Saturday, 16 March 2013

Garden Hopping (a short story)

                                        Garden Hopping

No one had ever made it past house number twelve.  The cul-de-sac was 150 metres long and had fifteen houses, all detached bar one semi-detached.  Beginners to the group were expected to reach house number five as standard, as the first four houses were separated by only a 1 metre high wall and occupied by young couples who didn’t care about kids playing games – they probably garden hopped too in their childhood.  After number five it began to get difficult… 

House number six was surrounded by fir trees; number seven had Rex the Alsatian dog; number eight had a 2 metre wall topped by sharp pebbles; while numbers nine and ten were semi-detached and it was nearly impossible to sneak under their lounge window, climb the in-between wall and not get caught by the occupants. Number eleven had gravel, which crunched under footing and gave away your presence and number twelve; well, number twelve had Mr Gregg – a grumpy OAP housebound and permanently sofa-bound in his front room, with one eye on the television and one eye always on the street.  Mr Gregg would spot the kids garden hopping as they came round the bend of the cul-de-sac and he’d always be ready with his window open and phone at hand threatening to call the police if they climbed over his wall.  The rules were simple: you lost if you got caught.  In most cases, the occupant would knock on their window and tell you to get lost and in extreme cases they came outside and told you to get lost.  

Jack was the newcomer to the group; his family had just moved into number fourteen two weeks ago but he’d quickly made friends with the six other children on the street, who often played street football, knock-a-door run, Lurky or manhunt.  Saturday afternoon, 3pm was the chosen time for garden hopping and the group assembled.  There was Jack, Melanie, Alice, Joseph, Michael and Eloise.    Joseph was the tallest and oldest which made him the default group leader.  Jack hadn’t hopped yet but it was his turn this week and he was nervous.  He had done a knock-a-door run on number four a few days ago, but the usually pleasant man was furious and had bellowed to the street: “Don’t ever knock on this door again.  Grow up!”  Plus, Melanie, an experienced hopper of ten runs, had hopped last week and only made it to number nine.  Joseph was the only one to make it to number eleven, Mr Gregg had threatened the police and then told Joseph’s parents, who took it seriously in front of Mr Gregg but then laughed it off in private.  

            “It’s your first time, so take it easy.  Be careful with the wall going over number three into four, it’s a bit loose.  We’ll be watching from the binoculars.  Take this, if you get caught throw it in the garden and pretend you were looking for it,” said Joseph.

            Joseph handed Jack a bouncy ball.  They mixed the objects up from time to time: a tennis ball, foam plane, Nerf ball.  It just gave a bit of leeway and an excuse as to why the kids were in the garden; of course, the adults knew better.   Everyone was good friends in the group and the leader, Joseph, was a very funny guy - a clown, a joker.   There were no bad bones or intentions in any of the six kids, they just wanted to play.  The worst thing they had done as a group was a knock-a-door run on number thirteen, occupied by an elderly lady.  They’d felt bad afterwards, especially when she had answered the door using her walking frame for support.  It was time for Jack’s hop; he fancied Eloise and wanted to make a good impression, he was determined to at least make it past Rex.    

            Jack stood at the top of the cul-de-sac and walked around to the main street, ready to hop the first wall.  The others watched on.  Jack had on his best trainers, Nike Air, for ultimate stealth.  Hopping the first wall, Jack crouched low, around the car in the driveway and up to the front door.   The door was wooden; some of the ones on the cul-de-sac had window panes.  The front lounge, like all the houses, had an outward extending bay window but a good one metre space below it under which to crawl.   Moving quickly, Jack cleared the first five houses no problem but that was to be expected.   Now it got tricky: Number six was surrounded by 4 metre high fir trees which blocked out the neighbours’ view of the first floor of the house.  Jack crouched behind the wall between house numbers five and six; previous hoppers had forced a narrow gap in the branches but it was still tight.  The fir trees were relentless in their growth, even after last week’s hops, and there was no easy way through other than Jack to stomp down the thin leaves and branches and suffer scratching to his arms and face.  Jack ploughed through the tree, more bothered about the cobwebs and avoiding cat poo than receiving scratches; he then bolting quickly through to the other end of the garden, forcing a way through those trees and over into number seven and Rex. 
            Rex was a friendly dog but didn’t take kindly to his territory being invaded.  His kennel was at the back of the driveway so there was a five second window to jump off the wall, run past the window and up and over the big 2 metre wall leading to number eight.  The group often played with Rex on the street, he was their unofficial security dog against the occasional bigger kids that sometimes came down from the rival cul-de-sac a few streets away.  Rex didn’t bite, but he barked, a lot.  Last week, Eloise wasn’t fast enough to climb the 2 metre wall – as she was the shortest of the group – and Rex had caught up with her.  Playfully placing his paws on her and barking like crazy, thinking she had come to play.  Eloise had been trapped by Rex on the ground; luckily she was carrying a tennis ball which she threw on the grass when the occupants came out.  Her punishment: taking Rex for a walk and playing fetch for the rest of the afternoon.  

Jack hadn’t played with Rex yet; he was a new scent and desperately didn’t want to get caught.  Jack saw Rex in his kennel, busy chewing on a bone, and he made his move.  As soon as Jack landed on the driveway, Rex barked and pursued him.  Spurred on by a new boost of adrenaline, Jack bolted past the house and launched himself over the wall leading into house number eight, not even checking if anyone was around first.  The occupants of house number seven were alerted by Rex barking profusely and came out to investigate. Crucially, though, as Jack was hidden from view and behind the car in number eight’s driveway, his garden hop was still legal under the group’s rules.  As long as there was no eye contact, knocking on the window or verbal telling off, everything else was fair game.  The sharp pebbles lining the top of the wall for house number eight had left gross indentations on Jack’s palms, but apart from that the house was easy enough and now he arrived at house numbers nine and ten – the semi-detached houses and the ones responsible for the most garden hop failures.  It was hard to hop the small wall in between the two bay windows and not get caught. It was Saturday afternoon so the lounge was always likely to be occupied.  But Jack had a plan: he went to the back door of number nine and knocked on it.  He then sneaked back up the driveway and to the front door; upon hearing the back door open Jack then made his move under the bay window and over the wall into number ten, whose curtains were partially closed.  A quick up and over into number eleven – he had done it!  His run was now a highly respectable garden hop - especially for a first time effort - and Jack relaxed, wondering if this was his lucky day and if he could make it all the way round.  The group had watched Jack from the top of the street, using and sharing a pair of Joseph’s dad’s binoculars.  

Number eleven was simple except for the gravel.  Jack took long, reaching strides to minimise his footing and the noise but it was still noisy and obvious to the occupants someone was in the driveway.  The homeowner appeared at the bay window and looked around, he hadn’t yet spotted Jack lying on his belly directly underneath the window sill.  Jack army crawled and round to the corner of the house, but there was a side gate preventing an easy escape down the side.  It was this side gate that had unstuck Joseph as well.  It was impossible to hop over the wall without Mr Gregg seeing you, as his sofa was always positioned directly in view.  Not only that, but Mr Gregg also had a side gate.  There was absolutely no space to hop the wall without being in view of Mr Gregg’s window.

Mr Gregg, who had spotted Jack at the semi-detached houses, now furiously banged on his window.
 “Don’t you dare come into my garden!  I have my phone with me, I’ll call the police.  You’ll be locked up,” shouted Mr Gregg. 
            Scared, Jack sprinted across the gravel shouting sorry and then back to the top of the street.  The group cheered and congratulated him on an exceptional garden hop. 
           “Unless Mr Gregg dies, we’ll never make it past his house,” said Jack. 
           “You did well,” said Eloise.
“I want another go, I have an idea this time,” said Jack.
“It’s Melanie’s turn next.  You’ll have to wait until it comes round to you again,” said Joseph.

That week at school all Jack could think about was how to garden hop.  He desperately wanted to make the full lap and impress Eloise.  The only rules were to not get caught, but they didn’t say anything about garden hopping around the back garden instead of the front.  If Jack garden hopped through the front gardens for house numbers one to eight, he could then garden hop round the back for the semi-detached houses of nine and ten, carry on round the back of number eleven and twelve and emerge in front for number thirteen.  Jack would then avoid the prying eyes of Mr Gregg and be successful.  Back gardens were trickier, though, mainly because of taller fences, bigger trees and more windows to be spotted from.  People didn’t mind someone sneaking past their front, more exposed garden, but their back gardens were more private places and naturally Jack expected them to react more angrily on a clear invasion of their privacy.  Plus, the kids clearly couldn’t use their lost ball excuse as they simply had no business being there.

             Saturday morning had arrived and Jack was up for his turn again.  In a previous garden hop that morning by Joseph, he had forgotten his own earlier advice given to Jack the week before and clumsily knocked part of the wall down between numbers three and four. The brick had fallen on Joseph’s foot and, despite trying to soldier on he limped back up the street defeated.  Jack began his garden hop and upon reaching the broken wall, he even moved the bricks back into position to cover up the evidence of any wrongdoings by the group.  Jack had worn a long-sleeve shirt this time to reduce the scratching by the trees at number six, and he expected he’d have a bit of forcing his way through gardens to do.  He also left his best trainers at home this time, expecting to be covered in soil and dirty by the end of the hop.  

Rex was asleep in his kennel and didn’t even notice Jack this time.  A quick hop over the high walls of number eight and it was time for Operation: Back Garden Hop.   Before he started, Jack had discussed it with the group and they gave the OK.  But warned him he would likely be in serious trouble with his parents if he got caught in the back garden.  The excuse of a lost ball just didn’t fly in the back gardens, the kids simply had no reason to be there other than plain trespassing.         
            Jack sneaked around the back of number nine and into their garden.  Staying low beneath the kitchen and back window, Jack climbed the fence panel and over into number ten’s back garden.  Fortunately, their curtains were closed but Jack panicked when he didn’t see an easy way into number eleven.  There was no fence, only an extended garage with an un-climbable pebble dashed wall.  There was, however, a monkey tree at the back of the garden and Jack made his way to it, clambering through the bushes and avoiding the grass.  Jack climbed the tree; the branches were perfect to climb and he was now level with the slates of the garage roof.  There was no easy way to get across other than hoping no one saw him, so Jack went for it.  From the tree, to the garage roof and then lowering himself down onto the soil in the garden of number eleven.  He was glad it was autumn and the plants were in full bloom from a summer of rain.  The vegetation masked his body, but he waited anyway for a minute. If anyone had seen him on the garage roof, they would surely come out now and tell him off.  No one came.  Jack had gotten away with it and smiled.  It was an easy hop over into Mr Gregg’s back garden, which was an overgrown shambles and the whole group could have hidden there safely.  Coming back round the front of number thirteen, the group were amazed to see Jack.  Houses fourteen and fifteen were easy to finish, being Jack’s house and Joseph’s.  Jack had done it.  The group applauded. 
Now the next challenge: garden hopping the rival cul-de-sac a few streets away. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

In the Field - First chapter of new book

In The Field

An autobiography of my life between 2008 and 2013

From being an unemployed graduate applying for endless jobs to a sexually frustrated field worker in Oman, this is a brutally honest account of the last five years of my life.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll, there is none of that here – just a load of sexual mishaps, botched interviews and stupidity. 
I’m just an average guy but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a good story to tell.

Part One

The Year of Unemployment:   
May 2008 – May 2009

1.     Graduation

I never knew what I wanted to do with my life and I still don’t.  There is nothing I’m truly passionate about, aside from writing, but the one book I sell a month (if that) is not going to keep my finances in check.  The vast majority of people go to university to study what they love and to pursue a career in what they’ve always dreamed about.  You study law because you want to be a lawyer, or you study medicine to become a doctor and emulate the doctors from ER or even J.D. from Scrubs.  I studied geology not because I wanted to be a geologist, but because it was simply the only degree I could see myself doing.  Not going to university at all was simply out of the question and it never entered my mind.  Once I passed my 11+ exam and got into grammar school, I was on a set path: pass GCSE’s, pass AS-Level, pass A-Level and, finally, get a degree.  I was going to be the first one to graduate from my family and nothing else ever entered the picture, certainly not a gap year and definitely not failing any exams to leave me a year behind my friends. 
            At school geography was one of my favourite subjects; however, I didn’t want to do it at university.  I didn’t really like the human side of geography, urban and rural studies, as it was just boring and I couldn’t see what job I’d get out of it afterwards.  I certainly wasn’t teacher material and all I knew was that the oil and gas jobs demanded a geology degree or mechanical and petroleum engineering.  So, geology it was.  Plus, if I studied geology I had the faint hope of keeping the only job I’d ever partly dreamed about alive: volcanologist.  I remember watching as a teenager the film Dante’s Peak in awe.  I wanted to be Pierce Brosnan and study volcanoes all around the world.  As a teenager I envisioned my life being exactly like the movie: successfully predicting a massive eruption, being the hero, pulling the hot women, saving lives – yes, I could be that dashing and charming volcanologist.  But did I study volcanoes in my spare time?  No.  When volcanoes came up in geography, did I go beyond what was expected of the course material during school? No.  Geology was the subject for me and a career in oil and gas was something that beckoned me, not through passion but because I thought it was a logical choice based on the world’s demand for energy, and therefore jobs would always be available. 
I’m not going to describe the four years of my geology course nor the events that happened at university, not in any great detail at least.   All I will say is this:  I graduated in 2008 with a 2:1 after four years of playing computer games, drinking, partying, sleeping until midday, going on awesome field trips and generally having the best time of my life.  I was very happy with a 2:1, if you got a first it meant you studied too hard and didn’t enjoy your social life, and anything lower than a 2:1, well, you probably shouldn’t have bothered going to university in the first place.  I will always miss being a student.  Upon graduation, I was optimistic about my job chances: there were dozens of graduate fairs coming up in the next few months, many applications to fill out and I had a solid degree from a very reputable university.  I was convinced that eventually, within a few months perhaps, something would turn up.  It had to – I had a geology degree, right?        

My first graduate career fair was not what I was expecting.  I actually believed it was a fair where you turned up, flashed your CV and signed a job contract.  I know I’m stupid, but damn, that was pretty stupid of me to assume.  Still, I put my suit on, my best shoes and even styled my hair for the fair but within seconds of walking in I realized my mistake.  Every other student was in hoodies and all the stalls were completely unrelated to anything I wanted to do.  Stall after stall of generic companies handing out flyers, squishy balls, key rings, pens and carrier bags.  All the applying was done online after your initial chat with the company representatives anyway.  I might as well have stayed in my room, watched porn and applied online to companies I already knew existed from The Times Top 100 list of graduate employees.  Still, the freebies were good.
I remember going to another graduate fair in Liverpool a few days before my graduation.  This time I didn’t overdress and I was mentally prepared not to be expecting anything.  It was the same setup: mainly the large companies handing out flyers except this time there was also a few local companies.  Specifically a geotechnical firm from Liverpool was looking for graduates with an Earth Science degree – I was the perfect candidate.  I chatted to the manager and he was very keen, he even gave me his personal mobile number to ring him and discuss the work further.  I left the fair feeling buoyant and my spirits uplifted because I was optimistic that jobs were out there for people like me and, with hardly any effort other than the commute to Liverpool, I’d been offered a potential job.
However, I never rang the manager in the days or months afterwards.  I don’t know why I didn’t, perhaps, I think, it was because I was nervous to have potentially found a job already and move to Liverpool; along with the sudden realization that my student days were officially over and it was time to be a grown-up.  Maybe I thought it wasn’t a good enough job for me, there would be bigger companies out there with better salaries.  I’m not sure I can explain why I never rang the man back, in my head I knew I should have tried for the big oil companies like Shell, BP, Total and Halliburton.  Maybe after everything I’d worked for ‘only’ working for a small company was a failure as such.  Even as I type this now I realize how selfish this all makes me sound.  I was just happy that I’d had some success through getting hold of a number and it reassured me that the job hunting process was going to be a short-term thing, or so I believed. 
            At my graduation I said goodbye to all my course mates and I was also quite shocked to find that they had already found jobs, predominantly mining jobs or exploration work in Australia where the job market was booming.  They had sorted out their jobs months before graduation and all they had to do was secure their degree grade in the final exams.  Was I seriously so far behind in the job hunt race?  I considered getting the number of the manager from Liverpool a success at this stage so to hear my friends had jobs was a bombshell.  However, I knew I didn’t want to move somewhere so far from home and my high school friends no matter how good the money was.  Plus, all the snakes and spiders in Australia scared the crap out of me.  I guess it’s ironic considering where I work now, but Australia is literally the other side of the world.  A big part of me has always wanted nothing more than an office job, a bungalow and raising a family in the same area that was so good to me growing up.  I knew I wasn’t so prepared to just pack up and start a new life, but I was taken aback by how easy it was for my course mates to do such a thing.  All I wanted was the same kind of lifestyle that I’d had during the last four years at university, but instead of lectures at 9am I’d switch it for work.  What was I holding on to so hard in the UK that was so easy for my course mates to let go?   After graduation my course mates and I parted and I didn’t see them again for years. 

I didn’t see moving home as a step back.  I wanted to eat good home-cooked food and have my clothes washed and ironed.  I enjoyed the prospect of seeing my hometown friends more often and going out on the pull every weekend.  The trouble with home was that I didn’t have the internet.  Looking back, this was a setback for me in terms of ease of research and application for jobs.  The only internet access I had was from the public library where you were allowed two hours each day.  Ultimately though, it wasn’t because I didn’t have the internet at home that didn’t get me a job, it was me – my complete and utter lack of any work placements, experience, travelling or extra-curricular activity to set me aside from the other candidates and make me stand out.  I was a perfect student in terms of grades, but at the interviews and assessment centres I got ripped to pieces by other candidates far more experienced, passionate and just plain better for the job than me.  From my initial optimism after the Liverpool graduate fair, the reality of unemployment and sense of uselessness began to creep in over that coming summer.
To help explain how useless I was with my previous spare time and helping to set the scene to describe the following year of being unemployed, it’s probably worth taking a quick look back at my history of summers and how I spent them being unproductive and with no regard for my future career at all.

My summers of nothing:

2002:  Playing F1 2002 on the N64, a full race season on the maximum number of laps.  Work: Washing up at a hotel.

2003: Playing GTA: San Andreas, completing all missions and hunting for the stars. Work: Washing-up and making garnishes.

2004: No specific game, but plenty of washing up, double shifts and close to 80 hours a week earning a whopping three pound sixty pence an hour.

2005: Playing Zelda: Twilight Princess, Age of Empires and Battle for Middle-Earth.  Work: Bar work at York races.

2006: Computer games and six weeks compulsory field mapping in Spain for third year project.

2007: Playing Risk, Smash Brothers and Mario Golf.

So, as you can see, between 2002 and 2008, although I did work, most other people my age were at least spending one or two of their summers doing an internship or work placement in the area of their likely future career.  My summer: I saw it solely as an opportunity to do nothing for three months.  In fact, I saw it as my right to do nothing based on the fact I’d just been studying for the last nine months.  Aside from the six weeks in Spain for my mapping project, I didn’t even go traveling.  My good grades got me through the first step of the application and then they counted for nothing except filling up a few lines on my CV.