I bumped into someone from work the other day. Not my ‘now’ work; my ‘then’ work. The work where I wore a rank on my shoulder, made decisions, briefed teams. The work I slid out of eighteen months ago, on the pretence of a break. The work I finally quit last month, earning in return a standard confirmation email containing fewer words than the years I served.
I ran into her in the supermarket, the pen-pusher’s lunchtime destination. She saw me before I got to my car.
‘How are you?’ I asked. ‘What are you doing now?’ It was a work question. It was always a work question. She told me about her current role, and I felt a stab of envy. She was always one of The Bright Young Things: sharp, quick, destined for greatness. I was a Bright Young Thing too, once.
‘And you?’ she asked. ‘You’re…’ there was a pause, ‘writing?’ She made it sound as though I spent my days making daisy chains: a harmless pursuit, yet without purpose or ambition.
‘Yes,’ I said. I wanted to tell her how I ached to write, how my fingers itched when they weren’t at a keyboard, and stories fell over themselves to escape from my head, like excited puppies desperate for walks. I wanted to tell her that a decade in uniform had stifled and repressed me, chased out creativity and left me broken. I didn’t say any of that. ‘It fits in well around the children,’ I finished lamely, and her look of understanding was so patronising I bit my cheek with the force of my smile. She smiled back. I could never be like you, she was thinking. I could never throw away everything I’ve achieved. I would never abandon my career on a whim, to scribble unread stories and gossip at the school gate.
And maybe she never will. But perhaps one day she will wish she had.