I remember those Late February days. It was always bone cold. God help me if the grey of everything didn’t just drown the world and suffocate us all in the process. This was London in late winter.
I remember so many times, I had looked into the sky for a sign that this drought of sunshine might be breaking. Endless months of this greyscale city. How I yearned for technicolour.
The Sun might as well have shouted down to me, that it was not interested. It was the palest yellow, only just showing through a layer of cloud which, had I reached up and pulled it down, might have made the thickest duvet. God, I had wished I was safe beneath my own duvet still on those mornings. No wonder the Sun didn’t want to let it go. I knew how it felt. The only consolation was the warmth and hour-long bus ride from Clapham to Trafalgar Square that awaited me each morning. ‘What the hell was I doing here?’ We all thought this in February but the feeling would pass as the weather eased and London transformed from greys to greens and blues in Spring.
Winter in London was certainly a time of contemplating the uncertainty of life. What I had left behind in Melbourne. What I might be missing. What would my life have been like if I had gone home, or perhaps never have had left at all?
I chose to catch the bus from Clapham all the way to work each morning. I could take the Tube and save myself about 20 minutes, but I preferred to spare myself the drama of Brixton and the changing from bus to tube. Changing at Brixton interrupted my reading and my people watching and was all too much effort for that time in the morning.
In my red double decker bus, I would sit at the back, always on the right. From here, I could see everything below me. I could watch without actually being immersed in daily migration of London’s millions on their way to work. Up here I was at safe distance from the chaos.
The Double Decker Armada bobbed and rolled, swayed and swerved along London’s rivers of asphalt, the tube stations serving as their ports and harbours along the way. My port of exit was Trafalgar Square. From here, a short walk up Charing Cross Road and I was at work.
As the 159 to Westminster rolled into Brixton each morning, I would always imagine I was on a sailing boat. The swaying and rolling of the top heavy vehicle was just enough that, should I close my eyes and turn up my music on my iPod, I could be back at home in Melbourne, on the bay in a sailing boat. I would close my eyes and imagine the gentle sun seeping into my face. I’d remember the smell of the sea, the sound of the water.
I still remember the sense of connection and longing for the sea was magnified over my time away. I missed it like a friend. I’d grown up on those beaches. There were times where, as the storms rolled in, I would run down to the beach and feel the magnificence of being the only one on the entire beach, totally embraced by the power of the storms.
Sometimes it hurt to open my eyes and remember I was ten thousand miles from home. No idea at all when I might be by the sea again. My London days were perhaps the first where uncertainty and perhaps loneliness became familiar adversities on the road to learning to become a real adult.
Although I never stopped missing home, I never took for granted the accomplishment of my London life, my amazing job and colleagues. This city.
Each day, my journey to work took me past the stuff of children’s dreams. Toy soldiers with black furry hats and red suits, palaces and cathedrals, dungeons, MI5, Ferris wheels and Big Ben. The childhood song, ‘pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been?’ I remembered it from when I was a child, I’d wondered too of the place were that Pussy Cat had been as a small child and here I was. This was it.
Winter in London might have pressed me, but nothing can compare to the pressure of uncertainty when I had first arrived…back then I’d have been thankful just to have a job and be able to pay for my bus ticket.
I had arrived in London so ill prepared. So naïve. I was so quickly broke, unemployed and struggling to find a job in a strange country so very far away from home. I was determined to make this work though. Besides, I was so broke I couldn’t go home if I had wanted to.
I had gone to London, having taken up an offer to work on cruise ships. Training was in north London. After about a week, it didn’t at all seem like what I wanted to do and I was suddenly overcome with a raw realisation that being stuck on a ship for 12 months dealing with fussy tourists might not be as ideal as it once seemed.
I panicked and left with what little money I had left. Now stranded in London, scrambling to come up with a plan B, I phoned my brother in South London. Devastated, feeling foolish and completely lost, I somehow made my way to the few people I knew in a house-share in South London occupied by my brother and a handful of his friends from back home.
For the first time in my life I knew uncertainty and it was devastating. I could only keep moving forward though. As full of fear as I was the path of uncertainty was the only one I could take.
Those first few weeks, I came to know what it was like to really struggle. There were those times when I considered whether I buy another can of mackerel or a bus ticket to a job interview. Eat, or invest the money in a trip across town for the possibility of work.
You see, mackerel was the cheapest form of nutrition you could possibly fit into one can for under 50p. Full of protein, vitamins, minerals and calcium and stinking to high heaven of cat food. I hated the taste and the god awful smell but thankful that I could survive on possibly £1.50 a day. I found triumph in having established that as a matter of fact, the local corner store sold cans of mackerel for on 42p, about 8p less than everywhere else. This left me with 24p for some 2 minute noodles.
Thankfully my mackerel diet didn’t go on for too long. I got my first job in London soon enough. My job was to open mail. That was it. I sat with a knife and opened mail. Insurance claims too, nothing worth reading at all.
Thankful for having an income, I would sit and open my mail, listen to the radio back home via the internet and contemplate the very uncertain future that would unravel before me.
After a few days, even with my imagination and ability to escape into my mind, the monotony of opening mail was starting to get the better of me. I remembered though, that this wasn’t the worst job I’d ever had.
My first ‘foot in the door’ to a real job as a kid had been at the local supermarket where I had begged them for six months for a job. They finally relented and employed me to clean all the shelves in the supermarket one by one. I took off every can and packet, cleaned the shelf and put everything back. The whole supermarket and every single shelf. But I did it and then they gave me a proper job serving customers.
Whenever I got bored, or started to complain to myself about opening the mail, I would remember that first job and the fact I didn’t have to eat mackerel anymore.
Thankfully my mail opening only lasted a week and then I was promoted to handling claims. I didn’t have many skills and didn’t really know what I was going to do as a career, but I had ambition and I had drive and I knew I was better than just opening mail.
I took what little experience I had from back home and packaged it together and re-positioned ‘my product’. I re-wrote my CV and marketed myself differently. I soon landed a role as a HR advisor and fast forward 1 year later, I was working as a HR Manager in the West End for one of the world most famous retailers.
I might not have always known where my life was heading. In fact much of my London experience can best be explained as ‘unpredictable’ but I had somehow made it work, somehow achieved a level of success. In the end, the uncertainty I’d always felt perhaps didn’t deserve the attention and tears I’d given it.
In my last days in London, I recall having a conversation with my Boss. I had packed up my London life, I had but days to go and I was heading to Thailand for 4 months to immerse myself in the art of Muay Thai before finally heading home to Australia. I was excited and I was able to look back over my shoulder at the 4 years I had in London and I knew I had changed, and I had grown, and I had achieved everything I had ever wanted in this chapter of my life.
I had said, as my final days came to close and I looked back over all I had achieved in London, ‘I wish I hadn’t worried so much about the uncertainty.’ That my days in London had taught me that I had the raw materials to make it work, and that I would come to succeed anyway – as long as I had faith in myself, drive, determination and resilience.
That conversation, I embrace it at this time in my life like it’s the only buoy in an ocean of storms, the likes of which I let myself go in back home.
Now, many years later, I look back on my time in London with fond memories. Sure they were hard sometimes, but I perhaps wish I’d had a little more faith in letting each day be its own and enjoying the time, not always worrying about tomorrow and the uncertainty.
Fast forward almost ten years and uncertainty still haunts me. Overwhelming thoughts about what I should have achieved, the things I still need to do and see. As I sit here plagued with fears of uncertainty, I think about the first days in London, the mackerel, the red buses and how scared I’d been and it had all worked out in the end.
What I had in London was drive, ambition and determination. I had those raw materials that lead you to success. I had lost those for some time, but I know I have found them again and although I have a long way to go and the path in uncertain, I know it’s not certainty that one needs to succeed, it’s the ability to take one’s path without it that truly matters.
I pray to hold onto my own private Eschatology. That I might not forget what I learnt as I left London. That it is not the beginning or the end we need dwell on, but the path we walk each day. That we must walk it with uncertainty at our side, our fears at our back and the unknown in front of us. Then and only then might we walk in happiness and success with each step we take.