“Bloody Hell”, I Said.

Now that I come to think of it, I’m not sure the best way to make friends with a stranger is to launch up to them, grab their shoulder and inform them that they have to protect you.
Especially if you’re perspiring and in heels. There are things that can go wrong. You could trip and land with your face in their groin. Your sweat could splatter on their new silk tie. Your heels could stab their toe, you might shatter their clavicle. They might think you’re mental and call for security, et cetera, et cetera.

But every now and then, if it’s the only thing you’ve got, you should just go with it and hope for the best.

So I recognised the critically-acclaimed author of eleven works of fiction and nine works of non-fiction, Joseph Connolly – by his impressive beard. What else – it’s not like he was wearing a Rio carnival basket of his books splayed out amongst pineapples on his head. It wasn’t that sort of occasion.

It was the Editors Society Regional Press Awards. Which meant lots of men in grey, blue and black looking very ‘newsy’, and the odd woman. (Though rather too few for the disparity in the count not to register.)

The hotel was nuzzled against a street named Sussex Gardens. I recognised the name. I texted my mum; yes, that was where her and Dad had first had a flat, back in the late 70s. I felt warm. I went in.

I stood awkwardly in the foyer, shifting in my heels and looking, I suspect, like a corporate hooker on her first gig. Then I went down to the bowels of the hotel and the massive room all set out like a swanky news type shindig.

I balked. I nearly turned around and left. I had no place being here. I was not ‘newsy’, I don’t read the news, I don’t watch the news. I get my ‘the news’ from a Fleet Street reporter friend and trust everything she says. If she told me the UN was demolishing the world at 3pm I’d stick a colander on my head, and generally make hay until Ka-Boom o’ clock; maybe go looting just to see what all the fuss is about.

I was also, it’s not irrelevant to mention, in a state of mild to medium discomfiture because I was wearing a ‘columnisty’ dress that I had bought online so I didn’t have to go real shopping, and in my panic and self-loathing had bought two sizes too big just so I knew it would definitely ‘fit’. I had to gather it round the back and cinch it in with a belt to keep from looking too weird. If I’d lifted my arms up at the sides I would have looked like one of those dinosaurs that looks harmless until approached but which then splays its concertina head-wings and kills you with its flaps. The only thing that comforted me was the fact it came from Marks and Spencer and nothing bad can ever happen to you if you’re wearing something from Marks and Spencer. It is British Law.

I stood awkwardly by the door with my champagne, trying to make it last, like a lady. And then I saw Joseph Connolly.

I launched.

“Joseph! Joseph Connolly! Hullo! I’m in your category, and I don’t know anyone, and…” (cue my speech tailing off into general nonsense…)

Joseph Connolly looked at me with both kindness and gravity, like an author who’d just been commandeered by someone with poor award ceremony etiquette, as he had. He turned from his suited industry man friend to talk to me, the perspiring novice, and very soon I felt as comfortable as I was going to feel without relieving a champagne waiter of his entire tray in an act of developed suction that would make James Dyson feel like a charlatan.

We small talked, he settled my nerves with old-school charm, and led me to the table plan so I could find where I was sitting. (I wouldn’t have thought of that without him – I probably would have bobbed at the back like an amnesiac mallard.)
As the awards were about to begin we said goodbye and I felt lonely. I sat, met my lovely editor Colin, ate some food, drank some drink, and, to my endless staggering shock, got announced Columnist of the Year.

In the introductory spiel boomed out by a nice newsy chap named Nick Ferrari, a column I had written about my Dad and bi-polar was mentioned, and I froze in slow unfolding recognition. Surely I hadn’t won? I couldn’t even dress myself properly.

But I had. And I had to stand up. The room was big and loud and full of people I didn’t know, but for a few seconds it felt like it was only Dad in the room, watching me walk up to the stage. It felt like he was there, clapping for me. I could see his face and I felt like he was saying that he knew how hard the words had been, how hard all the words have been since he went, that he was sorry, but how proud he was that words were the things I have chosen. He would always have chosen words as the thing I did. Maybe I haven’t chosen them myself at all.

Whatever, however; a board of national editors thought those words were good.

I brushed the Dadness away, a thing I’ve had to learn, tried to look normal, and swore lightly into a microphone. “Bloody hell”, I said, which is endlessly better than “fuck”. I made it through the rest of the awards in something of a trembling daze.

Joseph Connolly came up to me afterwards to congratulate me, and asked if I wanted a drink. And of course I bloody wanted a drink.
I bunked the group ‘winners’ photo to scoot upstairs to the plush hotel bar to talk to an author, which is probably the only cool thing I’ve ever done. I wanted to whisper to my fifteen year old self (who was there with me in spirit in the massive anxiety spot on my cheek) that it had happened; I’d been cool. We talked about books and writing and I began to feel like myself. Joseph’s gentle wit calmed me, stopping me (kind of) from rambling. I felt that shining thing that comes across you when you talk about the thing you love most. A sense of belonging. Like coming home to party poppers and a candle-lit cake. Home. Writing is my home. I felt so happy. Here was I with some carved glass that marked some words I had written about bi-polar, about my Dad who’d lost the battle with it, there in a hotel by Sussex Gardens where Mum and Dad had first lived together, and here was I, their daughter, feeling happy because of the words that had come out of the opposite of happy, and now it was all linked up and I couldn’t sort the different strands and it all made a sort of eventual conglomerate sense. It felt like all happinesses should feel in part; a small return to a beginning, dressed up as something new.

The award was the award, but the feeling was the prize.

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A Non-Sensical Moody Rant About The Golden Days of Yore

In the last week alone I have espied three different cases of women harking back to the ‘golden days of yore’. That lovely vague wafty time we all have in our heads when we weren’t alive yet and things were somehow better. (That is one of the many curses of being human; being deeply suspicious that things are better without you but wanting to be a part of it anyway.)

I’ll expound: there was an old school friend planning a regency wedding, a former drama student on a photoshoot in some stately grounds for something dramatic, (doing that ‘wan’ look women do when they want to look ‘classical’), and a woman I didn’t know from Adam practically goatherding her wilful teen to the hallowed Jane Austen shelf in a bookshop (even though the teen was definitely angling more for underage vampire sex – I saw her pupils dilate going past Twilight, the dirty hormone; she wasn’t thinking of her educational furtherment; she just wanted to know if the wolf boy finally decks the pale undead dude with the pointy teeth. Topless. And wet. At the top of a tree or something. Anyway.)

These things caught me in a rare bad mood. I’d been in a right hump all week so instead of being my usual “let’s put on a bonnet and run around a privet maze, giggling” self, I tutted, and scowled. Yes. Scowled.

“It’s like you all want to live in different, better times.” I thought, bitterly – as though that was completely unreasonable.
(Though of course we all do, a bit. We all have ‘the time we’d like to live in’ and it’s hardly ever ‘right now’.)

But I was not sympathetic to my sisters’ epoch whimsy. No.

“Oh, I’d so love to live in Jane Austen’s time! I would! I would, I wouldy-would-would!”

No, love – you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t want to live in those times. If you lived in the years of yester, the estuary twang in your voice tells me you’d be a mere rung above destitution. You’d probably be gathering skirts around your waist in an oom-pah-pah bar in Dickens’ east-end, or snuffling in some bins for pheasant bones round the back of an eminent surgeon’s townhouse, (flogged when caught, and cast out of your syphilis-stained boarding house). You’d have had your childhood sweetheart Billy Thompson ripped away from you to work in some ramshackle stables up north, and your best mate Flora Biffins would have died of typhoid. In your arms. In a field. In the rain. At best you’d have a chance of dragging yourself out of the mire if your hard-working father, a born actor, had inveigled his way into a Chancery Lane gentleman’s club and won some valuable land in a midnight game of baccarat disguised as landed gentry. You’d then be used as a pink-cheeked bargaining tool while rich men bid again for the lost land to make way for a lace factory with a hidden sideline in back-room blowjobs. Worse than being an objectified sex husk to a man you didn’t love, you’d be wearing a corset so unforgiving your insides would be folded like a fan and every time you sat down at an unfortunate angle you’d groan like a disconsolate accordion. You’d be wearing a bonnet so cumbersome it could break a coalface apart with one beak blow. When not applauding your husband’s many redoubtable achievements like having sideburns the size of Norfolk or having a foreskin that looks a bit like Lord Byron if you squint, your feeble hands would be permanently employed in the tedium of cross-stitch and pianoforte practice – while your toes would divide the tasks of stroking a one-eyed lapdog by the fire, painting a cherub on a jug, and catching up on correspondence with a crippled rheumatic cousin from another county. You wouldn’t be able to vote, laugh too loudly, or be a lesbian. Scratch your tit on a bus, or decide what you want for dinner. You certainly wouldn’t be able to follow your heart, go to university, or burp really loudly in a lecture theatre after five pints so that your fellow under-graduates think the ceiling is coming down. Plus loads of other stuff; that’s just the first swathe that popped out.

I huffed at all this. And then I got over it and thought of Colin Firth rising up out of the lake at Pemberley. Because that really is a thing for all time that no bad mood can outlast.

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BEARDS!

He winked at me.

The cheeky bearded scamp winked at me. He stood by the bus doors, casually hitched his rucksack up onto his shoulder, turned his head to half face me as he dropped onto the pavement and winked at me. After a moment of nothing, I did that low hiss of derisory air from my lips at the same time as blushing and smiling, the three emotions that is it possible to feel all at once as a woman when being winked or whooped at; deep disgust, aghast shyness, and…secret pleasure. (Which is code for: NICE TO KNOW I’M STILL VISIBLE. Which is code for: I AM NOT DEAD YET. Which is ok. Because it’s always ok to not be dead yet.)

Then I noticed his blazer. His green school blazer. I felt dirty – even though I hadn’t even been the one to wink. I would have wiped the wink off if winks did such a thing as land on your face.

“WHAT THE RA-RA-RASPUTIN IS A BEARD LIKE THAT DOING ON A SCHOOLBOY?” I thought. Do they not get detentions for such anarchic foliage? Is it not on the banned list along with stink-bombs and hipflasks? Or is it a precociously follicled boy’s right, just like Muslims can wear head scarves, Christians little sad Jesuses on chains, and girls… sanitary pads? Is the beard the one thing you can’t take away from a boy if he says he needs it?

It threw me, reader.

Now, I am a massive supporter of the beard movement. I go to bed with one every night and am a fan of its shifting shapes, its light-skipping hues, its contours, defiance and mutability, its general bristly snuggly pinchable pluckable trimmable manly wonder. I like the fact that a good beard can look trampy in the morning and later that evening it’s like a kempt Edwardian gent is talking you out for a stroll. I like the fact that some days it’s like every man you come across attended a secret overnight convention and willed a beard into being while they slept for a grand morning unveiling. I like seeing old chums and doing a dramatic double-take when you see they have wordlessly joined the club. I like the fact no man really knows what to say when you bellow “YOU’VE GROWN A BEARD!!” They just shyly say “yeah” and pull it a bit like you’ve just told them their flies are undone. You want to say “it’s just a beard, dude. Own it for god’s sake, or it will own you” but you sort of like their vulnerable moment, because those moments are always way cooler than someone being cocky and jutting their chin in your face like the prow of a Viking ship.

But when a hirsute boychild eyes you like he forgot to pack his nutrigrain and you’re the nearest substitute for a pre Geography breakfast, I am left scratching my head. How come these worryingly confident little poppets can push out bristles before they have even learned how to wash their own crispy bedsheets? Can have a wiry ginger streak in their fuzz that speaks of age-old clan genetics before they know how to do tongues without strangling a girl? How? Nature’s weird.

I shall miss all the yesteryear beards when they ebb away. When scruffy Tolstoy boys go neat and preppy, when the fickle tache-twiddlers decide they’d rather have a baby smooth tan, when all the young dudes lose the illusion of wisdom and just look confused again, when streets don’t look full of poets and bars don’t look like libraries, when the curlicued blooms drop like fruit trees at the end of their season.

Maybe if I get a pubescent colonel winking at me again I’ll honour his strange bravado and wink back and scare the bejesus out of him. Or maybe I’ll tell him no girl worth her salt will love him later if he doesn’t pass through the natural awkward bare-faced pimply stage unhampered by gross self-assurance.

Or maybe I’ll just smile and look out the window because chatting to schoolboys on buses never looks good, does it?

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No Lady

Just when you think life might be letting you turn into a lady, you find yourself on your hands and knees, scrubbing. It’s things like getting carpet burn from your own misdemeanours that let you know you’ve still got a long way to go.

The stain wasn’t that bad, really. It was only a light daubing of dark blue nail varnish that I’d managed to smear on the plush hotel carpet, not a whole retch-inducing “You’ll never sojourn in this luxury chain again, young lady” amount. So that’s something at least.

It wasn’t so much the act of general spillage that made me feel like a lummox cast out of a Swiss finishing school for squirting ketchup on a Rembrandt. No – I can shake off an act of clumsiness like a Las Vegas stripper can shake off a nipple tassle. It’s in my blood. I once dropped a suitcase on a French boy’s head and acted coolly as though I’d merely scuffed a croissant. (He on the other hand was worryingly dazed. I hope it’s not caused any lasting damage. I didn’t keep in touch – he wasn’t my type, and I suspected he was milking it a bit. Crumbs, I hope he’s still alive. It was a big case now I come to think of it. I always overpack.)

Anyway. It wasn’t the fact I’d smeared Angsty Midnight polish everywhere and was likely to get myself a sizeable fine from the posh country hotel. No. It wasn’t even the covert dash downstairs to the swanky spa, fluttering my eyelids at some bemused beauticians (who stared balefully at my lashes like they could definitely be lengthened to this season’s camelesque), confessed I’d had an awful style mishap (intimating fingers not furnishings) and was in dire need of some nail varnish remover. Even that, though fraught with clammy fear they might plonk me down for an actual manicure, a procedure I’m unversed in, went ok.

Then once I’d scrubbed the guilty marks from the virgin carpet I still felt relatively fine.

But I did feel like a disgusting little grub when I went out for a (very ladylike, though not bonneted) stroll of the grounds, pausing to graze a mound of forget-me-nots with my wistful fingers, to sniff the lustrous boughs of wild garlic sprawling over the path, and came back to discover I had trodden in unidentifiable faeces. That’s when I got really cross with myself. “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, SADIE! CAN’T YOU JUST BE LIKE JULIE ANDREWS FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE?” (Julie Andrews having been my yardstick of grace since she got a standing lamp out of a medium tote bag without breaking a sweat.)

My one saving grace was that it was the kind of poo that stuck to the shoe. That firm sort of stool that feels guilty you trod in it and clings resolutely to the sole, refusing to do further damage. I imagine it to be the dropping of a gentleman beaver, rather than a minxy fox. A reserved Colonel of a poo. The kind of poo that would wear a cravat. You know the kind of poo.

Anyway, I tended to the poo before I went down to the introduction to the arty types I was attending a weekend of seminars with. I was annoyed that I had already had both cosmetic and faecal dramas so soon after check-in. I then ruined my plans of becoming demure and classy by drinking Boddingtons at dinner and laughing too loudly at things no one else laughed at. Loud clumsy idiot girl.

But then I went upstairs to my starched white bed sheets, peeled off my jeans (tight from ale and three courses), and read a message from my boyfriend saying he missed me and that bed was empty without me.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make you feel like a lady.

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