Love – all

The tennis ball bounces, once, in front of me. I draw my racket back, anticipating the satisfying thump, the reverberation down the length of my arm, but my head is turned by a figure behind MindReader, and I miss it.

It’s a woman in a hijab sitting in a wheelchair. She’s holding a cup of coffee – polystyrene, cheap instant, no doubt, in her lap – in both hands. She’s wearing fashionably oversized glasses and Converse trainers.

“Decided that was too much effort?” my father says to me. I’m on his team, had called ‘mine’ seconds before I abandoned the shot.

I am still staring at the woman, being assaulted by memories from years before. She is sitting how I sat, when I was in such a position. On the literal sidelines of life. Her elbows are resting on her hip bones as she sits, and I remember doing similar things when my arms hurt too much to lift themselves, let alone a cup of coffee. I am reminded of so many occasions when I was she: at MindReader’s sister’s wedding, seven months after glandular fever, when I attended only 25 minutes of a wedding and spent the rest of the day lying down, alone, in an empty hotel nearby. Or that time, four months after glandular fever when MindReader carried me outside and laid me amongst the summer flowers for five minutes, to feel the sun on my skin. Or maybe that time, years after, during my first relapse where I lay down in the disabled toilet after my second legal exam. And all the other times, too: when I was present, but not A1. Having to have regular breaks when shopping. Lying down in the back of the car on the way back from a party. Having a nosebleed in the work toilets during the first year of my training contract; trying to hide the bruises that appeared after my first 12-hour mediation. Or the ambulance ride, the meningitis tests, the AIDS clinics, HIV after HIV after HIV test because my symptoms fit so well. They’re all there, these memories, living in my mind and my body.

“Sorry,” I call.

“You’re alright aren’t you?” MadFather says to me. He saw, I guess, the worst of it, says underneath my eyes went punch-black some afternoons in the early days which I have no memory of; January and February and March of that year all erased as if it was nighttime for three months straight. His words are imbued with the memories, too. I don’t tell him I am looking at the woman in the wheelchair, thinking how lucky I am to have been there and now here, my body arcing in the air as I serve to MindReader after a normal working day, fuelled by too much coffee and not enough sleep.

“Yeah just couldn’t be arsed to get that,” I joke.

“Never mind,” Dad says. “There’s always the next shot.”

As I tilt my head back to serve, watching the ball rise in the air, I can’t help but look behind it and to the woman in the wheelchair. She’s looking at me, her eyes tracking the ball. I let it come down and it bounces in front of me. She smiles, gestures to her friend. Together, they laugh at me, and my crap serving, and I can’t help but throw a smile their way, which they return.

Time well / Spent 

“I’m just knackered,” I say to MindReader. I am lolling on the sofa at ten o’clock on Friday night, my head resting on the cushion as I turn to look at him. “Not physically. Just – spent.” 

“Yes,” MindReader says, with a sympathetic smile. 

“There is no way – is there?” I pick at a bit of egg fried rice on my plate. “To do both easily. With work-life balance.”

“Maybe if you were a shit lawyer. Or only produced a novel every five years.” He reaches over for the remote and switches the television off. Benny comes bounding in from the garden, firm but fair: he would like his dinner now, please. 

I stand and start squeezing a cat food pouch into his bowl. “Plenty of people have big careers and big hobbies,” I say over Benny’s shouts. “Marathon runners.” 

“It’s like that success book you read, isn’t it,” MindReader says. “The sacrifice for you is time. Do you want to give up your limited time for these things?”

I look at him, envious, as I have been many times, of his clear thinking, his logic, his complete non-combative way of expressing himself. But, perhaps most of all, that he does not have this insatiable drive. He is happy as he is, with what he has. 

“It’s not just that…” I say, trying to put it into words. “Not just a few evenings and most weekends spent writing. I can sacrifice that. It’s…” 

I turn away from home and go and put the cat foot packet in the kitchen bin. He’s sitting in the same position when I return. 

It is all the other things, I want to say. How easy that slippery slope really is. From not really turning my phone off to writing three evenings a week, not two, to routinely eating three meals a day at work. To getting the 11pm train three nights running  

 and taking a call on it. To writing a scene in which someone dies on a Saturday morning at 8am after a 60 hour week. To suddenly find myself unable to justify a bath, a bit of telly, a complete meal. It coincided with a bad work patch which I am still orientating myself after. I have resurfaced, but things feel changed. I can barely imagine – to be honest – being in my house at 8 o’clock at night let alone writing. 

“I…”

“You have no moderation,” MindReader says. I smile at that. We’ve had this discussion a lot. I do things 100% always or 100% never. I binge or abstain. My vices are (private, and) not interesting or dangerous. But nevertheless I am forced to put my phone downstairs on charge overnight because if I don’t I will stay up all night reading the internet because I don’t have a bit of my brain which says “enough!”. 

“If I don’t do all I might do nothing, and stop…” I say. A work email comes on my phone in my pocket and I respond to it. “Same principle,” I say, catching MindReader’s eye. 

“Is it worth it?” MindReader says. “To you?” 

“I have to be a good lawyer and I have to write books. They are more important than the other things… Trivial things. Television.”

“Well then… Easy for me to say,” MindReader says, nodding towards the Candy Crush app that’s always open on his iPad. “But you have to accept that sacrifice.”

It’s easier after that. I get up early and write all day. I didn’t plan to have a Saturday, so I don’t miss it. I enjoy the writing. It is diametrically opposed to my week at work, just me and the quiet words, weaving emotions in my garden. And at the end of it – here, now – I’m another 2,000 words closer to home. 

Changes

“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.

Sam.

“They tried to resuscitate him, but he… well, he died,” I say. There’s no way of saying it lightly, and no way for it not to be a bombshell, but I somehow don’t care: if shocking a stranger is part of the imprint my only nephew left on the world, so be it.

I’m outside, at a wedding. The marquee is off-white against the sky. The air has turned navy blue but right in the corner, near where the sun used to be, the sky is still a lit-up, washed out blue, as if the bleached daylight is determinedly clinging on to one last patch.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” the stranger at the wedding says. I shouldn’t have told her, but I mentioned my niece, and then I couldn’t not tell her. She is embarrassed, I can tell. It is taboo.

We can see the outline of the fairy lights just inside the marquee. They look Christmassy, incongruous against the summer sky. It’s freezing. It’s been a cold spring. All of the women have cardigans on, tightly drawn around their waists. Everything here has been set up for a warm weekend: the croquet on the lawn, unplayed. The wood-fired pizza oven. The cocktails served by hipsters next to a bike with a basket, in mason jars. But I quite like the unseasonal cold.

“Did you see him?” the stranger says to me.

“Sam? A photo,” I say. That’s when I feel the tears budding, ever-present. They have different textures: sometimes a tightness in my throat, sometimes an inexplicable wetness on my cheeks, sometimes a hollow crying that produces nothing at all. “He looks… Looked. Just like my sister,” I say. “My niece. They have these eyes – ” I pause, trying to describe them. “Slanted eyes. Pretty eyes. He had them.”

“Brought you a homemade Baileys,” MindReader says to me, appearing by my side and waving a small bottle with a brown paper tag on it. He’s evidently warm, has taken his jacket off.

“Thanks,” I say. The stranger gives me an embarrassed smile and retreats into the darkness, to the pizza hut with no queue.

“You alright?” MindReader says, but then gets distracted by the prospect of pizza, leaving me standing alone in the night. I look at the pale patch of sky, still light but ever darkening, and raise the miniature bottle, high to the sky, to miniature Sam. I stay standing there, alone, for a long time.

“Goodnight,” I say to him.

Just a long way of justifying buying the Sunday Riley £85 facial serum

I get to work and see a small, white envelope on my chair. My brain attempts to find the worst-case scenario, before I wrestle it under control and prevent it going down the road of P45s and notices of redundancy. I approach it, reaching out a hand earlier than I would normally, and pick the envelope up. It’s matte and smooth against my finger tips.

It is as if my happiness in 2012 followed by my sadness at my relapse/new illness in 2013 was too much for me. Somewhere buried deep in all of those events – those things I still have flashbacks to; the nosebleeds at my desk, feeling as though the road was moving when it wasn’t, taking painkillers every two hours in Paris just to cope with walking around – was the message: happiness is finite. And something in me – the part that likes rules and facts and figures – took that message on board and ran with it.

If my happiness was a tangible thing, it would be something finite. Maybe a crop I have to harvest every year. It could not possibly go on and on, my happiness, growing like weeds or grasses, unchecked, with no investments made in return. I spend my days refinancing properties, and I believe my happiness will be refinanced, too, soon: a downpayment of some sort must be made. I’ll go into my happiness overdraft, soon, and I will have to pay it back. Happiness doesn’t come for nothing, I seem to believe. In the meantime, I pay interest in worry. It’s a high rate.

I open the envelope in my office and see that it’s just my post, sorted carefully by my secretary. My secretary in my job which is now full-time, for the first time since glandular fever, and pays me twice the amount of money that I have ever earned in my entire life. Phew, I think, putting the post aside. I know exactly what to do with it, but still fail to believe I am a good lawyer. I do however work bloody hard. I would not deserve a P45. What a crazy thought that was.

My phone beeps later, at lunchtime, and I look at it, fearful. It could be the bank denying us a mortgage on the house we are buying. Or a friend, angry at me. Or any other host of worst-case scenarios which I run through as though reading an autocue. There is no way, my brain believes in this moment that I will go home tonight, on a Friday night, after a full-time week, order a takeaway and go to bed happy, having avoided disaster again. No way.

“Billygean,” a wise woman said to me a few months ago. “You’ve stored those memories somewhere traumatic. Those memories of illness mean something different to you than…”

“Than what?” I said.

“Than what they really are.”

I frowned, then, not understanding.

But now I see. I got ill and I got better again. Doctors may speak of remission and relapses, but I don’t have to. I wasn’t too happy and then punished. It didn’t happen because I didn’t worry enough. There is no overlord in my universe overseeing my happiness levels and deciding to roll the illness dice. And living a half life, in fear of phones and envelopes and sickness bugs and car crashes and all the other myriad disasters I can foresee won’t help anybody.

I read the text. A friend wants to meet up next week, for lunch. That’s all. I text them back immediately.

I stare to my right, out of the window in the high-rise building I now work in. Plenty of people have careers they enjoy, boyfriends they love, literary agents who represent them, hobbies they like, enough money to buy frivolous face serums, friends who make them laugh and console them when they cry, houses they are about to buy, cats they are obsessed with, without quite this level of angst, this self-sabotage. And the thing is, when people say to you things like you’re a lawyer with a literary agent and you write novels how do you have time for it all you must be knackered! and you see yourself as a resounding failure, just qualified at 30 years old, with a chequered history of illness, a switch in your brain is flicked because of the dichotomy. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, but I know, I’ll pay it back in disaster. I don’t mean to say I’ve achieved my life ambitions and look! but more: I am so happy it sometimes physically hurts. But maybe I can unflick it. Maybe I’m somewhere in the middle.

“Can I have a quick word?” someone says, approaching my desk.

I feel the thought tap turn on, but I stop it. Enough now. Enough.

“Sure,” I say.

Deuce

“Billygean, you remember Chris, don’t you?” MadFather says to me. He picks a can of coke up off the kitchen counter and hands it to me. I’m home for a Christmas party. I’ve already crept up to visit my childhood bedroom; the dust which covers my old books and the single bed I used to text boys in.

“Hi,” I say. Chris is a few years younger than me, but time has raced on and he has become six-feet-something, with sandy hair and tanned arms.

“Tell him about your book,” MadFather says, disappearing into the throng of people.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I say, wishing so much that I hadn’t told everybody absolutely everything so early on. “I just got an agent… Trying to get a publisher, next.”

“Wow,” Chris says.

“And what about you – still tennis?” I say.

“No – those who can’t… coach,” he says.

I wait, and he speaks again. Somebody squeezes past us, jostling me, and begins spooning trifle out onto a paper plate which bends worryingly.

“I believe I got to a world rank of one thousand,” he says.

“You were one thousandth in the world?”

“Yep – and it was far from enough.” He tells me the prize for winning a grand slam has almost doubled, yet a match he won that got him ranked at one thousand landed him with a cheque for £420.

“But… how many people can say they were the thousandth best person in the world at anything?” I say.

“True. But I’m a perfectionist,” he says.

“Ah. Perfectionism is not the way to happiness.”

“No,” he says. He raises his beer to me, and I wonder if he wasn’t allowed to drink it, before, staying in hotels all over the world, waiting alone for matches to commence. “To failure,” he says, clinking his glass against my can.

I laugh. “I can toast to that,” I say.

“It’s almost better not to try, I found,” he says. “People are embarrassed by failure. I am worse than somebody who hasn’t bothered.”

“You’re not,” I say quietly. “I bet you’re totally mentally sound, too. They always say tennis is a mental game.”

“Yes,” he says, looking into the middle distance. “You play a bad shot, but you move on. To the next one, to the next.”

Sometimes, it’s not the journey but the destination, actually.

I lock my car and walk through the business district. My hair licks my face in the winter breeze. I have the characteristic wine hangover: shaking hands, a bad head, and I bow my head as it begins to rain.

My boss appears outside her new building. “Let’s go to Bar Opus,” she says breezily. I nod, following along, wondering what to do with it: this moment.

“Just get in, get trained, and get out,” MadFather said to me over three years ago of my training contract with a corporate law firm, accepted before my body broke. I drew my mug of tea to my lips, the day before I began my training contract, and wondered what lay in store for me. I nodded, grateful for my father’s reassurance when he, surely, didn’t know if I’d complete it: nobody did.

I started two and a half days a week, when my body still held the memories of whatever had happened between glandular fever and I two years previously; when odd bouts of fatigue would still blow in sometimes like vicious sandstorms and floor me while I waited, eyes closed, for them to go. When I would still freak out if asked to walk anywhere at all and would make up insane reasons to get taxis rather than say it was because I was disabled. Because I was, I can face that now.

It is not possible to characterise those past three years, from two and a half days a week to four, from catching every bug going to dictating late at night in the office, wiping my nose with a tissue periodically. I worked 16 hour days, sometimes, turned up to every training in Nottingham, read around areas of law enthusiastically, made supervisors coffee, took my appraisals too personally. And, yes, then, illness, last year, the after-effects of which I still feel sometimes. But returning, which some people called ‘inspiring’, but really, all I did was go back to earning a living after having been sick. And onwards, since then, wearing a too-short skirt to court one memorable occasion, inching it down my thighs as I stood up to make my client’s submissions, running with a suitcase full of files across Birmingham countless times. And, lately, working, working, pushing things to deadlines, and going home and writing, writing: my two jobs, two loves. I did it full tilt, my training contract, and here I am, three years on, typing this as a solicitor: fully fledged. It’s a place I was so sure I wouldn’t get to that I deliberately, carefully, looked twice before crossing the road on my way into the office on my last day as a trainee, so convinced was I that something would come along to foil my plans, as something had since pretty much the day I accepted the position.

We walk into Bar Opus together and sit on bar stools and watch the chef. He tosses things being pan fried and moodily chops a carrot. His eyes are slightly different colours; one blueish, one more green.

And so here I am, the morning after the night before, and it wasn’t just a qualification do that got me hanging, but a leaving do, as well. I left my job, the previous day, and I probably said too many Prosecco-fuelled truths late in the night (I believe I said of one colleague, “he has two states: speaking, and waiting to speak,” which is, sadly, a trait many a lawyer has).

“We are finally here,” I say to my boss. She understands immediately, and raises her glass to me. Its sides are frosted with condensation.

“We made it,” she says. She clinks her wine against my full fat, hangover-curing coke, and smiles at me. For choosing the area of law was one thing, and impressing in that department was another thing, but what nobody could have predicted was what happened next.

I thought I would either impress and be retained, or not impress and be let go. Either way, I would be qualified, and would hopefully have my health in tact, though that’s not to say that being retained after my training didn’t keep me awake at night. But I did something I never really thought I would, had never done before or thought of doing.

My boss quit, and moved firms in October, and I followed her, there being a three-month period after she left and before I could.

And so next week, and rushing towards me, I start as a fully-fledged solicitor in an even bigger corporate firm. But there is no getting through it with my health in tact. It is not to be endured. It’s the next bit; the rest of my life.

“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I say to my boss.

And it’s true. I haven’t really thought beyond today – beyond yesterday, in fact. Beyond qualifying, my leaving do, and my Christmas break. But the next bit is the most exciting bit.

And I have a killer wrap dress to wear for my first day.