Saturday, 6 July 2013

Crossroads (2 of 5)


I'm sat, leant against the wall of a corridor in Perth's Curtin University. I've been here the best part of an hour.

Across the corridor, there's a door with a small sign attached. 'Senior Course Administrator', it says. For some reason, it reminds me of that poky little careers room at Skeggy Grammar. I close my eyes as a memory appears from nowhere. A young, beautiful French lady breathlessly whispering, 'Bonjour Christophe,' before licking her lips suggestively and giving me a look that can only mean I want you. I bathe in the recollection for a bit, before opening my eyes to the sterile serenity of this academic office building. I'd never seen that trainee French teacher again after that time in the Careers Room. Maybe she'd gone back to France or got the sack. If only I'd been a couple of years older back then, I kid myself, then I wouldn't be sat here now trying to wiggle my way out of this latest personal disaster.

The talk with the careers lady hadn't had its desired effect. I'd worked hard at my 'A' Levels, but eventually had found myself at a loss when my future direction was next questioned. I just wanted to run. That's all. No job had held any interest whatsoever. On a whim, I'd decided to study Sports Science at university, content in the knowledge that with a full grant I wouldn't be forced to pay off student debts when I finished the course. I'd secured a place on a degree course at Birmingham and become a student in the art of falling apart. 'Your university days are the best of your life,' people kept telling me, even those who had never been. Mine were the worst so far - no mean feat considering the fact that the ones before hadn't seemed all that brilliant.

It had taken me a couple of weeks to work out that, besides running, I didn't care at all for any other sports. It had taken me less than a week to ascertain that the university population contained more than its fair share of wankers than the general population.

For three years I'd taken refuge in running, experimenting with extreme training methods and extreme diets, clocking up huge mileages but enjoying only limited success. 'You leave all your best performances in your training,' they said. 'You run too many empty miles.'

For three years, I survived - barely - buoyed only by the hope that the next long run promised.

For three years, I was that kid. The weird kid who didn't fit in, stayed in his room, never went to parties. The one who never talked, had only a couple of friends, who you only ever saw walking by himself.

Towards the end of the final year, big companies descended on the campus for the recruitment shin-dig called the 'milk round'. We were all encouraged to go - after all, securing a job with United Biscuits, Imperial Tobacco, ICI or Barclays bank was something every young person desired in life. Right?

I went home that week, unsure of what I wanted in life, but sure that it wasn't that. The final year had brought home some truths which I had long suspected but done a decent job at ignoring. My times were no good. I had nowhere near the talent. Go to America? Scrape a living on the US road-running circuit? Forget it. Maybe it had been a crazy dream from the start, but crazy dreams sustain you. The prospect of a career with United Biscuits certainly didn't.

A couple of months later, armed with 8 'O' Levels (6 A's, 2 B's), 4 'A' Levels (3 A's, 1 B) and a respectable 2.1 degree, I was skint and desperate and clueless. Having spent  many hours applying for jobs where qualifications were more a hindrance than a help, I eventually struck lucky, blagging a dead-end position as floorwalker in a Skeggy seafront arcade. Once I'd stepped onto the careers ladder, there might have been no stopping me. But, in no time at all, I'd missed a rung, slipped from my lowly spot to the very bottom, and ended up, somehow, as a member of a cauliflower cutting gang.

Field work had been hard, but I'd loved it more often than I'd hated it. It was gruelling, lowly-paid (unless you were good at it) and strangely satisfying. But, eventually, not satisfying enough. For 8 months I lived the life of a peasant, and then new horizons beckoned.

Our Kid had gone travelling to Australia months previously and it wasn't long before his letters stirred the feeling that that's where I should be too. I'd dreamed of running across the Portsea dunes, of jogging in the shore-break of the Indian Ocean, of finding something worthwhile. I'd be happy in Australia. Surely? I had to go.

And go I did. But, whilst things started well enough, it wasn't long before Fate's cruel push landed me in the shit again. I met a girl and fell in love. At the end of the year, when my working holiday visa expired, I made one of those rash decisions I'm so prone to making. If I returned to the UK, it would be 6 months before I could get back into Australia on a holiday visa. That was too long. But if I secured a student visa, I could return straight away. The thought of a second round of university education wasn't the most appealing prospect, but if I picked an easy course, it couldn't possibly be too bad.

After watching Craig Mclachlan's inspiring performance as the new teacher at Summer Bay High one evening, I started contemplating entering a secondary education programme. Good sense eventually prevailed. A secondary school teaching course would almost certainly involve lots of work. No, what I'd do was teach primary. It'd be a doddle. Reading books, painting pictures, piece of piss.

So here I am now. Waiting for the Senior Course Administrator. Waiting to tell her that I've made a mistake. Trying to wiggle my way out of this latest personal disaster.

I'm three months into my course. The workload is unbelievable. I'm doing well - really well - but I'm worn-out, disillusioned, done in. Each day is a struggle to squeeze everything I need to do into not enough hours to do them. And it's my own doing - I know that. That's what does my head in. The 'student visa option'  wasn't a smart one after all.

I'd managed to raise the $10,000 overseas student course fees by accepting money from anyone who'd been gracious enough to lend me some - my family, my girlfriend's family, various banks - but now I'm in a big hole, trying desperately to repay my debts as well as pay my dues. I'm living in a tiny caravan with no electric in the back yard of my girlfriend's family's house. I'm attempting to juggle university attendance, completion of assignments and teaching practice with a dish-washing job in a Northfield restaurant that takes up 6 hours, 4 nights a week and all day on Saturday and Sundays. I'm cycling the hours journey from the suburbs to work each time, and I'm cycling the hour's journey back. It's the same with University - a good half-hour from my caravan. I'm fit, but living in a constant state of knackeredness. My running has become sporadic at best, non-existent at worst. I've had it.

And recently, the doubts have started to eat at me, chip away - little voices getting louder, leading me to this corridor and that door.

Little voices. Taunting questions.

'Is this all worth it?'
'Is this what you want?'
'How much do you really love her?'

And recently, the words of others I respect - words I'd disregarded previously in the hope that I knew what I was doing - have started to resurface.

Words which questioned the wisdom of a year abroad built on money I didn't have.

'Chris- you'll have no other option when you finish that course - you'll have to get a proper job.'

Words which questioned my choice of 'career'.

'Chris- you know as well as I do that hardly anyone becomes a teacher because they really want to. They do it because they're not intelligent enough or imaginative enough to do what they really want. Teaching - it's a second-choice profession full of second-rate people.'

At first, these voices were whispers. But now they scream. Sitting in that silent corridor, the noise is so loud that I'm just a click from crying. But I've made my decision. A decision that I have to make. A decision that will make everything better.

I'm giving up.

It's the only thing I can do.

I've gone to the University building to tell them that I'm done. I'm leaving the course, and then I'll leave the country. And when I leave the country, I'll leave the girl who I love, but thought I loved more than I do.

The Senior Course Administrator's secretary told me an hour ago that Doctor Evans would be back from lunch in ten minutes. I hear footsteps and look up - my moment of reckoning is here. But it's only the secretary again. She reminds me of Joe Mangel's wife off 'Neighbours'.

'Sorry to have kept you waiting there,' she says, 'but Doctor Evan's won't be back in this afternoon. Could you call back tomorrow?'

I assure her I can, make my way to the bike compound and pedal back to my van. Once there, I sleep for a while, making the most of my evening off from pot-washing. When I wake, it's late in the day. It won't be long before it's dark. It's then that I go for a run.

Cutting across the Shelley Oval, I'm soon on the path by the Canning River. It's a while since I've done this and my breathing feels strained, forced instead of natural. But I'm doing what I was born to do, and soon I'm part of the beat of movement.

 The sunset stains the water red as I head towards Riverton Bridge. I'm alone on the path - too early for the drunken kids, too late for the well-to-do power walkers. Lost in now, before I know it, I'm there. I stop running, edge my way along the wrong side of the railings and sit in the middle of the old wooden bridge, my legs dangling over the river.

In less than half-an-hour, the fog of recent days has cleared slightly. For just this moment, things seem so much clearer.

I sit for an hour. I watch the birds make ripples on the still water. I watch the headlights and tail lights - the comings and goings of life - on the Leach Highway flyover. I think about where my journey's taking me.

Then I run again. Back home. Straight into what's still to come.

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