We recently saw a plumber's advertisement which read “No job too deep, too dark or too dirty” “and we joked that this description could equally apply to child care work! Phil Carradice tells a story which comes very close ...
I always remember it as 'one of those nights'. There had been a problem with the smoke detectors and the fire alarms went off at 11.30. Then again at 12.05 and, thereafter, at regular half-hour intervals throughout the night. And, of course, like all residential establishments, each time the alarms went off we had to evacuate the children. It was 4.30 before we managed to locate the fault. I finally collapsed into bed at 5.00am. 'Wake me at mid-day,' I said to my wife before I fell asleep. 'I'm not going in this morning!'
The next thing I remember was a hand on my shoulder, a mug of tea being thrust under my nose. 'It's 9.30,' said Elaine. 'The Principal's just phoned. Paul and Jack have both gone sick and he's off to a meeting at County Hall. You're the only other senior staff member available. You've got to go in'.
I cursed solidly through the tea, through dressing and shaving as well. Eventually, I arrived back at Bracken House just after ten. Wearily I sat in my chair and closed my eyes. It would have been very easy to drop off to sleep ... 'Phil?' It was Bob, the Group Leader, bending over me, roughly shaking my arm. I tried to pretend he was not there but it was no use. He would not go away. 'We've got a problem with the drains. The sewer outside the boys' sitting room is overflowing'.
I followed him outside. Even before we came near the sitting room we could smell the problem. It hung in the air like the stench of death and I was suddenly reminded of the rotting carcass of a dead cow I had once seen back home in Wales. From the top of the main sewer cover a stream of filthy water trickled in an unending line. And the smell was cloying, overpowering.
'Bloody hell!' I gasped. 'It must be full to the brim.'
'Should I 'phone the drains people?' asked Bob.
'Unless you fancy clearing it?'
'No thanks', he said, inching slowly away. 'I'll call them'.
I watched Bob disappear in the direction of the offices and then walked up the steps to the boys' sitting room. At first sight the room seemed empty. Then, a small, sudden sound made me glance across the room to the dark shadows of the far corner. There were three shapes close up against the wall – Brian and Chris, two of our residential workers, and Tommy, perhaps the most troubled boy in the Centre. He was six feet tall but thin and wiry. Tell him that two and two were four, he'd swear they made six. He was that type of boy. When I came in through the door Chris smiled resignedly at me. Brian was sitting alongside the prostrate boy who was silently, seriously, kicking and punching at the man who held him. Presently he began to scream.
'Get off, you bastard!' he yelled. 'I'll get you done for this!' Brian
looked up, saw me and raised his eyebrows in despair.
'What a delightful child,' I said.
'You get stuffed, as well,' screeched Tommy.
'He's been like this since he got up', sighed Brian. 'I don't know what's wrong with him – probably tired out after last night. I'd let him go but all he wants to do is smash me about.'
'Do you want me to take over?' Brian shook his head. 'Just as well,' I said.'I don't really feel up to him this morning.'
With Tommy's screams pounding around my ears and the smell from the drains clinging to my nose, I moved off. I went back to my office and sat down at the desk. Slowly I began to work my way through the mail. Bills, invoices, requests for admission – all the usual Monday morning paraphernalia. As boring and as necessary as ever. At break time Tommy was still performing.
'You'd better keep the coffee
hot,' said Bob as he came into the staff room. 'Brian and Chris are
still battling it out with Tommy.'
'Do they need any help?'
'I shouldn't think so. Mind you, anything's possible. When I came past them just now Tommy was threatening us all with the local chapter of Hells Angels or some such outfit.'
'What a way to earn a living,' I said and yawned.
At 11.30 the drains man turned up. Tall and morose, a large dew drop dangling from the end of his nose. His name was Bill and, in a strangely aggressive, rather offhand manner, he was something of a character. 'Bloody place this is,' he muttered. Always something wrong.' I made no comment but took him to the overflowing sewer. He took one look and shuddered. 'Gordon Bennett!' he said, wiping a grimy overall sleeve across his nose. 'You haven't half got a blockage down there.' He pulled a large key out of his bag and lifted the lid of the manhole. The stench wafted out like rancid butter; I felt my stomach turn over. 'Bloody hell!' said Bill. 'You have got problems. He tried using his rods but the blockage would not clear.
'Only one thing for it,' he said, at last. I watched
as he donned huge, waist high waders. Like a fisherman, I thought, a
sanitary fisherman. Slowly he lowered himself into the stagnant sewer. A
professional at work, but I couldn't, for the life of me, see how anyone
in their right mind would want to do that for a living. At that moment
the sitting room door crashed open. It smashed back against the wall and
the glass shattered, falling like crystal dewdrops to the grass. Tommy
came diving through the open doorway and vaulted with Olympic agility
over the sewer and the drains man.
'What the hell?' yelled Bill as the boy's foot missed him by half an inch.
'Tommy!' I called. 'Hold it!'
But before I had time to move Brian appeared on the path ahead of the running boy. Tommy had no chance to stop, crashed into Brian and together they fell sprawling to the ground. There was a brief struggle, arms and legs waving like semaphore poles. 'You'll have to excuse me,' I said. 'I think I might be needed.'
Bill looked up from his hole in the ground, the smell of his profession wafting and hanging around his nose. Slowly he shook his head. 'Know something?' he sighed. 'I wouldn't have your job for all the tea in China.'
This feature: From The Hour of the Wolf by Phil Carradice, a teacher who became Deputy Principal (Education) of a Dr Barnados special school in Kent.