As of this moment, I could be employed. I could be out shopping for a new outfit to wear on my first day and by Monday I could be following a grey-suited stranger to my randomly appointed grey desk, ready to make jokes and small talk with people I’d now be surrounded by for 40 hours a week, trying to appear both friendly and laid back, all the while swallowing down a rising feeling of despair.
I turned down a job. It was essentially the same job I left a year ago, and maybe that’s why I applied for it. It was a safe bet. I felt comfortable applying for it, even more comfortable interviewing for it despite knowing all along that I didn’t want it.
I agonised over going to the interview. It’s a bad sign when the idea of going to the office for an interview makes you contemplate falling on the tracks as you board the train: Imagine how I would feel if that train journey were my daily commute.
I convinced myself it would be good at least to practice my interviewing skills.
The receptionist was the kind who doesn’t speak above a whisper and in tones that can only be described as ‘smart casual’, to complement her outfit.
“Good morning. Can I help you?” she whispers, smiling.
“Um, yes, hello, good morning. My name’s Elena. I’m here for an interview with Joseph Brown,” I whisper back.
“Yes, of course. Please take a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.”
I walk over to the four seats arranged round a coffee table with an elaborate flower display of lilies and lilacs. I want to touch to check if they’re real but for fear of being caught, I sit casually, aware of the security cameras pointed my direction, wondering who could see me. Act like you’re relaxed and friendly.
I can hear her, Laryngitis receptionist, talking on the phone.
“Oh, hello Joseph. I have Elena here. Would you like me to escort her up or will …”
She has been interrupted and stops speaking instantly to listen.
“… Yes, of course, not a problem. Thank you, Joseph.”
It’s not so much the whispering that annoys me, but how slowly she speaks. She looks up and sees me looking at her.
“Someone will be down shortly, Elena,” she says, not increasing her already low decibel level to account for my distance across the room. I don’t hear her so much as know what she said.
She goes back to gently typing and takes a few more phone calls. It’s painfully quiet and I’m nervous to move in my seat, despite being uncomfortable from my casual placement, for fear of making a noise against the leather.
My research on the company tells me that 200 people work in this building. Where is everyone?
A man comes through one door, walks across the room and exits through another. A couple of minutes later, I hear the ding of the elevator and the doors open. A small, slender man walks out. He wears dark grey trousers and a lighter grey jumper with a white, collared shirt underneath. He has a small notebook held to his chest.
He smiles as he walks over to me and I stand up.
“Elena? Hello, nice to meet you. My name is Michael.”
I smile, shaking his hand as I’m meant to, “Hello Michael, nice to meet you. “
I’m trying to sound energised and motivated. It makes my voice far too loud for the lobby. Michael speaks only a fraction louder than Laryngitis, who he nods to in greeting as he holds the elevator door open so I can enter.
Ten floors, we go to level 7. The grey corridor is deserted as Michael and I make small talk. Did I find the place ok? How did I get here, did I drive? Terribly cold this morning, isn’t it?
There are lots of corridors leading off this one, each with a number of doors along its side with small windows in them placed at head height. I look through each one as we pass, all empty rooms with tables and chairs in a medley of arrangements.
I don’t want to be here, I think, despair momentarily getting the better of me. I am eventually shown into the designated room and offered water which I politely decline. Joseph Brown shows up and the interview begins, conducted in what seems to be the company dress code for voices, accompanied by polite smiles and superb english manners.
It goes well, though I struggle against the urge to fall asleep as I speak and worry that the dialogue in my head is taking place too loudly. Despite my being an introvert, my ego personality is surprisingly loud and outgoing.
“Dear sweet baby foxes I’m bored,” he cries.
“Will you shut up,” I snap, “They’ll hear you.”
“Well I am! Seriously, can we please get out of here? Let’s go to the cinema. There’s one round here, isn’t there?”
Interview over, polite thank you’s and farewells to Joseph, and I’m finally back in the elevator with Michael, being escorted out. I know I have done well. He is very smiley and makes a lot of eye contact.
“Well, thank you very much for coming in. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
I’m just as polite back, wondering how long this goodbye is going to take. We english are terrible at saying goodbye. Every time someone says thank you, the other must return in kind. No one wants to be rude enough not to return the hundredth goodbye and turn away.
Finally, somehow, we dance our way out of each other’s company, lots of side stepping and bowing and hand shaking. With a brief nod of goodbye to Laryngitis, I step out the first door, and pull open the second to a wave of sound as soon as the seal of the door is broken. Buses breaking, pedestrian crossings beeping, traffic, the footsteps and voices of the high street. I breathe it in and inhale fumes and fish and chips at the same time.
No, I say, I live in enough of a purgatory as it is. No reason to sink down to limbo.
I’ve worried about my decision for days. I’m still worrying about it now. I’ve been looking for jobs online and there’s nothing. I mean, Nothing. I don’t even select an industry in the search section. I just enter my location and have expanded the search as far as 25 miles. There’s a few adverts to be a volunteer dog walker, some courier jobs, and a job titled ‘Graduate Catering Assistant’.
I’m worried I’ve made a mistake, passing up an opportunity to get paid, to have a job and to be able to say “I get paid and have a job”.
And that I guess was my key concern when this sudden frenzied New Year job hunt began. If I don’t have a job, what will I say to people? My ‘year off’ is officially over, and even that was barely tolerated, having to be justified by statements of ‘working freelance’ and ‘planning to relocate’, coupled with assurances that I’d been ‘saving up’ and had ‘rental income from my property’.
But now, the wave of ‘What are you doing with your life?’ was hitting. Even I’d turned against myself.
“So, seriously, what is your plan here? You’ve had a year to get your head straight. Haven’t you sorted yourself out yet?”
My meek inner self looks up at my vicious ego towering over me, my eyes pleading “but you said we could do this. You promised we were going to work together to fix this. Cure ourselves, you said. Build a great new life, one we really want.”
I’d started to feel the pressure of conforming, both an external pressure from those around me to toe the line, and an internal one derived from a desire to be accepted and to belong.
But here I am, not conforming, and this is the day I’m having: I woke up feeling relaxed and carefree. I had a lovely breakfast of homemade granola, then leisurely drank my tea and played a rather long game of Sudoku. (It was on ‘expert’ and really foxed me.) Then after a bit of made-up yoga, I got dressed and went to the library to write what has now become this post, followed by lunch, an afternoon walk, more cups of tea, and cuddles with the cat.
I feel happy, productive, energised, motivated. All the things I want my life to feel like; all the things I would not be feeling if I’d settled into that desk and metaphorically tied myself to it. All the things I would not feel if I had conformed.
I have no assurances: will I be able to support myself? Will I be able to find another job?
But I feel assured in a deeply warming way: I feel assured in myself.
Conformity begins the moment you ignore how you feel for acceptance.
– Shannon L. Alder