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.”
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!”
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.
****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
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
Yes. I really had performed an ungainly, unwanted striptease in a room full of blokes without noticing.
Ah, but surely had I learned my lesson? Surely, there would be no more Adventures in Short-Sightedness?
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.
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.)
I went to see Home Alone 3 with a mate. We’d always had totally different tastes in cinema so, true to form, she was convulsed with laughter and I was bored rigid. For some light relief, halfway through the film, I nipped to the loo.
Business done, I went to open the cubicle door. But, the lock had jammed. I thumped the door. Nothing. I shouted myself silly. No-one came. This was back in 1997, I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I resigned myself to being stuck until my friend raised the alarm.
Because surely she’d soon notice I hadn’t come back.
Surely she’d soon realise I’d been gone for much too long.
After twenty minutes, I realised that either she hadn’t noticed I was gone, or had assumed I was having bum troubles and didn’t want to disturb me.
Another ten minutes passed.
As much as I hadn’t been enjoying Home Alone 3, being stuck in a toilet cubicle in a branch of the Odeon* was marginally less fun.
In desperation, I took off my shoe and started hammering at the lock. My impressive DIY skills did the trick (or perhaps the gods of misfortune felt sufficiently sorry for me) and the door popped open.
I made it back into the screen as the credits rolled.
My friend looked round at me. “Where were you?”
“I’ve been locked in the loo for the last half hour.”
“Did you not notice?”
“It was such a great film.”
So, there you have it. I am officially less great than Home Alone 3.
I am Jewish in the same way I am white and English. I don’t have a sense of triumph or superiority about it; it’s just how I happen to have been born. It’s only one aspect of my tumble of genetics—like my brown hair, my tendency to develop gall stones, and my long toes—and not something that defines me.
As an adult, I don’t specifically seek out Jewish friends. But as a child, my social life was a whirl of Jewish activities. First one Jewish social club, then another. Sunday school classes. Holiday camps. But it was one of the social clubs that lead to my first great humiliation.
It started with a quiz, one Sunday night. Now, I am good at quizzes. No, more than that. I am dangerous around quizzes. They awake a powerful beast inside me, one that’s constantly compelled to shout, “I KNOW THIS ONE”, and to hog the pencil and answer sheet. It took me a long time to realise that the actual purpose of a pub quiz should be to spend time with one’s friends and have fun, not to endlessly crush those around you with your unassailable powers of general knowledge.
I mean, it’s fun to show off your prowess (who knew what the last words were that Rimmer from Red Dwarf uttered*, thus winning the bonus round and the whole quiz for my team? Hi there!) But there’s also the opportunity to show tact and kindness to those around you, and to sharpen your diplomatic skills. Your teammates believe that number 7 in the picture round is a snap of Alanis Morissette, when you know it’s actually Dave Grohl**? This is your time to gently, insistently shine!
Anyway. As I say, I’m good at quizzes, which is how I made it through the first and second rounds of the national youth organisation’s quiz and into the grand final.
This final was a big deal. People had travelled from all over to be there. The grand prize was a place on the youth group’s foreign trip. The contestants were on stage, there was a big audience and and I was doing pretty well.
Until the Hebrew round. I had no idea there was going to be a Hebrew round. But there was.
Some bastard—some evil, evil bastard—had come up with a round where we had to write the Hebrew translations of English words on a sheet of A4. It would have been a breeze if you a) had a good working of the Hebrew language and b) knew how to write words in Hebrew.
Sadly, I had neither skill.
“Bicycle”, they announced. “Children.” “Ice cream.”
Around me, the other teens were scribbling the Hebrew equivalent on their pages. Me? I had nothing. I was seriously screwed. Actually, I did know one of the words; “yeladim” means “children” (this is the only thing I remembered from my many mornings at Hebrew school having repeatedly listened to the teachers bellowing “SHEKET YELADIM!”/”SHUT UP CHILDREN!”)
But it was no use. I had no idea how to write it—or anything, really—in Hebrew.
I had to hand something in. Blank pages seemed like too big an admission of defeat; I couldn’t sit there not writing while everyone around me flourished Hebrew across paper. So, I made it up instead. I drew elaborate squiggles across the pages, in beautiful colours, hoping that they would magically transform themselves into legible Hebrew, thinking I could hand them in, and no-one would really know.
And then, the answers. And then, the horror.
“As we announce each word, hold up your answer sheet for everyone to see. Bicycle. אופניים”
The other contestants proudly held their answers aloft. I reluctantly raised my fraudulent scribbles.
I could hear the titters from the audience, growing as the answers were revealed and I turned over yet another page of nonsense. One boy—who I had a mild crush on—was nudging his neighbour, pointing at me. And laughing.
“Ice cream. גלידה”
The humiliation, and the echoing laughter, dragged on and on.
Of course I scored a big, fat, well-deserved zero. It was enough to cost me the prize. It was enough to fray my relationship with Judaism a little further. It was enough to instil a fear of the spotlight that’s still with me to this day. But was it enough to sour my love of pub quizzes? Not even a little bit. I’m good at quizzes (unless they have a Hebrew round).
* “Gazpacho soup.” You’re welcome.
** Later, when the answer is indeed announced as Dave Grohl, you will cheer, vindicated, until your teammates shamefacedly confess that they changed the answer back to Alanis Morissette while you were in the loo. You will tell them that’s OK, while secretly wishing painful monkey-based death upon them all.
I’d been seeing a guy for a little while; he lived a long way away, so all our dates had been in restaurants and bars. Things had been going well, and I’d agreed I’d stay the night at his.
When I arrived, he was apologetic; there was a problem at work and he’d been thinking about cancelling, but still wanted to see me. However, he’d need to check in with work occasionally.
He left me with a drink while he answered a few emails. I checked out his books and his CD collection while he was gone (doesn’t everyone?) When he came back, he explained he’d have to keep an eye on his phone during dinner.
Well, there’s a difference between keeping an eye on your phone and giving it your full attention. We didn’t talk much during the meal, and he seemed to get more and more agitated about work. I tried to chat about his taste in music and books, but a frostiness settled; he shut the conversation down and went back to looking at his phone and ignoring me.
It just didn’t make sense. He’d said he was happy to see me, but his actions said the opposite. It’s not fun hanging out with someone who blatantly doesn’t want you there, and I wanted to leave; but I was 70 miles from home, I’d had a few drinks and couldn’t drive, and public transport wasn’t an option.
I was stuck at his. There was nothing that could be done but brave it out until the morning.
He had the one bed, so we both had to spend the night sharing it, keeping as much distance from each other as possible; not talking, not touching. I didn’t sleep a wink.
The next morning, he woke and said he had to get onto a conference call with work immediately. I said I’d leave, but he told me to stay, saying that the call wouldn’t take long. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I stayed.
Two hours later, he was still on his call, and I was feeling thoroughly stupid. Several times, I stuck my head around the door to say I’d be going, but he insisted I stay, that he’d be off the call soon.
Eventually, my anger and discomfort finally overtook my desire to be polite. Enough. He didn’t want me there, whether he was prepared to admit it or not. And—more importantly, although it’d taken me long enough to get there—I really didn’t want to be there. Time to go.
Time to go. As I headed for the door, he muted his call to tell me: “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone over to mine. I’m not good with having other people in my personal space.”
I drove home, angry and upset. I presumed I’d never hear from him again, but he phoned me three days later. Maybe he thought he hadn’t insulted me enough yet; he told me he’d called to explain that he didn’t want to “take the relationship any further, because you’re obviously much keener on me than I am on you.” And in the next breath, he asked, “Do you want to be friends, though?”
I laughed—a sharp, hollow, laugh—and said no, thank you.
I spent my life trying to make sense of the world by trying to see patterns in it. When walking, not only would I studiously avoid the cracks, but I’d have to tally my steps as well. Counting to nine, over and over, soothed me. The world was scary and confused; I wanted to smooth everything down and make it safe. No cracks, count to nine, no cracks, count to nine.
Words were a challenge. If I saw a poster when I was out—perhaps an ad on the side of a building or a bus—I had to make that add up to nine too.
Let me explain it to you. First, I’d count up the letters in each word. Then, I’d have to find the combination that let them produce a 9.
Let = 3
me = 2
explain = 7
it = 2
to = 2
you = 3
(3 – 2) + (7 + 2 + 2) – 3 = 9. Phew.
There were no exceptions. If a sentence didn’t work first time, I had to jerry-rig a solution.
Let = 3
me = 2
demonstrate = 11
(3 – 2) + 11? No
(3 + 2) + 11? No
Let’s use the spaces in-between words now.
Let = 3
[space = 1]
me = 2
[space = 1]
demonstrate = 11
((-3 + 1) * (2 – 1)) + 11 = 9! Phew!
For one sentence? A bit of a challenge. For every advert I saw? Exhausting.
And so I measured out the world in steps and counts, keeping everything safe by reducing it to the magic number nine. Over and over and over. No exceptions.
There was comfort, for a while, in this endless result, but over time the game expanded. I would bang my foot as I answered my maths homework. I had to produce the answers in time to the beat. It wasn’t enough to count the written words, when people spoke to me, I had to add their sentences up, make everything sum to nine. Objects around me had to be mentally rearranged so that they spoke of nine somehow.
There’s a vase on my mantlepiece. It features a flower with six leaves, a stem, and a two-tone head.
It is a big ask of anyone to keep the universe safe by performing endless calculations. Let alone a child. But I had no choice; I was unable to stop. Walking and counting, walking and counting.
It didn’t even occur to me to tell anyone or seek help; this was simply my job and my comfort.
Now, for something that was so central to my life, it’s strange that I can’t tell you what happened next. I don’t remember when or how the obsession eased, but it did—so gradually that I didn’t notice.
It’s still there though, waiting for me. It occasionally returns—in other forms—when I’m stressed. I was sucked into Sudoku and spent hours boxing the world into grids. Similarly, solving logic puzzles. Latterly, Candy Crush.
The pull is still to ignore the mess in my life, and make neat sense of another chaos. But now, as an adult, I can think fondly of that little girl—frantically counting and counting—and understand now that the world simply can’t be sorted, solved and smoothed. Sometimes we just have to life with its jagged edges.