A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
Lao Tze – ‘Tao Te Ching’
I looked up from the photograph. The manager was beaming at me. He nodded at the print in my hand.
“Do you think you can work to these standards? These were taken at my last store,” he said.
His pointing fingers roamed over his apparent favourites; shelves of almost military precision seemingly identical to the others. He had a wad of photos about four inches thick, all of the same shelves, immaculately stacked with stunningly dull supermarket products.
“Er, I think so. It’s just a matter of taking that little bit of extra care and consideration, isn’t it?” I hazarded.
He looked at me as if I had delivered his first-born child.
“Exactly! It’s good to find someone who appreciates that.”
The interview continued in the same slightly surreal way.
“Four A-levels! Wow. We hardly get any applicants with qualifications like that here,” he said, and at last, with my ego on the upcurve, the interview was heading in a direction I had hoped for.
"That’s almost an O-level, isn’t it?” he asked.
It veered off into uncharted territory again. I tried to explain that it wasn’t, but his eyes froze and his face switched off. He was waiting for me to finish. I stopped, and he came to life and flicked through my CV.
“So tell me about this course you want to do at university. Engineering Design and...hmm, what’s Appropriate Technology?”
I started, half expecting the ‘blah blah blah’ expression to return, but something I said seized his attention.
I emerged from the concrete bowels of my local supermarket an employed man. True, I was a night-shift shelf-stacker, and I wasn’t entirely sure why most of my interview had consisted of trying to explain how solar panels worked, but that didn’t matter. I had a job. A job meant that sooner or later, someone would be giving me money, and that suited me very well indeed.
I was going out with a dwindling stock of friends at the time. They were all drifting off to university, and every few days or so now there was a goodbye phone call, or a goodbye drink, or a goodbye going-out-and-getting plastered. The summer had definitely ended, and it was about time I started doing something about the ‘year out’ I was taking.
The previous year, nestling snugly in the bosom of my A-levels, I put off applying to university, and then put if off some more, and finally decided not to apply at all. I was in one of those late adolescent stages where you decide, all of a sudden and with ferocity that you don’t want to be like everyone else. But instead of dying my hair jet black and wearing second-hand mortician’s clothing, I did something slightly scarier. In a time when everyone was running around in a blind panic writing and re-writing personal statements and generally having epic, life-sized dilemmas, I opted out, and watched them.
I have always been astonishingly bad at making decisions, and so the ‘which university?’, ‘which course?’, and ‘which university has the best male to female student ratio?’ questions were all a bit too big for me to make in the allotted time, so I put them off and decided to do something else for a while.
One girl I knew applied to the university of her choice and deferred entry for a year. When I heard she was taking a year out, I was pleased (okay, so not completely unlike everyone else) and started asking her what she was planning to do, where she was going, how she was funding it and so on, and to my total astonishment said that she was going to work in a Safeway supermarket. All year. To pay for university.
I pointed out that debts were easier to pay off after university, when people give you more money, what with you having a degree and everything, but she was adamant. I gave up and started making plans by myself.
I looked into extravagant, ecologically friendly and socially admirable schemes; building mating huts for turtles in the Pacific, recording wildlife patterns in the Amazon, or building schools for Tibetan children. I was under the rather naive impression that people would gladly pay for you to help them out in this way, even if it was just slipping you half the coach fare, but I was wrong. Turtle-hut building lasted three weeks and you had to pay £3,500 for the privilege; looking at wildlife in Brazil and chipping in with the work in Tibet was pretty much the same, which was demoralizing after envisaging myself saving the world before dashing off to university. They were all really short placements, anyway. I had a whole year going spare, and I didn’t want to spend 95% of it working and 5% sheltering shagging chelonians.
The best idea seemed to be; work, get a load of money together, and Bugger Off. This rather rudimentary plan stuck around for a while with its fingers crossed hoping to avoid an in-depth parental enquiry. In the meantime, I thought I’d have a crack at improving my A-level maths grade, which was a less-than-inspiring ‘D’.
I bumped into Gemma Heath, a friend from Middle School who, in the true style of growing up on a small, sparsely populated island, I’d lost touch with. We had one of those very brief and practically scripted conversations people have when they meet after a long time.
“Hi! How are you?”
“I’m fine thanks, how are you?”
“Good, thanks. What are you up to at the moment?”
“Oh, I’m taking a Gap Year. You?”
“Me too. What are you doing?”
“Working at the moment, then I’m off to Canada. You?”
“Oh, no plans, just to travel!”
“Oh! Well, have fun, see you around, anyway.”
“Take care, bye!”
Then we bumped into each other again.
After the third time, we generally expressed opinions that it might be a good idea to do whatever we were going to do together. I was still undecided, but Gemma wanted to go to Canada, and was already working in a supermarket cafeteria to save to go. She spoke of Canada with a passion and enthusiasm, and I was swayed. We teamed up.
I started working in the supermarket in Ventnor, and enjoyed it enough to begin with. I was working from eight until midnight, more or less, six nights a week. It wasn’t enough to start cracking away sizeable sums of travelling cash, but the manager, who had seemed so open and well, let’s be honest, stupid in my interview, began to show extremes of cunning in terms of alluding to but never actually producing the extra shifts that I wanted.
He was as difficult to get hold of as a snake in cooking oil.
When I wanted to know if I could change to day shifts, where the shifts were longer, I could make more money AND see daylight at the same time, he was very vague and insinuated that the fact that he would look into it for me should be enough to satisfy my query. Despite this, I did manage to get hold of a week’s worth of day shifts, covering for people. Then when I pointed out that I was working a four hour shift without the legal fifteen minute break, a short time afterwards the whole night-shift team were stunned to notice that the official length of our shifts were reduced to three hours and forty-five minutes. Details on this change were also rather hazy to come by, and when we got them were along the lines of ‘There’s only that much work to do’.
Despite the fact that the shifts were now officially fifteen minutes shorter, the amount of time we worked was exactly the same, and, as had been before, it frequently overran, and we were rushing to finish stocking the shelves so we could go home. Overtime, or ‘the alleged overtime’ as it came to be known, turned up on payslips rather temperamentally.
To top all this, the work was terrible. The supermarket wasn’t very big, Ventnor only being a small town, and as a consequence, one person worked on each aisle all night. Scratch any potential for social contact. The only time I got to talk to anyone was if two of us finished trolleys of stock simultaneously, and then we could talk whilst manoeuvring for the trolley lift down to the storage cellar.
Okay, so the job wasn’t particularly social, fair enough. Lots of jobs aren’t very social. Bin men, for example –a bin man can only really chat to another bin man about the interesting crap that they’re throwing away at No.15 these days. Bin men get paid extra for the unsociable hours, the varying unpleasantness of their work, and for being bin men. That’s a job where you get paid for something unsociable. Being a bin man doesn’t stop you being social; you can wash. Working Monday to Saturday evenings into the early hours stops you being sociable. You just can’t do it. At the age of nineteen, with this job being the only thing I was doing with my life, I was frustrated.
Then there were the other people I worked with. You may be interested to see how I pull off complaining about the lack of social contact and how annoying the people I had to work with were, so I say to you: watch this then.
The people that were doing the same job as me were, for the most part, okay. I hardly got to speak to them, so in the chilly ten minutes waiting to get inside at the start of the evening, and the chilly ten minutes outside waiting to be told to go whilst the supervisor locked up, we maintained a relaxed air of not-really-giving-a-damn.
The supervisor was another thing.
Unfortunately, he was one of those people who are gripped by insubstantial promises of advancement, and was irritatingly enthusiastic and vigorous in his work. That manager had a lot to answer for. There was a battered old stereo kept just inside the door to the staff rooms that came out at night when the store was closed. This was not, as it seemed at first, a welcome help with the work. Music, listening to the radio, or even four hours of white noise would be a welcome diversion from the otherwise none-too-cerebral work. After the first thirty minutes of my very first shift, I hated that stereo.
I loathed it.
The supervisor was still an avid fan of speed jungle - music very briefly popular at the start of the 1990s. He saw it as motivating, energising and fun, making us work faster, whereas I resented the fact that it was doing perverted things to my ears. After a couple of hours of shelf stacking to ‘C’mon, c’mon! Jungle is Massive!’, accompanied by 240 beats per minute and straining electronic chords, I attained a deeply unpleasant trance-like state. We had a number of enlightening discussions on the subject of music, which resulted in me being allowed to play a tape of my own.
He is still the night-shift supervisor now, five years later, and I walk past the supermarket in the evening sometimes. I swear - he uses the same tape.
I began pleading, threatening, cajoling and pestering the manager into giving me a day off to go to Warwick University’s Open Day, and to my surprise, succeeded. I still had to work the preceding night though, and it was a late one. After bed at 2am, I rose at 6am and drank two cups of treacle-like coffee. I was already nodding off on the bus, so halfway across the Island in between buses, I bought a can of this new-fangled ‘Red Bull’ drink – a recent addition to the soft drinks market.
By the time I was on the high-speed ferry to Southampton, I had a rather distressing vision problem. There was a bright hole in the middle of my sight, as if I’d just looked at a naked light bulb. The other passengers must have been slightly worried by my frantic hand waving and covering of each eye in turn, but they only showed it by a quicker-than-casual move for the doors when we arrived. Thankfully, and to my enormous relief, it wore off by the time I got to the train (that was an interesting walk, or rather, meander through Southampton, let me tell you), but I had a terrible headache.
Warwick was a cold and misty tree-ridden maze, and I was so exhausted that I just wanted to go home. The course seemed amazing, but I was tired and slow-witted, and didn’t impress any prospective tutors, that’s for sure.
I got very, very bored and pissed off with the job, so I never overlooked the opportunity to skive off a bit. Razor-sharp reason and cunning again leapt to the fore from the manager, who demonstrated a respectable knowledge of common ailments, recovery times and likely residual symptoms upon return to work.
Despite all of this, and the glaringly obvious fact that I was making less money than a British film in America, I kept at the job.
I jumped at every opportunity to visit friends at university. Considering the fact that the job was six nights a week and getting time off was harder than SOMETHING VERY HARD, I made it a couple of times. I managed to visit my new but badly-timed girlfriend, Melissa, and my best friend Dave, who considerately went to the same university, helping me to cut down on travel costs.
I started going out with Melissa two weeks before she left for university, which even by my standards was spectacularly bad timing. I’ll be completely honest - I owe Melissa a lot. During the seemingly endless shifts at the supermarket, my thoughts could rest for hours on whether or not a letter from her would arrive the next day, or if she would call. It was really only the sheer hope of her that kept me going, and as with all things that you rely on a little too much, she became almost like an obsession.
Melissa was a long way away, living in some kind of university-based Utopia, where she had a lot of free time and was working towards something she wanted to do. This was so far removed from my own circumstances at the time that university, in its own way, started to seem like a distant thing, and almost an impossibility.
It was dark when I went to work, it was dark when I finished work. I hated going to bed with the feel of the job still on me, so I became almost nocturnal, seeing only an hour or two of sunlight a day. I read, studied maths and wrote letters the rest of the time. In the depths of where I didn’t really want to think, I mulled over the facts; I hadn’t applied to university, I wasn’t earning much money, studying A-level maths on my own wasn’t easier than being confused by a teacher, and my girlfriend of such a short time was a Fresher at large at a university packed full of prowling, predatory male students. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake.
Melissa helped me through some of the darkest months of my life, and after doing that, shooting her into the Top Ten in my ‘All-Time Favourite People Charts’, she cheated on me and dumped me in blazingly quick succession. I am in no way bitter, because, well...well, all right. I was at the time.
I spent too much money. I had all the hours of the day at home, reading or writing, or playing computer games. I spent a lot of money on music, and on books, and on the occasional trips to see my friends, or on drinks whenever one of them came back to visit. To be honest, the job was making me feel more than a bit pants, and spending money on myself...making sure I knew I at least valued myself...was the only reasonable antidote to that feeling, even if it was self-defeating.
In an ultimatum-style talk with the manager, I eventually said that unless I moved to daytime shifts, I would have to leave because I wasn’t earning enough money. He asked me not to leave, saying that I was good at my job (trying to appeal to my ego, maybe?) and that I was good with the customers.
I pointed out that customers were a little thin on the ground at one o’clock in the morning, and that was part of the reason why I wanted to leave. He promised to look into it, just as he had at least ten times before, and he was so convincing that he was within a gnats’ nadger of keeping me there. Fortunately for me though, he misjudged the timing of his next question.
“Oh, and while you’re here, I was wondering if you’d mind working the night of Christmas Eve, you know, really get the place looking fantastic for Boxing Day opening?” he smiled at me conspiratorially, as if I shared in his enthusiasm for geometrically arranged shelves.
“Er, no,” I said, “and on second thoughts, I think I want to leave.”
I’m going over this because, despite the fact that at the end of the three month run-up to Christmas I had about fifty pounds more than I started with, and that fifty quid features minimally in the coming travels, maybe as a few meals, or a single train ticket, those three months were the least fun I’d ever had. I was on a gap year, a break from the pressures of academic life, when the real world wasn’t meant to have bitten in yet.
I’ll tell you now: it was shit.
It’s Monday, the 27th of December, 1998.
In the past year, a lot has happened. I’ve taken my A-levels and finished school, fallen in and out of love at least once, drunk an indeterminate (and insufficient, in my opinion) amount of alcohol, laughed, cried, dreamed and sung my way through the last twelve months.
I’ve attempted to keep diaries of the last two years but they end up mostly blank, and when text does actually appear, it describes with hopeless complication the reasons for the angst/joy/boredom creating situations of the time.
This is my first journal, courtesy of Aunty Sue. To cover this coming year – that, hopefully, of my travels and rather more certainly, of my going to university. To cut out months of blank pages, each entry can be dated on any page, at any time when anything worth recording for posterity pops up.
I had intended to begin this year’s demented scrawlings with a ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ type summary of 1998, but seeing as I’m not a nicotine addict/ calorie counter/ lottery addict/ alcoholic/ woman, there seems v. little point...
19th January 1999
Gemma and I are starting to get a rough idea of what’s going to happen this year. Canada is now all but a non-option, and just as we’ve realised this, an advertising campaign for Air Canada appears to be on TV every moment of the day! Hey ho. Europe is the aim. I start a new job, working with Gemma in Safeway Coffee Shop in Newport which should be fun, on Saturday. Last night we drafted out a route around each other’s ‘must see’ locations – Paris, Rome, and Spain generally, possibly including Madrid. We’ve planned to get Under26 cards, join the International Youth Hostel Association and ask around for hints/tips in the area of Independent Travel (note capitals!) from people we know who have travelled. Also to cut spending, increase hours and research temporary employment like grape picking and such on the continent. My floor lies littered with leaflets, sheets, scrawled-on paper and an atlas still. We may be having visions of international grandeur, but we’re still teenagers. Other decisions that we have yet to make are whether or not to take a tent, whether we’ll see some of Eastern Europe (Austria and Vienna), and how far our money will get us, and how...