Next time I see him I tell Joe about the careers advice I’ve been given. I try to make it sound funny but he can tell there’s something troubling me.‘I really don’t mind hard work. Honestly.’
‘I believe you.’
‘So what is it?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How did it feel, when you were there, at the shop? Try to take yourself back there for me. What does it feel like?’
‘Sort of, I don’t know, frustrating? And like... It’s like they’re watching me all the time, waiting for me to do something wrong. I don’t know if it was true. I just felt on edge the whole time.’
‘What did you think might happen?’
‘I’m not sure. I just thought I was going to get into trouble all the time, or get the sack. It just felt... tense. I don’t know how else to describe it. And I was so fed up. I just wanted to get away, do something else. There were all these things I was supposed to be doing there but they just seemed so pointless. I know they weren’t really pointless. Someone had to do them – sweeping up and so on, facing up the shelves, but... I don’t know. I tried so hard to concentrate and do it all properly and make sure I was doing everything right... I don’t know.’
I remember turning up at the shop that first morning and it was just all so confusing, trying to find things and remember all the things that needed doing but then by the end of the week I thought, this is alright actually – sorting everything out, showing people where things were. I felt quite chuffed with myself because at last I was doing something useful. The others took the piss out of me for working too hard, showing them up. But then I got to the middle of the second week and I remember I just stopped and looked around and I thought - this is exactly the same as last week. I’m going to do exactly the same things all over again. How do people deal with it, month after month, year after year? I don’t get it. And then there was Tim and John and one of the office girls mucking about out in the yard, having a laugh, chucking stuff about, and I just turned around and got on with organising the sandpaper or whatever it was. Why do people always have to put it back in the wrong places?
‘How do other people put up with it?’ I say to Joe. ‘Why couldn’t I just bloody get on with it and stop making a fuss? Other people seem to manage.’
‘Is that what your parents said?’
‘No. I never told them. What was the point? They couldn’t have done anything.’
‘Was there no one else you could talk to?’
I try to think. Did I talk to anyone? I hardly remember. There was Ron. He was a venture scout leader. He was always stopping to talk to me and inviting me over to his place. He tried to get me to admit I’d had a homosexual experience when I hadn’t, but it seemed like the more I argued the more he’d insist I had something to hide. I liked talking to him though. I don’t know why. I suppose I needed the attention. Pathetic really.
‘Anybody?’ says Joe, bringing me back to the present.
I think about it for a bit. I did have people I hung out with at school sometimes but we never seemed to talk about anything important.
‘They didn’t seem to need to discuss things like that. They just seemed to get on with it somehow.’
‘You think they knew something you didn’t?’
‘Maybe, Something... I don’t know.’
‘Don’t you think everybody gets bored and hates their jobs sometimes?’
‘I suppose so. But I mean, I hate my paintings sometimes, but I still have to do it. I don’t know. Actually I really do think most people are ok about their jobs. I really do. I know they complain but... they seem, I don’t know, fairly relaxed about it. They just get on with it, accept it.’
I think back to how it was then and it occurs to me that maybe I would have been happier if I’d been able to just accept the situation – known my place, not expected something better. But I couldn’t. I don’t know where the idea came from but I always believed, despite everything my family said, that I could do something better, something exceptional, that I had this ability, this talent. I don’t know why.
Joe says ‘Don’t you think it’s the people you work with that make a difference?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But you didn’t really look forward to seeing the other people at the shop.’
‘I didn’t really know them that well. I think they all knew each other really well already. They were always mucking about together.’
‘But you were there for, what, two months?’
‘I know. I should have made friends with them by then.’
‘I’m not saying you should have necessarily got on with that particular group of people, but generally, perhaps somewhere else?’
I try to think about that. I can’t think. I change the subject.
‘Solly and Brenda said I should just think about the money. Mum and dad used to tell me to do that too. Just think about the money.’
‘It does come in handy.’
‘Well, yes. But there’s got to be more to it than that hasn’t there? I mean, you spend all those hours there, at work, every day, years and years.’
I don’t understand why anyone would want to live like that, well, not want to exactly, but I don’t understand why anyone accepts living like that. I don’t see why we should have to do eight hours a day, five days a week (or more, usually because there’s overtime), and then you have to actually get to and from work which adds on another hour or so, and you have to sleep eight hours and in the end all you’re doing is eating and resting and recovering just so you can go back to work next day and you never do anything else. It’s disgusting. How can people live like that? Especially when nowadays there’s all these labour-saving devices and automation and so on. We should be able to produce just as much as we used to but in half the time and have the rest of the week off, but people still seem to work really long hours and it doesn’t matter how much people earn they always complain they don’t have enough. Why don’t they understand they’ll never earn enough? They don’t see it. I don’t think I’ll ever fit in. I don’t know if I want to.
‘Terrifying, isn’t it?’ says Joe, laughing, but I don’t think it’s funny. I really think it is terrifying. They don’t understand that, none of them.
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