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.
I was talking to a darling friend who has depression. We said what a shame it is that some people don’t understand mental illness, or are scared of it. Because it’s hard enough when you’re struggling, let alone when you’re too scared to talk in case you’re judged.
So, let’s talk.
I know a little, just a little, of the bleakness of depression, having staggered through the dark for a year or so after my father died. Life lost its colour. And it wasn’t that I felt bad, it’s more that I didn’t feel anything. And, eventually, I just didn’t want to be alive any more.
Realising that something was desperately wrong, I did try and talk about it, but I chose the wrong person to talk to. This person told me to pull myself together, to get on with it, that I’d been sad enough for long enough.
Unfortunately, telling someone who’s depressed to pull themselves together is as helpful as telling someone with two broken arms to do a press-up. Hearing that I apparently wasn’t depressed—merely “selfish”—was enough to put me off seeking help anywhere else, which is a shame as I’d probably have recovered sooner with support.
But I did get better, for which I am profoundly grateful. As I say, I know a little of depression, so have nothing but deep respect for my friends who live with it as part of their everyday lives.
So. Mental illness. It’s just illness. Let’s be kind to each other, life’s hard enough as it is. Much love. Xxxx
Many years ago, I had a rather intense friendship with a male friend. There was never, ever anything sexual in it (he was gay, and I’m definitely not male) but it was such an intense friendship that it bordered on the weird.
One night, round at his, he asked me if I wanted to check out a chatroom (it was 1998, entertainment options were limited in Hartlepool).
I’ll try pretty much anything once*, so cheerfully agreed.
He created a new profile for me, said he’d found someone for me to chat to, and gave me the keyboard.
Turns out, it was a cybersex chatroom.
He sat behind me as I typed. At first, it was all giggly good fun, but then I started feeling rather guilty. The chap I was talking to was under the mistaken impression that he was talking to a horny bloke—thanks to the profile my friend had created for me—and it seemed quite unfair to keep leading the poor guy on. Plus, I felt rather awkward answering questions about my fictional penis. So I turned around to tell my mate I’d had enough…
…only to realise that he was happily… err… ahhh… how shall I put it?… entertaining himself.
He had his eyes closed in ecstasy, so I slipped out of the room as quietly as I could. Then I slipped out of the flat—and Hartlepool—as fast as I could.
Neither of us either mentioned it again.
*Having said that, I’ve never eaten KFC. Not for snob reasons, I’m just not that keen on chicken.
I promised to tell you why I left one rental place after a week*.
It was a huge house in Darlington, owned by an elderly couple. They lived there, and rented out their spare rooms to idiots.
I was one of them.
I went round for a visit, one morning, before agreeing to rent. It seemed nice enough, and the landlords were as sweet as pie.
Apparently that was for show. When I moved in, they were both as drunk as skunks. And the landlady went through all my possessions*.
It was a large house. The wife slept on the ground floor in her bedroom, and her husband’s bedroom was on the first floor. I had the bedroom next to his.
All was mildly weird (they both seemed permanently pissed), but vaguely OK until one night, I was woken by shrieking from his room. He was yelling for his wife like the world was ending.
“MARY! MARY! MARY!” (for that was not my landlady’s name, but it’ll do for now.) “MARY! MARY! MARY!”
I was out of bed and banging on his door in an instant: “Are you alright Mr. X?” No answer, just more screaming “MARY! MARY! MARY!”.
I ran downstairs, banged on my landlady’s door. She charged upstairs and into her husband’s room; he was still yelling and she started screaming too.
Ten minutes later, an ambulance arrived, and the paramedics charged up the stairs. Apparently my landlord is utterly sozzled, pissed himself, fell out of bed, can’t get up. I could hear the ambulance crew trying to help him, but he started screaming abuse at them, swearing, lashing out. “We need your permission before we can help you, Sir.” “FUCK OFF! FUCK YOU ALL!”
Eventually, unable to help him, they left. As did his wife, storming off back downstairs.
But still he was screaming for her, “MARY! MARY! MARY!” over and over.
I bang on her door again and she shouts back to just ignore him: “I’m sick of the crazy bastard. He did this last week too. And the week before he chased me around the garden with a knife. I’m going to leave him.”
At 4am he finally stopped screaming. Not that I slept a wink after that.
The next morning at breakfast, Mrs Landlady handed around polaroids she took of her husband the previous night. Pissed out his mind, in a pool of his own piss and poop even, stark-bollock naked.
She said she was handing round the polaroids “to teach him a lesson”.
I told her I’d be moving out that day, and that I’d be back at the weekend to collect the rest of my possessions. Fifteen minutes later, I’d grabbed a bag of essentials and was on the way to spend the rest of the week crashing in a friend’s spare room.
Saturday came. I loaded my things into my car, handed over the keys and asked her for my deposit back. She refused. When I asked why, she told me that it was because her husband was a “dear man who was taken a little poorly” and apparently I was trying to take advantage of them. “If this is the worst thing that happens to you in your life”, she said, “then count yourself lucky.”**
I was steaming at the time, absolutely furious. For years, I couldn’t even think of the pair of them without a rage descending. But, that was a long time ago. These days, I just feel sorry for them. They were both obviously ill, both tied to one another, dragging each other down. I wish them respite, from each other and from the bottle.
A friend was crashing over at mine. He was sleeping on my sofa-bed, in the lounge (with a door that was broken and couldn’t be closed properly).
It was bed-time, so I said goodnight to my mate and then waltzed off to the bathroom to take off my contact lenses. Then—realising that I’d forgotten to tell him something important—I wandered back into the lounge without bothering to put my glasses on. I really am short-sighted, so my friend was just a fuzzy blob.
So, I was chatting away at him, but he was acting rather strangely and not really replying, which seemed a bit weird. After a few minutes, I squinted a bit more at him and realised that he wasn’t just a fuzzy blob, he was an entirely pink fuzzy blob. And why would he be entirely pink? Because he’s not wearing any… ohhhhh….! I stopped talking mid-word, and hurried out of the room.
It must have been ever so odd for my mate: he was getting changed for bed, completely starkers, and I’d wandered in and struck up a conversation with him like nothing unusual was happening.