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Breaking Free

7 minute read

Moments that change your life are never singular. They are the flapping of wings that pick you up, an inch at a time before you take flight into a new stage of your life. I sat cross-legged on the beach as if in meditation while the spray of the salted surf tingled my lips. The mighty Pacific Ocean breathed in, then sighed a whisper of its harmonious tale, a song of calm and struggle. I didn't hear it, but I felt it knowing that I face a choice, a crossroads:

               Do I start a new life in Chile, or do I go back to the UK and continue where I left off?

               It wasn't a bad life I had in the UK; I thought I liked it. Friends, family and work, work, work. Long workdays of leaving the house in the dark and finishing work at night; too much hard work and too little reward for so-called stability. ‘Freedom in discipline’, people used to tell me growing up, but all I ever thought about was breaking free. Free like a bird from the shackles that bound me. The expectations of what was needed to be a ‘good boy’, a ‘respectable’ member of society.

               Half a smile broke into a burst of laughter, ‘Respectable?’ That was funny as if I was ever able to receive ‘respect’ from anyone in the UK, I thought. In Chile, on the other hand. I narrowed my eyes to the horizon and felt like I was flying, released from my cage. The steady line of the shaded blues merged as I glided, and distant large silhouettes loomed as ghost ships of memories came to port.

               The beach, Costa Azul, was quiet that day. The busy crowds of people had flocked back to Santiago, one hundred and twenty kilometres to the east, after resting on the summer sands. The children swooped back into the new school year while the grownups soared back to work, rejuvenated and ready for the winter to come.

               I felt as though it had become a global condition. Work, work, work hard in the winter; chill and relax in the summer. Surely, this is the opposite of any other mammal in the animal kingdom, I thought. Hearing the seagulls squawk overhead made me wonder if people were more like birds than any other creature on this planet.

               A whisper turned into a whistle. Gentle words my mother spoke to me months earlier echoed in my mind, ‘I'm so disappointed none of my boys travelled.’ She had said. I remembered those bright caramel eyes that looked at me, and I knew she wanted more for her sweet boy before he flew the nest. More than a college dropout, working a nine to five dead-end job at a pension company.

               I told her with a playful grin: ‘I still can, mama! Someday I'll travel!’

               ‘No, you won't.’ The vision of her rippled back into the shimmering waters, her voice taken over by the crashing of waves, ‘If you wanted to,’ she said at a distance, ‘you would have done it already.’

               ‘Here I am!’ I told the sky as if talking back to my eighteen-year-old self — the boy who wanted to fly the coop but didn't know how. Not many people get an opportunity to break free, I thought, lifting myself up off the ground.

               Why Chile? I guess because I'm half Chilean, so it's important to learn about my heritage. Or perhaps because it would be nice to know my grandparents on my mother's side and her family? Another reason could be to get to know my dad, who took flight at the turn of the millennium to escape the UK.

               I met my dad a few times in Santiago to get to know him more as a person rather than a father figure. He taught English for a small institute and travelled from office to office as a private tutor. I accompanied him one scorching March afternoon to one of his classes. He told me to come in, as it was too hot to wait outside. We sat in silence as the receptionist took a phone call. The office was full of young professionals who looked at us curiously.

               My dad’s hair was like fluffy silver plumage, crowning a man in a greenish-grey suit and a dark patterned tie that pulled up his chest. He had a crooked smile beneath a visibly broken nose shaped like a beak, luring you into staring up at his sea-green eyes. Even sitting down, you could feel his six-foot-four lean stature.

               We spent the session explaining how to use grammar to structure language. Thanks to my A level in English, I was familiar with what my dad was cackling away about. I found the material he taught rather bland as I flicked through the worksheets. It was as if he were simply dictating a recipe's ingredients without instructions on how to cook it. It was on that day that I decided to rewrite his teaching materials. This was the start of what would become my first of many books on how to teach English.

               My dad loved to talk. His words painted an exciting world, like how a birdsong brings the morning to life, full of inspiration and high hopes for the day to come. We spoke for hours in parks and cafés about the material I was writing and what I could do as a teacher. If only I knew how to sell my skills, sell myself.

               After many more hours of talks and stories of past successes and failings, I learnt what it took to be a salesman: honesty, integrity, persistence and, most importantly, courage.

               The courage I needed on my first day of canvassing was the most difficult. My feet stuck to the floor as I stood outside a glass tower with the large sign: 'Magnet Ltd'. A sign that ironically attracted me there that day, to that very first office block.

               My legs trembled as my stomach dropped, planting me out in front of those glass-rotating doors. The memories of those people before me, those demons, those doubters, who had told me I was ‘not made for sales’, ‘the student type’, ‘you need more character to sell’ and that ‘you need more confidence’. Those were the words of my brothers mixed with failed job interviews in the UK that swamped me in self-doubt. It was in that dark moment of retreat, when my feet shifted towards the nearest underground station, that I received a call from my dad.

               ‘Remember!’ he squawked as I mentioned that I wasn't cut out for this, ‘There isn't anybody else in the whole wide world that is doin' what you're doin'. Anybody!’

               Canvassing was never easy. They say there is a knack to it, but the key to it and most things in life is perseverance. The first office was uninterested, but that was okay because I overcame the fear, and the adrenaline carried me on to the next company.

               One building called 'Atlantis' was a turquoise tower with layers of algae-coloured windows in the shape of an unearthed crystalline structure. I snuck past the security guard in my white shirt and navy-blue tie, following the other workers acting as if I worked there too. As I entered the lift, my heart rate flapped wildly, and I pressed the button for the top floor, where I would then work my way downwards.

               Down one floor, nothing. Next floor, nothing. Lucky number thirteen redirected me to the fourth, where I met the HR manager Marjorie Drogett. A short, narrow-shaped woman whose eyes magnified threefold by her circular glasses. I explained to her my method of teaching and new materials that guaranteed someone spoke perfect English in six months. Her wide eyes showed interest, while her jaw remained stern and hard to read. With a mixture of different English accents, she squeaked, ‘This all sounds bery, bery… umm, interesante. What hours do you make class?’

               ‘I can do seven in the morning until late at night in your office. When are you available?’ My final blunt question froze time, and I heard the clock on the wall tick. I waited for a response, my palms oozing sweat, and my mouth dried up like sand. This was it, I thought, the catch of the day.

               She took down my details and then said she would call. What I took to mean, she wouldn’t. Another lost opportunity. I shook her hand, then left the office, stooped forward with my head studying the tiled ground, deflated and undeserving of calling myself a salesman.

               The ocean soothed my bare feet, licking my wounds and encouraging a tidal flow to the ebb of my confidence.  I wasn't supposed to be there, and it reminded me only the brave pioneers sailed west. I couldn't break free from my stagnant destiny. The UK beckoned, and it was calling me home as I looked back up to the falling sun on the horizon. I pulled out my wallet where my flight ticket was stuck behind my last Chilean peso bill.

               The letters had faded away, sanded down into the ether, irrelevant words of forgotten promises. Nevertheless, the rigid, deeply ingrained numbers remained. Seat Seventeen B for six twenty-five in the morning on May 13th, 2006.

               ‘Do I start a new life in Chile,’ I asked aloud, ‘or do I go back to the UK and continue where I left off?’, holding that black and white ticket. There was no way of telling what that future held, but I knew for certain that I could be anyone, do anything, and be free.

               My phone rang. It was Marjorie.

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