‘Are you going to a wedding?’ my colleague asked the other Tuesday morning.
‘I’ve never seen you looking so smart.’ Then she burst into hysterical laughter, slapping her knee with unrestrained glee.
I have, it appears, something of a reputation for scruffiness. One that, to be honest, is well founded. My shirts are frequently rumpled. My face often cast by a few days of shadow. My hair ruffled to varying degrees depending upon how many seconds I have in front of the mirror that morning. I may well own some shoe polish, but I’ve long lost it. Outside of the work place, the theme continues with my shirts open a couple of buttons too many, scuffed trouser rims, holes here and there and a general sense of being dishevelled.
I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time I cared and whilst, it could be argued, I frequently failed at I least tried. But what began as a money saving exercise during my Masters became more of a way of life. I developed a determination that appearance required time and time was something precious. If my degree wasn’t going to gift me a book deal and I had to go back to work, then I wasn’t going to waste additional minutes ironing when I could be writing.
Deep down I always knew it would be like this. That is to say it would be hard. Objectively I understood that most things worthwhile doing are difficult. At no point did I genuinely believe that a career of letters, writing and general self-indulgence in being lost inside my head beckoned and all I had to do was spend a year talking pretentiously about words to enable it. That would be silly. But then I do like to dream.
Daydreams, unfortunately, have been somewhat omnipresent in my life. I am far too willing for my imagination to slip away from wherever I am supposed to be and to wonder about somewhere else; another time, another place, another person I might have been. Which is ridiculous. My lot in life is pretty good, and yet I’ve always been like this.
I remember quite clearly attending first year junior school, when I would have been seven or eight years old. One wall of the class room was entirely taken up by a window, from lino floor to stained ceiling, from blackboard to dented lockers. The teacher was of the old style where rote and repetition was the basis of learning. And so on she droned; on and on about, well, who knows. Whatever seven year olds were supposed to learn in 1986. I don’t remember, but I do recall looking out the window towards the playground and the sloping grass bank that ran alongside the school and thinking about all the things that the slope could be. Covered in snow and sledged along. Skidded down in wet grass. A point of momentum for the terrorists who were coming to seize control of the school and hold the area at gunpoint until a valiant resistance, spearheaded by myself, could wrest control of some of their weapons and lead a fight-back.
For some reason, that later scenario was a daydream I often indulged in. I cast myself as the seven year old hero who gets the girl and beats the baddies.
I was something of a strange child.
But I digress (sort of). Let’s return to me sitting and gazing out the window, completely lost in the scene unfolding inside my head. Ow! A sharp slap across the back of the skull snaps me back into the tedium of school life and the dream is not broken, but paused, ready to be restarted the next moment reality gets a bit too much.
I was bored and I wanted something more exciting to happen. Something so exciting that life would never be the same again.
It was a problem that persisted long after I should have grown out of it.
When I was a teenager I spent hours meandering around the local streets (usually delivering newspapers to be entirely fair to myself) submerged in dreams of what if and glory. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band. I wanted to write stories. I wanted to act. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to burn out and be finished by my mid-twenties. I wanted to be the centre of everyone’s attention and for them to love me for it and to miss me when I was gone. Daydreams were solace to hide in. The problem was, aside from some pretentious short stories and scripts for comics I was too talentless to draw, I didn’t really do anything about it. Certainly, I expended far greater effort in the imaging than in the actual doing.
Inertia was never really going to make me popular with the girls.
This attitude persisted into adulthood. Maybe it was inevitable given the long periods of time life made available when I could be thinking about what might else have been. Long lonely drives across the country, almost moving the car subconsciously, my mind not really there but wistfully imagining whilst a more rewarding life. Or the hours spent hiking when the weather closes in and you pull inside your waterproofs and conversation evaporates as you mechanically concentrate on one foot in the front of the other. But there’s still space in your head for unrealised aspirations, to wonder of different futures and maybes and perhaps and what would have happened if I’d done it first or differently, said no, or stepped left.
Eventually, I did do something about it. Despite the long hours of my day job, I began to write more diligently. I put in time every night and most weekends, submerged myself and dragged the things in my head out onto the page. I even got some results. I told myself to go for it properly, to stop thinking and start doing. I told myself time and again that it wouldn’t easy, that it would require effort and disappointment and grief and frustration and maybe even a little blood. But I couldn’t stop myself.
During my year of self-indulgence, I would writing in the mornings and then go for long afternoon walks, ostensibly to compose “lyrical masterpieces” in my head, but almost inevitably my mind would empty and either the latest domestic issue – needing to service the car, or paint the bedroom properly, or what to have for dinner – would trickle in and once that was clear, well then there would just be the void. The imaginative chasm which would slowly flood with first a completed manuscript and then an excited call from the agent I’d sent it to and then, finally, an actual, real printed novel bearing my name at the masthead.
My dreams would come true.
That is, if they weren’t just dreams.
I sit now at my new desk in my new flat. Somewhere amongst my files is a growing stack of rejection slips. I thought that I’d done the hard bit. I’ve completed a manuscript, but now the dreamy bit doesn’t seem to be happening. The truth is that I’m not trying hard enough. I haven’t sent out any pitches for months allegedly because I didn’t know where I’d be living.
Here, I’ll tell you a secret. The real reason is that I’m scared that when I’ve sent it to everyone the dream will still be just that; nothing.
At the moment there is still possibility, although of most intangible unrealistic variety.
But there’s a new home and another new, better life. I have more chance than many if I have the determination. On the way home from work this evening I glanced over a fellow commuter’s shoulder at the magazine they were holding. The cover said ‘What chance does Amanda Knox have for the life she dreamed of?’ Maybe the question should be about Meredith Kercher’s dreams, but the comparison shames me. It’s time to get my act together. It’s time to reboot. I’ve been spending too much time on the fun stuff, the making shit up, the actual writing and avoiding not the difficult, scary part where I try to force other people to read my work.
It’s time to smarten myself up. So, I’ve been ironing hot creases into my shirts, I’ve been shaving most days, I’ve started to take care in my appearance not because I am giving up and returning to the office career trajectory, but simply because it is time to take myself seriously. It is time to do, rather than looking for excuses to keep on dreaming.
The razor bites into the hair on my chin; the new blade wrenches the follicle from the root. Underneath the flesh is raw and the splashed water and alcohol on my face stings. Nice and sharp.
Like lemon and gin in the open wound.
Like jealous nails gouging for the eyes.
Like used syringes in the ice cream.
It’s time to wake up.