The woodland scene I was dreaming of during the interview

I bet my bizarre interview story trumps yours

This week I had a job interview which I can only describe as “fucking insane”.

Before we get to the thick of it, let me wind back.

Last year I applied to a conservation charity for a voluntary role, working in the immediate term at their UK reserve, and longer term in their South African reserve too. I was invited to interview but couldn’t make the date, so that’s where I thought the story would end.

That was the case until a few weeks ago when I received an email out of the blue from a woman called Becky, who asked whether I was interested in a six week volunteering role working in the South African reserve. I was indeed interested, so we had a back and forth exchange to set an interview date.

I asked Becky for suggestions on how I could best prepare for this interview. She dodged my question first time round, so I tried again: will there be a particular format to this interview, e.g. competency-based questions. This time she did acknowledge my question with a simple ‘no’, but didn’t elaborate.

Message received: this probably wasn’t going to be a typical interview and she didn’t want me to be prepared for whatever she had up her sleeve. That was fine by me; it took the pressure off to some degree as I could only rely on doing my best on the day.

What Becky did say was that I had to wear outdoor gear, be prepared to get muddy, and bring 1 litre of water. So based on that, I knew I’d likely be doing some kind of physical work in this interview. Also fine by me.

I arrive at the UK reserve bang on the nose at 1pm, we say our hellos and then she tells me what this interview will entail.

First we’ll head to an area of the woodland, collect some wood and bring it to a different area of the reserve. I zone in on the words “we’ll”, “bring” and “wood” as an image from the charity’s website immediately pops into my mind: lengthy wooden fence posts piled up in a barn, which are so long they’d need to be carried over the shoulders of two people. I don’t feel remotely daunted by this task, so all is well.

I will soon realise that my first mistake was to assume that the image on the website correlated with the task waiting for me.

After that, we’ll have a conversation. Easy, I can do conversation.

Before we set off to the woods Becky explains that as there is always so much going on at this reserve and tonnes to do, the volunteers tend to run around the place. Initially I thought she was being colourful by using the word “run”.

And there was my second mistake.

Because she wasn’t exaggerating. Staff literally run around the reserve from place to place, task to task. Can you imagine running across the office from your desk to a meeting room? I think I was guilty of that once, to great embarrassment. Unless someone’s life is in your hands, running is not necessary.

Yet now, here I am running across the reserve, following her lead, first straight down a 150m gravelly track, then through a gate and into the woodland, sticking to a path that meanders further downhill. I’m trying not to laugh and half wondering whether this is a wind-up.

At a guess, we run down an 800m stretch, all the while both asking and answering questions, until we come to a clearing. I feel warmed up, but not puffed out, and am still relaxed about the task ahead.

Until I realise that my first assumption was as incorrect as my second assumption.

We’re not carting long wooden fence posts together in a manageable fashion; I’ll be carrying sawed, heavy-looking pieces of tree trunk on my own. Now I feel more daunted. I know I am capable, because if this woman who’s half my size and twice my age can do it, I can definitely do it, but I can see this will probably be more challenging than I first anticipated.

Becky produces a large piece of material from somewhere and lays it down on the ground, then heaves one of these pieces of tree trunk into the middle of it, before gathering up the cloth and gesturing I carry it on my back over one shoulder, while clinging onto the gathered fabric to keep the wood secure.

I look around at how many pieces of neatly chopped-up tree are waiting for me. 15 maybe. Each looks like it means business: sturdy, big, weighty. I’d guess 40–50kg each. Increasingly daunted.

I haul the first one onto my back and it instantly feels very heavy and uncomfortable. My posture is all wrong; I’m leaning too far to the left to compensate for the weight over my right shoulder, and the angle of the wood is wrong too; I don’t have a flat edge against my back but one of the ridged side bits instead. Still, off we go, heading back to where we started.

Thankfully we’re not running, but Becky sets a decent pace back uphill through the woodland, passed the gate and up the gravelly path, and my body temperature quickly rises. Meanwhile, she is asking me questions and I’m doing my best to answer them competently, putting aside thoughts of how little fun this task is turning out to be.

By the time we get to the top and I deposit this bastard of a thing on top of a collection of fellow smug-looking stumps of wood, I am sweating an extraordinary amount. I am also hoping we can move onto the conversation part now.

At this point I remind myself that I regularly exercise and am physically strong. I go to spinning classes twice a week, I jog two-three times a week, I have completed two long distance walks, I played netball for years, sometimes I lift weights. I am bolstered by muscle. I know rationally that my body is capable of continuing this task, and the remarkable level of sweat is purely down to a new kind of exertion. I’m also strong-willed, and I have the mental capacity to push through.

I pause to peel off my jumper and then we’re off again. Becky’s running down the gravel track and I’m right behind her, wondering how many times we’re going to repeat this exercise. I don’t dare ask as I know I’m being tested on the strength of my mind.

Down we run through the woodland, this time me in front, still sweating and now puffing a fair bit. We come to the clearing and go through the motions again: Becky selects my block of wood, throws it onto the fabric and this time when it goes over my shoulder it feels a little better. I have a flat side against me, which helps it seem lighter. For all of about 10 seconds.

As we head back uphill with the fast pace, I tune into the considerable pain I’m feeling in my neck and back. I’ve had relentless problems with these areas for over 13 years and I’ve invested a lot of money into various treatments. The key takeaway was consistently simple: don’t overdo it.

So with a 40–50kg bit of tree on my back and searing pain throbbing in my shoulder where I have the material gathered, I try powering through by pretending that I look just like Paddington Bear, before quickly admitting to myself that this exercise is going to do fairly significant damage to my body.

As we eventually pass back through the gate and head up the gravel track, Becky cheerfully says: “At this point on the hill I tell the interviewees that if we were in South Africa, they’d be climbing a mountain with this weight on their back!”

I half smile/snort in agreement, as it’s now totally apparent to me that if this exercise is a test run for the six weeks’ work required in South Africa, I will not pass. While I’m confident I can talk myself into persevering, I’m equally sure about how much my body will punish me for days, as soon as this short ordeal is over.

Sweat is now pouring from me and my pace has slowed right down. Becky asks if I can manage a burst of energy, and as I hobble up the last bit of hill she congratulates me for digging deep. I dump the wood among its friends and as Becky sets off running down the hill again, I know I won’t be going in for a third round. The interview is over.

I tell her I need a second to recover and honestly explain my troubled history with my neck and back. We sit down, I swig at my 1 litre of water and notice steam radiating off me. I feel incredibly light and not remotely defeated, ashamed or guilty. After all, I just lugged two ludicrously heavy lumps of wood uphill at a silly pace, for no clear reason.

Before long, I’m alone again, back in the car driving home, excited for a hot shower on arrival. Every so often I burst out laughing, relishing the experience that’s now in my past: the most fucking insane job interview of my life.

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