I had a friend who was leaving London and throwing a leaving party to get together with her London friends one last time. She said something that stuck has with me.
(Something apart from useful tips on shipping the contents of your house to Australia and what you can and can’t sell on Ebay or Gumtree when you’re clearing out your house prior to shipping your life.)
“When you live in London, you’re living a Peter Pan kind of life. It’s not a grown up kind of life. You don’t realise that in other places, people you knew are growing up, building careers, getting married, having kids.”
I think about this a lot. I especially think about all the friends we had when we first lived here in our twenties, how now me and husband and one friend are all that are left – the lost children who never grew up. Everyone else moved out or moved home or had their visas expire or got married or got jobs elsewhere or decided to have kids but didn’t want to raise them in London. But we stayed. And stayed.
I’m sure there are people I know who spent the 1990s working hard in their jobs, building their careers, establishing serious relationships, having children. But I was not one of them.
I spent the 1990s changing address every six months or so, working a series of (mostly) crappy jobs (sometimes two at a time if the day job didn’t pay enough), living in a series of (mostly) crappy shared accommodations, buying clothes from charity shops, eating cheaply and saving money as much money as I could so I could travel.
I remember visiting back in Australia after three years away, and getting a call from someone I know from school who might consider herself my friend but who I consider my nemesis. She was the kind of “friend” who would talk to you in a social setting until someone of higher status came along and then she would walk off – mid-sentence sometimes – to talk to the higher status person. Let’s call her Fatima (not her real name). She spent the call talking about herself, her job, all the little status things that came with her job (title, car, office). Things that frankly, I didn’t give a shit about, but that probably went over really well with those high status people she was always trying to suck up to.
“I’m going travelling for three months,” I said. In the crowd I’d been hanging with back in the UK, this would have been worth some serious kudos. People would have wanted to know where I was going, how long had it taken me to save up for that, what kind of plans I’d made, did I have to get visas, etc. But Fatima didn’t understand it. “Um,” she said, and then went back to talking about her status things.
By that time, I think my parents had got used to my unstable lifestyle. I guess perhaps for them to say, “She’s living in England / Scotland” (depending on the year) must have had some kudos of its own. When my mother asked me what Fatima was doing, and I told her that she went on and on about her title, her car, her office, my mother rolled her eyes, knowing Fatima “was always like that.”
Tellingly, the one personal thing she’d told me – that she was seeing someone – revealed the shape of the cage she was living in. “He hasn’t met my parents,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper. “He’s not Catholic. And that’s the first thing Mum will ask him.” Poor Fatima, living in a cage of family expectation that she would have a Good Job, then meet a Good Boy, and then get married and raise a Lovely Family. She probably didn’t ever think about a life outside of the lines.
And in comparison there’s me. Did well at school but then signed up for some university course that no-one in my family understood. (“Don’t you want to be a teacher like your sisters?”) Then when I graduated and just when it looked like I had a real job, I quit it to go to India on a graduate exchange programme for three months. When that experience crashed, I decided I couldn’t go back home yet, so I flew to the UK and didn’t return to Australia for three and a half years. In between I had at least seven different addresses (that I can remember) and more jobs that I can remember. None of which offered me a prestigious title, my own office or a car, but despite occasional money worries and uncertainly around living arrangements, I think I was happy. Fatima would have been horrified.
I do have a proper job now. A proper grown up job where I have responsibilities. Sometimes I even lie awake at night worrying about work-related things, despite the advice from one of my first bosses here: “What does it matter? At the end of the day, no-one is going to die if this doesn’t get done.” (So true. None of us are qualified medical personnel who could actually save someone’s life, so why do we get so caught up in minutiae and details that don’t really matter? Apart from it being what we’re paid to do, of course.)
Maybe one day I’ll accept that I’m living my actual grown up life. Or maybe one day I’ll fly off to Never-Never land. In the meantime, I carry on in this pretend grown up life. My Peter Pan kind of life.