“Am I keeping you awake?”
The young chap managing the checkout at B&Q blinked his eyes into focus.
“Oh, hi,” he said, stifling a yawn. “Yeah, you are, actually. I was having a nice little daydream before you showed up.”
“I was an ice cream seller once,” I said and began to tell him about the time I sold cones outside a cafe and takeaway in my hometown of Brixham.
It was a long time ago when I was looking for my first ‘proper job’ after uni. I had spent a miserable winter being unemployed or working in pubs. Now it was early April, and I stood there overlooking the oily waters of the harbour, nursing a Mr Whippy machine. I was cold, bored, and, because of the ice cream seller’s outfit – white coat, white mesh trilby, and shirt and tie – humiliated. Why, I thought, had I bothered with all that studying? I was an ice cream seller; I needn’t have bothered with any of it.
The checkout guy chuckled.
“It gets worse,” I said, and I recounted how, as I stood there, my eyes glazed over, youthful optimism bleeding into the cold reality of a rundown seaside town in early spring, a woman came over, peered at me and poked me in the ribs. I jumped, and she shrieked and nearly toppled backwards.
“I’m so sorry,” she’d said, clapping her hand to her chest. “You were so still, I thought you must be one of those plastic manikins.”
The lad’s face lit up.
“It was just one shit job among many,” I said, and he nodded.
“I know what you mean, mate.”
It’s funny how what goes around comes around. Back in Brixham on that chilly afternoon, I, too, had laughed; the boredom momentarily lifted. I asked the lady if she fancied an ice cream. She pulled a face.
“Not really, love. It’s more of a hot soup day, don’t you think?”
I sighed. “You can have it for free if you want.”
She looked at me, pity in her eyes and, wrapping her scarf a little tighter around her neck, smiled. “I’m not sure it’s supposed to work like that, is it?”
She laid her hand on my arm. “Something better will come along.”
The end of my ice cream era
Not so very long after that chance encounter, I did indeed find another job – I’m not sure I’d say it turned out a great deal better. Still, I do remember the exhilaration of handing in my notice to the cafe owner, a mean little man with a voice like a flat foghorn, who sliced his lemons to slivers as thin as membrane and put powdered milk in his coffees.
“I’m leaving,” I said.
“Oh,” he replied, hooking his thumbs into his lapels and poking his nose in the air. “Not good enough for you, are we?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“And when will we be departing?”
“Now.” I put that stupid trilby on the counter and walked away.
“You never,” the lad at B&Q said.
“I did,” I said. “Best move I ever made.”
The first ending of many
That was the first job I left under my own steam. Since then, there have been other happy leavings, but chucking in jobs once you’ve had as much as you can stand is never without consequences. When my friends were buying their first houses, I was surfing in France; when they were trading up, paying off, and renting out, I was sailing a tall ship through the Southern Ocean. I’ve spent years writing and painting and making stuff – earning small and living cheap. Now some of my peers are sitting pretty while I have none of the things you’re supposed to have when you reach middle age. Regrets?
Put it this way. It’s a bright late spring morning – sunny but cool. Inside, I’ve got my wood burner lit with a small fire, and the faint smell of woodsmoke reminds me of my grape-picking days. It was twenty-odd years ago now – I’d left another job via the window and had driven across the grass verge and out onto the road. It was probably a silly thing to do, but I was young, and, having plucked up the courage to rebel, I wanted to make a statement. What better way than by making a dramatic exit?
After a summer of surfing France’s stunning beach breaks, I found myself hard up for money and being near Bordeaux, grape harvesting was the obvious solution. It was hard graft. Up at seven for an eight o’clock start. I remember standing with the others – a motley band of locals and other drifters like me, waiting for the off.
The air clouded with our dewy breath, the sweet scent of woodsmoke and French tobacco, the sour wine smell, the sound of our feet tramping gravel and wet leaves to mulch. La Patronne would arrive. Her name was Elena, the wife of the Chateau owner; she drove a jeep loaded with a barrel of drinking water and, in her bag, she kept paracetamol for the hungover. She’d announce the day’s picking and drive off, and we’d follow on foot or in cars and vans, depending on how far away the section was.
I carried a sort of dustbin thing on my back. I’d walk the row of vines, and the pickers would toss their baskets of grapes into it as I passed. When it was full, I’d walk to the end of the row and mount a ladder propped against the side of a deep trailer. Up, up, up, and bend and twist and shrug, and a slew of grapes would rush from my shoulders into the mass of black, glistening fruit. The smell was full and rich and sticky.
I’d begin the day stiff and sore, but by ten, I would be limbered up and in good spirits. Jokes, jibes, the occasional, “Oh putain, oh la la,” as a picker inadvertently snipped a finger or thumb with the secateurs. There was English banter and funny stories from a middle-aged Scotsman called Eric. Aggressive, vulnerable, attention seeking and shy, my fellow pickers and I liked and feared him in about equal measure and were not a little relieved when, one night, he disappeared from the dilapidated cottage we shared and never came back.
Bored on the job
Some of what we picked were of a special grape variety used for making Sauternes sweet wine. The grapes had to be wizened before plucking – apparently, the little region of Barsac, where I was, was a microclimate which favoured a type of mould that did this without rotting the fruit – it turned the grapes into raisins, but not at a predictable pace. As the harvest wore on, what had looked like an opportunity for quick cash, turned into a waiting game that dragged through October and into November.
While we waited, we ate the delicious food Elena would bring for us – “Just a few basics”, she would say as she dumped a box of chickens, duck breasts, and pate on the kitchen table. That and a dozen bottles of the delicious estate wine between five. She was a kind lady. I wanted to thank her and, because I had bought a box of cheap watercolours at the supermarket, decided to do her a painting on a scrap of cardboard. Only I’d lost the brush, so I had to make do with a cotton bud borrowed from my housemate.
I painted ‘la vendange’, the grape harvest, and I remember how, as I bent to the task, I sank into it and was lost to it, only bobbing up again two or three hours later with a finished picture. I’d never felt so absorbed by anything, ever. I don’t know if it was a good painting, but La Patronne loved the gift. In lots of different ways – painting, writing, making – I’ve been sinking into that same picture again and again ever since.
When I wasn’t painting, which I did a lot from then on, I was often to be found writing in a journal I’d started. My housemates would sometimes wonder whether I was writing about them, and though I denied it, of course I was. They were the characters who populated what was, in retrospect, one of several introductions to what would become my career as a writer. Once I’d learned how it felt to give myself over to something for the love of it, I began to make sense of myself. If work didn’t feel like that, it wasn’t worth doing. So that’s why I’d been so bored.
Only three photos from that trip survive, and none of them are of me or the people I met, but I’ve never lost the diary; its contents are pure gold to me now. Reading it is to experience that incredible journey all over again. That’s the power of words – to record our most intimate thoughts and feelings and to transmit them through time.
When I look back at my life so far, I realise that boredom is fuel for exploration and adventure. Without it, maybe I’d have stayed an ice cream seller or an IT guy, or any of the other roles I have filled over the years. I might have owned a lot of stuff by now, but then I’d never have experienced the richness of those mornings in the French countryside – maybe I would never have put pen to paper. Fast forward to a bored lad in a hardware store, and all I can hope is that one day soon, he takes off his orange apron, leaves it on the counter, and walks away. Given the choice, it’s better to live a little.
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