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WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?

What Are You Doing Here?    

Tells the story of an Australian Primary School teacher’s experiences of five years living in England , at a time when the country was recruiting teachers from overseas to solve its staffing shortages.  

Jennifer Melnik relates with humour and poignancy, the realities of living in another country, and working within a different education system’s cultural and professional ideas.  

Through her dealings with unruly children, continual school inspections, job interviews, a flooded flat, frequent house moves, a school ghost and visa problems, we meet and discover a diverse range of fascinating characters and places.

In Store Price: $AU23.95 
Online Price:   $AU22.95

SPECIAL CLEARANCE PRICE: $5.00

ISBN:  978-1-921240-47-8
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 189
Genre: Non Fiction
 

 


Author: Jennifer Melnik 
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2007
Language: English

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AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY    

Jennifer Melnik was born in Holland and migrated with her parents to Australia as a young child. She was educated in Brisbane and during her teenage years lived in an old terrace building above an art gallery.  

After leaving school she studied commercial illustration and graphic design. After she divorced, Jennifer spent several years bringing up her daughter alone.  

During this time she attended university and gained a nursing degree while working part time as a high school parent liaison officer and nursing assistant in an aged care home. She then completed a degree in education.  

After graduating, she taught at a primary school and worked as a home tutor in Brisbane for 12 months. Jennifer was recruited by a teaching agency to the UK , where she worked as a primary and infant teacher for over five years. She currently lives in Brisbane .

Arrival (part sample)

 

The phone beside the bed woke me and my eyes began to focus. The travel clock displayed the time as seven thirty. In a stupor I picked up the receiver.

“Hello, Jenny? John Davies. Just checking you’ve arrived. I’ll come by and pick you up later this afternoon. You’ll have to get used to the new time zone here.” My groggy reply must have been obvious. I’d been sleeping soundly in a central London hotel since seven the previous night, and I was still tired and jetlagged.

Later that morning I left the hotel to cash all my traveller’s cheques at a Bureau de Change in the Strand . I didn’t have a UK bank account and didn’t think there would be money changing facilities in the small village I was going to be living, so I needed to have a month’s supply of funds to see me through until I received my first pay.  

After returning to the hotel room I tried to connect my laptop to the telephone line in the hope of sending some emails back home. No luck … the computer stalled, then froze, I couldn’t close it down and I panicked. Remembering that there was a computer store called Dixon ’s further along the street, I collected all the cables and carried everything down there to get some help. I must have looked ridiculous struggling with it all.

The young salesman seemed slightly amused, but sympathised with my problem. He called for assistance from his colleague and after both of them debating over what should be done, managed to close the stalled program down and gave me a free disk for my new internet provider. It wasn’t completely fixed, but it was the best they could do.

That afternoon I checked out of the hotel. Casually waiting in the lobby was a short, scruffy-looking man wearing sneakers, or trainers as they call them in the UK , talking on a mobile phone.

“She’s Australian, an older woman,” he said, “through Start Agency.” I guessed then that he must be John Davies.

An older woman? Some may see me as too old, when approaching the wrong side of forty, to be leaving the security of my sunny Australian home to work in dreary old England . Maybe it was unusual to make such a change at this time in my life, but going to England to live, even for a short time, had been my childhood dream. It was Enid Blyton’s  Secret Seven, Famous Five and Mallory Towers books I’d read as a child that had first got me interested in visiting England. Descriptions of the Dorset seaside coast, country villages, Cornwall , smugglers and quaint people had instilled in me an unexplained longing to see and experience a country, culture and climate so different from my own.

Eight months ago, the holiday I spent in London with my daughter had intrigued me further and made me more determined to come back.

 

We’d stayed at this very hotel, a lovely grand art deco building in the centre of London , arriving early in the morning by airport coach. I’d walked up to the check-in desk, only to be stopped in my tracks by a smartly-dressed woman with her hand raised in the air, indicating for me to stop.

“Stand over there,” she’d said abruptly and unsmilingly, looking at me as if she’d been approached by someone so rude and unrefined as to have the effrontery to simply walk up to her without  waiting until she was ready. I looked around to where she’d indicated, and noticed a sign that read Queue here. I had in my jetlagged state, not actually seen the sign, but to the woman I’d shockingly disregarded the rules of the hotel and had expected immediate attention. Who did I think I was, someone important?

It was irrelevant that we were the only customers there. The rules must not be flexible for anyone, especially to those that looked like they’d travelled from the colonies.

She made me stand there like a naughty school child, waiting for several minutes while she shuffled papers around on the desk in front of her.

“Can I help you?” she said finally, looking at me with suspicion.

Well, not really, I thought, I’m just enjoying standing here, tired with lots of luggage, passing the time of day in a hotel lobby.

We’d arrived too early, she told us. Check-in time was at ten and it was now only eight. They would however, allow us to leave our luggage with them, if we wanted to go and do something else. We could come back in around an hour to check on our room availability if we wished, but they couldn’t guarantee it would be ready before ten. She then summoned the porter with another flick of the hand, who took our cases into a secured area and gave us a ticket.

It was a sunny, but bracing winter’s day in early December. Office workers were walking briskly down the street carrying briefcases and shops were beginning to open their doors and shutters. Homeless souls, covered in blankets and newspapers were beginning to wake up. Rubbish was piled in big black plastic bags on the footpath in front of restaurants and the big red double-decker buses we’d seen from the air as we flew over the city on our approach to Heathrow Airport , were now weaving their way down the narrow streets, cleverly avoiding jay walking pedestrians. Crossing the road was a real experience. You had to wait until a crowd had gathered and walk quickly across with them. If you tried to cross on your own you risked being skittled, as we nearly were one day by a black African push bike rider in Oxford Street, who rang his bell angrily at us and shouted something unintelligible. I had never seen roads as chaotic as this and so much dangerous jay walking. The traffic lights were ignored as traffic sped along, regardless of crossing pedestrians.  

The day after we arrived we walked down to Trafalgar Square , where it had been so cold overnight the fountain had frozen. We took in the British Museum . It was wonderful to be able to see the paintings and sculptures I’d only seen in books before. Here I was now standing in front of the most famous paintings in the world.

We’d taken trips to Stonehenge, when it was cold, wet and windy, to beautiful Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, to Oxford and Hampton Court Palace .

We spent one week that Christmas and New Year with friends in Clacton . It was a lovely traditional Christmas day with lots of snow, mince pies and presents.

The day after Boxing Day we took the local bus to Colchester , Britain ’s oldest recorded town, about half an hour’s ride away. The visit to the castle museum and the historical roman wall were highlights. The town is small enough to be able to walk around it easily, but big enough to have all its own services, with a wonderful atmosphere of a combination of the ancient and modern.  Our friends took us to Essex and Suffolk to see some magnificent old churches and villages with buildings made of wattle and daub.

Constable Country, the area where John Constable grew up and painted was picturesque, even in mid winter.

I had to come back. I needed a change in my life. Now I was here in London again, on my second English adventure. I was excited and didn’t feel old at all.

“John Davies?”

“Jenny?” He took my suitcase and we crossed the busy road to the parked car.

“You can always tell the Aussies,” he smiled, “they always try to get in on the driver’s side.” He obviously had the mistaken idea that Australians drive on the right-hand side like Americans, but I was heading for the passenger door anyway. I smiled and didn’t bother putting him straight.

He chatted amiably, giving me a sightseeing tour of the landmarks of London along the way and told anecdotes about other foreign teachers he’d met. We passed Buckingham Palace , where we’d been on my last visit. I noted that the Queen’s Royal Standard wasn’t flying, signifying that she wasn’t in residence at present.

I seem to always miss her, as on a previous trip to Windsor Castle her flag wasn’t flying either. 

The familiar Houses of Parliament loomed ahead of us, where we had once queued for twenty minutes to watch a session in parliament from the public gallery in the House of Lords. There again, towering above, was the most famous clock tower in the world, Big Ben. It was all very familiar to me, memories came flooding back and I was feeling relaxed about this big change in my life.

The cityscape soon turned into residential and country scenery as we travelled along.

“You know you’re going to Stanford-no-hope, that’s what they call it,” he said. I wondered why it had such a derogatory name, but he didn’t explain.

As we came nearer to our destination, John phoned the family I was staying with, to get directions to the house, as he was getting a bit lost.

Once you came off the main road in Stanford there was a confusing  myriad of streets winding around like a labyrinth, with compact brick houses all looking the same. We eventually arrived at a neat, mid-terraced home with a little flowering garden at the front in a quiet cul-de-sac. The front door was open and a short, slim woman around the same age as me came outside to greet us.

“No men,” the woman, who I assumed was Shauna announced bluntly, hardly giving me time to get out of the car. Did she mean there were no men around, or I wasn’t to have any male visitors? What a strange way to greet someone.

“Your bags arrived yesterday,” her husband Geoffrey added. “It was orwight, because I was ’ome. If it’d been Saturday I wouldn’t ’ave been ’ere to take ’em upstairs.” He had an oh my god, what have we got here, look on his face. I think they were expecting a younger woman.

Shauna showed me to my room,

“We had to buy a new bed. The teacher we had staying here before you broke it. She used to go into London to the Australian pub on Saturdays and sneaked a lad in here one night. Geoff was away and I only knew someone else was in the house when I heard the shower running twice. She was a big girl and he was a big man. We found a used condom under the bed when we moved it, so we gave her two weeks to find somewhere else to live.” I now understood what she meant about the ‘no men’ rule.

Shauna offered me a cup of tea. Her parents were downstairs waiting to meet me and check out the new guest. They were all very friendly and we chatted about Australia and where I was teaching and the family I’d left behind.

“You’re very brave, I couldn’t do it,” Muriel said.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” Shauna agreed, shaking her head.

They left me to unpack my things and I tried to connect up my laptop again.

Geoffrey came upstairs and stood in the doorway.

“I’ve ordered a new phone line for you,” he said, “it’ll be done next week. We’ve got cable.”

“Great! Thanks,” I said, relieved that I didn’t have to use their phone for the internet.

“You’ll have to pay for the calls. I’ll pay for the installation,” he added.

The computer was vital in maintaining regular contact with family and friends, but I needed help to connect to an ISP. Geoffrey obliged by phoning for information and taking me around to computer shops.

The following week I was back online.

“We’re taking Shauna’s mum and dad to Saarfend tonight to look at the lights. Would you like to come?”

It doesn’t get dark until nine o’clock in the summer, so we all piled into the car and drove down to Southend-on-Sea to see the annual illuminations along the seafront. The town, on the north bank of the Thames estuary, is primarily a seaside resort and its most notable landmark is the two kilometre long pier, the longest in the world, which extends out into the estuary. There were rides and booths of varying descriptions along the seafront, where families, children and teens were still enjoying their holidays. The Golden Mile of amusement arcades and attractions had brought people from far and wide to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.

 

“Where’s the school you’re teaching at?” Shauna asked me one evening over a meal of sausages, chips and baked beans. This meal was also repeated the following night and became my staple diet for the next four months.

“Avelly Primary,” I replied.

To me, the name Avelly had conjured up images of streets lined with sturdy oak trees, a quiet quaint village in a valley, gentle, friendly people and picturesque country houses with thatched roofs.

“It’s a lovely little village with quite a bit of history. It’s near the biggest shopping complex in Europe,” the head teacher had told me at my phone interview in Australia .

“How far away is it?” I asked them.                                                                          

Shauna and Geoffrey looked at each other.

“A long way from here. The first teacher we had staying with us taught in Grays. She was with us for seven months. She walked to the station, then took the train and then walked to the school until she bought a car. The one we had before you taught at Basildon , just down the road. I wonder why Start sent you to us. We’re so far away from Avelly. You’d think they could have found somewhere closer. I’ll take you there tomorrow.”

We all went off in Geoffrey’s car after breakfast the next day. Armed with a map of Thurrock , I was partly excited and partly apprehensive. We went down the M25, through industrial areas and around many narrow dismal streets.

“This is Avelly,” Geoffrey said as we drove down the high street through a lovely, but somehow sombre-looking little village.

“There’s the school.” It was a brown brick building with a couple of large trees at the front entrance. On the side of the tallest part of the building was a red clock, with white dots for the hours and white hands.                                                                                                                                      

“It looks nice,” I said hesitantly.

It took us thirty-five minutes to drive to Avelly. There was no direct bus or train service from Stanford-le-Hope.                                                             

“I don’t know how you’re going to get here every day,” Geoffrey added.

I was thinking the same thing myself, but with careful planning I was sure it wasn’t going to be impossible. I had to manage; there was no turning back now. I was a long way from home and I had a twelve month working visa.

Geoffrey and I poured over bus timetables and maps during the week. I was very appreciative of all his suggestions and help and he began to spend an increasing amount of time talking to me about the days’ events and his business trips to Devon . Late one night I caught him staring in at me through a small gap made by my slightly ajar door. He turned away quickly when I noticed him.

A neighbour worked as a delivery driver and it appeared strange that he was continually bringing boxes to the house at night. Geoffrey would then store them in his hall cupboard. I was offered a CD player for £10, with a vague and evasive response given when I questioned its origins. Phone orders from friends were a regular occurrence and I suspected the goods had not been legitimately obtained.

In the week before the start of term, I called three local taxi companies for a quote to Avelly each day. The first two said:

“We only do school runs, we don’t take individual fares at that time of the morning, sorry.”

What! I thought, children being taken to school by taxi every day, who pays for this? Don’t they cater for teachers? Why can’t the parents take their children to school, couldn’t they walk, or catch the bus?”

The third company was willing to pick me up at 7:15 every day to Avelly for £10 a day. In the afternoon I would then take the bus from the school to Grays’ train station, take the train to Stanford, then walk the twenty minutes home. A total of one hour travelling time each afternoon.

 

The following weekend I accompanied Geoffrey and Shauna to a giant boot sale in a large vacant acreage at Basildon . This annual summer event was an orientation for me into the British bartering system. Parked in neat rows, were hundreds of cars with their boots gaping, revealing an assortment of wares ranging from cheap plastic toys to costly Persian rugs, and anything and everything in between. Eager sellers stood by furtively watching for a potential sale.

“Only £10….today.”

“I’ll give you £6,” said a prospective customer. Depending on whether the seller wanted a quick sale or not, the original price stood. Later in the day however, you could be guaranteed of a generous price drop.

I left my hosts to wander together among the throngs in the now scorching midday heat and found a secluded spot under the shade of some trees.

“Wud yer like yer fortune told?” I turned to see a plump, colourfully-dressed elderly woman sitting at a table, gently shuffling a pack of pictured cards. Her piercing eyes stared hopefully at me.

“Tarot readin’s are £8 today for fifteen minutes,” she added. Why not, I thought. Britain was the home of the mystics, so a reading at the beginning of my newly-changed life could be quite interesting, besides, there was nothing I particularly wanted to buy at the sale, even if I could fit it into my small bedroom.

I sat down on the collapsible chair opposite her and shuffled the cards in anticipation.

“Huv you got any child’n?” she asked.

“A daughter, yea? She’ll do alright. Is she working? Her work will be alright, yea?”

She turned to her husband. “Can you get me some water darl? Thank you. Have you got a husband? Oh. Parents yea? They’ll be alright. How’s your health? You’ll be alright. No health problems, yea?” At this point her mobile phone rang.

“Hi darl, yes can you bring it over, that’s a good lad. Did you go into town? Okay. See you soon. That was my son.”

“Are you working? What doing? A teacher, yea? That’ll be alright. Look there’s lots of red cards. Hi darl, I’ll be with you in a minute,” she turned to another potential customer.

“Just take a seat and there’s some mag’zines for you to read.”

“Okay darl, any questions?” I didn’t bother asking, as I knew whatever I asked she would say it’ll be alright. I paid the money and wished I bought something instead.

 

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