The boys start school, and I am paralysed. Days pass, weeks, and I’m held in stasis by two equal and opposite wants: to be writing, really writing; and to maximise our family adventure. For that, for us to make the most of this finite European opportunity, to take the boys travelling, to go exciting places, to have holidays and eat great food and shop with occasional abandon, I need to earn some pounds.
I speak sternly to myself. I poke around recruitment sites. I make awkward calls. The agencies don’t want anything to do with freelancers, and companies don’t advertise for them. They all say, Send us your CV anyway, and if anything comes up, though they know and I know they’ll never look at it again. It’s the quickest way to get me off the phone: seven seconds to say, and it’s not their hour that’s about to be wasted writing a covering letter no one will ever finish reading. I open two dozen tabs in my browser, all potential leads, but it’s an effort of will to pick up the phone. My heart isn’t in it.
A part-time job, maybe. That would be perfect. But there are no part-time jobs in London, or not advertised anyway. Structured in-house, presumably, around existing staff who negotiate flexible work arrangements or jobshares.
I think about my novel and cry.
So work on the novel, I tell myself. What do I want it to say on my tombstone, She freelanced in two countries? I close all the browser tabs and take deep steadying breaths and give myself full permission to work on the novel. I get up genuine sweet momentum for all of about two hours before the guilt sets in and seizes me up completely.
For days I poke at LinkedIn, hate it, rewrite the first hopeless sentence of the novel, can’t concentrate, bounce back to LinkedIn. I’m filled to the eyeballs with the acrid expanding foam of self-loathing. I’m a writer who doesn’t write. I’m a career girl with no career.
The depression is not strange to me, but the anxiety is, or at least its paralysing extent. I sit barely breathing, my heart hammering. My thoughts circle and circle. None of the options is easy.
There are good days. Euphoric days, catching a bus somewhere, having a conversation with someone, a meeting. I feel great! I’m in the coolest city in the world, I’m highly skilled, I’m a personable Antipodean. Everything will come right. It’s just a matter of time.
I buy a speculative monthly membership at a trendy new hot-desking hub down the road in Camden, where I might meet some hungry young start-ups to collaborate with. And if I’m putting on lipstick and leaving the house with my laptop I’m not crying in my bedroom at eleven in the morning.
I dip my toe into the strange world of professional networking, starting with a drinks evening alarmingly titled Camden Cluster. Within an hour I’ve given away all my scribbled-on New Zealand business cards, and am keying my details into people’s phones. It’s surprisingly not horrible. I talk to a towering young bearded Kiwi techie called Dennis, and a woman beta-testing a shiny black ring that vibrates on her finger if a client calls. I meet a pair of beautiful dreadlocked Jamaican graphic designers who it turns out can’t design for toffee. A Hungarian who works for an alternative currency platform, whose chain of five lapdancing clubs is definitely in the market for a copywriter.
Early one Thursday I stand and give a 40-second elevator pitch to an oddly intimate breakfast group of local entrepreneurs, followed by 10-minute face-to-face meetings, speed dating-style. Afterwards the Hungarian from the Cluster spends an hour and a half trying to persuade me to join his alternative currency platform, the only catch being – apart from the stiff joining fee – that I’d be paid in alternative currency. Not, he points out, in lapdances. Though I could be if I or my husband liked.
I’m invited to other meetings, other breakfasts. I’m surprised to discover I’m enjoying myself. I’m out and about, meeting people, charming them with my bluff colonial ways. I’d rather do this networking business than the copywriting, frankly.
It’s all the kind of relationship building that will certainly yield business, if I’m prepared to play a long game. I just don’t want to be doing the business at all. I badly don’t want to go back to the permanent juggling act of freelancing, the clashing deadlines, the needy clients, the scrambling of random urgent childcare.
I cry other times instead. In the cold dark of the garden, listening to unidentified mammals scuffling in the bushes; turning my face up to the showerjet to try and steam the puffiness from my eyes; loading the dishwasher in the suddenly empty 9am house. Standing in the bathtub at midnight, elbows on the windowsill, looking up at a beautiful slice of moon and sky framed by silvery trees.
Running through it all is the sleep deprivation, the cumulative weeks of sharing a smaller, harder bed with a man restless with work anxiety, a man also in possession of a paranoid man-bladder and an increasingly middle-aged snore habit. Again and again I’m jerked back from sleep by a snatch of the duvet, by a sudden violent startle reflex beside me. When he gets up to pee the floorboards screech, the loose doorknob rattles and clacks. Never previously a night talker, Hapless begins to mutter in his sleep. “Oh no no no no no,” he says. And, “Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.” One night he talks continuously, all the cadence and inflection of an argument, built of nothing but nonsense syllables.
In the mornings I sit on the edge of the bed with my eyes gritty and burning, queasy with fatigue, the sick lurch of jetlag. It’s like the six-week wall you hit with a newborn, when the hormones wear off and the toll of all that unbroken sleep finally slams home. I cry at spilt cereal, mud on the carpet, the boys wrestling over a spoon.
I find Number Two Son playing with my eyeliner. He frowns at his reflection as he scores a deep black diagonal downward from the inner corner of each eye.
“Not down there,” I say. “Eyeliner’s supposed to go up here, close to your eyelashes.”
“But what about you?” he says. “You’ve got black lines down there.”
I peer reluctantly at the fifty-year-old woman in the mirror. “That’s just because I’m old and tired,” I say.
He is incredulous. “That’s not makeup? I never knew!”
On the bus I look at people with their work coats and handbags, making their way, grumpily, to places where people know them, where they’re needed, where they’ll experience conversations and conflicts and do the time and get paid. I envy their purpose, their sense of belonging.
A proper job, that’s what I need. I think of my boys, fractious and empty-tanked at the end of the day. I think of my manuscript, in a box inside a box inside a corrugated-steel container somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. The day I realise it is eleven months since I last did any serious work on it I have a proper meltdown, doubled over the bed, dry-sobbing and hyperventilating.
I take myself off to the doctor. She is a darling young blonde locum called Imogen, who nods briskly while I tell her what I need. She thinks it’s a marvellous idea.
Within a week I feel fantastic, my brain chemistry miraculously rebalanced. I’d forgotten what calm felt like, the sensation of being relaxed. I’d forgotten what happiness felt like. Love. For fuck’s sake, I should have done this months ago, if not years. I sleep.
When Facebook helpfully reminds me it’s a full year since I handed in the first draft of my novel as my MCW thesis, all I feel is a mellow nostalgia. I smile at the memory of those frantic last days and nights, the passing out in the beanbag on the deck three hours and two pints after hand-in.
In the meantime I continue to yo-yo, pinging from one set of urgent priorities to another.
It makes sense to build up the freelancing. More flexibility to do things like write, and be there for the kids.
No, no, no. A job makes more sense. Building up a freelance base will take weeks, months, of speculative time, and mightn’t pay off for ages. I need structure, a nanny. More hours, but predictable. Everyone will be happier without me trying to work upstairs in between shouting at the kids. The novel can wait. It’s only a couple of years.
No, no, no. I’ve got my priorities horribly, materialistically wrong. I’ve got to work on my novel. Follow your dreams, that’s what the palliative care people say, after years of listening to people’s deathbed regrets.
So wait. More freelance work will trickle in, gain momentum, give us enough extra for holidays and treats and meals out. But but but one thing will lead to another, as it always does, and it will eat me up all over again…
Weeks turn into months. Hapless’s new job takes the immediate pressure off. Most days I manage to avoid feeling as if I’m wasting a significant chunk of my life, that I’m letting opportunities to do amazing things slip through my fingers. Mostly I feel good. After all, I love this place. There’s nowhere I’d rather be right now. I just don’t know how to be here yet. I float in the city, loose, untethered.
I work, a little. I go to interviews, turn some things down. I get spammed by recruitment platforms, scores of emails a day, faster than I can unsubscribe. I scribble down ideas for a YA novel, a children’s book, a domestic novel about polyamory. I swear never to talk to another recruitment agent. I talk to lovely young start-ups and interesting big companies. I brainstorm tech branding and social media strategy with a sidelocked, yamulked Hasidic Jew. I wait for the right thing. The days skim by, and I don’t write.
But I do make sure to document it. For my future self, an archive of memory and material. For those who want to know how it’s really going. And for those others who might live so long on the edge of coping that they don’t even notice when they fall over. For anyone else who might, from time to time, find themselves howling at the moon.