Odyssey, Pt. 5


2001 would be a big year for history and something like a reset for me. There would be a change of tempo, and stability at last, but all that was ahead of me.

I had arrived in Southampton just under four years prior. I had been through eight job moves and six home address changes in that time, three of which were in the last year.

I had an ace up my sleeve in the form of my job. They enabled me to return to full time hours seamlessly. Thus, in the pit of despair about the failure of my university ambitions, I could simply go back to work on Monday, as if nothing had happened. This might not have been the most healthy approach, but like pulling out a tooth, it would be effective.

No postmortem was needed at this point, it wouldn’t have helped me and would have changed nothing. My eyes were fixed forward.

I was sharing my girlfriend’s flat in Cranbury Place. The gravity well of SO14’s Bevois Valley had pulled me back in, as it would in future. The address was the other side of the Royal South Hants from Graham Rd, the place of my early Withnalian existence (there’s a blue plaque), and about five minutes on foot from Middle street, the last address I shared with the lads (and Harriet). The flat was alright, and no longer on fire. It would do. The neighbourhood wasn’t great, the street apparently having a number of halfway houses. Shouting matches in the small hours were common, as were police vans.

I had my first overseas holiday in seven years that March. A week in off-season Cyprus, a dirt cheap package deal. It was a welcome change of scene and I could have done with more time.

Summer passed by, life rapidly came back to normal. The question of returning to University loomed, as I had to make a decision. I decided against re-entry. That door was closed and I did not want to open all that up again. it was mentally in a steel box, under permafrost. Besides, I had not looked at a maths text since I’d left.

I returned from lunch one September afternoon. It was about 1pm, and the buzz in the office was a plane had apparently struck New York’s World Trade Center. “What fucking plane? Don’t be daft”. It was hard to find a news page that would actually load, but the BBC showed the famous image of WTC 1 ablaze with thick black smoke against a perfect azure sky.

In the Walkabout pub (now long gone) after work with my colleague oxbridge Rob, a news channel looped UA175 repeatedly slotting into WTC2 like some absurdly overblown disaster film. “Turn it off, I can’t watch it anymore” barked the Australian girl that managed the bar.

BT, in yet another example of spectacularly awful leadership, had overextended itself financially in gobbling up 3G wireless licenses. Consequently the telco giant would have to sell off its mobile business, Hence, o2 was born. Oh, and also, you’re all getting fired. It’s a gas gas gas.

A colleague had tipped me off that all agency staff would be let go in 2 weeks, as a cost-saving measure. I don’t know who told him, but he saved me a lot of hassle. The rumour was categorically denied.

I knew Natwest bank were hiring at their mega call centre in Charlotte place, two minutes walk from my flat. It was direct hire, no agency involvement. I was finished with that game, and applied with haste. I passed the phone interview (“Are you a moron yes/no?”), the background checks, and got offered a start date. Three weeks training. I’d be there in November. BT duly sacked all their contract staff and I walked away feeling like I’d dodged a bullet. I also had a full-time post at a reputable (at least for now…) company, with an implied ability to progress with them.

My job was a so-called ‘customer service manager’, basically a phone monkey, albeit better trained than most. Natwest had built a very good reputation for their phone banking, due in no small part to a very good training department (whom they cut not long after I started). There was a small sales element when I started, basically lead-generation for the branches which I would learn were little more than shops. That was retail banking in 2002. Royal Bank of Scotland bought Natwest in 2000, and I joined in the middle of their profit drive.

After training I was assigned to a team on the phone floor. They all had nautical names, mine was ‘Armada’ and the manager of the team was this prick named Neil who lamented – right in front of me – that I wasn’t one of the attractive girls in my training intake. You’d get handed your cards for that nowadays, and rightly so.

The job wasn’t difficult, pay was…okay, but I wasn’t good at sales and they were an increasing part of the role’s KPIs. You had to make so many leads in a period of time (I don’t remember more, I’m afraid) and there was a leaderboard on the wall that showed where everyone was. The prize was you got to keep your job. I hate being sold to, it makes my skin crawl, so you can imagine how motivated I was to do it to other people.

There was a system called an ‘action contract’ that you would placed under if you underperformed. I think I was on it about a half-dozen times. It was a precursor to getting the boot (although I don’t know anyone this happened to) because it was pretty easy to grit your teeth and talk some old dears into going to a branch for a review just enough times to float yourself up the leaderboard. It made me feel dirty though, and not in a good way.

I was at RBS/Natwest for the longest uninterrupted period of any job prior. 19 months in all. Neil gave way to Nicola (who was my favorite person in the whole place by miles, love you Nic!) and then to Mike. Mike was a bit older and I didn’t mind him at all. Generally pretty kind and friendly. The ever increasing sales targets became a dealbreaker for me though, and I knew unless I developed psychopathy and started topping the leaderboards, my future was not with this company. Mike told me I could be the best at every other part of the KPIs, but if I was behind on sales none of it mattered. That was the situation. To be fair on him, Neil, Nic and all the others, they had to make this happen, or it was their necks.

University felt like a distant memory. Another life. My old K-block buddies would all be graduating now. In the multiverse another me would have been completing the 2nd year of my own degree. Time marches on.

In the middle of 2003, I took a two week holiday to Spain with my girlfriend, to visit my parents at their flat in Nerja. I have this strong memory of swimming in the mediterranean – I have always loved the sea – and the meditative quiet of my head dipping below the surface, like being in nature’s womb. It was this feeling I remembered as I looked at the wet pavement on my way to Charlotte place, the Monday after coming back. “I was swimming in the sea this time yesterday”. A man needs certain things, being boxed up in an office doing a job I didn’t like would no longer do. It was time to move on, and I had found something.

BT, in the meantime, asked me to come back as a contractor. I’ll let you imagine my response.








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