“I love that.” I said, taking a sip of my cider. “I love the fact that escalations in our company are handled by a man with a degree in theology.”
The meeting had been far less painful than expected, and better still it had finished far sooner than planned. As a result, the four of us had found ourselves on the steps of the hideous office building, a symphony in concrete, in the middle of the afternoon with some spare time before we had to go our separate ways and catch our trains back home. That kind of window is designed for only one thing: a quick pint passing itself off as an opportunity to discuss how the meeting has gone. We wandered up a side street until we found somewhere suitable – a pub with long low tables and reclaimed school chairs, a list of wines on the blackboard. Everyone inside seemed to be tapping away on a MacBook, and even though I was technically bunking off I still got that pang that is often there, the envy of other people’s lives.
I was struck that we all ordered something different. Steven got them in, in unspoken accordance with convention as he was the most senior of us: a Becks for him, a Veltins for Martin, a Peroni for Jason and a pint of cider for me. If any of them judged me for being a cider drinker they were too nice to say, even though mine came in some kind of goblet rather than a pint glass and I was conscious that it looked anything but manly.
We grabbed a table near the window (“it’s only reserved from six”, the barmaid had told us cheerily) and watched people heading up the hill towards St. Paul’s. It briefly occurred to me that they might look in and envy me: there’s always somebody worse off than you. The conversation started on the meeting we’d had, but because ultimately no meeting is that interesting we drifted on to other topics and that’s when I found out – because Steven volunteered the information - that Martin had a degree in theology.
“Theology? How did that come about?” I said.
Martin knitted his eyebrows together. He nearly needn't have bothered; they almost joined in the middle in a manner I personally would have done something about. I could tell by the rehearsed quality of his response that this was a question he’d been asked many times.
“I suppose it came from childhood.” He said. “As a kid I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Catholic Church.”
“Like so many children.” I interjected, realising I was being tasteless slightly too late to stop myself, just like usual. There was a split second pause, then they all laughed. One day this won’t happen, but I never learn; every time people laugh, I forget how easily it could have been different.
“Exactly. And from there studying theology was just a natural next step. The thing is, it is fascinating. People think it’s all about God but it’s like any subject where you study something in detail, all about ideas and arguments and you soon forget the religious angle completely.”
“So it becomes like history or philosophy?”
“Yes! And that’s why I found it so interesting.”
“And what effect did it have on your faith?”
“Well, none at first but I don't think I really believed it by the end. By the time I finished it was just a degree, like any other.”
This is so often the case. I know lots of English graduates who couldn’t read a book for fun for years after their degree. After my degree I couldn’t read anything for fun, not for quite some time. That’s when I expressed my delight that we had a theology graduate handling escalations, although it also made a perverse kind of sense; he was used to picking through a pack of lies, after all.
“Well I can’t believe you have a law degree and do the job you do.” said Martin. He had a good point; if I had five pounds for every time someone had told me I can’t believe you have a law degree and you’re working here doing this, I would probably be in a villa in the south of France by now.
“I sometimes think that myself.” I said. This wasn't strictly true, but I decided it was preferable to being honest.
“I have the same thing.” said Steven, who had been listening up to then, as he leaned forward. “I manage a whole team and I’m a qualified environmental engineer.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes. That’s what they told me when I finished my degree, those exact words. Congratulations, you’re now a qualified environmental engineer. Never used my degree once. The funny thing is that nowadays everyone cares about the environment, there are all kinds of audits, you have to prove how green you are and everybody takes it really seriously. But back when I graduated in 1995 no one gave a shit.”
“So you lucked out, you managed to identify a growth area, you got the right qualification, and…”
“…completely failed to do anything with it. Yes, I know. Genius isn’t it?”
“You’re like the record executives who failed to sign the Beatles.”
Steven gave me a wry smile, the same one I’d seen several times during the meeting when we made eye contact across the table. The one that said These guys are never going to understand what we want, are they? Steven was one of my favourite people at work and many was the time we’d had despairing conversations about corporate life over instant messenger. We’d only ever been to the pub after meetings in London twice, never for long enough but always for long enough to realise that, in other circumstances, we’d probably have been good friends. Geography can be horribly inconvenient like that.
“Just like them, yes.”
“I don’t use my degree either.” said Jason. “I’ve got one in sports physiotherapy.”
At first this seemed stranger still, although on reflection it did kind of make sense. Jason also managed a team, but he was also ten years younger than the rest of us. Apart from me he was the only person to attend the afternoon’s workshop in a t-shirt, and his straggly beard was the kind that is grown by design but looks as if it has sprung up by accident or neglect.
“You’re kidding.” said Martin; the theology student doubting the physiotherapist.
“I’m not, mate. In fact in my whole class only one person was actually working as a physiotherapist, and she quit last year.”
“No money in it?” said Steven.
A theologian, an environmental engineer, a sports physiotherapist and a lawyer walk into a bar: it sounded like the start of a joke. Maybe in a way it was: a joke about how we all spend three years studying these things and then go and get jobs which bear no relation to them. One of my favourite friends has a philosophy degree and a job where the only connection to philosophy is the regular opportunity to ask herself Why am I here? - and, to be honest, all jobs provide that.
The whole conversation reminded me that one of the dullest bits of my job involves resetting people’s IT passwords. I log into a system, put in their user name and change their password to something new with the requisite amount of numbers, symbols and capital letters. The only redeeming feature is that the screen where I do it also shows me their password reminder questions, the ones people enter when they first set up their account. These are the questions that are meant to save them when they get back from holiday and can’t remember how to log in to do their job, and probably also can’t remember why they would possibly want to.
It’s a snooper’s charter. If I wanted, I could find out everybody’s mother’s maiden name, or their first pet. I could work out where all those colleagues went to school or who their hero is (one gentleman, meek and mild and ever so slightly creepy, has picked “Tom Cruise”: my heart goes out to him). My colleague Carla, a keen dog lover, has decided to make the process easier by just putting “Dog” for everything. What is your favourite animal? Dog. What animal would you like to be? Dog. What did you want to be when you grew up? Dog.
I’m reminded of all this because of that last question: What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s the one I find sad. I see it all the time and I see all the answers people have put: film star; vet; doctor; footballer. You can be certain that not a single one has listed the job they do now, or anything like it. If anyone, when they were growing up, had wanted to end up sitting in an office filling in cells on spreadsheets and sending emails saying “here is a spreadsheet” you wouldn’t have wanted to spend time with them at school. Put that way, it’s just a database of disappointments, a collection of lost children who have fallen into something they were never meant to do.
I didn’t tell my colleagues that, because we were having a good time and I didn’t want to spoil everything. But also, I think I realised that life was more interesting for precisely that reason. I decided, on balance, that I was glad that people could study those subjects and go on to do jobs like these, that we were all muddling through life making it up as we went along and that I had ended up in a pub, not far from Blackfriars, talking to three guys who had every bit as little of a life plan as I did. At that precise, good-humoured moment - and it doesn’t happen as often as it should - I didn’t really envy anyone.
I spotted Steven finishing his pint.
“Do we have time for another?” I said.
Martin, the worrier of the group, looked at his watch.
“Just about. We need to be setting off around twenty past four, though.”
“Yeah, why not.”
I went up to the bar and got the same again: a pint of Becks for the environmental engineer, a pint of Veltins for the theologian, a pint of Peroni for the sports physiotherapist and a pint of cider, in an effeminate goblet, for me.