It’s been a weird one. After having travel vaccinations on Thursday, I’ve been in a slightly whoozy, flu-like state. I’ve spent today watching old musicals, and sleeping. I’ve wandered about the house with a blanket, like a toddler, complaining to the husband. He had the injections too, and he’s had headaches, but today he’s been fine.
We had to pay over £300 to feel like this. Our GP surgery is really struggling, and the Tories recently cut their requirement to give travel vaccines, so we had to get it done privately. It felt like a particularly expensive trip to the dentist, and what with the way the NHS is going, perhaps it’s a sign of things to come.
I don’t disagree with the principal of having to pay for travel vaccinations. If you’re going abroad, the chances are that you have the cash to pay for it. In theory, that is. Except I’ve also been a bit silly with money lately, and I’m now painfully far into my overdraft. I owe the husband for several big expenses – including our flights to Prague for a friend’s wedding in August. I know, I know: these are very middle class problems, as Twitter would say. Woe is me, scraping by with my two foreign holidays.
The other holiday is the big one. In July, we’re going to Tanzania. Hence the travel jabs. The travel pharmacist gave us a rather terrifying lowdown of all the diseases we could get in that part of Africa: yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, cholera, and of course malaria. It’s very likely we’ll get upset tummies while we’re there, because of water sanitation. It’s enough to put you off going. It’s all feeling a bit real and scary.
We’re going because my Dad met a nice lady on online Scrabble. Dad’s really good at Scrabble, and the lady wins prizes for it in Tanzania. I guess it’s unusual to find someone online who’s at that level, and they started playing regularly and sending each other messages, and family photos. This was three years ago. Now we’re going over there to meet her family, and it’s going to be a really exciting trip.
I’ve not travelled much – I never did the Gap Year thing, and my parents never took me on a foreign holiday as a kid. My first trip out of the UK was a sixth form trip to Paris, to go to the art galleries. That still feels like a huge eye-opening time in my life: my first trip to Europe, on my own, and with friends from my sixth form college that I only knew a little. I shared a room in a dodgy hotel with five other girls, and we drank wine and talked about boys into the early hours of the morning. Oh, it was so much fun.
My second trip abroad was to Italy with my PGCE cohort: another adventure with people I didn’t know too well, and it was a shame they preferred shopping to seeing the art of Florence. Oh Florence, I didn’t do you justice. I still need to go back.
I went to Paris again with the husband in 2011. Then, to China for our honeymoon. Our tour guide was my sister, who was living there with her boyfriend, who worked in Beijing. Even the journey blew my mind: from the plane I saw the Himilayas, the palm tree islands of Dubai, Asian paddy fields. I was 28 and I’d only been to Europe three times. This was my first long haul journey, and it was such a thrill.
Tanzania will be equally special. It’s the first time my parents will have been out of Europe. And, well, it’s Africa. I never thought I’d go anywhere like it. It’s worth having flu for the weekend, because it’s going to be brilliant.
It’s my second Spring in Oxford. It’s been a week of clear blue skies, with a slight chill in the air – but that’s how I like it. I’ve walked along the Thames, I’ve flitted from coffee shop to coffee shop. Alone, because it’s the first week of my Easter break. Part of me misses company and conversation during the day… but part of me loves it. Actually, it might just be the perfect detox to a busy, noisy term at school. I feel very relaxed, and as it’s not state school holidays yet, the city does, too. The streets are quiet. I walked into town yesterday, and didn’t see a soul for a good twenty minutes. I was even pleased when my Podcast cut out (low battery again), because then I noticed the birds singing. No traffic noises. Just wildflowers, buds on trees, perfect reflections on the water. The daffodils and blossom coloured in the grey spots where winter used to be.
I always thought I liked summer best, but perhaps that was the allure of the much needed six week break. Now work is easier, and it feels like this is the first Spring I’ve fully appreciated in years.
The end of term felt so different this time. I wasn’t exhausted. I wasn’t gasping for air. Instead, I still had the energy to enjoy the end of term rituals – a house music competition, poetry recitals, and short performances for the school by my drama classes (my directorial debut – and I was proud). I went into school on my day off to see the GCSE Drama performances – not out of obligation, but because I wanted to learn, and I felt I had the energy to do it. When school finished at 12 on Friday, I didn’t collapse in a heap on the sofa – I went to a talk on Volcanoes at the Bodliean Library. I still had the brain power to engage with this – and I even got a cool idea for a new YA series out of it (more on that later).
On Saturday, I went to see my friend in a play about the Brontes. That was pretty wonderful. Performed in the reading room of St. Mary’s Church, there was a wonderful atmosphere. It was a wonderful script, a clever script – in fact you’d get a lot from it even if you’d never read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. What I took from it was a reflection on writing, on why we write. Those three women lived tragic lives, imprisoned by their position of as women, by their alcoholic brother, and by relative poverty. There must have been thousands of women like Jane, Emily and Anne, but we remember them because of their writing. They wrote as a survival mechanism, I think. It was an escape. Emily didn’t want her poetry to be published: she saw this as an intrusion. I can understand this entirely. Writing is a weirdly private thing. Yes, ironic, to say that on a public blog. Yet I still feel a bit weird when someone tells me they’ve read something of mine… even a blog post like this. Writing is a record of your thoughts, sometimes very private thoughts. Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’re revealing about yourself – and there’s a strange thrill in that.
It perhaps goes without saying that I left the play full of inspiration and ready to write. All in all, it’s been a rather perfect start to the holiday.
Today in the UK, I’m sure we all feel strange, slightly numb, a little scared. We read stories yesterday of a policeman killed, of a lock-down on Parliament, and security services on high alert.
I heard about what happened in Westminster via a colleague, a minute or so after my last lesson at school yesterday. We scrolled through BBC News together. A few minutes ago, I’d been making origami animals with Year 8 students, discussing 3D cinema, and the shape of the universe (yes, really). It had been a lovely afternoon until that point. It was a strange contrast – chatting away with children about nothing and everything, then to hear our capital city had suffered a serious attack.
I was shocked, but not necessarily surprised. Last year, the onslaught of horrible attacks in France made it feel like a day like yesterday was an inevitability. We’re all used to getting these tragic news updates on our phones. Strangely, I went straight from reading about the Westminster attacks to a training session that was partially on the government’s Prevent strategy. We are all aware. We know we live in strange, unsettling times.
Today is my day off, but I know that the children will be discussing it. They are very politically aware students at my tiny little liberal arts school. Even the eleven-year-olds read the news.
I was a teenager when 9/11 happened. I remember the conversations in tutor time at school the following day. We, the students, were all in a state of disbelief: we’d never known anything like it before. Our teachers didn’t know what to say to us.
Thankfully, yesterday’s atrocity was on a comparatively small scale. The fact that this assailant wasn’t able to cause more damage shows us that our country is relatively safe. The security forces were ready.
Before I’d heard this news, I’d been discussing the various forms of possible apocalypse with an incredibly clever little boy. He loves puzzles and origami, hence why he’d signed up to my paper crafts club. He reads The New Scientist cover-to-cover every week. He seemed to enjoy scaring me with stories of Bird Flu, and a modern day disaster akin to the Bubonic Plague. He then obsesses about the idea of a meteorite hitting the oceans and causing an almighty tsunami. Finally, he completes his little apocalypse spiel with the inevitability of the The Andromeda–Milky Way collision. There’s nothing like the scientific fascinations of a twelve-year-old to give you some perspective. I remember being twelve, and first discovering the vast scale of all life, of all the universe, of the possibility of the multiverse. I suppose I’m reaching for the idea that yesterday was horrible, but it wasn’t apocalyptic. We shouldn’t let it scare us.
Of course, this is of no comfort to the grieving families. One loved one’s death, particularly in such horrible circumstances, can feel as cataclysmic as two galaxies smashing a hole in time and space. The human experience of grief can be that devastating.
Yesterday was open morning at my lovely school. As much as I like my new job, there’s never going to be much appeal to going to work for three Saturdays a year, even when we’re bribed with top-notch French patisserie at 9.30 AM. I was in the drama department for the morning, and was prepared for lots of repetitive conversations with prospective parents about drama provision, school plays, how we support kids with less confidence, and all that jazz. I still feel a bit of a fraud giving the spiel, considering I’m so new at the school, I’m comparatively inexperienced at teaching drama, and none of the department’s achievements thus far have anything to do with me. Still, I gave the spiel. That wasn’t the memorable part of the morning, though. The unexpected joy was watching upper-sixth students rehearse for the school musical.
I’m not a performer, I have no desire to be a performer, and even when I did play an instrument and sing in the choir at school, I was never any good. I do love music, though, and especially musical theatre. The kids were preparing a particularly intricate and brilliant Stephen Sondheim number – and three weeks away from performance, they’re already brilliant. I teach the two leads, and because they’re clearly such good friends, their rapport on stage was perfect. They got the dark humour and the energy of the piece, seemingly effortlessly, though of course they’ve already been rehearsing for months. I felt weirdly jealous, not really of their talent, but of the fun they were having with it.
I went to a school where there were no school plays, just lots of (quite boring) concerts. Annoyingly, when I was in sixth form and it was too late for me to properly feel involved in it, the school got ‘arts college status’ and suddenly started doing loads of drama and musical theatre. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I were a few years younger, and I’d got the benefit of that. Would I have studied A Level Theatre Studies? Been brave enough to audition for school plays? There’s no way of knowing. It’s kind of weird that I accidentally became a drama teacher anyway. I suppose it would just be nice to have that experience as background to what I do now. It’s assumed that if you have background in English, there’s a natural link with Drama… but the subjects are so wildly different. In some ways, a background in Music is more beneficial. Sometimes, the physicality of Drama makes it more like teaching PE. I love teaching Drama, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough, or feel that ease and confidence that I feel about teaching writing and literature. I watched the rehearsal yesterday with wonder and enjoyment, not quite understanding how it all works, and how on earth you get kids to bring the intricacies of a Stephen Sondheim score to life like that. It’s a wonderful mystery to me.
The interest in drama and music was always there. I watched old MGM movies with my sister religiously. As bored kids on a rainy day in the summer holiday, we’d happily watch three films in a row. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On The Town, Summer Stock, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as British ones like Oliver! and Half a Sixpence. Dad recorded us loads of films on video off the telly, sometimes three on one tape – sometimes with the first five minutes missing because he’s just caught them being broadcast and snapped the VCR into action. There’d be a weird mix of not just MGM stuff, but Elvis films, animated stuff, and our favourite – the Beatles film Help! I have the Blu-Ray now, but somehow it seems wrong that the end credits don’t cut to the opening of Home Alone.
So it’s fair to say that my education in musicals was pretty informal. I’ve never had a singing lesson, and I’ve never even been in the chorus of a musical… but I could give you a fairly accurate timeline of MGM thorough the 40s and 50s, of the impact of the war, of the tragedy of Judy Garland’s career.
The first cassette albums I owned were the soundtracks to The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast. I have a vivid memory of my Mum taking me to WH Smith in Telford, and helping me spend some money I’d had for birthday and Christmas. I was six, or maybe seven. I don’t ever remember not having something in my room to play tapes on. When I was about ten, I’d inherited a huge 80’s style music centre from my grandparents – no CD player – but a double tape deck so I could make my own tapes. I suppose I’ve pretty much always felt out of kilter with contemporary music, but there’s a brief period, say ’97 to ’02, when I listened to the top 40… a period of which which I still hold weirdly encyclopaedic knowledge. It was a golden age: the tale-end of Britpop, the Spice Girls, so many boybands and then the more grown-up indie I listened to in sixth form. Go on, ask me about All Saints album tracks, or that time I saw B*Witched in Stafford town centre. Oh, and Billie Piper. Remember when she was a pop star?
A constant from about the age of six has been the music of Elvis, Abba… and the Beatles. My sister collected all the Beatles albums on CD. We both listened obsessively – not due to our parents, because even they were too young to remember 60s music firsthand – but perhaps because we felt we were discovering something important. There were no downloads yet, no Spotify, and the only way to access the mammoth double album The White Album was to buy it in HMV for £29.99. When I saw the recent film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, the cinema was packed with grey-haired baby boomers. Still, I felt like this was a nostalgia trip for me, too, and it made me cry.
It seems my own music education and been an informal hotpotch, a self education… mostly. Yesterday I found myself thinking back to being 14, and what it felt like to consider doing GCSE Music, and where that might have led. As I said, I was not talented – but I was a good student, and I could have worked at it, if I’d wanted to. At my school, they had a policy that every child was given the opportunity of one-to-one tuition in an instrument. You just didn’t necessarily get to pick which instrument. I’d fancied a flute or clarinet. Something elegant. Instead, a got a bassoon that came in a huge suitcase that eleven-year-old me struggled to carry, and felt ashamed to take on the school bus. Because I was tall for my age, and I had naturally long fingers, my musical education took a weird turn. I ended up hating that cumbersome instrument. It was so heavy, and didn’t sound nice on its own. If you’ve never heard one played solo – and let’s face it, why would you – it’s supposed to sound like an oboe in bass clef, but also, when played badly, resembles a fog horn. We were forced to do solos in Y8 – in front of the whole year group, and our parents. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember my sweaty fingers sliding on the keys. The imperfect sound, because a good sound on a double reed instrument needs you to be relaxed. I hated it, hated it.
Playing in orchestra and concert band was better, and because I played an unusual instrument, I was guaranteed a place. The downfall of this was I had to do it before I was properly good enough, and the music was really hard. Not good for your self esteem. I carried on playing until Y11, though more out of a sense of duty than actual enjoyment. I didn’t practice much at home. I did a couple of grade exams – again, two of the most frightening experiences of my life. So I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t do GCSE Music.
I did Art GCSE instead. I was good at painting, and it came easily to me. I did painting and drawing lots in my spare time – practically every day – and of course I became better and better at it. I remained mediocre at music and eventually gave up playing bassoon because it was assumed that all sixth formers did solos at the annual school concert, and there was no way I was putting myself through that shame. If I’d had a different personality type – a so-called ‘growth mindset’, as it’s called in teacher-speak – maybe I would have kept Art as a hobby, and picked Music as a challenge instead. Maybe I would have matured more quickly, and gained confidence from it. Or maybe I’d just have miserable from the failure that can be so obvious when you’re performing music.
Then there’s another question. What if I’d attended a fee-paying school like the one I work in now? What if I’d had free pick of instruments, and played something less embarrassing – a guitar, or the piano. I’ve never been much of a singer, but a fee-paying school would offer one-to-one lessons in singing. I could have got better. What if I’d had the chance to be in a school play or musical every year? What then?
Well, there’s no way of knowing, of course. I’d still have been shy about performing. I’d still have the same mediocre ability. Maybe I’d still have drifted towards what came easily – taken Art GCSE, and given up the instrument. Still, I feel a bit sad about it. When I read a book or go to an art gallery, I feel inspired, knowing I can give it a go myself. When I go to the theatre or watch someone singing, it’s an entirely different experience, because I know I can’t do it – I can only watch. And I do love music.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat in public with my laptop out, like some pretentious would-be hipster (but I’m too old and nowhere near cool enough). It’s a Thursday, my day off, my indulgent day off. I’m 31, I have no children, and I work part-time by choice. Why? Well, because I’ve learned that I’m 1000% happier when I have breathing space in my week to be by myself. It’s costing me a painful 20% of my salary, and if I think about that too much I start to feel very tense and guilty about it. I could really use that money. But then, I would be sacrificing more than just a day off once a week.
2016 was a tumultuous year, and not just because of the insanity of UK and US politics, or the number of celebrity deaths. On a personal level, the year started very, very badly for me. I was stuck in a job I hated, a job I knew was not going to get any better, and was really messing up my mental health. I took time off for stress – twice – and still felt there was very little support there for me. Every day was an onslaught of terribly behaved classes, hours added onto my usual working day because of inspections and the absence of an official Head of Department. For the first two months of 2016, I was at home, off sick, feeling very sad and scared for my future. I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher any more. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and we’d just moved to Oxford, the most expensive city outside of London in the whole of the UK.
So I signed up for supply teaching, and things got slowly better. I was reminded that I’m actually a highly competent teacher, and I have actually built up a huge amount of knowledge since qualifying in 2008. I thought everyone hated supply teachers, but it turns out that’s not the case when you really know your stuff. I enjoyed turning up each day having done no planning, because that’s how supply work rolls. I couldn’t build up any sense of apprehension for the day ahead. I worked with some really difficult kids in an FE college with a distinct lack of funding and resources – in some ways as challenging as my previous school – but I was enjoying it. Perhaps because I was no longer in a middle management position, and I could concentrate on lessons alone; perhaps because there wasn’t the pressure of results that you feel as a permanent member of staff, especially since the introduction of performance related pay. Plus, supply work can actually be really rewarding. You can fly in to a kid’s life for a few weeks, build a relationship, and give them that extra kick right before their exams. Long term, though,I realised it was not going to work. I would be permanently teaching kids who were retaking English and held a very negative view of my subject, and that’s not why I became a teacher.
Almost on a whim, I applied to a private school that I assumed was way out of my league. I don’t know why I thought this, in retrospect. Was it a class thing? Probably. Was it low self esteem? Yes, probably. Anyway, I got the job, even though I was up against five other interviewees – and that was a huge confidence boost. In fact, getting this job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. Ever.
2016 started out terribly, but by the end of it, I was doing a job I genuinely enjoyed and felt fulfilled by. I realised I’d never gone to work before without a feeling an unreasonable level of dread and stress. At this new school, a tiny school with a wonderful ethos and wonderful kids, I felt relaxed. I felt a sense of belonging almost instantly. I loved teaching my lessons. I was teaching 50% drama again, which has its own challenges, but has less marking, and less pressure than a core subject like English. AND I got a day off mid-week to take the pressure off.
Why did it take me until I was 30 to find this gig? A job I love, a job that gives me genuine happiness? I suppose some people never find that, actually. I am truly blessed.
So it’s Thursday, and I’m feeling very uncool in a branch of Leon, surrounded by twenty-somethings, most with Apple Macs and lattes. Two very young, very beautiful black girls were in the queue for breakfast muffins, and I was stunned with jealousy at their beautiful clothes – both in fur-trimmed vintage style coats, thick-heeled Mary Jane shoes, floral midi skirts. One had a 40s style red hair net over her natural afro. Both just gorgeous, fully made up with winged eyeliner and statement jewellery. It’s like they’d walked straight out of an Instragram filtered pic, or a street style page in a magazine. The jealousy lingered for a while, and I was suddenly very conscious of my slightly dowdy raincoat (well, it was raining) and my bare face (I associate make up with work and rarely wear it on days off). Still, I found the strength to silence my self criticism. Yes, those girls were gorgeous, but they probably spent hours getting dressed in the morning. They’re younger than me, probably students, and while the blissful naivety of student life is certainly fun, I thought about all the shit they still have to learn. And I don’t mean academically. Sure, you look good in your 20s, but it’s such a painful, stressful time – establishing relationships, scraping by on crappy entry-level jobs, or going through the torture of professional training and making all the inevitable mistakes you make when you’re new at something. This is why I’d never agree to go back in time and be 21 again: there’s no way in hell I’d repeat my PGCE, or even the toil of my first three years of teaching.
OK, I don’t look as pretty as they do, but I have more than they do. I have the confidence that comes with being in a career for nine years. I’ve learned the self awareness that I lacked so badly at their age. I’m very happily married, and because I’ve been with the same lovely man for ten years, I’m lucky enough to have completely missed the tyranny of the Tinder era. I’m also old enough to know it’s ridiculous to have your life dictated by the need to post perfect selfies, or to ensure you fit inside a size 8 pair of Topshop skinnies. I’m lucky in so many ways. Maybe it’s not luck, though: maybe what I have is the wisdom and rewards of 31 years on this planet. OK, I don’t have Mary Jane shoes as cute as theirs, but I have a nice job, I HAVE A DAY OFF, and today I can do whatever I like, and if that’s not a fucking glorious luxury, I don’t know what is.
I’m starting to feel so much better. I feel healthy. I’m not getting icky spots between my eyebrows, as I always do in bouts of stress and tiredness. I’m sleeping well (save the epic Week of Three Job Interviews – but that’s over with now). I’m eating lots of green things and waltzing around the city like I own the bloody place, because I’m feeling optimistic. The sun’s out, and the streets look beautiful. There are frickin’ bluebells sprouting up in our front garden – even the weeds look good!
The chirpy mood is partly down to the time of year – I feel so much better when the weather’s warm, and the days are long – but for another exciting one, too.
I have a new job.
I applied for a post at an amazing private school, thinking I’d never get it because I’m not clever or posh enough, and I’d never get that lucky. Then I got an interview… and it went really well. The interviewers seemed genuinely interested in me as a person, asking about my degree, my hobbies – not my ‘strategies for making progress’ and my classes’ GCSE results. The children were an absolute delight: eager to learn, sweet and earnest. They made me wait a week to find out if I got the gig, and I spent seven days thinking there’s no way – there’s no way I’ll get it. (Even though they interviewed me first. Even though they invited me to interview before the deadline passed. Even though everything went really well. Why do I beat myself up so much?)
Well, I got the job. From September, I’ll work four days a week at this lovely, tiny little school in the prettiest part of the city. I’ll teach lovely children Drama and English. I’ll get a free lunch every day, longer holidays… and I’ll feel valued and respected by my employers. I’ll say it again: they didn’t ask me about results, they asked me about me. That’s got to count for something.
I always felt uncomfortable about the idea of private education, because I come from a family that couldn’t even consider paying for school – as is true for the majority. I’m not happy with the idea that your parents’ wealth should be able to pay for a hugely advantageous start in life. But then, I’m not happy with what’s happening in state schools either. I’m afraid the government has largely ruined it for me, what with the circus of testing and brutal, pointless bureaucracy of constantly covering backs in case Ofsted show up. It’s change for change’s sake, constantly. I feel teachers are suffering at the hands of the DfE’s ambition and misunderstandings.
Of course there’ll be high standards at this fee-paying school, and of course I’ll have to work hard. I’m OK with that. I’m looking forward to looking forward to work. Feeling purposeful, and secure in my work – because I know the school is managed well, and free to make their own decisions. I’m looking forward to knowing happy children who want to be taught and are hungry to know more. It feels a selfish move to abandon ordinary kids for a cushy job with free lunch (yes! literally free lunch!), but I feel I’ve done my time in the state sector. I’ve worked hard for so many kids who didn’t want to work for themselves, and at times it was truly gruelling. It feels good to be moving on. Yes, summer optimism is flooding through me.
So the husband and I met a rather big milestone today: ten whole years together. Ten years since we were uni house mates, both a bit shy, both a bit weird, and both tentatively deciding we rather liked each other. Most of our friends are coupled up now, but we were first. We’ve survived the turmoil and general awkwardness that defines being in your twenties. Hell, we did more than survive – we’re doing really well. Now we’re both 30, we’re still very much together, and I’ve gone all sentimental about it.
We were kids when we got together. Two kids in love, who’d never had proper jobs, and spent their student loans on books, nice pens, cheesecake and pizza. In that third year of uni, we didn’t often hang out with anyone other than each other, and it was awesome. I mean, not many relationships get the luxury of that, do they? Months on end with no work pressures, and just the odd essay to write. Evenings spent watching films, walking by the sea. No early mornings. We lived in each other’s pockets and it was perfect.
When you’ve just turned twenty, your whole life is still a big undecided blob of possibility. We didn’t have to work to ‘fit in’ with each other’s schedules, work lives, homes. We could mould the blob of possibility to suit our relationship. Beyond university, when we first dipped our toes into the scary dream pool of careers, we did it together – and we knew we needed to make certain choices if we wanted to remain a couple. It was a bumpy start, as I decided to live with my parents and save money (and stress) while I did my PGCE. My other half was doing an MA more than eighty miles away, and we were both studying really hard. We missed each other desperately, often not seeing each other for weeks.
I suppose it helped us see that living together was really going to be a priority in our happiness. So, aged twenty-two, we rented our first flat. I found a teaching job close to a university city where he could gradually get a job in academic publishing. We didn’t have much money, and it was difficult – but it made us happy. It’s also quite special that we knew each other before we had careers – there’s so little explaining to do, because we feel we know the ‘real’ versions of each other, the ones not expressed by job titles and CVs.
Now, I’ve blogged before about renting from an early age and now feeling trapped by it (see my post on house ownership anxiety). Paying high rent through our twenties might’ve been a tad financially stupid, but it was good for our relationship. We liked being at home. It was important to us to live together in a nice place. While friends were still at university, living at home or going slightly mad in shared houses, we gave up our cash for a little nest of our own. I cooked, he cleaned, we paid the bills, and we didn’t argue much. It was all pretty easy, but not boring. We were content with a kind of low-key happiness that perhaps most people don’t look for until they’re much older.
We were boyfriend and girlfriend for seven years before we got engaged – ending the rather irritating speculation of friends and family. I’m the oldest amongst my group of close friends, and the one who’d been in a relationship the longest – so it was a cruel mirroring of being the oldest sibling who has to do every milestone first (I’m also an oldest sibling, if you’re sensing any bitterness). It wasn’t a surprise engagement. I think it was around the time of our seventh anniversary… I commented that we’d been together a long time, longer than lots of married people. He made a comment that maybe we should get married, and I buzzed with excitement, though I tried not to show it. We looked at rings. I only needed to try on one… a delicate little number with a small diamond, criss-crossed by a string of tiny ones in a sort of Celtic pattern. (I’ve been wearing it for three years and I still like to stare at it.) The ‘official’ engagement was a picnic by a lake. Not many words, just a ring slipped onto my finger. Oh, and prawns and dip.
Everyone says that the nicest thing about our wedding was that it reflected how much we have in common. We had a literary theme – the cake was a stack of books, the centre pieces were made with bits of old books, and the favours were literary classics. All the family did speeches – in-laws included. It was a rather extraordinarily happy day that still makes me flutter with happiness when I think about it. We went to China for a honeymoon, though we had just as much fun kicking about in Wales in the rain for our ‘minimoon’.
I read Bridget Jones as a kid, and I think I’ve become a smug married. I feel a little guilty sometimes that the romantic side of my life has proved straightforward. I knew very early on that I was with the right person and I’m very lucky that he agreed. I generally get very nervous when any one of my female friends asks me for dating advice, because I really have no idea. The last time I was single, Facebook didn’t exist, and people still took pictures with actual cameras. I ‘dated’ very little (though the ‘dates’ I did experience were excruciatingly bad). I’m sorry I can’t help you if your sort-of boyfriend won’t answer your messages on Whatsapp. I’m sorry if you only find losers on the internet who send you hideously intimate pictures of themselves. I can’t offer advice, because I never had to go through all that crap. Thank God. I just fell into a happy relationship when I was very young, and I’m very, very fortunate.
We’re not perfect – I know I’m super annoying when I demand attention like a six-year-old, start a play-fight and complain that he hasn’t brought me a glass of water at bed time (yes, I’m hard work). I know he’s not perfect when he eats all the biscuits and cannot make ONE SINGLE DECISION (I even pick his food on a menu sometimes). But that’s real life. Sometimes we fight and grumble like teenage siblings. Sometimes we probably take each other for granted. But we agree that we’re staying together, that we’re probably as compatible as it’s humanly possible to be. I don’t believe in fate, but as my father-in-law said at our wedding, it seems quite amazing that two people so alike ended up in the same house in the same seaside town on the same university course. And now we have a lot of shared history, a shared family. I remember reading a lovely metaphor about two trees that grew side by side, so close their roots became entwined. If I’m sad, I think of us as those two trees, growing in the same spot of earth, drinking in the same shaft of sunlight.