Why would you pack your bags and move to the other side of the world without knowing a soul there or where you'd be living? It's a good question. Here's one person's answer. And how running played a part in this. See yesterday's post for part 1 of Anchored in Concrete. Enjoy. xx Julianne
Anchored in Concrete - John Gerard Fagan
Three years earlier, back in Glasgow, I had been working in a debt collection call centre and managed a weekly jog along the dual carriageway to Hogganfield Loch. That had kept me going for about six months, but when my shift pattern changed from 08:00-16:00 to 12:00-20:00 I gave up all forms of exercise and did nothing to burn off the pints and buffet lunches I was having every day. From being able to eat anything and putting no weight on when I was younger, I ballooned to a size 38 in jeans by the time I was 24. The motivation to change these bad habits simply wasn’t there and I was only reinforcing them with constant repetition. Trying to go even a day without chocolate or Irn Bru was near impossible and gave me a headache when I did. I added some icing on this rancid cake in the form of gambling on dog racing and football accumulators to rinse any money I had left over, convinced a big win was coming. I knew it was a sad existence, but I was slow to act.
It ended after 18 long months when I was working a Saturday morning shift and a hangover had hatched down my chest. I had finished eating two square sausage and black pudding rolls and felt my mouth watering, readying the contents to reappear over my keyboard. With tomato sauce dripping down my tie, and a fella screaming abuse down the phone about a credit card bill he wasn’t going to pay, I decided enough was enough. My life had to change there and then or it never would. So I gave the boss my notice.
When I quit that job I thought things would get much better. This time around things would be different. The recession was all but over. Although I hadn’t managed to secure a ‘graduate job’ after uni that was about to change. But, evidently, things had gotten worse, and for the next four years I never had a full-time job that lasted more than a few months. I signed up to several temp agencies and worked in factories breaking plastic, stacking paper, cutting wood for bathroom suppliers, laboured on building sites, packed lorries, did phone sales for the science festival, edited academic essays, served food at city centre hotels, collected dirty tea cups at the SECC, and worked in bars at horse racing events, football games, concerts, and golf courses all over Scotland. I did any job that came along and applied for everything to keep me from the degrading experience of the job centre. Some were for two weeks, some only a day. It was exhausting keeping up with where I was going next. Some mornings I’d be ready to go and the temp agency would call and say I wasn’t needed that day. Nothing worse when you’re in dire need of money to get that call.
In January, I had signed up for the Glasgow half-marathon to give me something to work towards and focus on. Throughout the next year of going from temp job to temp job, moving back to Glasgow, and battling depression, the event kept me ticking over. I was getting nowhere with my writing. My big dreams of becoming an author had long since turned to ashes in my mouth. After a promising start, and getting a few short stories published and a distinction for my Masters’ dissertation, the rejections came pouring in for almost everything I wrote. I chucked four novels and countless short stories in the bin. The more I read the likes of McCarthy, Kafka, and Bukowski, the more I realised how far I was from the standard I had set myself at 22 when I first started writing. The one thing I could control was my running and unlike my writing I was seeing improvement as each week went by. As the world crumbled around me, running became my main focus.
When the winter ice melted from the roads, I was running almost every night, going over and over in my head ideas how to progress with work and get out of the pit I found myself in. When I had gaps in the temp work, I volunteered at a charity shop to take care of their books department and at least put my education to some good use. I’d get the bus there to Gorgie and run the hour or so back home. I began to think clearer and move forward and soon could run for hours upon hours without feeling like I needed to stop and puke out my lungs. Even when I was exhausted when I got home, I got into the habit of changing right away and going out for a run. Before I knew it, I could run twenty miles along the canal without stopping.
On the day of the marathon I was as fit as I had ever been in my life. A whisper of a smile pushed through the nerves. The first part of the race was a steep hill out of George Square. When the gun went off, I sprinted up it. A man from the crowd gathered on the pavement shouted at me, “Haw, this is a marathon, ya eejit, slow doon.” I laughed and his words drove me to run faster. I ran and ran and ran, slowing but never stopping, draining my Lucozade bottle to fumes. I weaved past other runners, and flowed through the city like a burst sewage pipe. I powered on and on until I had crossed the finish line and collapsed onto the damp grass.
Although it wasn’t the fastest of times, I had proven to myself that while everything else in my life was collapsing around me, I wasn’t worthless and could achieve something and move forwards. It took me a long time to believe that my life was fixable after continuous setbacks and I could get close to the life I wanted. I was more proud of that medal than all of my degrees.
I decided to leave Scotland for permanent work the following year and ended up in Japan. The first thing I did there after I slept off the jet lag was go for a wee jog and explore Osaka. My nerves from being alone and 5000 miles away from friends and family soon faded with each leap on the tarmac. If it wasn’t for running I don’t know where I would be – it kept me going when I was ready to give up. When teaching in rural Japan and in the Tokyo metropolis turned into a wet fever nightmare, I headed out for a run and refocused. It didn’t always work – running couldn’t solve all of my problems, but it stopped me falling into the void when I was hovering over the edge peering in.
When I returned to Scotland almost seven years later, I came back not as an overweight, unmotivated heavy drinker, with no direction in life, but as an assistant professor and a published writer with close to 100 short stories published and a book on the way. I barely touched a drink too and had given up eating all of that shite food that I used to stuff down my gub. I went back to my old running route at Arthur’s Seat a much different man. A little older and slower, but mentally in a much better place.
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John Gerard Fagan is a Scottish writer from Muirhead in the outskirts of Glasgow, who currently lives in Edinburgh. He has published close to a hundred short stories, essays, and poems in Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and English. Fish Town is his first book, detailing his life in Japan from 2013 - 2019. For more info visit: gutspublishing.com/fish-town