real life

"I can’t see through walls, so why do I think I can see through people?"

Jacqueline Lunn

I can’t see through walls so I have no idea why I think I can see through people. But I do. Or I did think that.

Until I sat at a birthday dinner for a friend and the birthday girl had the great idea to get everyone around the table to stand up and announce the highlight or the lowlight from the past year.

It had been a while since this group of old friends had sat around a table together and swapped stories and I suppose it was an efficient way to see if anyone had moved jobs or was pregnant for the last time or had a hair transplant.

Although the latter is something I don’t need to be told. Spotting fake hair is a talent I’ve inherited from my mother.

Despite the groans from all assembled the birthday girl was indulged and the first off the mark was an academic and lecturer friend who cannot be put in a box. She told the long dining table it was Queensland winning the State of Origin and there was much laughter and mirth and ribbing and cheers and boos and this was how I thought it would go. Say something silly or smart.

Everyone carry on and then to the next person. After the intellectual of the group came the husband of a good friend. I never get to speak to him at these things as much as I would like to. Everyone chatted as he scraped his chair back. One end of the table told the other end how lovely the beef was. Shoulders were bumped as more wine was poured. Glowing photos of kids were held up on glowing screens.

“I miss my mum,” he said simply. “I know it’s been over a year and I keep telling myself it should be getting easier, but it’s not and I miss her every day.”

Everyone stopped. He spoke briefly about his mother and we all looked at this man in front of us being so honest and I think in that moment something cracked inside each of us. No, it wasn’t a crack because that means something was damaged. Something was opened rather than broken by a grown man standing up and talking about the love for his late mum. The next person stood.

She pushed the fringe out of her eyes. It was an immaculate fringe. Hair always perfectly chestnut. Outfits always perfectly interesting. Now living in different states, we’d been friends since university and spoke regularly on the phone and commented breezily on each other’s Facebook status. The table waited.

“Well I’m unemployable. That’s my highlight. Can’t get a job to save my life and I was good at things once and now no one wants me.”

“She put her wine glass up in the air to cheers herself but no one would cheer her.”

She put her wine glass up in the air to cheers herself but no one would cheer her. The table reminded her of her strengths and talents.

Around the table we went, announcing our lowlights, our fears, failures and frailties, being cheered by old friends, being comforted by old friends, laughing together and not laughing together.


Maybe the preponderance of lowlights was about age, early 40s, and what clung to it: aging parents, growing kids, bank balances that kept disappearing. Of the twelve people at the table, nine stood and spoke in this way.

There was a family business that was about to go under; there was the addition of anti-depressant medication to the bathroom cabinet; there was a daughter who spoke so rudely to her mother she went into the garage to cry sometimes. There were health scares, sick parents, money worries.

Before the phrase First World problems is trotted out, everyone at that table was well aware they lived in the first world and had choices and had food on the table and, of course, weren’t facing an imminent 12 kilometre walk for water to stay alive. But sometimes even lucky people hurt.

The revelations hadn’t spoilt the birthday dinner rather they had turned it into a special one. There were hugs and rallying whispers and there was a great deal of listening and problem solving. There were some lowlights I already knew and others that took me by surprise. It is a mistake to piece together inner lives with outer appearances and I had been doing that. I was wrong and I was also relieved.

“The revelations hadn’t spoilt the birthday dinner rather they had turned it into a special one. There were hugs and rallying whispers and there was a great deal of listening and problem solving.”

It sounds horrid, but it’s true. I had been wondering for a long time why everyone I knew seemed to be getting everything right: great jobs, great kids, great homes, great hair, great holidays, great plates to serve great food on and I was getting it wrong.

They didn’t seem to have setbacks in their life, or feel overwhelmed with responsibilities, or wonder how the hell did they end up here when they thought they should be over there by now.

When I stood I too chose a lowlight. The year had been a grind and I told everyone that. There had been serious health scares with kids and job worries and I stood up and told them I lost it for a while there. I had become resentful and frightened and hard work.

Then someone down the table told me their story of losing it and there was another story after that. There were people who had lost it all over the place.

I was not the only person relieved that night. Everyone was. I knew because we all talked about it later while having a game of snooker and pretending we knew all about angles. No one has it all sorted. Everyone fails. Everyone gets sideswiped by life. And sometimes when you are lost and feel you are the only person on earth who is, it’s nice to look to your left and see that you’re not alone. We are only human after all.

Jacqueline Lunn is a writer, journalist, university student and mother. Her second novel, The Unknown Woman published by Random House, is out this month. Her latest novel, The Unknown Woman, is the story of a woman who doesn’t know who she is anymore and a world that hasn’t noticed she’s gone missing. 

What’s happening in your world right now? Is there a struggle you’re coming to grips with? Do you speak to friends and family about your challenged or suffer in silence?