I made a big and unexpected change in my life in 2007. I had been training to be a teacher for a few months in 2006 and early 2007. I have tried to be a teacher several times in my life, and it was the first thing I wanted to do, but almost every time something has got in the way. This seems to be nature's way of saying "Don't be a teacher". In 2005, after I stood down from Parliament, I did the CELTA certificate, which qualified me to teach English as a foreign language to adults, and I got a job straight away, in Riga, Latvia, where I worked for six months. I could have stayed there longer, but significant other stayed behind in London, where he was working, and whatever else I wanted I did not want to lose him, and, misguidedly as it turned out, I thought it would be a better career move to get qualified to teach in state schools, job with a pension and all that. And I did not have time to hang around, as I was already into my fifties. So I started doing a PGCE at the Institute of Education in London. I enjoyed studying, which I had not done for many years, and I enjoyed being in the classroom. I found that I liked teaching 11-16 year olds, especially those with minor learning difficulties or who were never going to make waves academically. I was praised for classroom management skills (age and life experience helps here) although the low expectations of most of the pupils worried me. But I found the unfettered joy and enthusiasm displayed by people of that age (not usually about their school work) uplifting, and I miss it still. However, it was (yet again) not to be. Unexpectedly I was tipped off about a job opportunity in Strasbourg, a place I knew as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for three years from 2002, and I applied - the process took many months, but the job was offered, and I walked out of the PGCE course without regret, and moved to France without looking back. Significant other followed three months later. We talked a lot before making this decision, but it was not a hard one to make. Neither of us has any wish to live in the UK again. The inevitable culture shock followed, and I have seen colleagues who have arrived since go through it too. It is usually kicked off by the rudeness and xenophobia of French people, especially it seems those who work in some capacity where they are expected to serve the public, and by the fact that organisations and institutions operate for the benefit of the staff who work in them and not for their customers. I had the usual struggle to become fluent in French, which was harder for significant other than it was for me because he arrived with no French at all. Memo to French people: miming and shouting when someone does not speak your language fluently and is trying to make themself understood is Not Helpful. Saying on a telephone helpline "Madame, if you cannot speak French correctly I cannot help you" is Poor. Throwing someone out of a supermarket for speaking in a language other than French on their mobile phone is Very Poor. (I have seen the last happen, fortunately it has not happened to me). Oh and if half the nation starts their annual holiday on the same weekend as the other half is returning from theirs, and if the whole nation goes on holiday in France, by car, then you are going to get severe congestion on the roads, so don't be surprised when it happens every year.
The job I came here to do was new when I arrived. What I do does not matter for this story, but to do it you need to be a native speaker of English with some clue about the law and with an understanding of the structure and workings of your own language, as well as some idea of what translation is all about. Three were recruited in the first instance, and I was the second to arrive. Paul Roberts was the last of us. A tall man, early forties, dark hair and very bright blue eyes. He was a cheerful, talkative colleague, full of stories - he spent a lot of his time in Argentina - and with a wonderful talent for making connections. There are still things I do, music I listen to and books I read, because Paul told me about them first. Paul had split up with his partner not long before coming to France, and was still very sad about it. He was also not well. This was clear to me before others noticed it - I spent most of my waking hours sitting next to Paul - and after some weeks at work he had to stop, because he needed treatment for cancer. This he started in January 2008, first in London and then in Strasbourg when he made an attempt to come back to work, which did not last long. Through the spring and summer of 2009 I was one of the people who tried to help, and to look after Paul when he was at home, which he was for some weeks, with a nurse coming in daily. He got thinner, and slower, and sadder - well, I don't need to describe what someone is like when they are dying of cancer, if you have been with someone who is then you know already, and if not then save it for when, or if, you need to have the experience. Each time there was a crisis, and organs started to fail, they brought him back, and each time he spent longer sedated and decorated with tubes. Each time the hospital regime got stricter (washing before visiting, top layer of clothes removed, plastic apron and gloves). I started to talk to his widowed father, his only relative, in his late eighties, regularly with updates. During one of the last conversations I had with Paul he told me how much he loved his father, and how he wished he had been a better son. I wrote this down later and sent it to his father. Some of us were with Paul in his last hours, when he was sedated and moving away from us. I think perhaps most deaths are like this. He certainly died alone, although his friends were with him in the room.
Maybe every death changes us. I know I grieved for Paul as much as I had grieved for my father more than 30 years before, though differently. I was surprised by this. But the change in my life came from something Paul did in 2009, once he knew that he was too ill to do very much for himself any more. He gave me the password for his email account and asked me to check his emails; he told me the names of the people he really wanted to hear from, and asked me to print any emails from them and read them to him. I spent several months last year effectively immersed in another person's life. I read emails I was never originally intended to see. I was witness to rows, to grief, to anger, to worry, and to joy too. And there was nothing I could do with any of it. It was not my life, but another person's, and I couldn't make it better. I found out for certain what I had suspected for some time, that Paul was very often not truthful, and that the life he talked about, his life in Argentina, Spain and South Africa, was mostly an invention. I found out too that he could be unkind. A female colleague who often visited him in hospital was a little smitten by him, which he was fully aware of. Paul was gay, and was very cruel about her in emails to others. During that hot summer I began to feel physically heavier, as if I was carrying a weight inside me. Nor did I understand my own feelings very well at this time. Colleagues who didn't really know us often approached me, and the rest of the small group who were looking after Paul, to praise us for what we were doing. A lot of this was said at Paul's funeral in September 2009. That praise even found its way into my annual appraisal at work. And it made me furious. I didn't want praise. I wanted things to be better, and I couldn't make them better. I knew from the emails that there was, or had been, a lot in Paul's life which had contributed to his illness, and I couldn't make it, or him, better.
After Paul died I saw a psychiatrist twice. I was initially sceptical about this, but she helped me. When I told her about the emails she helped me to see that Paul had given me a lot of the bad things in his life, because he couldn't, or didn't want to, deal with them. And I couldn't either, which was why the burden was so hard to bear. It was, literally, unbearable. The psychiatrist suggested I write Paul a letter telling him I was angry with him - which I had not realised until that moment I was - and my first reaction was, how stupid is that? Write a letter to a dead person, who can't read it? But I wrote the letter, and I told him I was angry with him for giving me stuff to carry that was too heavy for me. I told him, I've got new colleagues now, and they are good and friendly and good company, but I don't want them, I want you back again. And for some reason I made a photocopy of the letter. As if I was really sending it and keeping a copy for myself. And with the warm paper in my hand I felt, just a little bit, lighter. Now I can remember how Paul and I laughed at silly stories in the news, and how when someone brought chocolates in to share we raced each other along the corridor to get there first because we both liked the same centres. Things are different now. I do get disproportionately sad when someone leaves my life, much more than I used to, and I know it is because I tried so hard to keep Paul there and I couldn't. But I remember the happy things now.