My last few weeks in London have revolved around obtaining employment. This has been a series of opening bank accounts, getting blood test, sitting interviews which turned out to be secret examinations, providing endless documents, proving I have a clean criminal record in both Australia and the UK (there’s no record if you’ve never been caught…wink. Or, in my case, if you’ve never committed a crime), and getting a national insurance number to ensure the government gets a cut of my money once I do start earning an income. God bless the queen.
But I’m happy to jump through all these hoops for two reasons.
One: I like money. Money means buying food and shelter, and food and shelter means staying alive. There’s no getting around it, really.
And, two: I’ve decided that without working, without being a contributing member of society, I can’t really claim to be living in London. And given these posts are all listed under the title of “Life in London,” it seems contradictory to claim to detail life in London when I’m not adding to the life of London. Don’t get me wrong, I am technically alive, and my physical body is technically in London, but without delving into that world of employment that makes up the cogs of a community, I’m stuck on the sidelines. I’m an observer. No, worse than that. I’m a tourist. And nobody likes a tourist.
I’ve been unemployed now for exactly three months and one day, which is the longest I have been out of a job since I was fifteen and got shown to my first register, and told to memorise the fruit and vegetable codes. Iceberg lettuce is 4016 for anybody who’s wondering.
I’m now twenty-eight years and ten months old, which means I’ve been working for almost exactly half of my life. And after working half my life and now being unemployed for three months and one day, I have learned something.
Being unemployed is amazing.
But I should really qualify that statement: Being unemployed, and having money, is amazing.
These last three months and one day have been so relaxing and liberating, and full of new experiences and sights, that I know I’ve changed as a person. Not changed as in shedding my old self, but just in letting my old self put down the weight of stress for a while, stretch out the muscles, maybe have a bath, catch up on some sleep, and see how I feel in the morning.
And how I feel is incredible. Working as a nurse, it’s inevitable that you take on the stress and anxiety of the people you care for. Their health is your responsibility, and when their health drops, so does your mood. They look at you and ask questions that have answers they don’t want to hear. Family members rain comments and queries at you, as if trying to catch you out. I know why they do it — they do it because they feel helpless, and this is the only thing they can think of to feel like they’re contributing to the care of their loved one. But as the person under the firing line of questions, all it does is drain you.
And, of course, you really are responsible for their health. How you place their catheter directly affects their wellbeing. The care you take with a wound dressing alters the healing of the wound. How you speak to them and the empathy you show impacts on their outlook. And any mistakes you make directly impinges on your patient’s health. This means when you wake up feeling tired and unmotivated, you can’t console yourself by thinking you’ll just phone-it-in that day and play solitaire on the computer when the boss isn’t looking. Every day, regardless of energy levels, you have to give everything. Because they’re sick and they need you.
Being able to put that stress down, to be able to be selfish and think only of my own wants, felt like the lifetime equivalent of getting a solid eight hours of sleep. That sort of sleep where you don’t move all night and wake up in a pool of your own saliva, but you don’t care because you feel so damn rested. It was good to be unemployed. It was rejuvenating.
But, life isn’t about being stress-free. In fact, it could be argued that life is stress, and how we deal with it and turn it in to good things is living. And the point of this rejuvenation isn’t to put the stress of work behind me, but to stop, flush out the muck building up in my subconscious’s nooks and crannies, and feel ready to pick it up again. After all, as incredible as it is to lay around doing nothing but eating and drinking, and being studiously idle, no one wants to live in a resort forever.
And now I’m not. After my three months and one day, I am now once again employed. Which means I am officially living in London.
While I intend to eventually work as a nurse, until the UK nursing registration board decides to stop choking me with red tape, that’s not going to happen. So for now I am working as a community phlebotomist. While this sounds like a noise you might make clearing your throat, or maybe a procedure where they remove part of your brain, it’s actually just what would be referred to in Australia as a pathologist. Basically, I take blood for a living.
My day begins with me catching the tube up north into London and alighting in Camden. This trip takes about an hour, but I don’t mind as it’s time spent reading or writing, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good investment of time. I wear a backpack, the same trusty backpack that was my staunch ally through the deserted streets of East Croydon at two o’clock in the morning, which I’ve packed the day before full of tubes, needles, tourniquets, cotton balls, and tape. Basically, an IV drug-users goldmine. Luckily, I am a fine upstanding member of society, and don’t use these items to take drugs. I just drain strangers of their blood.
I then walk to people’s homes. I have a list of patients I need to visit throughout the day, and with the power of my own legs, I navigate the streets of Camden and the surrounding areas, knocking on doors and introducing myself before wrapping a tourniquet around my host’s arm and sticking them with something sharp. Most are surprising gracious about it.
So far, the hardest aspect of my job isn’t persuading people to let me have some of their bodily fluids, but the walking. Using google maps and a bit of guessing, I’d say I walk over twenty kilometres a day. I’ve just finished working four days, which means I walked in excess of eighty kilometres this week. That’s a lot. I know this because my feet ache, and my legs ache, and, weirdly, my bum aches. Just the sides, over the hips. Apparently these underused muscles get a workout when walking excessively. So the upside is, if I keep doing this work, I may eventually develop a bum. At the moment I’m mostly just back and legs.
But the real upside (besides a bum a black woman would be jealous of) is that I get to see London on foot. It’s a surreal image when I stop and picture myself, backpack on back, umbrella in hand, crisscrossing through London streets, navigating my way through the biggest and most famous of English cities. This is so far removed from my life of only six months ago that sometimes it’s hard to hold the reality of it in my head.
If I’m honest, though, the real surreality is in how much it’s the same. Once I find my next patient’s home amongst the stacked apartments and units A, B, C and Ds, knock on their door and disappear inside, leaving behind the big red buses and black taxi cabs, I could be forgiven for thinking I’m back in Melbourne, making my rounds as a district nurse. The formula remains the same, except in the introduction of: “Good morning, I’m Jonathan, the district nurse,” where I replace “district nurse” with “community phlebotomist.” I use the same small talk as I pick my way to the kitchen or living room, say the same jokes to break the ice, get the same responses to the same jokes, bluff my way through a sports conversation with the same generic ambiguous statements (it turns out saying: “It’s hard to say who’ll have a win, but it should be a good match,” can be applied to almost any sport), and thank my patient in the some way once I’m done. The only difference is instead of dressing wounds or changing stoma bags or administering medication, I’m only doing the one task — taking blood.
Even with the vertigo I sometimes get when I remember I’m half way around the world from a life I once knew, it turns out human beings just simply aren’t that different.
The final upside (besides becoming bootylicious and seeing London on foot) is that I am once again part of the community. I truly am living in London. I like being a member of society, I like dropping in amongst the people and sweating beside them as we work, and knowing I’m now one of them. I first had this sensation when working at the supermarket and recognising my customers down the street. They’d give me a nod and a smile, and I’d give a nod and wink, which was our secret little code saying, “I know you. You belong here.” Like the new kid at school invited to play foursquare, I had been accepted. And I killed it on the foursquare court. (For those unfamiliar with the game, it involves drawing four aligning squares in chalk on concrete and then slapping a tennis ball between them. It’s the closest you can get to exercising without actually exercising — it was right up my alley).
There is something to having someone acknowledge that you’re contributing to the social cause on some level, a shift that occurs in the brain when you transition from “me and them” to “us.”
I have assimilated into London culture through the avenue of work and been accepted.
The Brits want to play foursquare with me.
It feels good.