Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Magic of The Cuppa.

It’s a stupid British stereotype that all of our problems can be solved by just one cup of tea; I’m guessing it must have come about some time around the war era, when women wore the cutest little picnic party dresses and would use tea dates to socialise and appease in equal measure. For years, relatives and old friends would meet up and converse, catch up and mediate over cups and mugs; my family all do our best to arrange a tea-date every other weekend, usually in the grandparents’ conservatory, with leftover Christmas napkins on our laps and a steaming cafetière on the fold-out coffee table, ready to do our bidding and give us a buzz. 

Social media gets clogged up more and more nowadays with images of pretty-patterned teacups and plates of cupcakes, endless posts celebrating the miracle properties of a bag of leaves soaked in boiling water with a teaspoon of sugar and a little sloshing of milk.
Over the past few years, we’ve been putting an American phrase into play when we ask someone out casually: “Fancy a coffee sometime?” – this wouldn’t have worked for me as such – the guy I fancied was a barista at my coffee joint of choice – but it’s generally a foolproof flirty suggestion.
Why, though? I’ll tell you why I think it is…a coffee date can be anything you want it to be.
I recently advised a friend of mine, let’s call him Chad, on the best way to ask a girl out without endangering a burgeoning friendship – invite her out for a cuppa. Meet up in town, have a wander about, browse some shops if you must, then set up camp on a comfy leather sofa in your favourite cafe, get double-shot lattes (to ensure there’s enough energy between you, no awkward yawning during conversations – hot chocolates with extra cream and chocolate stirring sticks also work for this, sugar highs are not to be underestimated), and have a nice natter. See if the conversation gets going, takes flight; see if the first casual cup becomes a second round, or a boozy beverage later on in the day, or even a table for two in the local eatery. You never know…
I love coffee dates. There’s something about steamed milk and perfected espresso; something about holding a cup in your hands and looking over at someone as you bring it to your lips…it gives me peace. The sceptics in this world will claim it’s simply the comfort of having your hands occupied with something as you talk, and that the same could be said for rolling and smoking, completing a puzzle or juggling flaming batons…maybe.
I personally believe it’s the powers of the bevvies.
This is partly why I love my current occupation so much – I get to serve the miracle brews and see them work their magic. Later on, when I’m washing up cups and saucers, I often wonder if my humble creations have assisted the paying public masses in talking through issues they’re having with one another, getting to grips with a new job, seeing if a spark will ignite, or just waking up in the morning.
Now, while we’re talking (or rather, I’m preaching) about the wonders of the cuppa, I feel it’s necessary to set some firm ground rules and gentle guidelines for any hot drink date:
If they buy the first round, you buy the second. Same rule applies in the pub. If you’ve been sitting awhile with empty mugs before you, conversation still flowing and no sign of leaving the cafe within the next half hour, take the initiative and offer a refresher. Okay, fair enough if it’s five of you crushed around a tiny table and wedged awkwardly in place on chairs stolen from other tables – then you’re off the hook. But if it’s just the two, or maybe three, of you…at least offer. And maybe if they decline, or it looks like there’s no time, just say ‘okay, I’ll owe you one’ (then try and remember you said that the next time you meet up and grab a cuppa to go, right?).
Don’t make a massive point of ordering a ‘skinny one’. Fair enough if you prefer skimmed milk and order it every time without fail, but don’t add on a panicked ‘SKINNY PLEASE, SKINNY!’ as your barista turns to pour out some milk for your order. People in the queue (and often behind the bar) will quietly roll their eyes at you. Just slip it into the initial order – “small skinny latte, please”. Simple as.
If you take a photo of your cups, for Instagram purposes, maybe let your date/colleague/mother know. Not only is it super annoying if they don’t realise you’re trying to get a perfect pic of untouched cuppas and immediately snatch up their beverage just as your camera clicks, but sometimes logging into Facey B/Insta/Twits later on and seeing your drink (and knees, usually) were papped without your consent can be a little unnerving. Now I won’t lie, as a barista, I personally aspire to be so good at making cappuccinos that someday someone will take a photo of, attacking it with filters and soft focus and uploading it for all to see. So by all means do it...just be upfront about it. Acknowledge your shameless hipster tendencies.
Know your limits. Again, same as in the pub; know how many cups you can have before you either shoot through the ceiling, shake so violently you cause an earthquake, or soak through your trousers with steaming caffeinated pee.
At some point in your life, try and date a barista. You won’t regret it. They know when something’s just hot enough, they have the best idiot-customer stories, they always smell delicious and they’ll clean until it sparkles. They can also hook you up with the good stuff and they know the way you like it…I think that Lorelai Gilmore made a noble and ingenious decision when she kick-started a real relationship with Luke Danes. Not only is he hunky as can be, beautifully sensible and astoundingly generous – he also makes the best coffee in town. She had the right idea.
Follow these rules and you’re golden. For those of you at home reading along and still not convinced, still not enamoured with espresso or yearning for that one perfect shade of Earl Grey, stop lying to yourself.
The sooner we accept this fact, the better: countless life problems can be solved simply by boiling the kettle. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

That's the gospel........ Youth!

Once upon a time, a group of wee teen gals sat in a box bedroom giggling and ogling and flicking their floppy straightened side-fringes out of their eyes as they browsed MySpace. The friend whose house it was had an older sister coming back and forth from her adjoining room with rollers in her hair and plummy lippy being rigorously applied at regular intervals; she was suggesting bands and solo artists we might like who had pages on the site, and we were searching and reviewing each one. 
That was how we stumbled upon Fleeing From Finales, and a rather lush lead singer named Samuel Little.

I had the biggest crush on Sam all through my early teen years; in the sense that I just wanted him to come round my house, cuddle up with me on the sofa under my loft-bed and play pretty things on the guitar until we fell asleep at 9:30pm. 
Now, at 21, I still have major feels for this lad, but in a more mature sense. I'd go on the razz with him any night of the week - we'd share too many bottles of rum and cackle happily about nothing as we stumbled home. I'd tag along when he went to get more ink, and he'd advise me about what to wear when going to a gig.

Over a year ago I met a fella and took a shine to him. It seemed he liked everything I liked - City & Colour, Jack Daniels, skinny jeans and band tees, cute kittens...
Then one night when we were mid-text convo, I saw a tweet from Samuel saying he'd be in Southampton soon. I replied excitedly saying 'that's like just down the road from me at uni OMGGG', totally cool as per, and my crush texted to say 'You like Sam Little? You ARE perfect.'
To which I replied 'YOU like Little? I know him, he's in my hometown!'
I was amazed that this boy from the distant and oh-so Northern Middlesbrough also found solace in Sam's jams; not only did that mean I'd found true kismet romance, but it also meant that somehow Samuel Little/Fleeing From Finales/Eat Sleep Attack had found his way up the M1 to the deep dark North. Epic! 

Now I must admit I get majorly shy and always pussy out of exchanging a simple howdy whenever I see Mr Little in public - much like I would if I saw Tom Delonge, Hayley Williams, or Patrick Stump. I'd freak out and jump in a handy nearby bush. 
Liking photos on Instagram or commenting on Facey B is the best I can do for now to express my eternal admiration and friendship. Maybe sometime we'll bump into each other as we have before on an impromptu night out, and I'll chatter away happily thanks to the Dutch courage. Maybe.

Now, to business. The beaut boys who have banded together to become The Gospel Youth are producing some spectacular stuff. They're all blessed with such palpable coveted talent, and the more I hear them doing their thing, the more I need to. 'Kids', their first proper legit single, is raging around the online stratosphere; the video is freakin' adorable, just a simple story of a couple of young'uns in love wandering around Brighton without a care in the world. I particularly loved the band's cameos in the final scene - mates on the beach lit beautifully by the bonfire, enjoying a tipple and not caring that fires on the beach are not quite legal... Anyway, 'Kids' is a fantabulous song. I'm so familiar with Sam's voice, its the delicious highs and deep lows, having heard and loved it for years, but this is a whole new ball game. The backing vocals and snazzy music give his voice new life, and it's so refreshingly gorgeous. 
Reviewers have been saying we'll all get into this new music if we like Deaf Havana, Fall Out Boy, The Gaslight Anthem, Kids in Glass Houses... I do agree with a few of those comparisons and I do hear the similarities, however I wouldn't be one to lump these boys in with other artists. I think they're in a world of their own.
I am so far from being a fully-fledged music reviewer - someday, maybe, but for now I just write about very few specific musical things that I have a special kind of love for - but I'd give this band all the stars.

Having seen Sam under his many guises and names perform locally in pubs and clubs, and back in the day in MySpace videos, it's hard to accept the fact that someday I'll be queueing outside an O2 Academy somewhere down south or a lovely London theatre venue to see him (and his boys) jamming live to hundreds and thousands... It's hard to accept, but easy to imagine. It's not far away, either. Everything will be coming up Milhouse for these guys so so soon. 

Download everything possible to download here: http://thegospelyouth.bandcamp.com/ 
The EP is a pay-what-you-want dealio, and it's worth any pennies you can scrounge. The cover of 'Closing Time' is just a pitch-perfect Christmas present to yourself. 

If you're gonna love, love with no regrets.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

He just sleeps.

I recognised the Sleeper as soon as he crossed the tiled store front. He had his thick black leather jacket on, riddled with cracks, the frayed lining exposed. The jacket hugged him tight around his hips, and beneath it he was dressed oddly dapper - rich blue knit, linen slacks and a paisley collar just visible, encircling his weary neck. His silver hair seemed to thin and retreat even more every time I saw him.

Having worked in this cafe for just four weeks, I had discovered that eighty per cent of the customers were seasoned regulars who had grown used to walking in to find their 'usual' cuppa awaiting them on the bar and the loyalty stamp poised to reward them. This meant that I had to learn quick, prove myself and earn my keep. I'm naturally sociable, luckily; I can chat for hours even when I'm given almost nothing to work with and the most sour and sullen of people to engage with. It's one of my redeeming qualities - I'm always a friend. 
I just like to imagine that when I hand over an especially foamy mocha or a perfect ristretto espresso, I'm making someone's day just a fraction of a tad more bearable. Maybe I'm making it, period. 

This customer, the Sleeper, strikes me as a lost soul in need of a good day. Or a string of good days. He's a local legend; he's out all night sinking ships and spirits in every public house along the old high street, come closing time he's wandering about freely but always constricted by something big and invisible - then by 7:10am he finds his way to our cafe, his safe sleeping spot. He sleeps. He sleeps on our sofas or propped in a chair, slumped on the round tables or reclining in the coveted winged armchairs in the back window. He moves from one spot to another, for hours on end, all day every day. Most days he comes to his senses and clears off by early afternoon, but some days he stays until past 5pm. Other customers, the suited and booted board-meeting mates, the gossiping girls and the young mums, the avid readers or the wifi hijackers, all take turns coming up to the counter and alerting us of his presence at the table next to theirs; 'stinking up the place', 'making everyone uncomfortable', 'taking the mick'... We apologise and explain. He's a regular. We wouldn't, couldn't, turn him away. He's lost and probably lonely. I personally reckon he's fighting a battle, and has been for some time. 

Today, he bypasses the manager who is a proud veteran when it comes to dealing with him, and he approaches me. Manager M gives me a look, a raised-eyebrow licked-lips 'you got this?' expression. I nod quickly and easily, blink and you'll miss it.
'Good morning, sir! How are you today?' I can tell I've spoken too loudly, too early. He's searching the wall behind me, above my head, choosing which drink he'll be purchasing today and then leaving unattended on the floor by his seat, as usual. He brings his eyes down to my level. His eyes contract and get locked in a long blink as he adjusts to my brightness and volume. 
'Black tea, to have in...please, miss.'
'Regular, or grande, sir? It's the same price for a grahhn-day.'
I spin around and get to work. I pride myself on my ability to skid and spin around behind the bar, it makes me feel cool and cute. It also makes me seem spry and efficient. It's an art of deceit. 

'You're sweet,' I hear him mumble behind me as I drop the teabag in. 'A sweet treat.' I assume he's talking to the little packet of white sugar he's twiddling and tapping between his fingers. I turn and his melted ice-blue eyes are looking through my friendly front. He's seeing something beyond. His inebriated state doesn't do him any favours. Or does it amplify everything and bring clarity?

I retrieve the mug from under the boiling steam tap. I turn and smile. I place it on the glass counter and push it gently toward the Sleeper. He tries so hard to pull his smile up to his eyes. I see a decade of sad winter Sundays pass behind those eyes. He extracts a wad of notes from his jacket pocket. All purple notes. An abundance of twenties. He must have just shy of four hundred there in his paws. 
I could always tell he wasn't homeless, as some of my colleagues would sympathetically suggest and our customers would disgustedly insist. He has a back story, and it involves a frisky fortune being caught too early and carried away on the breeze. 
The Sleeper apparently disappeared for six months, about a year ago. The town missed him somewhat; he was a sore subject, and the stuff of lore. The pubs all conferred and none had held his presence, no bartender had reluctantly pulled him a pint and tried to make sense of him, for quite some time. They wouldn't admit it, but they worried. They'd say they were afraid they'd lose a substantial amount of their weekly intake without him sitting at their bars each night - barrels would be sitting in the basement untouched, their deliveries would be out of sync, they'd have more goods coming in than going out, the other regulars would feel worse about themselves because if the poor sap who was always around had tidied himself up and packed his bags, why couldn't they? - but really, they feared he was in trouble. They envisioned him banged up or beaten down, locked away or pushed over the edge. He then returned abruptly and continued his usual anarchic yet resigned activities as if he'd never left, but he was 'different'. Something must have happened. He wasn't in this world any more.

'You remind me of a daughter I had some time ago.'
I'm jolted back to the present. 
'Excuse me, sir?'
'I had a daughter.'
'Is that so, sir?'
'You could be her.'
Stumped, I say, 'I assure you I'm not. Sorry, sir.'
His face falls even further. He produces a thin wooden stirrer stick from nowhere, and pops it between his teeth. He's shouldering a burden. I daren't ask.
I pick up the grande mug, and press it into his open hand, careful not to upset the sad wedge of wasted money. 'Enjoy your tea, sir.'
He makes a sound, a unique sound born to a growl and a whimper, and he backs away to his favourite sofa. He places the mug on the very edge of the marble table, sits, and slides down into sleep instantly. Sleep is his relief and his insane sanctuary. I look on, and I wish I could help. I wish someone, anyone, could. For now though, he can sleep.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

They'll never believe it.

Maybe it's some unhealthy yearning to be the protagonist in a piece of especially supernatural character-driven YA fiction, but I have always harboured the desire to be able to travel back in time and revisit Past Me, remind her of the people she's only just met or show her photos of people she has yet to even come across, and tell her the stories. After all, ninety-nine per cent of the time first impressions count for nothing - yet one per cent of the time, they are everything. I'd love to show Past Me if her instincts were correct; I'd love to see the look on her face when she's told certain things.

Let's start slow. 
The guy with the cranberry-coloured hair who you're drunkenly chatting to at the SU, he becomes your best friend, you go on an epic holiday with his family, AND in third year he falls on his feet and starts dating the first girl who spoke to you in your first Drama lecture (the super-cute one with those eyes). The guy you're seeing come the end of Freshers fortnight sure can be a complete fool with the ladies, and you'll hate him for a little while, but he'll grow up pretty damn well sooner or later and you'll get along just fine. The creative genius chick in your poetry seminar will be one of your dearest friends before long, back home she lives a fifteen minute drive away and she'll inspire you constantly and consistently. The lovely lecturer you have a massive creative crush on, someday he'll be messed about by the uni; you and your other course mates will help him get a permanent position secured once and for all. That rather beautiful perfectly ginger American gal in your Drama lectures for one semester will earn her title as an Honourary Brit, and despite being across an ocean most of the time, she'll always be there for you.

Now, some pleasant surprises... The girl you converse with over Twitter about your mutual love for Joshua Radin? Someday you'll be sitting side by side in the most picturesque chapel in Islington, watching your favourite artist onstage bewitching the crowd. Oh, and also you'll meet Joshua himself after all those years lying on your single bed playing his albums on repeat as you contemplate your existence and fret about the boy in your English class. You'll hug him, he'll write down your favourite lyric in Sharpie pen (a pen which you keep) and you'll get it tattooed. 
The crazy chick sitting outside your Sociology classroom chatting about hair dyeing with you (after you told her your bright orange hair was a horrible hair henna-related accident, then she reassured you it looks rad); she'll be a constant for some years, always reachable online and always up for a tipple, then suddenly you'll join the team on her exciting new project and she'll be your wicked-perf editor. 
The guy in the Single Honours Drama clan with the long blonde hair, the one you met while drunkenly scoffing chips from the food hatch on a night out, will become a good friend and a fantastic drinking buddy. You'll be in plays and performances together a fair bit over the next couple of years, then discuss moving to London with other grads.
That Fresher chick on the Ultimate team who you so desperately want to like you, despite hearing that she definitely doesn't - give it a year, she'll be your best friend. For real. The best of the best.

Yes, some things are upsetting.
The girl you've made friends with during Freshers week, the one you take all those webcam selfies with, yeah that friendship won't last. She'll shag a guy, stake her claim to him, then he'll stupidly (and completely independently) take a shine to you, and she'll make it all your fault. Don't worry, your lecturer will defend you and shut her up when she screams at you in the middle of a Drama seminar. 
Your second year house mates will be challenging. The 'lads' will relentlessly take the piss because they're both strapped in with long-term relationships and you're bringing guys (as in, TWO different guys over the course of one year, you slut) back to your box room for nightcaps. The other girl will turn up her nose at most of your guilty pleasures and best intentions, but when it comes down to it, she's a decent friend. You two have plenty of nice moments drinking tea and watching Gilmore Girls
Don't push it too much with your Ultimate team mates. If they like you, if they're wanting to be friends, they'll reach out. Stop smothering them and scaring them off with your mad chatter, just because you're scared they won't like you right away.
Your college besties, they hurt you like no stupid guy ever could.
One last thing. Those new third year house mates of yours. You cook with them and drink with them; you'll be discussing the politics of sexuality one minute and the best essay-writing techniques the next; they support you better than anyone, most of the time. By Christmas, you'll never want to be in that house. The damage will be irreparable. You'll be crashing at friends' or your other half's (we'll get to that in a minute) or even setting up camp in the library until the small hours even though you only have a couple hundred words to write... You hate being at home. But you find home elsewhere, don't worry.

Some revelations are uplifting.
Who is that boy in two classes with you at college? He's a laugh, apparently. He entertains in Drama and has his head down in French. Admit it, those yellow-blonde inconsistent highlights through his brown hair are somewhat endearing. He's your soulmate - and he'll prove to be an invaluable friend to you for years to come. Don't try to live without him, you can't.
Your two playgroup besties who both live with their families across the road from you will be lifelong friends; one day suddenly you'll all be twenty-one and having a cup of tea together still loving each other's company and totally at ease together.
And that guy your course mate and colleague introduces you to, with the colourful tattoos down one arm and black work down the other - the boy you shyly say hi to, and he's shy right back - he'll make you the happiest you've ever been. One night you'll come home from work and he'll be waiting with a cup of green tea, plus biscuits and a big smile. He genuinely cares about you, and you can barely believe it. You did good there.

I'd also want to tell my past self about the experiences she'll have in the near future - but I wouldn't want to terrify her beyond belief. I think she'd get a lot of excitement out of seeing photos of future friends/enemies/something-mores. She may somewhat perversely love the fact that someday she'll get her heart smashed to pieces which are then scattered around for all to see, that's just an occupational hazard of a hopeless romantic, and at least it means that she has a mad mess of thrilling feelings and epic drama headed her way... She could probably even deal with the fact that she has a life-changing medical revelation come the end of her degree. I wouldn't tell her that she gets an Upper Second Class, or that she gets Firsts in certain essays, or that her old school invite her back to make speeches and she receives insane endless applause and positive feedback after she speaks - she couldn't handle that pressure. It's better as a surprise. I wouldn't tell her that she moves back to the family home after uni - because even though it's due to the medical drama, and even though it's for practical rent-free saving-up purposes, and even though it's nice and comforting for a while... She might be disheartened, and think of it as a failure. I may let her know that someday she'll suffer from depression, because maybe then she'll realise what it is earlier, maybe then she'll get something done about it earlier, maybe she'll read up about it and be properly prepared... That is, if it's something you can really prepare yourself for. 
I'd definitely tell her she becomes a barista; she gets four tattoos and ten piercings with intentions to get more; she develops a love-hate relationship with the bottle; she figures out how to make time for writing and reading recreationally; a fella finally gives her hers; she finds a real love for and has fun playing an actual sport (Ultimate); she eventually finds her way around the London Underground; she meets a writing hero of hers, John Green, and he wishes her luck in life; she finds a perfect way to express herself through blogging. 
She does alright. And the people in her life, the ones she never thought she'd befriend and the friends she never thought she'd lose, they get her there.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What makes a good job?

In the months since I've been back in my home town since graduating/being dragged kicking and screaming from uni, I've had three jobs. I remember back in my first year of uni when I refused to find one as I was determined to make the most of my time as a Fresher, and so what if that meant I was surviving solely on the little allowance my parents sent me each week – and then as the weeks went on, my overdraft...?
Then when second year came around and the reality of the necessity of money had properly sunk in, I quickly snapped up two jobs in September; one was every weekend, one most week nights. Friday night finishing work at 3/4am then starting work at 9am on Saturday morning was always grim, also I missed my weekends after a while, so I stuck with the week night front of house gig for a few more months. I found my beloved cinema job towards the end of second year, and was there for over a year. Summer of third year, I took on another job at a beaut shop in town, and I'm still upset that I had to leave to come home. Luckily I have a few shifts at one of their sister stores in Brighton this month to look forward to...

Anyway, my work experience at uni – and before it, at the shitty racist Italian restaurant for £3.20 an hour and then at my good friend's beauty cutie boutique – taught me many things. My work experiences after uni are teaching me a million things a day, too.

Contracts are important. I've been screwed over by many pieces of paper in the past. It's fortunate that my dad is a little more than literate when it comes to important paperwork. He likes looking over things for me. I've recently been royally effed by a supposed contractual agreement to forfeit nearly three days' worth of wages from a job because I left before I'd worked six months in that (godforsaken hell hole of a) place – I've missed out on approximately £160 purely because I couldn't bear to be there longer than six weeks. I know £160 may just be a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things, but it's still money I could be putting towards a future. A future plan that I do not have. This is a lesson learned.

You should know what you're doing. Starting a new job often feels like being thrown in the deep end of that metaphorical pool – I personally hate the first couple of weeks on some level, because even though it's exciting as can be and a new challenge etc., I'm already wanting to be perfect at every single thing I have to do.
Now this should go without saying, but... It helps to be properly trained. At my previous job I was never properly trained, never talked through rules and policies, never fully informed. I never walked onto the floor with much confidence and in my fifth week I was still struggling to make the most commonplace of orders.
At my new place of work, I got trained in my first two shifts by a Maestro, an employee who is specially trained and assessed to teach newbies. I made every drink in the book, twice, and was congratulated on each one. By the end of the first two days, I was serving every drink in the book with at least 72% confidence.

A manager makes it. Example A: The coffee shop chain I joined as my first job post-grad was rather horrific work, and a big contributing bummer would have been my poor timing – the manager of this franchise, the one who interviewed me and processed my details, left as I arrived. She gave one day's notice, and that day was my first day, and she was covering in another branch that day. Bad day. So for the entirety of my time there I was not managed at all. We were a group of baristas (notice how I say 'group' and not 'team') all on the same level, with nobody being paid to be in charge. Eventually an assistant manager from another store was brought in and due to start after his annual leave was over – but I'd left by then.
Our area manager was a character most feared. The news that she was due to appear one day to do staff reviews or just check up on us meant we'd be spending the day cleaning, tidying and panicking more than serving customers. Her presence was like an icy chill that swept through the cafe and down the high street – and it didn't help that her other half was an assistant behind the bar so she had access to gossip and supposed faults in her employees.

Example B: I've been in my new position, at another coffee shop chain that I've always loved, for three weeks now and it's already better by a few million miles. I have the same job title, but it could not be more different.
When I applied, the manager of the branch gave a thorough interview and explained everything there was to know about the job; the harder tasks, the cheeky benefits, and where it could lead. Sometimes you get a good feeling about someone when you meet them, a good energy draws you in and fills you with confidence instantly. You can tell when someone is a good manager, and when they are frank and relaxed on the surface but they really properly care. I met the area manager at this job just a week after joining – Northern, hilarious, casual yet caring. I helped her take a dozen pizzas out of an oven and load tables with crates of beer for the staff social, and we bonded instantly (at least I'm absolutely positive we did).
My managers at the cinema were a bunch of delights. Each of them beautifully unique, and hilarious (whether unashamedly deliberately or completely unintentionally). One manager would come in every once in a while armed with an armful of chocolate treats for us bar minions. Another let me play my classic retro rock playlist over the speakers. My favourite manager was the one I'd have endless conversations with that consisted of ninety percent Community quotes, ten percent depressed yet hysterical ponderings about life and love. My manager at the shop last summer was chilled and friendly as can be, we made instant coffee and had heart-to-hearts between serving customers.
So my current manager insists I come to staff socials, makes shameless puns, explains everything to me and ensures I'm happy at all times. At my shift a couple of days ago he took me aside and basically told me repeatedly how well I was doing and how chuffed he is. I needed that. Also, hugs from managers are not out of the question. If anything, they are a goal to be achieved and a relationship level most coveted.

Smile, damnit. A good little expression I came across recently (in italics against a cloudy backdrop, very much a 'share me on Facebook, tag friends' monstrosity) was 'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.' This cheesy little string of words pretty much describes my constant mentality when it comes to customer service. For some customers that cuppa you make them, the extra stamp on their loyalty card you give them or the free box of popcorn you shoot their way will be the highlight of their day. They could be coming to or from a terrible place and a tragic situation. I wrote a blog post a year or so ago about Mrs Clark, and her casually telling me over the bar at the cinema that her husband was dying of cancer. She was happy as anything that night, smartly dressed and very... Together. Excited to see a film, to spend time with friends and maybe to get a break from some sad realities. I still think about her. I hope my kind words made a difference to her day.
Then again, it's not just about being considerate all the time – sometimes you just have to take down the worst ones with some good humour. 'Kill them with kindness', my parents would say. If you can sense after just the brief over-the-counter chat that they're gunning for a spat, you flip it on its head and really heap on the sweet talk. Knock the wind out of their sails. Offer them every sweet cheeky extra you possibly can; ask how their day is going; compliment their outfit or accessories, preferably something specific – I usually go for jewellery, it's a fail-safe option, people love chattering away about their personal knick-knack keepsakes. Maybe they'll walk out of the shop feeling acutely embarrassed of their behaviour and demeanour thus far that day – or suddenly their outlook becomes inexplicably positive and they're wondering what the matter ever was... Who knows? It never hurts to be gracious and friendly.

Take note of feelings. If you're counting down the minutes until you can run out the door at the end of your shift, something must be wrong. Fair enough if you've been battling a beastly hangover all day long, or you're in a hurry to head home and watch Strictly, or if those customers didn't appreciate your charming chatter as you packed their bags – but if it's every day, if the countdown starts at 9:01am, you could do with a change. The best shifts are the ones when your manager turns to you and says 'Why are you still here? You finished twenty minutes ago, silly!'
If you have two days off in a row, but still you're filled with dread every minute because you will be back at work in two days' time... That's not good, either.

Think ahead. Will this job help you in the future? Is it a stepping stone, a savings plan, a means to an end...? Is it your perfect occupation that you accidentally but happily stumbled into? I've realised recently that it's so good to keep these things in mind; my current job is by no means a potential career, however it's something I enjoy and arguably a very valuable skill. It's a profession I'm intrigued by and now I can tick it off my job bucket list. I'm learning things, sharpening skills and doing something I'll always love – making people happy.

Okay yes, I have yet to take on a job that is on or at least adjacent to the path I want to follow for the rest of my life, but what does that matter? I'm young, and I forget that more than eighty percent of the time. These are the years when you have experiences, and maybe lay a little groundwork for the future, but there's no pressure. You don't have to know where you are, you just need to have even the roughest tiniest inkling of an idea of where you want to be. Then at some point you work out how to get there. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

The issue of over-sharing.

 I feel the need to inform you of a few things about me. For instance, I could talk for hours about every contestant on Strictly. I have an unhealthy attachment to my cat. When I say ‘the other day’, I could be referring to any time between the day before yesterday and nineteen years ago when my memories properly begin. Another thing you should probably know upfront before you read on, is that I over-share.
Although, what even is that: over-sharing? It’s a term I’ve only encountered in the past couple of years…my understanding is it simply means ‘going too far’ or ‘revealing a bit much’… ‘TMI, too much info, honey.”
The ever-reliable Urban Dictionary claims that over-sharing is:
‘Providing more personal information than is absolutely necessary. Typically done when two or more people are conversing and details of one’s sexual life creep into the discussion – or overly gross and disgusting details are included.’
A friend of mine says: ‘in social media terms, [oversharing is] worrying about whether someone is okay because they haven’t uploaded anything for at least 12 hours’…
My parents would most likely say ‘anything you have to say about boys’. Fair play to them.
Now I know for a fact that I over-share when I’m drunk (‘See that guy onstage, on guitar at the back? Yeah, he’s pretty blessed with equipment if you know what I mean, but a little clueless as to how to use it…’; ‘I haven’t been this wasted since that time when I pulled off my top and puked all over my friend’s shoes!’). I’ve had some of the best conversations that I hardly remember in the toilets at Spoons with my best girl friends – I’ve even made new friends with the girls in the next cubicle who have overheard our over-sharing and can relate to our woes about unruly body hair and wild desires for (but lack of funds for) extravagant underwear sets…
But I’m only realising recently that I’m almost as bad – maybe not as blunt or graphic, thankfully, but still bad – when sober. I’ve spoken with friends over coffee about my habit of returning texts while on the toilet; I once spent ten minutes answering questions about a urinary catheter I had put in during an operation; I bragged like mad when I discovered I was actually three cup sizes larger than I’d previously thought when three beautiful ladies got me topless and measured me in Boux Avenue. The other day, an old friend and I had an in-depth discussion about the advantages of using lube, in broad daylight, in a clothes shop.
When it comes to the internet, it’s all too easy to over-share; bloggers do it, vloggers do it, even the frank forum freaks do it…it’s a slippery slope. I’m a major culprit when it comes to this. I’m even doing it now.
If you’re ever poised with a finger over the mouse, ready to click on ‘post’ or ‘update’ or ‘SHARE’… Think twice. Follow my good friend’s advice: ‘anything you wouldn’t share with distant friends/acquaintances, in person, is probably too much information to share online ‘.
I think there are some unspoken ground rules when it comes to sharing anecdotes and info. For instance, you can tell your mum when you go to the doctors’ for a contraceptive pill prescription, but you can’t run straight out of your bedroom in nothing but your boyfriend’s shirt and inform her that you’ve made use of it for the first time. You can giggle away when a friend goes into a little too much detail about an ex to the entire room at a party, but you must never repeat it on a separate later occasion without permission. And when you and your friends sense that enough has been shared, that you’ve exhausted the topic, you brush it off and move swiftly on to something much more mundane.
There are certain friends to whom you tell everything – you entrust your deepest darkest secrets unto them. Some friends know what personal things you’re thinking or what nightmare private moments you’re recalling just by you giving them a certain look. And that’s fine. I personally feel I’d be at a complete dead loss without my nearest and dearest – who would I talk to about my most awkward fumbling incidents in the bedroom and preferred feminine hygiene products? Who would give me advice on how to move on from my ill-advised one night stands? And who would swear on their siblings’ lives not to repeat any information I send their way when I’m in an inebriated state…?
Then there are certain friends you’d never share anything rated above a PG with. Friends who have lived next door to you your whole life, who you grew up with, who you’re crazy-close with and yet for some reason you’ve never swapped dirty details with. One of my old school friends asked me what my ‘magic number’ was a few Christmases ago (when it was quite a bit lower, oops) and I blushed instantly and refused to tell her. Why? I suppose I’m a selective over-sharer.
Then again, over-sharing is massively therapeutic. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else feels the same way, has the same problems, fights the same battles, fancies the same Z-list celebrities. A little over-sharing, whether over a cup of coffee or a pitcher of Woo Woo, is sometimes the best thing to do. Just maybe don’t announce anything over international airwaves, or in an online auditorium…just a little advice, right there.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

One more thing...

I don't always do the cheesy conventional thing, but my gosh I suddenly desperately want to write a blog post in the form of a letter to teenage me – baby Gracie, chewing on her thumbnails during a particularly challenging GCSE exam, dyeing her hair dark brown/purple every week, sitting under the shelter at break time bearing down on a packed lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and pots of chickpeas while pondering the problematic relationship between Liam and Naomi in 90210. She needs a little guidance at times, and I feel it's my duty to help her out. 
Follow these steps, my dear, and you'll be right as rain. 

If you're going to wear eyeliner to school, be subtle and even it out.
I'd sneak off to the girls' toilets between lessons to top up my thick layer of No7 brown pencil eyeliner – only beneath my eyes, though. I'd never dare draw any on my eyelid, above my lashes, no way. Only the scene girls did that while walking home; they'd swap shoes and put their chequerboard Vans on, let their extensions down from the side-ponytails then slick some black liquid all around their eyes. I didn't want to step on their toes, or try to be part of their super-cool clique. Oh also Gracie, make sure you don't rub your eyes vigorously in Music lessons despite how deathly boring your teacher is – you'll turn into a panda.

It's okay to not be a whizz at everything.
Time and time again I'd skip merrily out of English class and into Art Textiles, good grades not far away and feeling genuine comfort in lessons chatting to teachers and putting my hand up to offer opinions. Then suddenly I'd find myself marching reluctantly to Maths and Science, hiding away in the corner and doodling all over my book covers rather than doing boring confusing calculations. I'd worry I was stupid, that it was wrong to be perfectly proficient in some subjects and appalling in others, that you're either a good student or a brain dead back-row rebel. No, honey. You have strengths and weaknesses. Someday your strengths will be the only thing you study, and you'll have the best time, but for now you have to nod along when Miss Mant explains Pythagoras to you for the millionth time.

You CAN have a varied taste in music.
Your best friend plays Release by Timbaland (ft JT) on her iPod during Maths, you have a headphone each, and you just wanna pop and lock all over the place. You listen to the one and only Taylor Swift Fearless album while walking home. Sometimes when feeling especially agro and angsty, Bowling For Soup are the way to go. When sad or reflective, only Kelly Clarkson will do. City & Colour speaks to you on every level.
Actually, I'm very grateful to the pop-punk lover boys I once fancied – I have the best taste in music thanks to them. I'd hear them talking about their favourite bands, or friends of theirs would send me mp4 files of their favourite songs, then I'd make a point of listening to them loudly while I waited near these boys to go into a classroom – I always hoped my headphones would leak and they'd turn around to say 'Hey, I love that song!' I hadn't seen the film yet, and wouldn't for the four years until it was released, but I always wanted a (500) Days of Summer moment. So yes, I discovered my all-time favourite bands because back in the day I'd wanted to snog the mop-heads in set 1.

She's not your friend.
Stop trying to fit in with people who don't give a flying f-word about you. Sure, you'd run across town to their house in a heartbeat if they texted simply saying 'idk bit sad rn :'( xxXxxXxx' but would they do the same for you? You know what she says behind your back, but she's perfectly nice to your face so you focus on that. Even when she embarrasses you in front of her 'popular' friends, you brush it off and giggle with them, then cry a little too hard when chopping onions in a Food Tech double.

You'll know when you're in love.
Don't force yourself to feel things for someone just because they say they feel them for you... Y'know? He may buy you Oreos, burn you the odd CD and cuddle you when you need it, sure. You love the sweet gestures and closeness, but you don't love him. You shouldn't feel bad about that, though! Arghh, it's hard to explain sweetie, but you'll get there someday. A guy will hang out with you every day, watch TV with you, buy you king size bars of Bournville, quote shows you watch and be absolutely word-perfect – do all the nice gestures you've experienced aged sixteen, but this time it'll be different. You'll be so full of this alien amorous amazing sensation, brimming fit to burst, and wanting to talk and write about it all day every day – rather than just at sleepovers with friends who are so totes in luv with their playground boyfs and you play along. When it's love, you'll know it. I promise.

Love your body. Now.
You envy the popular girls who have the coveted thigh gaps and perfect pert butts, and at times you hate the thin yet inexplicably buxom girls who are getting a ton of attention when they bounce impressively with every step down the corridor. Don't stuff your bra. Don't wear flat unsupported shoes just so you don't seem awkwardly tall, your back will kill as a result. Don't spend loads of your parents' money getting a trendy Toni & Guy haircut that doesn't suit you. Don't hide in the shower cubicles when getting changed for PE, be brave and stand among your peers who are no doubt just as concerned about their thighs and tummies as you are, they just choose not to let it get to them as much. Your body changes so so much over the next few years, and at twenty-one it still isn't settling down. You have to allow it to change, and accept that everyone has a different shape for goodness' sake – you have a tiny waist and a big butt. That ain't gonna change if you skip your dinner every other night. Be content with yourself.

There are a million more pointers I could give to that young'un, but I think these are the most key. I could go on and on about how frequent spot breakouts are normal, how thinking certain girls are pretty does not make you a lesbian, how it's important not to be embarrassed to ask to go to the loo during a lesson, how reading fiction books beneath the textbooks in Science doesn't make you a geek but isn't great for exam prep, how plucking your own eyebrows is both playing a dangerous game and fighting a losing battle... No, that's it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6OuvaesBB0 – One of my all-time favourite songs that came into my life via a skateboarding freckled mop-head classmate that I totally wanted to walk to and from school with. Cheers, mate. That new haircut looks good. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Grace in the Face of Adversity / I'm okay at the words.

For a Drama and Creative Writing combined honours graduate, I am wildly unprepared for and unnerved by public speaking. I'm used to writing pieces and publishing them online, that's comparatively piss easy. I'm used to the anxiety and apprehension before clicking 'publish' – will she get offended? Have I described this accurately? Will he read this one, too? Does that sentence sound stupid? That's totally normal to me by now.
I like to think that after around five years of blogging, I've got better at deciding what to publish and what to keep to myself. I've learned that some people need to be smacked or snogged in person and others need to be harshly berated or lovingly immortalised in pretty font for all to see; some events are better forgotten while some should be celebrated accordingly in a happy slosh of mindless alliteration; some feelings and memories must be cast aside or brought to light in lengthy posts featuring honest wording and, no doubt, dozens of hapless similes.

Blogging may not be my most flawless forte, but it's a passion I've definitely got down. Public speaking, however, is a whole other ballgame. I don't by any means dread performing in front of an audience. I've participated in my fair share of graded Drama performances over the past seven years; GCSE, A Level, BA. For GCSE, I was the bride's best friend on a hen night. AS Level, I was Rose Maloney for a monologue and Cissy Franks for a group performance (see below, massive shameless post about my love of the play Punk Rock). A Level, I found myself playing a psychotic invisible girl with no name. For my degree I've played a deranged bouffant clown, a bitchy schoolgirl, a slave to a sea sorcerer, a very camp male sailor, a citizen under constant video surveillance in a horrific futuristic society, and J.K. Rowling. I was always someone else. That was manageable, not always convincing, but not that hard to do. Being myself in front of an audience is terrifying.
A month or so ago, I was asked on the phone by the principal of my secondary school and my old Head of House there if I would like to do a presentation about what I've been through recently at the school's presentation evenings this year. My family said yes for me, I was suddenly faint with fear but agreed because truth be told, I'd do anything for my old school and the lovely senior members of staff – especially after my old house raised around £300 from a non-uniform day and donated it to my hospital (specifically the neurological centre), and my esteemed ex-Head of House called me a couple of days after my big op for a chat.
I wrote my speech, I was told not to sugar-coat anything, so I didn't... But I didn't exactly go too far into detail either. I asked if I should be spinning the story so I could add a moral or a message at the end as I wrapped it all up; y'know, I don't want to be a massive malignant downer on an otherwise joyful awards evening, slapping the prize winners with some particularly nasty reality before they step up to receive their trophies and book tokens. I'd much rather be a shining example that 'shit happens but it can be okay in the end.'

The first presentation I made on October 16th went rather splendidly... I think. I spent every evening in the week leading up to it slumped on the sofa half-asleep after a heavy shift making milky coffee and glorified slushy milkshakes, writing and editing furiously. I was still scribbling out and rewriting the odd sentence as I rode the train to and from Winchester in Grad Week; I would read the whole thing out loud (in a very expressive whisper) over and over again changing which words I emphasised and working out when was best to take a breath, in my seat on South West and Southeastern trains.
I turned up at the school an hour before the ceremony of sorts was due to start. I had a cuppa in the office with Mr W. We gossiped about other teachers and pupils, shared stories of recent personal experiences, then I moaned about my job and he became the sixth person to tell me to quit. 'Twas bloody lovely. The principal walked in at one point and actually uttered the words 'Oh thank God you're here, Grace!' It's been a very long time since anyone said that, much less someone so important. It was quite a pleasant shock. I remember rooting for that guy to get the job as our principal, back when he was a lowly Maths teacher. Our whole year group were behind him, and we celebrated for weeks on end when he was given the title he so totally earned.
Mr W kept pestering, asking what I was planning on saying. I assured him it was all printed and rehearsed, but I wasn't telling. I just said it was my story with a moral. This was mostly because I dedicated a paragraph to the school and him specifically, and I wanted that to be a nice surprise.

I saw my favourite teacher when entering the hall, the rather epic Finchy who taught me English and Drama at GCSE – the wonderful character who gave me full marks for my performance as a drunk bridesmaid and would brew the loveliest lattes at lunchtime for me and my close friends, the Coffee Club in Room 38. I hugged her without thinking it through for a second, caught up as best I could before I had to be ushered to my seat up the front on the side of the stage. I told her I hoped I'd make her proud, after all, she planted the Drama seed in my mind and got me into it, and she taught me how to write to the best of my ability, how to get my point across. I owe her a whole lot.

I sat down beside a lovely redhead girl and a nervous but sweet-looking boy. Both in the worse school houses, but I'll overlook that. I was startled to discover that the presentations would be taking place before awards were... Awarded. I wasn't sure which I'd rather – have people listening to me speak after the prizes were given, checking their watches, with numb bums and minds wandering to their lovely home awaiting them, or before, when all they wanted was to see their child get a little recognition for their excellence in Geography class or they were desperate to walk onstage and get those book tokens and a round of applause for their hard work in the Music rooms. I figured before was best, people would still be alert and paying enough attention, even if they hated me briefly for delaying the proceedings.
We were welcomed by the senior members of staff, who sat opposite me on the other side of the stage in all their finery sipping water and shuffling papers – it was charming. My old music teacher spoke, then the head of governors who is coincidentally the mother of a genius sweet girl in the year below me as well as a regular customer in the cafe, then BOOM, time for the presentations. Oh, that came around quick. I shuffle my own papers in my lap, bracing myself, suddenly blushing hot but utterly frozen. The lovely gal beside me sang 'When I Fall In Love', hitting the high notes and bringing the goosebumps on all around. I assumed the young fella would be next in line, but then my name was called from the lectern.
My lovely pal Mr W had the ingenious impulse to give my piece a name as the principal put the programme for the event together, and he nailed it. Grace in the Face of Adversity. I do love a good bit of wordplay on my name – have I mentioned that both my names are words? Yes? Okay then – and it was just darned awesome to be given a title. It also said next to my name that I was a 2009 Leaver – that hit me hard. I'm a mature adult now, five years out of the playground. Ha.

At some point, after my next and last evening speaking publicly, I'll post my speech on here for y'all to read, if you wanna. No pressure. I've read it to my bestest friend when he tracked me down in the big city crying into my coffee; I read it to the boyf after we went on a dinner date, and as previously mentioned I've read it to complete strangers on a train when I realised my expressive whisper had become a regular volume of conversation and the women in front of me had turned in their seats to peek through the gap and watch me.
Like I said, I think it went well. When I finally caught my breath a few paragraphs in and realised there was no rush, I could speak clearly and slowly, I could look out into the audience and catch the eyes of teachers and students if I wanted, there was nothing to be afraid of... It all came together. I felt especially confident as I was wearing my graduation dress and silver brogues – a winning combo. I have a good track record of being onstage in this outfit. I also wore my hair down, as part of my unusual plot twist – after years of relentlessly pulling and scraping my hair back into a boring bun, maybe a high exuberant ponytail, I've found I like it better loose and brushing my shoulders. I may or may not have started wearing it down in the first place because I was self-conscious about my scar. Whatever.

After telling my story in the speech, feeling the silence in the room pressing hard, I got to the last page and thought oh thank goodness, this is the good bit, meaning the part where I talk real to the kids, preach a little in the nicest way and remind them all how lucky they are etc, etc. I smiled more and more as I looked out and saw the students staring back at me, not necessarily in awe but definitely paying proper attention. It was a new feeling, speaking out and making an impact. I suddenly didn't want it to end.
It ended. There was a whole lot of applause. I smiled and smiled, backed off the podium and stepped down, walked along the front row and sat back in my esteemed seat. The teacher nearest to me said it was great, grinning; the applause went on and on; my old music teacher onstage locked eyes with me and I stupidly gave her a questioning thumbs-up, which she returned with a big nod. The super-important senior members of staff looked on from their table, all smiling, all shining. After the young lad played a gorgeous melody on the piano up front that I somehow hadn't noticed in all my anxiety, we were ushered to the back of the hall. As I walked along the aisle, I was met with a beaming face at the end of each row. Parents nodded respectfully or just outright grinned and whispered at me. I saw a friend of mine in the back row and stopped to chat, she told me she was excited when she heard I'd be here. My GCSE Drama/English heroine grabbed my hand from her seat and brought me in for a cheek-smacker, saying how beautiful it was and how proud she felt – how she hoped she had contributed to my brilliance, even just a little. I reassured her she did, she did a lot. Mr W treated me to a hug, then immediately demanded to know why I'd mentioned him in my speech. I believe I said something like 'well duh,' followed by 'I don't know what I was thinking, I got carried away...' My Science teacher smiled and gave me a thumbs-up, saying he loved it. I found my mum who'd snuck in at the last minute, and we sat together to watch the kids be celebrated. The principal gave his speech and said I was 'inspiring and brave'. Without thinking I waved my hand dismissively, to cover up the fact that I was weeping a little. Students and parents kept tapping me on the shoulder and congratulating me. Two teachers told me their own stories – one had a similar thing twenty-five years ago, the other had a scare with one of his daughters, and so my words meant a lot to them.
I giggled at how the prize giving was a lot like my graduation – students' names are called, they shake the principal's hand, walk up a step onto the stage, receive a ton of applause, take their envelope from the head of governors, step down and are ushered back to their seats. It's cute, and the most wonderful idea – celebrating the kids, egging them on. This school is so good to its students. Sure, when I was being kicked through corridors and belittled in the changing rooms it didn't seem like it, but when I freaked out about my Art exam, worried I had no friends and threw up in a sex education lesson, there was always a member of staff there to help me out.

Afterwards, Mr W is escorting my mama and I off the premises – probably because it's the only way he can ensure we actually leave and stop nattering away to everyone we bump into – and telling us just how fantastic he found my presentation. He ridiculously said 'it was the best thing I ever heard', and I demanded he retract that statement immediately. He then corrected himself, putting his newborn son's first cry just before my mad monologue. He then told me to never make him cry again, and take him out of the speech, and I refused to make any promises. We parted ways at the gate, mum and I headed for the car, and we debriefed on the way. It all felt fuzzy. As we approached our car (Star the CRV), we heard a shout 'Grace!' behind us. We turned and saw a mother in her mum-mobile, pupil in the passenger seat in his Claverham uniform. She shouted 'You are an inspiration!' The tears sprung up yet again.

My next speech delivery will be on the 27th November, at 6:30pm. This time will be a little different. Instead of speaking to a room full of parents, teachers and Year 7s and 8s, I'll be speaking to a room full of teachers, students and this year's leavers – the ex-Year 11s, my sister's year group. Students who are now studying for A Levels or diplomas, doing apprenticeships and discovering coffee, most of whom will know me personally or recognise me all too easily. Some of them have been in my house, some of them have been driven around in my car. Some of them messed with my little sis, and some kept her going. I have to edit my words a little, change them to suit the high school grads, but also brace myself for the inevitability that on the night I will look out into the crowd and see faces I know looking back at me. It's like when we performed our first year monologues in Drama lessons at college to the whole class, a few days before we were due to perform them to the external examiner. I would take the meanest stingiest external examiner a million times before I'd take my friends and peers. Heck, I'd take the nine hours of brain surgery again right now and it would probably be easier than confidently communicating a message to a hall packed out with teenagers and their parents.
It'll probably be fine, though. What's life without the occasional challenge? If it's not looking good, I can always whip out the scar and scare them stupid. I wouldn't do that... Although I've done dumber things when in a panic.
So, wish me luck maybe? Thank you, darlings. I'll be backstage, breathing into a bag.

In all seriousness, in life things are only as scary as you make them. I say that with the utmost sincerity and I have a massive backlog of incidents to prove it. Push yourself, work hard, take a step out of your comfort zone, and reap the rewards. I got applause, pats on the back, hugs all round, a cup of sweet green tea and a beautiful bouquet of thank you flowers. I also got a generous helping of confidence. Boom, baby.


Three years suddenly met in one day, in just a few hours, in fact.

7am, jam to the recently released Taylor Swift tune in the hotel room with the little sis – forget about those sleeping either side of your twin room, they should be awake for this magical day anyway, surely – splash freezing water on your face, zip up the sought-after dress and get set for the future. 
7:20am, tucking into poached eggs on toast with the mama, gulping down green tea and watching the morning sun light up the cathedral the other side of the glass.
8am, pick up gown and have hat attached.
8:07am, see a few of your favourite coursemates in the queue ahead of you and freak out massively, run up and hug each of them – despite the fact that you saw at least two of them in the hotel foyer with their families the night before. It's funny how you go from seeing someone every day, pretty much, to then seeing them next to never and therefore exploding with familiar joy when you see their face twice within twelve hours. It's more than you can cope with, in the best way.
8:25am, meet the charming ever-so-slightly camp fella who will be spending his day slotting mortarboards onto chattering over-emotional ex-students' heads. Have him wedge the size M hat on, feel it slip a little on your hair, super-shiny after being trimmed, washed and given a toner treatment by a trained genius friend the night before. He asks, 'nervous?' You reply 'of course not!' giggling with a tear in one eye, giving you away. 'But... Is it normal to be nervous?'

9:34am, standing outside the cathedral in the optimistic drizzle, catching up and taking photos with families and friends, fellow graduands. Guests lining up across the way eager for the good seats, while graduands wait to be led in to the alphabet seating. 9:40am, we're the first ones in. I'm possibly the third in, pattering up the uneven hallowed stone slabs, pretending to know where I'm going. 

9:43am, I find my seat, it's the one in the J-L row, with the gold-edged book that holds all ceremony info face-down on it, my name stuck on the back. My full name, first middle and last. It didn't occur to me that I'd be known as all three names today – my first and last are quite enough, they're both words you can use in a sentence, and I'm a-okay with that. My middle name is a baby girl's name, that happened to be the middle name of both my great-grandmas. I was cringing at the reveal of my secret second name, when I realised that one of my beautiful uni besties had the very same one. I was also feeling a little insecure and lonesome in my back row seat sandwiched between two classmates who had yet to arrive, then once again said bestie saved me when she sat down directly in front of me. My immense relief and joy at this prompts the first of many flashbacks that will be happening today – cornering the intimidatingly awesome self-proclaimed Bexhill girl in the stairwell after the latest uninspiring poetry seminar, exclaiming in her face that I'm from just down the road, excitedly hugging and babbling about our home towns, families and mutual friends as we walk back to halls, and thinking to myself 'thank goodness I didn't freak her out. I'm totally friend-crushing.'

Bexhill-born Creative Writer extraordinaire, the irrefutable Miss Holman-Hobbs, Cathedral selfie'ing with me.

10:15am, and they're all here. The familiar faces, ones I'd see every other day in obnoxious clean-cut auditoriums or cramped old-school classrooms; bleary and bloodshot on Thursday mornings or alert and excitable after a boring restful weekend, panicked and fearful in the week before D-Day then relieved yet buzzed by the middle of March. Polite hellos and enthused hugs happen again and again, parents snap and pap us as we pose where we sit.
10:36am, it all kicks off. Our ceremony is the first of many; a week packed full of graduands who become graduates and students who become masters, kids whose families watch their hard work pay off.

The ceremony was pleasant enough. Chancellor and Vice chatted and clucked onstage, we the crowd laughed and clapped in all the right places, and uni suddenly seemed more upscale and serious. As the rows began moving in front of me, the robed students standing up and being escorted to the steps to shake the hands and take the walk, my lips wobbled and vision blurred multiple times – I'd have to clamp down and remind myself of my make up. Don't cry until after, if you have to. 10:54am, I see the pompous interjecting lecture commentator in the row in front of me reading a thick fantasy novel. Even at the end, he can still annoy me.
11:05am, the Creative Writers are being called up. It's not until one of the first Bs is called, a certain Miss Brookman, the one with the epic full name that's almost as formidable as her writing talent, that people are brave enough to cheer. Before long every writer gets a whoop and several yells, at the very least a hard clap and a lukewarm outcry.
11:14am, I get a cheer. The surprise makes me turn and look into the crowd as I head up the wooden steps after shaking the first hand.
I would have looked anyway, to be fair. I've been watching countless Creative Writers and American studiers walk up onto the stage to end their student career and get the recognition and applause they deserve, and all I've seen are the backs of their heads or their profiles hidden beneath hair, eyes staring straight ahead as they step back down. Boring! My lecture buddy of three years, the one who happens to be a supremely talented writer and director as well as a red-hot harlot on social media, turns as he mounts the wood and treats us to a little chin tilt and playful eyebrow wiggle before conforming to the boring as he approaches the Chancellor. Now, he had the right idea. This is your moment, it's been a long time coming and yet happened all too quickly, and it's a moment that may never be replicated, even slightly. We're in the effing cathedral, the centre of the city's universe; it's terrifyingly grand and fits the occasion perfectly. When is the next time we'll be onstage here, looking out over a gorgeous loving crowd? You have to appreciate that view. So I take my time looking out, feeling the smile burning into my cheeks, slightly embarrassed that my full name was just called out and echoed through speakers for all to hear – I'm pretty glad that at this point I didn't know that the many cameras on the stage were feeding into monitors on pillars further back in the cathedral for the guests to watch us close-up as we exchange a few words with the important lady and focus all our energy on not tripping over at any point... I'm careful to keep my handshake firm and friendly, I laugh a little too hard when the Chancellor says 'Got family in, then?'
'Yes, almost a whole row of them! I was lucky enough to get a few more guest tickets...' I'm aware that the graduand after me is waiting and the applause for me is fading.
'Well, there's a lot of love in that cheer!' I thank her and feel my bottom lip jut out and wobble violently. I was so close to making a joke when she asked if I had family in; I'd respond with something along the lines of 'no, just nobody believed I'd ever get a degree!' Something self-deprecating always goes down a treat. I chickened out. I make sure to quickly lightly tap the left side of my head as I walk away from her, say thank you to my brain, because for all its faults, it's done well here. I then get an impulse and turn back to the audience, execute the perfect Rory Gilmore tribute with a deliriously lewd sticking-out of the tongue, then finally step down and am greeted by a suited fella holding my certificate. He hands it to me, says 'congratulations', probably one of many millions he'll say this week, and I respond with 'Thank you, can I cry now?' He smiles sympathetically and utterly unsurprised he replies: 'yes, of course you can cry now.'
That's all the permission I need. I nod another thank you and as I stand at the side waiting to be guided back to my seat, I let my face fall in on itself and take a moment to ugly-cry. It's an instinctive childish outburst, the kind you get when you fall over, graze your knees and don't know how to laugh it off yet.

11:30am (or thereabouts) was my favourite part of the ceremony, easily. Our Chancellor and Vice are singing the praises of the uni, congratulating themselves and members of staff, then us. 'Please do join us in congratulating our graduates' is followed by a shit-ton of applause. I feel we've been celebrated enough to last us a lifetime at this point. Then, brilliantly, we graduates are told that our families and friends have supported us throughout our studies and surely they deserve a thank you, too – so we all stand, turn towards our honoured guests and give them their due, a ludicrously loud bout of cheering and clapping, several rounds of applause somehow condensed into just a matter of minutes.
I do think for a moment how wonderful those around me have been through everything. I called my mum when Drama group work got me down, when one person belligerently threw in a whole toolbox of spanners and a whole piece threatened to flush itself down the drain. My dad bought me coffee and listened to me rant and rave about my ECP and how I was struggling with the characters' objectives in my creative piece just as much as the technical wording and research I had to include in my rationale essay. Little sis baked cupcakes and always understood when my beloved dedicated team or loyal live-in friends became everything but, and was a hotline for advice that was given in the form of Taylor Swift lyrics. My grandparents wanted confirmation constantly that my workload wasn't too unbearable, and that my part-time jobs in the outside world didn't endanger my grades or my mental health. When I'd get home for a weekend and message home girls asking if they fancied a drink and a dance or just a long drive round and round, they'd oblige and make sense of things I'd been stressed over for weeks, in seconds. My degree is just as much theirs as it is mine. They just never turned in coursework, pulled all-nighters in the library or acted out giving birth onstage.

11:48am, I'm willing myself to soak in the moment as we graduates – now with the 'ate' instead of the 'and' – are parading out of the cathedral, out of the big red front doors that apparently are only ever opened for these ceremonies; we're walking past countless proud parents, dear friends and there's even a very well-behaved dog on the end of one aisle. The second the doors were opened, we heard a mad thunderous din outside and turned to one another groaning 'oh no, is that rain?! I thought it would have cleared up by now!' Then we realised it was, in fact, outside applause. Applause from the crowd gathered outside, waiting to see us all.
Eyes fixed on the sky as we get closer to the doors, I reach into my dress pocket and without looking at the screen I type a panicked 'I'm out!!!!!' text to my best girl to ensure she gets down to the grounds in time to see us all in our finery. She has instructed me to text so she can come down, but really I'm being selfish, I want her here ASAP because she's my fave and she's just gotta be here – there are too many recent tricky times I wouldn't have got through without her by my side.

From noon onwards we were milling around outside the cathedral, in a sea of smart clothes and dark robes, punctuated by hats flying here and there. I threw my hat, of course, for that eagerly anticipated photo op, and as I'd been warned that mortarboards can get confused and muddled when thrown, I stared at mine as it flew and made sure I picked the right one back up. It wasn't too difficult – my mortarboard flew a little out of reach and smacked someone as it came back down to earth. I kept throwing to a minimum after that, focusing instead on grabbing everyone I knew while I could, posing for photos together, squealing with happiness and hugging madly. I also delighted in meeting everyone's guests.
It's so interesting and all too rare meeting your uni friends' families – I suppose going to school with someone, you'd see their parents and siblings when you had play dates and dinner round their house in the evenings, and you'd see college friends' rellies when you walked home with them or when they got off the train at their stop. I find parents fascinating. I meet a mum and a dad and I can see where their child, my friend, came from. Not literally, of course, that's just too gross and personal. I mean I see the features in the face they share and the mannerisms they've adopted – also occasionally, if they're like me, they will have learned to say certain things a certain way due to a parent with an accent. It's not just that, though. I met a fantastic friend's mother and thought 'she's so sweet, it obviously transferred to her daughter,' then met the father and it all clicked into place: 'and THIS is where the joyful, slightly mad enthusiasm and infectious smile came from!'

I cried periodically throughout the day. Before the ceremony, during, right after when hugging friends outside in the sun, when visiting the barista at his workplace, while lunching with the family, as I waved goodbye to the parents, grandparents and sis, when I met up with a good friend for dinner, even as I walked back to my digs for the week with the barista. For the most part, they were happy tears.
I'm not sure what brought on the tearful outburst right after my name was called in the ceremony, I mean there are only several thousand possible causes; I've been bashed about a fair bit by the boys, I've been dealt a few shit hands as friends turned sour, there's been health scares and true nightmares galore, there was always embarrassment brewed within the booze, and nowadays the excitement is gone and I'm stuck where I am, doing nothing of note and waiting for the future to happen. It's been tough at times over these three years, but it's far far tougher leaving them behind. I said something uncharacteristically profound to my boyfriend as I waited for my train back to reality at the end of Grad Week – 'It's harder to leave than be left.'

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