“So, what was it all like, that stuff, back in July?” a few people asked me this weekend.
These were people I hadn’t seen for a year or more. People who had met me once (while tipsy) back in the days when I was being branded an internet adulteress and I had that slightly indecent, back in the saddle, new relationship glow about me.
Not an easy question to answer. My responses ranged from “scary” to “surreal” to “terrifying”, and I didn’t feel able to elaborate. But it got me thinking nonetheless. About everything I didn’t/couldn’t say at the time.
When I think back to the weeks that followed my unceremonious dismissal, I see myself at home, shutters closed, Tadpole (fortunately) with her grandparents. I was in pieces. Watching ten episodes of Lost a day, back-to-back, in my pyjamas. I had little or no appetite. Sleep was elusive. My hair hung in a gnarly, unbrushed ponytail. I shook like a leaf if I so much as smelt a cup of coffee. Kind friends invited me for cups of tea, and I spilled my guts, talking at one hundred miles an hour, high on adrenaline.
My life was a web of lies. Or, to be more accurate, withheld information. My readers couldn’t know I’d been fired because I wanted that news to come out only when I judged the time was right, and when I was sure that coming clean couldn’t cause me any additional harm. My notary, estate agent and bank manager couldn’t know I’d been fired, because I was still figuring out whether I dared sign my loan documents without disclosing my new circumstances.
I spent two months in limbo, consulting lawyers, worrying about whether or not there was any substance to the threats of legal action, regularly speaking to my journalist friend but asking him to hold off, yet simultaneously fearing that by July, it would be old news. I had mixed feelings about letting the story run at all; agonised over whether I had more to lose than I had to gain.
The story ran on a Tuesday, and I had no idea it would be the first of many until my phone started ringing, in the middle of my ASSEDIC interview, where I was sorting out my entitlement to unemployment benefit.
I was scheduled to move into my new apartment five days later, knee deep in boxes, flitting back and forth making final preparations. The new place had no internet access, so any time I spent there meant I was offline, unable to see how my story was snowballing across the web. I built wardrobes, took deliveries of appliances, and waited in for technicians while simultaneously fielding calls and giving interviews on my mobile phone in French and English.
Paris was in the throes of a heatwave, and I dripped with sweat every time I so much as changed a lightbulb. But in between the furniture assembly and deliveries I scampered back to the old flat down the road to approve hundreds of comments and scour a mountain of email for the important stuff that needed answering immediately. To change into any clean clothes I could find and have pictures taken by some photographer while my arm rested against a scalding hot balcony railing. I answered my emails at midnight, wrote a piece for the Guardian at 3 am, dropped Tadpole off with Mr Frog at 7 am so that I could have my picture taken for The Sunday Times in a café (photos never used, to my disappointment) while people all around me drank their first coffee of the day, nibbled croissants.
It was scary. Surreal. Terrifying. There wasn’t a single moment when I didn’t worry that in exchange for fifteen minutes of “fame” which no-one would remember a few weeks later, I would be left with a handful of yellowing press cuttings and no prospect of working as a PA in Paris again. When my full name was revealed – and I wasn’t stupid enough to think this couldn’t be found, just naïve enough to think that it didn’t add anything to the story and therefore people might respect my wish not to use it – I was left wondering whether the gamble had been worth it, after all. Journalists were sniffing around my home village, trying to find my daughter’s name, to contact Jim in Rennes, Mr Frog, and god knows who else. I felt exposed, picked over and extremely foolish for thinking that I could remain in any semblance of control.
I could only hope against hope that the emails coming in from agents and publishers represented some sort of genuine interest, although I didn’t have the time to explore those avenues just yet.
The day before I moved flats, there was a hasty trip to Ikea. Mr Frog and I had decided to make use of the van I’d hired (which he was driving), so that I could pick up a few things, and he could buy Tadpole a new bed and find some plants for his flat. We stopped for a snack; I knocked back an ill-advised espresso.
A few minutes later, in the lighting section, I had an enormous panic attack. There were people everywhere, but I didn’t care, all I wanted to do was let my legs go out from under me and curl up in a tight ball on the floor. My heartbeat was rapid, erratic; I couldn’t breathe. Stricken, I stared at Mr Frog, wide-eyed, unable to speak. I wanted to be hugged, for someone to whisper calming words in my ear. But Mr Frog couldn’t be that person. It was too much to ask of him. Instead I found a chair, put my head between my knees and took deep breaths until the feelings subsided. Not completely, but just enough for me to stand up and carry on, gripping the trolley with white knuckles.
I still get the panic attacks, although less often, less intense. Waterstones, Birmingham, August. An Italian restaurant in York, October. I always do my utmost to hide them from Tadpole, and whoever I may be with. Good things have happened since July and I feel lucky, grateful and slightly disbelieving in equal measures. But when every single thing in your life changes – your boyfriend leaves, you move house, you lose a job, find a new career – all in the space of six short months, it cannot fail to knock you sideways. It will take time to make sense of it all, to process, digest, and make it a part of who I am, not just something that happened to me.
I’m not quite there yet, but I hope I will be, soon.