How would your life story play out?
Shakespeare famously described the world as a stage, and life as a play consisting of seven acts where each player ‘in his time plays many parts’. What would my life look like in story form? What parts have I played in my acts so far? As a writer I plot the fates of my characters across acts, why not my own?
Act 1 - Infant (child)
Growing up I developed two passions in life; skiing and writing. My parents were first generation immigrants to the UK from Poland. From my mother I learned adventure and a strong work ethic, from my father I learned how kindness and gentleness can be the strongest of forces.
Act 2 - Whining school boy (school days)
School was fine until secondary, where I struggled with stifling rules and regulations. I was constantly at odds with senseless restrictions. Writing representing my free space where I could think and say as I pleased. It was easy to pursue as it didn’t come with any costs attached. Skiing, on the other hand, was a luxury only made possible once a year by my mother, who worked for a tour operator at the time. If you wanted to ski, you had to either be rich or find a way of making it affordable. My father was a keen skier and we shared many happy moments in the mountains of France, Italy, Austria and Poland.
Act 3 - Lover (young dreams)
My first experiences of love and living away from home came as one. I spent my gap year working in hotels, restaurants and bars in France and Germany. Always in or near the Alps, obviously. I met Pete in the Bavarian Alps. He was a squaddie with the British Army and was taking part in ‘Operation SnowQueen’, the army’s mountain training programme held in Oberjoch every year. We fell in love and nearly married before I chickened out. I wasn’t ready to settle down at just eighteen.
My first job was a dream. I qualified as a ski instructor and worked part-time at Newhaven dry ski slope while studying at Brighton University. After taking the Ski Club of Great Britain’s ‘Ski Reps and Guides’ course, I spent holidays working for them as a resort rep or party leader on group ski holidays. Instructing and guiding groups never felt like a job, getting paid for it was a bonus.
I met my second love, James, when he came for a private ski lesson at Newhaven Ski Slope. James was a journalist and had been sent to the slope to write a review of dry slope skiing. He was a quick learner and a quick mover. We were soon dating and madly in love.
I couldn’t have been happier when, before just before my graduation, I was offered my first full time job as a sales and promotions executive at Kent Shuss, a small ski equipment and clothing importer. It meant moving back to London and sadly also the eventual break-up of my relationship with James.
For five years I got to be part of the ski industry, where who I was matched exactly with what they wanted:
Good connections in the ski industry
Sales and Marketing oriented
Able to train retail staff
I have only good memories of my time in the ski trade and am still in touch with many of the friends I made then. We worked hard but also made time for lots of partying, skiing and fun. Unfortunately, one of the worst UK recessions came along in the late eighties, leaving the UK ski industry decimated. Most independent retailers and distributors, including Kent Shuss, were forced to close. Our wonderful world just fell apart and I was out of a job.
Act 4 - Soldier (the career ladder)
Luckily it didn’t take long to find another job, which although not in skiing where no one was hiring, was very much still in the world of sport. At Champion Sport I was given creative freedom and encouraged to develop further in my role as Promotions and Display Manager. Compared to Kent Shuss, Champion Sport was very corporate, belonging as it did to the Burton Retail Group with head offices just off Oxford Street. I had to dress professionally, no jeans or ski jackets here. Part of me enjoyed what I saw as ‘dressing up’ as a professional woman for the office, and yet I was relieved to wear easy clothing when visiting stores to advise them on displays and merchandising or when working with the store opening teams to create a new store in two or three days. I learned a lot in my time there about running successful promotions and creating inspirational and engaging window and store displays. My favourite was a ski window we created for our flagship Oxford Street store with a moving cable car and mountain backdrops. I had a great display team who could bring even the most challenging of storyboards to life.
My love life turned to serial monogamy as I searched but couldn’t find ‘the one’.
One morning I walked into my office to be told, along with most of the staff, that we’d been taken over by Debenhams and, therefore, were all out of jobs. We were given just half an hour to pack our things and leave. It was a very strange feeling walking against the tide of commuters still rushing down Oxford Street to their offices that morning. What would I do? Oddly, I didn’t feel upset or nervous. Rather, the restless side of my nature, welcomed the possibility of change and a new adventure.
Three months later I was living in Dorset and working in my new role as Marketing Director for New Look, at the time a family run business. At first I loved it. It was even faster paced than Champion, with up to three stores opening weekly. My work took me all around the country as well as to France to visit our newly opened French stores, and Alpine glaciers in summer to get snowy shots for winter ranges.
The Dorset countryside and coastline seduced me with their beauty and mystery. I’d spend most weekends on long walks through cornfields, old quarries and sandy woods. In summer there was Durdle Door and Chesil beach, windsurfing and climbing or caving on Portland Island.
With time though my role as Marketing Director began to feel less idyllic. There was less freedom to be creative and the culture was one of ‘do as you’re told’ rather than ‘do as you think’. The pace was frenetic. In just over a year New Look had expanded from 50 to more than 200 stores. The work became routine, a process to be followed at breakneck speed. I began to lose interest and knew I had to find something I could be more passionate about. So, I jacked the job in and retrained as a teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL). That way I could travel and work wherever I chose. I also went back to ski teaching at the slope in Yeovil. I felt like myself again and even wrote a whole book that year. I was comparatively poor but I was happy.
My first teaching job was in Ukraine. I wanted to go there because my father was born in Western Ukraine, or rather Poland as it was then. He was deported to Siberia at the outbreak of the second world war. His way out of Siberia came when Russia switched sides and he was able to join the Polish army, ending up in Scotland with the British RAF. After the war his birthplace had become another country, one to which he wasn’t allowed to return. I wanted to see my father’s childhood house.
The Kiev I found myself in was like a wild frontier town. The mafia controlled everything from Chinese restaurants to English Language schools. My year and a half in Kiev and Lviv was a high octane, crazy drama. I taught both general and business English and fell in love again, more than once. Ukraine had a poet’s soul and left its imprint on mine. I did get to see my father’s house and even skied in the same mountains he would have skied as a young boy. These visits came to form the beginning of a story I later wrote.
From Ukraine I headed to its polar opposite; Singapore. The ‘clean, green’ dot on the map between Indonesia and Malaysia. Arriving at Changi Airport felt like stepping onto the ‘Truman Show’ set. A bubble of pristine perfection. Outside the blast of heat was the only reminder that I was in East Asia. Everywhere I looked manicured lawns bordered smooth highways and condominiums, palm fringed golden beaches (which I later learned had imported sand to thank for their colour), and, of course, those great monuments to wealth, the myriad of shopping centres.
It was in Singapore that I moved into corporate training. I started with Times Publishing’s training provider and later moved to the British Council’s professional development centre. I was lucky enough to train a wide variety of course ranging from marketing to cabin crew training with Singapore Airlines.
I met my husband, Sing, when he joined our weekly waterski group. I think I fell for him that very first time. It was his smile, I’d never seen one like it. He had that rare gift of being able to freely and unselfconsciously express his joy. The way he grinned from ear to ear whenever he carved a low and perfect turn on the mirror smooth surface of the inlet at Ponggol had me grinning right back. His smile was infectious.
We married in London and had planned to move there but a new job offer from the British Council pulled us back to Singapore, where we soon had two children. These were happy times. Waterskiing and windsurfing at weekends, dinners with friends in Holland Village, trips to Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan. We couldn’t have been happier.
When I was offered a global role back in London we jumped on it as the perfect opportunity to relocate to the UK. Sing had always wanted to move to London, I was more reticent about embracing its cold grey wetness back into my life. On the other hand I was very ready to leave the suffocating smallness of Singapore. My sadness when we actually left took me by surprise.
Act 5 - Justice (settled life)
We settled in to London life surprisingly quickly. A lot of my friends had either stayed in London or, like me, had made the move back. The kids seemed happy and Sing loved the cold weather and rain. He loved watching the steam rise from his piping hot soup as he stood in our December garden. His joy in the frost and rain and coolness made me appreciate London through new eyes. I began to love it again.
Work was great. I had a team to manage and they were all brilliant. What’s more they spoke like normal human beings, unlike most of the senior management team. I’d sit like an idiot at meetings where none of what was said made any sense. Worse, when I asked if they could explain what they meant, it only got worse. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more jargon or acronyms than I heard in those early meetings in Spring Gardens.
If you’re an insecure person, it would be enough to make your question your own intelligence. Could it be that these people were all so intelligent that their ‘clarity’ was beyond your reach? They wanted me to improve how offices across the globe served and managed their customers, but were not prepared to make the changes needed in management to get there. At times I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall, but my team kept me going. We took it in turns to support and re-inspire each other when the going got tough. In spite of, or possibly even because of the challenges, I enjoyed my work. Commuting to Trafalgar Square in my business attire, I’d finally arrived as a responsible adult.
Sing continued his online investment business from home and was able to be there for the children. He took them to nursery, played with them in the park, cooked wonderful dinners and desserts and was always ready with a smile and comforting shoulder when I’d had a bad day. I didn’t write much at all during this time, I was too busy enjoying life.
I was at work one morning, re-applying for my own position, something I would do many more times as part of what were termed operational change programmes and restructures. We were in the middle of completing psychometric tests when my phone beeped with Sing’s urgent message to call him. I immediately thought of the children. Had something happened? I made my excuses and called him from the corridor.
He was in hospital for his appointment with the osteopath. He’d been having a lot of back pains. For some reason they’d decided to keep him in overnight. He told me not to panic, probably just more checks, but it did mean I’d have to collect the children. Of course I worried. I tried to continue the assessment, but couldn’t concentrate. One of my colleagues noticed and asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t hold back and with her support left immediately to go to the hospital.
The next year was hell on earth. Sing was diagnosed with an unidentified cancer which had spread pretty much all over. It was hard to believe, he looked so strong and healthy. A consultant later told me that his cancer was particularly aggressive precisely because of his age (36) and fitness. The struggle to juggle work and children and caring for Sing was difficult, but nothing compared to having to watch him slowly waste away, enduring relentless pain which even the strongest of drugs couldn’t touch. Having to lose him day by day. He didn’t believe he would die, he insisted he would beat the cancer. And he tried, oh he tried so hard, it was heartbreaking.
British Council colleagues were simply brilliant. I still have copies of the letters and emails colleagues from around the world sent me both during Sing’s illness and after he died. Many of them had known and loved him just as I had. So many people came to his funeral; doctors, nurses, his wonderful anaesthetist, Stephan, friends and so many colleagues. All of my team were there, even one who we’d only just recruited and I hadn’t even met.
I wanted to die. How could I go on living without Sing? I simply had to, our children were then seven and not yet four. They were what kept me going, without them I would not have survived. One of my favourite country directors at British Council gave me the best advice on how to be with my children. He’d lost both parents at a very young age himself and still remembered the whispers and fake reassurances that everything was okay. He knew something was very wrong but felt cut off and alone with no one to help him. Don’t do that to yours, he said, be honest with them, tell them everything. They can handle much more than you think.
He was right, they did. Ironically it was their strength that gave me mine. Sing’s smile was and continues to be on each of their faces at least once a day. I began writing again and eventually wrote a screenplay based on losing Sing. It wasn’t just for me, it was so our children could hold on to at least some of our story.
For the next ten years I continued working at the British Council and managed somehow to raise two happy, loving and well adjusted human beings. I enjoyed my work again, travelling to offices all over the world and achieving major successes in bringing the British Council’s customer management into the twenty first century.
I loved my writing even more, and eventually made the decision to quit full time
work and instead freelance as a trainer and consultant so I could create more time for writing. It’s a decision I haven’t regretted. I’m happier now than I’ve been for a long time. ‘Me’ is back.
Act 6 - Lean and slipper’d pantaloon (second chance)
This act is currently in development. I’m not sure I like Shakespeare’s take on this act and so I’ve renamed it; Second Chance. I’m taking mine and hope it will lead me back full circle to fullfil my first act promise of a life of adventure and kindness.
Act 7 - Second Childishness (playtime)
Looking forward to this one :)