The mobile purred. A sleepy finger reached out and pressed answer.
“Thought I’d phone in this week’s postcard from afar.”
“Lee, I can barely hear you. You sound like you’re croaking it in a drainpipe.”
“Only line in town, boss.”
“Only time for one take, even then we’ll barely make the deadline. Gimme a second to start the recorder.”
“Okay, Lee. 1-2-3-go.”
“I’m calling from a fire-engine red telephone booth. With ocean views. Mirror blue sea as far as the eye can see. Capped by iced-cream waves lapping at the shore.
My backdrop is soaring granite-walled mountains that fill the horizon, capped with marbled white snow all year around.
Beyond the phone booth, between me and the sea is a stone-edged jetty where the fishing dinghies tie up of a night. Full to the gunwales with today’s catch of slapping fish glistening in the sunset.
But this paradise is totally isolated. No satellite. No internet. Just a solitary phone booth overlooking the sea.
When I told the locals, I was a travel blogger, they bought me drinks at the local while falling about laughing. When I convinced them, they were most helpful. They directed my now lightened steps to this phone booth.
But not before opening up the markets just for me. A special evening session. Fish arrayed in booths: smoked, seared and sealed. Garnished by plates of the gathered local cuisine. I could share the recipes but that would save you the effort of making the trip. Beautifully locally brewed beers and wine to die for. And for dessert : marshmallows toasted on a stick and smeared with sweet cream.
‘Marvellous,’ I said. And told the locals of my predicament. And my decision. And again they were most kind and hospitable.
I thought of writing in this episode but the stamps and postmark would give the location away. Even if I crossed out the return address. No postcards either. Same reason.
Sorry about that.
You’ll have to make you own when you get here. If you can find me.
No holiday snaps. So no selfies either. Even if they had mobile reception: which they don’t.
Otherwise you’d geolocate me and this place would be filled with tourists crowding the locals out. Sorry about that.
So here I am, final tourist in town, pockets full of change, phoning in this poddy. This is Lee, signing off for now. And forever.”
“Three times, “ she said.
“Three?” I muttered to myself.
“Three times,” she answered.
“Then you’ll know. That’s when you up and leave.”
I’d lost track of the number of chances I’d given. Only when things were tapering off towards the end did I start to keep track. Tens, twenties, hundreds. Three would have had me out in the first few months, I suppose.
“And make sure you duck,” she said.
Next time, I thought, next time.
“Otherwise they’ll keep hitting, “ she continued.
I knew that one.
Truth was I didn’t have the ex’s reflexes. Nor did I stand back far enough. Out of her reach.
“And don’t ever hit them back,” she continued.
I never did, I started to say. But today’s lesson wasn’t revision: it was preparation.
I wasn’t even beckoning her to speak to me. She was easily reading my mind. She knew what I needed to hear before I did. And especially what I didn’t want to hear.
Welcome to real learning : the type that melts your prejudices away.
I looked closely at her. Double my age : maybe more. Never ask her age, she’ll tell you in time, she always advised me.
Adopted into a foreign family : mine. A woman who should be bent double by the years amassed. But the light in her eyes belied that assumption.
Some could think her uncouth. Certainly her language was more fruity than flowery. After all she had only managed to finish high school.
And then the maelstrom struck.
Married to a man who as she said had a magnetic personality : attractive and repellent all wrapped up in one. Who’d as she said smiled as he delivered the next backhander.
Kids, divorce, the whole catastrophe. All in a one pony country town where suspicious gossip lead eventually to a malicious exclusion. So she left. And made the life she had now.
Her eyes caught mine. I looked and realised she had been silent during my reverie.
“You’re in class now.”
She laughed at my shocked expression. I was only visiting, just came in for a word.
“Welcome to school, “ she drawled, “the school of hard knocks.”
“So, how do I graduate?” I replied tartly. “Is there an exam I can pass?”
She put her cigarette aside. Her eyes lit up. She leaned back full stretch creaking in her chair. All the better to roar with laughter.
“You don’t grad-u-ate from this school, “ she said.
“They just give you a harder test next time.”
“And if I fail?”
Her eyes lit up again. But her voice was low and serious.
“You get the lesson. Again.”
Then she started laughing, leaning back full stretch, only catching herself before she started coughing.
“Just make sure you don’t repeat another year like the last. Ever.”
“Daddy? What is it you do again?”
My daughter looked up from her drawing and fixed me with her questioning stare.
You can’t explain what I do to a four year old. Even one who had watched me all morning: resetting passwords, setting up new users, installing software, checking performance reports,etc.
Saying “I’m a system administrator” isn’t going to work. Not today. Despite what she had seen while she was drawing and writing and being polite to every single one of my workmates.
Especially when she had convinced me to take her into work that day.
I thought for a second. I got nothing here. The answer when it came was as natural as breathing.
“I help people do their job,” I replied. So satisfied she went back to her drawing : pen and pencil circling and meeting each other on the paper. Maybe she will stay the day, I thought. But by lunchtime, she’d had enough. So I took her home.
That conversation stayed with me for years through my career. From system administration through PC support through service manager finally to trainer.
But I was wrong.
The clue to the answer began with two successive groups of trainers. They needed to know how our web site worked so they could train others. And naturally I helped them: trainer guides, instructions even eLearning videos.
But something was missing. In both cases, I felt I had not really helped them. Yet I had as said to my daughter helped them to do their job.
So what was missing?
I did notice in many of my subsequent roles, I was what I called the support trainer. The one who deals with the tempers of mismanagement, creates a separate training project schedule, creates or finds a better training scheduling system, organises and tracks all the myriad documentation, etc, etc. All of which I dismissed at the time as doing the administrivia no one else wants to do. Or being a responsible eldest child. Or helping people do their job better.
The answer when it came was during an orientation session for my present role.
Another person was asked, “Why did you join?”
Her reply was mine. “I wanted to help the helpers.”
But, but , I spluttered to myself, that’s my answer. Which I had only found out a few weeks earlier, in reflecting why I had accepted the role.
Help the helpers. That’s what I do. Besides what else is there?