Hear Alarm. Toss and turn. Grapple with the frustrations of waking up for approximately 1-2 hours. Tumble into hard ground at some point in the morning. Wash, brush, dress, get out. Walk to station. Tap oyster. Grab a Costa. Grab a train. Check phone. Sip drink. Get out of train. Tap oyster again. Meet her eyes. Yesterday in frills, today in a shirt – she dressed to impress. Curly brown hair, browner skin. She is probably one of the adventurous ones who Snapchat their friends with a different hair colour every 6 months. Unlike me with my staunchly black mess, 26 years and counting.
She works for a cab company. Her job is to hold a sign outside the station platform and attract passengers to the cab service. I find her standing at the exact same spot every weekday, almost as though she was a statue. The soles of her feet were probably embedded in the floor by now.
I am fairly sure this isn’t the most inspiring job for her. She dressed to impress, and definitely not for passengers looking for a cab. Maybe she wasn’t the one for ‘inspiration’ and this is what she grew up wanting to do. I won’t be surprised if her parents owned the cab company and advertising for it was her way of helping them run it. It is common for Asian kids born and brought up in the UK to work for family businesses in capacities which might not be looked upon as the most ‘respectable’ jobs by Asian standards.
I try to read the face beneath the springy curls but it is impassive. Definitely not the face that gets snapchatted to friends after adventurous salon sprees. I want to know how it feels to stand at this boring spot at a boring station in a boring street, all day long. I try to meet her gaze as I emerge from the platform stairs. Quickly, before she remembers and dismisses me to continue searching for a potential customer. Her furtive glance skims nonchalantly across my face but I swear I see a flicker. Surely we have built a relationship by now through the seconds and gazes we have exchanged? I grip my coffee cup tightly. I am pretty sure she isn’t allowed a cuppa while at work. I don’t make this comparison through the mind of a coffee junkie. It’s an automatic reaction to an emotion that possibly runs deeper than my caffeine addiction.
Back in 2012 I was starting out as a freshie engineer in the big bad working world. My company was overlooking the making of a brand new tower at Manchester. The tower itself was being built by a separate construction company. Finding myself at a construction site for the first time as the only female in the group was way out of my comfort zone which shrank further and further in the horizon as I found myself exposed to uncharted territory. It didn’t help that I have always had a certain discomfort attached to construction sites. I think its got something to do with growing up in Dhaka. I cannot even begin to count the endlessly poor people I have witnessed in front of skeletal buildings, toiling away to create the haphazardly built concrete jungle Dhaka has grown up to be. No protective wear could ever be seen. It is commonplace to find women beating bricks besides busy roads in the stifling, killer heat while their infants play with dirt under precariously perched umbrellas.
Manchester was not as discomforting a scene. There were protective gear involved and numerous safety measures and documents in place. The employees were not day labours getting by on appalling salaries – construction is a proper skill to be had here. But the weather was just as severe as that of Dhaka’s, flipped upside down. The football famous city is equally well known for its bitter winds and rainy spells, just like the most of UK. Ask any Brit and he/she will tell you how particularly bad Manchester is. And London. And Aberdeen. And Glasgow. And Edinburgh. To brave the unforgiving weather in a workplace that was a) makeshift, b) a good drive from the nearest food store and c) under a tight deadline, isn’t your average 9-5 deal.
I will never forget one particularly snowy day that probably became the first turning point in my Engineering career. The wind was so mad that day that the snow fell in a shower of bullets, nearly horizontal in its haste. Visibility was scarily low. Even inside the makeshift work area the cruel weather followed – the toilet seat made my teeth chatter and the cold draft seemed to walk right through closed doors and windows. I remember wishing at that moment for a sudden magical transportation to my London work desk where I could wrap my numb fingers around my ever faithful coffee mug. Two years on, I still think back to that wistful moment every time I am stuck at work. I firmly tell myself that if I could survive that, I can survive this too.
Luckily for me, the engineers finished quite early that day because the winds were above the safety limit to continue with our task. But the construction workers ploughed on silently. No excuses were made for them. Witnessing that reality changed me. Since then, cemented by similar experiences in the following years, I have grown a special kind of respect for jobs that require being exposed to extreme weather. No amount of hard work or perseverance can set you up against nature wreaking havoc with your mortality. The pay for labour in the UK is better than it is in Bangladesh but not so much, definitely not enough to make up for what the body has to endure in harsh temperatures on a daily basis. It’s a bit jarring when you think there are people earning tens and thousands making You Tube videos from the comforts of their home.
My heart goes out to all the brave souls who work outdoors like soldiers, come rain or shine. Even the ones I don’t get to see or know. Cleaners, builders, charity and voluntary workers, the women back home beating the bricks…and her. She has somehow become the face of my emotion. That scene of her standing so unfailingly at the platform throws me off balance every single morning. Every single morning I wonder how I could have been the one watching people tapping oysters and standing in cold stations all day long. But I was luckily the one heading towards a warmer building where I would get to sit down at a desk and go to the washroom as many times as my overactive bladder demanded. Make tea as many times as I needed to and didn’t. Between our second long glances, it is firmly established that I was the one growing the grass on the ever elusive ‘greener’ side.
And suddenly, I know I have to pull through the day, come what may. I draw my scarf tighter and carry on.