How can I write about a man I hardly knew? How can I reach into that aching void called “father.” I’ve been trying to recreate him in my imagination most of my life. Dad was an RAF pilot and he died in a plane crash when I was four. All I really know is the shape of the spaces he left behind.
Thirty five years after he died, I arrive at a hotel in Eastbourne with 30 other candidates for promotion. It’s a 3 day Assessment Centre: drafting exercises, problem-solving, psychometrics, interviews, the usual sort of thing. I can do this stuff standing on my head.
The first evening we have drinks and dinner and ease our way into the process by filling out a personal information sheet – who are you; what are you interested in; why do you want to be promoted? It’s just something to give the interview panel a few ideas for questions. It’s not a test. But I struggle with the last bit. Why do I want to be promoted? I know I’m in the wrong job. I’ve always known it.
Other people have shaped my career for years; I’m the blue-eyed boy and I’m on the fast track to somewhere I don’t want to go. I know I shouldn’t be here but I didn’t have the guts to disappoint my boss and say “No.” The truth is that I don’t want to be promoted but now that I’m here, I’ll give it my best shot. It’s a matter of pride to succeed. Give me a race to run and I’ll win it; give me a hurdle to jump and I’ll clear it; give me an obstacle to get round and I’ll smash through it. Failure? I don’t know the meaning of the word.
Why do I want to be promoted?
I make something up and go off to bed for an early night.
And I dream. For the first time that I can remember, I dream about my father. He is flying overhead as I cycle round a village green. I am an adult – the same age as in real life. The plane is some fantastic amalgam of jet fighter and propeller-driven bi-plane. In the dream, I know that my father is the pilot. As I look up, drawn by the droning-whirring sound of the plane, I see it start to fall out of the sky. It happens in slow motion. I know it is going to crash. I try to judge the trajectory and I pedal the bike as fast as I can to where I think it will hit the ground. I want to get there in time. I want to save him. There is only one road and it goes round the village green in a circle. The plane plunges towards the centre of the green. I get off the bike and run towards it. Before I can get there, it bursts into flames and is consumed. The heat is overwhelming. I cannot get close. I am too late.
I jolt upright in bed and wake up drenched in sweat. I can remember the dream vividly. I fall back on the pillows and try unsuccessfully to go back to sleep.
The next morning, I sit in the examination room with the other candidates, each at our own desk. “This is a problem-solving exercise,” says the invigilator – a bearded psychologist named Rick. “All the information you need is contained in the brief. You have one and three-quarter hours to complete the task. You may turn over your papers now and begin.” His words fall away into silence, broken only by the sound of rustling papers and a few sharp intakes of breath around the room. I delay looking at my papers for a minute, trying to settle my mind which is still caught up in last night’s dream. My stomach is tied up in knots. I’m breathing quite fast. Deep breath. Take a deep breath.
I realize that other people are already making notes. I check the clock on the wall. Several minutes have gone by without me noticing. I really ought to look at the papers. Come on, turn them over. I do so. My hands are shaking. I cast my eyes over the first page. It’s something about building an oil refinery. I can make that out but I can’t take in the detail. The words swim, the print is fuzzy. It makes no sense. No sense at all. I can see that there are words and tables of numbers but I cannot make them out. They might as well be written in Cyrillic script. Jesus, what’s going on here?
I put up my hand and indicate to the invigilator that I want to go to the toilet. He nods and I get up and find my way to the bathroom. I lock myself in a cubicle and sit on the bog. I can feel panic rising in my chest, a kind of constriction. I clench and unclench my fists. “Come on. Get a grip,” I tell myself.
Gradually, my breathing slows and the feeling of constriction begins to ease. I realize that I cannot stay there much longer. I stand up and flush the toilet then go over to the wash basin and cup my hands under the cold tap. I slosh my face with the water three or four times and dry myself on the towel – one of those continuous loop towels that you have to turn a handle to use. It fascinates me – the whole idea of a continuous towel – does it really have no end; does it go round and round for ever just getting dirtier; why is it called Initial; whose initials? I catch myself. Shit. This is crazy. I’m going crazy here. I have to go back in to the examination.
I make my way back to my desk. Rick comes over. “You alright?”
“You sure you’re not sick or something? You were gone for over 10 minutes”
“No. I’m fine thank you.”
He walks back to his desk at the far end of the room and sits down. I pick up the papers to read them. Now I can see the words. I can see that they make sense but I feel completely detached from them. They make sense but I don’t care what they mean. I try to shock myself out of my detachment by biting the back of my hand. I can hardly feel it.
I sit at my desk for the remaining hour and a quarter pretending to read the papers, picking up my pen and moving it over the page as if I am writing though I make no actual marks. I try to write my name on the first sheet of the lined paper. Surely I can do that? I must be able to write my own name. But I can’t. My hand hovers above the page. Something in me will not let me write.
When the bell sounds at the end of the exam, the room is suddenly filled with the sound of chairs being scraped back, loud exhalations of breath all round: “Phew, I’m glad that’s over” – “ Not so bad” – “What did you think?”
I say nothing. I am the last person to get up from my desk. The others have left the room by the time I walk over to Rick. He is expecting me to hand him my answer paper. He holds out his hand for it but I have nothing to give him.
“Nothing at all?” At first he doesn’t believe it.
“Nothing,” I say. Tears well up in my eyes and I sob – “I couldn’t save him”.
It was hard to face the disbelieving stares of my colleagues when they heard that I had flunked the assessment centre. Some were sympathetic, some pitied me, and a few were contemptuous. For a long time, I carried it inside me as a dreadful failure. “You lost your nerve, you should have been able to do it,” the voice in my head would complain.
But now – twenty years later – I am hugely grateful for the lesson in humility and for all the things that promotion would have made impossible: taking early retirement; completing a PhD; training in psychology; coaching and consulting; running my own business; writing books and telling stories; finding my way into a satisfying life that is truly my own.
I couldn’t save Dad but he saved me.