pregnancy test

From that moment, life is subliminally changed, shifted, promoted. It is injected with a profound undercurrent of hope, anticipation, expectation, fear and deepest concern.

You exchanged gifts in the living room to a carelessly selected Spotify playlist of Christmas songs. You weren’t pleased or proud with the gifts you’d given her, although neither of yours was especially inspired or imaginative. You had agreed not to ‘go to town’ with them this year.

You’d been heartened by a chunky workflow in October and November which made you think Christmas would be less riven with financial angst than usual. But the jobs tailed off abruptly in December, one or two had failed to transpire. Did that client go elsewhere? On top of which was the annual mystery of January. Would that be totally barren? How careful did you have to be?

So when it came to the exchange of gifts, you were disappointed with your offering. She kindly seemed not to care that much. You’d like to think she didn’t, but there were other things on your minds.

She went upstairs to the bathroom, peed into a cup, dipped the plastic test thing in it, waited. You followed up shortly, confirmed the instructions on the packet. Fairytale of New York wafted up the stairs from Alexa as you took a deep breath and inspected the thing and saw the line indicating yes, she was pregnant, you cheap lousy faggot. She looked up at you as you held her, her face all creased up like when you proposed. You marked the moment with confidential silly selfies.

Even in the thinking about it, during the trying to conceive, you see all the stuff: all the terrible bad things that can happen, you are hyper-sensitised. Headlines, tweets, television documentaries, news articles, radio phone-ins you happen upon in the car. Illnesses, disabilities, behavioural issues.  You know the high statistics around the likelihood of miscarriage: the biggest and most real fear. A cheap bestseller you happen to start reading concentrates on a midwife and her experiences of all the terrible things that can happen during labour. Because you feel barraged by this, and because it is still so early in the grand, hopefully 9-month odyssey (you preface everything with caveat words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘all being well’ so as not to tempt fate) you suspend yourself, never quite giving permission to enjoy it, to be excited. Does that permission come later perhaps, much further down the line?

You took a dizzying circuit of Ikea in the week, ostensibly looking at rugs. In the clearance section an eye grazed over baby cots and your belly lurched with the potential new dimension of reality.

Right now caution and fear underwrites everything. She is something of a hypochondriac at the best of times, sensitive to all health issues after losing both her parents before she was out of her twenties, bearing a burden of care for her dying father, having a thyroid condition requiring constant medication. You know you have always been a more glass half empty sort of person, a realist, you like to think.

Life has ticked on a few weeks. She has told more people than you – close friends and family. You told your parents later on Christmas Day – partly to embellish more underwhelming Christmas presents, partly so you could take a rare photograph of your father smiling. That remains it for you, until now. Last weekend a dinner at your best friend’s, planned for a few months, was cancelled when you sent a text message checking all was well a few days beforehand. His socialite wife had double booked them, really sorry. Having few friends, you had been looking forward to it for a while, but it seemed a forgettable fleck in their busy calendar. It picked a neurotic scab, the suppressed knowledge that you are not your best friend’s best friend. He is yours but you are not his. You rarely feature on his dozy radar.

You have long understood though, that people your age with a reasonable real-life social network are usually connected by their children, by being parents.

For now life remains suspended, anticipated, hoped for. An incomprehensible amount of stuff could change in the foreseeable future. Or it might not.


connection speeds

For the past three years I’ve done a job at a children’s hospice near Christmas Day. They arrange for an excellent Father Christmas to visit the place in an exciting way through some local emergency services and I take pictures of it.

This year the whole thing was marked by the absence of a huge character. In previous years this kid, aged 9 or 10, had been the biggest character by far. He was the boss kid, organised everyone, demanded people sing Christmas carols louder – although he was always the loudest. He was the first to run over and leap into Santa’s arms, improbably confident for any kid, endlessly energetic, he just did not stop.

A few weeks ago this kid died. Before Santa arrived I was chatting with a couple of staff and one of them mentioned it. Oh, HIM?!? How..? No…

My brain struggled to process. There are all sorts of children at the hospice. They span across boundaries of social class, race, nationality. These horrific life-limiting conditions can happen to anyone. We are all at their mercy. A number of the kids look sick, wheelchair-bound, disfigured in some kind of way, as if they are suffering. This kid did not. This kid did not look sick in any way. Part of you wondered if he was an imposter, a fraud. He was clearly fine! Look at the chopsy git.

Light Googling revealed that the kid had an extremely obscure medical condition of the type only a handful of people suffer in the world. His parents had a number of his organs donated when he died. (How must that itself affect you? Knowing your dearly beloved kid is being sliced up for his organs?  Perhaps the knowledge that parts of him are living on, helping other people live on, perhaps that outweighs it. It must.) There was a big local news piece on him.

Here was a kid so infused with life-force, energy, so vivid and animated and in-your-face loud. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to find him an annoying little gobshite. Then you found out he died. It affected me more than I might have expected, because I dumbly hadn’t expected it. But if you keep going back to a children’s hospice for a few years running you are likely to encounter sad stuff.

But… not him. Not THAT kid.

It hit hard because of where I am at personally right now, how we are thinking about babies a lot, attempting to conceive. You don’t know where this path might lead you. Awful stuff like this can happen to anyone. Much is down to dumb luck.

It can fundamentally change your life more than having healthy kids. The practicalities of daily life might be wildly complex and cumbersome. You can be caring for them for much longer, until they are adults and you are nearly dead. It might feel like they have stolen your life and you resent them for it – as explored in Graham Swift’s 1996 novel and its film adaptation Last Orders. As with stupid random death, there’s no reason or rational explanation for any of it, which can be the most difficult thing to fathom. That lingering unanswerable question: why us?

Over the following hours and days my brain kept circling back to this kid. I shared some not especially good pictures of the kid to a memorial page I found on Facebook. It felt like an obvious thing to do.

Last night, Christmas Eve Eve, we went to a drinks and nibbles evening at the house of some friends on the other side of town. It was an unusual thing for us, to socialise like this. We don’t have many friends as a couple or go out that much generally. I can’t remember the last party or social gathering I or we went to at somebody’s home like that.
The evening was pleasant and the people were nice. It was fun chatting to the really young kids and the not so young kids. On leaving in the middle of the evening to get back to the dog, an elderly lady called out to us from next door. She was leaving after posting Christmas cards, feeling a little wobbly. I held her hand and walked her back to her front door, a few houses away, listening to her talk. In such situations you are always unsure how weird or strange it might get. Had this been orchestrated a little more than it seemed? Had this lonely old lady been waiting on the doorstep for someone to leave the party next door? Might she invite us in? (The week’s new mini-series of The League of Gentlemen was fresh in my mind). But it didn’t get weird at all. It was fine.

All this stuff gives me a gratifying sense of connectedness, which day-to-day I suffer a marked deficit in. I work largely alone, don’t have many hobbies or socialise with anyone. I chat with dog walkers and plenty of them are quite odd. Now and then I feel this is something I should get up off my arse, be brave and address somehow. Yet I shy from it because people often irritate me, or so I tell myself. And because I don’t know quite what to do. A book club?  Football? Evening classes? Nothing really appeals.

People my age tend to have their social circle expanded through children, other parents. As of now, we have none. You see documentaries and news stories about old people who say the secret of their longevity is as much social interaction and keeping the neurons sparking, as it is exercise or diet. Basic human connectedness is important, but today it is worryingly easy to relegate, ignore, forget.

weak jizz

Don’t tell anyone, right? It’s doubtful you exist, dear human reader, so I’m fairly sure you won’t. But if you do, don’t.

Thing is, we’re trying. To conceive, reproduce. We’re actually doing it. We haven’t really told anyone but we’ve been trying for a couple of months. It’s the first scary hurdle of a virtually infinite challenge, and it’s one which we might fall at.

Attempting to conceive unleashes a strange mental gymnasium of angst and worry and fear and thoughts about biology and science and what might work best and what might not. At 37 and 35 we are not quite hitting the panic button, but we are not too far off. You have a sense that this thing might have been much easier 10 years ago.
As a bloke you can have efforts where you feel strong, where you have that control and confidence in your jizz. Maybe when you reach the big moment you feel like you can spurt and project your jizz a good distance, get it up there in the mixer, where it counts, lump the jizzball up in the box and see if one of your guys can get their heads on it, in it. I don’t know. I am not 100% on all the science and biology.

On other occasions, maybe when you’ve been trying the thing (sex) regularly for a while and you do not feel so fresh, you have occasions where the big moment feels floppier. It is like a juddering staggering over the line. You don’t spurt, you dribble. You are just grateful to have made it and relieved it is over.

Although, when that happens you sort of hope none of the guys make it because that thing you just did, that can’t be great quality jizz, can it?  If any tadpoles from that lame show somehow make it, they might create some substandard, weak fusion. This might produce a being which is slow, lazy, backward, or, or disabled somehow. Is it terrible to think that? Have I doomed myself just by thinking that? No kids for me now. But what if bad stuff happens and problems occur and things are not right? Would it all be down to my tepid casual jizz somehow miraculously making it to the payload?

Is that how science works? That can’t be how it works.
It’s done for another month now anyway, which is sort of a relief. Most of my 20s I furiously bemoaned my intense sexual repression. Now, not all that many years later, I feel grateful for the respite.

We had an extended family meet-up at the weekend. Planned around 6 months in advance, it bought together our family with the one discovered 12ish years ago thanks to ancestry digging and my mischievous grandfather’s roving eye.

Our three generations mixed in an impressive, newly renovated home in an affluent outer Birmingham town.

Their family have two daughters a little older than me and my brother. This was the stunningly spacious house of the elder daughter, aged around 44, happily married to a partner met at university (as my brother), with two beautiful kids, one boy, one girl (as my brother). Not having children, it’s difficult not to feel an outsider when they are chatting child things with my brother and his wife.  Kids’ clubs, music lessons, schooling: the stuff of which we know nothing. So we stand there and smile, anxiously stroking the knowledge of our secret efforts and weak jizz.

A while later the younger daughter arrives. Aged around 41, she lives a distance further away with a partner of only a few years. They are unmarried and have no children. She makes a remark about having a smaller house and you sense a tension, the younger sibling underachiever thing which I am well invested in. An enormous amount of time, effort and money has been ploughed into this house – a large part from their retired accountant father. You wonder at the parity or inequality of the contributions, which is a hard thing to measure for any parents I suppose. But when one side appears to have so much more in property and children, it’s difficult.

It is all kinds of difficult. There are multiple neuroses and resentments. He / she has / had so much more than me. My time has passed. I will never have that, them, this.
The journey to and from Birmingham presents a strange role reversal. I drive, my wife sits alongside me and my parents sit in the back. Dad fell off a bicycle and badly broke his arm a week earlier; my wife suffers occasional travel sickness so likes to sit up front. On the dark return journey back south the rear view mirror showed outlines of my parents’ slumped snoozing heads. They sway and bob, zombie-like. It’s dangerously hypnotic and slightly spooky. Inoffensive pop music plays from Radio 2 as we hurtle south down the motorway. Glancing left, I see my wife’s eyes shut, restful. I feel alone and responsible in my consciousness.

If we are successful at reproducing a small person, that person is unlikely to have the same relationship with their Grandparents (my parents) as the one my niece and nephew have enjoyed for around a decade. We may not be as able to lean so much on my parents for childcare support. (My wife has no alive parents or super close family). It is not inconceivable that we will attempt to raise a child and care for dying parents at the same time.

Such stuff, together with ideas of success and charitable family donations – who has more, who has earned more and been given more – it all feeds resentments, needles down, can ultimately divide family.  It never occurred to me until recently, but above everything else I might end up most envying my brother’s potent jizz.

impermanence itches

My wife regularly leaves piles of stuff around the house. Stuff she intends to clear, dispose of, organise or tidy up. But stuff which stays there for days, maybe a week or more.

Laundry, spare bedding a guest has used, tubs of peanut butter, items to be cleaned and then recycled. Naturally,when I ask her about the stuff, tease or cajole her, she says she’ll sort it. But she has this way of allowing things to drift on indefinitely, of taking at least twice the time if not considerably more that I would take to do something. Perhaps this means she does ultimately do it better – she will not just squash duvets into bin bags and chuck them in the attic – but we have to sit and wait, slowly go grey and age for a period of time before that happens.

I try to get a sense of plan, what the idea or intention is, then make incremental changes towards it. But even asking for a plan can be dangerous. You are pressuring and nagging, spoiling the time off she has allowed herself. I’ll often try to just sort things myself if I can. But if I can’t, if they are her things and I don’t know what to do with them, and they still sit there staring at me, piling up, making the place look untidy, then I keep moaning, sometimes gently, sometimes less so.

We’ve been struggling to fix pictures onto walls lately. This is a supposed pleasure of owning a property. It’s taken us around eighteen months to find and buy some pictures we like. To hang them on walls is such a seemingly simple thing – but one we both struggle with. (My own rank incompetence when it comes to DIY is an ongoing source of frustration and shame). We have dented and chipped and damaged walls. Our dining table is currently littered with touch–up paint pots, more paint which we might one day get around to using, picture wire, those sticky picture tabs. It looks like we just moved in, we are in a state of flux. It is impermanent and it irritates me.

In my twenties and early thirties when single and moving into new flats every 18 months or so, I did it all quickly, unpacked and arranged boxes and had books on shelves as soon as possible. Within a few hours I wanted to feel settled, or roughly settled, and I did. I have never liked disorder and untidiness, strewn boxes or clothes or washing up in the sink for ages; the drifty uncertain indefiniteness of it. It is at marked odds with my wife. Together with her three siblings it took them around three years to start clearing the dusty dark, memory-clogged family home where their parents had died, where two of them still lived but had no future. Things grind slowly with her lot. We were both single for a long time before getting together, used to doing things on our own terms, in our own time.

Maybe it’s a common division between people: the careful planning perfectionists and those who just want to get it done. It might also be connected with our different perceptions of time, an area explored in Miranda Sawyer’s excellent book on the mid-life crisis, ‘Out Of Time,’ which I read recently. My wife is like many in never feeling like she has enough time, always frantic and stressed and slightly flappy. Whereas I usually feel like I have plenty of time, too much even, and feel severely guilty as a result. (See previous posts). I tend to work quickly and get things done fast, if not always well. So I should be able to get everything settled and sorted fairly easily, shouldn’t I?

Where did my need come from?  This need to be settled as soon as possible, this outright fear of casual untidiness?  Is it not a bit weird too? Especially when nothing is permanent. Everything is transient and providing your environment is roughly habitable we should accept imperfections. Although that itself is a sound stoner excuse to never tidy anything up.

Aged 6, our family moved a few hours across the country. This upset me a lot at the time. I dimly recall sitting with a comic in the corner of an almost empty living room near the circular wooden base of a lamp, crying. People were moving other bits of furniture around me, the living room of my young childhood and entire living memory was thinning out. I didn’t want to leave this house and the friends I had here in this town. What was so wrong with it? This was my whole life. Where were we moving?  It could have been the other side of the world. I didn’t know or care. I even had the wrong comic. I read the Dandy and my brother read the Beano and apparently they had no Dandy so I had to make do with Beezer – bloody Beezer! Who even were these rubbish cartoon characters? It was all so unfair.

It wasn’t like I was an army kid, moving countries all the time. But even so, was that a source, the fear of being uprooted and unsettled? We all must face it at some point, even at several points over a lifetime.  I am not totally OCD.  I can cope with a few bits out of place. But I do always want an uncluttered physical environment – which can be virtually impossible to achieve. Don’t we all on some level want to be settled and sorted, with a clear vision of where we are and where we’re going? The idea is calming and zen, but it’s equally impossible to achieve.

All the same it is easier to get closer to it if everything is sorted, if the washing up is done, if there are not exposed bits of chipped paint appearing to gesture wanker signs at you from a wall.

Now we have committed to decorating a whole room, painting, trying to hang pictures again. I fear how it might drag and drift.

Postscript: it did not drag and drift. We did it in a long weekend.

the power of guilt

Guilt is a powerful bastard. It becomes a more powerful bastard as you age, gain more responsibilities and grow painfully aware of your many shortcomings which are not likely to change.

Guilt can command and overpower rational thoughts.

“I’m sorry I’m rubbish I’m sorry I’m useless pathetic. Ok you don’t like it when I talk like that I know, sorry sorry sorry. A sorry excuse for a…”

It can distress and paralyse and cause serious anxiety. There’s little you can do or say to overcome it.

Because life is this ever-fluid, malleable, unknowable thing.  Unless you’re mega rich or comfortably retired, it is not solid and unmoving. You can’t know what will happen in the future, and right now the world is a particularly scary place with uncertainties piling upon uncertainties.

Worries over sketchy work and financial situations are unlikely to be helped by news headlines dominated by Brexit fears, interest rates, the crashing pound, inflation, the gig economy, stunted wages and the cost of living. No. All that stuff makes it much much worse.

I wrestle with big guilt on a daily basis. My wife contributes much more to our unit. While we split the mortgage and bills down the middle, or at least we have done until now, she earns considerably more money, buys most of the shopping, and is out of the house a lot more.  She has the extra padding of more savings (thanks in part to dead parents), on top of a reasonable paycheck each month and financial predictability.  I’ve virtually forgotten what this must be like, (but it must be amazing). I have the padding of comfortably-off alive parents upon whom I can always call for help, but personal pride tends to muddy that.

She has a life outside of work and me, largely revolving around her running club and socialising with club members. I don’t. I can’t afford and don’t feel I deserve one anyway. I have the dog and a slightly indulgent, free but neuroses-packed lifestyle. We don’t go on holidays, we don’t go to pubs or restaurants.  I stay in and try not to spend any money on anything. This succeeds in the main because I’ve always been fairly good with money and being tight with myself. Netflix, Spotify, a modest amount of booze just about covers me for entertainment.

Sometimes I think she’d be well within her rights to give me a harder time.

“Come on now. You’ve given freelance life a good go. Give up, grow up and go get some boring office job you’ll hate but will at least give us some semblance of financial stability. It could allow us to enjoy life more as a couple. We could go on modest holidays or little breaks, perhaps visit a restaurant now and again. Wouldn’t it be worth it? Which kind of ‘freedom’ works best for you? So you’d just have to tolerate an office five days a week, like most people in the world. If you could find a job, that is, which granted might not be easy but you could at least start looking and applying for things. You never know.”

But I don’t get any of that from her. Instead she gives me a bewildering amount of support and I feel immensely guilty because I don’t feel I deserve it.

Complementing guilt is fear: fear for the near, medium and long term futures, what we can and cannot achieve with limited funds due to my being such an inadequate man.  Fear of major costs: car repair, boiler repair, something going wrong with the house, new mortgage repayments, a… a child?

We had an intruder garden-hopping out the back a few weeks ago. He tried to break into our neighbours’ shed and I’m fairly sure I saw him casually sauntering off down and adjacent street, probably after nipping over the fence and through our garden. Now, whenever I hear any noise out the back in the middle of the night, I am quickly awake and alert and worried. Of course it could be a cat or a fox or a bird but I am nervous anyway, thinking of worst case scenarios, someone breaking into our house, stealing the dog, attacking us in our bed. Could this be mixed up with my own personal fears, guilt, insecurities, how they are always closer to the surface and most vulnerable in the middle of the night?

There’s plenty for which I should be grateful and am. My wife, house, dog, freedom, general lifestyle. You can call it a trade-off, swings and roundabouts. I have all that and I don’t have to spend five days per week in a miserable office pandering to an idiot CEO I have never respected. But equally, if I don’t want to play that game maybe I shouldn’t whine so much about earning very little and having to weather such financial and psychological turbulence.

Shortly after finishing the first draft of these words I secured a biggish job. While not a life-changer, it could be a two-monthish changer, giving me the ability to breathe a little easier in the run up to Christmas.

As the criminally underrated philosopher Ronan Keating once said: “Life is a rollercoaster, just got to ride it.”

too much time

There’s no small degree of shame in still feeling, aged almost 37, that I have regular phases of being a time-rich, time-fat, time-criminal.

Seeing the world and all its people around me, it appears I have a preposterous, borderline illegal amount of time. And I am guilty of doing nothing of real value with it. I could always be doing more.

All this time should be treated with an intelligent, industrious strategy. I could use it to create something of genuine substance. Or to at least try. But I don’t, because… because I am lazy? Scared? A coward? Therefore I am financially unstable, unrecognised and unsuccessful and have a poor delicate pitiable ego.

When you have plenty of time on your hands these days, those hands (or at least one of them) invariably reaches for a smartphone and opens an app.  This is almost involuntary, instinctive, which I really hate, I properly HATE: how I have been programmed, how I do it without thinking. Ugh. I am one of them.

There’s your phone sitting there. Pick me up, it smugly whispers. You are bored, not engaged enough with anything else, so you do, with as much deliberate calculation as you scratch your nose. You open up the internet world of all the people who are so much better than you, and you idly pinball around grandly-followed accounts, variously hating their nauseating bilge and yourself for reading it.

This battle is brutal and constant and played out entirely in the confines of your own head. You have to manage the head stuff sensibly and smartly. The brain is this all-powerful unfathomable supercomputer of electrical connections and associations. You can’t control it but you need to manage it and know when the connections and associations it’s making are unhelpful. The paths it takes are usually well trodden and it takes a serious amount of work to install bypasses or diversions. It can feel impossible to do. I am struggling, I am not busy, I am not making enough money, I do not know what will happen or how much money I will have in a month, bills, when there are birthdays of my niece and nephew, council tax, two months, a fat insurance payment due, three months, car repairs? Then it is around Christmas, then there is mortgage mortgage mortgage, always. Fuck Christmas. Fuck everything.

No, that’s ok man, says the chill hippy angel on one shoulder. That’s just the way it is. You’ll cope, like you coped before. Things will work out somehow. You should accept that all the stressing and mental self-hate is pointless.

No, it absolutely is not pointless and it is not ok, says the manic hyper demon on the other shoulder. You should be doing more. There is no way you can have exhausted every possible avenue. You are a shambles, an unsuccessful failure with not the faintest clue what you are doing. You should be ashamed of yourself. How bloody old are you now anyway? Get your shit together, you tedious individual.

I know I know. Sorry.

You look at all the rich dickheads, the comfortably off twats, idiots in Range Rovers, people going on holiday to nice places, skiing. Fucking skiing. Your shit Facebook photos make me want to cry for a confusing number of reasons. I’ve never been anywhere as beautiful as that. Why are you so much better than me? How are you so much better than me? Because you have shackled yourself to a career, an employer, a boss? Conscious lifestyle decisions, or just the ways we allow life to shape us? But still, it is so enviable. Don’t we all envy each other through our lens of wild misconceptions?

But still, still I feel capable of so much more than I have ever achieved and ever believe I will achieve. And that hurts. Still I attribute too much meaning to people with big social media followings but shit content, and that hurts too. And still I have fairly paltry social media followings despite having the time to build better, but I haven’t, for shit reasons, and that needles away.

Calm. Hush. Stop.

There are always the quick and easy checklist tasks you can do and you do frequently do. There’s stuff you could be doing with a phone or sitting at a desk: writing some vapid bollocks professional blog post nobody will ever read (not even your wife, despite needily mentioning it several times before starting to feel truly pathetic); taking photos, posting a new webpage, rehashing an old webpage, commenting, blogging, checking, Googling, monitoring, considering how you might upgrade equipment on a limited budget. You sniff around in desperate hope of hope – a spike in web traffic, a paltry new sale, a lead. You psychologically self-harm by checking your bank balance. Few of these are genuinely constructive or profitable things to do.

You tend to go round in increasingly maddening circles, feeling foolish and useless until your head hurts and your inattention and easy distraction mildly disgusts yourself. This is worse than ever at the moment. I have struggled to focus on anything for a length of time: a book, film, podcast, task of any kind. Everything sags and wilts and bores. Everything is slightly pointless. Everything is in limbo. You wonder how indefinite this cycle can be.

caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s an early August Sunday in grey squally windy west Wales.

The caravan has been leased by the parents of my sister in law, my brother’s wife. It has all modern appliances: an electric fire, fully appointed kitchen, dining space, nice pictures and tasteful furnishings. While peeing I see there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main bathroom (there was another en-suite) and it strikes me that we have still yet to find a picture for our bedroom in the house we moved into over a year ago.

Our family hasn’t met up for some months and seeing my brother’s kids, 10 and 7, is a thrill. A first exploratory stroll on the beach with just my niece and our dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the deserted sand.

But this is not the classic summertime weather my mum has hankered for, having somehow never visited a beach with her grandchildren until now.  Mum and Dad arrive around lunchtime and come to meet us on the beach with my brother’s wife. It feels cinematic, watching their distant outlines slowly become more recognisable. We walk to a café overlooking a stretch of beach where Dad is embarrassingly rude to a young barista who gets our order slightly wrong. My brother and his family take great delight in mocking Mum’s old phone. We head back to the caravan for lunch.

Now it’s approaching the end of the afternoon, the time my wife and I were thinking of leaving anyway. We all sit in the caravan, drinking warming hot drinks after a bracing post-lunch walk and play on the blustery, sand-whipped beach. Sand is still stuck to my scalp and hair, despite me not having much hair.

This is when it begins and my sap starts to rise.

My brother has this regular shtick of proclaiming himself and his family poor. His perspective is wildly skewed by his Oxbridge peers, the social elites with whom he works and one friend specifically. Dave (his real name because fuck it) is a hot shot millionaire investment banker. I didn’t get a favourable impression of Dave around fifteen years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud, said an uncomplimentary thing about my Dad I felt he was wholly not entitled to say. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, and I sympathise. But it’s a decision he makes about living in Oxford and working long hours in London, it’s a compromise that comes of earning a strong salary which I suspect is no lower than £65,000. His wife is a university tutor, researcher and academic. Despite being on an unreliable rolling contract of sorts, I would guestimate she earns around £30,000 minimum. They live in Oxford, they are healthy, they have good jobs, beautiful healthy children, a high quality of life.

But compared to Dave apparently they are poor. Therefore they are sitting in a lovely static caravan donated by the in-laws for their holidays moaning about their poverty and how to fund the university education of their children. They supposedly do not have much extra disposable income. You might suggest because of their standard of living. Regular private music lessons, theatre trips and visits to amusement parks. (Or is that what you just have to do when you have kids that age? I don’t know).

In response to my brother’s introduction of university expense, Dad suggests starting up an entirely dedicated account, a fund for their higher education. Our parents seem to have lots of money, partly due to hitting the generation sweet spot. They were never spectacularly successful in their careers – although Dad still works and has for a number of years earned a respectable solid annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a tax consultant. They have always been prudent, made investments, and have a lovely house. They go on holiday frequently, and recently bought an expensive long haul package to Central America. I often feel like, if I had less inexplicable pride and hang-ups about asking for help, they could donate more cash to help me develop my own small business.

Across the caravan from me sits my wife, firmly ensconced in a game she is playing with my niece and nephew, unhearing of the wider conversation. We had discussed this on the way here, how my brother wheels out the poverty line, how it pisses us off, how she might say something if he presses it. I raised an eyebrow when she said that, unconvinced she actually would given how she is so averse to confrontation. Now it’s unclear if she’s taking the conversation in. She later says she wasn’t, she heard nothing, was too involved in the game.

Meanwhile I sit there and stew. Poor? He is really poor, is he? Is he fuck! Fuck. Off. What if he could experience my schizophrenically jittery bank balance, cluelessness about the future, pathetic self-doubt and crippling worry that we will never be able to afford children? He probably wouldn’t give a shit. He would most likely cackle and trivialise it, as he generally does my entire existence, smug posh personified.

My wife and I have recently begun speaking seriously of kids, if we can do it, financially, physically, mentally. It’s fast approaching now or never time and we are getting increasingly regular yearnings, feelings that we want that relationship with a small person. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me and my output as a human. (Is that a legitimate feeling or extremely self-indulgent?) We feel maybe my family has written us off, given up on us. ‘They don’t want any now. It’s over for them’.

But we have lately discussed whether my ever rickety, insecure work situation might be a good thing. We could save on childcare costs, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many women can’t and don’t and are royally screwed over.  There are so many overwhelmingly unknowable ifs and buts.

I feel my face getting hotter and redder and crosser as my parents discuss the financial options for funding their grandchildren’s education, as my brother continues to claim he is poor. Hitting the food banks anytime soon then, brother?  And I start packing up some bags. We leave with me Britishly repressing a swarm of waspish emotions.

friendship fades

Building and maintaining friendships is one of the many areas of life in which I have never excelled. I wonder if lots of people feel this, or if are there people with loads of friends, contented that they have aced that side of things.

Throughout pretty much all my twenties I considered myself quite a loner, I lived alone and did stuff alone, holiday, travel, meals, sex, gigs, endless cinema trips.

Friends come with success, I suppose. If you are enjoying a heap of it and you have followers and alliances by the bucketload, you are magnetic. You are never stuck for a drinking partner.

I have never considered myself successful. You might try to spin it nicely for me if you are my mum or my wife or someone who likes me, but the truth is I have never been all that successful in anything. In fact, my current bank balances indicate I have never been less successful than I am right now.

In large part due to having few friends, in some part due to feeling like a big fat loser (although I am not overweight, yet) I felt a little burned recently. Yes, poor me. Poor little hypersensitive me. Out with your mini violins, if you will. Thank you.

Friends and people come into and go out of your life over a lifetime. They fade in and out, intersect and drop away like an elaborate red arrows display, from nursery school to the retirement home. You might feel entirely secure that a friendship is made for life, but things can always change: circumstances, priorities, people themselves. Or a more dramatic thing might occur, a falling out. Either way, if you have even one that sticks for the duration, you have done well.

Even then though, that one will probably fade in and out of your life. There might be a spell when you might not see them for a year or two or three; perhaps longer, and you miss them from time to time. You wonder if they miss you, if you crop up on their friend landscape, in their dreams.

Social media today gives us an indication of whether we do crop up or not. If you see them regularly Liking your stuff, it’s like a friendly nod so you think you do, you are on their radar. And that’s enough. If you don’t, you suspect you are not on their radar or they do not give a hoot.

It feels juvenile and silly, being aggrieved that someone you thought was once a firm friend does not Like or engage with any of your stuff, ever, over months and years, someone you know who follows you – although you are aware they follow hundreds or thousands of other people too, but they regularly likes all the inane shit your mutual friend posts. But they never like YOUR shit and frankly this feels unfair and you want to cry to the teacher about it.

Pathetically, this is a specific case for me. He originally reached out to me on social media several years ago when I was in a very different place in my life, largely alone and miserable in London. We met for pints with his work colleagues in Soho. It was kind of unorthodox so I was initially nervous but that quickly smoothed out with the beer. I was touched and sincerely grateful someone gave a shit about me. On top of which, this guy was electric company: witty and smart and unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He introduced me to other witty and smart people, some of whom I still have a connection with. I moved away from London but kept meeting him and his friends (he was almost always with other friends and colleagues) on business trips back, until those trips became less frequent and fizzled out completely.

We had a sort of double date in my city a few years ago, while he was with someone local to my area. I had great fun and think my now wife was appropriately charmed too.  Then I questionably attended one of his joint birthday parties in London, and it ultimately felt slightly weird of me to have made such effort.

I hadn’t seen him for around two years until last weekend. In the intervening time we’d both got married in similarly small scale functions. This was despite him and another friend trying to dissuade me from marrying at that birthday party, the last time we’d met – due to a ranty post here about how much she was annoying me. (This place is an outlet for many frustrations, not all of them rational. I deleted that post). We hadn’t been to each other’s weddings and that was totally cool. We had drifted and in no way could you say we were close friends.

But I still genuinely valued the connection and really liked the guy. I wanted him to acknowledge me and like my stuff. So when I saw he was coming to my city for a mass cycling event I suggested we meet up. After a while I prepared for the idea he would not reply, that he could not really be bothered, I did not figure on his busy friendship radar, maybe I would get some excuse in a few days.

Before too long though, I did get a reply and we met in a pub. My wife dropped me off and I walked down to the pub, not knowing if he was going to be with a large group of beer-guzzling young things in their mid-20s. He has a decent Twitter following and strong seeming engagement compared to me. It didn’t seem wildly unlikely. Thankfully he was only with one other, a nice, comparatively mellow sort of guy I’d met once or twice in Soho.

This meeting was fine but with an inescapable whisp of awkward. I felt that I had imposed this meeting when he couldn’t really be bothered on a hot day after a long bike ride, and perhaps he couldn’t really be bothered regardless. Not having that social energy was totally understandable.  There was also the fact that I knew much more of his life than he knew (or maybe cared) of mine.

“When are you moving?!” he asked / demanded in his characteristically urgent manner, keen to show an interest, as he always is.
“Erm, I moved about a year ago and I’m a bit upset you clearly pay so little attention to my life,” I said, half joking but not really joking.

He’s a difficult to pin down enigma with an infuriating email technique of only ever asking questions, never answering them, when he does actually reply. He discloses little about himself, to me at least, although there’s clearly a lot to him, a lot to know.  He builds an impenetrable wall of charming bravado and hides behind it.

After two leisurely pints with them, they wheeled their bikes through the pub and out onto the street. There was apparently no question of meeting up again later in the evening, after they had returned to their digs and freshened up. Me and him hugged and waved half-hearted see-yous, I warmly shook the other guy’s hand. We turned in opposite directions and I wasn’t sure we’d see ever each other again. What he really thought of me and our friendship was impossible to tell.

Our meeting left me saddened and contemplative of friendships and friendship as a thing; how firm they can seem in isolated moments or a series of isolated moments, how those shared experiences can bind you, how it can all easily unstick and unravel, how there are always two different sides and they can be extremely different, how transient and ephemeral they all are in the long run.

unfriendly rivalry

There’s this guy, right. Let’s call him Mike. We’re competitors of roughly the same age. We work and live in the same city and we’re originally from a similar neck of the woods about an hour and a half away. He has more experience and is WAY more successful than me. Rightly so. In fact, I probably don’t even register as a competitor to Mike. But I go through small phases of obsessing about him and his riches. I’m not proud of it.

Mike outright ignores me every single time our paths cross, whether we are working shoulder to shoulder or sitting in close proximity working at laptops: never a glance, a faint nod, certainly never a word. He doesn’t seem to actively sneer or disdain me as one of his allies does when his face unavoidably confronts mine; more a simple quiet indifference, a casual obliviousness effortlessly sustained over several years. I’m not even sure what his voice sounds like.

Everyone in the city loves Mike, worships him, kisses his feet. Whenever there’s an online request for such services in a Facebook group, it’s Mike’s name you will always see recommended the most in the comments section. People can’t speak highly enough of him. He has the highest profile, the most followers, the best contacts, the biggest network. This is in no small part because he was essentially incubated by The Large / only media publisher in the city. It’s effectively state news here; there is only one outlet. Our local media landscape is not healthy or competitive.

For a few early career years it seems Mike was a general office dogsbody who concentrated on working up his skills and Twitter followers before being set free to go freelance. In that time he also built great contacts with important media folk and with all the big PR agencies in the city, who knew he has a direct route back to the only big media outlet. He holds enviable cards.

Annoyingly, Mike is great at what he does. There is no denying this, and I suppose it’s why the whole city appears to approach climax at the mere mention of his name. As far as I can see it is not for his overflowing charisma and brilliant jokes. Although many have insisted to me that he’s a nice guy and professionalism orders me to politely smile and nod.  (Oh, right. Is he? Not to me he isn’t, so… you know, forgive me for thinking he’s a smug prick).

That said, I’m sure he probably is a nice bloke to his clients and partners. I hated seeing an indication that he liked dogs, which as a dog-lover myself forced me to concede something about him. That he couldn’t be a total prick? I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly what. But I would have preferred if he hated dogs or was at least as indifferent to them as he is to me.

Mike is also sort of an alien. One time a couple of years back we were sitting next to each other, working at a football match. It was properly pissing down. I was wearing full waterproof gear, over-trousers, jacket and hood. I was still getting soaked to the bone, rain trickling down my wrists, seeping through the ineffective trousers. A couple of feet away he sat there, just in a jacket and jeans, no hood. Somehow he did not appear to be getting wet. Rain just bounced off him, visibly repelled by his dry wiry hair and general excellence. It appeared that Mike was innately waterproof, weirdly ‘other’.

He drives a nice new big white BMW, almost certainly gets tip-offs from media contacts about breaking news stories, knows and is probably highly respected by our industry peers working for big agencies, gets lucrative contracts with the large organisations. You will always see the back of his head in grainy smartphone pictures at award ceremonies, at conferences or events. And if it’s not him, it’ll be someone you know is a close ally of his, people you suspect he has referred because he’s busy or can’t be bothered.

We were working at a thing recently, the only two of our kind at the thing, shoulder to shoulder, pointing lenses. The people all looked and smiled down his lens of course, not knowing or caring who the hell I was. Mike was the Main Guy who everyone knew and this was his territory. He was all smooth-moving, elegant and waterproof. I was the bumbling interloper, the awkward fraud, the clumsy imposter. He was a few seconds late for one of the key moments which punctuated the event and a main organiser delayed proceedings, visibly flustered by his absence. “Where’s…  where’s Mike?” She vaguely appealed to me. Other people looked for him too, twitchy. I shrugged. Throughout the course of the event we were there in the middle of it, and away from it working at laptops a few feet away. We amiably spoke one-to-one with the person sitting between us. Between me and him though, as ever, not a glance, a nod, a word.  His pictures were everywhere the next day. Mine were nowhere.

Heading back to our cars in the car park afterwards, he was walking with an older gentleman, as I neared.  He turned to look back over his shoulder, saw it was me and instantly looked away as if to try and conceal the fact he had looked and seen me. Two minutes later I followed his shiny white BMW out of the car park in my much inferior car.

you quietly hate him

There’s this guy, right. Let’s call him Des. Now he’s a nice enough bloke in person, around your age, really amiable, approachable and chilled. He exudes ‘easygoing’ niceness.  Deep down you kind of hate Des.

This is his first full year doing something which you’ve been working at for a few years now. Des has waltzed in and seemingly made more of a success of it than you.

Des’s work isn’t better than yours. The agency he works for is one that plenty of people in the industry sort of hate, or at least disapprove of. They sell work at a much lower price than your agency sells work. Therefore his work is frequently used and yours very rarely is. It’s galling to see, especially when his work is not all that great. Des usually at least gets some payment for inferior work, even if it is small, and you consistently get nothing.

How can this not grate? It grates. It really fucking grates.

This would matter less if you were more ‘strong and stable’ in your cashflow and finances. But you are not at all. You haven’t been for years and can’t foresee a time when that will change, despite promises of the Theresamaytron bot. Money is your biggest worry, as it is for most people. Few people think they have enough money, wherever they sit in the payscale. You appreciate you have much to be grateful for in the grand scheme of things but it would be an enormous weight lifted to not worry about paying bills every month, to not overthink every unnecessary pound spent on common affordable luxuries like booze and coffee.

The devaluation of creative work not an unusual thing but it feels more transparent at the moment. So many borderline mercenary online platforms are available. Work is offered for increasingly cheap rates via a greater number of intermediaries, all of whom take a cut. And people are willing to accept less money for their efforts, particularly if it is not a full time occupation, if it is merely a nice supplement to a full time job. And if people are desperate for something, anything, they will gladly take what they can get. There is nothing to prevent people doing this, but it grates like hell when you see it repeatedly working against you. It reflects how people / media owners don’t care much for quality, they just want the stuff.

Anyway. Back to Des. Another thing that grates about Des is how he’s SUCH a busy prick online. You know those people who, after a while, come to dominate the experience of a social feed?  Under every other Instagram post you see ‘liked by Des’. Every new profile you find which is interesting is ‘followed by Des’ because Des apparently follows everyone who has ever had an internet account. Fuck off Des you fucking prick! Is Instagram literally ALL you do?  And you can’t unfollow or block Des because he’d probably know and you’ll see him again soon and it would be awkward. (Although you did unfollow him on Facebook). Fucking shut up, mate.

“Oh, hello mate” you’ll fake cheerfully say the next time you see Des. “How are you?” (you fucking likable prick).