Sometimes you get divine intervention, and sometimes shit happens

Today I was supposed to be starting on one of the best sites of my career. Today I was supposed to be starting two and a half months of away work down in Kent, and staying in a holiday chalet with a sea view and a private beach. Today I was supposed to be meeting new people and seeing someone again who I’d worked with before, as I’ve been a field archaeologist long enough that I am now guaranteed to start on a new site with a completely new company and know at least one person there. Today I was supposed to start work for a renowned company with an international reputation. Instead I’m sitting on my sofa, unemployed, and typing this.

Let me tell you a story…

Back in about mid-January of this year I was informed by the company I was then working for that my contract would not be renewed past the 24th of that month. This sucked, but while I was pissed off it didn’t come as a huge shock, as a large cemetery site the company was hoping to win the tender for had gone to someone else. And it’s not like I hadn’t had six emails already in my career informing me ‘contract not extended due to downturn in work’. This merely made seven.

So I did what I always do when that happens, and went on BAJR – the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources website, pronounced ‘badger’ like the animal – to see who was hiring field staff and whether I had a chance of getting said job should I apply. What with my flat in London there’s no point in me going for jobs that are outside London unless it’s away work, and yes, I could put all my stuff in storage and rent out my bedroom to pay for my renting a place near where the work is in Cumbria or Edinburgh or Devon, but that would involve getting specific landlord insurance on top of packing all my stuff, finding a suitable person to lease the room to, and finding somewhere new to live, and there really is no point when most of the jobs I’m qualified to apply for have fixed-term contracts ranging anywhere from six weeks to three months, ‘with possibility of extension’.
There were five adverts I was able to go for – two for companies I’d worked for before, two for companies I’d never worked for (none of whom ever got back to me), and one for Historic England to work on this site. Seriously, this site. There were five places going, and while I have a lot of experience with deep, complex Roman stratigraphy (working over six years in London will do that to you) as well as high-profile sites (Temple of Mithras anyone?), I knew there would be a lot of competition for those five places. But I went for it anyway, because it’s a fucking amphitheatre. It’s not like they show up that often in the archaeological record after all, and I missed out on digging London’s, as I was in primary school at the time.

And because I really wanted that job, even ignoring the really nice benefits package that came with – eight extra pro-rata annual leave days, good-quality self-catering accommodation, decent pension scheme, ten-week contract – I asked for help. Not just the mundane help from people like my Dad who did English Lit. at Oxford and who made sure I hadn’t spelled my name wrong or written ‘giz job pls’ all over the application form, but help from the Deities I worship as well. I asked them for help when filling in the form, for my application to be looked on favourably by those selecting for the post, for me not to screw up the telephone interview I was invited to, and for me to get a job offer after I’d finished the interview. And lo! I was offered one of those five places as a first-choice candidate. I was incredibly happy, incredibly grateful, and very excited.

But now let us backtrack slightly to that time in late January. After I’d applied to all the available BAJR jobs that I could, I waited about a week and a half for them to get back to me before I started to send out CVs and covering letters to all the companies I’d ever worked for asking if they had room in their field or processing teams for me. The vast majority of archaeology companies advertising on BAJR state in their adverts for field staff that while the closing date is X, they will take applications on a first-come, first-served basis – so once they have as many staff as they need the advert will either be taken down or you’ll get told that alas, there is no room left for you. Or they just won’t get back to you at all. However, because of the reputation of HE and the importance of the amphitheatre site, I knew that they would be the only company who would wait until their closing date before starting to consider who they wanted to take on. They can’t afford to not be picky when the site is likely to have volunteers and visitors and be doing public outreach at the same time as the professional excavation is going on. But this was a long-shot job, and I can’t afford to stay unemployed for more than about a month, and even then it’s pushing it. So when none of the BAJR lot got back to me I sent out three emails to previous employers, one to a company I’d never worked for but who had asked me to keep in touch if I needed work in case they had any after they’d had to cancel an advert I’d gone for, and one to the company who’d won the big cemetery site my last employer had tried to get. As a result of which, I recieved a three-month contract job offer from an old employer the day after I was invited to interview for HE.

The chronology thus went: apply to HE, email past employers asking for work, on a Thursday get invited to telephone interview on Tuesday, on Friday recieve job offer from past company and accept job offer (as their start date was in a week, HE job was still a long shot, their start date was over a month away, and bird in the hand etc.), do telephone interview on Tuesday, get job offer from HE on Thursday. Now during the interview I had been asked if there was any restriction on my starting with them on 23rd March, and I gave them the same chronology I just told you, but saying that I had as yet recieved no paperwork from this other company (which I hadn’t), and that should I be fortunate enough to be offered the amphitheatre job I would then discuss my options with said company regarding unpaid leave/shortened contract/whatever. Having been offered the HE job I then emailed the other company on the Thursday saying I’d been offered this once-in-a-lifetime chance, and asked whether it would be possible for my contract to be shortened so I could go. I got an answer back on Friday saying ‘no’, and because I’d had a look at my finances I knew I couldn’t really afford to stay unemployed until mid-March, and I also didn’t particularly want another ‘handed in my resignation because I wanted to go work somewhere better’ on my employment history. HE had given me until the end of business on the Monday before I needed to give them my final answer, but I thought that as I’d already heard back I might as well let them know as soon as possible that I couldn’t accept. I really didn’t want to turn it down, but I made the logical, sensible, honourable decision, as I’d recieved the phonecall from HE as I was literally hafway through filling in the paperwork for the other company. Another factor in my decision was that while I had been an employee of this company before, I’d never actually done a day’s work for them in my life. What was meant to be my first day with them back in 2017 just so happened to be the Monday after the Friday I went into A&E and ended up in ICU, and while I’d signed the contract and everything, by the time I was signed off as fit to go back to work my fixed-term employment had long since expired. But they did pay me about £500 of SSP (Statutory Sick Pay) over those three months, as I was technically employed by them at the time. And as they’re one of the big London companies and I really love digging in London (because barring amphitheatres digging rural archaeology bores me to tears after about three weeks), I really didn’t want to piss them off any.

So I turned down HE politely, regretfully, and with a heavy heart, and accepted the full three-month contract with my second choice. I didn’t like it, but I thought I had at least come to terms with it. Oh how wrong I was… This was Friday 14th of February (yes, my Valentine’s Day kinda sucked, and is probably one more reason I bought this that day), and if I’d slept on it until Saturday, if I’d taken the time HE had given me and replied on Monday, if I hadn’t had hormone-related mood drops that week which always make it harder for me to think straight, I would have made a different decision. Yes logical, yes honourable, yes sensible, yes fiscally prudent, but ultimately the wrong choice. I started regretting it on the Monday, when I went up to the main offices for my induction, but really regretted it on the Tuesday when I was out on site. Now the site I was working on for this company was amazing – it’s Westminster Abbey for fuck’s sake, and here am I mediaeval historian getting to play with dead people and (yes, honestly) a series of small walls. But I was fucking miserable that Tuesday. All I could think about, whatever I was doing on site – trowelling back, shovelling, filling in context sheets – all I could think about was how I was stuck here for three months rather than knowing I’d be escaping to dig an untouched amphitheatre in a month’s time. And seriously, it’s almost completely untouched since the Romans left. The Victorians poked a couple bits of it in the late 1840s, did some engravings, bit of text description, said it survived to approx. 6ft high in places, and that’s it. If you ever visit or see photos of what’s left of London’s amphitheatre, you’ll see what a huge deal this is to us.

This isn’t to say the site I was on was terrible – far from it. The site’s amazing, the supervisor’s lovely (I worked with him on another cemetery site in 2010 back when he was still a digger), and I’d worked with all but three people before, out of a site crew of around fifteen (see what I mean about archaeology being incestuous and me having been around for far too long?). And I either liked, was friends with, or could at least get on professionally with everyone that I knew as well. But ye gods was I miserable – and we’re talking constant-tears-and-muffled-sobs-the-whole-time-I’m-working levels of miserable. Thankfully I was working by myself that day, and I was at least able to stop crying for break and lunch so no-one could tell exactly how shit I was feeling. But I knew I’d made the wrong decision. I’d gone with my head rather than my heart and my gut, and if I’d taken those couple extra days to think before I turned HE down I’d have remembered how excited I was to see that advert on BAJR, how nervously excited I was to be offered an interview, and how amazingly happy I was to be offered the job. I was told during my interview that 84 people had applied, and they were interviewing the top ten. So for me to be one of the first-choice five was about a 1 in 17 chance – and I’d had help getting that far. Ok, yes, I’m a damn good archaeologist who’s done a lot of public outreach and media relations in her career as well as a lot of complex strat and Roman sites, but even so – I had Help.

But because I was seriously regretting my choice I sent an email to HE on that Tuesday, saying I knew it was too late for anything to be done about it, but that I’d made the wrong decision, really regretted it, and that if someone had to drop out for whatever reason I would be very happy to hand in my week’s notice and go dig an amphitheatre if they’d still consider having me. I then finished my work day, went home, and went to my HEMA club for the evening. I was in absolutely no fit state to spar, or even do drill, but I went to see my friends there and get hugs and much sympathy, because they’re awesome, lovely people. Wednesday I went back to work, which was pretty much a repeat of Tuesday although sending that email to HE had helped a bit – I spent slightly less time crying over spoil heaps. I also ended up talking to my supervisor about everything that had happened, which led to me bawling my eyes out again, but I’ve known him for over a decade (even though we hadn’t really been in touch much since the last site we’d worked together) and he’s a damn good archaeologist as well, so he could fully understand why I was so upset. And he’s also a lovely human being who understands that sometimes even grown-ass adults need to cry themselves into a puddle at times. He also said I’d been a lot quieter than normal the last couple days, which seeing as the last time he’d spent time on site with me was pretty much exactly a decade ago, shows how much I was affected by this. Or possibly how bouncy I usually am on site. Hmm…

I hadn’t just sent HE an email that day though. I’d been sending up prayers to the Trinity, Freyja, and Brigid (who’s been coming into my life more and more these past few months) saying I’d fucked up and I was sorry and please could I have a second chance. I knew I didn’t necessarily deserve one, as I’d not only made my bed but had also kinda ignored but-not-really the help They’d given me in getting that offer in the first place, and would therefore have to lie in it. So after work saw me in Westminster Abbey, in the area they reserve for private prayer, lighting candles, making offerings, bursting into tears again and, honestly, pleading for a second chance. (As an aside, while both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral charge for visitors, as keeping these buildings lit, heated, in good repair, and conforming to things like fire exits and accessibility is bloody expensive, no charge in made for attending services there, and both have an area set aside for people to come in and pray for free. What you can’t do, however, is come in for private prayer and then wander round the place for free. Communing with God is fine, taking the piss is not.) Then I went home, sat in front of my altar, and did exactly the same thing for the Vanir. Now I’m a Freyja devotee, but there have been a couple times before this when I have also asked Frey and Njord for help as well as Her. I’ve got no formal relationship with either Frey or Njord, and while they’ve been called upon in various of the blots I’ve been to I’ve not really had any particular dealings with them. But on the strength of something Cara Freyasdaughter wrote a while back for her 30 Days of Njord series, I’ve occasionally petitioned the two of them for help along with Freyja, using a phrase I took from the Gentleman Bastard Sequence of books (because there’s some damn good ritual language in there), of ‘beloved of a goddess beloved by me’, along with appropriate offerings. And I’d not only made offerings in both places, but also promises – similar to what I did when I was flat-hunting. Back then, way before Freyja came into my life and when my theology was a whole lot easier, I’d promised God that if I got the flat I wanted I’d donate a lump sum to Shelter and a London-based homeless charity, as well as £5 to each per month afterwards. And if I didn’t get the flat I wanted (that I’m typing this in now), I’d still set up a £5-per-month direct debit to those charities anyway. (Archaeologists are dirt-poor – we’re the lowest-paid graduate profession, and every single one of us lives paycheque to paycheque. Otherwise I’d have offered more. The only reason I have a flat of my own is because I hold it jointly with my mother and have a lodger to pay the mortgage)

So I made my offerings to the Vanir, the Trinity, and Brigid, I made my promises to Them as well, and I hoped like hell I’d manage to get a second chance but without someone dropping out due to illness or something like that – I was very specific and asked that if I should be offered a second chance because one of the others had to drop out, please let it be because of something like being unable to get a secondment from work or deciding they wanted to work elsewhere rather than some form of personal misfortune. Because I’m not that nasty, and ‘be careful what you wish for’ does seem to be a thing that happens with surprising regularity in real life.

Roll on Thursday of that week and I get a phonecall just as I’m walking off site around midday to go to the loo. It’s the gentleman from HE who I’ve been communicating with during this whole affair – he sat in on my interview and was the one who phoned me up to offer me the job in the first place – and he said that someone had had to drop out, as they had applied for the job, been offered the job, accepted the job, and only then asked their current employer if they could take unpaid leave for two and a half months and be seconded to HE. Their employer said ‘no’. Therefore was I still interested in working for HE on the amphitheatre? o _ O My face ladies and gentlemen, o _ O
Now he stressed this wasn’t a done deal, as HE’s HR department deals with the whole organisation and English Heritage to boot, and therefore he wasn’t sure if I could be offered the place as it was entirely possible that they’d have to readvertise for this one post instead of being able to immediately offer it to someone else, but that he’d try and let me know that afternoon or the day after at the latest where I stood, if I still wanted the job. I’m pretty sure I said yesplease! before he’d even finished speaking. Because oh holy shit I can’t believe this is happening. And then around half-two that afternoon I get another phonecall – I’ve got the job. Excuse the capitals, but THERE IS NO WAY THIS HAPPENS WITHOUT A LOT OF PEOPLE PUTTING THEIR FINGERS ON THE SCALES TO TIP THEM IN MY FAVOUR. IT JUST DOESN’T.

I still can’t believe how lucky I was for that to happen. Just… seriously. I send HE an email on Tuesday, send up my prayers and offerings and tears and promises on Wednesday, get a phonecall offering me that second chance I so longed for on Thursday. And for what could be said the best-case scenario was for someone having to pull out as well. o _ O !!! And oh how much happier I was on site after that. I was able to smile and laugh and make jokes, I was having conversations with my colleagues that weren’t just work-related, and most importantly – I was enjoying my job again.

So much for the divine intervention, now for the excreta occurring.

This all happened in late February, when our glorious new tiny nemesis was really starting to get up and running. As far as work went it didn’t really affect us much, as sites were still open and running, transport to and from work was fine, and we just started washing our hands and using hand sanitiser more than we usually do (as on every site we have there’s the constant risk of leptospirosis/Weil’s Disease). A couple people on site had to self-isolate or quarantine themselves as either they or someone they lived with had possible symptoms, but that was about it. (Non-work-wise everyone was worried about what the fuck was going to happen, but as far as practical work issues went, that was it) So February rolls by, and one week before the amphitheatre site is due to start, I hand in my notice, saying that I had really enjoyed working for the company, that I had had a lot of fun on the Westminster site, and that I hoped to be able to rejoin the company in the future, but that I had been offered this amazing second chance and was going to take it. Because there is no way you get that much extra help from deities and then turn it down. You just don’t. And my parents were delighted for me as well, mostly because they also knew how much I wanted this job, but also because it meant I was going to be spending two and a half months not travelling on the Tube twice a day, not on a site where there were double-digits’ worth of archaeologists as well as a crew of stonemasons in inadequately-sized welfare even before the social-distancing rules came in, and out of London where there are just more people around than in rural seaside Kent. Because after you manage to catch double pneumonia and multiple organ failure from having a cold, your parents tend to worry slightly more when a new virus shows up that attacks your lungs and has a habit of putting people in ICU and then killing them. So there are more warnings and restrictions handed down from the Government, people are working from home if they can, most people are trying to keep socially-distant, more people are self-isolating, we’re all wondering what archaeology companies are actually going to do with us regarding the virus, because it’s not like we have much job security in the first place, and the usual reaction of our employers when sites are shut down or postponed (it’s very rare that the archaeologists are the principal contractors on a site – I’ve only had it happen on three) is to lay us all off as they can’t afford to keep a field team hanging around indefinitely until there’s enough work. See ‘contract not extended due to downturn in work’ above.

Then this week just gone happened. Suddenly everything changes at a pace so fast we can barely keep up, but we’re all still out on site in spite of it all because no one has officially told us not to, and as we only get 14 days sick pay a year before we’re on SSP we can’t afford to self-isolate unless we have to. We also can’t work from home, and the only archaeology company that shut everything down was ASE, and that’s only because they’re part of University College London, and UCL shut everything down so they had to follow suit. So all the conversations on site are speculaion and worry and angst, and I’m clinging on to the comfort of knowing I’ve got a job for the next two and a half months in Kent, and that maybe by the end of that things might have settled down some. Which lasts until Wedneday night when I get an email from HE saying the amphitheatre site has been cancelled as a result of the government guidelines regarding the coronavirus, and that they’ll be letting us know where we stand as regards our contracts as soon as possible. I then send an email asking what the likelihood is of our being found work elsewhere in the company for the duration of our contract, even if it is like reading chicken entrails without the chicken, as if not I need to get in touch with the company I’d just handed my notice in to ASAP and ask them to please ignore it and let me stay on. I get a reply from HE on Thursday morning, saying that unfortunately they are unable to honour our contracts and will be paying us our two weeks’ notice in lieu. They are also very apologetic and hope we will still be interested in working for HE in the future – to which I replied yes, very much yes, before emailing my employer with a copy of the cancellation email and asking if they could please waive my letter of resignation and let me stay. Because with rumours of London going on lockdown and everything else that’s been announced or rumoured to be announced, the chances of me finding another job are slim to none. Thursday afternoon I get a reply, and no, they can’t waive my letter as they’re having sites cancelled and thus have excess staff.

Two days of divine intervention reversing my posistion, followed by two days of everything being covered in so much shit it looks like the compost heap at Kew. Ok, slightly unfair comparison as I quite like the compost heap at Kew, but you get the idea.

Now it’s tempting to try and find a reason behind this happening, or to say ‘the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away’, or to blame myself because I threw away that first chance and now I’m being taught a lesson, but as Marietta said regarding what she refers to as the 30-Day House and I always think of as the Queen Anne House of Doom, sometimes shit just happens. My hope is that HE will be able to take advantage of the Government’s scheme to subsidise the wages of those who have been laid off due to coronavirus, provided the company keeps those employees on their books for the length of their contract, so I’d get paid until the end of May and therefore wouldn’t have to rely on JSA which will mean I lose £200 a month on paying bills before I’ve even bought food. I’m still waiting to hear back from them about that, as this was announced by the Chancellor on Friday, and I only heard about it when I got home that night. If not, I’ve got to try and sign on at the Jobcentre online, and the last two times I tried that it refused to believe my postcode existed or that there was a Jobcentre anywhere near me (there’s one five-ten minutes away by bus, and another 10-15).

So yeah. As a result of divine intervention followed by shit happening, today I was supposed to be starting on one of the best sites of my career. Today I was supposed to be starting two and a half months of away work down in Kent, and staying in a holiday chalet with a sea view and a private beach. Today I was supposed to start work for a renowned company with an international reputation. Instead I’m sitting on my sofa, unemployed, and typing this over the course of several hours.

Fuck you coronavirus.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes you get divine intervention, and sometimes shit happens

  1. *Hugs* I’m a member of the “shit just happens sometimes” school also and not super fun. That amphitheater site sounds so awesome! I wish it had worked out for you to get there. Still, as a silver lining, getting that divine help and again a second time (and it doesn’t seem impossible They might have seen at least a potential for this stuff happening, with so many Gods and spirits as Seers) just because you asked Them is…pretty awesome.


  2. Yeah, I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have got that second chance. My two remaining hopes are that I’ll hear back from them about being able to still pay me my wages over the course of my contract, and that I’ll be able to go dig there when the site’s been greenlit again.


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