Good times, for a change
My contract with social services ended in December 2013. I was sad to leave, in a way, because there were some good people there. My reputation as an efficient administrator preceded me and I landed a job in another department. Perhaps I was a little too hasty in accepting it. What was my game plan? Why was I drifting from job to job? Why did I always have to have one eye on the exit? This time, however, I was serious about finding more teaching work. I did, after all, have a CELTA certificate, and it would have been a waste not to make use of it. I searched for something that I might like which didn’t involve babysitting three-year-olds and applied time and again. In the meantime, I was lonely and despondent. One beautiful, sunny morning, en route to work, I looked up at the blue sky and saw an aeroplane. I thought of the song One Day I’ll Fly Away by Randy Crawford. My mother often sang it when I was very young. Did she want to fly away, to escape the drudgery of looking after three squabbling children? I would not blame her if that were the case. I watched the plane as it left its white trail across the sky and longed to be aboard. I wanted, needed, to escape the nothingness my life had become. Most of my friends had moved on and were now leading an existence far removed from my own. Belch, one of the best of them, was murdered, shot dead in a bar in Amarillo back in 2009. His loss was a severe blow. He was such an important part of my life and the nucleus of my social circle. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent with him and Comedy Dave in Florida. The memory of driving in a Lincoln down the long highway to Key West, music and laughter in our ears, is a source of great comfort to me. How could I forget that glorious, flawless Florida sunshine captured on whitewashed walls, bathing the land in its beauty, lifting our spirits to stratospheric heights? Who needed the rest of the world when there was Epcot, a picture-postcard lakeside paradise? The movers and shakers had their hippy trails, but I had the warm sands of Clearwater and the mouth-watering dishes of Crabby Bill’s to satisfy my senses. I miss those places and I miss my dear friend Belch.
“Spideron,” he would often say to me, “you’re a gentleman and a scholar.”
“Thanks, Belch!” I replied.
“You’re also a cunt.” Tell it like it is, old boy, tell it like it is.
Who was left? Bobby Bear, my Italian friend, had moved to London to pursue a scientific career. We both knew that we would not stay in touch, though we had been close. Basil, my brother-in-arms and intellectual equal, moved to Germany. We’ve had many adventures together, he and I. With any luck, I’ll see him again once day and we’ll laugh until we ache once more. All I have left now are Listerine and his wife. There are no others I can really trust, though I have made many casual friendships over the years.
Some of these friendships were through the choir. In late 2013, I joined a band which consisted of eight singers and a ukelele player. The uke has its limitations, but you couldn’t fault our harmonies. We rehearsed every week and performed in pubs, village halls and parks. Good times. I may have failed on a professional level, but at least I was a triumph when it came to singing. For once, my family had a reason to feel proud of me. The desire to gain more teaching experience had not gone away, however. I didn’t fit in at the Council, though there were some good people there. In July 2014, I seized the opportunity and worked at a summer school on Shitsville University campus, teaching English to teenagers from all over the world. It was only for six weeks, but my Council job was poorly paid and I craved stimulation. I certainly found it at summer school. I also found it rather stressful and there were times when I wondered what on earth I was doing there. I attempted to teach tenses (or whatever the hell it was) to a pre-intermediate class which consisted mostly of French teens and two Italians. Those poor Italians! They tried so hard, yet they were surrounded by nincompoops who thought they were far too cool for school. They all looked like they were auditioning for Grease. I suppose I should have yelled at them, but I really dislike raising my voice unless it is to sing. Some of the students, however, were a pleasure to teach. Moreover, I was stimulated. I felt much more in my element and my fellow teachers were impressed by the breadth of my knowledge. Despite the heavy workload and the oppressive summer heat (there was no goddamned air-conditioning in those classrooms!), I knew I had made the right decision to go there. I paid a visit to my mother, who worked on campus, and I could see how proud she was of me. The final week was a dream come true. Most of the students (including those rowdy French greasers) had left, so our hours were far more tolerable. We went to the pub and drank like it was going out of fashion. Eventually, the time came to part ways, though we remained in contact, if only through Facebook.
The trials of a freedom-seekin’ man
So what now? In September 2014, I was burnt out and in no mood to teach, so I applied for the first job that came along. It was an administrative role at a logistics company located a mile from my house. The fact that I could go home at lunch time was a major selling point. Another was the relative simplicity of the role. I was in familiar territory, even though I had desired for so long to escape office drudgery. To be honest, by this time I no longer cared. The job was not too difficult, despite the office politics, and I had plenty of time to daydream. That’s one thing I love doing, perhaps more than anything else. I may have been on the wrong side of thirty, but the young dreamer was still there. As a little boy, I would listen to pop ballads and fantasise about being free and in love. My hearing worsened and my hair fell out, but the dreamer inside never died. My mind still wanders to distant, happy places, far from my present-day concerns. I walked to work, listening to my music and occasionally glancing up at those planes flying overhead, wondering when I would fly away. But fly away to where, exactly? The great blue yonder? It was a comforting thought, the idea of escaping.
No one saw the dreamer who wanted above all else to be free and in love. They saw a man who didn’t draw attention to himself, but who nonetheless stepped up to the plate when the occasion demanded and who was also extremely knowledgeable. My random trivia amused them at times, and it pleased me to share it with them. It wasn’t a bad job, on the whole, but I still had one eye on the exit. Hadn’t I been here before? Hadn’t I told someone else, somewhere else, that I intended to go to China and teach English? This time, however, I feared that I would need to put my money where my mouth was. The time came when I had to leave the firm, as they wanted someone permanent. There were good people there, stalwart working-class men who did not lack for either strength or wisdom. I’ve met people half as smart with twice the education.
It’s nice to walk off into the sunset, but (unlike in the films) there is always a tomorrow. What was I to do? Summer school was not far off, so I went back in 2015. This time, I was more experienced and the weather was mercifully cooler. It proved to be a lot easier this time around, despite the occasional drama. I had to break up a few fights but I received some glowing praise from both staff and students. How would you feel if a beautiful Russian girl smiled at you and said you were a good teacher? I met some really interesting people from all over Europe and learned much. I was ready to take this further. The time had come to set sail for the Far East, where opportunity abounded.
Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road
This meant leaving behind everything I knew, good or bad. The vocal harmony group lasted just a year, but from its ashes arose a leaner, more polished incarnation, The Remnants. This time, I was not only a singer, but a pianist as well. Add to this a guitarist and some new material, and we had ourselves a fine band, indeed. Some of my finest moments were spent with them, performing in front of dozens of people all over Shitsville. The thrill of singing and playing live cannot be overstated. I wanted to make this my career, my vocation. Unfortunately, there was no money in it and I had dithered too long. The time had come to take the plunge. After summer school ended, I accepted a job teaching English to adults in Ningbo, Zhejiang. I moved out of my house in the east side of town, where I had lived for six years. My landlady was very sad to see me go, for I had been her best tenant.
I was sad to leave. I realised that, despite my desire for a change, there was much here that was worthy of praise. Shitsville has a good live music scene, some pleasant green spaces, fine ales, plenty of supermarkets, bargain shops and restaurants. Above all else, it had the River. Every week – more often in good weather – I would go running along that ancient watercourse, following it as it meandered east. Once I reached a bridge, I would stop and admire the scenery before turning back. In total, I covered about seven miles. The sunny days were the best. Despite the pain in my legs, I was happy to keep going, for I had lush greenery to one side and the sparkling river on the other. What was not to like? When I ran, I felt free. I had music in my ears and joy in my heart. I ran back west, chasing the setting sun. Indeed, I wanted to keep running, never to stop. I wanted to run and run until I reached the Caribbean. I wanted to stop only when I stood upon white sand, to rest only when I had a deckchair to sit upon, with a table beside it and a pitcher of freshly-squeezed fruit juice upon that table. While I ran, I could (in my adrenaline-induced euphoria) imagine that this was possible, that all of my most wonderful dreams were possible. I could imagine that the numbers on my lottery ticket were the winning numbers and that I could travel anywhere I pleased. Whilst running, I imagined I was taking in the sights of New York City with my true love by my side. I would serenade her and she would laugh. We would fly like birds of paradise through our World of Pure Imagination. I ran for the sake of my health, but I also ran because, for a brief while, I could pretend that I was truly free.
I didn’t want to turn away from that river, back towards the house which would soon no longer be my home. Running away is what I am accustomed to, but this time I was running towards something. I knew I needed life experience, or else I might spend my twilight years wondering “What if…?” I signed on the dotted line, waited and waited for the bureaucratic machinery to grind, then packed my belongings. It was time to leave England.
Slow boat to China
My father was proud of me, but he did not want me to go. He had become accustomed to my weekly visits, when I would prepare a healthy (if unimaginative) dish of grilled mackerel and steamed vegetables. He also enjoyed watching me perform with The Remnants. By the time the day of my departure arrived, I had run out of steam and was already regretting my decision. I had, after all, waited so long. “If it doesn’t work out, you can always return,” my mother reassured me. Believe me, I’d like nothing more.
I accepted this job because I thought I’d be stimulated and would find like-minded individuals, just like in summer school. The truth is, I’m bored, fed up and so very lonely. I work with two Americans who are nice people, but they have no interest in socialising, both being in long-term relationships. Ningbo is a medium-sized city (vast by English standards) and something of a boom town. The locals are tremendously proud of its modernity. Why? I look out the window of my apartment and before me is a sea of monotonous concrete monoliths. I don’t suppose I should blame them, for ‘worldly’ is not a word one would employ to describe the average Chinaman. They live very sheltered lives, which is in part a result of their dull routines. The students live to study, while the workers live to work. Rock ‘n’ roll it ain’t. These are the kinds of pupils with whom I have to build a rapport, these people who know (and desire to know) so little of my world.
To begin with, things went well. I taught in Lao Waitan, the cosmopolitan district in downtown Ningbo, and was well-liked by the students there. I was in good company: a brash Bostonian and her mild-mannered friend, a dependable Albertan, an easy-going chap from D.C. and a pint-sized Scotswoman who, despite (or perhaps, because of) her youth, was as brave as a lion. They were very helpful and sociable. The local teachers, too, did a fine job of making me feel at home. We went to a karaoke bar, where I impressed all with my well-honed singing talent. Christmas 2015 was not a traditional affair and I missed my mother’s cooking, but I had fun and the school did not lack for good cheer. Lao Waitan is a picturesque little neighbourhood with a vibrant nightlife as well as some good restaurants.
In January, it all went sour. I was transferred to Yinzhou, a soulless business district to the south. The LTs here barely speak to me and a lot of the students piss and moan like spoilt children. No matter how hard I work for my lessons, no matter how much preparation put in, it’s never good enough for them. The shitbags sit there, expecting to be entertained, mollycoddled and spoon-fed. I suspect the attitude of these coves stems in part from their experience of other, more ‘outgoing’ teachers, notably Johnny Angel, a capering funnyman with a good command of the lingo and no shortage of winsome charm. My predecessor, Simon, had a larger-than-life personality and is, by all accounts, sorely missed.
I can read their thoughts as if they were written in block capitals on their foreheads: “Simon’s from England and his name sounds like Spideron. Why aren’t you exactly like him? I’m not happy. Waaaaaah!”
I take my job seriously and work hard, but it is never enough. Why did the school not specify ‘extroverts only’ in the job spec? It would have saved us all a lot of disappointment. I could have knocked this absurd idea on the head and accepted that I’m not going to cut it as a teacher. I know what I have to do, now: get an easy job somewhere in England, learn to drive, learn to play the guitar, get a qualification in proof-reading and save up for a desktop PC. I’ll be a proof-reader by day and moonlight as a singer/musician in the pubs. In my downtime, I’ll play all those games for which my heart has ached these past months: Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, the new Mass Effect game, Shroud Of The Avatar, The Sims 4 and others besides. The modern world, as anyone who follows the news can attest, is an oftentimes frightening place, but we are blessed by the wonders that technology has brought us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the magical world of video games, where anyone can lose himself in fictional worlds, imagining for a while that he is a hero out saving the world from evil. I seldom have the time to play video games these days. When I am not teaching, I am usually vegetating on my bed, watching a TV show, trying my best to take my mind off the relentless grind that awaits me at school. It’s been a long, long four months. How on earth will I make it until November? How will I ever get the hang of this language, so far removed as it is from Indo-European tongues? How will I survive the hot, humid summer? Escape is all I can think of right now.
Many happy returns?
I enjoy blogging, though I ought to post more frequently. It is enough for me to receive the most occasional of visits from travellers on the busy information superhighway. I am pleased with the positive feedback I have received over the past five years for my work. Some like my poetry, some my reviews, while others appreciate my insight into current affairs. I am grateful for the attention I have received, so I thank you for stopping by and indulging my ramblings. I hope to continue blogging for many years to come, whether Fortune smile upon me or not.