When Findlater descended from his office upstairs to check up on us all, I had absolutely nothing to do. I’d finished the entire week’s work, even though it was only a Wednesday afternoon, and had resorted to looking up holidays I could never afford on the internet to kill time until I could respectably clock out. I struggled to find something that would make me look busy and eventually resorted to taking the pile of papers I’d already sorted alphabetically and shuffling them around so I could sort them again when Findlater strode over to my desk. He took the straight-backed stance he always took when he was about to deliver one of his “rousing speeches.” Apparently when it was coming up to the end of the year he liked to give each employee a personalised one. Robbie had had his this morning, finished off with a pat on the shoulder so firm Robbie was still wincing slightly. Findlater took up position next to my desk, and began.
The first part of his monologue was so boring and out of touch I only half listened, my autopilot set to nod and smile mode, as he rattled on about the importance of working hard when one was young, and the development of good working character, peppered with unfinished anecdotes about “When I was in the Royal Navy…” But his speech soon changed track and drew me in, and once I was listening to it properly, all I wanted to do was run away.
“Life’s hardest lesson for the young,” he boomed, “is that all is never as it seemed and life will never be as we imagine it ought to be. For example, when a student is at the university, he will imagine his life…”
“Or her life,” I wanted to interject. Women can go to university and have aspirations too.
“He will imagine, as he sits in the campus bar with his comrades…”
“Comrades?” I thought. “We weren’t all communists, just the daftest ten or so.”
“…or as he sits at his typewriter completing his latest assignment, he will plot his life and dream of the accolades and wealth he will accumulate over the course of his career. He dreams of fulfilment and glory and imagines, so deluded is he by the promises made by his lecturers and the drugs and alcohol that colour his youth…”
I wished I had some of whatever that drug was then as I imagined how long it had taken him to compose this speech and what century he thought he was living in when he composed it. His eyes had a faraway look and I wondered if he was still talking to me or if he had forgotten I was even in the room as he recounted his own story.
“ …risk and adventure and love are the things he must chase, yes, in order to live life to the fullest it can be lived. But he soon learns, when he leaves the academic sphere and enters life, that his dreams are a waste of time. Dreams are unattainable and breed nothing but discntent. The important things in life are stability and security. A stable, sturdy ship can weather any storm but a flimsy dinghy will sink as soon as it meets a rough tide. In order to be happy, one must learn to be content with one’s reality and not spend her life wishing for dreams which will serve no purpose but to make her unhappy.”
Heart hammering, I froze. Findlater smiled and patted me on the shoulder before ambling away and back to his hermitage of an office upstairs. Robbie caught my eye and rolled his. I pulled my lips up to give something like a smile back to him, to pretend I was sharing in the “What is yer man like?” moment, when really I was having a very silent, subdued panic episode. It wasn’t lost on me that he had changed to “her” for the last sentence. Maybe Findlater was more perceptive and knew more about me than I thought, or was comfortable for my boss to have perceived. I knew he was right. He had spoken with the voice of my family, my friends, and every teacher I had ever had. If Ireland as I knew it could speak in one voice, it would be his. Stability and security. Find a job. Permanent and pensionable. Build a house. Marry a solid, dependable man and raise 2 solid, dependable kids. Time you stopped daydreaming, child.
His words sent me into a panic because I had heard them so often, and in so many different ways, I was terrified he was right. I looked at my life and all I saw was a list of aspirations and ambitions, the box beside every single one of them still unticked.
I couldn’t give up on them, not yet – but what if he was right? I now had three boxes of art I was convinced were fresher and more original than a lot of the art I saw published in books and magazines or hanging in galleries, but all of them were hidden under my bed because even the thought of showing them to anyone, even to Mark or Amy, embarrassed me and made me feel so nervous I felt shaky. Maybe giving up on all of my dreams here and now would make me happier, but over the last year I had felt increasingly fragile. Some days I wondered if the only thing standing between me and a deep depression was the hope that this empty life wouldn’t last forever. I just could not, would not, accept what Findlater said. It wasn’t determination that made me keep hold of my dreams, even if he was right, at least then, about them doing little for me but breeding discontent. It was desperation. This job was just a stop-gap, I’d been telling myself all along, but I’d never thought seriously about what was on the other side of the gap. Since Mark had arrived in Dublin I’d been thinking about him almost all of the time. I thought being with him would fix me, but it hadn’t.
It was already dark outside. It’s hard to see stars in the city but if I could have seen a star to wish on I knew exactly what wish I would have made. I wished I knew what I wanted.