Tag Archives: work

Careering: Sunday

There was usually a window of about half an hour when the light was still just good enough for Sarah to paint and the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, enough to tempt Alex out to join her on the roof terrace. He would call out the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently wind him up by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether it was Ursa Major. Or they’d pretend to have forgotten that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that could cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again. The terrace was the reason they’d taken the house originally. It had been further from the tube than they’d wanted and the only pub in spitting distance was the Three Feathers, stubbornly untouched by the estate agent’s claims for gentrification, but the little roof space had woven a spell on all of them. It was just the flat roof atop a 1990s loft conversion, maybe three feet square and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant, but it opened up a view down and across Islington and, more importantly, an unrestricted view up and out, over the the London skies.

Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from a tip into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Takahiko Hayashi print she’d had in her room as a student, back when all futures seemed possible. She glanced over at Alex. He was slouched back in the deck chair, a pair of binoculars resting on his stomach.

“You know what happened last time you looked through those…” said Sarah.

“They are strictly for star gazing,” replied Alex. “That incident with the couple on Woodfall Road was not entirely my fault.”

Rob’s head appeared in the hatch at the top of the steep stairs that served as the route up to the terrace.

“The One With The Naked Neighbours And The Surprising Things You Can Do With Fruit,” he announced. “Still can’t believe they called the police.”

“It wasn’t an episode of Friends, Rob.”

“No, it was funnier,” said Rob. “Although if it was I’d be Joey, right ? The good looking one.”

“It’s not much of a choice. The funny one, the good looking one and the…the other one. What was the point of Ross anyway ?” said Alex.

“He was the nice one, wasn’t he ?” said Sarah, still idly stirring her brush in the jar, the water now a murky grey. “You’d be Ross, Alex.”

“Thanks a lot,” he replied. “So I’m the dull, wet guy who’s so lacking in discernible character that he gets given a pet monkey just to make him more interesting.”

“Well I didn’t mean it quite like that,” smiled Sarah. “Anyway, you don’t need the monkey, you’ve got that whole neighbourhood peeping tom thing going on as character quirk…”

“I was star gazing.”

The natural light was fading fast now, steadily replaced by the soft glow of the city. Sarah finished cleaning her brushes and sat down on one of the stools, accepting a quick swig of the beer that Rob had brought up with him and was offering round. He stood looking at the picture Sarah had left drying on her makeshift easel. It was an abstract series of blue and grey circles, bold and well defined in the centre and then progressively distorted and smudged towards the periphery of the page. He liked it although, if he was honest, he preferred her photography, preferred things rooted more directly in reality. Sarah caught him looking at the picture and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He smiled and nodded approvingly but knew better than to offer more; too many well intentioned observations about her painting had ended with the critiqued picture in pieces. He pulled up the other stool, took his beer back from Sarah and offered it up to Alex who was now peering up towards the sky through his binoculars.

“What are you looking for up there ?” asked Rob. “Trying to see our destinies ?”

“God, no. Nothing like that. There’s no glimpse of the future up there, just lights from the past,” replied Alex.

“That’s deep.”

“It’s just physics.” Alex adjusted the focusing ring on the binoculars, tried to get a better view of the Moon. It was only a quarter full but still one of the few things bright enough to cut through the  light sodden sky. It’s just physics. He remembered saying something similar three years ago. His justification for jacking in the PhD, walking away from all that conceptual stuff about gravity and relativity to take up a graduate place with Deloitte. Swapping Lorentz transformations for double entry bookkeeping. It paid better but it was a mental downshift and he still felt the pull of his old studies.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” interrupted Sarah suddenly.

“Like what ?”

“This… This… I don’t know. This scratching out our days.” Sarah pushed her hand through her hair and frowned. “What happened to what we wanted to do ?”

“You mean you didn’t want to design towers for Ubisoft ?” It was Alex’s usual tease.

“Hey, those games need a lot of towers… and my correct title is Concept Artist as you well know.” Sarah straightened on her stool and extended her arm with a flourish. “Concept Artist responsible for initial design of player climbable structures. Should I continue to impress with my sketched portfolio of traversable in-game terrain then I have a very decent shot at being Lead Concept Artist in two to three years time”.

“It’s something to dream about.”

“Every day on the 153, believe me.”

“Maybe this is just a phase,” said Rob. He drained the last of his beer. “Maybe we need to go through this while we figure it out.”

“But we had it figured out,” protested Sarah. “When I met you… at that talk, what was it ?”

“NGO roles in provision of public services,” said Rob.

“Sounds like quite the party,” said Alex from behind the binoculars. Sarah ignored him.

“Yeah, at that. When we met you knew exactly what you wanted to do. It was the thing that struck me about you. The passion. You were absolutely going to work in the public sector, or the third sector or whatever it’s called, and you were going to help people.”

“And hopefully I still will,” said Rob. “The social media thing’s just temporary, just to get some money behind me early on. It’s not forever.” They all fell silent, slightly awkward. Sarah sighed and, after tentatively touching at the paint to see if it was dry, rolled up her picture. Alex put down his binoculars and tried to lighten the mood.

“What were you doing at that talk anyway Sarah ? Doesn’t strike me as your sort of thing.”

“What makes you think I’m not interested in social enterprise ?”

“She was in the wrong room,” said Rob.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone that,” smirked Sarah. All of them laughed and Alex wagged a finger in mock admonishment. “Alright, alright. It was at the Barbican and I’d gone to see a Murakami exhibition but I was running late, got a bit lost, and ended up in a room full of earnest liberals listening to someone talk about co-operatives and sustainable funding. They all seemed so nice that I thought it’d be impolite to just walk out.”

“Just imagine the vicious tutting you could have been subjected to…” said Alex.

“We could be quite scathing in our shows of mild disapproval,” agreed Rob. “Some poor guy turned up to another talk one time with a coffee from Starbucks, it was just after the whole tax avoidance thing, and I think we briefly created a vacuum in the auditorium as everyone took a sharp intake of breath simultaneously.”

“Well it wouldn’t have technically been a vacuum…” started Alex before being drowned out under a mock chorus of tuts from his flatmates.

The early evening dusk was giving itself up to the beginnings of night now and the last of the sun’s warmth that had baked itself into the terraces was fading. Sarah rubbed her bare arms with her hands, ironed out the goose bumps, before gathering up her painting equipment.

“I think I’m going to head in,” she said. “Early start tomorrow.”

The other two didn’t move. She knew they liked to sit out for longer, eek out the weekend and delay the onset of Monday morning. Alex would usually be last to come back downstairs, pulling the hatch behind him. Sometimes he’d sit and try to wait until all of the lights across the surrounding streets winked out, hoping that the progressive darkening of the neighbourhood would allow more illumination from above. Once there’d been a power cut and he’d been able to pick out Mars, seemingly tucked away behind Venus, just a trick of their relative positions and rotational orbits. The others teased him about how scientific, how clinical, he was about it all but he saw the beauty in it too. When he told Rob he wasn’t looking for destiny up there it was true but he was maybe looking for some perspective.

“Good night,” said Rob. “Don’t forget our guest arrives tomorrow.”

“Guest ?” said Sarah pausing at the head of the stairs.

“God, Sarah, do you read anything the landlord sends us ? We talked about this last week. He’s offered up the spare room on Air BnB. We’re splitting the money, remember ? He’ll take half and then take the other half off the rent. Said we can stop it anytime we want if it doesn’t work out.”

“Vaguely,” said Sarah. “Might be nice to have someone else around anyway. And I could definitely use the cash.”

“Tell me about it,” said Rob.


Take the long way, ‘cos I like the view

31. Take The Long Way – Po’ Girl

There’s a dull ache where my prostate should be and I’m sat in a car I don’t own, in the car park of an anonymous industrial estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, a town that seems to be comprised almost entirely of outskirts. I’m waiting for an all day meeting that I’d rather not attend; my expectations are for a painful few hours of corporate jockeying, career eyeing obfuscation and the uncomfortable small talk that only a group of people that really don’t know each other, despite spending every day together for the past three years, can muster. Look up inauspicious in the dictionary. There will be a picture of me in a Vauxhall Astra, eating a double bacon and egg McMuffin, on that industrial estate.

I had spent a good few minutes trying to manoeuvre the car between the white lines that had been marked out for parking. They’re set at an odd angle – perhaps 70 degrees – and are just marginally too narrow. As I’m first to arrive I can’t line up next to an already parked vehicle and, for reasons that now escape me, I had decided to reverse in. Trying to fit between the lines. As I repeatedly try to position the car this feels a lot like one of those free metaphors that life has been throwing at me of late.

I had not been looking forward to this day. Its purpose was for a small group of us to discuss team objectives, in the absence of a head of function, away from the office which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t be cause for concern. Except I’ve been in this play before. Almost exactly twelve months ago: same meeting room in the same industrial shed with the same task to be performed under the same circumstances – no head of team, let’s sort things out. Only twelve months ago the casting was different and, specifically, I had been shunted from understudy to something approaching the lead role. Now I wasn’t even sure if I qualified as understudy.

That day a year ago had, briefly, felt like a fresh beginning. I’ve dealt with my redundancy elsewhere but this had been the point at which I felt like I’d found my way back to some kind of approximation of my previous job; my previous status I guess. I was sharing the responsibility for the running of the day, the running of the team, with someone else but it was close enough. I was back doing what I knew I could do, building a happy and productive insights team.

I was sufficiently emboldened that day to take a risk. The team were dealing with the departure of their “head of” – in retrospect maybe I was dealing with it more than they were, I’m not sure. It was someone I had a lot of respect for and was bitterly disappointed to see him depart and, again in retrospect, it surfaced a lot of memories about how I had left my previous job. So I decided to risk opening up to my colleagues, sharing what was supposed to be my own personal story of dealing with change. I stopped short of a full confessional, complete disclosure of my struggle with mental illness, but there was enough there for people to fill in the blanks. I guess it was intended to be a rallying cry, an illustration of how people can come through traumatic events and stay strong. There’s some irony. It was definitely intended as a show of strength: a sense of resolve and fortitude from what might, ostensibly, appear a place of weakness. It was about empathy and understanding and letting people know that there was someone there for them – my far less eloquent version of this “down in a hole” clip from The West Wing. If you believe the corporate text books it was intended as an overt piece of “authentic leadership”. It was definitely authentic.

And then it all went wrong. Not literally then (people didn’t start throwing things and booing – they may have wanted to…) but over the next couple of months. A series of ordinarily manageable events piling up to a point where they became unmanageable; like dropping enough pebbles onto a hillside until, eventually, it dislodged a boulder, and then the whole thing came tumbling down. Then we’re into panic attacks and adrenaline and cortisol and pills and counseling and all of that stuff.

So back in the car park, a year on, I have all of that in my head. Returning to work after my sabbatical has not been without its challenges, my subconscious seems keen to cling to the fact that I’m back in an environment where I melted down. It’s well intentioned with its occasional prompting – “hey, this is a bad place for you, I remember what happened, I’m going to stimulate some chemicals for you to encourage you to get the fuck out” – but not terribly helpful. I understand the theory of it all but unpicking it in practice – rewiring it – is hard. And this particular car park, outside of the particular meeting room I’m about to go into, is a major crime scene to revisit. If I wasn’t back on beta blockers I imagine I’d be accelerating hard back down the A5 right about now.

I have a playlist that I use for my commute to work. It is, imaginatively, called “car”. Admittedly that isn’t as strong as my Motown playlist – “Good Lordy, It’s Berry Gordy” – but on a par with most of my naming conventions (for example: “new” for, er, new stuff). It was on whilst I sat in the car thinking about the upcoming meeting, set as it usually was to play on shuffle. Sometimes life chucks you a rubbish metaphor about trying to park between the lines whilst you’re wondering where you fit in and sometimes it throws you a bone. Po’ Girl’s glorious reflection on enjoying life’s journey – because that’s the only point to it all – “Take The Long Way” shuffled its way on to the car stereo.

This song was always on the list for inclusion in the 42. I didn’t necessarily expect that this odd tale of mid life crisis would be my route into it but there it is. In some respects it might have been more obvious to pick a moment in my life that was so perfect that it stopped me in my tracks; a moment in which it’s almost easy to understand that this is a moment and that’s probably all that life is, a succession of moments. The sun setting over the ocean in Lanzarote. My wife appearing at the end of the aisle on our wedding day. Sitting holding my new born daughter in the hospital. First kiss. Playing live music. Sex. Any of those would be easy to isolate as moments in which it feels like you can express what life is about. But you don’t get that many of those. What you get are a few of those and, in between, long, long stretches of sitting in car parks – metaphorically, not literally. Unless, of course, you’re a car park attendant.

So it has to be on the list because I utterly adore it, I adore the melody, I adore the vaguely incongruous mix of country and folk and hip hop, but most of all I adore the sentiment. That reminder to be mindful, to savour experience – the journey and not the destination – and that life is not something you’re working towards, it’s something you’re doing. Right now. To steal wholesale from Annie Dillard: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. All of that time sat in a car park, sat in a meeting room, is life.

It would be too neat and tidy if I told you that in that moment I understood everything I wanted to do with my life. If it was a film I’d have probably driven off, or better still, walked off, casually chucking the keys to a car that wasn’t mine over my shoulder. Maybe deliberately leaving the car parked across the lines first: you see what I did there ? But I don’t (sadly) live in an Aaron Sorkin drama and whilst walking off into a Milton Keynes sunrise might have been glorious for a while it would have been swiftly followed by a dawning realisation that I got responsibilities now.

It was enough, for now, that it reminded me to be present. It was enough that it got me back into that meeting room and got me through that meeting without gasping for air. Right now there are days when that is enough: that is a good day. That won’t always be enough because, how we spend our days and all that, but right now it is.