“How do you feel about turning 30?” a friend asks.
Many more things worry you than turning 30; a phone call in the middle of the night, an air hostess running the length of the plane, an extraordinary company meeting called in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.
You never thought you’d turn 30 in Australia; a winter baby, now.
When you were 15, you remember asking your dad what you should do when you were older. “I want a career that makes me a lot of money but that doesn’t require a lot of work,” you said.
“There’s always prostitution,” Dad replied.
You wanted to be a writer, a policewoman, a lawyer, something in the City that required a suit – this, when you were 16, and nothing seemed more adult than wearing a two-piece and catching the tube to Bank each morning – an economist, a teacher, an editor, a publicist, an events manager.
You never imagined that it would be the not-for-profit sector that captured your heart, that in ten years’ time you would think nothing of stopping a stranger at a party to ask if he’s on the bone marrow register.
In Australia, the never-ending summer finally turns into autumn, and with it comes grey skies and day after day of rain. You start wearing tights and your red winter coat, and you count down the days until your trip back to the UK in June.
And then one grey April Tuesday you come into work to a high priority email, asking all staff to attend an extraordinary company meeting at 4pm. The day passes slowly, edgily.
A few months later, you bump into an old university friend on a night out. He makes approximately five times your salary, which you learn when he presses you again and again for your earning ability, eager to share his.
“But why do you do it?” he spits into your ear, blurry with beer and tequila.
“Because I believe in trying to make a difference,” you reply.
“And presumably the smug bragging rights on social media,” he counters. “No one volunteers on the quiet these days; as soon as anyone does anything vaguely ‘good’, it’s up on Facebook for everyone else to see.”
“That doesn’t detract from the good that’s being done.”
“She’s been diagnosed with cancer. She’ll be taking extended leave while she receives treatment. We’ll be appointing an Acting CEO in the interim.”
You stare out of the window, watching the rain hammer the glass. They said it never rained in Sydney, you think.
Later, your university friend corners you again; he’s drunker, angrier.
“You’re mad to think you can make a difference,” he says. “You house one homeless person; there’ll be another ten taking his place on the streets. You save one person with cancer; there’ll be others who die. It’s pointless. You can’t really help.”
“You may be right,” you reply. “But it’d be a depressing world to live in if someone didn’t at least try.”
In June you watch one of your best friends marry the kindest man; the day is so full of love and laughter and joy, and you barely stop smiling all day. This is what we live for, you think; moments just like these.
At the reception, you chat to another wedding guest as you wait at the bar, and he tells you that he’s a pilot.
“I never used to be scared of flying,” you tell him, tongue loosened by champagne. “But I seem to worry about it a lot more as I get older.”
“A lot of people tell me the same thing,” he agrees. “But the vast majority of accidents happen in the first three minutes of any flight. Once you get through that, you’ll be fine.”
It’s this conversation you remember one month later, when you are precisely seven minutes into a flight to Melbourne; a girls’ weekend away to celebrate your 30th birthday. The plane strains around you as it makes its ascent above the clouds, and in your head you check off the noises: the hydraulics, the engines, the landing gear. All is fine, you think, until without warning the noises stop, an alarm sounds, and an air hostess races to the back of the plane.
But it’s been more than three minutes, you say to yourself over and over again, as your stomach clenches with terror.
You do cry, later, once you’re out of the boardroom and far away from your colleagues. You cry for your CEO, and for all the others; for the friend’s father who suffered a heart attack earlier this year, the younger brother hit by a car, the mother who fell and hit her head, the boyfriend diagnosed with cancer, the wife of a friend who has suffered miscarriage after miscarriage.
There has been too much death this year, you think; too much sadness. Too many phone calls in the middle of the night, bringing only bad news.
The alarm stops almost as soon as it starts, and though the seat belt sign remains lit for the duration of the flight, ninety minutes later you land in Melbourne.
As you watch the city flash past the windows of the taxi, you wonder what your air hostess is thinking, what story she’ll tell her friends tonight.
One day your younger brother emails you out of the blue. “I’m worried about you,” he says. “Your last blog post was so sad.”
You reassure him that you’re fine; that the blog post he’s referring to is nearly a year old, written in the approach to your first Christmas away from your family, that the reason your blog posts have been so few and far between is because happiness is not conducive to creativity.
“But feeling homesick is a natural part of living abroad,” you add, “and I think it’s important to be honest about that. If even one person reads that post and feels reassured that the way they’re feeling is normal, then it’s done its job. We spend too much time pretending that everything is perfect when it’s not. Life is hard, and it’s messy.”
Life is hard, and it is messy; this year has been so full of sadness, and endings, and change. But it has also been a year where you’ve watched your best friend marry her best friend, where you’ve seen them stare at each other with such love and happiness that it’s made your own heart sing.
It’s been a year where you’ve danced and laughed and drunk and celebrated and sung along to Florence with thousands of strangers outside the Sydney Opera House. It’s been a year where you’ve jumped into a fresh ocean pool on a hot day, where you’ve turned up the radio as you set off on road trips; where you’ve caught the ferry across the Harbour as the sun sets over a long weekend.
You’ve grabbed your friends in sweaty hugs at live gigs and raves and birthday drinks; you’ve been to impromptu barbecues and surprise brunches and long-awaited weekends away; you’ve tasted chocolate after a month off sugar.
You’ve watched the sun rise over Bondi because you’ve woken up early and because you’ve stayed up late; you’ve watched it rise high over the Tasman Sea, heralding the start of a new day, and you’ve thought: this is it. These are the moments that we live for.
And when you look in the mirror now, and see the wrinkles that are starting to line your face, etching themselves across your forehead and around your eyes like tiny rivers, you no longer worry about getting older; rather a sense of gratitude for everything that has gone before, and a sense of privilege for everything that is yet to come.