On account of a comment that Derrick Knight made this week, I was looking at Right Move UK and I saw that a portion of Michael’s Nook in Cumbria was up for sale. I worked there on several occasions when it was a complete house, and I thought I might base my next post on that experience.
I’ve had a great writing day today. The words have been flowing freely, and although there is a huge difference in style between novel writing and raconteuring, even on this second project my fingers skipped along in time with my thoughts. And my thoughts skipped around. So this post, actually, has diddly-squat to do with Michael’s Nook. Trust me though, I will get there eventually.
I left Adelaide on the 1st May 1978, bound for England via Sydney and Singapore. I was on a five year “working holiday” visa. It was the first time I had been out of Australia and I was six weeks short of my twenty-third birthday. A birthday I would celebrate in Moscow, as part of my coach-camping tour of countries behind the Iron Curtain. After the tour, which also taught me the ins and outs of travel in Europe, I ventured off on my own until around the end of October, when it was time to come “home” to England for the winter, and build up the bank again. Over the final eighteen months or so in Australia I’d amassed $6000. Given I was only earning about $9000 a year, before tax, that was no mean feat. But that’s one of the great things about growing up poor. You learn to live frugally.
Problem was, more than a third of it had gone before I left Australia. Plane fares then were not much less than they are now, and even though I never used it, it was good advice to buy a return ticket. Add in the organised tour, a three month Eurailpass, Youth Hostel membership and passport expenses and the bank started with a serious dent in it. Not to mention the $1000 worth of travellers cheques I’d bought a few days before departure and left on the bank counter. Fortunately they rang me immediately.
The places I went on the continent are a story for another day. What has inspired this post is what happened when I got back to England.
I took a spot in a mansion in Earls Court, then in its dying days as “Kangaroo Valley”. There were eight or ten of us in single beds in one massive room, and I befriended Wendy, another Aussie (as opposed to a Kiwi – there were no other nationalities in our dormitory). I registered with a temp agency, and pretty soon I had a job. It was with the National Health. Another massive room in a building overlooking Paddington Station. There were two rows of wooden desks aligned end to end running down the length of the room. There was seating for about fifty at a guess. Each wall contained cabinets with hundreds of index cards in the drawers. These represented every person listed on the health system. Our job was to address pre-printed forms which asked “are you still living at this address? If not, please advise your new one,” then stick the form in an envelope, address that, put it in the out mail basket, and update the index form to say we’d sent the request.
Now, I know as a species we colonials weren’t regarded a life form as evolved as the Brits – but it struck me as a pretty stupid idea. If the registrant was no longer living at that address, how would he or she know we were asking? But another thing a poor upbringing teaches you is – never bite the hand that feeds you. So I shut up and kept writing.
It was a time when the IRA were active with their bombs. One day we received an alert that our building contained one. We were evacuated down hundreds of steps in a back stairwell, through a labyrinth of dark tunnels, and after about ten minutes of continuous walking, wound up at the end of a disused platform in Paddington station. After some time of aimless hanging around, I walked into the open and looked up. Our building was towering over us. If a bomb had gone off, I figured the masonry would have rained down on us. If it was heavy enough, we might have been crushed under the roof of the shelter. I was relieved when the all clear was called and we could go back to the mind-numbing job of addressing nonsensical letters.
I returned to the agency and asked for another posting and they sent me to another National Health job, this time as a receptionist in a family planning clinic. I can’t remember where, but I remember the areas were broken into classifications and this one was social class 5 or something similar. It was full of women from various African backgrounds who had been taught since puberty that their job was to procreate. They were pretty confused about this family planning thing, and so was I when one of them slapped a brown paper package on the counter and said, “I don’t want this Durex – my husband won’t use it.” Where I came from, Durex was sticky tape. I thought to myself, gee, I knew this National Health was in bad shape, but – sticky tape? How do they use it? Won’t it just get wet and fall off?’
I expressed my confusion to the chief doctor. Thinking back, I should feel honoured that he even noticed me out on the front counter. He not only noticed, he took me to his “toolkit” cupboard and talked me through every form of contraception on offer. There was stuff there I didn’t even know existed. It’s a wonder anyone was having babies, but clearly, the message wasn’t getting through.
I can’t remember where Wendy was working, but we were kindred spirits within a few weeks, so we decided to take off to Wolverhampton together. How we got there, and why we went there, eludes me. I think she had some business with a distant relative or something.
I remember I tagged along because I’d heard that there was plenty of work to be had on the ski-fields at Aviemore in Scotland, and I thought this trip would get me one step closer. What did I know about snow and ski-ing? I’d only had my first look at the white stuff in Switzerland when there was an early fall in October. The trees were still in their autumn glory. When the snow melted the next day, stubborn red and golden leaves were still clinging to the branches.
I never got to Aviemore. Still never been to Scotland. Cumbria was the closest I got. More in my next post 🙂