I don’t think I’m alone in having a lot of different things in my life. We’ve all got those metaphorical balls (the ones we juggle, but occasionally the other kind too). There’s all the life stuff; the home, partner, kids, family and friends. Delete or add as applicable. I keep finding myself saying ‘let’s have a catch up soon’, then organising a coffee takes about a year. That’s even before I get to the bit where I run a business too. You’ve heard all this before, I know. The only reason I’m talking about it now is because I seem to have had an influx recently. There’s been more paying work, which is extremely lovely. Conversations about self-care seem to have become a thing too. As I write this the words of a wise woman telling me I’m hearing it for a reason are floating at the front of my brain. There have been new ideas that I can’t seem to make a decision on. Then there have been people asking about my book. Have I told you about the book? Maybe I haven’t, so let’s start there.
It’s always been about the book
Before I had the faintest idea that I might write content marketing for businesses, I wrote stories. I know that we all did that at school, but I carried on. Ideas for crime novels pop into my head at regular intervals. The one I’m working on now existed as an idea for a few years before I started making some notes, writing random scenes as they occurred to me. When I was a commuter I wrote on the train. Now I’m editing; it feels as if I’ve rewritten the thing about eleven billion times but I could be exaggerating. It’s a murder mystery, set in Leicester and I’m almost ready to send it out into the world.
I think I might be scared
There’s the problem, you see. I feel as if everything has been pushing me towards this point. Even the self-care conversations, because I know I need to look after myself to deal with whatever different thing comes next. It’s also why I keep getting new shiny ideas. A bit of me wants to get on with it. A much bigger bit is utterly terrified. What if it’s rubbish? (Apparently most first novels are.) There are characters inspired by people I love and tiny snippets of my life in those pages. It feels personal. The other nagging feeling is the fact that being a published novelist is my dream. I don’t know what happens next if the dream comes true. Will my life still be my own if I take it in a different direction? Will I become a magnet for trolls on Twitter? No idea.
What shall I do next?
This is a silly question, isn’t it? I need to finish the two little edits that are bugging me and send my manuscript out for someone else to read. I’ve got friends who’ve offered and I know where to get a reader’s report. An author friend (yes, I have one of those) even got me an email address for a published crime writer who’s happy to look at a couple of chapters for me. So, I know the answer to my own question. I just need to get on and do it.
Why am I telling you this story? It’s because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. I can help you find the right story to tell in your marketing so you can attract wonderful new customers. If I can help you with that, let’s have a chat.
I’ve talked about sharing your story in your marketing so many times, yet there’s one story that I’ve always held back. As I write this, I’m still wondering whether it will end up out in the world for you to read. The only reason I’m even considering it is because I know I can’t be the only one who’s had the same experience. I’ve been bullied more than once during my life. It would be easy to focus on the negative beliefs that come from that (and on a bad day, I definitely do). The years have given me perspective, so I’ve decided it’s time to tell my bullying story in case it helps you too.
The school bullies
I reckon most people must have their own version of this story. I went to a tiny primary school followed by a bigger middle school. The bullies singled me out as I was a clumsy bookworm. Not just a swot but too poorly co-ordinated to be good at either gymnastics or dancing. As far as my peers were concerned, I was utterly useless. I longed for anonymity. Thankfully senior school was better; there were more people like me and became invisible to the bullies. It was the first time I learned the importance of finding your people and I still use it today.
Bullying at work
I didn’t go to university straight from school, but took some time out, did other courses and ended up in the job from hell. I worked as an admin assistant (aka lowest of the low), with colleagues who didn’t like people with A-levels. There were times when my supervisor told me there wasn’t anything for me to do, but in the next breath would go and complain to the boss that I wasn’t pulling my weight. Anything that came out of my mouth was treated as an opportunity for a sarcastic comment or outright sneer. On the plus side, it made me realise that I did want to go to uni.
How it holds me back
Those days are gone, but some of the scars remain. When you’ve been treated as if you don’t belong you start to believe it. You think your feelings don’t matter and you don’t have the right to be considered. It’s easy to adopt a mindset where you don’t try new things or talk to new people because then you can’t be rejected. Yet I find myself here, with a business that depends on me promoting it. I fight the instinct to ‘not be a nuisance’ every time I market my business. It makes me wonder whether I’d do more if I didn’t feel this way.
What it’s taught me
I don’t know what my life would have been like if the bullying hadn’t happened. There are some positives; I’m aware of the mind monkeys that hold me back. Silencing the chatter has become a skill, although not an infallible one. I’m selective in who I trust so I’ve learned to listen. There have been people in my life that others regarded as a ‘good bloke’, when they were anything but. I’ve learned to observe and work out who they really are. That comes in handy when I’m writing for clients and being their voice. In that respect, it could be a gift.
Sharing stories like this one help your future clients to see you as a human being, not just a business. It doesn’t have to be as personal as this. If I can help you find the right story to use in your marketing, let’s have a chat.
I was listening to the news recently and heard Michael Rosen talking about ‘that’ Downing Street cheese and wine party that wasn’t a party. As you might remember, Michael is a poet who was hospitalized with Covid-19 and spent several weeks in intensive care. He compared lockdown to the blitz during World War 2. Here’s the quote that stuck with me:
“Instead of the equivalent of wreaths at the Cenotaph, what we’re getting is ‘oh, we were partying while you were doing that’.”
It bothered me and I couldn’t work out why. Then I realised that we’ve been hearing this kind of Blitz spirit stuff all the way through lockdown. It’s the people who say you’d never have survived if you’re hoarding toilet rolls or can’t even cope with staying at home. They say that everyone pulled together and no-one was out for themselves. The trouble is, it’s rubbish.
Michael Rosen was right
When Michael Rosen was talking about the Downing Street gathering, he referred to the social trauma that we’ve all been through in the last two years. In that sense, it’s a fair comparison. We’ve been isolated from our loved ones and faced huge uncertainty. We’ve longed to get back to normal (whatever that might mean). There has also been fear. We might not have faced being sent out to a foreign battlefront, but we’ve certainly dealt with the reality that a bomb might drop in viral form.
We don’t know what the long-term impact of Covid-19 will be. The Blitz generation grew up (and grew old) in a world very different from this one. I’m still absolutely certain that comparing our society to that one isn’t helping.
People cheated during the Blitz too
The reason I have a problem with the whole idea of a modern day ‘Blitz spirit’ is that it glosses over historical reality. There’s a nostalgia which imagines that every generation before this one was somehow perfect. We’re fed a wartime image where every neighbourhood pulled together. The trouble is, not everyone did. There were lots of examples of neighbours looking after each other and community groups organising resources and support. But then, as now, there were plenty of people out for themselves too. The blackout provided plenty of opportunities for crime. People behaved badly when they got the chance because they didn’t know when the bombs would drop. Even fundamentally decent people found ways to bend the rules. Which reminds me…
The rules are different this time
Covid-19 brought a set of rules that separated us from our loved ones so we’d all stay safe. In the 1940s my dad didn’t see his parents for months at a time because he was in a ship on the Atlantic. Near the end of his life, he told me that every day had been a bonus since then. He knew that a torpedo could come through at any moment and it would all be over. The difference was that when you got the chance to let off steam, you could do it in a crowd. The party that’s unforgiveable now would have been part of life then. The trauma might be the same but we processed it differently.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because even though no two lives are the same, we’ve all got shared experiences and it’s important to talk about them. You might not think that your personal stories can translate to your business marketing, but they can. If you’d like to find out how, send me an email or book a call and let’s have a chat.
DI Alan McLean sighed and looked at his watch. Only ten minutes until sunset. He could only guess what time Victor Alexander would return home from work and find whatever he was going to find. McLean pulled the file across the desk and opened it again. It was certainly an unusual case. He wondered whether he’d have been sent the file if half of the station hadn’t gone down with a spectacular vomiting bug. Probably not. It wasn’t a major crime yet, although it certainly had potential. At the moment it was a just bizarrely seasonal stalking.
The first photo in the file had been taken on 22nd December, when Mr Alexander had arrived home to find that the front of his house and two shrubberies had been festooned with fairy lights. It was the Santa dummy on the doorstep that had rattled him. Or rather, the sign around its neck that read ‘what will you be getting for Christmas little boy?’ He wasn’t alarmed – far too level-headed for that – but it was a nuisance. He wanted it on record in case something else happened. The Santa was certainly creepy. A real-life version coming down the chimney would have been enough to send you running away screaming. McLean had taken his daughters to a grotto with a far more avuncular specimen.
He looked at his watch again and wondered what they were doing with their Christmas Eve. Was there a festive movie playing at home? The sky had turned orange and it would soon be dark. Had they talked their mum into making hot chocolate yet? He didn’t yet know what time he’d get home. One call from the officers stationed outside Alexander’s house could give him an idea, but his phone remained silent.
He turned back to the file and another photograph. The 23rd of December had brought a new display. Mr Alexander arrived home to find a series of photographs showing happy families celebrating Christmas. They all looked happy, eating and drinking or exchanging presents. The photographs had been blu-tacked to his front door, along with a wreath saying ‘Merry Christmas’. The FIs hadn’t found any fingerprints but they’d sent the whole lot for further examination, just in case. McLean wondered whether they’d been decimated by vomit too.
Now it was Christmas Eve. Time to find out whether Mr Alexander would come home to another prank or something more serious. He read Alexander’s statements again. He was the senior partner in a firm of accountants based in Leicester city centre. It clearly paid well – the house was large and in an affluent part of town. Yet he lived alone. Conversations with his neighbours revealed a man who worked long hours and didn’t socialise. Perhaps that was why they hadn’t noticed the new decorations being added to his house. McLean wondered whether he should feel sorry for the man, or whether he liked things that way. He drummed his fingers on the desk. It was finally dark. Surely something had to happen soon. There were two plain clothes officers in a car outside the house and a patrol car nearby. His phone buzzed. Mr Alexander had arrived home and there was no obvious sign of any interference with his property. Maybe it had just been a strange practical joke that had fizzled out. Hopefully that meant that he could go home soon. He liked Christmas Eve better than Christmas Day; there was something wonderful about the anticipation. He’d loved sharing the traditions from his childhood in Glasgow too. Most of them had been the same as the English customs, except one. His wife had never heard that you should light a candle and put it in your front window to welcome strangers. Their children had turned it into a candle to welcome Santa instead. He smiled, wondering if the candle would be there to light him home. The phone rang.
“Go ahead. Understood. I’m on my way.”
Alexander’s house looked even more impressive in real life than it did in the photos. The fact that there was a top of the range Jaguar parked in the drive didn’t hurt. McLean knew the plain clothes officer who answered the door.
“Evening sir. We found him in the garage, turning off the power. He’s in the living room now. Mr Alexander wanted a word.” He ended on an eye roll. It had obviously been a trying night already.
As McLean entered the room, his eyes were immediately drawn to the display on the wall next to the fireplace. ‘How does it feel to spend Christmas alone in the dark?’ It had been created by a projector that sat on the carpet.
Another officer rose from the sofa as he entered the room. He’d been sitting next to a pale young man in handcuffs, who was shaking so much McLean wasn’t sure he was capable of standing. It was a stark contrast to the beetle-browed man in the armchair. McLean knew it was Victor Alexander before he stood up to identify himself and shake hands. He had a firm handshake and a piercing gaze. McLean remembered his neighbours’ comments and wondered what it would be like to work for him. You certainly wouldn’t argue with him. The man was physically unremarkable yet somehow, he had force.
“I know it’s not the usual form, but I wanted to hear his explanation before you took him away.”
McLean nodded. “Have you had an explanation?”
Alexander shook his head. “I’m waiting for him to stop trembling. Come on, pull yourself together man!”
There was another chair opposite the sofa and McLean sank into it. He looked into the eyes of the handcuffed man and saw the effort that he was making to form a sentence. Finally, with a gulp and a deep breath, he spoke.
“He doesn’t remember who I am.”
“We’ve met a few times. I used to come and pick Fiona up when she was working late, save her getting the bus home.” He glanced at Alexander. “That happened quite a lot.”
“Fiona?” Alexander said. “Do you mean Fiona Mitchell?”
“My wife. I’m Mark Mitchell.”
“She was a good worker; I was sorry to lose her.”
“I bet you were. All that overtime for no extra pay.”
“She was dedicated.”
“She was overworked!”
“Is that what this is about?” McLean asked. “Getting your own back on your wife’s old boss? Why?”
Mark was shaking his head. “That’s not it. Let me explain.”
He fell silent until Alexander ran out of patience and told him to get on with it.
“I met Fiona when she was a trainee accountant. She was already working for Mr Alexander’s firm and they were paying for her training. I had quite a few friends who’d gone into law and finance so I knew you had to work hard to make it. The trouble was it never stopped. She told me that once she was qualified, she’d have more of her own clients so she could plan her workload. No more late nights because one of the partners needed her to do something urgent. Except it didn’t work that way. She became a safe pair of hands, someone he,” he nodded at Mr Alexander, “could rely on for sensitive work.”
Alexander nodded. “That’s true enough.”
“When we got married, she had to beg for two weeks off to go on honeymoon. Her Dad had a heart attack and he rang her to ask her to come in while he was still in surgery.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t. You don’t exactly encourage personal confidences. But how hard is it to realise that you don’t call someone into work on a day their relative is near death?”
Alexander didn’t reply.
“Christmases were the worst. They always open because tax returns are due at the end of January and their clients often use their Christmas down time to get up to date. Somehow Fiona always ended up working because she didn’t have children.”
“That wasn’t my decision. I left all of that to the office manager.”
“Yeah, but plenty of people asked you to intervene because it was unfair. You could have done that, but you just closed your office door and let the office manager’s cronies get their own way. Every Christmas I’d have to go and visit my family on my own. Every year I’d sit there, seeing the sideways looks between my aunties. Their poor neglected nephew with a career woman for a wife. As if she had a choice. All because you don’t need a break if you haven’t got kids. The irony is, we really wanted them. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.”
“Is that why she left?” McLean asked.
“Yeah. She got home from work one Christmas Eve and just sobbed; she was exhausted. We had two days leave together before she had to be back in the office. I wanted to wrap her in a blanket and sit her on the sofa but she needed to see her family. We spent the whole time travelling around to visit everyone, then she went back to work. She handed her notice in a couple of weeks later.”
Alexander was nodding. “I remember. I still don’t understand why you did all of this. Were you trying to give me a terrible Christmas as some sort of revenge?”
“No. That wasn’t it. Have you read ‘A Christmas Carol’? Charles Dickens?”
Mark looked around the room, addressing the question to all of them. Someone muttered that they’d seen the film and McLean wondered if they meant the Muppet version. “Scrooge didn’t understand Christmas. He thought that life was all about money so he ended up alone and friendless, with no-one to mourn him. You reminded me of that story. You’re all alone in this lovely house until you go back to work. Maybe you’re happy that way, I don’t know. It sounds daft now I say it out loud, but I thought that if I could recreate the ghosts, it would help you to understand what Christmas is for. That it might make you think about your employees and look after them a bit better.” He went quiet but McLean had a strong impression that he was holding something back.
“Did you have something else to say?” McLean asked. “Now’s your chance.”
“It’s just – are you happy Mr Alexander?”
Alexander looked surprised. “I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me that. No, I don’t suppose I am. I grew up in a family where hard work and fun were equally important. Oh, we had the most wonderful Christmases back then.” His eyes shone as he spoke. “My father used to dress up as Father Christmas for the children’s party at the factory and I had to pretend I didn’t know it was him. Then over the years, hard work took over and the fun stopped. My wife, Belinda, died.” His voice faltered. “She had breast cancer. We didn’t have children so when she went I was all alone. It’s easier to bury yourself in work than to submit to the sympathy of well-meaning neighbours. Then one day you find that work is all you have.”
He looked up at Mark. “I’m sorry about Fiona, I didn’t realise she was so unhappy. The truth is, I liked it when she came in over Christmas. I don’t suppose she liked me very much, but she was kind. It reminded me of Belinda. She was good at looking after people, I expect Fiona’s the same.”
Mark nodded. “She is. Everyone except herself. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” He looked up at McLean. “I don’t think I want to press charges. Am I able to do that? Can you just let him go?”
“We can. He broke into your garage, but that’s his only offence.”
Everyone stood up and the sergeant removed Mark’s handcuffs.
“There was one other thing.” Alexander said. “Why now? Fiona left nearly two years ago, what prompted you to visit me this year?”
Mark smiled and reached into a pocket for his phone. He found what he was looking for with a few taps and held it out towards Alexander. “This is our daughter, Angela. It’s her first Christmas.”
The sergeant went ahead of McLean to stand down the patrol car that had pulled up in front of the house. Victor and Andrew shook hands on the doorstep.
“I can’t supply you with a giant goose, but I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”
“Thank you. The whole family are descending tomorrow so it’ll definitely be busy, but at least we’ll have a few quiet days afterwards. What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
As they walked down the path, a woman of about fifty walked up. “I’m sorry to intrude, but I saw the police car; is everything all right?”
“Yes, thank you.” Victor replied. “Just a misunderstanding.”
“Oh, that’s good.” McLean saw her hesitate, biting her lip. “Look – I know we don’t really know each other, but Belinda was a good friend to me. I loved her very much and I don’t believe she’d want you to be on your own at Christmas. Would you like to come over for a drink?”
“Thank you, I’d like that.”
McLean smiled. It was a lovely gesture but he still felt as if he might throw up. He checked his watch. If he was lucky, he’d be home in time for hot chocolate.
It’ll soon be time to hang up the ‘closed’ sign and head off for Christmas. (My closed sign is metaphorical – my office is in the garden and I don’t get visitors.) I know that there are lots of things that are traditionally great about Christmas, but it can also be hugely stressful. The conversation at a recent networking event turned towards gratitude and how much it can benefit our mental health. It got me thinking about the things I actually enjoy about Christmas, so I decided to write them down. Here are my 5 favourite things about Christmas…
I love taking the school holidays off. There’s nothing quite so joyful as turning off the alarm clock until January. I get to visit people I don’t get to see and spend more time with the ones I live with.
My favourite day off is the one I take on my own before school finishes. I know, I’m weird. I spend the day pottering about doing whatever festive thing comes to mind. It might be ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ (again) or it could be wrapping presents with a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie. Bliss.
I’m a vegetarian so I’m not talking about turkey (although I do love Paxo). It’s all the other stuff that goes with Christmas. The cheese, the mince pies, opening the Prosecco at breakfast time. It’s the ridiculously huge tubs of Twiglets, Cheeselets and chocolates that you don’t get at any other time of year. I know I could eat pickled onions all year round, but I don’t. It’s all part of the festive feast and I love it.
If Christmas trees were banned tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind, as long as I could still have my lights. I love wearing jumpers and scarves and the fact that cold weather makes hot chocolate essential. The only thing I struggle with is the lack of light. A lot of my favourite things about Christmas involve lights – the Christmas tree, the candles and the high street displays. When January comes and the Christmas lights go out, the winter always feels just a little bit harder.
I’m not a religious woman, but I always head to church at Christmas. One of my relatives is a churchwarden and it’s always fun going to Christingle and watching lots of small children handle naked flames. Also, Christmas carols are brilliant, even if you’re not a believer.
There are also loads of good tunes on adverts and in the shops (although I was once a Christmas shop assistant and I know how wearing they get by Christmas Eve). It’s the one time of year that you can sing to your heart’s content and no-one bats an eyelid.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to start bumping off family members. Christmas is often associated with ghost stories, but I’m a crime writer. ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ is a fixture in my festive viewing, along with any new Agatha Christie adaptations that pop up. My husband bought me a copy of ‘The Mistletoe Murder and other stories’ by PD James a few Christmases ago. Since then that bit between Christmas and New Year, when you can’t remember what day it is, finds me curled up on the sofa with a new seasonal crime collection.
What are your favourite things about Christmas? Leave a comment and let me know!
In the 5 and a bit years since I became a business owner, I’ve learned a lot about mindset and motivation. A fitness coach once told me that you needed to aim for a positive outcome as trying to avoid a negative one didn’t work. I repeated this theory during a writing workshop, run by one of the most insightful and encouraging women I’d ever met. I don’t know what I expected her response to be, but “b***ocks!” certainly wasn’t it! I understand that avoiding the worst can be a powerful motivator, but I’ve seen a trend among some people in my network that focuses on talking about the people who hate you. I don’t get it. Why would you focus on that?
We can all think of people in the public eye (like Katie Hopkins) who seem to thrive on being hated. I get it, up to a point. If you find it easy to make controversial statements and it gets you work and fame, why wouldn’t you? The thing is, I’ve started to see other people doing it, whose businesses aren’t built around writing opinion pieces or turning up on TV as a talking head. I find it harder to understand why someone who runs an ordinary business should be shouting about being hated, yet I see it all the time.
Doubters vs haters
I feel it’s important to distinguish between the people who hate you and ones who are trying to protect you. Starting your own business is risky. You know it and the people who love you do as well. When I started out I was leaving a profession and a steady income behind. I had plenty of people tell me that I could always go back to it if things didn’t work out. I bet you did too. Hearing those kinds of comments could dent your confidence. They motivated me because I knew I didn’t want to go back. There’s a world of difference between that and trolls who send you abuse.
The people who hate you
When I hear most business owners talk about negative comments, they describe it as an annoyance. It’s something that takes time to deal with, often when they don’t have time and mental energy to spare. One business owner said that having haters is a sign you’ve made it, because it means that people are paying attention. There might be something in that, but if you’re talking about the people who hate you, why not mention the ones that love you too? Otherwise, it could just mean that your marketing isn’t reaching the right audience.
It’s been a while since I studied psychology, so I did some revision to try and understand what’s going on. For a divisive celebrity, the appeal of being a hero to some could counteract the effect of being hated. It could also be their way of putting two fingers up at anyone who tells them what to think. My favourite approach is in a 2015 study which suggests that knowing who your enemies are makes the world feel safer, so drawing them out might have its benefits. I think we can all understand wanting to find a bit of certainty just now.
I’m not going to start celebrating hate (it still feels like a waste of precious time and energy) but it’s given me some insight into the ones who do. Personally, I’d prefer to focus on the people who like what I do, because they’re the ones I can help.
What do you think?
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There are days when I sit down to write and it all just works. Today isn’t one of them. There are two sets of circumstances that allow me to just open a new document and get going. Firstly, there are the times that I have a plan. I’m either writing something for a client, where we’ve had a chat and I’ve got loads of notes, or it’s something I’ve written into my marketing planner because I think you’ll find it useful. Secondly, there are the days when I’ve got something to get off my chest. This is the stuff that sometimes doesn’t make it into print. It just feels good to write it down. When I’m wearing my fiction writing hat those words sometimes come back to me. They might not go into a finished piece, but it helps me get into the mindset of a character who’s thoroughly hacked off.
What’s the plan?
Today, I sat down with no idea what to write about. I’m a big believer in showing the person behind the business and being honest, but it’s not easy. I get frustrated at the way other people’s social media posts either pretend that everything in their life is perfect or exaggerate the misery. It’s the same in business. We feel as if we have to present a front that pretends business is easy and wonderful 100% of the time. Truth is, it isn’t. It’s frequently tough. It leads to those 3am crises of confidence where we sob and tell ourselves that we’ve made a horrible mistake. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. I’d rather deal with the self-doubt than go back to having a boss. But does reminding you all that there’s a real person behind the business make me look weak?
Why am I telling you this?
You may be reading this (or perhaps you’ve given up) wondering what on earth I’m going on about. What’s the point? The point of the story is that we all struggle to know what to talk about in our marketing. What do we share and what do we leave out? It’s partly for me, to help me work out why I find it difficult to write when I don’t have a plan. I hope that it helps you to know that you’re not the only one who struggles. Most of us don’t tell the truth on social media (I know that isn’t a profound insight, but there you go). A lot of us leave out anything negative. If times are bad we don’t post at all. Some people just lie. Or exaggerate to add some drama.
If we want to show the person behind the business, where do we start? Do we post warts and all accounts of the doubts and fears along with the wins? Probably not. We all have things we can justifiably keep private. But maybe we can start sharing some of the eye roll moments, or the times when things don’t go to plan. Or when the plan didn’t exist in the first place.
As for me, I’m going to go back to my planner and think of more stories like this one. I might even look at ideas for strategies to use when your mind goes completely blank!
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In case you’re reading that question and wondering what the answer is, well, it’s me. I would. You’ll hear lots of business gurus telling you that business success is all about you – how dedicated you are and how far you’re prepared to go outside your comfort zone to reach your goals. The truth is that it’s not always just about you. For me (and I’m guessing most of you) there are competing priorities. The people you love don’t revolve around you. They all have their own needs, ambitions and dreams that need to be recognised and included in your own plans.
Some of them are predictable, others not so much. Sometimes you have to shift things to let someone else live their dream. In my case, it came in the form of a Channel swimming husband.
My husband has been a swimmer all his life, but when I first met him, he mostly did it in nice warm swimming pools. Pre-kids I’d go along to some of the same training sessions, sticking to the slow lane while he zoomed along with the speedy people in the fast lane. I can’t say for certain when the Channel swimming dream was first mentioned, but his open water career started a long time ago. We used to travel to grand prix swims around the country at weekends. They were mostly good fun, apart from the Scarborough swim where it rained so heavily that the spectators got wetter than the swimmers did.
Somewhere along the way, the Channel started being mentioned. Then it got serious.
Channel swimmer training
It won’t surprise you to learn that Channel swimmers need lots of training, and not just on endurance and technique. You’re not allowed to wear a wetsuit, so you train to withstand the cold. You also need to sort your head out. Most people who pull out will do so because their brain told them they couldn’t do it.
Obviously, there’s lots of swimming in cold water. This is sometimes lovely – there’s a lake up the road from us where the whole family can go along. However, a swimmer’s need to train with other Channel swimmers means living with a man who disappears off to Dover for the weekend, or to a training camp in Croatia. I admire single parents generally, but never more so than during those weeks.
You might think that most of the stress of being a Channel swimmer’s wife is in the juggling. It isn’t really. He’s training for his third swim at the moment, so I’m mostly used to it. (Oh yes, did I mention that being a Channel swimmer is addictive? He keeps saying things like ‘five is a nice round number’.) The real stress comes when someone you love is swimming through a shipping lane. My logical brain knows that his support boat has a professional crew and two of his friends looking out for him. I reassure myself with the statistic that there have only been ten Channel swimming fatalities since 1926. Yet I still don’t breathe easily until he’s on dry land.
I know that most of you probably don’t have a Channel swimmer in the family. That’s not why I’m telling you this story. It’s because we all have things that we juggle and I wanted to you know that I get that. If you’d like to work with a writer who knows how life works for you and will help you tell that story to your own customers, get in touch and let’s have a chat.
Like a lot of you, I’m a Mum who has had her kids at home for the last couple of months. The last period of home school (if you can really call it that) taught me a lot. It meant that I felt a bit more prepared for the day-to-day reality. I’m not going to say that it was easy, because it wasn’t. There were a whole lot of days where the kids cried and I joined in. Sometimes it was even the other way round. Or I cried and they wandered off to play because they hate handwriting practice and geography is some form of torture. We got through it. What’s surprised me is how much I’m struggling with the back to school bit. Not because I don’t think they should be there, I do. It’s just been different and that’s what’s inspired this blog. If any of this resonates (or if you’ve got any advice) please leave a comment and let me know.
The schedule shift
Home learning meant that my working day started at 3.30ish and had shrunk down to a couple of hours. I thought that shifting back to my previous work pattern would be easy. The start of the day was fine. I made a cup of tea and turned on my laptop as I always have. That wasn’t the issue. It was the afternoons. A full working day suddenly felt too much. It was as if my brain had turned into a sulky teenager. I couldn’t work out why it had been easy to readjust last time but not now. Then it clicked.
I’ve been thrown in at the deep end
Last time the kids went back to school it was much more gradual. The phased return that applied to younger kids first meant that my youngest was the only one who went back before the summer holidays. It wasn’t an all or nothing situation where everything had gone back to normal. Then the summer holidays started as usual. By the time that school fully reopened for the Autumn term, it felt more like normal school. Somehow it meant that I could get back to work more easily. It made the difference between then and now so much harder to understand.
The strange this about this return to school is the sense of anticipation that came with it. I kept hearing that this would be it. There was no way they’d close the schools again (although I heard plenty of muttering to the contrary). It was a sign that life was getting back to normal. I don’t know why, but I felt as if I’d be able to leap back into work and everything would be as it was before. It wasn’t. Having shorter day had focused my mind. A full day found me procrastinating, unable to decide what needed to happen first.
How I’m dealing with it
I wish I could tell you that I’m back to full strength and have turned into a goal hitting dynamo. I haven’t. As I write this, I’ve just completed a bit of planning that would normally have taken me an hour. My lack of focus turned it into three afternoons of dragging myself back to my notebook. I’m getting there though. There’s a plan and my priorities are putting themselves into order. I’m gradually building my work muscles back up (just in time for the Easter holidays!). Plus, if I need a break, I take one. Even if it means a two-hour lunch break.
Are you getting back into work mode? How’s it going? Let me know in the comments!
“Yes but I can’t see you, you need to turn your camera on.”
“Diane, you’re on mute.” Emma watched as Chris gesticulated wildly trying to send a signal to Diane.
“Wow, Zoe, is that your new house? It’s lush!”
“Thanks. We’re starting to feel settled now.”
“Well, you’ll certainly have had time to do it up since we’ve all been ‘working from home’.”
Emma sighed and saw Zoe roll her eyes. She had never met anyone who did quote marks with their fingers until she started working for Chris’ team. It was ironic that his hand signals were so irritating, given that he tied himself in linguistic knots trying not to offend anyone. She watched as more of her colleagues appeared on the screen. The wine expert was sitting quietly, looking slightly awkward. He looked younger than she’d expected. Most of the wine buffs she knew were well over 40 with a slightly florid complexion. He wasn’t that much older than her. She looked over her shoulder as Tom appeared from Cara’s bedroom and gave her a thumbs up. That was a relief. If she was sparked out already that meant she wouldn’t appear wanting milk in the background of the Zoom call.
Matt’s face appeared on the screen. “You alright Matt? You look a bit groggy babe.” That was how Sophie talked to everyone. Even the chief executive was ‘babe’.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Had a disco nap on the sofa and woke up with a bit of a headache.”
Sophie screeched with laughter. “You’re a proper party animal, aren’t you?” Matt just smirked. Emma could see that the image was a bit fuzzy, but he did look bad.
“Right then, have we got everyone?” Chris had adopted the manner that he used to bring team meetings to attention. Emma could see Zoe’s eyebrows heading upwards again. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I know that we’d much rather be having a team do in person, but I think a Zoom version will make an excellent substitute. I’m sure we’ll be back to a Christmas party with everyone from the office this time next year. Sorry, did someone say something?”
Emma was fairly sure she’d heard a snort of derision from Diane. She’d be retired this time next year and would be spared the annual meal with interminable speeches from everyone in senior management.
“Anyway,” Chris continued, “I’ll hand you over to Adam, our wine expert.”
“Thank you. As Chris said, I’m Adam. I’m a certified sommelier and in normal times I run parties like these in person. Zoom is a new innovation for us but it’s been great to bring people together. Can I just check that everyone has had their catering box delivered?”
A mixture of nods and thumbs up filled the screen.
“Great. Please open them up if you haven’t already.”
Emma had never been to an organised virtual party before. She didn’t feel that drinking gin with her sister-in-law over FaceTime really counted. Earlier that afternoon a delivery driver had turned up bearing a large cardboard box with a clear window in the top. She’d been able to see a selection of cheeses, but as she opened it up she discovered that there were a series of miniature bottles underneath, each with a different variety of wine. Everything was labelled so they could match up the two. She opened the first bottle and poured it into her glass.
Emma was having more fun than she’d expected to. Adam knew his stuff. He was also better at audience participation than his non-COVID job suggested he would be.
“Soph, you’ve frozen again.”
“I don’t think she can hear you Chris.” Sophie was a still image, paused with a glass of wine fixed to her lips.
“You were all statues then” she laughed, “sorry about this, my internet connection’s rubbish.”
“Matt, are you having any crackers with that?” It was the first time Zoe had spoken. Emma thought it was an interesting choice of words to break the silence.
“Nah. Not a fan. No carbs before Marbs and all that.”
“Yeah, because we’ll all be jetting off any time now.”
“Let’s hope, hey?” Emma felt that Zoe’s sarcasm often flew entirely above Chris’ head.
“Right then, let’s move on to the next pairing. This is a Californian Pinot Noir. It’s a lovely light red wine and goes beautifully with – Matt, are you OK?”
Matt was clutching his head. Emma had the distinct impression that he was trying to dig his brain out with his fingers. He groaned, then disappeared as he fell off the sofa.
Sophie made a sound then her camera froze again. Everyone else was silent.
“Matt? Matt, can you hear me?” Chris was trying to sound authoritative but his voice was pure panic.
Zoe spoke next. “Either his screen’s frozen or he’s not moving.”
Emma looked at the faces of her colleagues. Everyone seemed to be frozen and they couldn’t all have a dodgy internet connection. “Well, we need to do something. He lives on his own, doesn’t he? Does anyone live nearby?”
Adam had gone pale but appeared to be taking action. “I’m just trying to get hold of the boss. What if it’s the food?”
“Yes, that’s exactly the response we need.” Zoe was back to her usual self.
“Do you have an address for him?”
“There might be one on the system, but am I allowed? I mean – GDPR…”
Emma wanted to throttle him. He’d been obsessing over GDPR for the last two years. “I can’t remember the details but I’m sure getting him medical attention counts as a legitimate reason.”
Sophie’s screen came back to life. “I’ve called an ambulance. I went to his for pre-drinks before the summer party.”
“Do you think that could be the cause?” Diane asked. “Too much to drink beforehand combined with not enough food?”
“If he’d had some crackers it would have soaked it up a bit.” Chris agreed.
“I don’t know,” Emma replied. “He didn’t seem drunk. He seemed drowsy, said he had a headache and it looked like he was sweating. Those symptoms ring a bell but I can’t think why.” She had a dim and distant memory of having read about them somewhere in case she needed to recognise them. Why would she have done that?
Adam had lowered his phone. “Can I just check? Did everyone receive a sealed box?” They all nodded and he lifted the phone again. “Yes, they were.” Down the phone went. “Do we need an address for him or is that sorted?” Emma told him an ambulance was on its’ way and he spoke briefly into the phone before hanging up. “It should be obvious if a box has been tampered with. Apparently the delivery driver couldn’t get an answer at Adam’s so he left it with one of his neighbours. He obviously got it OK though.”
“I’ve got it!” Emma cried as the pieces of her memory organised themselves. She registered a uniform row of startled expressions on the screen. “He’s got the symptoms of hypoglycaemia. My granny had type 2 diabetes. I remember looking up the symptoms in case she ever had an attack when I was with her. Zoe, you’re type 1 aren’t you, do you think it could be that?”
“Well maybe, but he isn’t diabetic. If he was he’d know how important it is to dose his carbs properly, especially when we’re having a drink. And let’s face it, if he was we’d all know about it.”
Something in her voice made Emma look at Zoe more closely. She was always heavy with irony but there was something else. It almost sounded like bitterness. She minimised her Zoom screen and opened Facebook. She was friends with Zoe but had muted her early on in lockdown. Editing whose posts she saw had been an essential tool for managing her mental health. If anyone whinged too much she removed them, at least temporarily. She found Zoe’s account and scrolled through. It was relentless. If a post wasn’t something about the NHS it was a complaint about her neighbour and the incessant noise, the state of his garden or the endless procession of delivery drivers.
Sophie had unfrozen again. “Finally! Can anyone hear sirens? Zoe, you live near him now don’t you? Since you moved? He’s in a terrace on Stubbs Road, one of those ones with the stone fan thingy over the door?”
Emma had expected Zoe to scoff at Sophie’s lack of architectural knowledge, but her face was a mask. It reminded Emma of the scene at the end of Psycho where Norman Bates stares silently at the camera. What had she done? Emma returned to Facebook and carried on scrolling until she found a photo of Zoe with the caption ‘our new home!’ It was a terrace with a fan thingy over the door. Emma could hear the sirens sounding somewhere through the speakers.
“Does he leave the back door unlocked Zoe?”
“Matt. He’s your noisy neighbour, isn’t he? They left the box with you and you went round to deliver it. I’d guess that you found him asleep on the sofa and took the opportunity to go and fetch your insulin. Is that how it went?”
Zoe laughed as the sirens got closer and Emma realised she could hear them from two different computers at slightly different times.