Blogger's Digest: a Novel
Caroline and I were driving northbound on the M6 motorway. Matt & Kate, and Paul & Cath followed behind, in our convoy of three vehicles: my van and their two cars. Caroline and I were having an argument.
"I thought you said you wanted a family" she said, half pleading and half accusing me of deception.
"I did, but then circumstances changed" I replied, attempting an apologetic tone.
"So you don't want to start a family anymore?" she asked rhetorically. Her voice betrayed her frustration and she spoke her words a little aggressively.
"No, that's not it. I just don't know at the moment. Things are changing and it's a big decision" I said, evasively.
"But we had made the decision. I started taking folic acid. I stopped taking the pill. We were trying to get pregnant."
"Yes, I agree. That's what I wanted at the time. That's what we wanted. Then things changed."
"You mean you selfishly decided to quit your job and pursue this stupid hare-brained idea of yours. THAT'S what you mean" she said, gesticulating with annoyance at the van we were in.
* * *
I had quit my job.
I had quit my job because even after trying every anti-depressant that my doctor could prescribe me, I still found that my life was intolerable. I felt trapped by my career. The prospect of spending the next 20 or 30 years working a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday office job felt like a fate worse than death, quite literally: the anti-depressants had brought so little relief, and suicidal thoughts plagued me with ever-increasing frequency, such that I felt I only had two choices: resign or kill myself.
There was, of course, a third option. I could have opted to be off work sick on a long-term basis. The investment bank had a generous policy for anybody who was sick for more than 6 months, allowing them to retire early. The income would be a tiny fraction of what a successful investment banker who continued to work into their late forties or early fifties, would expect to retire with. If I chose to resign and keep my reputation intact, I knew I would be welcomed back into the investment banking world with open arms. I knew that being pensioned off early due to ill health would be a career-ending move: a reputational stain which would follow me around until my dying day.
Getting an investment banking job is paradoxical - you can't get a job in investment banking without experience, and you can't get the investment banking experience without the job: Catch 22. I had been lucky enough to get a highly sought-after summer internship, due to a distant relative being a senior executive at a City firm. Without connections, it was impossible to get a foot in the door. I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to have my career, and to have been rapidly promoted. I was liked and respected by many colleagues. I would not struggle to get my old job back, or find another investment bank which wanted to hire me. However, I could not carry on working in an office anymore.
* * *
"It's not a 'hare-brained idea', Caroline" I said, speaking her name with a condescending tone. I was annoyed and beginning to get angry. I spoke through gritted teeth. "I am a qualified electrician and the business is quite profitable. I am a skilled tradesman whose services are in demand in the local community."
"Profitable!" she snorted. "You had to sell the boat and the MG which you bought for me as a birthday present, because you said you couldn't afford the upkeep."
This made me furious. I was about to angrily reply, but she hadn't finished.
"We are going to Wales on holiday" she said, putting particular emphasis on the word "Wales" as if we were taking a break from our pleasant lives to suffer the torments of Hell - a vacation to the underworld - or embarking on an excursion to a warzone. "Matt & Katie just got back from Florence, and Paul & Cath are going trekking in the Atlas Mountains in a few weeks."
"Yes, that's the whole FUCKING POINT" I replied; my temper was barely under control and my voice was raised. "The main reason for this trip was so that I could teach Paul & Cath some of the mountaineering skills they're going to need, and so they can test their equipment. It was YOU who has managed to turn the trip into a couples' romantic luxury getaway and insisted on us renting a gigantic converted barn with a hot tub. Paul, Cath and I were going to sleep in tents until you hijacked the trip."
"But Katie hates camping" protested Caroline.
"It's not about Katie. It's not about Matt. It's not about you. None of you were even invited. I offered to take Paul and Cath on a trip to Snowdonia to help them prepare for their expedition to Morocco."
"I needed a holiday, Gavin. I'm not going to spend my holiday, in the middle of February, freezing cold in a tent. We're not going skiing this year, which will be the first year where we've not had at least one ski trip - our friends are devastated that we're not joining them, and I'm devastated too. Skiing is the only time when I get to catch up with a lot of our friends. We haven't had a holiday since last year and we haven't booked a single holiday for this year."
"This is a holiday, isn't it? YOU wanted to make this into a holiday by renting a luxury converted barn. We went on holiday in November, which was only three months ago" I said with exasperation.
"This doesn't count. Malta doesn't count."
"MALTA DOESN'T COUNT?" I shouted.
"Yes, it was a last-minute deal and the hotel was grotty - you said so yourself. It was a short-haul flight with a naff airline and it was cloudy half the time. You ended up having to buy a jumper and a pair of trousers on the day we arrived, because you were cold, remember? Besides, a week doesn't even count - that's what I'm saying. A holiday should be at least 2 weeks or else it doesn't count."
"DOESN'T COUNT?" I sputtered with rage.
"Yes. By the time you've unpacked and settled in, it's time to start packing up your stuff and getting ready to leave. It's hardly a holiday is it? It's more of a mini-break, except we went to Malta instead of somewhere exciting like New York or Rome."
"We've been to New York and Rome."
"I was just giving examples of proper mini-breaks. You get my point" she said, folding her arms as if the matter was settled and she had won the argument.
* * *
It was true - we had been forced to dramatically change our lifestyle since I had quit my job and become a self-employed electrician. Caroline's job as a solicitor working with asylum seekers, earned her only a fraction of what she would be able to earn if she joined an international law firm - like her father's - but she wanted to make a worthy contribution to society; she wanted to help the needy and vulnerable. She refused to countenance the idea that she could become the main breadwinner if she set aside some of her lofty principles and instead took the highest paying job she could find. However, she said it would break her heart to leave the charity she worked for; she couldn't live with the guilt, knowing that she could be helping clients with gut-wrenchingly awful stories, fleeing persecution.
For such a nice, kind and charitably-minded person, Caroline's version of a "normal" life had been shaped by her privileged upbringing. The enviable lifestyle which we had hitherto enjoyed together had been a continuation of what she had experienced throughout her life, without any interruption. When I bought her a highly collectable classic British sports car for her 25th birthday, she was thrilled - having dropped hints that it was something she'd always wanted - but lavish gifts weren't particularly exceptional in Caroline's family. Some years ago, her mother had given her father a hand-built limited edition Morgan sportscar, which she'd been on a waiting list for several years to obtain, to celebrate him becoming a partner at his law firm.
My decision to become an electrician had been motivated, in no small part, by how guilty I felt about being an investment banker. Caroline was helping asylum seekers to escape torture and murder, and was comparatively poorly paid. Meanwhile, I was helping the wealthiest 1% to become richer and richer, while also becoming quite rich myself. I felt no 'warm fuzzy feeling' about the work I did. Often there were very ethically questionable things which I had to accept as part and parcel of the job. Mergers and acquisitions offered the opportunity for cost-cutting "restructuring" which inevitably meant redundancies. I was responsible for thousands of people people being sacked, while Caroline was heroically saving families from tyrannical regimes.
I had seen many colleagues squander their wealth, attempting new ventures, only to gratefully return back to their investment banking career after their startup companies and angel investments quickly gobbled up their wealth. An investment banker's entire career is spent scrutinising the accounts, forecasts and business models of their clients, to whom they are lending money or helping to float on the stock market - it's so easy to mistakenly believe that doing business is easy, when it's not your money or your company. Returning colleagues had gained nothing of any value - a very expensive lesson; a costly mistake. They all said they regretted ever leaving their comfortable investment banking careers. We used to make jokes about being kept in "golden handcuffs".
I decided that I wanted to retrain. I decided that I wanted to be qualified in something other than banking, but I felt certain that my age would count against me in law and accountancy: I should have chosen a different profession at a much younger age. I considered dentistry and medicine, which required a substantial amount of amount of time and money before I could expect to earn a high income. The living standards, which Caroline and I had enjoyed for many years, would be decimated; our plans to start a family would be delayed by 5, 6 or 7 years... or maybe more.
I chose a new trade instead of a new profession. Relatively speaking, the training to become an electrician was cheap, quick and easy. The expense of setting up my business as a sole trader - the van and the tools - didn't seem like very much money at all: less than the cost of what Caroline would count as a holiday, which met her expectations. If I did have to go back to my investment banking career, I would have lost very little money.
* * *
I sulked, bitterly, thinking Caroline was spoiled and entitled; that she was a bad person and that her expectations were unreasonable. I wanted to criticise her for wanting luxury holidays, when her asylum seeker clients were so desperately impoverished, but I knew that it would be desperately hypocritical of me - I had wanted luxury holidays just as much as she had. I had chosen to sell my soul, doing the devil's work as an investment banker. I could hardly lecture her for wanting the lifestyle to which we had both become accustomed. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't fair: she could feel smug about the good work which she was doing in the world, while I felt guilty about my own immoral profession. However, her choice to do low-paid charitable work was not to blame for my troubled conscience and depression.
The other thing I wanted to tell her, was that I wasn't sure if I wanted to carry on living. I wanted to tell her that I didn't want to become a father, and then decide to kill myself. It seemed like too much of a gamble: to hope that my depression would lift and my suicidal thoughts abate, as soon as we had children. I wanted to discuss all these things with her, but I didn't want to upset and alarm her. How do you renege on a promise to provide a wonderful life: a big wedding, children, a huge family home, private schooling, luxury family holidays, and enough trust fund money set aside to bankroll the children through university.
How can you admit that you've tried your hardest to keep going with an extremely well paid career, but the job makes you want to kill yourself, so the dream life we had imagined is over?
* * *
"Is this place we're going to be staying nice?" I asked, trying to make peace and restore a pleasant atmosphere in the van.
Caroline's face lit up. "Oh it's gorgeous. Every room has its own log burning stove. There's an Aga. The main living space is to die for - tall glass walls on both sides with panoramic views of the mountains, set in acres of private land. It's cosy AND luxurious. The barn is hundreds of years old and has its original oak beams, but the conversion was done by an award-winning architect. It's featured in lots of magazines. Did you not see the pictures I sent you?"
"Nope. So you're looking forward to it?"
"Yeah. Can't wait. Katie has brought a goose and Matt had found a butcher on the way who's got half a lamb for us to collect. We spent a small fortune on food and wine in Waitrose. This is going to be fantastic fun."
This was not what I had in mind originally. I had brought some packets of dried pasta and dehydrated sauce, which could be cooked on a camping stove, with melted snow, to prepare Paul and Cath for their trip to the Atlas Mountains.
"You should have brought the fondue set" I said, with barely concealed sarcasm.
"One step ahead of you! It's in Matt & Katie's car. I was going to surprise you - I know how much you love fondue."
"I wonder how many mountaineers carry kilos of cheese and a fondue set up a mountain in their backpacks" was the immediate reply which sprung to lips, but I managed to hold my tongue. "Oh yes, lovely surprise darling. We're going to have a lot of fun" I said instead, with the very best forced smile which I could muster.
I glanced backwards at the pile of rucksacks in the back of the van. When I had been loading everybody's rucksacks into the van it briefly reminded me of the expeditions I had been on with my university mountaineering society. I had been eagerly anticipating re-living some of those happy memories of time spent in the mountains. Now I felt as though my miniature expedition had been hijacked by Caroline and Katie's desire for a luxury jaunt into the countryside.
As we continued our journey towards Snowdonia National Park, I wondered if we would even leave the comfortable confines of the palatial barn conversion, and venture into the mountains at all.