A conversation with my sister turned to talk of being afraid; she had an upcoming university visit and was worrying about the journey there: what if she missed her bus, got the wrong train, couldn't find the right room, or missed the start of the tour? What if her childcare arrangements fell through and she couldn't go at all?
I'm 18 years older than my sister so, by her estimation, I'm a lot more 'together' than she is. More confident. Less likely to make a mistake. And right now, I guess that's true. I don't fear the fickle nature of public transport or panic about new experiences but I do remember how it feels to be in your early twenties when your skin is altogether a lot thinner and the world feels much bigger. I thought, therefore, the best thing I could do was share with her some of the mistakes I made when I was about her age. At the time, they were embarrassing, stressful and a little bit upsetting. In hindsight, I found them pretty funny and I thought you might do too. So here goes:
The Cup of Tea Incident
I am 20 years old and I have never made a cup of tea. And now I'm being asked to make one for the visiting Regional Sales Director who is Very Important. I am a coffee drinker and coffee is easy: a teaspoon of granules, some hot water and a bit of milk. Oh yes, and a couple of teaspoons of sugar (this is back when everybody had sugar). Tea is an entirely different proposition. Tea for the Regional Sales Director who is Very Important is terrifying.
I know how it starts: bag in cup then pour your boiling water in and leave it for a bit, but for how long? The Regional Sales Director says he'd like it "Builders". What does that even mean? How do builders like their tea? With cement in?
I stand and stare at the kettle before asking the office manager for help who (and I will be forever grateful to him for this - cheers Spencer) doesn't rip into me but instead calmly talks me through the process. Before going off to tell the whole of the front office and then standing in the doorway to watch me make my presentation.
Tea made, I proudly walk from the kitchenette into the back office (which is attached to a warehouse and has no natural daylight and yet is where the management team choose to sit), and as I cross the carpeted floor.... I fail to hold the cups level and spill tea all the way from the door right to the regional sales director's feet. Like Hansel & Gretel and their breadcrumbs, a trail of tea leads me past the laughing office manager and back to the kitchenette where I begin the process again. At least I know how to make it this time.
The Cup of Coffee Incident
I am 23 years old and going to visit a customer. I have driven there in a company car - a real life company car! I have a very nice leatherette Filofax of which I am inordinately proud, I like to think its says I'm "serious".
The meeting with the customer is in his office and he has something much nicer than my Filofax - a real leather, padded 'conference ring binder' with many pen holders, zipped compartments and slots for business cards. If there were a game of Top Trumps based on stationery accessories, he would definitely win. It lies open on his desk, ready for him to make notes based on all the very interesting things that I will have to say about structured cabling (hahaha!).
Before I can wow him with my knowledge of CAT5 however, he asks me if I would like a drink. I am tempted to request builders tea to see if his secretary knows how to make it but instead stick with what I know - coffee, white with two sugars.
The coffee arrives. It gets placed on the desk and as I reach across to take the handle I knock it everywhere. I watch as a tide of hot brown liquid rapidly makes its way across his desk towards the waiting leather ring binder. Mortified? You bet. Thankfully his reactions are lightening fast and his precious executive accoutrement is saved. However, the coffee does meet with a yellow legal pad which begins the process of mopping up before we can even grab a paper towel.
Would you like that in the mug, or all over your desk?
Much as my manager before, the customer did not make fun of me right away, instead he offered tissues and said "It doesn't matter". When I returned to my office, I had to relive the whole damn thing again as my sales manager wanted to know how the visit had gone. My penance was to make him a cup of coffee every day for the next week.
The Passport Incident
We'll rewind a little bit here - this occurs not long after the 'Cup of Tea' incident. I'm 21 years old and it is 4am on a very cold December morning. There is snow on the ground and more on its way but, for now, I'm feeling warm as I am in a minibus with my colleagues from the freight forwarding company I work for. We're all off on a jolly to Calais to buy continental lager from a hypermarket and maybe some French cheeses - the excitement!
Despite the early hour we're in good spirits and there is plenty of banter to be had. Talk of the night before and what the rest of the day might bring when someone pipes up "Alright then, who's forgotten their passport?".
Passport? What do you mean I need my passport? Somewhere in my mixed up mind I seemed to think that I didn't need mine....because we are part of the EU. Ah. It is fair to say that my comment of "I have!" quietened even the birds as they began their dawn chorus. My fellow minibus occupants looked at me as if I'd told them that....well, that I thought I didn't need my passport.
Taking the collective decision that they can't take me all the way to Dover because that would give me a stupidly long journey home, and they can't take me home because they'll miss the ferry, they drop me off in a village. I don't think it was too far from our starting point but it's 5am and there isn't any passing traffic so I'm going to have to walk. Which is what I do until I come across a knight in shining armour - or rather the knight in a battery powered vehicle that is the milkman. He very kindly drops me at the train station and when I finally get back to the house in Reading where I am lodging, I am in tears; a mixture of embarrassment, exhaustion and freezing cold. Fortunately my landlady is also a friend - she holds fire on laughing at me until she's made me a much needed cup of tea.
The next day I discover that my colleagues' minibus broke down on the way home and they were stuck in it for seven hours. They may have had their passports but they didn't have any heating......
Sharing these memories with my sister made her feel a bit less worried and gave us both a good laugh - the conversation was far more useful than me offering her advice. It also served as a reminder that at a time when social media leans towards the celebratory, sometimes it can do us good to own up to our mistakes.
It is a pleasure and a quirk of fate that I find myself being paid to write about all manner of topics - or that I find myself being paid to write about anything at all. Last week I was writing about data culture and tomorrow I'm going to be all about food tech. I couldn't have predicted it was ever supposed to be thus....I went freelance seven years ago as an Alliance Manager and at the same time started this blog which revealed me to be not an Alliance Manager but in fact a natural born writer. So here I am.
Anyway, this isn't about how I became a writer, it's about how to be a writer when you have a dog and the kids are on holiday. Are you ready? Here we go!
Step One: Make sure the dog has been walked early doors.
It's 6:30am and your husband has already left for his 'proper job' that requires driving 200 miles for a 9am meeting. Allow yourself a small moment of martyrdom as you realise that you will have to walk the dog and make the packed lunches and pack the bags and ferry the children to and from holiday club. Do not get showered (but do brush your teeth - you're not a barbarian). Instead put on 'active wear' which (regardless of whether you do any proper exercise) will excuse the fact that your hair is in a Very Bad Way. Walk the dog - whether he likes it or not - and pray that you don't bump into your neighbours. Your aim is for a sleeping hound that will allow you to write and nobody realising that occasionally you run so close to the wire that you don't shower first thing. Until you share it on LinkedIn.
Step Two: Take your kids and two of their friends to a holiday club.
Make sure that you have three boys in the back of your car who will talk about nothing but frigging Fortnite and Donald Trump, and a girl in the front who cannot believe her bad luck that she has to go to the same holiday club as her "smelly brother and his smelly friends".
Step Two (a): Realise that you need fuel.
Stop for fuel - now is not the time to 'wing it'. Observe the car bouncing as the boys 'floss' in the back.
After re-fuelling, head for a holiday club which you have carefully selected to be expensive enough to make sure you spend the time working, not just waltzing around your house with glee because you are the only one at home and nobody is asking you to do anything for them. Gaze wistfully at the mums and dads in full office clobber dropping their children off as you remember what it felt like to wear a Hobbs dress and have share options. Remember that you nearly lost your mind (but did cash in enough options to pay for a kitchen - swings and roundabouts.....)
Step Three: Get down to it
Return to house to find a sleeping dog (told you that early doors walk would be worth it). Take a moment to savour the silence of your home. Enjoy a solid few hours of writing and marvel at how a week off really can replenish your reserves. Even if your children fought like wildcats for large parts of it.
Step Four: Run the dog
Get some proper use out of your active wear. Leave the house looking unspeakable with the dog tied to a 'canie-x' belt.
Realise that by 'run' what you're actually going to participate in is a steeplechase because you live in the countryside and it has rained solidly for most of the past week.
Also realise that by 'run' you are going to participate in a 'hunt' because you husband insisted on getting a gun dog that loses its mind when it smells rabbits/deer/pheasants.
Return home where you will bump into your neighbour. Rejoice that whilst your face looks like a tomato placed on top of a pile of Lycra she is in her 'gardening clothes' so you are evens.
Step Five: Clean the dog
On the doorstep because your dog is too big to fit in a sink and will actively fight you if you try to put it in the shower. Congratulate yourself on buying a short-haired dog. Marvel at how you get through three towels.
Step Six: Clean yourself
Now is the time for that shower. See - it would have been annoying if you'd have done it first thing...
Step Seven: Get down to it (again)
After staring enviously at the dog who is now contentedly snoozing on *your* sofa, return to your words.
Congratulate yourself as you complete your writing. Before heading off to collect those kids :)
What do you do when your life has got a bit simpler? You know, when the kids are able to take care of most things themselves and you feel like you have established some semblance of a routine. You get a dog, that's what you do.
Well...you try to get a dog. We tried to do the right thing and go down the Dog's Trust route only to be met with a sea of cute little doggy faces, each above the legend that read "NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 16". So we bought a puppy and almost a year on from that fateful day I thought I'd share with you a few observations so far......
Having a dog does terrible things to your wardrobe
You see the woman in that picture? That's me. On holiday. That's what my holiday photos now look like: waterproof coat that packs into its own pocket. Waterproof trousers that have an elasticated waist and no pockets so you can't actually get at anything. Walking boots - WALKING BOOTS! I put this on and thought "oh my christ, is this actually my life?". Even the dog is staring at me as if to ask "Are you really going out dressed like that?".
Having a dog does terrible things to your wardrobe - part 2
You see the woman in that picture? That is also me. In it, I am wearing a coat that I liked very much. It is from North Face and is extremely warm. It has now become my "Dog Coat" and sports a stain that I cannot figure out but which makes me look like I have been lactating. It could be from the last time that the dog had his worming treatment at the vets and then rubbed himself all over my jacket...
You may also notice that I look tired in the picture. Having a dog makes you tired. Especially when you get a dog that needs a lot of exercise. Or one that wakes up early in the morning. Or one that does both.
Having a dog does terrible things to your house
You know those big plastic tub/bucket things everyone has - useful for transporting garden rubbish / filling with kids toys / filling with ice & beer (hurry up summer!) - well they're also very good for putting in massive holes that your dog has dug in the garden. He has stopped digging but we are yet to fix his landscaping. I fear that we've left it too long and it's now become a 'feature'.
Our hallway - when not bearing muddy paw prints - looks like Depeche Mode have dropped round for tea. It contains a variety of leads, collars and harnesses. Let me tell you a little bit about them:
The classic harness - sports a 'handle' so that you can grab your dog as you vainly try to get him back on the lead.
The Halti harness - claims to "stop pulling instantly" - does it f**k. My dog could use it to pull a car up the road in a World's Strongest Man competition.
The 'Gentle Leader' face harness - also claims to "stop pulling instantly". It actually does. What it doesn't tell you is that it will cause your dog to every now and then stop and rub its face along the ground in an attempt to get the thing off.
Normal lead - padded grip - nice :) Now held together with gaffer tape because it got caught on the velcro of my Dog Coat and all the stitches started to come out.
Halti training lead - longer than a normal lead. Bloody uncomfortable. Takes a layer of skin off your hand if your dog pulls.
Extendable lead - never, ever allow your dog to say hello to another dog on an extendable lead. You will end up in some kind of Twister manoeuvre with the other owner.
The stairs is a mixed bag. We are back to having a stair gate. I have been very earnestly informed that "it's entirely possible to train your dog not to go upstairs, don't you know" but after spending five weeks trying to combine working from home with instructing a dog that he may not go upstairs, I found the five minute installation of a stair gate the equivalent of a magic wand. Also, nobody leaves their shit on the stairs anymore because the gate seems to act like a magical force field - double result!
But why am I telling you any of this? Because if you are going to get a dog you need to know that:
Having a dog does terrible things to your bank balance
I have considered asking my customers to pay me in Pets at Home vouchers. Toys last two days, food lasts two minutes, leads need replacing and pet insurance is the one insurance that you will without a doubt need to use. You will need to buy terrible clothes to walk the dog in and a grille to keep your dog safe in the car oh and a crate that your dog will refuse to sleep in past the age of 4 months and a rug to replace the one that he chewed a hole in when he was a tiny pup. You may also like to spend money on dog training which will be by turns enlightening and maddening - some lessons you will come away from feeling smug and others you will leaving feeling like a twat.
And just when you get to the point when you think "why the bloody hell did we do this?" - this happens and you realise that for all the terrible clothes, terrible marks to the house and the terrible impact to your bank balance, they're completely and utterly worth it :)
Soundtrack: Doggystyle - Snoop Dogg
Like this? You might also like this poem: Get a Dog