Older but not wiser, we perused the Times Educational Supplement for jobs, on a dull afternoon in August at my house in Milton Keynes. Carol was back, and suddenly, living in Milton Keynes didn’t seem to matter as much! My bosom buddy had spent the previous year working in a school in the Himalayas, and had finally flown back to somewhere nearer sea level.
Outside, nothing was happening. Inside, the walls remained perfectly aligned and painted magnolia. Carol sighed and looked out of the large, double-glazed window onto a square patch of lawn penned in by a chest-high, cheap, wooden fence. “How can you live in a place called Pennyland?”
As I didn’t know the answer to this question, I hedged. “It’s only a name.”
“It’s a stupid name.”
I had to admit that Carol was right. It couldn’t have helped that she had been used to living in a mountaintop retreat in Tibet, above the clouds and as remote as you can get from affordable housing, inadequate porches and gas central heating.
“How do you stand it?”
“It’s not that bad,” I said, half-heartedly.
A man cycled past. “Christ! It’s worse than science fiction!”
Baffled as I was by this particular insight, I laughed, and Carol gave me a look that I recognised instantly. It was a look that said it was time to set out again into the world, united against the banal, the drab and the superficial, determined to have some fun and wreak some havoc. I went back to the newspaper and kicked off with something contentious:
“There’s one here for a maths teacher in Bejing. I could be the stay-at-home housewife.”
“No thanks,” replied Carol.
“Too much of a culture shock? Don’t want the Saturday morning military training?”
“Nah. Can’t stand Chinese food. All those wriggly bits. And oyster sauce – can’t eat oysters since Alice!”
“The Walrus and the Carpenter?”
“The very same. Poor little oysters…”
I realised that, cartoon horror apart, and allowing for Carol’s sketchy knowledge of proper Chinese cuisine, this would be a deal breaker. Food was top priority. Followed closely by sunshine, a great beach and a good library. Good looking, intelligent men of independent means were also a consideration.
“No blokes there, either. Too short. Too Chinese.”
I could not argue, although I would not have put my feelings in quite the same way. Carol spoke her mind, whilst I generally harboured my sharp-edged opinions. I didn’t mention the fact that, this time, she was indulging in a stereotypical assessment of a nation containing over one hundred million people, not all of whom would be too short or, indeed, too Chinese.
“What about this one?” I suggested. “English teachers required by the Seychelles government. Sounds interesting.”
“Aren’t they in the Indian Ocean?” Carol sat back in her chair and poked a finger into her ear. She was as beautiful as ever. How I had missed her!
“I believe that is correct, you lovely tart,” I replied, pretty sure that Carol knew a lot more about the Seychelles than she was letting on.
“Capital?” she asked.
“Fish. Creole style.”
“I think it’s more likely to be rice,” I said, although I was not entirely sure.
“Fish and rice with curry sauce!”
“We can make our own chips,” I said, reasonably. “Just need a chip pan and some Trex.”
“Granted.” Carol chewed the pencil we were using to circle ads. It had also served as a coffee spoon and more recently, to kill an ant.
“Shall I read the rest of it?”
“Don’t see why not,” she said.
“The National Youth Service of the Seychelles seeks-
“The National what!”
“Youth Service. Must be something like the Department of Education.”
“Doesn’t sound like the Department of Education. Go on. Let’s hear it.”
“The National Youth Service of the Seychelles seeks qualified teachers of ESL to instruct secondary school students on the island of Ste. Anne.”
“Never heard of it. There’s Mahé and Praslin and some kind of bird island. Let me see.” Carol grabbed the paper. “Twelve-month contracts. Flights and accommodation provided. Interviews to be held in London on 14th/15th August.” She closed the newspaper and got up. “Want a cuppa?”
I followed my friend into the kitchen, thinking that the interviews would be at the end of the week, in three days’ time.
“Where d’you keep the biscuits, you bugger? Hope you’re not still buying those Poptarts!” Carol was opening cupboards, rummaging.
“There are some Jammy Dodgers in the cutlery drawer,” I told her. The mention of Poptarts had brought back a momentary nostalgia.
She eyed me and I eyed her back.
“Are we going?” I asked.
“Book it, Danno,” she said.
We were not the kind of girls to pass up an opportunity like this. We had been through university together and worked for Playboy in London, as blackjack dealers. After that, Carol had left England to sell encyclopaedias in Germany and had thrown it in after meeting a businessman at a party who offered her a job teaching English to Buddhist monks in the Himalayas. I had gone on to work as a secretary in London at various establishments which were practised in the art of exploiting as little as possible of a person’s potential and where, at my lowest ebb, I had slavishly typed out legal contracts for solicitors who patronised both me and their clients. Later, I had worked for a very nice family with a business just off Oxford Street, in a small office, up some rickety stairs, where I had learned all there was to know about high-tensile low-density bin bags (didn’t take long), including how to fold them and label them, before sending them off with a quote for anything from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands. And, after just over a year of knowing that I didn’t want to be in plastic for the rest of my days, I had applied for and, to my utter amazement, been accepted by Queens’ College to do a postgraduate teaching certificate at Cambridge University. I subsequently took up my first post in Milton Keynes, where I discovered that I was no good at controlling a class of secondary school kids who didn’t care about Keats, and I gradually came to realise that the next proper adventure was long overdue. All I had needed was the return of my best friend and sparring partner.
Carol had descended from the mountains under slightly mysterious circumstances, which she refused to divulge, but which had probably involved some kind of extra-curricular activity with one of her students. She had telephoned me to say that she wanted to come and stay for a while. So, with my probationary year as a very eager, but more or less ineffectual English teacher at Stantonbury Campus mercifully completed, and with no one begging me to stay, there was nothing to stop us, apart from fear of the unknown and crushing financial limitations. We were in the market for some excitement and risk. A teaching job in the Indian Ocean, with all expenses paid, seemed an opportunity too good to miss.
We looked up trains to London and, in the meantime, found out that the Seychelles was a group of volcanic and coral islands stuck in the middle of nowhere, with a language that was based on French, due to the fact that they had been colonised by… France. Following this, the islands had been subjected to British rule, before gaining independence in 1976. I wondered vaguely whether we would be welcomed by the locals, until Carol pointed out that anything “we” had done to them was bound to be better than the treatment they would have received at the hands of our closest allies, the French, who, according to Carol, had used the inhabitants as slaves to work on their plantations and probably taught them to roll their ‘Rs’.