The first alarm bells started to ring when I learned, on my first day, of the fate of my previous incumbent. My predecessor was a trainee Vicar who was awaiting a posting in a parish, and was working in the park to keep himself going until then. The vicar had decided on a zero tolerance policy to antisocial behaviour from the local youths in the park. Consequently they felt he’d pushed them too far and pursued him to his Parkie’s Hut and, having barricading him inside, preceded to set fire to it. Not the news I wanted to hear on day one….
And so I settled into my varied and unusual tasks. First job was to get the thick rubber gloves out and check the kiddies playpark for needles, nice. Then, off to feed broken biscuits from the McVities factory to the swans (those that had escaped a recent shooting incident). I’d then patrol the park several times a day, trying to make sure if there was any trouble – I’d be on the completely opposite side.
My attitude to the chav element was completely different to the man of the cloth. My philosophy was born out my being a complete physical coward. So as much as I could, I made friends with them. This approach had seen me avoid any ‘Parkie Burnings’ for quite some time when the laxness of my discipline really hit home…
One normal summer morning I emerged from my hut having heard screeching tyres and an engine doing a lot of work. To my surprise, an old car was being driven about on the grass at high speed, doing handbreak turns and the like. I got on the radio and got my boss to call the police and headed over to the vehicle (not without a whimper!). The car had stopped in the car park and when I arrived, the local teenagers were sitting in it. It transpired they’d clubbed together and bought the motor at a scrap yard.
‘Fancy a spin Parkie?’ one shouted. Several more cajoling cries came as I was encouraged to take my own joyride. Clearly, I was not the fear-inspiring Park Keeper my superiors would have wanted in the post! ‘No I can’t’ I replied. ‘One of the miserable gits in the houses next to the park have called the police, I’ve just been told on the radio’. As they readied themselves to escape, they all politely said ‘thanks Parkie!’ And off they went.
I’m not proud of this approach, but I stayed alive and nobody got set on fire on my watch. I wasn’t about to risk life and limb for £3.50 an hour. I knew the police would be coming and I knew I’d get the ‘blame’ for it, so I made it clear it wasn’t me (when it was) and let them get away with it. I had several more weeks to go and wanted to get out the other side. A poor show though really, when all is considered.
After a few weeks the season was coming to a close and I was moved to the city’s central, much more pleasant park. I was to work with the Vicar, who had been moved to this location after the ‘pyro-parkie’ incident. I also worked with Tony, a stocky man who would inspire fear in the Taliban, never mind any park-dwelling undesirables. This seemed a much more agreeable place of work, as I stepped in to sell ice-cream from the kiosk when it got busy and strolled around the manicured flower beds for the rest of the day. That was until Tony gave me a new assignment.
It appeared that a public toilet between the park and the athletics track was a frequent haunt of men who liked to meet up to engage in sexual activity with each other. While I am liberal sort of man, this really shouldn’t be going on on weekday afternoons next to a sporting facility used by children. (Incidentally, the athletics track was – appropriately for Cumbria – called The Sheepmount). Tony required my daily assistance in an operation he called ‘flushing’.
My job was to drive the council van to the toilets, after which Tony would leap out, run in and shout very loudly some not very nice words. Usually several characters would then scurry out of the door looking abashed and headed to their cars in haste. Tony would then come back to the van and deposit a range of reading material that these gentlemen seemed to like. ‘Big Boys in Boots’ was one title if I recall correctly.
Shortly after one of these trips, we all gathered to give our best wishes to the Vicar who was off to a small village in Surrey, having finally been given his parish. As we waved him off Tony revealed the ‘joke’ he had played on him. Having borrowed his car keys, Tony had stashed a selection of the previously mentioned magazines under the spare tyre in the Vicar’s boot. I truly hope they were discovered by the Vicar himself – but can’t help worrying that a mechanic in a rural Surrey village garage came across them a few weeks later when doing an MoT. Imagine the scandal.