My little brother has been helping me a lot recently. Dealing with the break up, plus starting a new job, settling into a new city, and adjusting to the unavoidable loneliness of London, there’s been a lot to think about, and at times… (deep breath; understatement of the fucking century incoming) I’ve struggled.
Charlie and I speak on the phone almost every day, usually for around forty-five minutes on my lunchtime. When I don’t speak to Charlie, I speak on the phone to my mum, and sometimes – though only rarely – I call my dad, or my youngest brother Jack. But there seldom passes a single day that I don’t talk to at least one member of my family.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was at university or living in Sheffield or even Berlin, there’d go by days and even weeks without a word exchanged between us. I’m unsure what the catalyst was for our newfound closeness. Possibly it was the shared isolation of lockdown. Possibly it was my new habit of taking long walks each day – always more enjoyable with a rich conversation. Whatever the reason, I am closer to my family now than I have ever been, and any success I’ve found in London – that is, staying sane and not sprinting nude, oiled up and screaming down Streatham High Road – is entirely their achievement, not my own.
It’s a curious thing. On so many strange and lonesome evenings I’ve laid awake, wishing with all my heart that I might finally meet a friend who thinks like me, who takes joy in the same things I do, who shares in my fears and confusion and can fathom, unjudging, even my worst mistakes.
For some reason I always imagined this mystery person – the lovely, understanding Mufusa, the Ben Kenobi, the Gatsby with the eternally reassuring smile – would be waiting for me in the next town, the next hostel, the next bar.
The fact that this role has turned out to be filled by the people I grew up with is so very obvious, so infuriatingly Disney, that it makes my eyes roll hard enough to give me whiplash. But there it is: my family are my lifeboat, my life jacket, and my lighthouse too. It’s bewildering how long it can take to see what’s right in front of you.
I’m trying to develop some new and positive habits in London. Charlie’s been helping me with that a lot. Each day when we speak I give him a little update about my life: things I’m proud of, how I’m feeling, and any hiccups I’ve had. It’s been a boozy week what with my trip to Avignon and a two-day festival in London, but on the whole I’m drinking less, and more importantly I’m thinking about drinking differently.
Cutting back on drinking and changing the way I think about alcohol has required nothing less than a total smashing up and reassembling of my typical thought patterns. It’s slow progress, but altering the habit of a lifetime was never going to happen overnight. I read a book called ‘The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober’, which helped a lot with finding new, healthy ways to think about drinking. And I’ve joined a bunch of groups on Facebook, all full of people who have committed to a sober lifestyle. Each day I read stories of people who have more energy, more lust for life, and better skin than they ever did when they were drinking regularly. It’s inspiring and exciting.
A large part of dealing with London’s loneliness is learning to get yourself up and moving. Without any close friends to pop round and say hello to, this can be difficult. However, I’ve recently found a great new get-out-of-the-house manoeuvre I’ve been enjoying: heading down to the pub (The Rebel Inn, Streatham High Road) and sitting with a single bottle of 0% beer and a book. I go, curl up on the old leather sofa beside the plants and the fish tank and the piles of board games, and I read until I get sleepy. Then I come home and cook a nice dinner.
I finished reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea last week. It’s a great adventure story, although I could have done without Verne listing the full Latin name and classification of every sodding fish that swam past the windows of the submarine. I’m reading the Count of Monte Cristo now. It’s 1300 pages long, which intimidated me to hell when it was first delivered, but I’ve read the first 60 pages and I’m hooked already. Lovely swashbuckling escapism.
I’ve been going to the gym, too. It’s only up the road, and they have a sauna and steam room and a swimming pool and a large weights section. I had an induction a couple of weeks ago and did my first ever deadlift. It’s a bit scary the first time – I was a little concerned my spine would crack and burst out of my skin like that horrid toothy phallus in Alien – but after you’ve got the hang of it you feel like a proper Viking.
And I’ve been having piano lessons. I’ve had three so far, and I enjoyed them so much I went and bought an electric piano off Amazon (boo). In the few weeks since it got delivered, I’ve learned to play all major and minor chords, plus a few sevenths and a handful of scales. I’m enjoying learning this way: there’s something intensely gratifying about stepping into an unknown and colourless world, and through hard work and patience, seeing it bloom slowly into colour.
Overall (and despite everything), London is going objectively very well. Subjectively, of course, it’s a different matter: my mood changes frequently, and I remain as wildly emotional and intensely ponderous as ever. But it’s nice sometimes to take a step back and look at what you’ve achieved over the course of a few months. As of now, that is: a small but growing circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances; a new job at an ad agency; a bank balance that is at long last ticking up rather than rocketing downwards; and a juicy book collection which is expanding far faster than I can keep up with.
What’s best of all, I think, is that I’ve managed – through awful, monstrous effort – to identify the most harmful patterns in my behaviour and stop them in their tracks. There’s plenty of healing and growing to be done still – a jolly good lot of it – but the active damage has ceased, which I believe is no small achievement.
And again, for all of this, we have my mum and Charlie’s calm listening and sage advice to thank.
Actually, that’s not quite true: during those annoyingly regular moments when I’ve made a mess of things and gotten myself all beat-up and sad, my mum’s advice is anything but calm. Sometimes, when we’re being silly, she calls me Simba – her lion cub.