Sometimes I get incensed as I stare at the tattered remains of my brilliant career, clutching weakly at the frayed fringes of what I like to think I once had or might have been, before I moved far away from home to be with a man simply because I loved him. Would he have done the same? Well, he didn’t, which perhaps says enough.
I like to think I helped him with his destiny, but some days I feel I put my own destiny in a box in a cupboard then moved continents and forget it was there. It’s easy enough to do when you’re a woman in love, when there are children, when your salary is a pittance compared to his, but still, perhaps I left part of myself behind somewhere.
Or did I?
Do any of us have a destiny or do we just get lucky? Or unlucky?
My brilliant career such as it was — half-witted, half-hearted, half-baked, half-arsed, two-thirds fantasy even – seemed to die, but then so had so many careers before. I was a nurse briefly but loathed the polyester uniform and the broad, flat-footed lecturers with their pep-talks about avoiding intern doctors and their advances.
I was a waitress and a barmaid, a bank clerk and a check-out girl, and I can do the twirly wrist thing that makes a fabulous peak on softserve ice-cream, thanks to my tenure in a dairy parlour called Milky Lane.
I was a journalist for many years, still am, I hope, and I had a great gig on a daily paper in South Africa, but, like I said, love got in the way. Or that’s my excuse. Maybe I got tired. Maybe I got lazy.
I’ve written three books, although I suppose they’re nothing more than manuscripts really, blinking computer files that no publisher wanted, yet still they taunt me every day on my hard drive.
And once, for a moment in time, I was even a poet…
I was 19 and working near Johannesburg at what was then Beecham, the Aquafresh people, and I was the bored receptionist living on a diet of Smarties, magazines and desperate snatched conversations with people who walked through my little prison, where I sat shut away from the company on the wrong side of the glass security doors. In my sunless brick box, passing sales reps felt like serendipity, their cheap Golfs were chariots to a better place. Anyway, no doubt tiring of me yawning at the visitors, the personnel department agreed to give me extra work, and so I was charged with sending the photocopied rejection letters to the countless, faceless people who applied for non-existent jobs in our factory. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where poor Charlie’s dad spends his days screwing the lids on toothpaste tubes? It’s bizarre to think how many people were queuing up to take his place. And we had a machine for screwing the lids on anyway.
So I’d address the standard rejection, scrawl a signature, lick the envelope shut, stick a stamp on it and crush someone else’s dreams, hundreds and hundreds of them each day. But one morning a grubby letter arrived with no return address, hand-printed on a torn sheet of paper, with just a plea to meet the writer at the factory gate, to give him work please, to give him a job.
The man was called Marais Qulu, of No Known Address, County Homeless. I showed it to the HR person, begged him to try to find the man.
“Jennie,” he said, “Do you know how many people queue outside the factory gates every day?”
The question was rhetorical.
I wrote a poem about it, or rather a terrible attempt at one, but still 21 years later I remember it by heart and, soaking in my cesspit of self-pity of late, it came back to me like a slap from my younger self.
It’s called “The Aims of a Job”:
Here I sit
fat as shit,
got a job
Grinning a bit.
Mister Marais Qulu
(he’s a Zulu)
has no job,
like you and I do:
“There is nothing food.
I am write this letter to you
with the aims of a job.
The writing is just as terrible as I recall, I don’t know if he was Zulu at all, but in the current world climate (lashing rain, with more expected) it’s just as apt. And as Japan is shaken and washed away, as people lose their homes, offices, possessions, security, children, their very lives just because the world doesn’t play fair, as they scramble for food, for fresh water, for warmth, I know how lucky I am that I can afford to stare out of the window, that I have the full tummy and the spare time to lament my battered dreams. A room of one’s own? My God, I have several.
Marais Qulu: in hope, I googled his name. No results were found.