Sunday Reflections #13

Last week, I talked about happy days in the church youth group, and how that led on to my year out (described a bit here). Basically, I got massively involved in a particularly hardcore form of Christianity, and spent a year in a very intense environment. Everything was about God all the time, and it made me very passionate about my faith. I became very brutally uncompromising about it, and made a stand for it whenever I could.

Life was a bit strange when I moved back home and re-entered “normal life” afterwards. Unlike most graduates from Christian year out programmes, I didn’t have a university course waiting for me, and my life wasn’t mapped out. First priority on moving home was finding a job, and the one I found was in Toy Stack, on the top floor of the Bentall Centre in Kingston. I worked there for about seven months in late 1993 and early 1994.

Does what it says on the tin. It was a stack of toys.

It was my first full-time job, for the princely sum of £3.50 an hour, and we were an odd bunch of people. The manager was a rather scary guy with a short temper and a very poorly-hidden alcohol problem, and he had a young female deputy who took the job of running a crappy discount toyshop FAR too seriously. There were a few other regular employees, some nice, some horrible. There was also a steady supply of kids doing Saturday jobs in there – at the end of a hard day’s toil they would leave clutching a twenty-pound note for their troubles. That sounds ridiculously old-fashioned now. It’s almost as archaic as bartering with coal and sausages.

Baby All Gone, the toy every desperate parent wanted for Christmas 1993. Every time we got a delivery of these crappy things, they’d sell in minutes. People were literally fighting in the aisles for them. People would beg and plead with us for them.

The job wasn’t particularly difficult or stressful, except in the run-up to Christmas, when it was utterly horrifying. I either ran the till, or floated around the shop ensuring the shelves were well-stacked. There was ample time for conversation with colleagues, and there’s no prizes for guessing what my favourite topic of conversation was.

Yes, folks – I took it upon myself to try to convert the heathen of Toy Stack, with my l33t witnessing skills that I’d been honing over the previous year. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far at all. Deputy Manager Henchwoman was the toughest nut to crack, and had very little patience with my lame attempts to shoe-horn God into every single conversation. About as little patience as I had for her endlessly banging on about her upcoming wedding, in fact. She didn’t take any of my crap, and was one of the first people to aggressively point out the inconsistencies in what I was saying, and how my behaviour was ridiculously over the top, in terms of how much I worried about morality and principles. I hated it at the time, and felt very put-upon and persecuted, but she was absolutely right. Attempting to witness to people like this massively broke a principle I now stick to very strongly – how other people choose to live their lives is none of my business, and I have absolutely no right to poke my nose into it. It was even worse back then, as I was only nineteen and extraordinarily clueless about life, even compared to most other nineteen-year-olds.

Sunday trading wasn’t a normal thing back then, so the Bentall Centre was usually closed on a Sunday, but it opened on Sundays in December, and it was a condition of my employment that I was meant to work a couple of them. I was told about it at my interview. As the dreaded day approached, I felt really guilty about breaking the Sabbath in such a terrible way, and really, really didn’t want to do it. I tried raising the subject with my boss in an attempt to wriggle out of working my Sundays, and a foul-tempered argument followed, in which he rightly reminded me of the commitment I’d made, that everyone else had agreed to it, and we all had better things to do, so I had to suck it up.

Ouch. Valuable lesson learned. Needless to say, I worked my Sundays, hating doing so because I thought I was being a very bad Christian, and the sky didn’t fall in.

In the spring of 1994, I started my first job on the railway, as a booking clerk for South West Trains. I was glad to leave the toy shop behind, although thankfully I got a fairly nice send-off from my colleagues, so they seemed to have forgiven me for my excessive God-bothering in the workplace.

I spent a few weeks in a training centre at Waterloo, learning how to use an APTIS machine to issue train tickets. At the time, we hadn’t been given stations to work at, as SWT had taken on a bunch of people to fill a range of posts, and they gave us stations after we’d started. Again, I made it clear that I wasn’t keen on working Sundays, and this time I did actually get my wish granted – I ended up working at Effingham Junction, a small station in a pretty quiet corner of rural Surrey, where the ticket office was only open from Mondays to Saturdays.

Effingham Junction station as it looked when I worked there. The wooden building next to the bridge is the ticket office, which I believe has now been demolished and replaced by a modern building in a different location. Just as well, it felt like it would fall over in a stiff breeze, and water poured in through the roof every time it rained. I kept a bucket handy.

Rush hours were busy, but the rest of my shifts (from 0640 to 1400) were really quiet, with only a few eccentric oddballs breaking the silence of the place. I didn’t see many other staff, so I didn’t get much of a chance to spread the Lord’s word while I was there. After a year or so in this backwater, I got bored and requested a move to a bigger station. I moved to Raynes Park, which had three clerks on duty most days, and involved lates and Sundays – I’d dropped most of my objections by then, and could get to church after the end of my shift.

I got a bit more enthusiastic about my mission field while working there, and managed to infuriate my colleagues again. I remember one argument about evidence for God’s existence and how the Bible could be trusted (yeah, I know!!!), and I angrily pointed out that the object in front of me was an APTIS machine, and that if someone else claimed it was a donkey, it was still an APTIS machine. I wonder if that’s the only time that a piece of British Rail hardware has been used in a theological debate? Or whether anyone else has attempted to argue that an APTIS machine could be mistaken for a donkey? Needless to say, APTIS machines and donkeys aside, my heathen colleagues didn’t change their ways.

APTIS machine

Looking back now, I think these attempts to convert people were signs of an inner struggle, where I wrestled with my own doubts and tried to come to terms with the humdrum nature of everyday life. This wasn’t like my year out, and I wasn’t exactly changing the world like I thought I would be. I was back in my original church again, and they didn’t seem to know what to do with me, or find outlets for my passion and energy. I did seriously consider going back to the church in Bognor I’d spent my year out in, as back then I could easily have internally transferred to another railway job in the area. It seemed like it might reinvigorate things, and be a place I could be useful and fulfilled. I visited the church again and enjoyed the service, but afterwards a bunch of former TIE Teamers like myself sat in a pub bemoaning similar experiences – everything was bit of an anticlimax, and none of us felt very sure what to do with ourselves (or, as we’d prefer to put it, what God wanted to do with us). I wasn’t going to recreate the thrills and glories of my year out by moving.

It was around this time that my faith underwent quite a big change in direction, but that’s a story for next week.

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