“We’re homeowners,” I texted MindReader at 4pm on a Wednesday.
Nothing had changed. We’d bought the house we lived in. The walls were still the same – the greenish off-white in the living room that we wanted to paint over, neutral everywhere else. It was still lived in, by us: the scratches on the wooden doorframe leading to the back garden that Benny took his frustrations out on, the lines of white powder in the cracks of the floorboards where I put ant powder down and couldn’t quite vacuum it all up. I stood up, stretched, and touched the wall, just for a second. Nothing had changed, not really – only in theory, only at the Land Registry, on the title deeds – but suddenly we owned it. The wall was solid and cool beneath my hand.
Later on, that evening, as we ate our dinner directly out of the hamper the bank sent us, cross-legged on our living room floor, I explained how the registration process worked to MindReader, and we talked about what we’d do. Cat flaps and painting rooms and getting rid of the bathroom carpet that had gone brown at the edges. Whether we’d knock through the pantry and the kitchen and have one open-plan room downstairs. “I could talk to you, then, while you cook,” I said with a smile, unable to help but grin at the thought of designing a house around the fact that we liked to talk to each other.
“You could,” MindReader said. He nodded once. “And I could watch sport.”
“Yes,” I said, and he covered my hand with his briefly.
The next day, I told my Dad, on the way to work, during our customary morning phone call. “Cool,” he said. “That was quick. Suppose it is – you’re in the legal know.” Mum sent a gift voucher. We bought bed linen from John Lewis, like newly weds.
I caught sight of myself in the work lift on the way home the next night. I looked old. I didn’t mind, though. Things were different. Six months, twelve months, two years ago, I was a trainee, concerned, sometimes, about seat moves and NQ jobs, getting enough experience and making sure I got put in the seats I was interested in. About being on the sports and social committee and making sure everybody got their drinks vouchers at the quarterly drinks. I did tasks well and gave them back, stood with a pad of paper in my heels at supervisors’ desks. I hounded bosses for feedback, wanted to learn, I said.
In the lift, in July 2015, I didn’t look like a trainee anymore. I didn’t know when it happened, but I started dressing differently. I had crow’s feet, too, if I am honest. Lines around my mouth. There were no seat moves, no tasks, no job changes. No time for committees, not really. But there were other things, too. Proper relationships with proper clients. Entire projects driven over the line by me, the responsibility resting – sometimes – only with me. Trainees who tentatively approached my desk and asked if I was too busy to chat to them; would I like a cup of tea. There were late nights, not because a supervisor was cracking the whip, but because I was. A paralegal who stood at my desk, pad of paper in her hands, heels on her feet, and waited for supervision.
I went out that night, Friday. I spoke to another paralegal. She wants a training contract more than anybody. “I don’t know what I’ll do it I don’t get it,” she said. “I’ve got to qualify before I’m thirty.” She gave a half smile, a self-conscious allusion to the fact that I am already there.
“I had that deadline, too,” I said, my mouth twisting. I didn’t want to say and look at me now, with a smug upturned hand, but I did want to say something. “I thought things were – I don’t know. I thought qualifying late blighted things,” I said to her. And it was true, I still hated that I qualified at a time of year sufficiently different from everybody else to raise questions. I was sure people did wonder at my age, the old NQ with the crow’s feet. But I cared less, at this side of the finish line. I remembered those long December evenings when all I did was stress out about qualifying, believing I would never get there, that something (else) would surely go wrong before the 18th. It seemed silly now, now that I was here, my practising certificate locked safely away in my desk drawers. “But I qualified, moved to a much bigger firm, and bought a house – all in five months,” I said. It was true. Those decisions – in the end, after all that angst – came as easily as buying pints of milk. “This time last year I’d ticked no boxes. Now I’ve ticked some.”
I didn’t tell her that being behind didn’t still sting sometimes, or annoy me, or that I would actually quite like to have published a book by the time I was 30, too. I didn’t need to. Nor did I tell her that these changes – these big changes – take some getting used to. She shrugged. “I’m sure you’re right,” she said.
I met MindReader at the station. We got the last train together, then went to McDonalds. “Let’s do something silly,” I said, the strange weight of responsibility of everything weighing on my shoulders. The house completion. My boss’s holiday. A difficult completion, done. We got home, and the cat stole my cheese burger, running off with it like a cartoon character, and we pissed ourselves laughing, and that helped.