“Can you let me out? I need to get to a job interview.” The man I’m talking to is Brazilian and doesn’t understand why I’m trapped in the communal garden of his South London flat.
I graduated in 2008, in time for the financial crisis. As the markets tanked, so did the value of my already mediocre degree. Without any plans or prospects, I returned to my desolate hometown. I assumed the move was temporary. All I needed to do was send out a few CVs and I’d soon be employed in an undefined but lucrative profession.
The problem with this plan was my CV was barren. Filled with various part-time jobs, my degree and only two items of note: the first was my short reign as the General Secretary of the university canoe club; the second was a student radio show where I mansplained indie to tens of listeners.
To tide me over, I got a job at a local dog kennel. This wasn’t the sort you’d see on Sunday evening TV, full of abandoned dogs being given second chances. It was the sort where owners leave their pets when they fancy a holiday.
Confused about why they were being abandoned, they would howl when dropped off. Howl when a car approached, thinking this was their salvation. Then they’d howl when they were being picked up, having now come to distrust their owners.
I’d spend my mornings feeding the dogs. Each seemed to have dietary requirements more complicated than a wellness influencer. Then, I’d disinfect the kennels whilst Radio 2 played… as if Ken Bruce’s Popmaster might provide solace to these abandoned animals. I’d next walk the dogs around a barren, exposed hill, usually in torrential rain.
Despite this, these dogs still count as my most amenable colleagues. Apart from one St Bernard. Friendly at first, he soon had a change of heart as I took him into his pen after one walk he went for me.
I stepped back and his demeanour became friendly again. After a few minutes I tried to leave again and the viscousness returned. I was stuck. This repeated itself until, dejected, I gave up any hope of leaving the kennel and wondered what to do. The owner was running errands in a nearby town and anyway, I had no phone signal so couldn’t contact him.
Slowly, any sense of residual self-confidence I had dissipated. I thought of everyone else from uni. They were all working, interning or on gap years. I was being emasculated by Beethoven.
Eventually, I worked out an escape plan. I’d scale the kennel wall, crawl along the rafters and lower myself into an adjacent kennel — one with a less aggressive dog. Showing a degree of athleticism that surprised both myself and the St Bernard, I was free.
This, along with a steady stream of job rejections, sped up my descent into depression. Maybe my email address firstname.lastname@example.org wasn’t helping things. The bigger issue was I’d gone to university during a time when you were led to believe that a degree would guarantee a decent job. I had no plan.
Just when I had resigned myself to dog walking life, and to everyone’s surprise, I secured an interview for a job I might actually enjoy — the graduate scheme at the Foreign Office. I fancied myself as a diplomat, meeting dissidents in ex-Soviet countries and, if I was lucky, getting snared in a honey trap.
The interview, being in London, meant I would be spending the night at the flat of a couple I knew, Rob and Lucy. A few months ago Rob had posters of Sarah Michelle-Gellar blu-tacked to his walls. Now he’d got a proper job and the posters were framed. He was the epitome of someone who had gotten his life in order.
On the morning of the interview, with Rob and Lucy having left for work, I do some last minute preparation. Then, giving myself a gargantuan two hours, I set out on the twenty minute journey to the interview.
Directions are scribbled on a scrap of paper, so I leave their flat, walk down the corridor and head outside. I hadn’t remembered a garden when I arrived the night before and, as the door locks behind me, I realise I’ve taken a wrong turn. This isn’t the outside that leads to my job interview. This is their communal garden — one that is surrounded by a 12 foot high fence.
It is the St Bernard scenario all over again but this time the fence is too high. I try to call Rob and Lucy, but neither pick up. I come up with a plan: pace, swear and sweat, which I proceed to do for the next half hour.
Then, across the garden, a window opens. I run over, shouting for help. The occupant, a middle-aged Brazilian man, doesn’t seem that surprised to find a sweaty, besuited man in his garden. He lets me out and I rush to the interview. But now, that familiar feeling of my confidence disappearing takes over. As I sit in the waiting room with all the other candidates, I’m no longer one of their equals, just a flustered dog walker.
The interview consists of a number of tests, followed by role playing with an actor who seems uncomfortable in her role. She is my superior and I’m to report back about a British lorry driver who has been chucked in jail in Hungary. He’d been involved in a fight and his sister was kicking up a fuss in the press.
This is my problem. I have no idea about what the British government might do in this situation. Rescue him or let him sit and rot? I decide to let him sit and rot. I’d met this sort of compatriot before and didn’t like him. And when reporting his situation to the actor, I show a fair deal of contempt. And that’s it. My career as a diplomat is over.
Dejected, I leave the interview and get the train back to Wales. During those five hours all I can think of is the Brazillian and the actor, and how I won’t be hobnobbing with them in an embassy anytime soon. The next day, I walk more dogs, but this time they don’t lift my mood.