When I worked backstage in theatre, I truly believed I was surrounded by the real vibrancy of life. Bright sets and costumes, loud music, crowds of laughter, and then the scurrying of worker ants to reset the stage, ready for the next turn. I was one of the scurriers and hurriers, the busy insects crawling about in the dark. I loved it all – the long hours and the endless cups of coffee. I was content to lurch from job to job, living hand-to-mouth, moving from dodgy rental flat to even dodgier rental flat. It was all bustle and excitement.
The pandemic collided with my life in a silent explosion, breaking my world apart like a careless child stamping on an ants’ nest. I blinked in the light, blinded by the cruelty of this violence. My hard-won career disappeared overnight and I shuffled back to the safety of my family home in rural East Lothian, a failed child of thirty. No job, no lover, no home; I felt exposed, and I hid under the nearest rock.
Months went by, and the theatre industry did not recover. I was struggling to find any work at all. My grandfather also lived with us, so I couldn’t risk his health by working face-to-face in a shop. I was studying accountancy, but no one was willing to take on a newbie to train up remotely. Life seemed to stand still, frozen in the moment of the explosion.
My one solace was the beach. It was close enough that I could walk there every day through fields and woodlands that teemed with wildlife. I saw deer and rabbits, and I became a novice twitcher. I could recognise dozens of species in the short walk to the shore, and be surrounded by birdsong. When it got warm, I paddled in the waves, picking up sand between my toes as I walked back to the dunes and then wiping my feet in the long grass. After years of scurrying in the dark, I was beginning to enjoy the slower pleasures of daylight and the outdoors.
One day, ten months after I had moved in with my family, I had some luck. Some friends were able to offer me cheap rent back in Glasgow for six months – I just had to try to keep their plants alive. I packed up my car and raced along the M8, eager to try and find work. I was desperate to try to use my skills to rebuild something for myself. To pull the shrapnel of my old life back together, try to build some stability, a new nest.
It was hard. I found a part-time job, but we were still in lockdown. All my friends already had bubble buddies, and I spent most of my time either alone or taking desultory walks through the park with people from dating apps. I killed one of my friends’ house plants in a tragic case of accidental overwatering. In the words of Björk: it was oh, so quiet.
Eventually, the world began to wake again. My landlord friends returned to Glasgow (they forgave me for the plant murder), and I moved round the corner to another friend’s spare room. I found more part-time work as a freelancer, and exhausted myself trying to juggle the two jobs. Life rumbled on with a new kind of busy-ness. I was stressed. I got my first white hairs.
I felt desperation and depression start to take hold, and I found that I was going through grief. I was grieving the life I’d had, the younger self who had felt comfortable in chaos. This new chaos had none of the excitement of before. Instead it was fraught, and it wore me down. I was no longer a happy worker ant in the dark. I was a stumbling fledgling, trying so desperately to fly, but with no safe nest to leap from. I felt like I’d never get off the ground.
Finally, after what felt like an age, I got a new job, and I was elated. It was my first ever full-time, PAYE job. No more scrabbling for the next contract, no more out-of-hours messages from bosses with no “off” switch. I had a work laptop I could turn off at 5pm. I was able to plan and book a holiday in advance, rather than fitting something in if I had a gap and some spare cash. I’d found the stability I’d been searching for. I had found a place to rest, and from which to fly.
Unlike the theatre, life does not have a pithy punchline or a neat ending to signal applause. It has no distinct beginnings and endings, everything bleeds together. It’s messy and unconfined. I could write longer about the many details I missed out of this story, the other players in the tale. I could go on about the grief I still feel about giving up theatre. I could talk about my plans for the future. But instead, I choose this point to stop. And to begin again, on the next adventure.