P'Lodge life: a post-COVID-19 nightshift

Louise Wilson, alumna and Porter at Wolfson College, describes how her work days (and nights) have changed since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Louise the Porter

I start my shift at 18.30 with a handover from the Day Porter. This used to entail a thirty minute detailed discussion about the day’s events. A lot can happen in twelve hours and we need to be prepared. Now I stand behind a red-and-white line of tape on the floor while my colleague shouts out at me that there’s "nothing to report". We do the two-metre-tango in the Lodge foyer, managing to avoid each other with all the grace of two drunken swans and he heads off home.

the red and white line
The six-metre red-and-white reminder.

I open all the windows and grab a tub of sterilising wipes. I clean the phone and the pager, scrub all the light switches, door handles, control panel buttons, phones and IT equipment. Then I scrub my hands with the mania of Lady Macbeth. I will repeat this process many times over my shift. It makes me feel safer.

In the fridge is a free packed lunch made for me by the catering staff and I pray that its not a repeat of yesterday's onion bhaji wrap. To my relief it's a curried chickpea sandwich. I sit in the Lodge and wait to see if a human turns up. Usually I’d see at least fifty people, even on a quiet evening. At the moment I’m lucky if I see two (one at a time and two metres apart, please). It’s so quiet that the resident ducks have taken to waddling into the front foyer shaking me down for their 'quack snacks'. Worryingly I’ve taken to addressing them aloud so I don’t forget the sound of my own voice.

The Lodge closes now at 20.00 instead of the usual 12.30. I turn out the lights, lock up the front door, forward the switchboard phone to my mobile and head off on rounds. Indoors is first, checking the College kitchens, the staircases and the ghostly corridors of Bredon House. On a windowsill I find some very sorry-looking plants and offer them some water. It seems they were forgotten in all the rush. I hope they revive.

Between 21.00 and midnight I wander about the site in my high-vis jacket, checking that the doors to the accommodation blocks are secured, inspecting the outbuildings and looking for any evidence of break-ins. I see lights on in many of the bedroom windows and I wonder how the resident students (just over 100 of them) are feeling. Are they safe and well? Are they are managing to adjust, to get their work done, to stay in touch with family and friends? To those who see me, I give a little wave. I don’t want to intrude, although I truly miss smiling and chatting with people at the Lodge.

Louise at porters lodge
No face-to-face contact for the time being

In the past week the College gardens have begun to drape themselves in their spring finery. I see it all by torchlight, daffodils glaring under the LED beam, a kaleidoscopic array of tulips and trees beginning to bloom with candy-pink and sugar-white blossoms. Tiny deep-pink flowers are sprouting from the boughs of the Judas tree, the Front Court’s sleeping giant — a certain sign that spring has arrived. There is still more life to be seen on a nightshift. A fox has taken up residence near the Sundial Garden, patrolling the carpark even more frequently than I do. On my final rounds of the night I startle a tiny muntjac deer. She skips away into the Betty Wu Lee Garden as surprised to see me as I am to see her.

I close the front gate at midnight and retire to the Lodge. I am on call for the next five hours. I do what little admin work I have left and settle down to watch the live camera feeds. It may be quiet, but I still have those 100 people to look after and I need to be ready for any emergencies. Around 02.00 I eat my sandwich with a cup of tea.

Fortunately it’s a quiet night and at 05.15 it’s time to open the back gate for the refuse lorries and the kitchen deliveries. Pre-COVID-19 I would have unlocked all of the communal areas of the College, roaming door to door, fumbling sleepily with the keys and switching on the lights as the site yawns into life. I’d hurry back to the Lodge by 05.30am sharp to distribute keys to the arriving housekeepers and kitchen staff. Wolfson wakes up early on a weekday!

It’s Monday today but there’s no one else here, even the ducks seem to be having a lie-in. I don’t see another soul until my colleague arrives at 06.30. He loiters awkwardly behind the red-and-white line as I did twelve hours ago. It’s my turn to yell "nothing to report" as I hastily gather together my belongings for my cycle home.