Last year I lived in Portsmouth, a city on England’s south coast. The most densely populated urban area in Western Europe, if you believe Google – more dense than Inner London. It didn’t really suit a loner like me, but I still came to love the place, and it was great hearing the raucous chant go up from the football stadium every Saturday: “Play up Pompey, Pompey play up!”
They call the city Pompey, though even now nobody really knows why.
I moved there for a year, leaving everything behind. All I had were the friends I was moving in with, but they all had degrees to do. Me? I had to find a job. Which for some reason was tougher than it should have been.
I applied everywhere, eventually getting an interview at a nearby college. It was the middle of winter, but when the day of my interview came, it wasn’t that cold.
I got to the train station, expecting to buy a ticket there. The ticket machine was blocked off. They were doing some heavy renovation, and apparently that meant nobody could buy tickets.
Alright, I’d just buy one on the train. I sat outside on the bench and waited. The expected arrival time came and went but no train appeared. I looked at the information board: it was black.
I later learned that some trains were running that day, but the one I wanted had been cancelled. I rushed back home and frantically tried to find a phone number I could call and explain.
Our house was lovely, but it had its fair share of problems. Luckily for us we were renting, and the agency we were with was fantastic. Any time we had a problem, we called them up and they’d fix it within a week or two. Or rather, they’d send somebody to fix it. So we became well acquainted with a huge, affable bloke we came to know as “Builder Man”, who had a habit of turning up whenever I had an interview. This was no different. He glanced at me occasionally as I paced around, in posh interview clothes, clearly having some very important phone call. I still wonder what kind of impression I left on him, always dressed up so fancy.
I got through to them and explained what had happened. They were fine with it: they were interviewing the next day too, so mine was rearranged.
The next day was much colder. I marched down to the station again, too early in the morning for me. I had someone with me for moral support. This time, the train arrived. I said goodbye on the platform and entered.
Riding the train is supposed to be easy. You enter, you sit, the world flies by and you get out in a new place. This was what had happened every other time I rode the train, so naturally I expected it to happen this time, too.
Trains vibrate. We don’t tend to notice this – and I didn’t either until the vibrating stopped.
We all looked round in confusion.
“Sorry everyone,” the voice on the speaker said. “The engine appears to have cut out. I have no control over the doors.”
I’m not really keen on interviews. And I’m not really keen on travelling long distances alone. And I’m really not keen on being locked in big metal boxes, on routes which other big metal boxes periodically travel along.
I stood by the door, trying to keep myself calm and planning to jump ship as soon as they got it working again. There was a hair-raising moment where two stewards rushed by and everyone on the platform looked behind the train and a few of us thought another train was going to plough into us, but nothing happened.
Eventually the lights came back on and the engine started whirring again.
“I still can’t control the doors,” the Voice said. “But they should open automatically at the next stop.”
That was an almightily huge should in my book. But there was nothing I could do, so I took a seat and put my headphones on, watching out the window. By this point, the train was 30-40 minutes delayed. I’d left myself plenty of time before my interview but now it was looking pretty tight.
Another thing about trains: you can feel the wheels biting the track beneath you. This is another thing you don’t really notice until it suddenly goes away. It was early and everything was really cold, so the train kept hitting patches of ice on the tracks. It’s a very strange sensation but the Voice was very kind and explained it to us.
Fortunately, the doors did open at the next stop. Phew.
But then the Voice had another bit of bad news to tell us. Apparently, the system which told him where other trains were on the network just wasn’t working. So he had no idea where the other trains were. I’m not entirely sure why he shared that with us, since there was nothing at all we could do about it except panic, but there you go.
The ice meant we had to travel even slower, and the station of the town I was getting off in was completely iced over. It took ages to crawl up to the platform. I nipped out and got my bearings before whipping out my phone and pulling up Google Maps. I had 20 minutes til my interview, and the college was 20 minutes’ walk away, by Google’s estimate.
Cue panic. Or rather, cue a very rapid walk along the edge of an airfield while trying not to panic.
I got there right on the hour and collapsed into a very comfortable reception sofa, where I caught my breath after telling them who I was and what I was doing. Fortunately, they themselves were running a bit late. About ten minutes later a woman came out and ushered me through.
I seem to remember that I was led through several rooms and introduced to a few people who worked there, but I was paying basically no attention to them because I was in that weird mindset that you only seem to enter before interviews and before exams. I eventually sat down in an empty classroom with the head of the college’s library department (I was applying to join their team of librarians) and who I can only assume was the person responsible for recruitment or staff or something. She was clearly senior and she asked me most of the questions.
She started with a genuinely impressive introduction to the college’s recent history and operating practises, which I was allowed to ask some questions about. We had a short conversation about the differences between educating teen and adult students, and a bit about the bad kids of the school, who naturally sometimes preyed on the library staff. All good.
I don’t remember much about the interview itself, but she must’ve asked me what I did for fun or something because I ended up explaining my writing to her. She leaned on her hand and told me these questions weren’t for the interview but she was just curious, and we talked about my writing for a while. She was genuinely impressed and told me she wouldn’t be surprised if she saw my name on the front cover of a book soon.
That stuck with me long after the interview happened. It was a boost I needed. Until then I’d been a little downbeat, stuck in a city I didn’t know (and didn’t much like) and failing to find a job as my friends raced off ahead of me. I’d been feeling like I was failing, but she saw me in a different way than how I saw myself, and it helped me recalibrate.
I didn’t get the job. I assume they were worried about my travel arrangements, since I’d missed my first interview and barely made it to the second. But I took a chance shortly after that: I submitted my first piece to Listverse, and miraculously they bought it. I made some money from my writing, and that only continued as the year wore on.
At the time, it was a god awful day, but looking back, I’m glad it happened. It’s almost like it was trying to be a pivotal, memorable day in my life, one I had no choice but to pay attention to.
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