The first official day of spring 2014 and, as I walked in the bright chill of the morning, there were songs going through my head. These were songs I haven’t listened to for real for a long time, from an album by reggae band UB40. In fact they were songs from their very first album. You may be wondering why songs about, among other things, Gary Tyler, languishing in a Louisiana gaol for thirty odd years, or Martin Luther King, were going through my head. The reason is the name of the album, Signing Off, named because the band were all on the dole until that album was released. This was the day I was going to sign off myself.
21 March 2014
The kerria were lighting up the sky as I crossed the railway bridge on my way down to the river. They looked stunning against the bright blue sky. On the middle of the bridge I stopped and looked down the line. Buds were swelling on the trees and the sun lit up the houses beside the track. I took a deep breath, smiled and carried on.
All along the river path the starry white blackthorn blossoms made me smile. Above my head mistletoe was clinging to a birch tree surrounded by bright new leaves. Spring really is everywhere you look. It seemed fitting that my last walk to the dreaded Job Centre should be like this.
So I climbed the stairs to the first floor of the Job Centre, hoping against hope I would never have to pass this way again. I sat and waited for my advisor to call my name and felt a little bubble of happiness. My advisor was overjoyed.
“I knew it wouldn’t be long before you got a job,” she said, “you’re my best client.”
Then I filled in one last form with the details of my new employer, signed my name at the bottom and thanked her for her help. I’ve hated every single visit. The whole process feels degrading and depressing but she has always been kind to me even if there was nothing she could do to help.
Outside in the sun again I stopped by Holyrood to admire the blossom bursting from the trunk of a tree in the grounds. There was something captivating about the delicate pink petals against the deep red leaves and the gnarled trunk. I snapped photo after photo, some in shadow some in sun, in others the old stones of the ruined church seemed to make a poignant backdrop, the old and destroyed in stark contrast to the vibrancy of new growth. No apologies for including so many.
It will be a long while before I can bring myself to walk this way again so I took a couple of pictures of the church for good measure. Through the arch of the front door, past the ornate gates studded with gulls and beyond, through the decayed and broken window, the ugly glass of the Job Centre are a sight I want to forget. Around the side there are bricked up doors and windows, stones still blackened by the fire that burned on the terrible night of 30 November 1940. Eight hundred bombs and nine thousand incendiaries were dropped on Southampton that night a follow on from a raid the previous week when two hundred and fourteen people were killed and five hundred properties destroyed. Holyrood is a monument to all of them. Someone has written the words ‘I’m watchin you’ on the old bricks. I wondered who was watching who?
From there I walked up into town to get some passport photos taken for my new work pass. Someone was already in the photo booth in WH Smith so I stood and waited, looking idly around as I did. Something about the woman standing with her back to me at the post office counter seemed familiar. In fact more than familiar, it looked like Alice. Countless lunchtimes I’ve stood waiting while Alice paid in money at this post office, I thought I must be imagining things. When she turned to walk away though it was Alice. We stood and chatted for a while. She was pleased about my new job but is not so happy with her own.
“I think we were spoiled,” she said.
“I know,” I agreed, “I don’t think we will ever find anything as good again.”
CJ caught up with me just then and Alice and her daughter went on their way while we went for our last post signing on coffee. Actually CJ plumped for hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows while I had my normal skinny latte. As a special treat I bought us both a triple chocolate muffin. This would be my lunch. When I took my usual photo, CJ bent down to get in the shot.
“You’ll be on the blog,” I warned him but he shrugged and smiled.
Despite the forecast for rain the sun stayed shining for our walk home. In the parks we stopped for a closer look at the lichen on the huge fallen tree but there was no time for dawdling after that. In fact the sun stayed with me all day. Fingers crossed it will still be there tomorrow for my fifteen mile Care For A Walk hike in the New Forest.
So that was my last Friday of freedom. Now I have officially signed off of Job Seekers Allowance. On Monday I will be joining the working classes again, it’s quite a scary thought. The songs from Signing Off have stayed with me all day, so this evening I thought I’d listen to them for real. Now I wonder why I left it so long? My feet were tapping and I found myself singing along. It took me back to seeing them live at the Gaumont Theatre (now the Mayflower) back in 1984. By the way, if you haven’t ever heard the album Signing Off, why don’t you give yourself a treat and check it out on YouTube.