It is Sunday evening. I am sitting on my bed wearing my Mum’s old plaid pyjama bottoms, a Green Day t-shirt from 1994 and cat socks with pink glittery trim. I have my hair piled up on top of my head in a ballerina bun, the universal sign for ‘I am home and have life admin to do’. Next to me is a list written hastily on a green post-it note that says things like ‘Claim back money for contact lenses’, ‘Book airport transfer’, and, for a reason I cannot remember, ‘Cornflour’. At the foot of my bed there is a semi-neat pile of library books, Boots vouchers and NHS letters, because I haven’t yet worked out where to store them (and probably won’t ever). Beside this pile is my pop-up washing basket, leaning dangerously far over to one side because I have stuffed it full of gym kit, towels and spare bed sheets.
This is life in my mid twenties. Everything is sort of fine. I am doing quite well. I am sailing along at a fairly steady pace, and sometimes, I actually remember to pluck my eyebrows and download the latest software updates. But there are tiny holes in my boat. I put things away in drawers but they keep spilling out again. I’m always busy but I never feel like I’ve achieved anything. I have a lot of conversations where I actually have no idea what I’m talking about. I never seem to have the right shoes for anything. Tiny holes. Just little ones. Not enough to make me sink, but enough to get my feet wet.
Is it just me wandering around in my soggy socks? I feel alone in it. Loneliness isn’t something anyone in their twenties ever really talks about, but it seeps in, from time to time. I don’t have a big group of friends, and I haven’t since primary school. I have a handful of close friends scattered around the place, but no group large enough to warrant booking a table in advance in London. For the most part, I’m content with my own company, and with having deeper connections with fewer people – but there’s a shamefulness to not having a group. It’s one of those little holes that I have to keep patching up and painting over. I feel I must have gone very wrong somewhere, because I seem to be the only 24-year-old who isn’t a part of any WhatsApp friend groups containing more than three other people. I’m happy with my small circle most of the time, but there are moments when I do feel like a bit of a failure. Especially living in a city where everyone else my age seems to be constantly gathering in big groups on Clapham Common, and organising Facebook events for 25th birthdays where 34 people are definitely going, 21 might go, and 9 have such busy social lives that they haven’t even seen the invitation yet.
The close friends I do have are enormously important to me. Nobody explains this to you when you are little and running around the playground playing tag with your pals – but maintaining friends as an adult takes time and effort, like all other relationships. And I do my best. I try to remember to check in on people when we haven’t spoken in a few weeks. I message them when I see something that reminds me of them. I suggest meeting up often, and sometimes I worry that I’m annoying because I’m always asking for diary dates. It’s hard. Minor but actually extremely major things like geography, logistics, time and money get in the way. And then of course there’s the number one thing, the thing that seems to be swallowing more and more of everyone’s time as we move further into our twenties: work.
Work is relentless, isn’t it? Five days a week, nine to five. (That is, if you are one of these lucky people who works a 35-hour week instead of the incredibly rude 37.5-hour week of most London jobs). After my first week of office work a few years ago, I had the same feeling that I did after my first day at school when I was four. Just when I thought it was all over, my parents broke the horrifying news to me that school was actually going to be a daily event for five days each week for the rest of my childhood. Essentially forever, in a four-year-old’s brain. Apart from the holidays, of course. As an adult you don’t get any free holidays. Nobody warns you about that. Not even Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. (The audacity!)
That said, after years of getting rejected, I’m happy that I finally managed to secure a job that I actually really enjoy. I get paid to write all day and I have absolutely nothing to do with data analysis or finance, which is excellent. But I still have this constant fear that someone’s going to find out I’m just a clueless weasel masquerading as a well-assembled adult. I hear words coming out of my mouth in meetings and struggle to keep up with what I’m saying. People nod along with me and keep sending me more work to do, which must be a good sign. But can anyone tell that it’s chaos inside my head? Does anybody know that I inhaled three bowls of cornflakes last night while I was waiting for my dinner to cook and then dropped my tray of aubergines on the floor? Can anyone see that I have a hole in the back of my tights? Do I actually look like I know what I’m doing?
I don’t think I do. At least, I certainly never feel it. I have a lot of clothes – far too many, probably, but I never feel properly put together. I certainly never feel like the kind of woman who can pick up the phone and say “Speaking!” when someone asks for her. I always end up looking like too much or not enough. I’m drawn to deep colours and different textures, and I seem to have a penchant for outfits that involve lots of tucking in and hoisting up and smoothing down. When you add to that my love for bold lipsticks and oddly-shaped earrings, everything feels too fussy, like an overloaded pavlova. I’m always envious of the chic women who glide onto the tube in the morning wearing shift-dresses and just a little mascara, but whenever I wear something simple, I feel like a tomato bobbing around in a fruit salad.
My outfit indecisions mean that I am horrible at packing. I swear I never used to be this bad at it, but recently I’ve been almost incapable of packing a weekend bag. Every time I pack, I somehow always end up slumped in a heap on top of my clothes, surrounded by hairbrushes and various charging wires, with nothing inside the actual bag. When I eventually get everything in the bag, it obviously never fits. This is usually because I have packed two woolly jumpers, six pairs of socks, and ten pairs of pants, because I’m always cold and you can never have enough spare pants. This overstuffed bag then opens up a whole new world of problems, because I realise that I can’t carry it halfway across London on the tube, and that arriving with something so unwieldy absolutely won’t make me look like a carefree and easygoing gal who can throw a few things in a holdall with absolutely no worries because I do, in fact, have a large amount of worries, and on top of this, if there is no space in the bag then there will be no room for my snacks. (A very big problem). Of course, the logical solution to this is to tip everything out of the bag and back onto my bedroom floor, go downstairs and have a large mug of tea (wine) and a (several) biscuit(s), then lie down in the packing mess I’ve created, eventually pack at 1.30 in the morning, turn up to my destination and wear the same pair of black jeans for the whole weekend.
Perhaps I will learn to pack when I turn into a proper adult. I am not sure when this will be – although there are signs of this happening. Last week I descaled my kettle with lemon juice which I specifically bought for this exact purpose, and went out of my way to go via Wilko on my commute home one evening to buy a loose-bottomed (don’t start) cake tin. I also recently bought 100% white cotton socks from M&S and got a custom-made Roman blind delivered to my office. If this doesn’t say adulthood, then frankly I don’t know what does. (The blind then sat in my room for six weeks because I couldn’t reach high enough to install it myself, and I almost knocked someone out with it when I had to carry it home on the tube in rush hour, but this is entirely besides the point).
I am hoping that I might eventually stop feeling like I’m scooping water out of a sinking boat, but the older I get the more buckets I seem to need. Constantly pretending that you are a competent adult and not, in fact, a bumbling mess who keeps their 85% dark chocolate in the drawer next to the mini screwdriver set they got from a Christmas cracker in 2012 is a full-time job. I have figured out a range of quite useful and completely useless things by this point, but there is an awful lot of blagging, fudge-stepping and Googling going on. (Most recent search item: what is a credit rating and how do I get one).
Navigating the chaos is hard. Things keep getting more and more complicated. Every day there seems to be a new pile of miscellaneous crap to sort out. My brain feels increasingly like a hash brown at the end of every week. And I don’t think it gets any easier. I think we just get better at making it look like everything is plain-sailing.