of innocence and experience

When I was 18, I left school and got my first proper job. I was the youngest person in the office, and struggled to fit in. Although there were plenty of people in their early twenties at the company, they were all either university graduates or they were already married and settled down. It felt like there was a great chasm of life experience between them and me, and compared to them I was desperately lacking in maturity.

The cherry on the cake was when the guy at work who I’d developed a thumping great big crush on said to me, “Your stories are great and everything, but they’re all about when you were at school, and I just can’t get over how young you are.”

I was mortified.

(He was 23, by the way.)

One of the girls in my department was called Lauren. She was only 22, but she had married very young and seemed wise beyond her years… to me, anyway. She had long blonde hair, an enviable shoe collection and an enormous sparkler on her ring finger. I wanted to be her. But I’d have settled for being accepted as one of the gang. Sometimes Lauren and I got on like a house on fire, and other times, not so much. One week she’d take me under her wing like a big sister, and we’d hang out in her kitchen and talk about boys, and then the next she’d host a grown-up dinner party and invite all the other girls and their husbands, but not me because I was too much of a baby.

Then one day we had a huge argument. I can’t even remember what it was about, but it went on for several months, and everyone in the office knew that Lauren and I had fallen out and weren’t speaking any more. When I look back now, it all seems very childish, and makes me realise that she probably wasn’t as mature as I thought she was.

After a year, I left my job to go to university. I spent my last few weeks in a state of nervous excitement as I thought about all the new friends I would make and all the fun times ahead. But when my last day in the office finally arrived, I cried like the baby they all thought I was, because despite the age differences and my struggle to fit in, I knew I would really miss them all. Even Lauren.

The next day I moved into halls of residence in a new city and spent two solid weeks partying with people I didn’t know, many of whom I never saw again. The next three years passed in a blur of crazy nights out, essays I stayed up all night to write, lectures I slept through, drunken escapades, relationship disasters, music-making, competitive sports and excessive tea-drinking. I made friends I will treasure forever, dated boys I would rather forget, and had a wealth of life experiences which helped to make me who I am today. There is no way to sum up my university years in a few lines, and anyway, that’s not what this post is about. Suffice to say, it all ended with a ceremony involving Harry Potter gowns and I now have letters after my name.

But there is nothing unusual about any of that.

What I find more surprising is that all these years later, Lauren and I are still friends. She’s still four years older than me, and if anything our life experiences are even more different now than they were back then. But somehow, that doesn’t matter. I’m not desperate to be like her any more, because I’m happy to be me.

Yesterday we met for coffee at Starbucks, and as usual, she had her two little boys with her. We spent a couple of hours catching up on each other’s news, frequently being interrupted by her sons. They are both extremely cute, with shiny hair, matching cheeky grins and a gorgeous, youthful effervescence about them, which reminds me why I love children so much and can’t wait to have my own one day.

One day. Not yet.

Because whilst my heart melted a little bit when her younger son, who is four, informed me that the pizza he was eating was “macaroni pizza”, pointing a small, sticky finger at the slices of pepperoni on the top, I don’t want the life she has. I still have plenty of things I want to do before I have children, so I’m quite happy to cuddle hers every once in a while, and then let her take them home, feed them and put them to bed. (And when her little one gets too big to be cuddled I shall tease him about how, when he was a baby, he projectile-vomited over me and everything else within a two metre radius in that very same Starbucks. Revenge is sweet.)

Age is a funny thing.

I can’t remember how the subject came up, but whilst we were having coffee, Lauren said, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re going to be 28 soon. I thought you were younger than that! God, that makes me feel so old.”

Some things never change.

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