Fast Food and Britain’s Glass Floor

A few days ago I came across an article by Yehong Zhu that had been sent into The Thought Catalogue as a response to the question ‘What’s it like being at an elite school like Yale and working at a fast food job?’ The author used the prompt to describe her experience of working at Waffle House through the summer months before commencing her studies at Harvard University the following autumn.

Recounting her shifts and the menial jobs involved, the jargon and memorising of orders ‘akin to that of an AP biology midterm’ and the exhaustion of standing for hours on end, her account reminded me of my first few months working at Pret a Manger, a British sandwich and salad take-away food chain.

In many ways our circumstances were fairly similar; like Yehong I had left school with the idea that I was some of ‘academic breed’ of person. I had no idea what I wanted to do in later life, but had trawled through sixth form to manage good grades and secured a place at a respected university (albeit significantly less high profile that Harvard -mine being University College London). Nevertheless, I presume it had a comparable outlook among staff and students; many of my future university friends were occupied saving turtles in Madagascar and discovering the underground bars of Berlin. Or standing in on court cases and shifting papers in Goldman Sachs; that well established territory of the future-leader-of-the-world-/-eighteen-year-old-work-experience typecast. But coming to terms with the unavoidable financial burden of studying in London, I had got to July with few plans for the summer, little to no experience of work and desperately in need of a job.

I found a recruitment centre in Victoria Station. I filled in a questionnaire, answered a few questions in person and I was invited to an experience day the following week. I swept the floor, put some toasties in the machine, made a yoghurt pot as per the ‘How To Card’ and was in.

When I started, I signed a 20 hour a week contract being paid £6.95 an hour to work at the till. In less than 3 months I was working close to full time with significantly greater responsibilities and a significantly higher wage. I couldn’t have imagined that after working so hard at school to get there, university would suddenly take such a serious back seat- and that I would have wanted it to. But perhaps ironically, Pret made undergraduate classes seem empty. I came to think of ‘the day job’ as a different sort of education – one in which I was meeting people outside my usual sphere with views and experiences of the world that differed from my own – and almost every other university student I sat in classes with. Apart from the money, there was something exhilerating about the pace of life I found myself leading. I was no longer as simply a student; I had become a ‘Pret Person’ and to me, that was no bad thing.

Of course there were things I found difficult. I wasn’t used to standing on my feet for 8 hours. I wasn’t used to being managed by someone who was struggling with english and being part of a team whose preferred mode of communication was spanish or italian. I wasn’t used to working at such a high intensity; the idea of making a salad in less than a minute including time to get ingredients from the fridge, clear up after and not forget the cherry tomatoes baffled me. How was I so useless?

I was highly aware when I took on the job that hiring me was a risk. I was the only english person of 49 employees in the shop. I found it strange at first, but soon realised why there were so few of us- the english either become managers within 2-3 years or leave within the first month. Neither is necessarily good for the morale of the rest of the team, and being a bit out of my depths when it came to spanish slang and not so up to date with the latest Russian rap hits (although I did learn, of course…) it was a difficult line to walk. So to an extent, I can emphathise with Yehong’s feeling of ‘other-worldliness’. Nothing was what I expected. But at the same time, that in itself was just as much a challenge as perparing for the end of term coursework – only, to me, a far more interesting one to persue.

And that’s where I found Yehong’s account unusually sad.

I don’t want to necessarily critique her experience in any way; we were working in different companies for different lengths of time and in different continents. (Naturally, being part of the EU drastically alters the labour pool for entry level jobs in the UK and therefore the kind of co-workers you expect to find.) But personally, my own time in Pret only served to highlight a sickening realisation; that it’s rarely intellect that separates entry level/ minimum wage workers from those who can afford to aim high. It’s opportunity. For the majority of workers, the £56 they earn for 8 hours of watching the clock constitutes just as much of an ‘existence’ for them as it does for anyone else – not much, but it’s a temporary means to an end.

Of course you can expect to find people who (on the surface) seem to have few ambitions in life. Those who are happy working on the tills from 7am to 3pm five days a week, greeting customers, passing over coffees, retorting the infamous ‘eat in or take away?’ They know what to expect today, tomorrow and the day after that, and if they haven’t yet made it to team trainer, probably this time next year, too. It might be a bit boring, but if you’ve been packaging clothes into bags at a factory in Lithuania for the previous ten years and now find yourself learning english with a growing pension and paid holidays, for you at least, life certainly is stepping up a gear.

But in honestly these were a very small proportion of those I met. Most of them had stories well beyond my own. (See below.) They were ‘fast food workers’ with as much a planned path in life as the rest of us. Some know exactly where they want to go. Others are hopeful of opportunities. The reason they’re there behind the tills is not because of their character, lack of ambition or bad grades. More often than not, it’s because they’re starting without the base that we’ve been given. They have no backstop in life. No support network. Yes, they have degrees, yes they’ve had ‘good’ jobs in the past. But if your degree was in Czech law and the jobs you can find in Prague barely cover your rent, with a strand of courage you’re going to go look for something else, even if it is starting right from the bottom.

Alongside familiarising myself with which detergents are used for ovens, worktops and fridges and the proper security procedure if we ever come across a bomb under a table, what I really took away from my time in Pret was the extent of the glass floor problem we suffer from in Britain. Much is said about the need for social mobility. The need for fluidity within our social strata, so that familial background no longer inhibits personal merit and acumen in determining our position within the social system. In our capitalist, ‘protestant ethic’, western world the idea of social mobility is inescapably tied up with the undying aspiration for our children to exceed our own successes. Many of the parent’s of my colleagues at UCL undoubtedly saw their children’s education as an investment, paying for their clubs, holidays and school fees. They had prized the importance of ‘soft skills’ such as confidence and presentability – maybe even filtering their offspring through weekend drama schools and singing lessons. And now, on the eve of university they were once again financially supporting them during unpaid internships or work experience. For those without the means to subside for 3 months without student finance, such a luxury is naturally not an option.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The last decade has seen much development on the front of the glass ceiling in society. Additional rights and company quotas for women, the disabled and elderly workers have enhanced the possibilities of the aspirational (generally at the top of society) –  and rightly so.

But just as pressing an issue, and invariably a more sticky one to tackle is the plight of those in the lowest segments of society who find an equal struggle in reaching up. As the expectation and competition for graduate jobs becomes more fierce, parents will feel an even greater pressure to invest in and support the next generation; the invaluable trust fund or the distant relative who works in a big office (and let’s just hope won’t mind having a free assistant for a week) become not just an asset, but a criterion for economic success. This is the glass floor in it’s creation. We all have the merit – this is a race for the everything else. And dangerously, it’s in these everything else societies that economic inequality is the greatest – a comparison of social mobility in US and Canada will tell us that.

So its those without the parents, without the funds or without the contacts that are stuck underneath the glass floor. In the case of Britain, a significant proportion of those stuck are immigrants- in some (but not all) cases suffering from the added disadvantage of poor langauge skills. But immigrants certainly don’t represent all cases; those who have been in social care, those from poorer backgrounds, rural backgrounds etc etc… They’ve got the personal equalities, education and common sense.  But because that’s all they’ve got others are able to slip in ahead of them on the rungs of the social ladder. (And let’s face it – how often do we slide into those algebraic equations we learnt in sixth form in our average ‘graduate’ job?)

As I say, there are few easy fixes. It seems to me there are two strands to take – the broadly leftist or the broadly conservative. The ‘cutting in’ on the social ladder could be targeted – Ed Miliband momentarily took a stand against unpaid internships in the 2015 Labour Manifesto. This would inhibit them from becoming the reserve of the elite. On the other hand, the ability to cut in could made more widely available – particularly to those below much of societies’ glass floor. To varying degrees of success, the academy idea has paved the way in bringing students from poorer backgrounds closer to employers and corporations. (Still largely restricted to urban areas though.) At the same time, the present government’s emphasis on apprenticeships has highlighted the benefits of employees ‘working up the ranks’ rather than recruiting one level of worker for the entry level jobs and relying on a graduate scheme to fill the roles at the top. Realistically, no one can stop people from taking opportunities to enhance themselves. The only approach is to ensure that those opportunities reach the widest corners of our society.

We may still be a long way from resolving the problems and perceptions of inequality within Britain today. But let’s at least attempt to come to terms with it; my time in Pret gave me a small, valuable insight into one particular corner of the lives of those below many people’s glass floor. They’re not necessarily ‘poor’ – they work incredibly hard and get paid relatively well for it. But in many respects it’s a socially isolating life to lead. They work with foreigners, live with foreigners, go out with foreigners and, of course, when it comes to that all-important telephone interview for the next job? No, they didn’t understand what the person was saying on the phone. Talking too quickly. Maybe using some special terms. So they’re sticking around here for a bit….

Pret was tough, inspiring, and the best form of ‘education’ I could have hoped for at the time. I soon realised that the person pushing our cereal boxes through the checkout in Lidl, or the bored security guard at the Oxford Street Primark- they too are the protagonists of their own love stories, and probably wildly better than our own. They may have read more Dickens novels than our entire sixth form English class; they may have more certificates than us and they probably do speak more languages.  They have plans for their route to the nobel peace prize, or UK Top 40 christmas no 1. And dreams for their children and hopes for retirement. And being cynical about it, its only the rest of society jumping ahead of them that’s dragging them down.

In words of the College Dropout himself…..

PS- a few of those I worked alongside:

An Italian ex-circus clown who had toured across europe for 15 years and knew virtually every turkish restaurant in north london (no mean feat). He had almost finished his law degree when I met him, making a coffee each 30 secs, 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week to pay for his course.

My manager Aga, left Turkmenistan with a friend when he was 24. Speaking no english, he got a job working in the kitchen in Pret where he met and married another employee, a Brazilian woman. He had an engineering degree from Ashgabat University as well as degrees in Computer Science and Finance and Accounting from Birkbeck and City Universities in London. When I met him he spoke Russian, Turkmen, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese and understandable English. He used to joke about not having any qualifications in cleaning tables, having spent some much time ‘developing the skill.’

And a 22 year old Hungarian who had become redundant after the cinema he worked at in Budapest shut down. Having learnt english from Game of Thrones, he came to London knowing no one. He arrived at work at 8.30pm each evening, made sandwiches until 4.30am and after 3 buses got home at around 6am. He knew every word to every Jay-Z song, timed to perfection. (Yes, I was jealous.) This summer he went to Ibiza for the first time. He wants to be a DJ.

Don’t hate me, but I’m struggling to be a feminist.

I’m having an internal dialogue as to what I think about feminism. It’s been going on for a while (roughly a decade) and I’m concerned I’m not making much progress. I’ve had the opportunity of an education, I can vote, I can work, I can travel where I want. I don’t feel like there’s anything I want to do but can’t solely because I a woman. Granted, occasional unwanted attention from the opposite sex is still a problem today. I think we all know that. But I don’t feel like that diminishes me as a person. To me, that’s not so much the woes of being female – more the woes of being a man who’ll never know what he’s missing.

But despite all this, I still feel some moral obligation to adopt the title:

I am a(n aspiring) feminist.

I still get a bit anxious when the topic comes up. When friends share ultra-empowering, women-rule-the-world statuses and links on facebook, or complain about their daily maltreatment by men. Or when we praise Cara Delevigne for telling us to ‘free the nipple’ on instagram and get excited about the girls of Tehran for wearing jeans and cutting their hair short. Of course, this isn’t any form of western cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism (although if it were Mauri tribespeople instead of Arabs, perhaps we wouldn’t be celebrating their stylistic transitions with such triumphalism) – no, this is feminism, so stand up girls; let’s all clap our hands and dance to Katy Perry because WE LOVE FEMINISM ❤

Well, Michelle Obama’s great. And Queen B. The Bell Jar got me through when I needed it. Can I join the club? 

No seriously, I have tried to be a feminist. I started off with If Women Counted by Marilyn Waring – written in the 80s but now considered one of the founding texts of feminist economics. As I understand, her argument suggests that in associating the value of our assets (whether human or physical) with the monetary value of the output they produce, the capitalist set-up is designed to reduce the role of women through undervaluing the work they traditionally do. The male position is therefore secured on a higher rung of the social ladder and women are reduced to their dependants. The argument seems pretty logical – because women more commonly do work with no monetary value attached (caring for children; managing the household for their families; providing basic, but unpaid healthcare), women represent ‘undervalued human capital’ in our capitalist system. Men, who aren’t expected to fill these roles and so aren’t ‘undervalued’ enjoy greater economic freedom, independence, and a higher status in society.

I get, it- feminism is about women having equality with men, and there’s no lack of cases across the world where that still hasn’t been achieved. Certainly in many of the poorest societies women have little option other than to fill these unpaid, undervalued roles. The pure fact that they are female, and nothing else, condemns them to a lifetime of dependency with little ownership and few choices.

But what about the women who are independent? Who can, if they choose, step outside the immediate homestead and work? In most of the Western world isn’t it the financial and therefore social independence that we enjoy that forms the pre-requisite to the luxury of calling ourselves feminists? After all, I doubt many of the women Marilyn Waring was referring to in her economic model would actually labelled themselves with the term. Ironically, it seems to be those women who do enjoy more or less equality with their male counterparts that are able to join the club. `Those who don’t seem to be left outside.

Hence the confusion again set in. Maybe I needed to look at the other end of the social/ economic spectrum. If I struggled to get my head around the relationship between feminism and women without relative power, maybe a better place to start would be looking to those with relative power. And I needed to hear clear arguments. I needed someone to talk to me; to tell me personally without me having to think. So I went to the autobiography section of the Oxford Street Waterstone’s and picked out Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. Surely the queen herself, the New York high flyer and all round woman-of-the-world couldn’t let me down.

It was a good read. It certainly filled the criteria of me not having to think, and I found it strangely reassuring to match up her eccentricities to my own – I definitely felt a bit less weird for four or five days and that’s always a good thing. But I couldn’t escape the sense that I was looking onto a very tightly-knit circle of grown women enjoying a kindergarten story time session.

Yes, I recorded what I ate for a month. And guess what…. I eat SO MUCH FOOD. But it’s ok that I’m overweight because on the inside I’m beautiful.’ *General applause and pats on backs all round*

Ok, the essence of the book I agreed with. Women don’t need to be worried. We don’t need to feel like we have anything to live up to, or be pressurised with any constraints. We should be confident, and happy, and feel good about ourselves.

But aren’t these pretty universal messages? I’m sure our childhood friend Arthur the aardvark and the tunes of S club 7 were saying the same things…. Why when we get to adulthood are they being withheld within the binds of daring pink and black ‘feminist’ print?

I understand that there are issues which face women to a greater extent than men. And these are real issues. Emma Graham-Harrison wrote a recent article in The Guardian highlighting how much more difficult survival is for women residing in the migrant camps in Calais purely because they’re women. We as readers can empathise with the fear of unwanted attention when we go out for the evening (mobile phone and house keys in toe). But with no streetlights, no police support, no tampons or soap, and in many cases a child to look out for (three mothers have so far given birth in ‘The Jungle’ camp – quite a feat) daily life takes on a whole new level of challenging.

But I find it difficult not to see the term ‘feminism’ as restricting these issues to the female sphere. Not in their reception – there are plenty of prominent male feminists around – but in their origin. It suggests that these are problems only women have, and society needs to deal with them.

From all that we’ve learnt in the history of the world, surely one of the most important, resounding lessons is not to look at humanity in blocks. Not to divide people up as their nationality, or their religion, their race, political bias – or gender. Not to isolate each block or pose one against another. People are intricate. They’re individual and interconnected in more ways than we realise, and in my opinion, a huge achievement of our generation has been our ability to disassociate ourselves with gender norms. It’s ok for our best friends to be of the other sex. It’s ok to spend time with whoever we want to spend time with – go to dinner with them, go on holiday with them, co-habit with them. As we’ve recently seen with the Women’s football World Cup, women’s sport is for once being regarded just as seriously as men’s. This isn’t because women are becoming more like men – it’s because the individuals on that sports team are now able to do what those individuals want to do. In many cases, our gender is coming to no longer define the boundaries of our societal or social roles and interactions. Yes, there’s a feminine stereotype and a masculine stereotype, but at last we seemed to have realised – 99% of us lie somewhere in-between, as non-gendered people.

I’m saying this because I think that’s the crux of my issue with feminism. That surely ‘feminist’ issues are just ‘people’s’ issues. In response to feminist economics – anyone can be economically undervalued, male as well as female, child as well as adult; in response to Lena Dunham – anyone can feel insecure; in response to the real challenges facing women throughout the world – the challenges you’re facing don’t just apply to you. They don’t exist in their own gendered sphere – they’re part of a wider societal, cultural, economic and political sphere that touches on and involves us all. Their relevance shouldn’t be attached to the block of humans we call ‘women’. The danger; the injustice; the lack of independence or choice; the harassment and exploitation – they all very much exist and they’re all very much causes worth fighting against. But these aren’t issues of women’s rights, they’re issues of human rights.

Why are we still going for gold?

First you get to the perfumes, cosmetics and toiletries. Then the chocolates. Then the shisha pipes and fancy lighters. After that it gets a bit more boring – no hand cream testers here. Just magazines, snacks and refrigerated drinks. Maybe some vacuum packed dried fruit, cheap flip flops and falafel wraps. And of course the dealers in bars of gold.

This was the scene as I walked through Oman International Airport last summer, and one that wouldn’t be much different from the many airport departure lounges scattered across the Middle East. Gold could be bought in the country of origin at internationally stated prices, transported elsewhere and sold in the local currency- thus circumventing any potential cronyism from an unknown currency exchange officer in another country, and preventing the chances of stacks of cash disappearing abroad. In an uncertain world, this seems pretty common sense. It wasn’t long ago that our own Bank of England was pegging the pound sterling to the price of gold. Still having the gold rich Americas to exploit and an unlimited supply of forced labour, until our conscience got the better of us and gold supply became more precarious the system worked alright.

But even now, the use of gold as an international medium of exchange has in no way disappeared. One of the big selling points of the airport gold dealers is that they’re duty-free. This doesn’t make much difference if the gold is staying in the country; sales tax is usually low to non-existent in most Middle Eastern countries (being sceptical, let’s remind ourselves or the reason most international businesses are there in the first place…) But undoubtedly, not all the gold is staying within its national borders. Whilst transfers of financial assets abroad would usually be taxed and recorded, gold can more easily be hidden. In effect, it’s the black market currency of the high flyers and the dubious.

Because gold is priced in dollars on international markets the price of gold is still intimately, inversely related to the dollar. This translated to a 200% increase in the price of gold between January 2008 and August 2013 over the course of the economic downturn. With the international economy seemingly on the mend, prices have since fallen 20%. So put simply, the better the US economy is doing the greater the demand for US dollars; the worse its doing, the greater the demand for gold. When interests rates remain low, at least the hope of selling on gold at inflated future prices keeps speculators on their feet.

But how long can the inverse boom and bust of gold keep going on for? As increasing emphasis is placed on ethical investing, surely the gold market will be scorned on as an archaic backwater- after all, it has few selling points; it’s an inert metal that in itself cannot accumulate in value, and one’s personal ownership of it has no collateral benefits. Buying gold doesn’t educate people, it doesn’t improve their infrastructure or healthcare, and it certainly doesn’t promote peace.

To an onlooker, the whole idea seems a bit crazy. We go to a country plagued by the ironic misfortune of being materially rich. We the already elite to exploit the labour of the already poor (invariably one of Michael Collins’ The Bottom Billion), circumvent local taxes – some of which, possibly, may have gone into the public purse, then dig another whole and pay someone else to guard it. And when the economy’s looking good we give it all up as quickly as possible (and, in america’s case, pretend we earnt it in real estate).

As the world attempts to respond to the pressures of increasing population, climate change and economic inequality we can only hope that the bubble of gold-mania will burst, and burst for good. We can’t continue to mine, process and distribute gold as is being done at the moment whilst neglecting the evermore pertinent issues we are facing. The storage of financial assets in times of uncertainty is of course understandable and sensible, but it’s high time that more equitable and environmentally friendly depositories are investigated. The expansion of government bonds are a clear suggestion. According to old- fashioned Keynesian teaching if more money is made available to a government to borrow it will become cheaper for them to do so. An increase in government spending will therefore soften the blow of economic downturn and hopefully get the economy back on the straight and narrow without such huge debts as may be accrued when borrowing from an international lender. With both genuine public investment of this kind being directed into emerging Asian and Latin American economies and the EU’s fiscal deal with Greece harbouring at least temporary financial security within Europe, let’s hope a trend is kicking off.

But this will require a sense of trust, and it probably be unwise to be too hopeful. As economic analyst Adam Forrest recently commented, ‘Gold is a mirror. It reflects our deepest fears that the people running the world don’t really know what they’re doing.’ When we loose confidence- in our governments, neighbours or investments, we turn to gold.  And as long as we turn to gold, we turn away from truly lateral development.

The Pledge

I worry about being a persistent admirer. At least, being solely a persistent admirer. It’s quite a scary thought. One of those who makes deliberate visits to the magazine shelves in the Victoria Station WHSmith to gape at Beyoncé’s ability to be vegan. Or the toned physique of the latest celebrity unveiled in their holiday snaps from a secluded Caribbean Island; sea behind them twinkling in the sunlight and hair coiffured to perfection. Maybe even a yacht or collection of palm trees in the background. Of course, this admiration comes with no intention of adopting the required diet or exercise plans. Nor going on holiday (or buying the magazine). These are the lives of the rich and famous, and we’re waiting for the train.

And its easy to brush off those who spend hours on youtube researching tracks and ‘unknown’ mixes. They play favoured consistently for 4-5 days until unable to bear it again- long after those around them have felt the same, before making the swift U-turn from 90s deep house to Chopin as the playlist of choice.

I am also that person who delves into the posts of arty instagramers (currently on @pauloctavious @thiswildidea ) and for an afternoon inspiration is found in every street lamp, shop window or park landscape. I am the unstoppable amateur artiste. The lighting, graininess and timing…. The pure depth and meaning of the shots convey so much…. to me. I then realise that I, my second hand acer (they do make phones) and admittedly poor photo editor fail to give the desired ambience. Perhaps I should stick to more generic shots.

I suppose I’ll probably always be all of the above, and that’s ok – but I’m not just all of the above. I’m also someone who wants to care. I don’t want to simply admire others caring. I don’t want to only receive. A few months ago I lost someone that I feel like I never really knew. Although I didn’t expect it to have a big effect on me, it really did. Before shock or sadness, pain or disbelief it was guilt that really struck me. Not because the death was especially my fault or I could have changed the situation, but because there was a person – a resource of thoughts, experiences, emotions and insights that I had neglected and a mind that could no longer be picked, let alone understood.

I became increasingly aware of the power of individuals, both in a personal and wider sense. The power of family bonds that I had previously not realised, and the power of greater, ‘global’ individuals that have such an impression on the lives of others- many of whom they may never come into contact with. How might the world be different if it were bereft of their particular passions and observations? What if Malcom X or Rosa Parks had played a more passive role in the fight for civil rights, sitting by and watching the progress take motion from afar? Or if Aung San Suu Kyi just wasn’t so bothered about the political potential of democracy?

Or, more to the point, the largely anonymous comedians and journalists operating from the bars and street corners of Harare who risk so much to bring to light the malpractice of the Mugabe government. If not change, at least their work brings about a collective political awareness amongst their neighbours, colleagues and friends. And those documenting the daily struggles of the people of Soweto, Johannesburg. The violence, unemployment and invisibility they endure as their elected government look on – but also the rich communal atmosphere and relatively developed informal economies that prosper from its corrugated steel huts. In a sense, the cultural wealth of its people.

These are people who really see the world. They don’t just admire it, but synthesise it, debate it within themselves and act on it. To me, this is the true power of humanity – the ability to conceptualise the world and pass on that conception.

So this is my attempt to make up for the guilt. This is a pledge to myself to both receive and ‘admire’ the world (even if it is through Heat magazine) but also to analyse and act on it. Who knows how long we’ll be here, and who knows what is contained in the minds of those around us.

A letter to the first person to tell me they loved me

So you said good luck and goodbye. You said maybe we should have seen other before I went. I said maybe. But we didnt, and I suppose if it mattered then we would have.

And then I didn’t know what else to say, so I said thank you and bye. And we simultaneously hung up.

I think we think we’ve spoken twice in the past year. The first time, at a mutual friend’s birthday party you hardly knew anyone. You stuck to me like glue, telling me about your great life at your fancy university with fancy friends and big ambitions. Your eyes were on the future and we weren’t going to discuss the past. I said I was happy for you and you said I should come visit, for a weekend perhaps. If I could take the time off work. Sure.

As it happened, a few months later I was passing nearby. I called and you came out to meet me; the first time I had been alone with you since the last time. And finally, I felt pretty hollow towards you. The knot of emotion that had kept me tied up for last five years had been released. Or at least relaxed. There was no excitement or nervousness, nor sense of anger or betrayal. I was blank and we had both at least partially found someone new to keep us going to the gym and occupied at weekends. I just wanted to understand what had happened and how I had got so caught up. But in your predictable dismissive style you relented once again about how ‘busy’ life was and trailed me through the supermarket listening to your deliberations over the superior washing powder and what to buy for dinner. When I realised you were buying for one, I got the hint and left you in peace.

So its fine if we never really connect again. I accept that recognition of what happened – that chunk of our lives that proved so formative for us both has been conveniently swept away (just as we conveniently swept away so much else) and I won’t ask anything more from you. Each time you pop up on snapchat looking tanned in the south of France or in dinner jackets at private parties I realise how far our lives have diverged and the full extent of our dissimilarities. I still remember your obsession with sunbathing and fear of appearing pasty in photos. And can smell your tower of hair gel and doses of Lynx. I suppose they now resemble a memory, not an emotion. (And thank God for that.) But even if I say nothing else to you again, I want you to know the effect you had on me and the distorted perception of ‘love’ that we somehow came to adopt.

We met fresh out of primary school. You were short and I was quiet. I don’t remember much more than that. As the years slipped by we shared classes and friends and interests, and probably stepped up the flirtation as we experimented in our own worlds of the early teens with little concept of the consequences. I had been suspicious of ‘romantic’ relationships from the start – my mum and sister had both been let down in some way through those they had loved and I had developed my own armour of never trusting a boy too deeply. Have fun, enjoy their company, but be wary of emotional attachment. In my eyes, it could only ever be dangerous.

I suppose you gave off the same attitude – or it seemed to suit you at least. The older you got the more ‘macho’ you became, with numerous ‘girlfriends’, jokes and well timed one-liners. You were clever and charming and flippant, and we were trying to understand ourselves. Looking back on it now, I had an unusually liberal upbringing and was free to experiment, discover and navigate for myself – and with us, nothing was a big deal. So when I found myself at home with you one night and, having just turned fifteen candidly stepped into my first sexual ‘encounter’ I thought little of the blood that soaked the sheets or the unusual pain I was feeling. You seemed to be fine, and the next morning we put on the washing machine and watched The Inbetweeners.

We drifted through another year of friendship. You would phone me in the holidays and I would walk around London streets in the dark. You would open my eyes to science, TV programmes and good music. Through you, I would escape for a bit into what seemed like a bigger, greater world and I really did value it. I’m sorry I didn’t show you at the time how much I appreciated you.

And I can understand how you felt betrayed. Just as I mock your ‘busy’ life now, as we got into sixth form I took on new courses, responsibilities and interests, and so did you. The circle of friends that had meshed us seemed to dissipate and I saw you less and less. Due to my timetable I ended up spending entire days with one of your best friends. But when I invited him and not you to the dinner you didn’t need to feel jealous – we had a different relationship and he had in no way ‘replaced’ you. (Whatever that position that you held was…) Anyway, you had other girls to chase buy that time, and were more than occupied doing so.

But when I next saw you at a house party a few months later and we crept out and got lost once again along winding London roads, reminiscing private jokes and past events and you made me laugh like no one else I couldn’t help but feel the sense of closeness and energy I had missed. Work and deadlines and home felt so far away. We once again seemed important.

And perhaps I should have seen what was coming. Perhaps we needed some confirmation of where we were. I realised I had grown a bit distant in the last few months, but we were still friends, I assumed? We were getting on with life. After all, it was you who had reminded me- for whatever had come before, we were just learning, right?

But from laughing and joking and a clumsy kiss under the streetlights it seemed within a second I was standing against the backdoor of a garage with my clothes discarded among the grass and gravel and I couldn’t move. We weren’t fifteen anymore. This wasn’t testing the water, or taking a punch in the dark. By that time you understand good experiences and bad experiences and roughly know what to expect from sex. I had thought you were a bit drunk. Well you obviously weren’t. In that moment I forgot where I was and who this person was I was with. I forgot the conversations we had had over the years and secrets we had shared. The experiences we had gone through and all those words meant nothing. I wasn’t this kind of girl. This wasn’t meant to happen to me, and I needed to get out.

I had lost my tights but I found my dress at least. And one shoe. You passed me the other without speaking. I charged out from the alley of garage doors back onto the street with no idea of where to go. Out onto the main road, pacing past kebab shops and 24 hour convenience stores- their vendors clearly perturbed by my shaggy appearance. I felt humiliated and embarrassed and for once, wanted to go home.  I heard you running after me, shouting. You grabbed hold of my arm and I pushed you away. I didn’t want anyone to touch me. I wanted to feel fierce and strong, although I probably looked much the opposite. You stood back, and said you knew the way. We walked in silence up to the house. I slipped past the throngs of drunken friends and into the shower and you slid upstairs and went to sleep. I had left by the time you woke up.

We went through another few months of not speaking. Not deliberately, I suppose. We just didn’t come into contact and I didn’t miss you. We were growing up once again, each discovering new people and I assumed that chapter of our lives and the ‘mistakes’ contained in it had closed. So when we realised that in the final year our school duties would bring about a forced closeness, it came as a shock. You apologised for scaring me off and I apologised for over-reacting and not much else was said. I’m still not sure if either of those two things really depict the situation but that was the easiest thing to say at the time and it was clear we needed to get over any past issues. This was a ‘professional’ relationship we were pretending to forge, although I think it was just as clear to you as to me that wouldn’t be the case.

As my work loads piled up, it was you who could relax me in the way I had relied on in the past. Perhaps it was the familiarity when so much of life had changed. Now, everything seemed exciting. Compared to the evening phone calls cut off by bad signal or hiding out in the churchyard at the bottom of my road suddenly we were dining on food we couldn’t pronounce and causing havoc on British airways. We would get crazily drunk from dessert wine (my tolerance level always being around a fifth of yours), then prowl about the City in the early hours forging ten-minute friendships with the homeless and road maintenance workers. You would blast out Duke Dumont on the train and we would take over the carriage (being the only ones on it), acting like we were thirteen again and everything meant nothing. And it was all our secret. The next day we’d both go back to lessons and duties and sports matches and homework and music practise and pretend we could take on the mantel of being quasi- adults. It scared me how quickly I always seemed to get used to you. And now it was you who was telling me that it was ok – don’t worry, nothing was serious. It was all on the surface, just having fun and avoiding the skirmishes and deep feelings that we presumed had been the problem in the past.

This was around the same time that another girl fell madly for you and you tagged her along until she could no longer accept that you would never be her boyfriend. You complained of her getting ‘too attached’. I hope you now realise that that’s what normal people do – they get attached, and it was us who deluded ourselves to the assumption that attachment was a bad thing. At least she recognised the need to know where she stood. And I was beginning to find someone who I unusually trusted and I suppose by accident he made me realise the gravity of the situation I had got myself in. Bit by bit the fallacy of the past years was inadvertently being knocked away and the remnants came crashing down. And regardless of that, somehow he was important. I found myself unable to backtrack on him in the way I had with everyone else up to then. Maybe I missed a chance, but we were friends and I liked that. More to the point because of you the idea of committing to anything felt so far away. He had had a succession of what seemed like serious girlfriends whom I doubted I could ever live up to. He was intense and serious and made me wary of all my weaknesses, but at the same time someone I specifically didn’t want to just dip into and forget about. Nothing about him was on the surface – completely your opposite. Even so, I was scared of slipping into the same again. My protective shields were up and it took me too long to realise that I probably wouldn’t have needed them. Before I knew it he had found someone else, and you and I had neatly lapsed back into our comfortable, ridiculous limbo.

Through her, you could have had the option to grow up. You can complain and bitch but she could have helped you. At the time, she genuinely loved and wanted to understand you. And for me, although it came as a shock suddenly I was finally willing to at least try to grow up. By then, we both needed it so badly. This wasn’t fun and carefree anymore; it was unhealthy and frustrating. I suppose I can really only be annoyed at myself for allowing you to get in the way again. Maybe it was my need for reassurance, or to stay in my quasi-comfort zone? Well, I was sick of it by then; I still don’t really understand.

This will be the third year since we left that tunnel. I’ve learnt that that the drama and insecurity that came with it isn’t normal. I don’t know if you’re still deluding yourself in your void between friendship and relationship. Or which of the girls on your facebook page have bowed down to your experience and  and been left assuming they were special. Maybe they’re older and wiser than I was. But for them- they shouldn’t be led to think that’s what friendship with you amounts to.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not blaming you, or me, or the situation we were in – I think we both realise it was all of those combined. And really, after all this I don’t resent the highs and lows. There were just as many good memories and bad and those are to be battled through and learnt from. I just resent how drawn out it all was. The time I wasted and the imprint you left on me. It seems like the more I took in the idea that everything meant nothing, the more this ‘nothing’ seemed to get in the way of everything. That fantasy may have been ok when things started out, but there were wider consequences by the end.

And after so long in the tunnel, without the structures that had surrounded us I was shocked by how unimportant you suddenly became. Yes, I was in the dark a bit. And it certainly took me a while to relax into my baby steps – but I enjoyed doing so, and I’ve once again learnt a lot in the years since. Things don’t have to be so complicated and covert. It’s ok to trust and believe in and even rely on people, and to expect the same in return. Of course, there a mistakes still to be made but we don’t need to worry about making them. I hope for you, you’ve been able to realise the same thing. Speaking to you on that last night I think we both felt equally grateful that that was it.