I've only ever had four jobs. Of those, Job Two and Job Four are those I've had longest - between them almost three quarters of my working career. And this week I've had the incredibly rare chance, as part of Job Four, to go back and visit Job Two. A golden opportunity? Or memories better left undisturbed?
To negotiate my visit to Job Two, I had to make contact with the person who now does the job I used to do. "Oh I've heard stories about you," she said in her second email. "Only good ones," she added in her third, which was a relief, because somebody clearly hadn't filled her in completely. What was particularly strange was communicating with her via email rather than phone or letter. I survived seven years in Job Two without ever sending an email, because the 1990s were like that, but now it's an integral part of her daily routine. A networked PC on every desk, the need to stay alert to a stream of incoming messages and higher expectations of communication. I'm sure I carried out Job Two less well as a result, but nobody knew any better, and nobody ever complained.
Job Two was outside London, so getting there meant taking the train. Such a familiar journey, yet one I've taken so rarely since moving away. On arrival I had time to kill so I went for a walk down the main high street, past the supermarket where I used to do my shopping (which wasn't a supermarket any more) and the Woolworths where I used to buy cheap stuff (which still wasn't anything else). I wondered if I'd bump into anyone I knew, but I didn't because it had been a very long time, and because anyone I might have known would probably been at work anyway. And then I caught the bus, like I always used to catch the bus, although I noticed it didn't run as often as it used to and I'd have had a long wait if I'd missed it. Every stop was naggingly familiar, as you'd expect on a journey I'd made a thousand times before, until I reached the outpost where Job Two lay.
They'd laid on a welcoming committee at the front door. It wasn't any front door I remembered, and the glass was a lot darker, so I didn't spot the multi-person ambush lurking behind until it was too late. First up was an employee who'd retired years ago but somehow never left. She'd heard I was popping in and wanted to say hello, and to give me my Christmas card rather than posting it. It was lovely to see her, but I could have done without the welcoming kiss in front of reception. The boss was also stood waiting, the same boss I'd had when I left Job Two, now ruling an empire hugely greater than before. We shook hands and smiled, in a sort-of gritted teeth manner, happy to get the social niceties out of the way. And then there was his second in command, who earned a much more heartfelt hello. I'd line managed her back in the day, back when "line manage" didn't really mean much, and now here she was nearly running the show. If I'd stayed, I thought, I could be doing your job by now. And then I smiled, because I wasn't.
She invited one of the younger members of the team to take me on a guided tour. I needed a guide because the building had grown exponentially since I was here, and there were extra rooms and knocked-through walls all over the place. My guide wanted to show me the new IT facilities and the accessible lifts, whereas I was more interested in trying to remember what had previously been in all the gaps where the new stuff now was. "Look, that's my old desk!" I said as we passed by on the way to some recent addition, but not surprisingly I was the only one who found that interesting, and we moved on. We ended up by the kettle and the new mugs and the new fridge, which was nice. As my teabag brewed I scanned my eye down the list of current employees, recognising six names, and passing by dozens more. Change is imperceptible when you're part of it, and unmissable when you're not.
And then I got down to doing my Job Four job, because that was the reason I was here. I had to use some of my old Job Two skills, which I was pleased to see I hadn't lost. But most of the time I just stood around watching, and observing, and not quite being part of something I'd once been integral to.
When it was all over, all too soon, I said thanks and wandered back to reception. I hadn't planned anything for the next hour or two in case my former colleagues were so overcome by nostalgia that they wanted to sit down for a chat, or go out for a drink, or whatever. But there were no former colleagues about. The Boss was busy giving Second In Command her annual performance appraisal, which was a procedural chore nobody had even dreamed up back in those halcyon Nineties days. Three other former colleagues were busy working out of sight, out of mind. And the lady at the front desk wasn't the bubbly receptionist I remembered. To her I was just another visitor handing in their badge and signing out, not a valued former member of staff. I wanted to scream "hey, I used to be important here" but I kept quiet because I realised I wasn't any more. Nobody milling around the foyer gave me a second look as I walked out of the front door, sighed a little and closed it behind me. Job Two, job done, dream over.