The Accidental House Party

I genuinely didn’t mean to throw a party. As with most things I do, it started with good intentions.

I used to be a member of a youth club. They used to hold national events. This one involved a disco. As I was talking to someone I dimly recognised, she mentioned that she didn’t have anywhere else to stay that night. “That’s OK”, I told her, forever wanting to be helpful, “you can stay at mine.”

“Great,” she said, “can Rachel* stay too?” “Sure!” I said. I was sure my parents would be fine with me bringing two friends** home to stay.

At some point after that, something went wrong. I can only guess that the girls got chatting to other people about where they were staying, mentioned that they were staying at mine, and it’d probably be fine if they stayed too. And that those people had similar conversations with other people. And so it spread, like a cold through a crowded tube train, until everyone was staying at mine and I had no idea.

I’d noticed that there were a lot of people from the youth group on the train home, but that didn’t worry me. Lots of my friends lived near me, so it made sense that we’d all be going home together , then we’d all go our separate ways at the station. But, as I started walking home, I realised that no-one was splitting off. That 30 or so teenagers appeared to be following me. And that I barely knew most of them.

There didn’t seem to be much I could do about it, so my brain switched into my default denial mode.

“It’ll probably be fine”, I thought.

It wasn’t fine.

Actually, it was OK for the first hour or so. But more people kept turning up. And they weren’t ready to settle down for a cosy night’s sleep. There were people everywhere, chatting turning to shrieking, making out in dark corners, going through the fridge.

“You’re surprisingly calm”, I remember one boy telling me. I wasn’t. I was numb.

I remember the rest of the night in a series of flashbacks. Panicking that my parents’ lovely house would decidedly less lovely by the end of it***. Repeatedly telling the rowdiest people to shush, to no end. Eventually rounding up the loudest of them and taking them out for a walk to try and calm them down. Returning to see a police car outside (someone hadn’t told their parents they were staying out). Making a large pot of pasta at 3am to feed my ravenous guests. Knowing that this was not going to end well for me. Realising that no-one else around me would care about that.

It was a long night.

People started drifting away in the morning. My parents finally ventured downstairs, but my dad didn’t speak to me for the best part of a week.

It feels like there should be a moral to this story, but there isn’t, not really. Life went on. Dad started talking to me again. I continued to make unwise decisions, I failed to stand up to people.

But, perhaps it’s not yet time to learn something from the story. Maybe next year, maybe in five years, maybe in ten years, one of my children will do something well-intentioned that spectacularly backfires. Something that keeps me awake all night. That gets the police banging on the door in the middle of the night. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember teenage me, panicked and out of control, and desperately wishing she hadn’t started any of this. And, hopefully, I’ll be kind.



*I can’t remember what the first girl’s name was, I certainly can’t remember what the second girl’s name was. Let’s call her Rachel. Everyone was called Rachel back then.

**I was always quick to assume everyone I met was my friend back then. I am somewhat older and just a touch more cynical now. But only a touch.

***Astoundingly, there didn’t seem to be any damage, just mess. My mother found some chewing gum stuck inside the curtains a few weeks later, but that was about it.

Socks. SOCKS!

I spend a surprising amount of my life bellowing the word “SOCKS”. It’s the eternal call of the school run, of the tired mum who doesn’t want to be late for work AGAIN, aimed at the small daughter who is cheerfully running around the house half-dressed, waving a spoonful of Weetabix around.

So, this morning:

Small Daughter: Mummy, I can’t put on my socks. Can you do it?

Me: OK, because we’re running late. But tomorrow you really need to put your own socks on. Or will you still be asking me to put your socks on for you when you’re 37 years old?

SD: Of course not! I’ll get my husband to do it.

Proceeding with Dignity

Paw prints courtesy of my Muddy Little Dog

It was a long train journey, so I had to eat my supper on the way. It wasn’t ideal; I hate eating food on public transport because I’m wary of the potential mess, any food smells and the idea that people are watching me eat. But, sometimes, needs must.

So, I ate my duck wrap and a yoghurt on the train, then settled down to read my book for the rest of the journey.

As the train pulled into my station, I looked down and realised that I had a yoghurty spoon attached to my left boob.

Dignity at all times.

 

Paper pants

When I was a teenager, I got a place on a youth leadership scheme. This meant a summer, travelling between camps in America. Six weeks of adventure, hard work and disposable knickers.

It was my mother’s idea. She figured (rather reasonably) that I wouldn’t be able to do much laundry while I was travelling. From this, she decided that the best solution would be paper pants: the kind that people wear in hospital when recuperating from operations. The kind that people wear at the beautician’s to protect their actual, proper, non-disposable underwear. The kind that people do not actually wear to go about their day-to-day business.

Every day started the same: I would gingerly climb into a fresh, fragile pair of knickers, hoping that this time I wouldn’t tear them while putting them on. This was more difficult than it sounded as I was also pulling them on at top speed so my roommates wouldn’t see my underpant shame.

Knickers normally fit reasonably snuggly, whereas these gently puffed out, like an adult nappy. I was desperate that no-one saw them.

I wonder now if this was some deliberate move on mum’s part to ensure that I didn’t get up to any sexy mischief, by putting me in pants that were guaranteed to kill the libido of all who saw them? If so, she had very little to worry about. I was plum in the middle of my most socially-awkward period, where I could barely talk to anyone, let alone BOYS THAT I FANCIED. I think, at that point, I’d only been kissed once and that was only because someone had felt sorry for me. There was to be no party in my pants, regardless.

Anyway. Once I’d delicately wiggled into them, the days then followed a similar pattern: around mid-morning I’d sit down, cough or perhaps blink a little too vigorously, and I’d feel the dreaded “give”. The first pants rip of the day. The disposable fabric simply wasn’t strong enough to cope with *any* form of activity.

By lunchtime, my knickers would be mostly torn, but just about recognisable as undergarments.

By mid-afternoon, there’d be bare elastic around my waist and thighs, and shredded pieces of pants gently wafting from my clothing.

I couldn’t wait for bedtime each night.

That summer was six, endlessly long weeks, each day disintegrating as slowly and inevitably as my underwear.

And I’d forgotten it until last week, when I was visiting the beautician and she handed me a pair of paper pants.

As I carefully, carefully pulled them on, I was transported back, to an anonymous dorm room in middle America, to the unending social shame of my teenage years.

And I wondered… why didn’t teenage-me just go to a shop and buy some proper pants made of actual, non-dissolvable fabric? It would have been such a simple fix. Perhaps I deserved to wear the pants of shame after all.

Don’t look under the bed

I was staying in a scuzzy hotel in San Francisco. This wasn’t a deliberate choice; I presume the owner had taken the photos and written the description in a more optimistic time in the distant past. It was the hotel equivalent of the numerous first dates where I’d squint at the chap across the table from me, trying to match up the dashing young buck of the profile picture with the somewhat older stag who had actually turned up.

Not that there’s anything wrong with ageing or being old, of course. I was once the baby of the office, half the age of my senior colleagues, and I’ve recently started a new job where I’m one of the oldest members of the team. My age is a fact, it doesn’t actually matter; the important thing is not being dishonest about it. Whereas, I spent every date with someone who’d failed to supply a recent photo of themselves wondering what else they’d been dishonest about.

Anyway. I went down to reception.

Hotel owner: “Hi, what’s up?”

Me: “I found something unpleasant under the bed.”

HO: “Why were you looking under the bed?”

Me: “Why shouldn’t I? My pen rolled under the bed and I wanted to get it back. So I put my hand under there…”

HO: “You really shouldn’t put your hand under the bed.”

Me: “…And I put my hand on a used syringe. And I’m freaking out a bit now.”

HO: “Yeah, what were you thinking? You shouldn’t go under the bed.”

Me: “OK, but I did and I put my hand on a used syringe.”

HO: “What do you want me to do about it?”

Me: “Could you get someone to take it away, please?”

HO: “Well, no. The cleaner hasn’t turned up today. I don’t know where she is.”

Me: “No? Is she coming tomorrow?”

HO: “I don’t know. She hasn’t turned up all week, now I think of it.”

Me: “Could you take it away, please?”

HO: “No. I’m going to Vegas.”

Me: “Vegas.”

HO: “Yep. Just about to head off for a weekend in Vegas. Drive all night, party all weekend.”

Me: “This doesn’t help me with the syringe situation.”

HO: “Just don’t put your hand under the bed while I’m gone! Or ever!”

Trigger Warning

I remember the first time someone told me that they didn’t believe me.

I was just a kid, and I’d borrowed my dad’s guitar. I knew how much he loved it so I was extra careful with it, strumming it gently, and tucking his lucky plectrum back behind the strings when I’d finished.

When my dad next came to play it, the plectrum had gone. He was furious with me. When I protested, “I didn’t lose it! I put it back!”, he shot back that he didn’t believe me, then he ignored me for the rest of the day.

In my teens, I was regaling my friends with a story from the previous weekend, when I’d inadvertently got into a fight with a girl gang*. One of them looked at coolly and folded his arms, sneering, “I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.”

A year later, I was attacked by an adult I trusted. He overpowered me, and then threatened me with a knife**. I was terrified, screaming, convinced I was going to die. After I’d managed to escape, I sought out a grown-up that I trusted and—shaking and crying—blurted out my story. He looked at me, confused. He knew the person I was talking about. “That doesn’t sound very likely”, he asked me, “are you sure that’s really what happened?” After that, I didn’t dare tell anyone else.

When I took driving lessons, my instructor would tell me to pull the car over. Then, he’d reach over and rest his hand on my breast. Just sitting there, in his too-short shorts, always in sunglasses so I never saw his eyes, telling me about the rules of the road, while casually fondling me. I was too frightened to tell him to stop, and too scared to tell anyone about it, figuring that they wouldn’t believe me and I’d get into trouble for lying. Instead, I went back for the next lesson, and the next, sitting there blankly, wishing myself somewhere, anywhere, else. Telling myself that perhaps he was only accidentally touching my tits. Again.

As an adult, I got into an abusive relationship. I was gaslighted***, intimidated and bullied. It didn’t even occur to me to do anything about it; deep down, I felt that’s how I deserved to be treated. Eventually, I found the self-respect, self-esteem and sheer determination necessary to get myself out of that situation. When I finally started to talk to my friends about what I’d endured, I expected support and outrage on my behalf. But, while most of them were wonderful, I was flabbergasted by some of the responses.

At the low end of the scale, there was detached bewilderment and disbelief: “Really? He doesn’t seem that type to me”, going up to “I don’t want to know, this really isn’t any of my business”, all the way up to: “I hope you’re not asking me to stop being friends with him. He’s always been very nice to me.”

A rude awakening. They didn’t believe me. My friends didn’t believe me.

Does it sound like I hold them responsible for what happened to me? Of course not. It wasn’t their fault at all****. But. It’s much easier to recover from trauma, to move on, to reclaim your life, when you have the support of your friends.

I learnt the hard way that if someone doesn’t believe you, then they don’t trust you. And if someone doesn’t trust you, they are not your friend.

And if someone doesn’t want to hear your story—because it makes them feel uncomfortable—then they are not your friend.

And if someone tries to shut you up, then they are not your friend.

And if someone isn’t your friend, you don’t need them in your life.

I can’t force anyone to listen to me. But I’m going to keep speaking out. And I’m not going to let anyone silence me. And if you’re my friend, we’ll stand together. And if you need to talk, I’ll listen.

……………

*Which reminds me, I must tell you that story sometime.

**I can’t see that I’ll ever tell you the full story of this. I hope you understand.

***Gaslighting: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-signs-gaslighting-in-relationship

****Seriously, please don’t think that I’m giving the perpetrators an easy ride. The things that happened to me were entirely their doing, no-one else. But, today, I only feel able to discuss the people I tried to confide in, who let me down. Please understand. xxx

ADVENTURES IN SHORT-SIGHTEDNESS #3: The gym

Every few years—when I feel I have too much money in my life and not enough punishment—I join a gym. Years back, I’d just got a membership to a local sports centre, and went there for my first swim.

Now, it’s not normally one mistake or misfortune that leads to disaster; instead, it’s several small ingredients combining to create a towering cake of calamity. For example, it’s not a disaster if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It would be a disaster if your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, your phone has just run out of charge, you forgot to renew your breakdown membership and you’re en route to your own wedding.

Of course, that’s an extreme example, and what I’m about to tell you certainly isn’t a life-or-death incident. But, believe me, I die a little when I think about it.

Ingredient 1)
I decided to leave my glasses in my car’s glove-box, forgetting that I really am short-sighted.

(The only explanation I can offer is that I can’t swim in my glasses, so I thought it would be easier just to leave them in the car. I should have left them in the locker. Stupid, stupid, stupid.)

Ingredient 2)
I assumed I could remember where I was going.

It had been a while since the gym induction where they showed me where the changing rooms were. But, even though the sports centre was massive, I was sure I could remember.

Ingredient 3)
I was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Turns out, I couldn’t remember where the changing rooms were, and I couldn’t see any signs, or see anyone to ask. I mean, I really couldn’t see, full-stop. (I am extremely shortsighted.)

Anyway. I was delighted to eventually find the changing room. It’s a challenge sometimes finding a good space in a busy changing room. I can’t see anything; everyone’s just pink blurry shapes to me*. But this means that I don’t know where my gaze is settling, and I don’t want to unsettle anyone by appearing to be laser-focused on their genitalia*. So, it’s easiest if I just keep my eyes low and sweep the benches until I find a spot.

I grabbed a space, at a bench in the middle of the room. There was something odd about the atmosphere in the room, but I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. Anyway, I stripped off, wrestled myself into my swimming cossie, and tried to stick my bag in a locker. But, it ate my only pound coin and then refused to lock.

Aggrieved, I wrapped a towel around myself, grabbed my things and marched (via an unnecessarily complicated route, I’m sure. If it’s not already clear, I really do have the worst sense of direction) to the front desk.

Staff member: “Hi, how can I help you?”

Me: “Hi, the locker ate my coin.”

SM: “Sorry about that, I’ll get you a replacement. Which locker was it? We’ll get the maintenance team to look at it.”

Me: “It was locker B342.”

SM: “Couldn’t be.”

Me: “It was definitely locker B342. I double checked.”

SM: “Can’t be. That’s in the men’s changing rooms.”

Me: “…”

Yes. I really had performed an ungainly, unwanted striptease in a room full of blokes without noticing.

Great.

Ah, but surely had I learned my lesson? Surely, there would be no more Adventures in Short-Sightedness?

Ahahahaha. No.**

 

* Pink, blurry shapes

** Plenty more where that came from

Stage Fright

It’s normal to get a bit anxious about doing a good job.
What’s not normal is to get stomach-wrenchingly, can’t-breathe, can’t-stop-shakingly anxious about it.

Welcome to the wonderful world of stage fright.

I started playing the piano when I was 4. I practised and practised for years, and eventually got to be a pretty good pianist (and I’ve got the Grade 8 certificate to prove it), but I still remember the night the fear started. I was 16, and the Head of Music had asked me to accompany the junior orchestra at the Autumn Concert.

The concert rolled around, and I was so confident, it didn’t even occur to me to be nervous. I played the first part of my piece beautifully, then I was off for 16 bars. I just had to sit and wait for the orchestra to play their piece, and then I was back in. I just had to sit and wait. And concentrate. And not start daydreaming about what I was doing that Sunday, and had I finished my homework, and when was I going to see that cute… hang on, what was I doing?

I was lost. I didn’t know where I was in the music. I didn’t know when I needed to come in. I was staring around the orchestra for clues when I noticed the Head of Music frantically gesturing at me. I’d missed my cue. Scrambling back in, as best as I could, I fell over my notes and limped to the end of the piece.

The concert was repeated the following night, so I was determined I was going to get it right this time. All I had to do was concentrate for the 16 bars. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake and let my attention wander to the party on Saturday night, and whether that idiot on the school bus was ever going to leave me alone and… oh dammit.

I’d done it again. But this time I definitely knew where I needed to come in, so I launched myself confidently at the keys and… THUNK!… no…

Again, I’d come in at completely the wrong time. The Head of Music glared at me and mouthed something that probably wasn’t a compliment on my playing. As soon as the piece was finished, I shot off my stool, ran off the stage and out of the hall.

And I’ve suffered from stage fright ever since. Which is a bit of a bugger when you make a living from performing (in my career—amongst other things—I’ve presented on radio, lead parent and baby music groups, plus I play the odd gig at the Union Chapel as part of the wonderful Daylight Music).

Anyway, over the years I’ve shuffled out of the limelight (my career right now is 99% writing, 1% music). But I still force myself to perform in public a couple of times a year because apparently I enjoy the psychological torture. (Yes, those are my feet in the picture, practising the organ in preparation for another concert.)

These days, the terror’s a lot milder than it used to be. But it’s still there. The knowledge that I’m only ever a moment from disaster. That no amount of practise will guarantee I play perfectly. My hands will be shaking before I play. If I’m really unlucky, they’ll still be shaking while I play.

But, I still play. I force myself onto stage, I tremble with nerves, I take a breath and I start to play.

Wish me luck.

 

Starting over again

Dating can be pretty brutal. So much so that it’s tempting to stay in a crappy relationship if it means you never have to engage with the singles scene ever again. (Seriously though, don’t stay in crappy relationships. Life is too short. Really.)

In my 20s, I ambled from one longish-term relationship to another, and then tumbled into a decade of marriage. When I found myself—somewhat bewildered and blinking—single again, the dating world had changed. And so had I.

When I was last single, I was working full-time in the media. I was young, reasonably well-off and I didn’t have any responsibilities. I went out every night. There was always somewhere new to go and someone new to meet. And now… I was a middle-aged mum of two young kids, struggling to find enough freelance work to get by, stuck home every night.

Clearly, I was quite the package. But, I was tired of being single and the only sensible route to finding a partner seemed to be internet dating.

It’s rather strange the first time you put yourself online. Trying to package yourself up to sell. Trying to summarise yourself in a few pithy sentences. Trying to find the photograph that flatters while not being actively misleading.

Once you’ve finished that soul-destroying process, you get the chance to shop for your new partner. Flicking through aisles of faces, yes, no, maybe, everyone reduced to a glossy profile shot and some general guff. Likes a glass of wine. Likes a laugh. Likes going out and staying in. Don’t we all?

Occasionally, I’d go on an actual date. I can put all of them into one of three categories:

1) Realising early in the date that not only would I never ever ever want to snog them in this lifetime or any lifetime, but also that I wasn’t particularly enjoying talking to them. This is by far, overwhelmingly, the largest category.

2) Enjoying their company enough to want a second date, regardless or not of romantic interest. A handful of dates fell into this category.

3) Sizzling, instant chemistry; a real personal connection and the knowledge that this person could be “the one”. OK, this shouldn’t be a category because I didn’t have a single date like that. (I mean, I know this has happened to various friends, but I didn’t have anything like that happen to me.)

Now, this doesn’t mean that I was doing anything wrong. While physical chemistry can come along later, if there’s not the friendship spark at first—the warm glow of enjoying someone’s company and wanting to talk more to them and just enjoying being with them—then that’s never going to appear. I say honour your gut instincts and move on.

But the endless moving on can get to be a grind; when it got too much, I’d take a break until I was ready to dive back in.

I didn’t met “the one” on the net, but I got something much more important from all that dating; the understanding of what I was looking for—and what I wasn’t looking for—in a partner and a relationship. So, when a mate and I surprised ourselves by having a snog, I knew pretty quickly that his kindness, silliness and handsome beardiness were exactly what I wanted.

We knew each other virtually from a music magazine’s message board, then a bunch of us met up occasionally in real life for drinks, and eventually that friendship evolved into something else. The thing is, neither of us were looking for a partner when we met, and our relationship was founded on a real friendship that came about through a shared love of music. And that’s made me think that it’s definitely worth looking further than dating sites if you’re looking for love.

You could try a club or take lessons in something you’re interested in. Connect with new people who like the same stuff you do and make new friendships. Re-visit old friendships, catch up with people you haven’t seen in a while.

Rather than thinking of every person you meet as a potential date, think of them as a potential friend first and see where that road takes you. Because, if someone isn’t worth your time and company and friendship, then they’re definitely not worth wasting your romantic energy on. Or, you never know, the people you meet might know an absolute diamond that they think you’d get on perfectly with…

Dating is full of adventures and disappointment. Embrace it. (And don’t waste your time embracing anyone who isn’t worth it.)

THE WINNING LINES: Tales from my dating days #18

It was a wintery, blustery day. We’d been for a long walk through the country park. chatting happily. Rather a promising first date, I thought, topped off with a hot chocolate in the cafe.

He grabbed the bill as it arrived:

Him: “Do you want to see me again?”

Me: “Sure! I had a lovely time”.

Him: “Are you sure you want to see me again?”

Me: “Yes, I just said I did”.

Him: “I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but you’re definitely sure that you want to see me again?”

Me: (getting less sure by the second) “Errr, yeah”.

Him: “Well, in that case, I would be delighted to pay for your hot chocolate”.

Me: “What?”

Him: “Well, I wasn’t going to offer to pay for it if you’re not going to see me again.”

Me: “I’ll pay for my own hot chocolate, it’s fine.”

Him: “I’ll buy it for you if you’re going to see me again”.

Me: “I’d really rather just get it myself, thanks.”

Him: “No, no, no, I insist. My treat.”

Me: “No, really.”

In the end, I let him buy me the bloody hot chocolate. But he never called me again (and I was somewhat relived).