When I got older I decided I wanted to be a real writer. I tried to write about real things. I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely
Nicole Krauss — The History of Love
Last week, I went to a leaving do. It was for my ‘boss’ in the museum where I volunteer.
I’ve had many bosses of varying calibre over the decades, so this leaving ‘do’ was not the first to which I’ve been. On occasion, my boss leaving has offered me an opportunity. Yes, I, too, once had high ambition. Sometimes the going has provided relief. We’ve all suffered bosses like that. While sometimes, it’s brought me concern. One never knows whom the new broom may sweep away.
Anyway, I felt both sadness and excitement on this occasion. Sadness that I will no longer ‘work’ alongside someone of talent and unbounded enthusiasm. Excitement for the individual as they embark on a new life ‘journey’.
When most people leave an organisation of their own volition, they usually seek to increase their income, or further their ambition, or take a career path change or maybe retire.
This ‘leaving’ was none of those. The person is not suffering some mid-life crisis. A woman far too young for that. This young woman leaves paid employment to look upon new horizons and a different perspective. Seeking the time and space to explore what else life might offer away from the regularity of work. Affirmation of the direction in which they wish their life to progress.
I heard someone say it was a bold decision. I’m not sure I agree. Such a decision may be to fight on the front line in Ukraine. This was an opportunistic decision. Yes, what is left behind is the regularity of a paycheque. And maybe that does take courage. But what I admire is the desire to seek those new horizons both literally (I write of someone who is a promising artist of primarily landscapes) and metaphorically.
My life has followed a classic arc. School, work, marriage, divorce, marriage, children, divorce, marriage, stepchildren. With various geographical moves, house purchases and employer changes thrown in. OK, maybe the marriage/divorce bit isn’t classic. But I’ve not tried to explore an alternative lifestyle. I built a career in business and paid my mortgage(s). I have no regrets and am not complaining. My working life of long hours, weeks, and months afforded me a comfortable opportunity to retire early, travel a bit (well, until Covid) and give something back through volunteering. However, I recall one occasion when fleetingly my mind moved towards an alternative, what if?
It was some decades ago and during a train journey. A journey that sticks in my mind for a couple of reasons. One is the book ‘The History of Love’, the other, is a bag.
First to the book that I began to read while travelling in the first-class comfort of the 8:01 from Watford Junction to Preston. That’s not entirely true. I read the first few pages while waiting for a taxi to take me from my then home to Watford Junction. The first rays of a weak February sun spread just enough light to read by, and what I read soon absorbed me. In its own words, the book is “a captivating story of the power of love, of loneliness and of survival”.
An hour or so later, I took up the book again. The aftermath of a breakfast, courtesy of Virgin Trains, lay before me and a half cup of coffee close to hand. The tumult of animated conversations surrounding me faded into the background as I began reading.
Talk of offside rules, the leadership skills and amoral escapades of JFK, the outcome of safety inspections, and how best to exploit career opportunities all became little more than a gentle murmur. I submerged into the world of the book’s two main characters, Leo, and Alma. Then a loud and slightly anxious voice brought me abruptly to the surface of reality.
The voice was that of the train guard, who stood at the end of the carriage, and at his feet, I could see a large grey sports bag. “Does anyone in this carriage own this bag?”
His words cut a swathe through the conversations within the carriage. There followed an unexpressed exhortation from every passenger for someone to answer and claim ownership.
After what seemed an interminable silence, “it’s alright, it’s mine”, came the somewhat flustered reply from a young man standing up to identify himself. Despite the phlegmatic attitude for which the British are renowned, a palpable sense of relief spread through the carriage. I returned to ‘The History of love’.
Very few books genuinely demand to be made a permanent possession. ‘The History of Love’ is one of those. I say permanent, but as the book itself conveys, can anything be permanent? Just as was my journey to Preston, life itself is transitory. Nothing is forever (although I once spent a wet and dismal Monday evening in Crewe that felt like forever).
Writing of Crewe, I paused in my reading as the train arrived there. The captivating writing on romanticism and tenderness in the book, pricked my literary conscience with the thought that maybe I should abandon the day’s planned activity. To be spontaneous and spend the day writing.
As the train continued towards Preston, I continued to toy with the idea. I have responsibilities, I told myself. Obligations to my wife, my family and my colleagues. But what about commitment to literature? A ‘real’ writer would find a place to write. They would continue until unburdened of their literary load. Abandoning business to a ‘higher’ calling.
And yet, either through cowardice or a lack of spontaneity, I packed away the laptop and left the train for the office as we arrived in Preston. I ‘surrendered to the dollar’ and the world of business. Filling my day with presentations and meetings, reviews, and reports.
Unlike me, my now ex-boss has the conviction to seek unknown destinations and experiences. I wish her every success in her endeavour. While I failed to write on that day in February of decades ago, I did pick up the keyboard not long after. I wrote ‘The Photograph’. A short story of my own; on love, loss, and remembrance. I promised myself that one day I would develop it into a novel. On retirement, I began to do just that. For some months, tapping away and seeing the story come into shape. Then a block set in, and I’ve not touched it in eighteen months. Maybe I need to dust it off…