It was July 2015. I hated my job and was bad at it. I was on a fitness kick, sometimes cramming in two sessions a day around work, the exercise a trapdoor from my persistent unhappiness. I was as piteous as a medieval martyr, but without good cause – I had made all my bad life decisions, after all. I was 26 years old. I felt as if someone had put a wheel lock on my life and my tyres were grinding in reverse.
It all came to a head one summer evening over red wine and cigarettes.
The day had started out ordinarily enough. It was a Friday. I woke at dawn, took three trains into central London, elbowing past women in pencil skirts and running trainers. My still-wet hair clung to my neck. The air was humid and slightly mildewy.
I walked into the office, where I worked as a public affairs consultant, advising companies that didn’t pay corporation tax or that invested in fossil fuels. Often, when I was supposed to be taking minutes during an interminable meeting in a glass-walled conference room, I would have fantasies about a bomb going off in our offices; my last thought, before I exsanguinated beneath the rubble, would usually be: “It’s no great loss.”
I lingered over breakfast, contemplated lunch and tabbed between emails and online news. I did no work, of course. I had once been good at this job, but had stopped caring – I couldn’t put my finger on when. I texted my boyfriend and he didn’t respond, although I could see he was online.
That afternoon, I remembered I had a performance review, so I collected my notebook and went to a boardroom. There, my manager said things like “underperforming”, “lack of enthusiasm”, “performance improvement plan” – and “possible termination”.
“Do you really want to be here?” she asked. She was kinder than she needed to be, but I got the gist.
The sensation of shame, as she talked, is hard to explain. It felt like walking through a thicket of nettles in your underwear. Like waking up in wringing-wet bed sheets. Like a plume of blood in a school swimming class.
I went home and called my friends, who made sympathetic noises, but didn’t have the nerve to tell it to me straight. I called my boyfriend, who was uninterested. Within a month, I would break up with him, although I didn’t know that.
That summer night had a metallic quality. I sat on the floor and dangled my legs over the balcony. The evening air felt like a cold hand pressed on my forehead, like a thermometer tucked in a fevered armpit. My teeth were furred by the iron-rich wine I was drinking. My lips were stained. I felt like a copper pan being scraped by wire wool: flayed, mortified, raw. I had no idea what to do. None at all. I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but it seemed an impossible abstraction, like learning Urdu or developing a sense of direction.
I spoke to a friend and told her everything. She was the only person to tell me the truth. “They’re going to fire you,” she said. “You should quit now.” She was right, of course.
When Monday dawned, I went into the office and handed in my notice. My manager nodded as if to say: “Yes, this is best.” I spent those last weeks being cut out of email chains and shunned. My boss gave a leaving speech that felt so outrageously insincere that I had the urge to laugh. My friends there, good people, looked out for me, stood with me on cigarette breaks and stuffed my leaving card with cash.
I walked out of that job on a summer evening much like the one I am writing this on now. The wheel lock is gone and I am spinning pointlessly no more.