I don’t know how it happened but the day has finally come. I have reached the end of the road – the beginning of the end. I’m turning twenty three tomorrow, my last young age. I’m turning twenty three tomorrow and I am still waiting for my life to start.
Twenty three is when your life starts to get away from you. Twenty three is when your friends start to get pregnant on purpose. Twenty three is when you no longer understand the way kids talk, or why they dress like that or who so-and-so off Youtube is. Twenty three is four-day hangovers and drinking red wine out of a glass. Twenty three is planning for your future, serious relationships and mortgage deposits. Twenty three is landing your first office job and thinking you’ve made it. Twenty three is being closer to thirty than you are to sixteen. Twenty three is when you are too old to be a girl and are now a woman. Twenty three is when youthful ignorance becomes sheer stupidity and teenage idleness becomes pathetic laziness. Twenty three is an age I do not want to be.
Yet here I am. Still stuck between the monotony of packing boxes in a warehouse, forty hours a week, minimum wage and the chaos of not knowing what the fuck I’m going to do with my life. Right now I am sat on the floor of my dingy bedsit in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. “Is this it, then?” I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. “Can’t be” the nice voice in my head tells me. “This is it, for you anyway” the other one chimes in. I fumble in the bed sheets for my phone. The screen says 08:24. The feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach tells me that I’m in work at 9. The existential crisis will have to wait.
Outside, a light but piercing rain falls from the grey sky. I hear a bus rolling up behind me and stick my arm out. It flies past me, half empty, without even slowing down. I swear I see the driver smile to himself. The warehouse is a 40 minute walk from home: I do it in 30. By the time I get to the large, lifeless brick building my soggy hair is stuck to my head and my feet are soaked through. Before entering the black hole I glance at my phone for one last time. 9:02. No texts and no missed calls. I step in to the abyss. The sound of machines whirring and conveyor belts sliding is deafening. The one thing you can’t hear is the sound of human life. “You’re late” a hoarse voice croaks in my ear. Saliva sprays on to my neck and ear from the mouth of the speaker. I turn around and I’m chin to chin with my boss who is as overweight and balding as ever. I look perplexed and shrug as if I haven’t heard him over the noise. “LATE” he repeats, leaving a shower of spit across my eyes and nose. I grab a white coat from the dirty pile and throw it on over my wet clothes. The man is still growling about something when I take my place amongst my fellow workers in the line.
Today, I’m stood opposite a wrinkled, grey man who looks twenty years past retirement age. He’s eyes shift between half open and closed. He’s sleeping on his feet, his arthritic hands in auto-packing mode. On my right side is a young girl, younger than me, I’m guessing just eighteen. Her hands move in the shaky, hesitant way of a newbie. “Haven’t seen you before” I say, loud enough to hear. She doesn’t look up from the moving boxes, nobody does. To my left is a skinny middle aged man who looks like he could cry at any minute. I don’t blame him. He assembles his boxes quickly and aggressively, often sighing or shaking his head as he finishes. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they pack a box. I look around at the rest of the people, my team for today, all dead behind the eyes.
The day drags on and the huge black and white clock that sits high up on the far wall ticks slower and slower and slower. Sometimes I’m convinced it stops when I look away. My fingers sting from the constant friction and my feet ache from standing up all day. The boss waddles around in circles, occasionally stopping behind me to breathe down my neck. I make eye contact with the old man opposite and am surprised to see sharp, bright blue eyes staring back at me. He yawns and goes back to his state of semi-sleep. At 12:15 on the dot we get a thirty minute break, signalled by the blaring of the warehouse alarm. The machines grind to a halt and the silence makes me shiver in my white overalls.
Outside the rain has stopped and the chatter of men and women fills the concrete yard. Even after two years nobody comes to find me for a catch up. I spot the man from next to me in line leaning against the wall, away from everybody else, crying. He looks a bit pathetic really, wiping his snotty wet face with the back of his white sleeve. I stroll over with my hands in my pockets. By the time I’ve got close enough to say something I realise I have nothing to say. “It’s my birthday tomorrow” I say to him but not looking at him. He leans with his back against the wall catching his breathe. “Yeah” he says. More of an agreement than a question. “Yeah” I sigh. I figure that’s my lot, it was more than I expected anyway, but as he lights a cigarette he asks me “how old?” I tell the truth, saying the numbers out loud for the first time. “Twenty three.” The man flicks some ash in my direction. “Still young” he nods. “Only just” I say. “Twenties. Best years of your life, so they say.” He bites his lip, sounding bitter. “Guess so” I mutter, examining the sore spots on my fingers and breathing in the fishy smell of the old woman’s tuna sandwich who has sat next to me. “Don’t let ’em get away from you” he says more to himself than to me. He chucks his cigarette butt on to the gravel and I’m scared he’s going to cry again. I kind of wish he would. I want to say that they already are getting away from me and I don’t know how to stop it. I want to tell this nameless man that for the first time in my life I’m scared and for the first time in my life I don’t feel invincible. I want him to tell me what to do, I want him to show me my future like the three ghosts of A Christmas Carol. But he’s already gone. I watch him trudging back inside with the rest of the white jackets and grey heads.
I don’t see daylight again until 9:03PM. By this time it’s dark. The crying man didn’t come back again after the break. He was replaced by a large, nervous woman who kept apologising to herself. My feet ache from the backs of my ankles to the tips of my toes and I hobble towards home thinking of nothing.
The silver key has fallen to the bottom of my pocket again. My fingers wade through wrappers and crumbs and pennies before I fish it out. It’s in my hand and finally it’s in the lock. The heavy metal door creaks open and the dim and dusty hallway looks like something out of a movie. A woman sits on the bottom step with her phone in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. No smoking allowed, I don’t mention that. A couple of toddlers with orange stained faces chase each other around at her feet. I listen to my feet squelch inside my soggy shoes as I conquer each step at a time. On the first floor the man in room 1 who I have never seen shouts in to his phone in Russian. The tinny sound of the 10 o’clock blares from a TV in room 2. Dragging myself up another floor I hear pots and pans crashing, a woman crying, more TVs and radios, a dog whimpers and a child calls someone a cunt. I enjoy these little snippets of people’s lives, even if I do avoid all eye contact when we meet on the stairs.
The top floor, my floor, is silent except for the flushing of a toilet. I make it to my room at the end of the hallway without any trouble and flick the light switch on inside. Nothing. I flick it again and again and again. The red blinking light on the electric metre taunts me in the darkness. I lie back on to the bed, surrendering. Still fully clothed, my toes wrinkled within my shoes and my stomach gurgling with hunger, I feel the most peaceful I have in a long time. I withdraw in to my cinema of imagination, the best seat in the house. I run through the selection of films in my head and eventually land on one of my favourites. Tonight’s film is Kes. The rain begins to patter lightly against the third floor window again but I can’t hear it. I’m in that bare bedroom in Yorkshire. A pair of lumps lie back to back. An old fashioned alarm begins to ring in the darkness and the lumps begin to show signs of life. A bitter draught creeps through the single glazed window sending a painful shiver up my spine. Just another day in paradise.
In a couple of hours, I will be twenty three, and everything will be exactly the same as it was before.