All at sea: 2021 in review
As the gently rolling waves shimmered in the late summer sunlight, I waded into the Solent. I had taken up sea swimming at the start of the second lockdown, but only now could I enjoy warmer waters. It was a rare moment of peace in a year of heartbreak and loss.
I began the new year confident and happy, if not a little guilty to have thrived so thoroughly when others had found 2020 to be so challenging. It seemed implausible that 2021 would be as good, but expectations were high.
Vaccines for COVID-19 had been developed and were starting to be administered. The election of Joe Biden promised a return to news cycles no longer dominated by the crazed orange egomaniac. In October myself and Cennydd considered postponing our trip to Monaco for the Grand Prix; come December we had purchased our tickets and were looking forward to a long weekend on the French Riviera the following May.
But expectations can be the thief of joy.
The year began with a second delayed and mismanaged lockdown held during the dark days of winter. Working from home was no longer a novelty, but a tired, wretched experience. The capitol riots put pay to the idea of geopolitical normality returning anytime soon.
Ripples of change were also being felt at work. Within days of returning, a handful of colleagues announced they were leaving. Dan’s announcement hit hardest. When he joined our team as a delivery manager, I thought he was annoying and unhelpful yet he proved to be a vital pillar of support. “Never stay on a project longer than a year” was his reason for moving on.
I had no such desire to leave. I loved the project and my team. Besides, work was a place I had found connection and purpose. At least until 5 pm. With daylight fading, status indicators would dim and conversations would end. Thrown back into an empty room filled only by a deathly silence, I would look to distract myself else feel the onset of tears.
Sometimes this involved playing online games with colleagues (I would invariably lose). While welcome and necessary, these activities were a reminder that others were not alone. When Matt joked euphemistically about people ‘bubbling up’ at a poker night towards the end of January, 9 months of solitude washed over me. I left the call and sobbed uncontrollably for 20 minutes.
This was an unsettling experience. Two good friends died in recent years and I could barely strain a tear. But here I was crying about crying.
Her message unleashed this outpouring of emotion. I was not okay. A conversation followed, and with her usual mix of positivity and possibility, a way out of lockdown was charted.
What about sea swimming? I had mentioned trying this on numerous occasions; she could put me in touch with a friend in Brighton who does it. We’d previously discussed creating a music video to mark the departure of Tijmen, Kahar and Matt, but needed a codename. What about ‘Tijkahat’?
Catching up the next day, we realised neither of us had left our homes in over a week, both rigidly following government guidance. So we formed a pact: every day we would check that each other had been outside and share a photo of something we’d seen to prove it.
This was typical of our friendship, a creative partnership where ideas were exchanged and plans would escalate. Her boundless energy and constant encouragement, coupled with my creativity and eagerness to entertain had birthed countless quizzes, inventive birthday cards, dubious karaoke duets and a 20-page magazine complete with horoscopes and puzzles. We were a brilliant double act – and she was the only person who could coax me into the back of an Uber.
While I appreciated the attention and our blossoming friendship, there was an uneasy asymmetry that would come to define it.
Whereas I would put effort into finding something interesting, meticulously editing a photo before sharing, her approach was more point, shot and send. Occasionally she would skip the first 2 steps and send a photo that had been taken on a different day. But the photos were not the object of the exercise, and anyway, talk of photo walks and visiting some of the places shared had me wondering if this might be the prelude to something more.
By the end of February she had scheduled a weekly chat and I suggested we combine it with a walk outside. Every Friday would end with a friendly ‘walk and talk’ where I would aimlessly stroll around the local neighbourhood with her voice in my ears. I enjoyed getting to know her, even more so as she began to open up, if only a little.
I was smitten. I enjoyed her cheekiness and immaculate comic timing. I admired her encouraging and supportive manner. I was enamoured by her kindness if not slightly overawed by her energetic personality. But the real attraction may have been her inscrutability.
“Excited to see you tomorrow!!” was her message, sent in anticipation of our meeting in person for the first time since October. The next day, a few of us met up in Greenwich Park, before raiding a newsagent for rum and drinking it under the cover of Greenwich Market. It was a memorable Good Friday, yet her calling out my name as I headed off to find a loo, her huge beaming smile as she ran over to join me is the image that’ll live longest in the memory.
I liked her, but she had a boyfriend.
I sometimes wonder if a legacy of growing up shorter and younger-looking than my peers is my profound sense of inadequacy. Happy in my own company, I’ll often retreat rather than try to be involved; better to opt out than be left out, right? The pandemic had levelled the playing field. Everyone was in the same boat, and for the first time, I felt like an equal.
It wasn’t surprising then that I should be part of a small WhatsApp group with her and a group of other colleagues. Between the memes we would watch TV shows together – This Is My House a particular favourite – or share ideas of things we could do once restrictions had lifted. Spend a weekend in Brighton! Visit a rooftop igloo at a London bar! Attend a music festival! See Duncan’s band! Soon enough we had our very own roadmap out of lockdown and I felt glad to be part of something special.
If 2020 was a year of shared despair, 2021 was one of diffused hope. With age determining who would get the vaccine first, people’s perception and acceptance of risk began to diverge, with solidarity giving way to separation. Around the start of April, a few colleagues started going into the office, only to share stories of drinking together the previous evening. As more began dialling in from the office, the more anxious I became. If things were returning to normal, then surely the level playing field I had thrived upon would fall away.
Restrictions lifting at least meant I could start dating again. Asking out a neighbour was a bad idea – especially given the awkward looks we now exchange – but it was worth a shot. So too was agreeing to a blind date that Duncan had arranged. The plan was to meet outside the National Theatre on London’s Southbank, with each person holding something red.
“What’re you going to hold?” she asked, possibly more excited about the date than I was. But this wasn’t the red thing concerning me; I was contemplating the consequences of seeing blood in my urine.
It may have been a useful distraction. Having initially picked the wrong person out from a crowd, my date turned out to be brilliant company, and conversation flowed freely over 2 blissful hours. I was convinced a second date would follow.
The year may have turned out very differently if it had.
“I’m going for it!” I declared to my therapist. “I’m going to jump off this diving board, even if I land face-first on a concrete floor”.
The previous Tuesday, Rob had probed the subtext of the daily messages and weekly walks. I was dismissive if not confused by the whole exercise, daring not to believe something might be going my way. His opinion was very different.
A night out was planned for Thursday with friends from the WhatsApp group and she would be there too – an opportunity to look for signs of interest! Yet my evening would be curtailed. I had waited all week to get an appointment with the doctor, but hours before going out I was told I would need to visit the surgery the following morning for urgent tests.
Recalling the conversation I had with Rob, my therapist had a sudden realisation: why had I not asked about her boyfriend? The reason was simple; her being unavailable meant there was no chance of anything happening. I’m well practised at setting myself up for failure; there’s security in inevitability. But inevitability was losing in a battle with this embodiment of possibility. On Friday, I suggested entering a competition at work with a joint entry. She agreed. On Saturday I suggested we go open water swimming together. Again, she agreed. Two Leos and the stars were aligned.
I started to get a constant and painful sensation of needing to pee. First the blood, now this. It felt like my body was recoiling at the thought of something good happening, determined to undermine it. A visit to the out-of-hours surgery offered no relief. Instead I was asked to provide another urine sample before being pointlessly prodded by a junior doctor.
"What do you want from her, a relationship or friendship?” my therapist enquired, talking me down from my imaginary diving board.
“Both”, I replied.
Duncan had arranged a second blind date for the following Sunday, but I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea. I’d been given antibiotics for the bladder pain, but they didn’t seem to be working. A conversation with my doctor worryingly included mention of the C-word. Did I want to spend several hours in the company of a stranger while enduring embarrassing discomfort and so unsure of my future?
The promise of a post-date debrief with her and Rachael might have swayed my decision, yet on our most recent walk and talk, I was reminded that she was house hunting with her boyfriend. I became unusually despondent. Was it nerves? Rob thought so, especially as none of the material facts had changed. When I told him about the swimming date he told me there was no reason to delay and that I should use Sunday to ask how she felt. Ben took a more even-handed approach, weighed the evidence and while agreeing with Rob, encouraged me to be stoic whatever the outcome. Ellen was less sure and suggested I remain cautious.
My legs were crossed and my head was spinning.
I immediately regretted the second blind date. I’d correctly spotted my date this time but had to chase after her as she aimlessly walked around Southbank failing to make eye contact with anyone. Our conversation was strained with long drawn out silences, yet proceeded to drag on for over 3 hours as we walked along the Thames towards Bermondsey.
Having finally concluded the date, I headed over to a pub in Holborn to deliver my verdict. The final episode of Line of Duty was on at 9 pm so we had a deadline.
When the conversation moved on to house hunting, every question I asked got an opposite answer to the one I was expecting. Maybe her responses were different because Rachael was here? While she was in the toilet, I tried a line of enquiry with Rachael, one which I was sure would give the game away but it only gave an inconclusive answer.
As we all parted ways, I was faced with a choice: walk with Rachael, where I would reveal all but not get a definitive answer – classic evasion technique – or walk in the opposite direction. This was a real Sliding Doors moment. I decided to walk with the girl and tell her how I felt.
After several weeks of intrigue and misdirection, the conclusion to Line of Duty was disappointing and made little sense. The same was true of our conversation.
And then everything dramatically changed.
The atmosphere at work was eerie and strange, her absence keenly felt. “Does the team even exist without her”, wondered Duncan.
Bank holiday Monday had given me space to come to terms with her answer. The outcome wasn’t inevitable but it was predictable and supported my working hypothesis of ‘possible, but unlikely’. I knew going into our pact where it might lead. I felt relieved to have got my feelings off my chest and was ready to move on. Plus, we still had our open water swim to look forward to, and I’d be seeing her again on Thursday.
Early on Wednesday morning, I was informed of some heartbreaking news. What felt like the right thing to have said to her on Sunday evening, felt like the absolute worst thing to have said 72 hours later. I wrestled for days with what message to send and how it might be perceived.
From this point forward, these 2 events became frustratingly intertwined.
“Did you miss me”, she asked on Slack upon her return to work the following week. My answer was an emphatic “Yes!” but instead I replied with a drawn-out message starting with “I can neither confirm or deny”. Why couldn’t I be honest?
Conversations that were previously free-flowing and filled with cheekiness and innuendo were now fraught and stilted. It was difficult to know what to say or how to behave. Fortunately, throughout May our interactions remained online, and while I would worry about every message and how it might be interpreted, at least this was done in the privacy of my own home.
The month ended with a hospital appointment for an invasive look inside my bladder, for which there’s only one extremely painful way in! My physical health got the all-clear but my mental health – like the May blossom I had shared with her just weeks earlier – was rapidly deteriorating.
By the start of June, it had become customary for people to head into the office every Thursday. When I ventured in on the first Thursday, not only was I surprised to see her but relieved to feel comfortable in her presence.
That evening everyone headed to the park. Just like the few evenings we’d enjoyed the year before, there was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. With numbers thinning out, I said goodbye and got the train home. There was so much I wanted to say, yet felt unable to say to her face. Slightly lubricated with alcohol, I sent her a message: I wanted to hug her, and I missed her. “I miss you too” was her reply. I suggested we have a quick chat the next day, and she agreed. But we never spoke.
I was upset I couldn’t be the friend she needed.
I was annoyed that I put myself in this position.
I was frustrated that if none of this was true, I still wouldn’t be able to help.
Confusion, rejection, grief, guilt. It was turning out to be a miserable summer. Good weather – when it materialised – only encouraged me to retread the streets I had walked when we spoke to each other every Friday. I had shared photos of every corner of Brighton, and they now reminded me of her. Even my clothes triggered memories of a life frustratingly out of reach. It was if my mind had discovered a cheat code to unlock a strangely comforting but physically painful melancholy, and I was frantically pushing the buttons.
The second evening out with the team felt very different from the first. Having gone into the office to fetch some plastic cups I returned outside only to learn that everyone had carried on to the park. Moving on to an outdoor bar, I ended up at a table with two colleagues while everyone else was sitting at another table. When we went to karaoke, I was asked to find the stragglers. Having spent 10 minutes searching for them I returned to the karaoke bar only to find everyone there, again without me. Constantly and persistently, I was left behind.
Worse still, I had been replaced; it certainly wasn’t me that she was singing with. Why would she want to? I was no longer a confident or charismatic presence, but a downtrodden shadow of my former self. Not only had the level playing field fallen away, but it had swallowed me up. I abruptly left the karaoke bar, found a hotel, and blogged my heart out.
Having read my post, Rachael suggested I take some time off. I jumped on the sleeper train and headed for Cornwall. I appreciated the change of scenery, but my mind was stuck in familiar territory.
On long walks along the coast, I would try to make sense of events but was unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion. On one walk I spotted 3 surfers who had become stranded on and around a rocky outreach. Signalling for help, I called the coastguard and watched as they were rescued by a nearby fishing boat. I too was drowning – if only in my sorrows – yet nobody was pulling me from the water. Besides, any call for help only ended up with me swallowing more water, dragging me further into the depths of depression.
A Slack bot had been set up during the first lockdown so that team members could arrange 30-minute coffee chats to get to know each other. Now it was pairing us. This would be our first face-to-face conversation since we spoke in Holborn. I hoped it might be an opportunity to understand how each other was feeling and find some common ground.
Once the day arrived, she suggested we chat in the office canteen. However, COVID-19 restrictions meant we had to sit at either end of a long table. Advised to ‘keep it light’, I dared not intrude on private grief, and felt unable to talk about how I was feeling. The conversation had all the dynamics of an interview but one covering the sort of banal topics you’d have with a hairdresser: “going anywhere nice for your holidays?” For whatever reason – for all the reasons – the magic between us had gone.
She was the bright shining star at the centre of our team. Largely responsible for its vibrant, light-hearted culture, her birthday was to be celebrated wildly and enthusiastically, especially this of all years. I was fizzing with ideas for things we could do and had been for much of the year.
However, I was told to stay clear. The excitement around the plans being made was evident, but I was excluded. The WhatsApp group had now fallen silent, too.
The team’s culture was often celebrated, the joke being that it was not a cult. But was it a clique? There was certainly a core group of colleagues whose lives increasingly revolved around nights out and heavy drinking, with the resultant in-jokes and private groups.
I was stuck in her orbit, yet stranded on the dark side of a distant moon, cold and alone.
By the week of her birthday I was faced with two options that had become frustratingly familiar: avoid going out with everyone but feel left out, or join in only to upset myself, probably her and possibly others. I opted out.
The following week it was my birthday, but I was in no mood to celebrate. Fortunately, this was never on the cards. While I wasn’t expecting the same level of effort to be undertaken as the previous year, I thought people might at least remember. I was in the office the day of my birthday. That afternoon a ‘little birdie’ informed Izzy who then gave me an apple from her garden. From the whole team putting together a 3-minute long music video, to a small, bitter-tasting apple. Fine, I thought, I’ll take what I can get.
Unbeknown to me, that same somebody was remotely arranging a last-minute celebration involving the few people who were also in the office.
“Whose idea was this?” I asked Duncan, as he presented me with my birthday card.
“Who do you think?”
Of course, only one person could be responsible, but I didn’t think she’d be interested in doing anything for me. I was astonished when Duncan confirmed my suspicions. Things would be easier if I could just hate her, but she always went out of her way to do the right thing. She would often ask me how I was, something I felt unable to do in return.
That evening, Jon and Katie put together a small birthday party for me. Outside their house hung balloons and banners. Their daughter presented me with a drawing and their present. “It’s wrapped in newspaper” said Jon, having remembered my dislike of waste.
For all the misery and sadness the year delivered, it was gestures like this that brought moments of joy. I’m thankful to have such wonderful and thoughtful friends.
Birthdays out of the way and summer nearing its end, I hoped to draw a line under everything and finally move forward. “I always thought you two should just talk” Rachael told me. For all of our messages and conversations earlier in the year, I’m not sure we ever really communicated properly. A lot was left unsaid, certainly from my perspective.
An earlier conversation with my friend Laura was revelatory. She pointed out how selfish I had been, unwittingly making demands on somebody in mourning. I kept telling myself that no one was to blame for the situation, but maybe I was to blame?
Sat on a wall outside the Home Office, I offered my apology and tried to explain how I had been feeling, yet never offered her the same opportunity. Instead, the conversation was dominated by a red herring; my no longer being asked to design celebratory cards for the team. It was a useful distraction from the things that mattered.
An ill-defined relationship conceived during a confounding period, of course it could never offer a neat conclusion. But no closure either?
That evening a few beers in the pub turned into another night of excessive drinking. Leaving the nightclub, I found myself quietly sobbing as she and a colleague consoled an emotional Rachael. Such was my frame of mind, all I could see was myself being excluded. Again.
I ran to the end of the street and stepped out into the path of an oncoming taxi. There are plenty of ways I can caveat this act – I was dangerously drunk, it was a pedestrianised street and the taxi couldn’t have been travelling that fast – but my intent was clear.
The taxi stopped just in time, the driver shouting at me to get out of the way. I fell into a pile in a nearby doorway.
“WHY WON’T SOMEBODY HELP ME!!?”
The person who came to my aid was the person whose attention I craved, but not in these circumstances. I was mortified. Bundled into the back of a taxi and whisked away, I cried all the way from Soho to a hotel in Paddington and then cried myself to sleep.
The next morning I phoned the doctor who prescribed me anti-depressants.
A conversation with Duncan the next day delivered a crushing realisation; things could no longer continue as they were.
And so it proved. Another project in the department would be found for me, but after 2 and half years, my time on the team had reached its end.
I didn’t much fancy hanging around like a bad smell, so decided to leave the department entirely. This decision lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. For the first time in months, I started to think about the future rather than the past.
Everyone gathered on a video call for a hastily arranged send off and I gave one last performance, just like old times. Friends and colleagues took turns to say lovely things about our time together. She remained silent and was the first to leave. The call came to an end, faces that had been so familiar quickly disappeared, and I was left looking at myself. The project, my team, friends, her; I had lost everything I loved.
“Don’t shit where you eat” had been her earlier advice. This was why.
I would see my former team mates just two more times. There was never a weekend in Brighton. Nor a visit to a rooftop igloo atop a London bar. I thought it best not to attend the music festival. But there would be a party to celebrate the full launch of the service in October.
She spotted me as I arrived at the venue, her warm inviting smile directed towards me. Embarrassment, guilt, anger, upset, fear… I nodded before quickly turning away to find somebody else to talk to. I wish I could put everything behind me, but I’m just not built that way.
The evening finished in The Old School Yard, the karaoke bar we had visited the previous October, almost to the day. On that occasion, we parted ways with a tight hug. This time I sneaked out without even saying goodbye.
Of all the plans made earlier in the year, one line item remained. Duncan’s band would be performing their final gig in a pub in Islington in November.
I’d purchased tickets in September, hopeful that I’d be in a happier state by then. But the box of anti-depressants I’d been prescribed remained unopened. Did I want to be dependant on drugs for happiness? The day of the gig and a familiar anxiety returned and with it the usual conundrum: not go and fear missing out, or go and be upset. I choose to attend.
I arrived a few steps behind a group of people laughing and joking as they approached the pub. It was some of my former colleagues, and among them was her familiar figure. I stopped in my tracks. I considered turning around and going home, but Pete saw me before I could make a quick exit.
My heart sank as I entered the venue. Everybody was there, even colleagues who had left the team the previous year – yet nobody had asked me if I was going! It felt like I was crashing somebody else’s party, everyone secretly asking “what the hell is he doing here?”. What’s more I wasn’t able to speak to her, make eye contact, or even be near her; too difficult, too fraught, too emotional.
I sent her a message the next day but got no reply.
Just because I’m hurting
Doesn’t mean I’m hurt
Doesn’t mean I didn’t get what I deserved
No better and no worse
I just got lost
This post has been rattling around in my head for the last 4 months. I want it to be right, but how to recap a year that had such a singular concern? That proved so confounding? In which I had reached my lowest point? Reading this back it all seems so trivial, but it certainly didn’t feel that way.
The other person at the centre of this year was an unwitting participant in my downfall whose plot lines had been sketched out years earlier. I had just turned 40 yet was still single. Thrust into a pandemic, my worst fears and insecurities were exaggerated but only in its second year once everything that had supported me had fallen away.
I was lonely, and she dared to give me some attention. Our friendship – or whatever it was – thrived remotely but freed from the shackles of lockdown, wasn’t able to survive contact with the outside world. All we had in common was a star sign – which is to say nothing at all.
I’ve yet to find closure, and perhaps I never will. Such is the nature of grief. The only conclusion I can reach is that it hurts so much because it mattered.
After the gig in Islington, I decided to start taking the anti-depressants. I’m happy to report that I am starting to feel like my old self again. Just the other day I launched into a rant about the children’s television show Bing, of all things. It felt marvellous.
I’m working with a new team on another government project and for the first time in our strangely parallel careers, I’m working alongside my best friend Jon. I’ve been beavering away on a slew of projects to help other design teams in government and excited to start talking about them more publicly.
As for 2022? Probably best that I have no expectations of how it may unfold. But I’m going to attack it as the best, truest version of myself. And with so much love to give, I’m determined that this will be the year that I find somebody who wants it.