One day you're backpacking to China, the next you're topping up your National Insurance contributions... Fiona Mountford, reluctant ex-student, on the moment reality bites
IT ALL finally came into sharp focus last Sunday evening, somewhere between Heartbeat and London's Burning. Several months of worry came to a head when my boyfriend uttered the seemingly innocuous sentence: "Shall we decide on our summer holiday?" My boyfriend this is, the lovable yet hopeless man who up until a month ago wouldn't have recognised a deadline until it was positively rotting with age. My boyfriend, the newly paid- up member of the working world, anxious not to anger his new employers by taking off any more than two weeks of his 25 (count 'em) days annual leave at one time. Try as I might to escape the fact, this was the Real World, calling loud and clear. And it was terrifying.

Even on my graduation day at the age of 22, I still held the rather sweet notion that the Real World was for "grown-ups". Probably foolishly, I awarded myself one last long holiday, and resolved to consider my situation again in September. For how could I be expected to work in July and August? Didn't everyone get those months off? But, come September, I had to admit that I no longer inhabited a world neatly parcelled into eight-week terms, but that life had become suddenly very large, frighteningly and pulsatingly whole. I then realised why so many of my friends had opted either for further one-year courses (avoiding reality for just that little bit longer), or embarked on training schemes with major firms which, uncannily enough, seemed to run for three years with major exams/assessments each June.

Like it or not, the Real World was closing in around me. The bank cancelled my student account and I received a letter offering me the chance to top up my National Insurance contributions (so far just about making it into double figures) with sums of thousands. I have to confess that I was, and still am, hazy as to what National Insurance actually is. And as for Council Tax and water bills, well, only some other, more highly developed, life form could begin to comprehend these.

Let me clarify something. All this worry and puzzlement does not mean that I am work shy or unwilling to knuckle down to anything. Like most people of my age I am determined on a career and am prepared to work hard to achieve my goals. It's just... not yet. I simply want a little more time off the treadmill that I have forever seen my parents tread. I don't want to confine my experience of a wider world to 25 days holiday a year, nor do I want to push the "play" button for my life solely outside the hours of nine and five. But no-one out there seemed to be listening.

The only solution was to enter the Real World of work, but to bear in mind the philosophy of my friend Elizabeth. Despite the fact that she has been gainfully employed for over a year, she tells herself that this is not "it", but that she can give it all up whenever she likes. Or another friend, #Kate, who refuses to accept anything except temporary work, for fear of getting "tied down". So I decided that I would play the part to perfection, buy the clothes and the handbags, whilst laughing at the whole absurd set-up. The problem is, once you've got into the Real World, no matter what post-modern, ironic level you yourself see it on, people are distinctly unglad that after so brief a stay you should get out of it. The backpacking trip around China that could be excused as student folly or at a real push, educationally beneficial, does not receive such a warm welcome now. Who, I realised with a jolt that coincided with the New Year (and my first ever without the safety net of academia), would actually plan, much less finance, my longed-for trip to Australia? After a lifetime of having one's existence mapped out for years ahead, taking responsibility and making life choices comes as a huge shock. There was nothing for it. I concluded that like Kate, who is saving up for a tour of North America this summer, I would have to milk the RW for all it could offer both money and career-wise, and then head off while I still had the chance, before the concept of Road Tax could actually be explained to me. But hold on. That's a nice suit. Wouldn't it be perfect for the office?