How to be 39

I never used to understand why people lied about their age. I didn’t bother. It seemed to me utterly unimportant, and while I pretended to choke with panic on my 30th birthday – it felt like something I was supposed to do – and spoke in hushed tones about turning 40 one day, my age, the actual number, being older, never unsettled me.

But now I am 39, I get it. I totally get it. Not because I am ashamed or embarrassed to be older and no longer in the first flush of youth, but because other people, of all ages, can use that magic number against you. And it’s really weird. All my hangups about being older, of which there are still mercifully few, don’t come from within. It’s everyone else who’s the problem.

First of all, you get the guessing game. So I have greying hair, but have yet to run to fat. I probably don’t have as many wrinkles as some men five years my junior, and my clothes are on the conservative side of contemporary, with the odd brightly coloured T-shirt or trainer thrown in. If you don’t volunteer your age straight away, people will try to get it out of you, or attempt to work it out from your cultural references.

I’d been working somewhere for about five months when, over a drink, a colleague confided: “We’ve all been trying to work out how old you are”.

I was mystified. “You have? Why?”

She then described the conundrum above, about how my age wasn’t placeable because of the way I looked and acted and spoke.

“Well, why didn’t you ask?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the done thing, is it?”

But I think I would rather they asked than speculated and whispered, as if I had something to hide.

“I’m 37,” I said, as I was then. And all was fine.

Other times when I’ve had to reveal my real age, like I am being unmasked as an imposter, I have regretted it immediately because now my age would become a “thing” about me, overtaking all my other attributes. Some of them may be unpleasant, but I’d rather my character traits weren’t buried beneath such a shallow, uncontrollable thing as my age, like a huge pair of knockers or a big nose or male pattern baldness.

I am not just me any more; I am 39.

Civilised people frown on racism, we’re cracking down on body-shaming and sexism… well, we’re working on it. Ageism, however, is rife and even though I feel I have a long way to go before I’m actually officially old, I experience it most days. I seem to spend many conversations with younger people stealthily apologising for no longer being one of them. And of course I still want to carry on doing things I like doing: going to bars and parties and shopping and the gym. Being visible. Alive.

Sometimes the oppressive stare and bewilderment of younger people – guys especially, of course – makes me feel uncomfortable. My face, with greying hair atop, no longer fits, and that makes me feel sad.

The best I can hope for these days is that someone will ‘congratulate’ me on not looking 39. Checkout operators have ceased ironically asking me for ID when I buy Tanqueray, so I am denied even that pleasure that over-25s adore so much.

Some younger people express amazement I may be remotely knowledgable about modern life, or have opinions, or use emoji. When they find out how old I am, they change the way they speak to me. I am parent-zoned.

The world is theirs; I’m just a lodger who’s slept on the sofa too long. When am I going to find a place of my own, eh?

I don’t care that none of them want to fuck me – I have a boyfriend who does – but I do get a vibe from them (vibe, what a cringey, uncool word to use) that somehow I am less useful, less important, just generally less, because my pedometer has notched up more digits.

Older people play their part too, of course. Am I getting married? Why haven’t I bought a house yet? What about a pension? Shouldn’t I be going on more holidays? Even people in their fifties, sixties and seventies have very firm ideas about who and where I should be at 39. When did everyone get so obsessed with milestones?

Earlier this week I was alerted to a piece by a gay writer on the Peter Pan syndrome, how older gay men are ruining it for the young by refusing to grow up, continuing to go out barhopping and clubbing well into their late forties. I would rather carpet my entire house in wasps than go clubbing these days, but I was disappointed on behalf of the gay guys out there who still just want to have a good time. When did fun become the private property of the youthful?

I expected the author to be the usual kind of scribe behind these thinly veiled envy attacks – a jaded old gay man who’s finally seen the error of his ways, flushed all his coke down the toilet, found love with a similar retired clubber and moved to the country to raise poultry. But no, on closer inspection of the guy’s byline pic, it was an embryo with veneers. A young person telling us all we should grow up, buy a couple of dogs, and make some space at the bar for another droid with a 26” waist.

I laughed. I would love him to write a follow-up in, say, 25 years’ time, when he realises that there isn’t a switch you flick once you’re in your forties to turn up off the fun gene. Maybe it’s to make up for the oppression of their younger days or maybe they just don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, but there’s no age limit on having a good time. And if it’s all meaningless and they go home at night and cry because they’re not 21 any more and just want to settle down, more fool them, but that’s their choice.

They say youth is wasted on the young, but I don’t agree. I’m glad they have it, and misuse it, and devalue it and waste it. Only when they have done all that can they age – if they are lucky – and realise just how much power they had, what could’ve been, and how they let it slip through their fingers. Youth is a punishment, meted out retrospectively, when it’s long gone.

Your jokes about my old age? They are boomerangs – you’d better duck.

I don’t have a problem with younger people. Despite what I say above, I find many of them interesting and funny and smart and I love having younger friends – but only because of their character traits, not how many candles they are burning.

I’m not bitter, or drowning in cynicism. I’m just puzzled. What is the magic age where you’re still relevant but mature enough to be taken seriously? It’s the blink of an eye. I missed it. We all did. Does it matter?

The young think older people want to be them, envy them, wish they were them, but they are way off-beam. We don’t want to be you, as you are now. We want to be a younger us, with the headspace and experiences we have accrued over the years. We want all our hindsight to be foresight, our lessons learned from mistakes made. All the ways you are about to fuck up, we already did. We’re not interested in going through all that again.

The only thing you have that we desire is the luxury of time. There are still so many fantastically grown-up yet irresponsible mistakes for us to make; how ever will we fit them all in?

Image is actor Sam Worthington, who is 39 today. Happy birthday, Sam.

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My gay voice

A new documentary on the concept of “sounding gay” has been making waves in the media, and among gay men. Do I Sound Gay? investigates whether there is such a thing as “gay voice” – when it comes to men, of course – and, if so, how do we get it?

I became aware my voice was more ‘girly’ than other boys’ at a very early age. I seemed to have so many ‘tells’ when I was a child that it was difficult to rein them all in. I could just about walk into a room and sit down without it becoming obvious but the voice – oh the voice – it always let me down. I was never any good at impressions and booming out like a bullfrog wasn’t really going to fly for a seven-year-old, so instead I reverted to silence.

I stopped answering questions in the classroom, would avoid shouting out – whether in joy or misery – in the playground and would pretend I was ‘shy’ in front of grown-ups I didn’t know. And if I ever forgot myself, perhaps giving a yelp of delight or saying a word with lots of  ‘s’ sounds in it, I’d see their faces change and know I’d gone too far. A slight twist of their mouth, their attention suddenly all mine, a quizzical look across their brow, maybe. I’d failed. They knew.

Of course you can’t stay quiet for ever and by the time I got to grammar school I had at least come to accept the way I spoke. I couldn’t do much about the tone and so I kept to short statements, avoiding using too many long words, even they were bursting to get out. I effectively dumbed down in an effort not to fit in – that never interested me – but not to stand out. A ghost.

All my acting was for naught. The bullies didn’t care how little I said – it was the way that I said it.

I’ve poshed up considerably since my school days and find I now adapt the way I speak to whoever I’m speaking to. It’s a shield. I always tell myself I never had a particularly broad Yorkshire accent growing up, but if I’m on the phone to Mum, I take things more ‘Emmerdale’. When I’m trying to get my own way with the bank, it’s Mrs Slocombe on full customer-service mode.

And yet my voice is still… what is it? High? Shrill? I don’t know. It has its moments. I have to interview people a lot for my job and transcribing brings the horror back. I adopted a style I thought more laid-back, more masculine: trying to talk more slowly, experimenting with vocal fry (which is horrible – don’t do it), trying to make my mouth drier. But when I play the tapes back I hear squeaky old me again.

It reminds me of my first ever job after I left university, temping in a call centre. It was common for a bored middle-manager with soup stains on his tie to take you into a room every month and listen to one of your calls with you to give you feedback. I only had to do it once; I know I couldn’t endure it again. The manager, a Scottish premature ejaculator with a voice like an oatcake being smashed by a gavel, told me I sounded “nippy” and “like a sarcastic wifey” and that I needed to talk differently if I wanted to be taken seriously. Being taken seriously by a customer of his shitty bank was never high on my to-do list, so I took my shrill harpy of a larynx elsewhere very soon after.

But even though people tell me it isn’t, the voice is still gay. Gay gay gay. Of course it is, it belongs to me.

I hate the way it sounds and I hate the way it feels to hate it and I hate the fact that a voice like mine is something that is hated. It’s like that old camp-aversion, and straight-acting, and shrinking from the word effeminate like Dracula from garlic. What are we so ashamed of? The best I can hope for is to be mistaken for being a metrosexual.

This is what can be so nerve-wracking about being a freelancer or going to meet lots of different people: I never know how they’re going to react to my voice. The voice. While I may have dropped an octave or two – I do not actually know what an octave is, really – in my head, all I can hear is the little boy in the corner who everybody says talks like a girl. And so, in these meetings, interviews and offices, I shake their hands and wait for them to speak first. Only then can I relax.

A few months ago I met an old friend for lunch and she brought her two small children, the youngest I had never met before. They were great fun, climbing all over me and the boyfriend and trying to tell us about their bikes and schools and interrupting very single syllable of adult conversation. It was joyous. And then the youngest – a girl who does not like pink or princesses and thinks dolls are pointless – put her head to one side and asked me: “Why do you talk like a girl if you’re a boy?”

Of course, we laughed and I shrugged and said something like, “I don’t know. Some boys sound like girls” and that was that. But I was amazed it had followed me all the way out of every classroom and assembly hall and horrific PE changing room and come to bite me on the still kind of pert behind thirty-odd years later.

But I won’t be silenced; I’ve got too much to say. My voice isn’t a problem, my own insecurities are, and it’s time to shed those old albatrosses. If people click that I’m gay straightaway, so what? Being gay’s really cool – I reckon you should give it a go. Not that I’m offering.

And, yes, if I said all that out loud it probably would sound kind of gay.

Deal with it, dearie.

More like this:
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Why I’m finally getting over my Christmas birthday bitterness
Sorry, ‘straight-acting’ boys, but gay stereotypes exist despite you… get over it

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25 terrible men you should never date

Dating blogs are full of advice and this one is no exception.

All the others talk nonsense though – about rules you should follow and how you have to do X so that you look more Y. Ignore them all. Disconnect the internet. You need only one piece of dating advice today. And it is this.

You should never date a man who…

1. Tells you that you have the same number of hours in a day as Beyoncé.

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If he ever presents you with this mug, introduce it to his face.

2. Barely gives dead relatives a second thought but still mourns separate lemon & lime flavours in Opal Fruits.

3. Skips past Sugababes’ Stronger when it comes on the iPod.
Or iPhone or whatever. Maybe he still has a Zune. Actually, don’t date a guy who still has a Zune. Anyway, Stronger is unskippable.

4. Refuses to acknowledge his own coffee-breath.
And worst of all, offers you gum as if it’s you who’s dying of halitosis.

5. Describes himself as #teamtaken.
Unless…

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6. Sends e-cards.

7. Likes Kylie but is too embarrassed to admit he likes Kylie.
Ditto the guy who thinks liking Kylie is a “gay cliché”. So is being a champion of internalised homophobia and socially toxic.

8. Substitutes biceps for a personality.

9. Thinks there’s anything wrong with spending the first half of January blind drunk.
“Dry January” = dry crotch.

10. Is rude to waiters in an effort to impress.

11. Drinks “brosé” or even thinks it’s a thing.
It’s just wine, you fragile, masculine ball of boring.

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12. Has been on Tubecrush.
Let’s be real, he probably sent the picture in himself.

13. Takes their tea “as it comes”.
It comes dashed in your face by someone who just wants you to tell them what way you’d like your fucking tea.

14. Tweets at large for food to be brought to him in bed.

15. Flirts with waiters.

16. Says “Om nom nom”.
Unless…

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17. Closes a text with a capital X for a kiss.
It means he doesn’t care about you. Seriously. I have done all the science and everything.

18. Still slags off his ex even though they split up a decade ago.

19. Says “Friday beerage” and calls a barman “bar-keep”.

20. Blurts out “Actually I think Katie Hopkins has a point” just because nobody’s looked at him for 10 minutes.

21. Sees this in iMessage but carries on typing anyway. 

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22. Thinks the past tense of “text” is also “text”.

23. Cares whether the milk goes in before or after.

24. Says things like “I don’t really do jealousy” because, holy hell, he is a massive liar.

25. Writes listicles like these and expects anyone to take them seriously.
He’s a loser. Good kisser, though.

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21 people you should never kiss at festivals
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Why being 39 ruined going to the hairdresser for me

I used to love going to the hairdresser. And, yes, I mean the hairdresser – a salon.

Gleaming floor tiles, with sparkly bits. Asymmetric-haired (and faced) receptionists alternating between flicking through copies of Vogue and leaflets on chlamydia. Shelf upon shelf of brightly coloured product that would “change my life”, destined to make me part with north of £40 and to lie unused and unloved in my bathroom cabinet after two or three disappointing washes.

Going to get my hair styled was an event. I have never been one for pampering because I don’t understand it – it seems like a lot of nenetting around covered in goo to me, and if I wanted a sauna like that I hear Chariots is still going. And yet getting my hair “did”, to use culturally appropriated vernacular popular on social media, was my one concession to luxury. Money was no object – and certainly left my wallet swiftly enough – and having my hair pawed by good-looking people while I sipped a complimentary glass of “fizz” was one of my very favourite ways to spend time in my twenties and early thirties.

I didn’t have haircuts, I had styles. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try, any scissor-wielding or treatment I would shy away from. I had it relaxed, lines shaved in the side, a series of unfortunate mullets that have ruined every photo of me in existence from 2004–2006. As someone who is, at best, average-looking and at worst a genuine milk-curdler, my hair was always my crowning glory. Thick and bountiful and able to grow at an alarming rate, my hair bravery lifted me from a “meh” to a “mmmmmaybe” and that was enough for me.

Sitting in the stylist’s chair is probably the longest time you spend in front of  mirror without being accused of being too vain. In that 30–45 minutes or so you’re under their control, you get to check out your profile, decide which is your “best side” (the back, in my case) and even practise your reaction faces. My surprised face, my horrified look and my evil smirk all come from years spent turning this way and that in front of a crimper’s mirror. I would stare into the looking-glass and, as the scissors went about their business, gradually see a version of me that was a definite improvement.

Then something changed. Time passed.

As the years advanced and my hair greyed and my eyes receded into fleshy, lined pillows, I didn’t stare in the mirror so much. And if I did, it was to worry, not admire.

It was, then, only when I had my hair cut that I was confronted with this bizarre reenactment of myself I don’t recognise, drawn from memory by a forgetful child with only half a crayon, and on a rollercoaster.

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By this time, I had graduated to going to a barber, leaving behind my shiny sleek salons once I finally got sick of being up-sold shampoo and given yet another generic hairdo straight out of the Hoxton catalogue. No more racing to Jason in Pimpos & Pinups (no word of a lie) for 45 minutes of magic with a razor cut and handing over £50 for me.

Getting my hair done had become a chore. Instead of decadence and decoration, it started to feel functional. Like maintenance. An irritation I needed to get out of the way, causing only more annoyance when I couldn’t get an appointment, so I had to go where I knew I’d be able to get the chop straightaway. It was time to go to a barber. I had decided to play at being a grownup – and a rather dreary heterosexualish one at that.

My formerly luxurious styling session was now reduced to 15–20 minutes of efficient, wordless shearing in front of a terrifying circus mirror. The fragrance of my youth now a three-day-old pong after you’ve had smoked haddock for tea. There are great barbers out there, I know, and for a while I did have a great young guy called Jam (I don’t know why) who would congratulate me on having thick hair (every hairdresser I have ever sat in front of ever ever ever has done this) and laugh off my suggestion that my mop was greyer than John Major’s scrotum. However, when Jam moved on, as they always do, I was at the mercy of a series of butchers who couldn’t wait to get on their lunch-break.

Once you hit, I don’t know, 36 or 37, hair styles are no longer available to you. Doing something a little different is for young people or Zandra Rhodes. You find yourself reading blogs about the best haircut for your shape of face. In fact, ‘haircuts’ is what you have once middle-age comes canvassing at your doorstep – ‘hairstyles’ are not for you. And so my hair, once the cherry on top, became a shadow of its former self.

But today I made a stand. Sick of listening to a queue of masc4masc super manly men hacking their guts up into a copy of Metro while I get my hair trimmed, I went into a salon. A real salon. I didn’t have to wait, and a gay man with arms inscribed with tattoos like the Rosetta stone asked me what I wanted and talked to me about my hair for four whole minutes. Then he pointed out what previous barbers had done wrong. “It is… mushroom,” he said in his unplaceable, yet amiable, accent. He offered me a latte. A bored model swept the floor in the background. I felt home again.

He clipped and trimmed and thinned and fluffed and then sent me in the back to get my hair washed by yet another gay man – Marcello – who said he liked my “salt and pepper”. The chair I sat in was a “massage chair”, which malfunctioned and pummelled my arsehole for three minutes straight while Marcello hummed Anaconda and lathered my barnet with all manner of ridiculous unnecessary concoctions. And yet this did not take the shine off my experience.

As my hair was finally styled, I realised, yes, it looked the same as it had four weeks ago when a different barber had got its hands on it, but I felt anew, changed. I handed over the money, only £9 more than my usual barber, received a loyalty card and strode out feeling that maybe I didn’t have to bow to middle-aged norms after all. I can still have salons.

And yes, I look like a badly cryogenically aged version of myself in the mirror, but inside I felt like me. While I have hair, I’m going to treat it to that experience as often as I can. Hairstyles: you will be mine.

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The Parent Trap

Five minutes ago, my date called me a DILF. I heard it quite clearly.

It was supposed to be a compliment.

I know this because my date purred the acronym at me and ran his finger across his mouth, like a negligee brushing against a closing bedroom door.

A DILF. I am 35 years old. I’m not really sure what kind of D I would have to be to have accrued enough years to F somebody young enough to be my son without being arrested, but it is clear my date’s strength lies in buzzwords he has read in listicles, not mathematics.

“Maybe I’ve got daddy issues,” he laughs, each of his 27 years peeling away like the skin of an onion – before my very eyes he is regressing to A-level student.

He thinks this is sexy. He thinks I have a fetish for younger men. He doesn’t realise that he’s not really young enough to be a kink.

He laughs, gurgling like a waste disposal trying to make sense of a baked potato. I should speak before he does it again.

“I’ve heard about the daddy thing,” I say, smiling like a cat who has just spotted the cage to the family hamster’s cage is open. “But I thought it was more about older men and other guys much younger than them. People in their 50s and 60s carousing with twinks.”

“Caroooooousing,” he mimics. He thinks he’s Kaa from the Jungle Book, charming me into submission. He is one half of King Louie’s coconut-shell bra at best. “Twinks!” he mocks again.

“Well, you know what I mean,” I reply, leaning forward in the most uncomfortable seat in the world. I feel a spasm in my back, but conceal this dreary side effect of old age – I don’t want to feed his supposed fetish any more than I have to.

I continue. “I don’t think I’m quite in the DILF territory yet. And neither are you.” He looks up from his cloudy guest ale in surprise.

“Well,” I exclaim. “It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that I’d have seen you in the dinner queue at school.”

“I’m eight years younger than you!”

I knot my knuckles. “Well, if I’d repeated a year. Why does age matter to you so much? You’re young. You have plenty of time to obsess over it when you’re an old wreck like me.”

He stares into middle distance sadly and tells me how old he feels. How everyone at work seems younger and more ambitious, while he plugs away, getting nowhere. It’s a familiar tale, but not exactly ideal date chat. Welcome to adulthood, junior.

“So why would you go on dates with an older man?” I ask. This is our second meeting.

He looks at me like a concerned relative hovering by a life support machine, desperately trying to extract my bank details.

“I suppose it makes me feel better to know that there are people out there older than me in the same boat, who still haven’t figured things out. Still drifting, not achieving. Know what I mean?”

Indeed I do, the little shit. I raise my glass and we clink them and smile.

I know then it’s the last time I see him. But I won’t let him go until he appreciates the added bonus of being older – experience. And when I accept that inevitable invitation back to his flatshare in a postcode you need a police escort to enter, I’ll take great pleasure in showing him.

I lean over again, ignoring the twinge in my back once more. “How about you get the bill,” I say, brightly. “Treat your old dad for a change, eh?”

Note: I originally wrote most of this post years ago but never finished it, stumbling across it only this morning – true story. I’m not sure why I abandoned it; perhaps I thought this word-for-word account might compromise my anonymity. Anyway, I barely even remember what the guy looked like and don’t give a shit now so here it is.

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The Seventh

I am not supposed to be here.

That’s almost all I can think as I run as fast as I can away from Tavistock Square. It is 7 July 2005. I am not supposed to be here.

I am supposed to be at work. I never come this way. Why am I here today?

What if I’m running straight into another explosion?

Context: 7 July 2005 has been weird from the very moment I stepped out of my front door. The Tube station was shut, I had to get a bus to another, unfamiliar one and try all manner of complicated routes to find myself at Warren Street being told the line is now closed and I have to get off the Tube.

I am a worrier by nature. I hate to be late and I hate to be hot and I hate to be bothered and today I am all three and if these are the biggest worries I will have all day then things can only get better. Or so I think.

And so I get on a bus on Euston Road. It is the 73. It will eventually take me to my office on Essex Road, but the traffic in front is so heavy; I’ve never seen anything like it before. I look at my watch. I am so horrifically late.

I turn my head that way and this, craning my neck as if staring at the traffic will magically move it out of the way. My telekinesis failing miserably, I give up. A number 30 bus turns off to the right ahead of me.

When things like this happen – weirdly heavy traffic, the Tube system disintegrating before your eyes – you don’t think something big is afoot somewhere, that it’s affecting other people.

Instead you become a newborn baby, at the centre of your own universe and furious that this is happening to you right now, right here. It is all about you. Nobody has ever been inconvenienced as much as you. This is the last day I will ever think like this.

The bus is not moving. This is pointless. I get off by Euston Square and resolve to walk to Angel. I phone my mum, and we bitch about traffic and London and buses and relatives we don’t talk to any more.

It is not sunny, but it is warm and muggy. As I am updating my mother on the weather, I see Euston Road is being cordoned off by the fire brigade. They’re not letting pedestrians through.

All the traffic is being diverted down Upper Woburn Place and it seems we must now follow it. There are grumbling from hacked-off commuters. “That’s the only way round, I’m afraid,” says a fireman, pointing down toward what I now know to be Tavistock Square. “That’ll be the quickest way for you. Everything shut at King’s Cross.”

And of course he is unaware what he is sending us to but of course we all are and I am not even supposed to be here. When am I ever on this street at this time of day? Never.

And then.

On TV, explosions are huge, impressive fireballs. Booming, crashing, spectacular. Witnesses, who usually know the blast is coming thanks to pages and pages of script foreshadowing it, look on in shock and awe, rooted to the spot by this tragic and dangerous, yet strangely beautiful, inferno.

Real life is not TV.

There is a dullish thud, a crackle and then a crunching sound and a taste in my mouth that I don’t recognise and a souring of the air. I become unsteady on my feet because my ears feel a bit funny. And even though I have never, ever heard that sound before in person, I know instinctively what it is. I have not seen what has exploded but I know something has exploded and then there is dust and the sound echoes off the buildings and now people are running.

I realise I am still on the phone to my mother. She is saying my name over and over. “What is it? Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I say. “And I have to go. I have to run.” And I hang up. I start running.

Terrorism has a power that nobody really talks about – it’s not just the footage of blood-smeared faces or smoke billowing from stations or row after row of police officers barking orders into walkie-talkies. It’s the very real sense of not knowing what is going to happen next, but having the unnerving feeling that it will, in some way, involve you.

I run back up Upper Woburn Place and streak straight across Euston Road without even checking for any traffic and up Eversholt Street. I could run over lava. Crowds of us, running.

I phone my boyfriend as I run but it’s too hard to explain because I don’t really know what is happening and why I’m here and where I am going to go and we are cut off.

I assume I am going to be dead before I reach the end of the street. All I can think about, apart from the fact I am not supposed to be here, is the bombing in Omagh – a device went off at one end of the street and everyone ran away from it straight into another one at the opposite end.

What is going to happen to me what is going to happen to me what is going to happen to me? And when?

I do not want to stop but I do not want to be alone and so, while I run, I get out my phone and call work to let them know something has happened and I don’t know what and that I am running. Perhaps if social media had been as prevalent then I would’ve tweeted – maybe I really would have been that much of an arsehole, but I doubt it.

I breathlessly tell a colleague that something has blown up and that I am running, but it is not the person I was hoping would answer the phone – the soothing, level-headed office manager who I sit beside – and I can see a woman having a panic attack so I hang up and go over to her.

The woman is crying hysterically and is shoeless. Leaning against a wall, as everyone rushes by, shouting to get out of the way, she clutches her chest as I reach her.

“What’s happening?” she says, her chest heaving with sobs. “What am I going to do?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. But we have to run.”

She shakes her head. I want to stay a while. Well, I say for a while – this is all happening in milliseconds, but she decides to run off down a different street and so I carry on, surprised by how fast I can go. Wondering if I will ever stop.

People coming the other way try to ask us what is happening. I don’t say anything but motion with my hands that they should turn around, while others running shout their theories. But they don’t stop.

Some runners start to slow after a while but I do not stop again until I reach Mornington Crescent Tube station, where I fall against the wall, hyperventilating, retching as I try to stand.

My phone buzzes. Missed calls. Mum. Dad. Friends. Work. Something big is happening.

Mum finally gets through and tells me the news is saying there has been an electrical surge on the Tube network. I tell her that doesn’t make sense; I was above ground. Something blew up.

As we talk, her voice then starts to become strained and strangely melodic. I now recognise this as panic, worry. “You need to get out of there,” she says. “There’s pictures. On the news. It’s a bomb. There’s a bus. It was a bus. Don’t get on a bus.”

I don’t know what to do.

I stumble along Camden High Street in a daze, finally stopping at the really ugly Sainsbury’s. I feel sick and lost. I talk to some girls who’d also been running. They’re crying. I can’t remember what they say, how I reply. We babble, brimming with adrenaline and shock. We feel lucky but scared; it doesn’t feel over.

The office manager calls me, her voice calm and reassuring. I tell her I am too frightened to get on a bus, that I don’t know where to go. My boss is coming to get me, she says. I am not to move a muscle. I don’t.

He eventually arrives in his huge, petrol guzzling, errrr, big black car – I am not a motoring expert, so sue me – and surveys me as I open the door.

“Bleedin’ ‘ell,” he chirps. “You look green.” And I laugh and it feels so good to laugh, then I feel guilty for laughing when others cannot.

And it is 10:30 in the morning but I can’t wait to get drunk.

The main image is from Flickr and shows the 7 July memorial in Hyde Park

The Fifth

I started my blog five years ago today.

It was hot outside – though not as hot as today – and I was sitting in my tiny, muggy top-floor flat, baking gently on Gas Mark Bored. I was probably wearing just my underwear, which would be a terrifying proposition now, but back then I was 34 and ran every day and hardly ever ate because I had forgotten how to cook for one.

I don’t know for sure, but, if I know me then, there will have been washing up in the sink.

I was feeling sad and a little bit lonely and like everything was possible and yet nothing was.

I remember a thing on Twitter a while ago where people would tweet about what they’d say to their 16-year-old selves. I wouldn’t say anything; 16-year-old me would not be interested in anything anyone my age had to say, but also, any words of encouragement I would have for this awkward teenager would feel false. I’d be too much of a coward to tell him how hard things were going to be, and that being himself probably wasn’t an option for quite a while. How to explain to someone enduring the 1990s in Yorkshire that things would one day be really great, but for a long time they’d be awful? He’d give up, he’d never try. He wouldn’t believe.

So instead of time-travelling to my badly decorated wankpit of my teenage years, I’d instead transport myself to 2010, the day I started the blog.

After I had told 34-year-old me to stop screaming at the amount of grey hair he would have in five years’ time, and explained where that runner’s body had gone – “Have you been eating BREAD?!?” he would no doubt yell in horror – I would ask what he was planning to do that day, whether he’d thought any more doing that blog.

I know he is having that conversation in his head already, because I had it myself, of course. The blog had no aim other than to make my best friend, who had just moved thousands of miles away, laugh. She would ask about my dates – I had only been on a few at that point – and on hearing my replies, say I should keep a diary of them all. I wasn’t interested in making it public, really – I was already going pretty well in my freelancing career and the blog didn’t fit in at all with my other work.

But maybe I could be anonymous and speak freely and, of course, with my own anonymity preserve that of the men I dated. I was coming home from these dates disappointed both with the guys and with myself, play-acting my way through three hours of drinks, which I did with tens of unsuitable men, and after I shut the front door behind me, I would have nobody to talk about them with, so all my self-doubt and sadness whirled around in my head, and I couldn’t see it changing any time soon. The present can be blinding.

I have always written my way out of dark and confusing places. It couldn’t hurt to do it one more time, could it?

So what would I say to the 2010 me, about to sign up to WordPress and put it all out there for precisely nobody to see for their first few months or so?

Would I tell myself not to do it?

Would I warn myself that people would accuse me of wanting to be Carrie Bradshaw (a fucking ridiculous thing to say – Carrie Bradshaw is an idiot – and mostly levelled at me by people who have never read the blog or misunderstood it)?

Would I tell myself that it would make people angry, even those who’d never been on the dates? Would I warn 2010 me that men would proposition him, or want him to write about them?

Maybe I should tell myself how divisive it would be, and how people may not understand that it wasn’t about making me sound superior, that they wouldn’t read closely and see that the blog was as much about my being a disaster as anyone else?

Would I mention that the bad dates would get darker and the good dates sparser, that sometimes I would sit staring at a laptop with a tear in my eye trying to make sense of what had just happened?

Would I remind myself these were real people’s lives and that I would at times come across as selfish and spoiled and blinkered and judgemental and stupid and sneery and self-absorbed?

Would I perk myself up by talking about all the brilliant people he would meet – virtually and in real life – because of it, and how lots of them would read it and identify with it and love it and root for me and give me encouragement to try just one more date?

Would I say how  eventually it would lead to falling in love?

No, I wouldn’t say any of that. Why should the 2010 version of me get a break? I’d find all this out soon enough.

I’d say just that he should definitely do it. The whole point of writing is to be read; I’d definitely remind myself of that.

But make it funnier, I’d say. And don’t call it “Guyliner” – you’ll come to regret that one day.

Then I’d tell him to put a fucking shirt on because he was making me envious.

And hopefully, because although this is a slightly sad, historical version of me, it is still me, I would tell my future self to fuck off and mind its own business, because I am going to do it his way, thank you very much, and if you don’t like it, you can ping on back to the future and sort out those fucking love handles, you thirsty old dog.

If you’ve read my blog over the last five years, thank you.

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