Above and beyond

“Our department is like a big wheel and each of us is a different spoke. If we were all the same that wheel won’t go round”

In the first of a series of stories from St John’s, Porter Mark Nelligan tells us he has seen many changes over the years but nothing as challenging as the pandemic, which he had rather more experience of than most. At the forefront of College life, the Porters have been working round-the-clock to keep our community safe this unusual Michaelmas Term and, as Mark reveals, their welcome is as warm as ever…

Before I was a Porter here, I was a window cleaner, working all hours, chasing the pound, but my body wasn’t going to take it forever. That was 19 years ago and there’s not a day since when I haven’t wanted to come to work. I used to be shy but being a Porter has brought out a side I never knew I had. I love it. You get to meet so many fantastic people from all walks of life, from students to celebrities.

The students are wonderful, they love having a natter with you. Experience tells you when they walk through the door of the Porters’ Lodge if they’ve had a good day or a bad day, so you know whether to say, ‘is everything ok?’ or ‘do you want to come in for a chat?’.

Mark Nelligan
Mark in the Forecourt Porters' Lodge. Photo credits: Nordin Ćatić.

“Above and beyond”, that’s the College Porters’ promise, and that’s our role. The old Deputy Head Porter when I first started used to say that our department is like a big wheel and each of us is a different spoke. If we were all the same that wheel won’t go round. It needs different aspects of intelligence, common sense, practicality and wit to make it the perfect wheel, and I always remember that.

I had six weeks off work with suspected Covid, I think I caught it in the supermarket. I started feeling ill on Friday 13 March. I took my Yorkshire Terrier Tara for a walk and I couldn’t get to the end of my street. I phoned NHS 111 and they said they were 99 per cent certain I had a mild case of it and to self-isolate. I deteriorated that week and then the coughing really started. I hardly slept and coughed so much it felt my ribs had been broken. The doctor got some medicine to me, and thank the ‘Man Upstairs’ because the next few days were horrendous, I was very ill. It’s just me and my dog at home, so I was monitored every Monday morning by the NHS and they were wonderful, they were on the phone an hour because they knew I was struggling with words, struggling for breath. I lost a stone in weight in two-and-a-half weeks. On Easter Sunday my brother brought me a roast dinner and left it outside the door. I didn’t have an appetite but after 10 minutes I could smell the gravy, so I put it in the microwave and ate it. I could’ve eaten three plates of it! I got my appetite back but it took a while for my energy levels to return. When I came back to work I wanted to get straight into it. Now I feel better than I did before, I’ve lost a bit of weight and sometimes I cycle 15 miles to work – I am a fair weather cyclist! ­- so my lungs are doing well.

We have over 20 Porters and Custodians and there’s been a hell of a lot of hard work and planning behind the scenes to make the College safe for everyone this year. The Porters have helped put up sanitiser stations and safety posters, we have a one-way system and screens in the Lodge and we have helped to support quarantining students, getting them signs on their doors and organising them to get the Upay app on their phones so they can order ahead from the Buttery and get their food and supplies delivered to their rooms.

Mark at work

A lot of preparation has been down to The Deputy Head Porter and The Head Porter, I can’t praise them enough. A few months ago nobody knew what was going to happen with the pandemic or what they’d have to do, but they have been amazing all through.  The College and Porters’ department as a whole are a better place with those two people in those positions.

Cambridge was like a ghost town for a few months but now the students are here and it’s fantastic to have them all back in College. The best part of my job is helping people to fix their problems, no two ways about it.  We tell the students they’re never on their own, even if they’re isolating, they can call us for a chat, that’s what we’re here for, it’s not a problem. They all know we’re here to help.

One of our best ever students was so homesick she’d come to see us in the Lodge in the evenings and we would sit her down, make her a nice cup of tea and have a chat. When she comes back now, she always thanks us for going out of our way to make her feel at home, she doesn’t know if she would have stayed otherwise. I think she got a double-first in the end. Our role is everything: uncle, auntie, brother, sister, shoulder to cry on; we make the students laugh but we also know when to be serious, it’s not all softly, softly. Sometimes we just have to give ‘the look’ and they know when they’ve gone too far!

My favourite bit of the College is the Forecourt Lodge, that’s where I feel most at home. All the years of history this place has, all the people who have walked through the gates, and we are lucky to be part of it. I pinch myself every day.

Published: 09/10/2020

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