Good Times, Bad Times: On Having Our House Burgled

So I recently experienced my first burglary.

I’d been in town having a drink with friends when my house mate called to say that her key wasn’t working in the front door. I listened as she went round to the garden gate to try the back and heard her breath catch as she said, “The back door is open.”

“Do you mean it’s unlocked or actually hanging open?” I asked, though he distress in her voice was answer enough.

“Someone’s been in our house.” she said.

I like to think I’m a relatively cool and collected person, that I’d be calm and helpful in a crisis but of course things are almost always different in real life.

“Okay. Alright. Okay. Have you got a weapon? Can you get a pan or something? I don’t know, have you got something heavy? Try shouting. Wait, don’t. Call the police. What about the kettle? That’s pretty heavy.”

I listened, unable to help at all, as she made her way around our house, recently occupied by strangers with most likely poor intentions – for all we knew at the time, they could have still been inside. I couldn’t do anything but tell her that I would be home as soon as possible.

I jumped into an Uber and had a bemusingly boring conversation about the traffic chaos caused by roadworks in the city centre with Radu, the driver. I was there in eleven minutes.

It’s a strange thing, knowing that there have been intruders in your house, a place where you spend your time cooking and sleeping and generally feeling at ease, relieved to be out of sight of the world and in your own secret bubble. Home is where your things are, your clothes and pictures and DVDs. There are take away leaflets stuck to the fridge with magnets that you bought while on holiday, there’s washing left in the machine, there are birthday cards on the mantle piece and about ten toothbrushes packed into a holder in the bathroom despite there being only four resident mouths to clean. I stepped across the threshold and for a moment couldn’t see anything particularly amiss.

The sitting room was the first sign that something wasn’t right. A friend of mine (bless her) has been crashing on our sofa while she looks for a new place to live. Her luggage was strewn across the carpet: clothes scattered, boxes torn open, films, toiletries. I mean, that’s shit luck, right? On seeing this initial state, I began to panic as I dreaded what carnage might have taken place in my own bedroom.

Bedrooms are pretty sacred places if you ask me. I often refer to my own as a haven; I’ve always taken pride in the way I decorate a room. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of any of my bedrooms will know what I mean by this; I take great care and attention to detail in making it an expression of my character, my inner thoughts, my interests and passions. When I was a teenager, I developed a habit of cutting photos and headlines out of magazines that I liked and blu-tacking them to my walls, resulting in huge collages of music, poetry, photography, film, theatre. I hand-write quotes from artists and authors and place them systematically where I will be able to see them every day and remain inspired. I copy out segments of my writing that I like to remind myself that I can create something beautiful out of nothing. Posters and tapestries hang from the walls, candles and trinkets and flower garlands adorn the surfaces of bookshelves and desks. When I close my bedroom door and look however briefly upon the work I’ve put into making the four walls surrounding me a place of sanctuary, I always feel a little more at peace. I feel safe.

The door was gaping open, every light was on and my things, all of my things, were everywhere.

I do understand that they are just things at the end of the day, I really do. But all of my worldly possessions were just scattered, thrown around, piled into mountains of what someone else had deemed to be of no value. Thankfully, my laptop had been left untouched. They hadn’t attempted to take it, nor was it damaged in any way which brought me a modicum of relief. My books too were unscathed; I have so many writing and sketch pads, journals, not to count my reading collection. There is a wicker box on my bookshelf housing all of my note books, dozens of archives of things I have written over god knows how many years. In fact, they were the only things left untouched in the whole room, probably because they appeared to be of no financial value. In a shitty way, I’d been lucky again.

Then there was my jewellery. I wear a lot of effects almost everywhere I go. I don’t care much for price tags, it’s sentimental value that matters to me. I won’t be seen dead without my ring collection on full display, a mixed bag of cheap bands, souvenirs from abroad, birthday gifts and precious family heirlooms. When I had left the house earlier that day, I’d looked down at my hands and passively cursed myself for forgetting to put my jewellery on; bare knuckles and wrists uncovered with bracelets make me feel slightly naked, a little off my game. ‘Damn it,’ I thought. ‘But, hey, it’s not the end of the world.’ Sure enough, this little quirk of fate meant that it was all gone.

My first thought was how upset my mum would be. Amongst the things taken was a silver ring my Nana had given to me before she died. She was well into the late stages of dementia at the time but she turned to me one day when I was thirteen, pulled a twisted silver band off her finger and said, “Here, you have this.” I don’t think I need to explain how this made me feel.

Walking around each room and observing the general chaos made us think that these intruders hadn’t really been searching for much (money maybe, small things they could exchange at Cash for Gold) but expensive things like laptops, iPods, stereos, etc. were still there. In a way, it felt like the real object in pulling our home apart had been to do just that: to simply lay waste to our personal spaces. There were carrier bags and cardboard boxes that clearly weren’t going to hold valuables inside them, ripped open and upturned. There was barley a clear inch of space to set foot on. They went through my underwear drawer, handfuls of pants and bras pitched into the air. Sort of amusingly, they’d been considerate enough to replace the drawers after emptying their contents. Well, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right? It was the idea of their hands on my things, precious or not, intimate, unimportant, whatever, that felt like the biggest violation. At the end of the day, everything in that room was my own and no one had any right to touch it or claim it but me.

There’s nothing like trouble to bring people together. While we waited for the police to arrive, we shared booze and watched an episode of Love Island. When they did arrive, we had out details taken and listed each of our missing items. We could tell just by looking at the uniformed duo that they had little hope of ever discovering the culprits. They told us to expect CSI in the morning and that we should probably find somewhere else to stay for the night. The next day we spent the morning chain smoking at the front door while a nice gentlemen from forensics dusted for prints and tried to establish a point of entry. By the end of it, all we could think of was pizza. So in the fucked up living room of our fucked up house, we settled ourselves into the general disarray, ordered Dominoes and watched a rom com, laughing at the shitty acting.

Sometime in the afternoon, we began the sizeable cleaning operation; we left all of our bedroom doors open and sang loudly and badly to 00’s classics (I’m talking Artic Monkeys, Outkast, Beyonce, Chilli Peppers, Nelly feat. Kelly, you know the stuff.) We were quite literally standing in the wreckage of our lives, shaken, exhausted, wronged, but we were together and smiling because of it. All day, I received message after message from friends, both intimate and acquaintances, offering help or commiserations, invitations to drinks or homes just in case we wanted to get out of the house. That evening when the doorbell rang, I answered, smelly and sneezy from all the dust turned up by the cleaning, to be greeted with a dear friend. “British Red Cross, we bring aid.” he said, before three bottles of rose wine were pulled from the depths of a Tesco’s bag. “Also, I got you these. I thought you’d be needing more now.” he continued, holding out a tube of biscuits to me: Party Rings. Not only are they a favourite of mine, they also served as a cracking pun given the circumstances. I laughed for fucking ages at that joke. We all sat squashed together in the living room that night and played cards, joking, drinking, recounting and speculating. One of the girls said that what had happened at least had an upside, as the culprit had uncovered a favourite top of hers that she’d thought lost.

It was initially a pretty scary experience, eye-opening but, on reflection, not wholly a bad one. This thing happened to my friends and I, and as a response people from all different corners of our lives have come forward to offer support by way of messages, beds for the night, offers of help cleaning or with rubbish removal or even money if we needed it. In fact, one of the sweetest gestures was made by my work colleagues; on hearing what had happened, they secretly started a jewellery collection for me. Hand-wrapped packages of second hand bracelets, necklaces, broaches have been dropped through my letter box and into my hands, no big deal, with a refusal to acknowledge the sheerly wonderful sentiment behind the act despite my protestations of “I can’t accept this.”

All of these things make my heart swell.

So there are twists of fate in life that you might call luck, things that you might consider to be out of your control. However, I like to think that there’s also such a thing as making your own luck; my friends and I have clearly surrounded ourselves with good people who we’ve been loyal to and who have reciprocated this quality in kind.

Sometimes you don’t know what will help, you don’t know where or how to start climbing the mountain before you, whether it’s a mountain of clothes and broken belongings or something more perilous. But I think the most comforting thing to hear when you’re looking up at the summit of a problem, praying for the strength to overcome it, is the question ‘What can I do?’

There are always mountains to climb in life but no matter how high they may be, if you are kind and surround yourself with good people, they will always show up at your back to offer a leg up.

I wish you all the best in your respective endeavours.

All my love.

Annie

xoxo

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Hurdles

“Are you a student?”

I get asked this question a lot. The answer is always the same: “I used to be. I graduated a year ago.”

The follow up to this exchange is usually the same too, with the other person asking, “So what do you do now?” and myself thinking, ‘Tell me about it.’

I’ve been dipping in and out of the hospitality industry all my life and for the past year since graduating, it’s become a full time job, a means to pay the rent, however it isn’t exactly something I’ve always been destined for. I’m a writer – it was one of the first things I ever knew about myself for sure. From the age of seven when I first picked up a pencil and started drawing a comic about my pet cats, I’ve loved telling stories. It’s a staple of my personality, a means of self-expression, creativity, catharsis, escapism. Charlotte Brontë, author of my favourite period novel, Jane Eyre, said, ‘I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.’ These words ring extremely true to me but as I’ve learnt – as do all writers in time – it is not always a forgiving pursuit.

People who know me usually agree that I’m a little unconventional – the word ‘quirky’ is thrown around when describing my personality. The more I heard this about myself growing up, the more I tried to own it. ‘Free spirit’, ‘dreamer’, ‘hippy’. I liked these terms, they made me feel different; I became proud of the identity as someone who happily goes against the grain. When my teachers told me that I would end up waitressing for the rest of my life if I didn’t go to university straight out of sixth form, I refused point blank to apply for UCAS. What’s so bad about being a waiter anyway? (If you’ve ever been one yourself, I’m sure you have all the answers to that question.) But the suggestion was a challenge, like a red flag to a bull. I wanted to prove that I could do whatever the hell I wanted and do it good at that without following any of the formal paths. I took a gap year, bar-tending and travelling, interrailing through Europe and seeing new places.

I know, I know. What a cliché. You won’t hear me apologise for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, it was a very nice experience but really, that’s all it was. I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. If anything, I felt a little bored.

At the end of my gap year, I started a course in Drama with Creative Writing at UWE, Bristol. It was equally the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. For the first time, peers and professionals alike were judging me on my art and I really, really wanted validation. Acting and writing are two of my greatest passions and I needed people to like it, to care, to turn around and say, ‘Shit, you’re actually good.’ Thankfully, that’s just what I got, not all the time but quite a bit. People said things like, ‘You have a real talent’ and ‘If you don’t follow this up after you graduate, it’ll be such a shame’. Isn’t that a nice thing to hear?

To a degree.

When I graduated, the praise stopped for a number of reasons. One, because I was no longer surrounded by hordes of like-minded artists every day to share and discuss our work. Those who I had remained in contact with were, like myself, more concerned with making rent to have the time or energy to be creative. The second reason is a derivative of the former: I was skint broke and working enough long hours at a high-end restaurant to render me incapable of creative thought for weeks at a time. Occasionally, I would pull up an old Word document and shutter out a sentence or two, sometimes I would write a little ditty on the back of a napkin during a shift but on the whole, I wasn’t writing anymore. I was disengaged from my own talents, distancing myself from my true vocation. Once again, I was bored.

This boredom, along with a few other factors in life, led me to a pretty dark place for a while. You could say that it was just good old fashioned depression because that’s what I was: depressed. It’s important to know that I’m not ashamed to admit this and nor should anyone be. I was a little lonely, a little lost, a little uninspired. I began to second guess everything I had tried to prove before in my life: that my lack of convention was meaningless, that I could make it as an artist without having to put myself through the grind of the soul-crushing nine-to-five, that my lightness of spirit wasn’t in fact a weakness but a strength. I’m aware how naive this makes me sound and that is partially true. But I am also passionate which can be a very powerful resource.

Time for a song lyric.

‘You made yourself a bed at the bottom of the blackest hole
And convinced yourself that it’s not the reason you don’t see the sun anymore.

As Hayley Williams of Paramore so aptly puts it, I was down and had concluded that I couldn’t write anymore, that my creativity had run dry and perhaps I was going to have to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to pull off my dreams, would never achieve the goals I had set for myself since I was a child.

But here’s where the epiphany comes in. I left Bristol for a while, went AWOL if you like, quit my job and disappeared off the grid in search of a bit of clarity. I’m not saying it’s a foolproof technique when looking for answers but being in a new, unfamiliar place definitely provides a change of perspective if nothing else. While away, I realised something obvious: I wasn’t enjoying the act of writing anymore. But why? Through several sessions of soul searching, both by myself and in the company of others, I started to see what was going on. It seemed that due to the recognition and praise I was used to getting throughout university, my art had morphed into not a passion, not a mode of expression, but a form of self-validation. If I wrote something, play, poem, story, and people didn’t like it, what on earth was the point? The pressure I had subconsciously placed on myself to be flawless was strangling the love I once had for the thing. So how was I going to fix it?

The answer became clear very quickly.

‘Stop trying to be good.’

Since then, I have been training myself not to panic when I work, whether it’s for others or just for myself. I draft and redraft and redraft again because that is the craft of a writer: to explore every avenue of possibility. When I hesitate to send off a job application because I may not be good enough, I breathe and say out loud, ‘Who fucking cares if you’re not good enough?’ When I entertain the idea of compiling a short book of poetry and think who would even bother to buy it, I think, ‘How cool would it be to have your own book on your shelf?’ When I’ve spent the day hammering out the first draft of a short story with an embarrassingly cliché plotline and some damningly over-the-top description, I ask a friend, ‘Fancy giving this a read? It’s rough but I’m enjoying it.’

In summary, when I stopped giving a shit about what other people felt about my art and remembered that the only reason I create is because I love it, the sky started to clear and everything felt brighter. It’s not as if that feeling of nervousness when sharing your work ever goes away – that’s just part of the deal. Hell, writing this right now with the inevitable prospect of releasing it into the stratosphere is a bit nerve-wracking but I’m pushing through it.

What I’m saying is, I got the fear and it nearly took away what I’ve long considered to be my greatest weapon. Leaving university is hard, losing that stability, that support network is hard. If you ever find yourself at a loose end, a bit confused about where you’re going, try not to panic. Breathe. Remember why you started down the path you’re on, what you love about the journey, how shiny the lights look at the end.

It’s been a year since I was a student but that’s not what’s important.

I am a writer.