I was busy grabbing a snack (an apple, if you must ask) on my way to work today when I overheard two men in front of me talking about potential redundancies at their shared place of employment. From what I heard them say, it sounded like an incredibly traumatic and worrying time. But they seemed good-natured and steady about it all. “Ah,” shrugged one, “Que Sera Sera!”
Que Sera Sera. What will be, will be. This reminded me of the song, of course. It also reminded me of a traumatic and worrying time of my own life.
It’s October 2010. I’ve just turned 26 years old and have been working for a small firm since 2007. At first it went well. But since I qualified in 2009, it hasn’t been going so well. In fact, it’s going pretty hideously. I am flailing around in a sea of dangerously varied and difficult work which would tax an experienced mind, let alone young, new me. For the first time in my life, whatever I do isn’t enough. The person that is meant to be helping me is busy throwing as many bricks through the floor of my metaphorical lifeboats as he can find. The firm itself is an unhappy ship, but the vast majority of passengers instead choose to smoke on the deck as the ship blithely glides towards danger, rather than help me in my lifeboat.
I am tired. So tired. Badly, sadly and, I fear, madly tired. The train leaves in the dark and arrives home in the dark, late. Every day brings a new horror. My nice friend on the train A tries her best to calm me each morning. But she can’t stop the knots tying in my stomach when we’re 2 stations from our destination. And she can’t stop what happens when I walk through the door.
There are no other jobs like mine where I live. We’re in a massive recession and the South East Market is being hit hard. Nobody wants to take a chance on somebody qualified for 30 seconds (relatively) and I can’t face giving up the career I’ve worked so hard for. I am trapped.
Instead, I’m trying to build a life outside of work. I started doing stand-up comedy. I love it. My near-manic nervous energy is thrown into quick-fire routines, to great effect. People like me and I get bookings. Along the way, I meet one of the people that likes me. In fact, she really, really likes me. Having recently come out of a quiet but nice, stable longish-term relationship, I suddenly find myself in something really loud and intense, new and passionate. She’s willing me on, through the wreck of work, to crowds cheering for something better. This is it.
Only, it isn’t. Work is wearing me down. To a far lesser extent, the relationship is wearing me down. Comedy is, in its own way, wearing me down. Together, it’s all frightening me. And, as I shout at my just-about-still girlfriend one night, all I can do is fiddle whilst Rome burns, as everything is on fire. I really don’t feel very well. Nobody seems to understand this. I think I have a cold but it doesn’t break open. Instead, everything aches. All the time. The backs of my hands, my shoulders, my knees, my face. I go to bed exhausted yet cannot sleep. Once I do steal a few hours, it’s no good. “You were so restless” says my girlfriend, on the mornings when she has had to endure another night of my body, twitching and turning, trying to escape it all. I’m more exhausted than when I went to sleep. I don’t know why I’m bothering, with any of it.
Eventually, one weekend in late September, it all comes apart. My girlfriend cannot deal with any more of my rapidly crumbling life and my increasingly desperate demands for her to help me. She, perhaps understandably, leaves. This has happened this before, but it’s different now. I then realise that everything has to be different now. I cannot go on like this.
I tell my parents how bad things are. I tell my best friend from University how bad things are. She cancels all her court work and drives straight down after she’s finished in court in Skegness (hundreds of miles away) the next day. My parents know. Of course they know, how could they not? They agree I must see the Doctor.
I ring work the next day. I’m ill. I can’t come in. No, I haven’t broken anything. No, I haven’t hurt myself. But no, I can’t work. I can’t really stand without wanting to lie down. Only there’s no point as I won’t sleep. No, I don’t know when I’ll be back. Yes, I’ll see the Doctor. As soon as I can. He can’t see me today. Because his house has burnt down. No, I’m not making this up. I don’t want to live in this ever-evolving sitcom any more than you do. Yes, I’ll report in every day. No, I don’t think I’ll be able to look at any emails. I’m sorry. Yes, I know I’ve put you in a bad situation. I can’t tell you how sorry I am and how much I wish this wasn’t happening. I’m not big enough for any of this.
The next couple of weeks pass in a blur. I watch telly. So much telly. I watch the world going on without me. I watch the Labour Party Conference and the Commonwealth Games, marooned on my sofa. I’m off sick, on 2 weeks of paid sick leave. My Doctor, who is so apologetic about not being able to see me, who is beyond pleasant and kind and concerned, refers me to the Consultant. My parents and friends look after me as best they can. Work send me emails. And more emails. I am commuted to Statutory Sick Pay after 2 weeks. It is a pittance. I cannot afford my flat on it. I discuss it with my parents. Reluctantly, we all agree. I have to go back.
I haul myself back in. I’m hit with file reviews, competency meetings. Work on top of work. I’ve been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. How will Your Condition affect Our Work? I don’t know. I wish I did.
But life goes on. And I have a ticket to see Corinne Bailey Rae, with my friend C. Our friend N says she and her husband will come with us.
Corinne Bailey Rae was voted the Sound of 2006. Her first album was a massive success. She won MOBOs and had a seemingly unstoppable future. Until her husband was found dead at home, suddenly, from a drug overdose. Grief-stricken, she nonetheless has managed to produce a stunning album, about love and loss. It’s called The Sea. It makes me think of the sea I can see at the end of my road and the other sea that threatens to engulf me.
We go to the gig, in Bexhill. It’s amazing. She is amazing. This tiny, softly-spoken, fairly recently-bereaved mixed race woman from Leeds, who is too shy to really talk outside of singing, pours out these songs. Are You Here? Asks one of them. It’s perfect for me. It gives me perspective. Nobody has actually died and I am not dead. But at the same time, the themes of love and loss stem through me. But I can contain them. For now.
Then the band come back for an encore. They do one and will do one more. It starts slowly. I start to recognise the chords. Then Bailey-Rae sings the first line. “When I was just a little girl…” C whispers to me that she did this at Glastonbury and it was brilliant. She’s right – it is brilliant. It’s the same reworking that Sly and The Family Stone used to do. As N rightly comments afterwards, it had become almost like a joke song. Now, it’s big and soulful and strong. I realise that, as scary as my future is at the moment, it actually isn’t “mine to see”. And that what will, will happen and it’ll be ok. I think the emotion might knock me over. The band sing, all of them. Over and over again. The backing singers softly intone “Que Sera” to Bailey-Rae at the end of each chorus. I have my own soft, gentle, kind backing singers. I didn’t think I was crying but I must have been doing something. I feel an arm slide over my shoulder from one side of me, and then the other. I realise that rather than missing the arm that isn’t around me, I should be concentrating on the ones that are.
As bad as my pain was, it couldn’t be anywhere near as bad as Bailey-Rae’s, whose near-entire life changed in an instant. However, her expression of her troubles through music helped me to deal with mine.
Things didn’t change instantly. But gradually, they got better and I got out. My then-girlfriend and I aren’t mates, but that’s ok. And my health is back to how it was pre-meltdown. Whilst part of me would rather it hadn’t all happened, the other part realises that it made me grow and learn in ways that I couldn’t have possibly done otherwise. Perhaps it was even meant to be.
Que Sera, Que Sera, Que Sera.