Youth and Being Young

green jacket
I was given a book for my sixteenth birthday which was about making the most of your youth and really appreciating it. It was called Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and perhaps I took it a bit seriously. I thought quite hard about making the most of youth but my adolescent existence felt a bit like being in a waiting room. I felt I was on the brink of something, waiting for life to start. My time at school was very much about exams. Getting GCSEs to get AS Levels to get A-levels to get into a good university to escape Belfast. And I was busy with my wholesome extra-curricular activities; I enjoyed them but they were also part of the strategy to get a posh university to offer me a place. I continued to be busy once I got to university, in a bid to make the most of my time. (There were nebulous whispers that employers valued extra-curricular activities but I wasn’t really sure how or why.) I went to pilates on Monday, orchestra practice on Wednesday, belly dancing on Thursday. On Fridays the gaggle of girls from Flass Street and I went to aerobics with Femke in the basement of the SU; it was a killer but you felt amazing afterwards. Every second Saturday I got up early to help edit the newspaper and wrote the occasional article.
I liked being busy but partly it was about getting out of the house; I was jealous of my housemates’ cosy domesticity and I also grew tired of listening to them having sex. If it wasn’t the couple on the left, it was the couple on the right. They were young and in love but I had a long list of irregular Spanish verbs to learn. Single women are offered a narrative of being fabulous, of life being so busy, so full, so rich that you don’t have time for a man. Being single was supposed to afford me endless opportunities that people in relationships had to sacrifice. To me, all of our lives seemed pretty much the same; we all went to the same parties, all went to lectures, all had a raft of hobbies, we were all busy with our wholesome lives in our small hilly, cobbled town awash with the sound of the cathedral bells.
People often give you advice when you’re single. Well-intentioned, useless, patronising, conflicting, sexist advice. Don’t be so fussy, be more selective, show more skin, show less skin, tell fewer jokes, express fewer opinions, do something different with your hair, don’t be so cutting towards men who say gross things to you at parties – you’ll scare them and don’t use such long words. But really, when you tell a young woman she needs to come across differently, doesn’t that just result in scrutiny of her own body and the feeling that she should be thinner? I was peculiarly fixated with my limbs. (Shakira may have been appreciative of her strong legs which allowed her to run for cover, but I was not.) I went out with someone who told me I shouldn’t worry about my limbs and he seemed to mean it but I don’t think I believed him. We seek approval through our relationships yet do women care what men think? I remember the fashion for smock tops that looked a bit like maternity wear. The aforementioned chap once admitted how much he disliked them. Did I tell him, that as a man, he clearly didn’t know anything? Or did I just think it to myself?
I remember looking at some of my teachers at school, specifically their clothes. I was especially taken aback by Mrs Smith’s denim suit. It wasn’t double denim, it was a denim suit. A two piece trouser suit in a dark denim with boot cut trousers and a matching tailored jacket. (I’ve never seen another outfit that manages to combine smart-casual with notes of Elvis impersonator.) I wondered at which stage you start wearing awful clothes and turn into your teachers and/or parents. Do you go into M&S one day and just feel irresistibly drawn to hideous jeans that are a decade out of date? Does it get to a stage where you can no longer resist the allure of comfortable slip-on shoes and you feel excited about wearing them with a three quarter length tartan skirt cut on the bias? I thought by 31 I’d be frump personified, buying everything from M&S. Wrap dresses and control panels, tops with ruching. Ever bigger sizes to accommodate the endless puddings, a combination of a slowing metabolism and weakening resolve.

One day when I was at university, a lady knocked on the door of our shared house and asked if she could look around as she’d lived there many years ago when her children were small. I invited her in and she commented that the carpet hadn’t changed since she had lived there twenty years ago. She brought her son and his wife with her. They must have been about thirty. They seemed to be a healthy weight and were wearing Converse trainers. Maybe I could be like that too, I thought. (I am. I’m wearing Converse as we speak.)
I do think about getting older. I worry about becoming an enormous mono-boob. A box-shaped human with a vast, vast bosom. I’ll talk three times as much as I do already and be terribly bossy as having children will leave me unable to talk to adults normally. I imagine a henpecked spouse by my side, who says ‘Yes, dear’ in response to the ‘Don’t we, dear?’s that occasionally punctuate my monologues at dinner parties. Perhaps I’ll be like Miriam Margolyes, telling wildly inappropriate stories that would be funny if they didn’t make people feel so uncomfortable.
I was never laid back or easy going. Was I missing out on a carefree existence? Was it a case that I might have had more fun if I could just learn to live in a state of mess and disorganisation. I felt old and too sensible, prematurely middle-aged. Maybe I was at the wrong stage in life. I struggled with shared living and didn’t understand why the others didn’t care more about keeping the kitchen clean. I was puzzled by the students who ate couscous with tinned tuna and sweetcorn. I roasted vegetables, made pastry and bought fresh herbs to make herb oils and salad dressings. I was infuriated by other people’s poor time keeping and would lie to them to ensure they arrived when I wanted them there. When invited to dinner parties, I would eat something substantial before leaving the house. This saved me from roaring ‘WHY ARE YOU SO EFFING USELESS AND DISORGANISED?’ at the hosts when the food was inevitably served an hour later than planned.
My life at university was permeated by a sense of not knowing what I was doing. I was terribly sensible, yet oddly directionless. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my degree. Everyone else seemed keener than I on talking about symbolism in literature and going to the theatre. I thought it was all a big load of nonsense. I remember speaking to a girl who was writing an essay about public engagement with street art in Berlin. I wanted to roll my eyes. Was everyone else having an intellectual jolly while I plodded through motivated by a sense of delayed gratification? I think I viewed quite a lot of my course as something to put up with until I had a degree, an expensive signal to employers that I could do a job.
I liked the idea of work providing a salary in exchange for effort but what on earth did life hold next? I didn’t really see the point of what I was doing but didn’t see any sensible alternative. That said, university was quite safe with a range of achievable goals. But there was no neat next stage. I feared I’d go from having done quite well for someone from a middle-of-the-road grammar school to someone who should be doing something far more impressive given the university I’d been to. I joined a Facebook group called ‘I’m doing an arts degree so I’m going to live in a box.’ Why couldn’t I be good at something useful? I wondered if the Accounting students insisted on going to see Lorca productions or harboured bizarre illusions that they were Argentinian when they actually came from Surrey. Bunch of wankers.

That said, I did like quite a lot of my degree once I realised I should just avoid literature. I liked the module on the history of the French language, which turned into another module on the historical details of French grammar. I liked translation and accidentally discovered I was quite good at interpreting. We all did a bizarre module called translation theory because it was taught in English and therefore you could get a good mark. It mostly seemed to consist of discussing the fact that nothing could ever really be translated because you could never really understand another culture. (An example was given of a translator struggling to translate an English cook book into Spanish, as the Spanish don’t have potato mashers. There’s also Bertrand Russell and his cheese. Some further reading for you, if you’re interested.)

In final year, everyone was obsessed with making travel plans but I just felt tired. I had grown to hate flying and I never wanted to get on another plane. Again, I felt I was getting youth and life wrong. My heart sank at the idea of taking time off to travel. I wanted to want to and felt jealous of people’s exciting adventures but conversely really didn’t want to go anywhere. I felt rootless, always going somewhere, always leaving people behind, never really belonging anywhere. It wasn’t like I’d even been anywhere glamourous; I’d shuttled between Newcastle and Belfast airports, Dublin and Dusseldorf with a summer in very rural France. I had enjoyed my time abroad and I made such good friends but I hated airports. I hated the hanging around, always getting the earlier train, just in case you were delayed and ending up being far too early. I felt tremendously irritated by the way an hour’s flight ended up taking an entire day. Endlessly lugging suitcases filled with 20 selected kilograms of your possessions, fecking around with 100ml containers of liquids and plastic ziploc bags. Spending God knows how much on endless bottled water. If I ever get my hands on that eejit who tried to put plastic explosives in a bottle of water…
After my Year Abroad, Erasmus wrote me a letter saying that they would like to give me £3000. I wasn’t quite sure why as I hadn’t actually done Erasmus but I graciously accepted the money. I sat on it, feeling that I might need it. I was puzzled by my peers and the things they went on to do. ‘How,’ I wanted to ask, ‘have you gone from doing English and enthusing about poetry to working as a solicitor for an oil and gas firm? And didn’t your parents tell you every day that pretty much all of the graduate career options are unethical and morally bankrupt?’ Evidently not. I thought about translation and journalism but both required an expensive Masters and led to a career where you would most likely be self-employed. I needed a proper 9-5 job with sick leave where you got paid every month, come rain, hail or shine and I hated the idea of being self-employed. I’d go up the walls working from home. I applied for a very reasonably priced PGDip in Careers Guidance and lived at home the year after I graduated. I was interested in teaching and counselling but didn’t really want to do either; this seemed like a nice happy medium. I could get a nice job at a university and people would come and talk to me about their hopes and ambitions and I’d be warm and encouraging in a very sensible sort of way. And I could wear fabulous high heels (maybe red patent stilettos) because I’d be sitting down most of the time.
In my mid-twenties, I felt I’d entered the stage of life I was supposed to be at. I had a permanent job and was thrilled to have my own office with my name on the door. Being organised, cooking lots and lusting after kitchen appliances was now quite normal. We lived in Blackheath in south-east London. I remember when we viewed the flat, I heard the Doctor bellowing from the kitchen, ‘Look! It’s a gas hob! You can make chapattis!’. The kitchen also had a pantry, which I loved. It had cream cupboards and wooden work surfaces, overlooking a mature garden. It was a dream come true. I bought hardback cookbooks, delighted that my life no longer needed to fit into a suitcase to be ferried back and forth across the Irish sea. Casserole dishes, teapots and a stand mixer. I made bread and kept a butter dish on the table. Then in 2015, I found myself wanting to go somewhere again, an itch to travel. I booked a flight to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain to see a school friend. Santiago is very like Durham, it’s a small hilly cobbled town, awash with the sound of ringing bells. Rainy and full of history, with a long established university and a cathedral and not a huge amount else. We ate lots that weekend and I had a lovely time. Visiting friends is always such a pleasure.
We bought a house that year and got married not too long afterwards. In the words of Helen Fielding, we were smug marrieds. I like this stage of life, with it’s stability and disposable income. Some of my friends have moved onto the next stage of life: having children. Some of them have several! I thought I’d be desperate for a baby by now, deafened by the ticking of my ovaries, booming out like the peals of Big Ben. Because that’s what happens in your thirties, right? People tell me I must be desperate for a baby because I make a lot of cake. I’m not quite sure how to add those things up. Maybe they don’t really understand the expression ‘bun in the oven’. Maybe one day, probably in not too long. But for now, I like things as they are. I’ll keep making cake and keep focussing on doing my nice job at a university, where people come and talk to me about their hopes and ambitions and I am warm and encouraging in a very sensible sort of way.