not be afraid of being an idiot.

I arrive before Head Porter, and am greeted by the Night Porter, just finishing his shift. I introduce myself and am a little surprised when he grabs my hand and pulls me close to kiss me on the cheek. As his greying bristles scratch my face (removing most of the inexpertly applied foundation I felt was necessary for my new role), I am grateful for some genuine affection, albeit from a dishevelled old man who had been up all night and was in need of a shave. I did not even yet know his name. It reminded me of my misspent youth.

Night Porter reaches for a ring binder which bares the legend ‘Incident Book’. “There’s a couple of bits in here you will need to look at” he says gently, as if speaking to a simpleton. Ah, more familiar territory, I reassure myself. I take the ring binder and look at Night Porter knowingly, like one old pro to another. The folder feels surprisingly light and I am momentarily confused when I open the folder to be greeted by a log dated 27th August 2007. I flick through the handwritten pages and it is apparent that the logs are filed in ascending chronological order. Why would you put the most recent incidents at the back? What benefit could there possibly be in flicking through 5 years worth of old incidents to find what is relevant? But then, that’s what Old College is all about, isn’t it? Remembering the past and honouring that which came before? Still, it seems bloody silly to me and the logs should be filed with the most recent first. It’s only my second morning though, and I decide that this procedural amendment can wait.

It appears that there were two incidents during the previous evening that were deemed important enough to make it to the incident book. The first was a fire alarm being set off in one of the gyp rooms by a student’s fledging attempts at ‘cooking’. The other was a noisy party in which constituted several students (some from another College!) being found in an under graduate’s room. I asked myself how this was considered an ‘incident’ as, students by their very nature, were noisy and prone to parties. Happily, as I was musing on this problem, Night Porter enlightened me by explaining that having other students visit your room was against College policy. He punctuated the importance of this fact by jabbing his chubby little sausage finger at his immaculately written verse regarding said ‘noisy party’.  Sufficiently educated, I recall the actions of Head Porter yesterday, and take copies of the incidents and put the copies into the pigeonholes of the Junior Bursar and the Dean. For some unfathomable reason, Junior Bursar and The Dean are very interested in learning of not only the noisy parties, but of students burning toast. I can only imagine this is because they, firstly, wish to attend the noisy parties and, secondly, wish to avoid accepting toast from students incapable of warming bread properly. Unless it is something to do with fire alarms, at this early stage I cannot be sure.

Head Porter arrives and seems put out that I have already ‘dealt with last night’s incidents’. Feeling uncomfortable, I offer to make a round of tea and take solace in my solitary kitchen activity. As I fill the kettle I can hear my new colleagues having exactly the same conversation I had when I first walked in. Neither seems to notice the abject inefficiency of the ‘Incident Book’. I make a mental note to sort that out as soon as I dare.

I serve the teas with a flourish. I make good tea, this I know. The look in my eyes dares them not to like the tea. The tea is well received. I know quite a bit about tea. Head Porter says I need to know about keys. Head Porter says that the American students think the Porters carry the bags. He says that Porters are not the carriers of bags, they are the keepers of keys. And, oh my lord, there are an awful lot of keys…

The First Day

It is still dark as I make my way towards the huge iron gates of Old College for my very first day as the new Deputy Head Porter. For the first time in what seems like forever, I am not wearing body armour or itchy trousers to go to work. The only reminders of my former career in the Fuzz are my trusty maglight and a very nice pen my former colleagues gave me as a leaving present, the latter of which is sitting in my jacket pocket. I can feel it there, like a tiny security blanket, close to my heart, its very presence giving the impression that my old team are only a radio transmission away. But they are not. There is no back up. I am all alone in a whole new world and I have no idea what I am doing. I’ve never even been to college, let alone one of the finest universities in the world. I left school at 16 and worked various jobs, then spent most of the last 7 years being abused and threatened by drunks and drug addicts on a council estate 60 miles away. But now I am the Deputy Head Porter of Old College, an institution steeped in traditions of learning and academia. I probably won’t need back up. But I wish to God it was there anyway.

I open the door to the Porters’ Lodge, and am struck by the intricate and organised arrangement of pigeonholes, ledgers, notices and stationary. It feels faintly reassuring, a bit like going into a school stationary cupboard. The air is slightly musty, I suppose from the array of paper and wood, and there is a vague sense of promptness about it. I think I like it. The Head Porter spots me and strides over in his funny stripy trousers and his college tie fastened beautifully around his neck. He is friendly and welcoming. There are other Porters milling about, eyeing me suspiciously. I swear I hear one of them whisper – “…But it’s a woman”.  I put it to the back of my mind and get on with the awkward business of introductions, forced smiles and the empty pleasantries that come with being the New One.

The first thing that hits me is that everyone in the Lodge has been here FOREVER. The only other woman in the Lodge, The Receptionist, tells me she has been there 25 years. To begin with, the first 5 or 6 years, the Fellows didn’t speak to her at all. Women in college were tolerated, it seems only because of relatively recent rules and regulations on Diversity. Since the college was founded in 15th century, there has never been a female Deputy Head or Head Porter. I haven’t even had lunch yet but I was already informed that my new staff did not want a female boss. Perversely,  I find this quite invigorating. I am certainly not going to be put off by some grumpy old buggers and am no stranger to a bit of controversy. Time to put the cat amongst the pigeonholes!

The day continues, I meet so many people, I have no idea who they are. Invariably, they are professors or doctors and they have been at Old College FOREVER.  The first words that tumble forth from all of them are acknowledgements of my womanhood. To be fair, some of them seem very positive about it. The other female staff members I meet seem amazed and delighted. I make some clumsy comments about ‘girl power’ at the College – these are regarded with nervous suspicion. Bugger them. I’ve faced up to far more intimidating people and situations than some elderly intellectuals and I’ve been in more scrapes than they’ve had hot dinners, this is not going to worry me one bit.

I have NOT been in more scrapes than they have had hot dinners – it seems all these people DO is have hot dinners! Lunchtime is a triumph. My meals are included as part of my job, and I get twice as long for lunch as the Porters. Ha. The dining hall is magnificent, all wood panelling and oil paintings the size of the flat screen TVs you see in the homes of people on benefits. The food is varied, plentiful and of very good quality. Most importantly it’s free. I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the stomach of a concrete elephant and decide to make a point that even if I am not a male Deputy Head Porter, I can certainly eat like one. I look over to the High Table, where the Fellowship are guzzling away noisily. They are certainly a robust bunch, their fat ruddy faces devouring plates of food the likes of which I only usually see on Christmas Day.  This is only lunch, goodness knows what they get through at their formal dinners of an evening. Their complexions suggest to me a love of port and wine and I start to feel that maybe I could fit in here after all!

I am introduced to the College chaplain, who is also the College vet. He is a vast and jolly man whose clothes can barely contain his immense bulk. On a couple of occasions I am concerned that he is going to explode completely as he coughs and splutters his way through our brief conversation. Just as I am about to admire the man’s work ethic of working two jobs, I am informed that pets at the College are banned, save for the Master’s cat who is in excellent health. I am unable to comprehend a need for a College vet, but that really isn’t any of my business.

Lunch over with, Head Porter takes me to the College tailor to have me measured for my ‘uniform’. The tailor is much as I had imagined (in so much as that I hadn’t even thought about tailors until I was informed I was being taken to see one). A small, wiry man with little beady eyes and round rimmed spectacles. He has the smallest hands I have ever seen on a man, I suppose that helps with the stitching and such like. Head Porter introduces me and explains I need a suit made. Tailor fumbles a bit, then quietly but firmly says that he does not make clothes for women. He begrudgingly agrees to supply my bowler hat and silk (silk!) ties. Could she have a cravat? No, they don’t make cravats. What size hat is she? (I’m standing, like, right here…) She must be measured for a hat. I am a size 54, I announce proudly – I know what bloody size bowler I am, I’ve worn one every day since I was 25. The tape measure is thrust around my forehead by Tailor’s tiny little cold hands like he is trying to garrotte a small animal. He either chose not to hear me or outright didn’t believe that I knew my own hat size. It is confirmed. I am a 54. They don’t make bowlers that small, it will have to be specially ordered from Christies. This will be expensive and time consuming. I am grateful to Head Porter for bluntly placing the order and looking at Tailor in the same manner an experienced copper looks at a petulant offender who is thinking about not moving along quietly. Feels a bit like I’ve got back up.

Back at the Lodge, I find a tailor online who will make me the required suit in charcoal grey and will do the necessary embroidery. It will take a week. Head Porter seems a little taken aback at my ability to find clothes for myself but I don’t know why he should be so surprised. As a woman, shopping for clothes should be a finely honed skill, surely? Anyway, I’ve made it through my first day. The first day of the rest of my life? Maybe just the first day of a very short career that floundered because I couldn’t grow a penis. Time will tell.