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Sunday, 15 January 2023

Night Cleaner

My mother would have said it was the only proper job I ever had. Being stuck in an accountants’ office didn’t count. Nor did poncing around in universities. But twelve-hour nights in a canning factory, well, that was the kind of work her family had always done, and people from her village too.

I was a night cleaner: not the sort of cleaner that normally comes to mind with mops, buckets and toilets, but sturdier stuff involving wellington boots, waterproofs and hosepipes. Our job was to clean the factory machinery overnight in readiness for the following day’s production. I spent three university summers there. It was very well paid.

Some of the permanent employees resented the students for the easy opportunities they had, especially Ken the electrician. His job seemed mainly to keep everything covered in a thick layer of grease to protect switches and circuits from all the water swilling around, but it was no match for our high pressure hoses. From the ladders we climbed to wash stray peas and other vegetables from the hoppers and seamers, it was impossible not to short-circuit his electrics now and again. It sent him apoplectic.

“Call yourselves bloody students? You don’t even have the intelligence you were born with. What the hell do they teach you at university? You can’t even piss straight.”

I once accidentally filled his toolbox trolley with water, the stream from my hose tracing a perfect arc across the factory ceiling. What he thought of that is unrepeatable. It involved the contents of my underpants and what would happen to them were I to do it again. 

The “regulars” knew how to keep the students in their place. The names they gave us, the sayings they used, the jokes they told, were outrageous. Mick, another night shift “regular”, had one of the most creative and imaginative senses of vulgarity I have encountered. He said if anyone tried to drink his tea while he was in the “bog” (toilet), he would tear open their throat and get it back while it flowed through. He didn’t just spit in his cup to make sure no one drank from it, he rubbed a certain part of his anatomy round the rim.

When Nevil Shute (in ‘Slide Rule’) wrote that people from this part of the world were “brutish and uncouth, … the lowest types … ever seen in England, and incredibly foul mouthed”, he simply didn’t get it. It might have been unsophisticated, but it was clever and hilarious.

Donny, however, was different. He was gentle and softly-spoken. He was the night cleaning foreman, our boss. He did not put you down when you missed something, but patiently showed you what was wrong so that you gradually learnt the job. Being quiet, he came in for a lot of teasing from the other “regulars”.

Much of this took place in the factory canteen. Typically, we would start our shift at six in the evening and help in the factory until production ended. We would then take a meal break before the canteen closed. One of the canteen staff was called Josie, a divorced lady who lived in Donny’s village. With her lovely dark hair, she must have been extremely attractive when young. It was made out that Donny had a soft spot for her. This led to rampant invention about what Donny dreamed about. How often did he walk secretly past her house? When would he pluck up the courage to ask her out? Did he keep her picture on the wall next to his bed? Josie laughed, but was clearly embarrassed. Donny said nothing, but took it in his stride. 

The final year I worked at the canning factory was its last. It was to close permanently at the end of the season. The “regulars” were served with redundancy notices. During the final week only Donny and I were on nights. We often finished early except for in the yard where we had to wait for daylight. Donny asked if I would run him to his girlfriends’ in my Minivan, finish on my own outside when it was light, and clock off his time card at six, which I did. It was the first I had heard of a girlfriend. He revealed it was Josie. 

I didn’t see Donny again, but thirty years later I noticed an obituary notice in the local newspaper which my father always saved for me. It was Josie. The final line read, “With heartfelt condolences to Donny, her long-time loving partner”.


  1. What a lovely tribute.

  2. Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful memory from your uni days. Donny and Josie ending up together was a welcome ending.

  3. Donny was a dark horse wasn't he just?

  4. Aww.. what a lovely story. Except for the yucky Mick character.

  5. Lots of history, colour, movement and humour with the sweetest ending.

  6. Thanks for the lovely story and the lovely ending.

  7. I'm sure Donny and Josie had a lovely life together! Such a sweet story!

  8. A touching read, and not only because of Donny and Josie.
    My Mum had all sorts of jobs while we were little, to help make ends meet. One such job was at a thread factory nearby. Her coworkers were women, and she says she never heard as much vulgarity, even obscenity, come up in conversation as during that job - not even when she was the only woman working as an architect’s secretary with a bunch of beer-loving builders.

  9. I remember when working in the dairy factory, as each run of milk bottling was finished, we had to stop the conveyor belts and clean out the machines ourselves. Same with the chesemaking section, as the cheeses were removed from the press and the cheesecloths removed each day, we girls had to cart them (the cloths) to the big industrial washer and get them washed, then into the giant spin dryer, while that was spinning we cleaned the washing machine, then the cheesecloths were hung out to dry overnight. Work areas for other parts of the factory were cleaned by those who operated the machines. The big bottle washing machine was easy, just set it to run a cycle without loading in any bottles and it cleaned itself.

  10. That's a lovely story. It reminds me of the last line line from "Secret Love" by Kathy Kirby: "And my secret love's no secret anymore". Regarding Ken, it sounds like he needed a good tickling. My best student job was working as a relief nightwatchman in a caravan factory on Swinemoor Lane, Beverley.

    1. Night cleaner, night cleaner
      We know how to do it
      Gimme that night cleaner, night cleaner
      We know how to hose it

  11. Tasker that last line brought tears to my eyes.

  12. That was such a sweet story. I do love a happy ending.

  13. What a great post. It's bittersweet, but at least they had their lives together.

  14. I was so glad that Donny and Josie ended up together! Great story!

  15. rhymeswithplague17 January 2023 at 19:46

    Tasker, you are an excellent writer and this post is no exception. It makes me happy that you have resumed posting on your blog. The story of Josie and Donnie is memorable, as is your description of the night cleanning process and crew. Unforgettable!

  16. Great memoir with a poignant ending. You might start a blog trend on jobs we had as students. None of mine end nearly so well.

  17. Dear Tasker, thank you for this vivid graphic view into working life in days gone! The antagonism between the workers via the students, the difficult work itself, and the humour of men (I had the counterpart when before my studies I worked for a month in a chocolate factory - the women whom I worked with on the factory line exchanged a lot of very interesting descriptions of their love life on Monday :-)
    As our time changes our world so much I am glad you tell about "as it was" - young people might listen with open mouths.

  18. Touched with the Taskeresque magic.


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