Back home once again, my plan was to knuckle down and concentrate on saving up some money for the next phase of my journey. It was clear that I didn’t want to live in Birmingham on a permanent basis. I really wanted to live in France, or be paid to travel – but doing what?
For the time being, I went back to doing temporary work through an agency. For a few months there were slim pickings, so I took whatever I could find, including waitressing – another job I wasn’t cut out for, as I don’t have the cast-iron hands needed to carry scalding hot plates from kitchen to table.
I applied for two jobs teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in Japan: one company asked for details of my published articles on the subject, which I didn’t have; the other basically said: pack your bags and come on over. I felt there should be some sort of middle ground, where I didn’t have to be a world expert but wasn’t on a Gap Year either. I was also concerned that I didn’t speak a word of Japanese – so in the end I chose not to proceed with my applications.
I eventually found a temporary assignment as a Telex operator at a shipping company in the centre of Birmingham. It was a perfect job for an introvert, in a way – sending messages to people around the world electronically, via paper tape, rather than having to actually talk to them.
I got on well with the people in the company – but when they offered me a permanent job as a Telex operator, I turned it down, because I wasn’t planning to stay long. I had already decided my next move would be to London – just a short hop from France, where I really wanted to be.
They gave the job to another temp, who had been working one of the old-fashioned “dolly” switchboards that you might see in a film from the 1940s. As compensation, they asked if I would like to try out a microcomputer they had just bought: an Apple IIe. They knew computers were the future, but they didn’t know how to work one.
Neither did I. Despite having written a simple computer program at school, and another at Polytechnic, I had never come within arm’s length of an actual computer, and my programs had both crashed. But I was game to have a go – and fortunately the Apple IIe came pre-loaded with business software, as well as some games to help you get used to using the computer.
My favourite game was intended to show how a computer learns – it went something like this:
Computer: “Think of an animal.”
Me: I press ENTER to confirm I’ve thought of an animal.
Computer: “Is it a bison?”
Computer: “OK, I give up. What animal is it?”
Me: “It’s a parrot.”
Computer: “What’s the difference between a parrot and a bison?”
Me: “A parrot has wings.”
Computer: “OK. Think of another animal.”
Computer: “Does it have wings?”
Computer: “Is it a bison?”
I enjoyed being paid to figure out how the computer worked – and to teach other members of the team how to use it. It gave me the opportunity to use my analytical skills and also showed me that I had a knack for sharing my knowledge with others – and making it fun.
Even though I didn’t want to stay in Birmingham, I applied for a job that piqued my interest – as a presenter for a local radio station. I didn’t get the job, but I met the woman who did – and she said her success had largely been because she was the only applicant to supply a tape of her speaking voice. Sometimes we forget the most obvious things.
After six months at the shipping company, I had saved enough money to live on for a while – so I packed my bags and moved to London.
* * *
Rj’s parents very kindly offered to put me up for two weeks, while I looked for accommodation. Since sharing a flat with RJ, two years earlier, I had spent several weekends with her family in London.
On one occasion, RJ dressed me up in a beautiful sari that she had worn to a wedding – and it reminded me of a conversation with Mom, after she saw a full-length dress I had bought for a party when I was a student.
“It’s a pity you can’t wear clothes like that all the time,” Mom said.
“It’s totally impractical,” I replied. “I’d never be able to run for the bus in it.”
After viewing bedsits in all four corners of London, I knew I wanted to be near a railway line rather than a tube line – trains were less claustrophobic, and faster too. Rj suggested East Croydon – near where she lived. There was a fast train up to Victoria, and it had a local business district too. I quickly found a bedsit not far from the station, moved in, and got in contact with temping agencies.
Mobile phones didn’t exist, and there was no telephone in the bedsit – so it was important to stay in work, so that the agency could phone me at the office to give me my next assignment. The alternative involved popping out to a public telephone box every half hour, often to find out that the last available job had been assigned a few minutes earlier.
Over the summer, I worked briefly for a record company at their rehearsal studio in Islington – on the other side of London. Before leaving Birmingham, I had answered an advert in the Melody Maker newspaper to write songs with a guitarist in Kent – so the job seemed like a good fit. But it didn’t match up to my expectations, and I didn’t match up to theirs – so we parted company after two months. The commute had been horrendous anyway, especially during a tube strike which lasted most of the summer, so it was time to look for work locally.
In the autumn, the agency found me a long-term assignment as a trainer for a large American firm in Croydon. The plan was for me to work alongside two of the firm’s employees – but they corralled the few trainees into their training room, leaving me in another room all alone. I felt miserable, so – despite it being a prestigious company with potential prospects – I asked the agency to find me something else.
In January 1983, I moved to a bedsit in West Croydon and started a temporary assignment as secretary to one of the Directors at a firm of Quantity Surveyors in the centre of Croydon – a brisk walk from my new home, or a short bus ride if I was running late, which I often was. After two weeks, they offered me a permanent job.
Secretarial work wasn’t my idea of a long-term career – but I liked my boss and co-workers, and a regular income guaranteed the rent was paid while I figured out what I really wanted to do. And at least I wouldn’t have to keep phoning the agency from a public phone box.
At the formal interview, the Director confirmed the details of the job, and then asked if I had any questions.
“Just one,” I said. “Can I have two weeks’ holiday in two weeks’ time?”
I explained that I was about to turn 26, and it was therefore my last opportunity to buy an Inter Rail ticket – which provided free travel throughout most of Europe.
It was a tense moment – after the debacle at the campsite, I was loath to turn down a regular salary in favour of a holiday, no matter how important it was to me. I had bills to pay now – and whilst I had been used to contributing to household expenses while I stayed with my parents, these bills were non-negotiable.
I don’t honestly know what I would have done, had my wish not been granted – I suspect that I would have gone anyway. Fortunately the Director said yes, and I started to plan my route: visiting M and R in Germany, Julie and A in France, and Mary in Spain.
At the last minute, I discovered that the route of the original Orient Express passed through Budapest in Hungary to Bucharest in Romania – both still behind the “Iron Curtain” in 1983 – and I thought it would be fun to add those destinations to my itinerary, even though it would take two whole days to get to Bucharest from London.
I spoke no Romanian or Hungarian, but I was fluent in English, French and German – and despite travelling alone, I was convinced I would be able to get by. Sometimes, a bit of
confidence ignorance is all you need to get started.
Unusually for me, I had planned my itinerary down to the last second, as I would be covering a lot of ground in very little time, and I couldn’t afford to miss a connection.
However, as is often the case when we make detailed plans, Life had other ideas.