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.
I can’t ever sleep on public transport. Ever. No matter how tired I am.
There is a good reason for this.
I’d been up all night in Brighton; it was my best mate’s hen night and we were celebrating hard. We didn’t bother getting hotel rooms; we were too young and too broke. The plan was simply to stay up all night until the trains started running early the next morning.
So, we bounced round the town, in and out of clubs, giddy with excitement and whatever the hell we were drinking until, exhausted, we fell onto the first London train of the day.
This was sometime in the 90s, and the train was the old-fashioned stock with small compartments. Each little carriage had benches that were the perfect size for sleepy revellers to crash on. There was barely anyone else on the train, so we grabbed a separate carriage each, stretched out and passed out.
Suddenly I was awake. Very awake. Something was wrong.
There was a man stood over me.
No, more than that. He was leaning in, right over me. Much closer than he had any right to be. There was a man, who was hovering over me while I was sleeping, and I was suddenly aware of how vulnerable I was.
Me: “What are you doing?”
There was an awkward pause.
We looked at each other.
I had the distinct impression he was trying to think of something convincing to say.
Him: “…I was thinking that you might want a foot rub?”
Me: “No. I really don’t.”
He left the carriage pretty sharpish.
That was a good 20 years ago. I’ve not slept a wink on public transport since.
I’ve learned to be suspicious when there’s an empty seat on a packed train. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way.
It was a Monday morning, and I am not a morning person. Befuddled from sleep, and desperate for a bit more rest, I was chuffed when I boarded the Victoria Line and spotted a spare seat.
I slipped into it triumphantly.
My joy was short-lived, however, when I noticed the smell. So strong—rancid, meaty, curdling the air around it—that I thought I might puke. I looked around for the source of it, then realised, with some horror, that it came from my neighbour.
And then, he rested his head on my shoulder.
This was not good. I’m quite socially awkward at the best of times and I don’t like being touched by people I don’t know. So, I had a stranger’s head on my shoulder, so close I could smell his hair. I was feeling a little faint. Surely, there had to be a good reason for him to be doing this? Ah, he had his hand in his pocket. He was having trouble reaching into his pocket, so he’d stretched himself out and that’s why his head was on my shoulder. Perhaps.
But he was spending quite a long time reaching into his pocket. And his head was still on my shoulder. And his hand was moving pretty rhythmically in his pocket. And… oh… oh god…
Yes, he was cuddled up to me while he had a wank on a crowded train.
So, what did I do? Did I shout at him? Did I leap up and move carriages? Did I hit him with my bag?
No. No, I did not. I did none of those things.
Instead, I sat where I was and pretended that this thing wasn’t happening. Because I am very good at pretending that unpleasant things aren’t happening.
Maybe you’re already rolling your eyes, but hear me out. Forgiveness is pretty powerful, but it’s much misunderstood.
There’s probably someone in your past—possibly even your present—who troubles you. Who wronged you, who wounded you. Their very existence is the grit in your eye, the stone in your shoe. And that’s why you need to forgive them.
It doesn’t mean that the things that happened to you don’t matter; they do. It doesn’t mean you have to be friends with people who have wounded you; you certainly don’t. It certainly doesn’t mean that you have to face that person and tell them you forgive them; they don’t even have to know that you forgive them, or even that you thought of them at all.
Forgiveness isn’t about them. It’s about releasing the hold that those incidents have over you. It’s about escorting those people out of your head. It’s about reclaiming your life from them.
I spent a lot of my life carrying those ghosts with me: the shadows of conversations, of friends I didn’t see any more, sometimes even of people who weren’t alive any more. Always there in a corner of my mind. Tinting my thoughts grey. Taking me away from the present.
And I wasted energy fighting them: endlessly replaying arguments, raging against how I was treated, confronting people in my head because I couldn’t confront them in real life. Over and over. Exhausting. And it didn’t bring me any peace; instead, I built a prison and trapped myself in my own thoughts. I was waiting for apologies that were never going to come (and in some cases, I later reflected, weren’t even owed to me).
There was only one way to release the hold they had on me, and it was within my power, not theirs. Forgiving them.
Frankly, the thought appalled me at first. I’d been nurturing my resentment over the years: it felt powerful. It even gave me a strange sense of importance; I’d been wronged, which meant that I mattered. But the crushing, all-encompassing rage was tiring, and I wanted to put my burden down. So, I started looking more closely at what I was really angry about.
A number of those injustices evaporated as soon as I prodded them. Take, for example, the friend who hadn’t been there for me when I needed him; I’d felt resentful towards him for years. But, eventually I realised that my upset actually stemmed from my own inflated sense of self-importance, rather than from anything he’d actually done. The fact was that I clearly wasn’t as important to him as he was to me. However, rather than understanding and accepting that, I’d made myself important to him—in my head only—by inventing a situation where he’d deliberately wronged me. My expectations of him had been unreasonable, no apologies were due, and the anger vanished. And the same with many of my grudges: I was surprised how many of them boiled down to nothing worse than a bruised ego.
Of course, that wasn’t the case with every situation, and eventually I was left with the people who’d genuinely wronged me. These situations ranged from the relatively trivial—the ‘friend’ who’d stolen money from me, the anonymous car driver who shouted “FAT BITCH” at me when he didn’t like my driving—to the devastating, the life-changing (I’m not in the mood to give examples today, but you can probably imagine). I didn’t want to carry those memories and those people around with me any more. And so I started forgiving them.
As I’ve said before, this does not mean trivialising the things that have happened to us. They still matter. But releasing the anger was therapeutic. My teenage ‘friend’: everyone makes mistakes. She didn’t even owe me the money any more; her parents paid every penny back at the time. In my head, I hoped that she had grown up to be a more honest person, and I forgave her.
“FAT BITCH” man? I reasoned you had to be a pretty angry, unpleasant person to want to shout something so nasty at a woman. I felt sorry for him, and then I forgave him. These were the easy ones.
The deepest wounds were, of course, the hardest to forgive, but also the most necessary. I looked at those incidents one at a time; with each, I sat with my pain for a while and reflected on it. I reminded myself that none of these people were monsters; they were just people. People with flaws, people who might not be terribly nice, people who I didn’t like; but, ultimately, just people. People that I could forgive.
And I did forgive them. One by one. And, at first, it hurt like hell—saying the words “I forgive him” for the first time made me cry—but I still forgave them. And, with each act of forgiveness, I took another piece of myself back. The heaviness, the shame, the fear gradually lifted within me as I kept forgiving.
Of course, the pain doesn’t just vanish overnight, and some people needed repeatedly forgiving. Actually, some people I forgive everyday. But I remind myself, I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing this for me.
I was going to be an accountant, you know. I only received minimal careers advice at school, but I knew that I liked words and numbers; however, I presumed that I’d never make it as a writer so, accountancy it was.
Unfortunately, no-one had pointed out to me that I would make a terrible, terrible accountant. I’m too disorganised, too distractible; it would have been an awful fit for me. This isn’t to knock accountancy in any way; it’s an important profession. Indeed, I’m profoundly grateful that my own amazing accountant chose it as her own career path as, before I started using her, I struggled to complete my tax returns. The last seven words of that previous sentence tell you that I really would have been a disastrous accountant. Happily, I slipped sideways into a career in radio, and accountancy was spared the horror of my services.
Anyway, my own crappy career choices mean that I’m keen to help others avoid similar pitfalls. So I’m taking part in my daughter’s school’s career fair this morning; they’ve asked me to talk about my glittering* career as a book editor and copywriter.
Well, it turns out that very few kids actually want to talk to me (note to self: everyone else has corporate banners and freebies to give away. I have nothing except a few copies of my books; no teenager wants to read them, which is fair enough). So, I have plenty of time to ruminate on my working life and give you some career advice instead.
I mean, you probably don’t need any career advice. Certainly not from me. If you were here, you’d also be queuing for a free gonk from the paramedic—or a go on the policeman’s handcuffs—and giving a wide berth to my pathetic trestle table with its hastily scribbled sign. I don’t blame you; I’m hoping to score a free gonk myself. But, for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned about work:
1) Do a job that you love—or at the very least, that you care about—or it will rot your soul.
Having done many jobs that I adored—and a few that made me dread getting up in the morning—I know I do my best work when I’m happy and motivated. Which leads me onto:
2) The money isn’t worth your health or your sanity.
If you suspect your job’s making you ill—whether physically or mentally—then you need to change something. At the least, talk to your boss about how the issues and what you can do about them. I’m lucky that most of my jobs have been brilliant, but I had a few that took their toll on my health. I quit them and didn’t regret it for a second.
3) There’s usually an open window somewhere.
I studied economics at uni, in preparation for my fabulous accountancy career. But life had other plans. I got involved in student radio, which led to some work reading travel bulletins, which led to a job in local radio. I kept thinking I’d get a proper job at some point but, 25 years on, I’m still in the media and I’ve never used that economics degree.
4) Say yes to everything that isn’t a terrible idea.
It could be an amazing opportunity; some of my most exciting jobs have come from chance conversations. But, even if it doesn’t work out, there’s always something to learn and something good that comes out of it. Even when one client stiffed me over a payment for some work I’d already completed, I was able to feel grateful (eventually); the skills I’d learned on that job opened a window for me somewhere else four years later.
5) You are not your job.
Enjoy your work, but don’t confuse it with your own value. When I had my first daughter, whenever I met anyone new, I’d usually blurt out: “I’m on maternity leave BUT I USED TO BE A RADIO PRODUCER”, as if that was the only thing that mattered.
Anyway, I’m having a lovely morning. I might have only spoken to a handful of kids who had any real interest in writing, but they were so sparky and passionate that it made doing the fair a pleasure. And if it saves one of them from an ill-fitting career in accountancy, then it’ll all be worthwhile.
This is terribly shallow of me, and I’m still quite ashamed of myself.
I went on a date with a chap who may well have been very nice. Or perhaps he wasn’t. I genuinely have no idea.
I couldn’t concentrate on a word he said, all evening, because I was too transfixed by the enormous pulsating boil next to his nose.
Seriously, I think it had hypnotic powers as I couldn’t look away from it all night. If I close my eyes, I can still picture its magnificent glory. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I do remember that I named the pustule “Augustus The Majestic”.
I’m very sorry, Mr Whoever-You-Were. I hope you found someone more deserving of your company than me.