Saturday, 29 March 2014

I don't know where to put you

I'd been wanting to see them live since first hearing the album back in 2010. 

They'd been the accompaniment to my final months of travelling; me, my now Ex, and our ever present soundtrack of the same songs, in the same order, wherever we went.

Now the gig had finished, and our sentences were glazed with that post-live music wonderment - you know, when the encore's done, the lights go up and you walk out, down the stairs, onto the street and all you can say is oh, I loved that, that was so good.

"How did you hear about them?" my friend asked, and I told her how he'd been all over this stuff, we constantly listened to music, stayed up til 6am dancing to it - this was what we did.

"Have you talked to him lately?" she said, because we live in the same area and, for a time, I seemed to bump into him every time I left the house.

"Not for ages," I replied, "Not since he was walking outside my old flat last year and I saw him, then completely forgot my housemate's name."

"But it's weird." I continued, as we walked among the throng of people heading to the nearest station, "usually I'll wonder how he is, and then he'll cycle past me at the bus stop or something."

"Alright, so you know he's still got legs. That's cool." and we laughed and I said, "Ha, yeah. I've been thinking about him a lot lately, just hoping he's ok. But I suppose you always do, don't you."

We got to the station and split up, her to go underground and me over. It was five minutes later when I was faced with a closed line, forced to retrace my steps back over the road and take a different route - such is the reliability of the London transport system.

As I placed my Oyster card on the reader and stepped through the barrier, at that precise moment and time at the overly busy station, some hair caught my eye, then trainers, then my brain pieced together all the different characteristics of this person in front of me.

And even though he hadn't turned around yet, I called his name because it was definitely him.

"Hello," I said, and I can't remember if we hugged.
"Hello" he replied, "how are you?"
"This is weird, that you're here", and of course he'd been to the same gig.

Then we walked down the escalator, onto the same tube, where we placed ourselves by the doors on one side of the carriage and his friends on the other, sometimes glancing our way.

There we stood as the tube rattled from one side of London to the other, catching up, carefully skirting topics, asking after people and family and jobs and travels; vaguely referencing a time we can't talk about here, like this; occasional silences where we looked at each other, smiled a bit and didn't know what to say next.

We reached the barriers at the other side and he hung back, waiting for his friends so they could get food.

We hugged. A goodbye, a good to see you, a quick, distant utterance of I'll text you or something and a Yeah, do thrown over my shoulder in case I'd misheard, or hadn't, and then I walked up towards the concourse at Liverpool Street Station.


Days later, the chance meeting sticks in my mind.

He's back there in my head, of course, because he always is anyway. It's fate, or chance, or I could bump into him at any time or place and it would seem as though I'd always just thought of him that moment.

With this one, there's no box to put him in. I don't know where he's meant to go. Everything fits, and nothing does at all.

He's just there, and, as long as we live in the same city, on the same road, and listen to the same music, I suppose he always will be.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The guilt factor

I went to bed with a heavy feeling in my chest.

As my eyes closed and I lay in the dark with thoughts of the night's events swirling through my brain, I recognised the feeling well - the guilt was back.

There's a lot of reasons to feel guilty these days, take your pick: guilt for not being better at your career, guilt for not doing the things you set out to do that day, or that year, or before you were however old because, when all is said and worked and eaten, you just want to get into bed and watch TV.

Guilt that you're not giving enough help to those who might need it; guilt when someone else spearheads a campaign to get a homeless bloke off the streets and you know you could have, but didn't - and probably won't - do it too.

Guilt that you're still single and don't mind too much, mixed with guilt that grandchildren probably aren't on the cards with your sister, so they probably should be with you - or that's the end of that family name, isn't it?

And then there's the overriding guilt that you're not doing enough for, or spending enough time with those who, sooner than you might think, might not be around any more.

The latter is something that bothers me a lot, and has done for a while - but most noticeably since my auntie and uncle (both unexpectedly in their 40s), my granddad, grandma and my mum's best friend all passed away in frighteningly quick succession a few years ago - because you know how quickly it can happen.

More than that, it now regularly dawns on me that my parents are getting older, and how utterly lost I'd be if they weren't around.

Yet even knowing this, the guilt when I snap, or get frustrated, or do an irritated sigh seems to far outweigh the efforts I make to be appreciative and kind.

Despite trying to be patient, to call home, to visit and help in the small ways I can - the balance of real life, a bad night's sleep or a grumpy morning sometimes tips me the other way. And I'm aware of it every single time.

All that, and then this week's argument - a ridiculous, familiar one my mother and I have had for months now, this time with the addition of an unnecessary comment, designed to make me feel guilty.

"I was saying to someone earlier," she'd said with a strange, casual laugh, as I stood outside the gym finishing a call which had ended, once again, with me frustrated and listing the reasons why it would not be appropriate for my 64 year old mother to come on holiday with me, my sister and our friends, something everyone but her seemed to understand - "what it is I've done that makes you both hate me so much that you don't want to be anywhere near me."

For the first time in a long while, guilt was replaced by anger, tears and complete incomprehension. The line was crossed, and I flipped.

Enough of this.

Realising the reaction was not, perhaps, what she'd intended, my mother apologised. The argument was resolved, the words taken back, "I didn't mean it", she said.

The anger stuck around for an hour or three, then simmered down as I lay in bed, thinking about it all, and gradually realising that this time I was feeling guilty for feeling so angry.

Oh, give me a break, I thought, just once.

Before slowly, exhausted by my own mind, I drifted off to sleep.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Of housemates and desks

Like being in the wrong relationship, living in the wrong place is often signposted by several small things.

And because like a relationship, renting with others requires compromise, these small things often get quickly normalised and lumped into a box marked "things you have to put up with because the location is good, the flat is nice, and you have your own bathroom."

For example, there's the dip of disappointment when you hear a key turning in the door, something that is in firm contrast with the relief you feel whenever you hear you'll have the place to yourself for a night or longer.

Then there's the lingering hope that their slightly annoying friends won't come round, or that they'll go home soon, and the "sorry, but could you turn it down a little bit?" that you never wanted to hear yourself say (and come on mate, it's a Tuesday).

There's the irritation of your belongings being moved, tidied away, just squeezed in around your housemate's stuff, or, as once happened - coming home from a trip and finding their unwanted pictures hanging on your bedroom wall.

(Your friends say "that's a bit weird", and you reply "Yes, but the flat is nice and I have my own bathroom.")

And then you move to a new place, and much like dumping the bloke you always had doubts about, the change is immediate.

It happens on the first night when - clothes strewn everywhere - my unpacking is interrupted because I've been summoned to the pub to meet their friends.

This, I think, putting down the hangers and heading out of the door, is a brave new world - and one that I will gladly toast with copious amounts of cider. On a Tuesday. 

Then it's a few days later when I'm home after work, and the key turns in the door and I realise I'm looking forward to greeting whoever comes in.

And it's not just the house, where my things can go wherever they want - and the housemates, who welcomed me in like an old friend, but the room itself: this new space I didn't have before.

Crucially, it's this one little thing: in the extra gap between the wardrobe and my bed, I have a desk - for writing, for sitting at, for putting things on.

I can't remember the last time I had one, but this small, cheap, flatpacked piece of furniture has somehow become the thing I mention. For now, it goes:

"Yes, the new place is great. My housemates are lovely. And I have my own desk."

Thursday, 21 November 2013

On the defensive

It rankles every time.

"I can just see you being so happy with someone."

The same phrase, always delivered with a note of longing in the voice, as if true happiness could not be achieved any other way.

This time, the call for my coupled happiness comes from a person wearing a ring of intent on one hand and holding the keys to a new, jointly owned flat in the other.

I let them finish, taking a moment before replying.

I sip my beer.

Normally this call for my coupled happiness would be positively bashed away, because being single is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but mostly for all the reasons being in a relationship is not.

Allowing anyone to think otherwise quickly results in a pitying look and the words, "don't worry, you'll find someone soon. It always happens when you least expect it. Let's see, who do we know?"

(Not, "Well, maybe you'll feel better about it tomorrow.")

But this time the call for my coupled happiness comes during a week when I haven't been very happy at all; a week when its felt like life would, if nothing else, just be a bit bloody easier if it was shared with someone else.

"But I am happy," I finally respond, lying through my defensive teeth. "It's just a different sort of happy. I've been extremely happy in relationships, and I've been extremely happy single. I know what's possible either way."

And, I stop myself from adding, this isn't a choice. 

The next day, clicking through page after page of potential places to call home, the adverts, the bare and furnished rooms, I think back to the call for my coupled happiness, and run the situation through in reverse.

"I can just see you being so happy on your own" I'd say, delivering the words with my head tilted to one side, a note of concern in my voice.

Perhaps the words would be received the morning after a huge argument, when the air's still thick with shared, temporary resentment.

Perhaps they'd push away any possibility that I might be right, that happiness is just a breakup away.

Perhaps they'd get defensive too.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Sunday routines

The PIB lay on one sofa and I lay on another. Both of us settled, we embarked on our new Sunday routine.

"So, a debauched week then?" I said, taking in the slumped, slightly worn out figure huddled in blankets in front of me.

"Yeah. You could say that" she replied, before launching into a story involving men, road trips and alcohol which, all things considered, could only ever happen to her. "Also while cavorting around, I basically realised I'm still not over the ex. Bloody men. After months of telling him not to contact me, he finally stops and I'm like oh. Bah. And you?"

"Well, bit the same really. I've been blaming the weather, but weirdly I've felt a bit - like, I don't know - a little bit heartbroken lately. Like a thousand tiny little heartbreaks, over no one in particular. Just all of them. The Ex, the other one, ones I didn't pursue for one reason or another and now think I should have. Wondering if there's anything I could have done differently, pawing over it all basically."

She shook her head and straightened up a bit.

"Nah. They weren't right. If you hadn't ended it when you did, it would have only happened later. And as for potential dates, things always seem rosier when you look back on them."

Deep down, I knew she was right. Because being single brings freedom, but when you're faced with so many options and choices, there's always the worry you might be making the wrong ones - especially when they all bugger off.

We chatted back and forth for another hour, pausing only for food runs. The sky darkened behind PIB's head.

"Right. I need to leave the house." I announced with a yawn. "Or I'll just flop around here all day eating."
"Yup. And I need to go to sleep."
"Next week, same time?"
"Fo sure. Have a good day."
"Sleep well my dear."

With that, my best friend's face disappeared from the screen, and we went back to our lives on opposite sides of the world.

Outside my window, the rain fell through grey skies. The perfect day to stay in and mope.

I closed the laptop.

And after a little sigh, a little stretch, and with nowhere specific to go, I put my shoes on and started Sunday.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Things in common

Feet cross, uncross and cross again under the table. Fingers repeatedly trace the sides of a cold glass, and words spill from my mouth in an unfamiliar, slightly awkward way.

It transpires - as it has done on previous occasions - that we have a lot in common. Alcohol precludes the memory of what exactly those things are, and it seems rude to ask for the details again.

But where there's a will, there's a way.

"Oh, so what did you do when you worked on Oxford Street? Same thing?"

"Yep. Still engineering, just for a different company."

Aha, you think, engineer.

The similarities are ticked off as they emerge, and I'm pleasantly surprised: grew up in the same area, agree with the same principles, watch the same TV series, like the same films.

He drops in the name of a book he's just finished reading, and it's by the same author whose work lies half read on my own bedroom floor.

I wait for the stars to align, for the dopamine, the serotonin and the hormones to fire across my brain.

Instead, another thought crosses my mind: did he see the book there on Saturday? Was there time between the kiss and him leaving to glance at the detritus of my room and store the name?

It's the sort of thing I'd do, and after all, we do have a lot in common.

And ah, Saturday: when a cab home after a big group outing had seemed better than the bus. When alcohol, politeness, things in common, the flattery of attention and a recent decision to give good people a chance had concluded in him sitting next to me on the sofa with a glass of fizzy water.

I'm nothing if not a good host.

(In truth, I'd expected the cab to drive on with him in it - but no matter. He's here now.)

Then as the sun had threatened to rise after 5am, an unnecessary apology seemed necessary.

"I'm sorry" I'd said, after we'd kissed because he was in my room and probably expecting to stay there, and he liked me and I said I'd try these things more, and we had a lot in common. "But I think I want to sleep on my own tonight. Is that ok? Perhaps we could go for a drink or something though?"

And he'd said "Yes, absolutely, no problem, I'd really like that" and left with the promise of a date and my phone number.

So then here we are on a Thursday in a West End pub: me, him and our common ground illuminated in the full glare of the rising house lights.

He walks me to the bus stop and we wait for our respective numbers to arrive.

He's nice, I think, as the bus pulls away after a kiss - on the cheek this time. And we have a lot in common.

But when you think back and consider the sparks, mutual attraction and excitement, and the alternative - being happily single with the world to play for - things in common, no matter how hard you try, just never seems enough.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keeping it simple

The text messages had sparked up again, his intent still anything but clear - an attempt to be friends, an appeal for advice (why mine?), the proposing of a date or merely gaging my interest? My patience was up. 


Simplicity seemed elusive in my own dating life and in those of my friends. But still, on a rooftop bar one Sunday evening, the questions continued. 

"Maybe things are different now" I ventured, aware that the last people willing to call themselves my boyfriend slunk away in 2008 and 2011; the carefree days of my early to mid twenties. Who could say what issues beset the relationship landscape two years on? 

Not me. 

The Shard winked at us from across the city, and we winced at the sunshine and the prices next to each drink on the menu. 

"I don't know." I continued. "Maybe once you get to your late 20s, 30s and beyond, things just aren't as straight forward any more."

It was a conclusion that had come while recounting my own confusion and listening to the stories of others: tales where ambiguity, intense feelings, and a very apparent fear of commitment seemed to be recurring themes.

But through it all, a thought remained: if things aren't still as simple as two people wanting to be with each other now, end of - when you're childless, mortgage-less and haven't got ceremonies and certificates binding you together - when will they be? Is that too idealistic, or do we really need to be giving these problem-boys a chance?

These days it seems like we're stuck on conundrums that weren't there before: do we waste time working at something, or accept the signs and move on? Or in real terms, if a thirty year old man still communicates in riddles and emoticons now, is it worth sticking around and hoping he'll grow out of it?

The cocktails arrived and we took a sip each. A beautiful girl opposite was crying into her Mojito, and our own drinks sweated onto the glass table while London stretched out around us. 

"Well, part of me doesn't want to give up on the relationship, because we clearly have something. And part of me doesn't want to waste any more time if it's not going anywhere." my friend said with a sigh.

"I get that, but still think it should be an easy choice to make - whether you want to be with someone or not - at least to begin with. Anyway, I'm hardly one to talk. Maybe this is just how it is."

We sat in contemplative silence and she slipped off to the toilet. I flicked through my own puzzle of text messages, yep - still confused, and then checked my email inbox. 

One message received, it read. An old colleague continuing a brief, lighthearted conversation from a day or two before. 

Well anyway, when you get back from holiday - would you like to go for a drink? 

Or perhaps, I thought, sending a response in the affirmative along with my phone number, there's a chance things could still be simple after all.


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