Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Two or three days of every month in particular. And you’re not supposed to talk about it, so no one ever finds out that I’m riding 60 miles a day, charming all the usual receptionists, and maintaining my position as the golden girl of the fleet, despite being in physical pain sometimes so intense that it makes me whimper out loud, and fighting off vicious hormones that reduce my spatial awareness, impair my judgment, and leave me completely physically exhausted.
It’s not fair!
This becomes my internal refrain for those two or three days – just as it was on my very first day as a courier, which unfortunately happened at exactly the wrong time of the month. The thing is, everyone expects that girls won’t last long, and if a girl does quit after a couple of weeks (as a high proportion of couriers do), people are inclined to think it’s because she’s a girl, rather than just because she wasn’t up to the job. Or maybe that’s just my paranoia. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve always felt like I have a lot more to prove, and so I’ve put a huge amount of effort into being – if not necessarily the fastest, then definitely the most efficient, reliable, capable courier in the fleet. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, like today, I fail in spectacular fashion.
I’ve been feeling awful for a couple of days. Not only have I been in pain; I’ve had no energy – or, worse, a sort of negative energy, that would pull me into the ground if I gave it the chance. It’s as though I’m surrounded with a thick grey fog – so thick that I can’t even see my hands or feet properly. I keep bumping into things, misjudging gaps, tripping over kerbs. The world feels like it’s at more of a distance than usual. When I pedal, I feel like I’m dragging the bike across a muddy field, into a headwind. When I walk, I can barely lift my feet, and my eyes continually fall to the pavement, as though all their muscles have worn out. Whenever I was on standby today, I found I couldn’t muster the energy to read – or even to think. I just stared into space. Ordinarily I’m excited to be given a job – today it was a nuisance to be called away, although I could barely muster the energy to be annoyed. And keeping my concentration on the road, where I was going, and what I was delivering, was a constant sturggle.
At around 2pm I was given two pick-ups in the west end, heading out to EC1. As I picked up the second one, I noticed I hadn’t POB-ed the first, so hurriedly updated it, and hoped no one would notice – I really wasn’t in a state to be told off for running late on a job. I crawled over to Fetter Lane for the first drop, and found myself staring into an empty bag. The feeling of losing a package is almost as bad as that horrible jolt you get when you come out of a building and realize your bike isn’t where you left it (thankfully, every time I’ve done the latter, I’ve quickly remembered that actually I left it someone else), except it lasts a lot longer. I’ve only had it once before – and that after I read this article, and vowed I would never ever let such a thing happen to me.
There was a terrible sinking, shrinking feeling in my chest as I stopped, put the bag down, and began to hunt methodically through all its different compartments, knowing as I did so that I’d only ever have put the envelopes in the main bit, and if they weren’t there, they weren’t anywhere. I eventually found one of them tucked in next to my A-Z; the other just wasn’t there. And then, suddenly, heartstoppingly, I realized that I’d never picked the package up in the first place. I’d just ridden straight past. This does occasionally happen when you’re tired, or not paying attention, but I’ve always noticed within a minute or so, sheepishly retraced my steps, and only lost a minute or two. There was no way I could do this now. The pick-up was on Dean Street; I was at Holborn Circus – I could never sneak back without the controllers noticing. What was worse – I’d POB-ed the job, so they were under the impression that I’d picked it up and all was well, and completely unaware that any minute now they might be about to get a phonecall from an angry client, demanding to know why the courier wasn’t there yet.
I had no choice but to tell them. My head was buzzing with panic, and my chest was so tight that my voice sounded rough and hollow even to me. Not only did I have to tell them that I’d forgotten to pick up the package – I also had to explain how I’d ended up POB-ing it. And there was no good explanation. I don’t know what I was thinking. In fact, I almost certainly wasn’t thinking – I was probably just plodding along, suffocating under this horrible grey fog of pain and exhaustion and blankness.
The controller I spoke to was clearly pissed off, but to his credit, didn’t take too much of it out on me. Which is probably just as well, because as soon as I’d dropped the remaining package, and legged it over to Lawrence’s, I broke into tears of embarrassment and frustration. I have no doubt that my delicate hormonal state was mostly to blame for the day’s doldrums and disasters, and my main emotion was a sort of impotent anger. Why do I have to put up with this, when none of the men do? Why, when I try so hard and so constantly to be good at my job, am I let down so regularly by my own body? (It used to be a rule of mine that I would never take time off because of female-specific ailments. The pain’s got so bad in recent months that I’ve had to.) Why, if something must go wrong with me, can it not be something like a sore knee, that’s easily explained to and understood by the controllers? Why do I have to suffer in silence, when the job is twice as hard for two or three days every month?
And what made me most furious was that, as I came out with all this, in between my sobs, I was fulfilling all the well-trodden stereotypes of the hysterical woman, completely controlled by her hormones, and unable to contain her emotions. Luckily, the blokes in the shop were sympathetic types, and at least gave the impression of not writing me off as a lunatic. And, when I asked whether there’s any comparable millstone for men that I don’t know about, Lawrence pointed out that men are a lot less able to express their emotions, which helps to avoid outbursts like mine, but does lead to all sorts of other strange behaviour, like football, war, and driving black cabs.
He may have a point, though it didn’t make much of an impression on me then. Luckily, all the work suddenly tailed off at about that point, so I spent the next hour or so slumped listlessly at the back of the shop, trying in vain to focus on the world, and willing time to pass quickly so that I could go home. I wasn’t interested in getting any more jobs, and when I did, the fear that another career-ending mistake was just round the corner meant I was constantly checking myself:
“Have I definitely got the package in my bag?”
“Where am I going next?”
“Am I about to ride into a bus?”
I’m home now, and it’s almost over for another month. And, as I always do, I find myself wondering if things would be any different if the world were built around women’s needs rather than men’s. Really would they? And how?