chance of happiness

Moving property is an epic headache. It involves a ton of faffing, an almost insurmountable swell of administration, packing, boxes to carry, payments to make, contractors to organise. Even if there are two of you sharing the load, it’s still possible to shrink and crumble.

When you finally get into a new property there’s an equal bulk of stuff to sort out, boxes to unpack, providers to arrange. We found a house in reasonably good condition, not requiring much by way of immediate work. “Well-appointed” is a term I recently learned. Still though, there are things that aren’t ideal, stuff that cannot be fixed or remedied quickly. The missing door of that otherwise nice enough wardrobe, that rotten slat of wooden decking, the decaying corner of a shed. That large tree in our garden is some responsibility. Is it ok? What if it blows over into our neighbours’ garden? What if its roots screw something up?

Amidst all those fears, anxieties and neuroses are unusual sudden zings of excitement, prickles of, of… could it be, happiness? Some moments you feel yourself involuntarily smiling at things, your new life, all the possible futures. This conservatory is awesome! I feel distinctly middle-aged about feeling that, but I have a great view of some distant trees and fields and do not care.

You will always have worries about work and business and finances. Only a privileged few people don’t have those worries. But this place might be your anchor. This place might be great. This place might really be home. You snort an empowering sense of hope, a fleeting bubbling thrill about what happens next.

Until you remember the wider world and all its Brexshit, the economy and business and mortgage repayments. You must stave that off.

It’s not like there was unconfined misery back in our small city flat. It was a home of sorts, comfy enough, if extremely loud with bustling banging clattering shagging neighbours, and it never quite felt grown-up like this does. This feels frighteningly grown-up.

You look at all the new rooms and wonder what domestic scenes will play out in them. We plan to stick around here for a while.

Where will we have our first big argument? Might we keep a dog in this part? Conceive a child here? Have a heart attack there? Agree to divorce over there? Learn about the death of someone in that corner? Will she bury parts of my mutilated corpse under here? (Could explain her slightly excessive interest in life insurance).

Another zing flowered up the other day, exploring our new neighbourhood and finding all the paths and tracks through woods and fields, right on our doorstep. There are chunky sizable walks to be taken. Although we’re not based far from a constantly droning artery into the city, there is definite breathing space. You can easily distance yourself from the clutter of urbanity and domesticity. Relative tranquillity is a short wander away.  A walkable affluent village is pretty, the pub appears incredibly inviting, old, wise and characterful.

Of course there’s plenty to do here in the house, things to fix, decking to creosote, furniture to varnish, intensely boring grown-up things, people to contact and contract, assurances and insurances to get. But still, it feels like there’s a chance of happiness. At least until Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin use the UK as a nuclear frontline.

Chance of Unhappiness

*Scribbled a week on.

There’s a chance of unhappiness too. You can suddenly be struck with the fearful what ifs.

What if this doesn’t all work out? This house, this home, our relationship.  It’s taking quite a while to really feel like home. It still doesn’t feel like our home. It’s still echoey and a bit empty and not ours. It’s still like a rented holiday home.

We still don’t have curtains there, a door there. It doesn’t feel as cosy as our flat. Is there too much space?

Why are we so fractious with each other? Is this where we will end as a couple? Where our marriage slowly disintegrates? We were ok in the flat but here everything seems a bit clunkier, fumbling and awkward, new and unsettling.  Our relationship was born and steadily grew in the flat. The flat was our womb. It was all natural and intuitive, there was a comfort to be had in everything being temporary. Here, we’ve displaced it by taking a jump to something different: real, grown-up permanent life. We are anxiously kicking and screaming.

Under observation

You feel a strange pressure as a couple, relatively newly wedded and now mortgaged. You feel observed by people, casual figures of amusement, even if you’re not at all because everyone is busy living their own lives. You imagine them excitedly thinking: what’s next?! Because there’s this screamingly obvious script of convention that says we must have babies soon.

Look at the world right now though. It’s fucking horrible and appears to only be getting worse. Look at all the hate and division and racism and powerful idiots and the economy and finances and wages and living costs and childcare prices and university fees.

On a more personal level you’re weighted by a compelling body of evidence suggesting your fragile infant bubble of domesticity might just fail. It regularly happens with marriage. Statistics bear it out. We will try really hard to make sure it doesn’t but who can ever know what life will be like two, ten or twenty years down the line? We might be dead of obscure diseases or nuclear war.

Building a home takes work and time, yes. Potentially rewarding in the long term. But there’s a real fear that it could go to shit if we’re not careful, if work doesn’t pick up soon and my cash ebbs away and I get increasingly stressed and worried, impatient and snappy, if we never find a replacement wardrobe door and the living room always feels a bit too spacey.

earnings and insurance

I enjoy my work when it feels like it’s working.

When it’s less busy then naturally you’re nervous and you have to deal with that. Some days you’re able to sensibly rationalise and it’s all ok. Other days you might catastrophise and beat yourself up until you’re a sobbing mess. Such is the lot of a self-employed person.

Another big thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is not making much money. What we earn, how much money we make over the course of a year: it’s a subject people don’t tend to be that open about. It’s highly personal and reflects notions of ‘success’, self-worth and ego.  My bank balances seem to indicate that I do reasonably fine week to week and month to month. I am careful and conservative with my cash.

But when it comes to calculating net profits, balancing against all the expenses – and sometimes my expenses are quite high due to expensive equipment – it can be embarrassing. Is that… is that it? Really? Did I do something wrong?  Only I was expecting it to be a bit more. But that number looks pathetic, like I might be a new graduate still living at home with my parents.

It would be ok if that was the case. But I’ll be 36 this year and am now some way down the long road to my first mortgage.  This is not something I could have achieved on my own, with my crazily fluctuating self-employed earnings. Marrying someone with a steady salary who has not so long ago lost her parents and sold her family home, albeit splitting it several ways: that made it possible.

If all goes well and to plan and we get a house with more space, we might start thinking about reproduction. First we will think about a dog, (not reproducing one, just buying one). But we might think about reproducing a human, if all bodily things function as they should, which they may not. You never know, do you?  But that has me thinking about responsibilities and earnings. Is it ok to carry on doing what I am doing and by and large it being ok, but getting to the end of a tax year and looking at my finances and being faintly embarrassed by my paltry profits? Is it enough?

I look sideways at people in the street in this city which floats along in its bumbling semi-crooked bubble of public sector cash, and I know that there are hundreds of people my age who are doubling, more than doubling my annual earnings.  There are loads of pleasant competent people earning twice as much as me, but probably working and worrying half as hard. And some of them might not be that competent.  It grates. There are people sitting in government and university clerical jobs with infinitely more protection if bad shit happens.

Wife and I were looking at scary grown-up things like income protection, life insurance, mortgage cover. I asked some steadily employed friends what cover they had and in comparison I felt massively exposed, adrift on my own as a sole trader. Sure I can pay for similar cover, but these things are not at all cheap, particularly when added to a hefty new mortgage commitment.

It’s another big neurosis. In reality I am unlikely to suddenly think ‘YES, now I will become a civil servant or get some other sensible job!’ In reality don’t think I could get such a job now. I probably look like a flighty risk on paper. But still, you keep looking sideways at people and thinking how much less you have, how much more (you think) they have.

It’s the old comparing yourself with others thing, not being able to appreciate what you have, with a dash of life not being fair thrown in. You can try to sensibly rationalise, or you can descend into that pit of uncontrollably sobbing what-ifs? Which end you tilt towards depends on the weather in your head.

risk and reward

Sometimes you can be mature and philosophical about life having little sense and reason. Other times, it’s harder. This week has been hard.

It started on Monday with news of the tragedy in County Donegal, where a car containing several generations of a family sank, and everyone except a small baby died. A woman returned from a hen weekend to find her mother, sister, partner and two young boys had died. The baby was rescued by a heroic passer-by who swam out to the car. It’s hard to even conceive of that woman’s grief. It hurts even trying to think about it.

How do you tell someone that news?

It sounds like a thing of fable, a story passed down through generations, but it’s chillingly real. Tragic, awful stuff happens. It could easily happen to you or me. There is no sense or reason.

On Tuesday morning news of the Brussels terrorist attacks started to filter through. An IS bomb at the Belgium city’s airport was followed by explosions on the underground system, with a death toll currently at 31 and likely to rise.

This was less random, of course; more deliberate and calculated and not such a surprise. A threat had existed for a long time, especially after last November’s Paris attacks, and it remains there in most large cities. This is a time of permanent risk.

It struck me that during the last International football break we had the Paris attacks, and during this one we have had Brussels. Perhaps IS are merely upset by breaks in the domestic football season?

The World Half Marathon comes to my home city on Saturday. Much of it is here already, including a large expo at the city’s indoor arena. It’s a big deal for the place, thousands of people piling in and spending money, including Olympic star Mo Farah and elite runners. Walking around the city centre, you can sense the population bulging, the mass of keen, healthy looking people in trainers and sportswear.

On Saturday I will be working in and around the centre of it and part of me is nervous. In the current climate, how can this event not be considered a prime terrorist target? Surely it would be simple? A huge volume of people from across the world concentrated in a medium sized city for a big event with the word ‘World’ in its title. A city with a diverse population and a recent history as a breeding ground for Syria-bound IS fighters; a city which has long been considered ripe for terrorist scares, albeit quietly.

You think of the Boston Bombers, you think of the 2010 British comedy film Four Lions, where the London Marathon is a target, you think it could happen.

You walk past young white men and think nothing. You walk past men who bear a passing resemblance to the men in that grainy airport security photo which was on the front page of every newspaper on Wednesday morning: you think something.

My flat is next door to another flat where a number of young Arabic guys live. They have large and loud gatherings most Friday nights, where around 20 men pile round and talk loudly, animatedly, making shrill wooping uleleling sounds, before stampeding in twos and threes down the hollow echoey stairs at around 1am. You try to be as liberal as you can about it.

Other areas of the city are roughly segregated by ethnicity. There are often talks of regular dawn raids in the next inner city suburb over from us. You have to trust in the intelligence services.

Events of the week, combined with my only sporadic busyness, have left me feeling a little spaced out, dreamy and nervous. I have felt a lot like blankly staring out of windows and drinking coffee or whisky.

Personally, I am at a point where exciting change could be right around the corner. Marriage is feeling cosier than I anticipated. (A little over six months now – better than some).  Beforehand, a friend had said it cements everything and I had thought it over-romantic nonsense. Now I can see the truth in it, the greater solidity, (excuse this next bit), but love for my wife developing and growing in a way I hadn’t really expected. I feel closer to her than ever, closer than I ever have to anyone.

When pinballing aimlessly from female hope to female hope (years 2009-12 of this blog), I harboured a dream of immediately being utterly possessed by ‘The One’, of falling in lust and love with her and everything clicking instantly and magnificently from the first moment; of us naturally getting each other all the time, being constantly entertained and amused by each other, being perfectly synchronised and on each other’s wavelength. Now I see how ridiculous that is.  There are natural curvatures throughout relationships, up and down. They are not straight timelines.

Big things we’ve been waiting for and hoping for, they might actually transpire soon. The edge of change is a tantalising and frightening place to be. Firstly, moving to a house. It could all go wrong of course, but it might go right. And if it does goes right, I might have a mortgage, a nice house, we could get a dog, if lucky perhaps a child. Who knows?  Sometimes you can’t help gazing out of windows and trying to see the future.

But if either or both of us get killed by terrorists on Saturday, none of that happens.

bludgeoning through

Freelance life. It comes as a surprise that it’s still a struggle sometimes, almost seven years down the line. Surely I should have acclimatised by now?

When it comes to the ebb and flow of work, the tapering off is still tough. Things aren’t at all bad at the moment. They are indeed ‘ticking over’. There’s stuff on the horizon, an engaging variety of work, a pipeline of sorts, though never a hugely reliable one. There are a number of chunkyish payments outstanding.  I need not feel too stressed, or as stressed as I have been in recent years.

And I’m not stressed as such. More confused, discombobulated, resentful of feeling a bit bored and not busy enough; perpetually frustrated by what I consider to be a lack of recognition and general unfairness; a bit lost.

I often work unsociable hours, evenings and weekends (albeit usually more out of passion and hope than rational profit) so I shouldn’t feel all that bad about taking my foot off the accelerator a bit during the week, about not sitting at a desk peering into the internet and over-comparing myself with apparently more successful people.

I shouldn’t but I do.

My conscience is threatened somehow when it doesn’t feel adequately occupied. What more could I, should I be doing? Don’t be lazy. Set your own agenda. Work produce work create work update work upkeep work.

You know as a self-employed person, you often have to work twice as hard to make half as much as a comparably aged and skilled civil servant. Or that’s what it can feel like anyway, seeing them mooch idly around town on lunchbreaks, probably during a day of meetings when they sitting around boardroom tables not saying much.

The other perpetual struggle is how isolated and solitary it is, working for yourself all the time; the lack of human contact and real world conversations, the loneliness. I always think to myself that I’m better equipped than most, with my total loner background and general misanthropic outlook. But still, it can be a challenge. We’re designed to want to interact, and when a dull week sags along without much by way of human punctuation it all feels rather dull. Maybe a dog would help.

At the moment, rediscovering the incredible early 1970s’  songwriting talent of Cat Stevens and Harry Nilsson is helping. Music of that era produced a beautifully unique, period style of whimsical uplifting melancholy. My Dad was a fan of Harry Nilsson and still has old vinyls, so I was familiar with some of his material, but Cat Stevens was only discovered after enjoying his soundtrack to the brilliant 1971 film Harold and Maude on Netflix. Spotify then provided all the related music that exists. We are ridiculously lucky to live in times when all this stuff is available on tap.

With any luck the dog might not be too far off though. Terrifyingly, we had an offer accepted on a house a couple of weeks ago, which would allow us to get a dog. But we are totally in the dark about timescales and the pessimist in me thinks it’ll probably be horribly protracted for at least 6 months and ultimately fall through altogether.

Exciting though, the prospect of not living in a flat for the first time in my adult life, aged 35. No way I could’ve entertained a mortgage alone of course, on my measly net profits. My key piece of first time property-buying advice would be: if you possibly can, marry someone with dead parents and considerably more money than you.

Just a mild whinge then, this conversational blog post, albeit with a faintly optimistic undercurrent. Written in lieu of an actual human conversation with another human in real life. Nice talking at you, internet. Mind how you go.

in sickness and in health

The last couple of weeks have been strange and difficult. Middle of the night ultra-anxiety; big, unattractive belly-shaking tears of fear and panic; excessive contemplation of death: all that. And not my own death either. Her death.

She developed this horrible skin condition which is apparently quite common but I’d never heard of. Hives or urticaria. She had it chronically bad: red marks, weels and inflammation from the scalp of her head, up her neck, across her face, all the way across her body to the balls of her feet. It was horrific. Something was eating or at least mutating my wife.

She woke up in the middle of the night crying at the pain and discomfort. Utterly fucking terrified, I applied a cold towel compress and vacated the room, eliminating my own body heat from her irritation. I walked down the hall to the sofa where I sat, read everything I could find on the internet about this thing and cried myself to sleep.

Over the course of two weeks and fluctuating levels of distress and discomfort, we went back and forth to see GPs, and dermatologists at the hospital. I spent several consecutive nights on the sofa, battling manfully against a snotty cold, suffering massive worry, catastrophising hugely, drafting her funeral eulogy in my head, wondering what my life would be like after she died. I pictured myself walking a dog and that being enough. It wasn’t just in the middle of the night when I wondered about her dying. I thought about it all the time, this constant sinister ticking: butwhatifshedies? butwhatifshedies? butwhatifshedies?

I didn’t want to lose her. It took me a largely miserable decade of being a loner to find her. We are not long married and planning a future, thinking about buying a house, getting a mortgage, maybe even (finally) a dog, and possibly reproducing if we can.

Did she have fundamentally flaky genes, having lost her mother in middle age? Will she ultimately not make it past a similar stage before something strikes her down? Will health deny us the chance to grow old together, to become old people? I always wanted to become a properly old person. Nobody has that guarantee, I know – health and chance and anything at all can shit over your life for no good reason; but all the same I really hope we get old together.

At its worst, walking down the street and seeing old people would make me mildly upset. As would seeing babies and gleeful children. Would we be able to have them? Really? Would we ever be parents or would there be further medical complications?

She has complicated thyroid issues and Grave’s disease (not exactly a promising sort of name, even for a disease). This means she’s predisposed to the whole range of auto-immune disorders. You don’t want to go Googling that stuff. With urticaria, there’s a general dearth of medical knowledge and research. Also it’s idiopathic, so you might easily never know the cause of your outbreak, whatever you try and however you eliminate things from your diet or routine. (We’ve tried a lot). There are informed sounding medical blogs and self-published books by American sufferers, but little more.

Over the last day or two, since the last hospital visit, it has mercifully eased and we are back sleeping together. But the fear will probably never go. Take nothing for granted, try to enjoy every tiny nice moment. You never know, it might all be fine.

unwelcome guests

Nobody likes feeling comprehensively disparaged.

My wife and I, together with her sister and her sister’s husband visited extended family across the other side of the UK. We drove to her sister’s, roughly half way, and her husband drove us all on the next day.

Her sister, a slightly nervous, shy and inhibited character, has had something of a ‘Daddy complex’ when it comes to partners.This might sound cruel to say, but the facts bear it out. At around 38, she has never been single her whole adult life, and has always been with a man at least 10 to 15 years older than her, sometimes having affairs to get to the next one. Her husband of several years, with whom she appears utterly besotted, is in his early 50s, Scottish, a curious combination of laid back, mellow, yet militarily stiff and a bit boring. Let’s call him Gerald.

I cannot really comprehend the amount Gerald has seen and experienced in active service across countless countries. Equally, he has little sense of my work or myself. All told, we don’t have much in common at all. He didn’t attend our wedding a few months ago as he was working overseas. We were told that he was gutted to miss it, or words to that effect, but on viewing the photobooks of our wedding and honeymoon, Gerald passed no comments, asked no questions. My hunch is that he didn’t give a fig, or haggis.

I ask plenty of questions, particularly when I don’t know much about something. Partly because it’s polite to pay an interest, partly because I am genuinely curious. They have passed comment on that in my absence once or twice, according to my wife. ‘He asks a lot of questions, doesn’t he?’

In the world of grown-ups it often seems like there are people to whom a lack of knowledge is an affront or a threat, and there are those to whom it is a chance to learn. It could also be the case (and almost certainly was) that Gerald was entirely uninterested in us silly young people who can offer him nothing. But he asks no questions.

On arrival at their house we were not made to feel all that welcome, comfortable or even expected. Given that neither of them ask many questions, it was up to us to do the conversational running. They do not appear natural or regular hosts. We did nothing much from our arrival at around 2pm to going to bed after watching Sherlock at 10.30pm (our choice). We sat on the sofa and watched television. Granted, the weather was foul and did not encourage excursions, but even so, it was extremely boring.

One of his, and by proxy his wife’s, favourite sayings is “it is what it is”. It’s used to conclude and dismiss conversation of virtually everything; a lazy, slightly banal way of excusing yourself from discussing or analysing anything. We all have favourite expressions, and I guess I can see its utility in allowing you to let something go and move on, but when overused it gets quite exhausting. Oh, the holocaust? You know, it is what it is. Terrorism, the middle east? It is what it is. The meaning of life?

The following day we visited the aunts of my wife and her sister. He drove the few hours down the sodden motorways, clogged with surface water. Gerald appeared sullen and straight-backed at the wheel, casually aggressive towards other drivers at times, less inclined than ever to engage in conversation with us back seat children. Were we imposing on their trip? When we offered petrol money they said, more than once, that ‘they were going anyway’. Oh. So we weren’t then? This wasn’t a nice friendly group trip? We were seemingly just freeloading.

There was no indication of Gerald’s sudden transformation. This was what rocked and stunned us. In this company my big brother in law became some sort of cheeky, charming, jovial chat show host. His old charm guns were out and firing, and hitting the bullseye every time. By contrast, I felt wrong-footed and clunky.

The aunt whose beautiful home we visited for lunch and dinner lived with her husband, 25 years retired. (Think about that one, people who will probably never retire: 25 years retired). He was recovering after various serious, life-threatening surgeries (he had passed around an insightful colostomy publication). Back in the days when he had worked, he had worked making weapons. And he had also served his national service, thereby having a great many subjects to discuss with my brother in law.  Military travel tales were much discussed over a simple lunch of soup and posh bread. Some might say overdiscussed, at considerable length. I had none, and felt mildly subjugated in the covert war on inheritance.

Following lunch we went to check in at a nearby hotel. It had been mooted that we might, all four of us, go on a small exploration of the area. The weather appeared to be clearing up, slivers of blue sky slowly expanding through the grey. We had each found our rooms and my wife and I were exchanging observations of lunch, largely revolving around Gerald’s transformation, when she received a text message from her sister remarking on the blue sky. I suspected she wanted to go out, stretch her legs and get some air, as I did. My wife seemed less fussed, but replied asking if they were going out for a walk. ‘They’ (but Gerald, clearly Gerald) said no, they were just going to chill out for a bit. Gerald clearly fucking hated us.

Dinner was a little better, the conversation more evenly spread. I was determined not to be quietened or cowed, or afraid of being myself. However, it still felt like Gerald held the reins of conversation. Whenever it veered outside his realm of interest or experience (anything not military related) and everyone was chewing over an interesting point for a second, he would seize the moment to realign conversation into a track which suited him better.

I like to think my inner child is sometimes not far from the surface, I like to mess about, occasionally be animated for attempted comic affect. This is unlike my brother in law, or indeed anyone on my wife’s side besides my wife, who can goof around with the best. Their family had a monstrously dominant father who had a good go at nipping that sort of thing in the bud.

The females assembled in the kitchen after dinner, leaving Gerald, the aunt’s husband and I in the lounge. Playing around with the aunt’s young cat, sitting on the floor, I felt mildly judged, a little foolish. But I tried not to care, and didn’t. The first time Gerald and I were left alone, we kept the conversation going. The second time neither of us could be bothered, and I went to the kitchen.

The Chimp Paradox – a widely lauded mind management book of Dr Steve Peters – returned to my consciousness of late. In very simplified summary, it’s based around the emotional element of our brains being ‘chimps’, which can overpower us in certain situations when we feel threatened, causing us to behave in unhelpful ways.

Several years ago I heard of it and him for the first time when he was a guest on Richard Bacon’s Radio Five Live show. I made a note and emailed a link to my Dad, who has suffered from various psychological issues including depression for much of his life. It didn’t really register with him and I said no more about it until several weeks ago. Now more receptive to the theories of others, he downloaded and read the book, and found it helpful. As has my wife, still working her way through the audiobook. I’m half way through the paperback I bought her for Christmas.
This was a weekend when many chimps felt extremely active on all sides. There were unconscious threats, fears, concerns, a great many inhibitions. On the surface we made our way through it all fine, legs kicking furiously underneath, chimps swinging loudly from tree to tree.

One of the most powerful ways to undermine someone is the suggestion that they are unusual, or not normal. This can be what breeds paranoia and neuroses. Maybe military training, or a whole military working life institutionalises you into a certain practical and disciplinarian way of being. It’s perhaps no surprise that Gerald and I entirely miss each other on a number of levels – while remaining civil. Such weekends or meetings are not a regular event, and are unlikely to become more common.

What insulted and left a light scar was his sturdy, casual indifference to us; that he couldn’t, wouldn’t and probably never will summon the basic, regular levels of polite civilian inquisitiveness towards us. But he could switch it on in a headspinning instant for his elders.

there’s this guy

There’s this guy who I hate mainly out of pure envy.  And yet I also sort of want to be him. Or be best friends with. Because we’re around the same age, share a fair amount in common – regular blokey things: football, music – and I think in an alternative universe we could be friends.

The thing is, he is SO ‘in’, with the innest of in crowds in a city where it richly pays to be ‘in’. And he’s super ‘In’. A checkered, skinny-jeaned hipster, a pretty cool and stylish mod, quite dashing. It appears like he spent most of his career with one PR agency employer, steadily growing with them from a smallish size and rising up the ranks to a senior title. They are now a big name in the city’s business world, a leader in their space, arguably The Leader. This must have given him access to plenty of influential people, a great network of contacts. I don’t doubt that he’s good at his job; bashfully, floppy hairedly charming, maybe a bit cocky and a bit of a lad, but loveable.

Perhaps. I don’t really know all this. I’ve gleaned much of this intelligence through the internet and just seeing him around at stuff. We did meet once in person, a fairly quick exchange when I was representing a client and he didn’t follow through on his professional promise, but I didn’t much care. He probably wouldn’t even remember. He was confident and likeable enough, taller than expected, and imposing, but charmingly smiley. I’d bet he’s sent many young female PR executives knees nervously quivering over the years. Previously I was aware of him at a business function, flirting with people he knew at the fringes, not genuinely minded to mingle with strangers, as the majority never seem to be. And I’ve seen him once or twice at gigs or in a bar. A girl I had seen him with once, when I was single, was predictably really attractive.

I’ve often wondered if we’d have a great time getting drunk together having really open conversations and end up being mates, or if we’d just think each other dickheads.

In recent years he appears to have bravely put himself out there a bit more in his own right. He has written a novel, distributed by a local publisher, for which he’s done a fair amount of self promotion. I’m not sure how well it sold or was received, but he’s now writing another one, so it can’t have been a disastrous experience. He’s a very well respected PR name locally. The world is his oyster.

Recently my attention has been piqued because he does cool things online too; stuff to do with writing and food and stuff. I look at it and instinctively hate it.

But I tell myself to stop, grow up, and ask what is it exactly that I’m hating.

Is it his popularity and apparent success? His recognition and huge social media followings? (It still eats me that although I’ve been a fairly early adopter of all platforms and my commitment to them has never wained, I fail to have any large followings. This is mainly – I tell myself – because I won’t unthinkingly follow back the first few thousand people to follow me.)

Is it that deep down part of me thinks that he has what I deserve? If I had a little more career luck, shown more loyalty to an employer in my mid 20s, more patience, more diplomacy, been just slightly better looking.

Is it that nothing I’ve seen makes me think he is markedly better than me? (I read the opening and closing pages of his loosely autobiographical debut novel and was largely nonplussed. But then, I didn’t want to like it, so my perception was far from being warm and willing).

Is it that he is very of this place, a local guy people will identify with and want to like, a local hero? While I’ve lived here for the majority of my adult life, I could not and would not ever want to be considered a native.

Is it that so many people seem to fawn over him? There’s an extremely try-hard, busy young guy, around 25, desperate for career success, quite boring: he flaps around him like a moth round a lamp. It’s adorable and disgusting.

But then, despite myself, I can sort of see why. I want to be his friend too.

No I don’t. I bet he’s a dick. Is he a dick? He’s a dick. Yes, let’s think that.

do as you would be done by

“Do as you would be done by”. 

This is a principle I’ve always applied, but recently questioned. That’s because it seems to based on idealistic, possibly misguided and arguably naive ideas about life. That life is fair, that you reap what you sow, that it’ll all come back around.

But you don’t necessarily reap what you sow, as argued whiningly before here in countless blog posts, life is certainly not fair. You can do the good thing and report something, confess something you might otherwise have got away with, and still be the recipient of similar bad luck: somebody not doing the same for you.

It can be a middle class moral minefield out there, and you could easily promote the flipside.  We must live in hope. We need to have some basic faith in the goodness of other humans in order for a decent civilised society to function. We can’t go around doubting everyone: I know you’d screw me over so I’m going to screw you over. Although you sense others might employ that strategy, you can’t do it yourself if you want a modicum of self respect.

We have to trust that there are some decent humans out there, and you should try to set a standard – particularly if you have kids who you want to be decent people.

Context of this recent conundrum…

Last Saturday night I reversed out of my parents’ driveway onto a pitch black road. There was a car parked on the opposite side of the residential village road where there is usually no car parked, and which I did not see at all.  I reversed squarely into it. Not a light kiss of bumper. A sturdy thwunk.  No tinkles of glass.

Fuck fuckity FUCK. I tried looking for damage in the dark. There were scrape marks I probably caused on the other car – fortunately a fairly old looking Skoda, but none discernible on mine.

My angst was considerable about what to do next. I could probably get away with it, but I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. It didn’t stop me sleeping but it was the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep and the first thing I thought about when I woke up, and I could barely stop thinking about it when walking the parents’ dog the next morning, guiltily wringing it over and over in my head.

They had a white van in their driveway, small but still industrial and workmanlike. I didn’t want to risk knocking on the door to find a typical bolshy, arsey white van man. No thanks.

My preferred, admittedly cowardly option was to leave a short apologetic note on their windscreen with my mobile number, so the ball was in their court – would they care that much about a shitty old Skoda?  I’d had a similar scrape in the courtyard car park of my city flats a while ago, and the owner hadn’t really cared. As soon as I pinned the note, I would promptly leave the village and return to my city flat.

That’s what I did.

Sadly, after seeing the note they visited my parents and appeared to charm them to the point it felt like my parents were firmly on their side. A prickly email exchange with my stubborn, never wrong mother ensued over a difference between the photographs I had taken – showing scrape marks and an intact seam of bodywork, and the photographs they had later taken – showing the seam of bodywork that had come apart.

They would come back to me with some figures. Terrific news. What would those figures be? How big? Fuck fuckity fuck. At the time I was chasing a number of late payments and my bank balance was plummeting accordingly. There is still an excessively direct correlation between my mental health and the silly poxy numbers on a screen representing my bank balance. These indicate if business and life things are good, or not good; or shaky, iffy and worrying. I can never see six months into the future with any confidence, but I try to pacify myself with the notion that nobody can.

One of these outstanding payments was due from a businessman I had never wholly trusted, a man about whom I had been warned before beginning a professional engagement. I had decided to make my own judgement, and now all the evidence was pointing towards him trying to wriggle out of paying me a few hundred quid.

He had dropped me from his team without any explanation for a following fixture – leading to minor awkwardness; he had acted casual when I had asked him in person about the payment, as if there was a perfectly innocent reason. He had promised it would be in my account on a certain day which came and went and no money was in my account. When I next asked, he told me to call him in a couple of days and when I called him it rang and rang, and I left a voice message he didn’t respond to. I called again the next day and withheld my number. Nothing.

It irritated me more and more, how he was appearing to squirm out of it, ignoring me, how massively unethical it was. I envisaged ways I might publicly expose him online, several months down the line. I daydreamed a scenario where I had a big dramatic stand-up argument with him in a busy press room and my articulation powered through and I won and everybody clapped and he stormed out and I was a big glorious hero.

He is a respected, successful, tidily off businessman. But he is also sort of slippery. I accepted no excuses for part of the payment being over three months late. It was disrespectful and plainly wrong.

Then suddenly, surprisingly, he paid. Perhaps he realised I wasn’t going to let it drop when others previously had. I had to make a real fucking nuisance of myself in order to get paid and would keep doing so until I was paid.  He sent a mildly apologetic email saying something about an automated payment system not working, which I didn’t really believe.

He might have got away with it again, as he apparently did previously with another colleague of mine.

Like I might have got away with bumping the other vehicle, if I’d left and said nothing. If my guilty conscience would have permitted it. Which it wouldn’t.

I suppose it’s as much about our conscience, and if we can live comfortably with our own decisions. I’ve often struggled with the need to be brutally honest, for good and bad. Being honest and highly valuing honesty, hoping for similar in other people: it usually means your morals are sound. But it can make you sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, potentially weak, and expose you to more biting levels of disappointment in others.

On occasion it seems like ‘do as you would be done by’ has no rewards.

her name changed

I saw her last name had changed. I knew she was engaged but had unfollowed her Facebook updates, not wanting to know more. Then her name popped up when I discovered a new tab containing all the mostly annoying people I’d unfollowed on Facebook, but remained friends with. And it had changed. I couldn’t not look at her profile to see a few of the first smartphone images of the wedding. A castle, a beautiful long flowing dress, a proper looking wedding. She looked appropriately starry eyed. Her guy looked solid, sort of dreamery and distant, ‘easygoing’. They took regular, enviable looking hiking holidays to grand mountain ranges. I imagined they both enjoyed solid employment. Several weeks ahead of my own rather more understated affair, I had strange feelings.

This was a girl I took a ridiculously long amount of time to get over. She ruined me, even though our relationship wasn’t all that long, not quite a year at the very start of our twenties. The decision to separate had been mutual, but it appeared to me like I was the more devastated when we met for a polite coffee or something a few months afterwards – the last time we conversed in person. She ruined me for a while, or perhaps I ruined me.

My success with women during the course of my twenties has been likened (by me) to Emile Heskey’s goals per games ratio for England. (I don’t even know the exact figures but I think he scored something like 6 or 7 over about 10 years). And my strike rate probably wasn’t quite that good. Reflecting from now it seems flattering, because you can cluster a handful of different memories, places, nights and women and it seems respectable enough. If we’re talking ‘lad points’ it trumps guys who got together with a girl really young and have stuck faithfully with them ever since. But at the time, living it day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, it’s often boring, occasionally humiliating (with a brother like mine) and harrowingly lonely.

Part of that was because of her, who I kept thinking and occasionally dreaming about. It was far and away the most serious relationship I’d had before or for about ten years afterwards. I loved her and she was pretty into me for a while.

I remember meeting her off a train once and feeling flattered to the point of dizzy that she’d missed me so much. When I visited her childhood home at her parents’ house in one of the prettiest little fishing towns in Cornwall, we had a moment that I remember thinking was near perfect. I remember thinking ‘wow, this is incredible, I’ll remember this’ and I have remembered it.  We’d gone for drinks at a traditional oaky old fishermen’s pub in the town and seen some live music, before walking back up a steep hill to her Mum and Dad’s place, which overlooked the ocean. We had to sleep in separate beds. Her mother spoke at a frightening pace, barely needing me to say anything to keep the conversation flowing. Her parents’ powerful love for her, their only child after some major medical struggles, was overwhelmingly apparent. Nearly at her front door, we turned and looked out across the town and harbour. The full moon reflected off the sea and I held her tight, articulated my pleasantly drunk affection, which I’m not sure was quite reciprocated. Something faltering.

I’ve glimpsed her in town once or twice since returning to this city five years ago, and just a few weeks back we found ourselves in the same room at a business event. About thirty of us watched a posh guy in a suit give a talk, after which I downed some orange juice and bolted away, missing the breakfast, half bottling a potential conversation. We’d glanced shyly across the room at each other but not fully acknowledged each other’s presence. Only an hour or so afterwards she casually posted to my Facebook wall that she was about to come and say hello, but I’d gone. Wall posting! She was always a little behind on social media, never discoverable on Twitter or LinkedIn, despite having roughly the same communications job at the same employer for well over ten years.

dim and distant

Part of us is always intrigued about revisiting our past: the places and people of former times. There’s a mysterious romance to it even when there shouldn’t be, even when you should just be relaxed about tucking it away in a box, ‘compartmentalising’. But surely most of us, unless there’s some incomprehensibly horrific post traumatic stress disorder-inducing episode, have a vested interest in the complicated tangle of experience which has produced the confused, neurotic mess of a human we have become.

We might wonder how differently things might have turned out – for better and worse, if you’d stayed around and finally somehow got that break you’d been holding out for. It’s broadly accepted that regret is a fairly useless emotion, but it usually colours any degree of personal reflection.

As an underachieving bloke still fumbling nervously along in his mid-thirties, I ponder less mature versions of myself. The younger-me versions who inhabited those places, the things that were going through my head. Memories are easily coaxed out through old iPods on long car journeys. Remember going to that gig, feeling miserable, and standing against that wall looking miserable and hoping someone would talk to you, then going home and hating yourself? Ahh, great days.

You wonder how far removed that person is from the you of right now? Are you really older and wiser? Have you mellowed? Or are you still irrationally wounded and bitter at all the unfairness in the world?

You idly consider how have the places might have changed, evolved, been knocked down or built up. How have the people changed, grown, altered? Or how nothing much has changed at all.

It hadn’t been all that long anyway. Only five years.

Never shy when it comes to gazing at my navel, as this blog robustly testifies, over a few days I flirted with the idea of returning to London. Just a short, flying visit. I miss the place, its scale and pomp, and hadn’t returned in about a year. There was a chance to see people I rarely see. I was feeling claustrophobic about not having left my current hometown for a while. I wanted a small personal adventure of my own. I was curious about how I’d react to being there alone again, all that familiar old stimuli, echoes of a time when I was often lonely and miserable, despite liking much about the place, thinking I wouldn’t need much – just a couple of things to fall right and bingo, everything would change.

In two and a half hours I drove down to Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport, just outside London. I left the car in a sketchy feeling 24 hour NCP car park which happened to be free on Saturdays and Sundays, and hopped on a tube.

Gay Pride debris bombarded me upon arriving into the centre. Flamboyant rainbow coloured people sitting drinking on pavements in small groups, as if in protest that they couldn’t get Glastonbury tickets. Thousands of upbeat people swarmed in all directions, apparently unfazed by how easy an act of terrorism could be. You have to forget all that when you live in London, but when you’re an infrequent visitor and there’s been a spate of recent terrorist acts, it’s harder.

One misgiving I had about making the trip was accommodation. Never much of a planner, I’d left it late before committing to the trip and hadn’t booked anything despite quickly browsing Airbnb and a few others. I didn’t want to pay over £50 for just a handful of hours, and all the faff. Surely I could just sponge a sofa stay? But then I didn’t want to be a pain and cheekily impose myself on anyone I didn’t know that well. Hmmm. I hadn’t quite worked it out, but fuck it, cross that bridge when I come to it. It’d be fine. It was summer, not going to get cold, there are 24-hour coffee shops, plenty of interesting streets. I had my Kindle and an enjoyable book on it. It’d be fine. Wouldn’t it? Yes. Just get on with it and do it. Worry about that other stuff later.

Having tired of the social gathering around 11.30pm, or it tiring of me, and being nervous of further alcohol consumption when I was unsure what the next few hours held in store, it was later.  I drifted away, semi-drunk and walked back through the centre, thousands of Pride revellers still revelling. I got a sloppy burger meal, walked more streets, got a large coffee in a 24-hour coffee chain on gay high street Old Compton Street, impatiently endured a middle-aged man with a cleft-lip and speech impediment hesitantly question me about Kindle internet connectivity, then walked back towards Piccadilly Circus, from where buses would travel in the direction of my car. It was later and late and I was quietly worrying.

Pretty tired, body confused by alcohol and caffeine, I had considered sleeping rough. It was warm enough. Parks and doorways everywhere. I didn’t want to though. Uncomfy, awkward. And I’d get unlucky, mugged, arrested. Now I was on a long, slow bus ride, being driven by a violently braking young man who would ultimately deposit me a few footsteps from my car. How sober was I? Was I really fit to drive? No. Probably not. Could I sleep in the car, in the car park, if there was no attendant? Likely CCTV, but unlikely to be monitored. I badly needed to pee as well. Drive a short distance out to some residential street and sleep in the car there? Questions, confusion, lethargy. Shit. How had I clumsily played myself into this hole? Idiot. Looking out of the window shortly before the bus approached my stop I saw a bunch of hooded youths. If I encountered any such groups like that while seeking somewhere to rest or piss, I would have undoubtedly shat myself. It didn’t seem the friendliest area.

Stepping off the bus onto the still populated middle-of-the-night outer London street, I smartly headed to the car and started the ignition straight away. I was ok enough to drive, wasn’t I? I’d probably fail a breathalyser test and I wasn’t at all proud of this, but it was now 4 straight hours since my last sip of beer. Between times I had eaten a reasonable amount of food, and drunk a large coffee and water. That was ok? Not ideal, sure, but ok, right?

Still I felt shame and doubt and anxiety and paranoia. It was a risk, a gamble, I could get caught and regret it for a very long time. ‘Death By Dangerous Driving’; ‘Driving Ban’; ‘No consideration for the safety of others’. I have never been a reckless deviant, never had any scrapes with the law. That stuff scares me.

After turning right out of the car park, I slowed next to a residential street and peered down the road seeking a quiet haven. A tall man was standing there, just hanging on the street corner at 3.30am, like you do. Fucksake. I headed for the motorway, windows open, music blaring, eyes pinned, gripping the steering wheel tighter and more sensibly than usual. Every set of headlights in my rear mirror was a potential police car destroying my life.

I stopped at a service station in Reading and, the stabbing at my bladder so severe I half limped half crouched my way to the toilet, as if trying to balance a bowl of piss on my stomach. I was nervous of any lurking, over-caffeinated traffic cops. There were none I could see. Promptly returning to my car, I took a few deep breaths. I was calmer now, and the black sky was already being diluted with blue.

After that I grew steadily relaxed, if still cold by the necessarily blasting air. Whenever my blinking rate increased I sang and shouted to fend off any chance of them fully flopping. It seemed to work. Thankfully the midsummer darkness didn’t last long, lighter morning hues seeping into the sky around 4am. I grunted monosyllabically at my partner and flopped into bed at 6am, relieved but still ashamed.

Clearly I am now much older and wiser.