18 April, 2006

Timeless time

Small things make a big difference working in a place like London, and for me the difference between finishing at 5.30pm (my ideal) and 6pm (my reality) is vast.

Ordinarily you wouldn't set so much store against a mere half hour, but given the fact I invariably haven't got everything finished by 6pm, plus the way the trains seem to get more, not less, reliable the later the evening becomes, it all means I don't get home until 7pm at the very earliest. This is a titantic difference from my previous job, to which I could stroll from my flat in around 10 minutes, and from which I could escape and be back home with luck by 5.45pm. Once you factor in the business of making something to eat, my evening, such as it is, doesn't usually begin till gone 8pm, sorely limiting the amount of free time I can devote to reading, writing and watching stuff. That's assuming I have enough energy left to bring myself to read, write or watch anything in the first place.

My working hours are supposedly 9.30am-6pm, but I'd be more than happy to see them shifted forward a half hour and have to get up earlier than make do with the present lopsided arrangement. Especially as there's always so much more I'm expected to have completed than time allows, pushing that 6pm finishing post back to 6.30pm and often to 7pm. Even after almost two months of these sorts of hours I still haven't adjusted to the way it's turned all my previous routines on their heads and so wrecked my quality of life.

Not that having to put in unusual hours necessarily leads to misery. I once had a job working in a community college library, which involved adhering to one of the nicest arrangements I've ever come across. For a start my lunch hour meant just that: a whole hour for lunch, not - as the unspoken implication is at my current place - 15 minutes maximum. I had to be in for 8.45am, except on one day a week when I had to be in for 8.15am when I actually had the responsibility for opening up the whole library. I didn't mind these early starts in the slightest: it was fantastic to be able to get on a bus and not fight with a crowd of commuters, and to walk through the streets of Liverpool early enough to find them still fairly quiet and serene. Plus there was the privilege of getting to open up the place once a week by myself.

Best of all, though, was that I got to finish early on Friday. And how! The library closed at 2.15pm! Being able to clock off at such an hour never lost its appeal. That feeling of walking free when so many others were still chained to their desks was an elation. Many a time I used to come back to my flat and decide to have a snooze, just because I could. The trade off was doing one late shift a week, which for me was Monday, and meant staying till 7pm, but again, this didn't bother me. Mondays were the best day for getting it out the way, and also the quietest in the library. On Tuesday and Thursday I finished at 4.45pm, on Wednesday (when I had to open up at 8.15am) it was 4.15pm. It was, quite simply, the perfect deal.

And as with everything that is perfect, it was all too temporary: I was only employed for a fixed-term contract of five months. Yet I still look back on that time as one of the points in my life where I did manage to achieve almost, to use the Government's preferred jargon, the ideal work-life balance.

I guess five months is better than nothing. But what I wouldn't give for those hours now.


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