When do you become an adult? Legally it’s 18, of course, but it used to be 21, so that takes some of the fun out of it. If it’s already changed once, then what’s to stop it changing again in the future? I remember turning 18 and not feeling any different at all. It’s hard not to see how arbitrary it is.
Instead, we turn to milestones in our lives. The first time you vote, or have sex, or get drunk, or get drunk and then have sex. I remember all of these moments in my life, how they happened and how they felt. I remember what they meant to me then and know what they mean to me now. And on reflection I’m not sure if any of them made me feel the way I did when I bought my first toaster.
I was 16 and living alone in a bedsit in Carlisle. I knew no one else in the city and my nearest parent was miles away. The reasons for this are as hazy and complicated now as they were then, but it meant one thing: I was free.
Living by yourself when you’re 16 is a glorious and bizarre experience. You’re young enough to appreciate the transgressive joy of parental absence, while being old enough to actually do something with it. Mostly I just sat around and read, or worked on my abysmal writing. I tried to go for a walk every time it rained, and would venture outside just after the sun rose and before people started heading to work. The world was lonely and mine.
Retrospectively, it was all pretty grim. I was on a minuscule allowance and was resolutely unemployable, so I had no money and lots of time on my hands. There was no internet connection so I would have to copy internet pages onto a floppy disk at college and read them later at home. I once spent four days eating only nutella, unable to afford anything else. I became afraid of people. My bedsit was above the communal kitchen, and I would lie on my floor trying to listen for signs of life, only going down when I could be sure that I wouldn’t see a neighbour, even if it meant burning the dinner I’d left cooking in the oven.
It’s difficult to describe those days without them sounding depressing, but at the time it felt anything but. There was a feeling I could do anything I wanted to. I learnt how to be alone, and how to enjoy it. One evening I went by myself to the cinema, then came out and sauntered to a different one to see a second film. It was one of my favourite ever nights. I discovered how to live independently, even though it meant combing my hair with a fork. Everything I did that year I did terribly, but I was free to do it.
All of this leads to that wonderful day in my life, the one where I woke up and fancied some toast. Because the bedsit didn’t have its own toaster, I decided to go and get my own. I chose the one I wanted from the catalogue, headed down to the shopping centre, paid for it and headed back home. I had learnt that I was in control of my own life, and that I was responsible with finding the things that would make me happy. In time that would be a satisfying job, creative fulfilment, friendship and love, but for then it was just a nicely-buttered bit of toast. I ate about ten slices that day, and each one was divine. I was an adult.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven.