Before Charlie wakes, and gets all morning-horny, you slip out of bed. When you return, in your PJs, bearing cups of tea, you sit on the edge of the bed, keeping a careful distance as you wake him.

‘Listen,’ you say, as he blinks the sleep from his eyes.

‘Uh-oh, this sounds ominous,’ he says, with a yawn and a stretch. ‘Let me drink my tea first at least.’

Perfect: your body language has laid the groundwork. So you let him slurp his tea while you potter about, tidying up the clothes that are strewn across the floor.

‘What’s on your mind, babe?’

You sit back on the bed next to him – but on top of the duvet, importantly – to answer him.

‘You know what, Charlie, this just isn’t right. I love you, darling, but we broke up for a reason. It’d be the easiest thing in the world to just fall back into this...’ you gesture at the bed. ‘But I’m sure one of us – or both of us, even – will end up getting hurt.’

Charlie looks you in the eye. ‘Yeah. Right. Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure. Don’t you think I’m right?’

‘I think you might have a point, yes.’

It’s just like Charlie to take it on the chin like that. Good old Charlie. You hug, and agree to be good friends to each other, and there you are, single again. More single than before, too. This time you know for sure that there’s no going back.

Alice agrees that you’ve done the right thing. Over a glass of wine, she tells you of her resolve to give Jamie the builder a wide berth from now on. You extol the virtues of single life and muse about what the future will hold. Then you surprise her by saying you’re thinking of going travelling.

‘Charlie and I had talked about going to Vietnam and Cambodia. I mean, we never really got into the detail I must admit, but it was definitely something we’d have done together. And now I think it’s the only thing I’m really going to miss out on, through not being with him. But why should I?’

‘That’s right, you should do it anyway. But Sarah, what will I do without my flatmate?’

‘Oh don’t worry, I’m not about to up sticks and disappear for months on end. I’ll only go for a couple of months. I don’t think I have the energy to be living out of a rucksack, sleeping in hammocks and all of that, for six months or more. I just want to do Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand. The places with the beautiful beaches and the cheap booze. So... want to come with me?’

‘No – thanks love.’

‘Blimey, that was quick. Aren’t you even going to think about it?’

‘Okay.’ She sips at her drink. ‘Right, I’ve thought about it. And I definitely can’t come. I’ve done my time travelling. I’ve got to stick this job out for at least another year or two. And what about buying a flat?’

You nod. You didn’t really think she’d want to come with you. And she has been saving for a deposit for a flat for a while. Your mother would probably expect you to have the same focus, but somehow buying a flat seems an impossible dream. If you wait till your next bonus you can go off for a couple of months, and cover your rent, and come back no worse off, financially. For a second you feel a little bit scared at the prospect of travelling on your own – you’d always pictured yourself doing it with someone by your side. But you shake your head and tell yourself that doing it alone will be just an even bigger adventure. You’re not scared.

 

News of Nita and Jay’s engagement doesn’t surprise anyone. They’ve been together so long everyone had just about given up on them ever taking the plunge. For the sake of their parents’ moral sensibilities they’ve been maintaining 2 flats, despite effectively living together for the last few years. And Nita’s so into her job it seemed increasingly unlikely that she’d ever really settle down and do the whole marriage and kids thing. Still, you and Alice receive the news with knowing smiles, and toast to the inevitability of marriage.

You know Charlie will be at their impromptu engagement party, and hope you can behave as amicably as you parted. And not so amicably that you end up in bed together. As you wait for Alice to return from the bar with your drinks, you see him arrive. It takes him a second to spot you, but as soon as he does he crosses the room to you and you greet each other like the good friends you have agreed to become. The rightness of your decision is confirmed once more.

Surrounded by their friends, Nita and Jay tell the story of him asking her dad for permission, grudgingly given as soon as Jay had given reassurances that yes, she could continue to work, and yes, they definitely wanted children, and no, they had no plans to emigrate. To much laughter they ran through their families’ reactions to the news. Although his family is from the wrong part of India, her mother was pleased because ‘well, at least he isn’t white’. Their siblings, on both sides, were relieved at this proof that Jay wasn’t gay and that Nita had found a man who wasn’t put off by her workaholism. They’re planning a spring wedding, ‘as soon as possible,’ says Jay.

‘Will you be back from travelling?’ asks Simon.

‘Yup, I think my money and my energy will have run out by then. I’ll be back climbing the corporate ladder by next Spring I bet.’

‘You’re going travelling?’ asks Charlie, clearly trying not to look jealous.

‘Yes, I’m finally going to take that trip,’ you say, with a smile that you hope isn’t smug.

So you and your old mates toast to the future – weddings, and journeys, and the unknown possibilities that still exist out there.

 

Early on Monday morning Wingnut, affectionately known for his prominent ears, calls you into his office. This seems ominous to you, as Wingnut is a couple of layers of management above you. You grab last quarter’s sales figures and try vainly to identify some trends, in case he’s about to give you an impromptu grilling.

‘Ah, Sarah,’ he says. ‘Come in, sit down.’

The sun outside his office shines through Wingnut’s ears, turning them a glowing, almost fluorescent pink. In an attempt not to stare, you look down at your figures.

‘Now, I wanted to talk to you about ILP.’

‘ILP?’ you say, trying not to sound as if you’ve no idea what it stands for. The big cheeses at your company love a three-letter acronym (or TLA, as they, hilariously, call them).

‘Yes. I assume you’ve been talked to about the International Leadership Programme before.’

You nod, firmly, and cast your mind back. Have you? You never really paid that much attention to the opportunities they wave at you at this place, they rarely amount to anything much.

‘Well a place has come up on the ILP course in a couple of weeks and I’ve put your name forward.’

‘Do I get a choice?’

‘Why would you choose to do anything other than this?’ he asks, genuinely baffled.

When you return to your desk you ask Joan what she knows about it. With a look of envy Joan tells you about the rotations available – Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, Sydney. A quick surf on the company intranet reveals some other less appealing headquarters in Brussels and Moscow, and a start-up office in Beijing.

You might not be crazy about your job, but this does sound like a great opportunity. Actually living somewhere – even if it’s a bit less exotic – might be better than passing through lots of exciting places for a few weeks at a time. It turns out the course is part-assessment, part-induction, and you will need to perform well to ensure you get a good rotation. What’s more, it’s a chance to seriously boost your earning power. You decide to give it your best shot.

 

Wingnut’s words ring in your ears as you get off the train at Grantham for the ILP course. Why would you choose not to do this? It’s 8am, and you’ve already been up for 3 hours. Your commitment is already starting to fade as you take a cab to the hotel. It’s a classic corporate hotel, replete with a crappy water feature outside reception, a rubbish little gym, garishly patterned carpet, a dodgy cafe/bar branded ‘Grant’s’, and all the other naff, provincial hallmarks of a hotel no-one ever stays in by choice.

You cheer yourself up with the question Alice asked you last night: will there be any talent?

Of course not. The only attractive man in the room has a wedding ring on. Tch. The rest are the usual assortment of geeks and losers who cling to the fringes of normal society in your office – and seem to dominate the regional offices. You submit to the boredom of powerpoint and platitudes. You learn that strategy is best arrived at through rational thinking and discussion, and that it’s good to use post-its when you’re agreeing priorities on a flipchart, so you can move them around if the agreed priorities change. Wow.

At the end of the first day you’re exhausted by group exercises and role plays and decide to be anti-social and eat alone in your room. But the other attendees look so appalled that you weaken and join them for dinner. After a couple of drinks you relax and almost start enjoying the company. Almost. Not enough to stop you sinking a couple more drinks, just to numb your mind a little.

The next morning starts a good couple of hours too early by your reckoning, and you feel decidedly groggy. You start the day with what the trainer – all big smiles and bad highlights – calls an energiser. With genuine enthusiasm and excitement she asks you all to think of key learning from the previous day. ‘Post its’ you think, bleakly, pouring yourself a coffee and grabbing a congealed custard pastry. And now, she tells you, as if it’s the best news she’s ever given, you’ll be asked to act it out in the manner of whatever is written on the card.

Your card requires that you act out your learning in the manner of the Tellytubbies. You blink, take a swig of coffee, and read it again. Surely your eyes are deceiving you? Sadly not.

This is ritual humiliation, you think, as you watch your course mates act out their key learnings in the manner of The Sound of Music, The Muppets, and Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow. Your turn is up, and you cover your lack of knowledge by failing to make a single comprehensible sound during your 30 seconds of shame.

Horrific. Again, that question – why wouldn’t you choose this? – springs to mind. You haven’t chosen it, really. Just taken the path that you were shoved down. But it’s not too late, Sarah. You could still quit, chuck a sickie on the course, and go home. You could turn your back on the possibility of working abroad and earning more go back to the dream of chilling out in an exotic backwater for a few weeks. Before returning to London and trying to find a job that doesn’t involve these sort of corporate shenanigans. Would it be very wrong to walk away from the chance to work all over the world, to earn a wedge more money, just because of a couple of days of boredom?

You’re the only person who chose the prawns last night at dinner. Food poisoning could be setting in right now.

So it’s time to choose:

If you walk out of the course and turn your back on the ILP go to Chapter Six XV to face the consequences

If you decide to stick it out and pursue that San Fran rotation, go to Chapter Six XVI to face the consequences