It’s a well worn cliche that life is stranger than fiction. I‘d been industriously building a business, a partnership, family-ties and my personal expertise in tree assessment when the hideous category 5 disaster which was the break-up of my family-foundational relationship culminated in my running for safety, with my children and our belongings packed into a white van driven by a complete stranger. I had no idea at all what the future would hold.
It was very early 2008, and I finally had a 48 hr window to ship safely out of my tortured life with all my worldly goods (3 beds, a small collection of unattractive second hand furniture, a saggy sofa and sundry bits and bobs for the kitchen). Without the quiet, practical support of friends, I couldn’t have done it. They arrived in good spirits to help me and my sons lift furniture and boxes. They cleaned and laughed and chattered amongst themselves. Somebody found a loaf and made regular batches of toast and marmite. There was a broad age range of between 11 yrs and 65 with a useful concentration of energetic teenage boys. Someone made my bed up for me at the new place because “you’ll be tired by tonight…”. The boys swapped shifts around about 3pm, a few had music lessons, and a different set of faces, team 2, turned up at the garden wall. It was a long, memorable day. A world completely ended. Curtain down. The End. I survived it on a magic carpet of kindness and antidepressants.
Winter in the Highlands. In this new, blisteringly cold January world, I needed to be able to pay the bills for all of us by myself, and I had no job.
So I walked across Greig Street Bridge one morning into town and passed a hand-written notice in the window of a small Complementary Therapy Centre. It said, “Help Desperately Needed”. That entreaty was not resistible. In the blink of an eye I became receptionist, waitress, barista, slow-cooker soup-maker and general dogsbody. I was surrounded by alternative therapists of every kind. Yes, I was. No trees, just therapists. This could easily be the slightly far-fetched plot of a sitcom but it’s not. It was actually what happened to me.
Shiatsu, Alexander Technique, Hot Stone Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Holistic Physiotherapy, Reflexology, Reiki, Metamorphic Technique, Aromatherapy, Homeopathy, Spiritual Counselling, Life Coaching. I’ve probably missed some out, but you get the picture. My employer’s specialism was playing the harp for the dying. It’s the truth, I was employed, on reception, by an actual angel.
The Riverdale Centre was a little bit of alternative everything, all happening at once and packed in a very small space. I was chief co-ordinator when Judith, the Centre’s owner, tried to get away from the place to actually work on her business for a while, or when she got a rare day off. So I worked flexibly, running across the bridge in the mornings to open up for early appointments, locking up late following talks or gatherings, learning to use the cafe-sized coffee machine for soya lattes
and organic decaf cappuccinos, serving up home-made rhubarb and orange cake, making organic veg and lentil soup in a slow cooker (the smell in the winter was insanely good), washing up by hand every few free seconds, pressing fresh veg juice, cleaning windows, making appointments, phoning therapists, phoning clients, discussing prostate issues with a group of elderly bikers who’d just dropped in for green tea and a slice of date loaf. In return I got around £700 per month, and regular ‘taster’ sessions from all the therapists. The idea was that, since I wasn’t someone who knew anything at all about complementary therapies (I‘d once been massaged with essential oils, but that was it) I should top-up on my direct experience by using the quieter times at the Centre to sample what was on offer.
If we were making an arty film about my experiences, we would cut now to a surreal visual section summing up the intensely alternative character of the Riverdale, and the sheer immersive sense of inner adventure my time there represented. But all I have is the space to write a few words. It’s important to say then, that the things I learned during this time have been endlessly useful in the arboricultural realm I went on to embrace in so much depth. Experience, of any sort, is never wasted. Bringing the skills of one, distinct sphere into practice in another gives rise to a uniqueness of approach no training program in the world can replicate. I use many skills and insights gained at this time on a daily basis in my current working life. My time at the Riverdale shines in my memory like a polished stone. I could write about it for days without a break and come out radiating inspiration.
I remember snow outside on Church Street and the comforting mixed aromas of wholesome, garlicky soup, freshly ground coffee and essential oils. I remember the whirr of the smoothie maker, the pleasant chatter of the cafe’s clientele and laughter intermittently filling up the small rooms. As the months went by, quite a lot of the laughter began to be mine.
Slowly but surely, the conversation when the cafe had closed but the therapists were still about turned to the issue of why wasn’t I brave enough to leave? There was clearly tree work for me out there, I did want it, I just found it difficult to countenance leaving behind the joyful company and recuperative vibe. Still, the time did come. I left, to be a business by myself, based at home. For quite a few months after that, I would drop in to the Riverdale on my way into town just to do a stint of washing up.
Don’t be timid, don’t be stubborn, branch out, open your mind, do your best in any circumstance because it’s all your life, and nothing can ever dilute your potential. Experience only ever fills the cup.
“I do not think Sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre