Glastonbury, again

Tomorrow I go to Glastonbury for the second time ever, and perhaps for the first time in the sun. The forecasts are divided on the latter – some, I feel, are deliberately skewing whatever the weather gods are brewing, simply to foster the fear of the myriad 20-somethings trying to stuff clothes for every clime into a single backpack. I don’t know. I don’t care. I will burn in the sun, and I will moan in the rain, and I will slip in the mud, and I will inhale the hot grey dirt, and I won’t care because I will be back in The Glastonbury Bubble.

It doesn’t exist elsewhere, at least not anywhere I’ve found. I’m sure people manage to recreate it by getting on planes to distant timezones and shutting their phones in bedside drawers and pretending to be people other than who they are (people without debt, problems, issues, deadlines). I’ve tried, lounging poolside somewhere glorious, or stomping the streets of somewhere cheap and foreign. It doesn’t compare, somehow, because for me, the Glasto Bubble exists within me, as well as without.

It doesn’t mean no cell-phone reception, or salubrious surrounds, or entertainment so utterly entertaining that my brain loses its ability to latch onto slights and sadness from months gone by. It’s some sort of haphazard intangible combination of all of them: me, standing somewhere strange but familiar, surrounded by all the people I love, with no desire to be anywhere else.

I just about always, just a little bit, wish myself somewhere else. It’s like having a brain laid out like City Mapper – this route is faster, but more crowded; this one gentle, but with multiple changes. There are many ways to get to where I want (happy, entertained, bladder empty, no ominous looming amorphous sense of guilt), but disaster strikes when I have to choose. I’m afraid of choosing the wrong one. I’m afraid of the road not taken.

Glastonbury is laden with choices but all of them are good. Eat haloumi on the grass, or down a cider in the shade. Watch this act, or that act, or the other one you’ve never heard of. Get side-tracked on a wooden bench with a dreadlocked hippy. Fall asleep in the Stone Circle. There is a sunrise and sunset, but there isn’t really time because nothing happens when it ought to. I know what I sound like. I’m a 29-year-old child of privilege paying £300 to go stand in a paddock covered in glitter. I don’t care. I wish I was there now. I wish I were there always.

Last Glastonbury was my first, and, arguably many people’s worst. I can’t tell you for sure, because it was my best, being my first, but: the mud was knee-deep and gelatinous, and while we were there, Brexit occurred. The combination is a gross one, physically unsettling and emotionally ruinous. Someone stole most of the money I’d brought with me. It rained a lot.

It didn’t ruin the mood, any of it, and I don’t know why. There was still this charge, an energy. Maybe it was even brought on by the brewing political muck, the knowledge that when we got out, we’d have to face it. It wasn’t a question of ignoring it, because that wasn’t possible: every group you passed was talking about it, and every performer who took to the stage mentioned it. Instead, it brewed.

I’d like to think that we were subsequently, on that Monday morning, released upon the world as a tide of political ferocity, but that’s shit. We were knackered and dirty, and we went home and slept for 16 hours, and when we woke up, we did what everyone else was doing: dealt with it in whatever way was easiest. It’s easy to be political at Glastonbury because everyone is on the same team. It stays within the gates.

I’d like to say that this year the worst has happened. Trump is in. The Tories might be in trouble but they still hold the power, and they’re trying to give some of it to the DNP. Manchester Arena and Borough Market and Westminster are all examples of terrorist activity that, in any other year, would stand alone as the most horrendous thing to have happened, except they happened within weeks of each other. Grenfell Tower is testament to the fact that it doesn’t take a terrorist to wreak horror. Surely, then, these 5 days stand a chance of being peaceful.

I don’t really believe that, because I have my eyes open. I don’t believe that, because the security at Glastonbury has been stepped up. What a target, this liberal playground. If you wanted to wound me in particular, it would be the best target ever: both my sisters will be there, my boyfriend, my best friends. Stormzy, Lorde (not on the same level, but I do love them both).

I don’t really believe that, because I live on Stockwell Road, where sirens chime every five minutes, blazing up and down the superheated concrete. The night Grenfell Tower went up, I was woken by them, and I wondered, what now?

One thing I try to remember is this: some of the sirens are saviours. Look for the helpers, is the sentiment I hear most now, look for the ones rushing to aid the injured and subdue the cruel. They’re everywhere.

They’ll be at Glastonbury, too: Corbyn introducing Run The Jewels, my sisters holding hands in the rain and heat, the same friends who handed money to me, unthinkingly, to reimburse my losses last year, the volunteers, the drug-testers. The strangers who yank one another out of mud, lend tissues and gum, stand in respectful queues.

The Glastonbury Bubble isn’t real, not really, but I believe in it anyway. While I am there I won’t wish myself somewhere else or someone else. Eventually, I’ll hear the sirens again. But I won’t be listening for them.

Swimming with turtles

We join a group of 13: two couples, a family of three and another of five. We’re staying in an adult-only resort (next to a nudist resort, though I never see any errant nudes along the stretches of sand), where the only crying comes from the Americans who spent their first 4 hours in the resort lying in the midday sun, and have blisters on their backs like panacotta, and so I’ve forgotten that there are children in Mexico, in the other resorts, and now in our mini-bus, on our tour.

We are going to swim with turtles. Akumal, the turtle sanctuary, is closed to visitors, which probably means we should not be swimming with turtles, but they cannot close all the coastlines. I am wearing sunscreen, thick brown-tinted Elizabeth Arden stuff that costs £80 a bottle and which I did not pay for, and for the first time in my life this is not a good idea: we are supposed to be using biodegradable sunscreen, because of the film the chemicals create on the water; because of 10,000 turtles surfacing to breathe and coating their insides with £80 sunscreen. But I applied it in the morning, before I left the hotel, because I burn in minutes, because I’m still burnt from an hour in the sun in London the previous week. I cannot bring myself to scrape it off. I cannot bring myself to burn. I leave it on. I am a turtle killer.

It is 30 degrees and sunny but before we see the turtles, we swim in the dark.

Riviera Maya is home to upwards of 15,000 cenotes, caves filled with water, 15,000 that they know of, which, if you apply the same logic as I use for stars, means there are more than that, hidden and undiscovered. I think about it as I walk along the hot gravel pathway, dodging swarms of somethings that are only partially dissuaded by my chemical coating. A few feet of rock and then endless holes, into the centre of the earth. Logically, I know, they don’t go on forever, that there is more space above than below, and that that should comfort me but: once in the caves our guide points out a tightly-tied string that divers will follow down into the dark, and it makes me clutch for the edges, even though I am a good swimmer, in a wetsuit and a life jacket, with very little to fear from a cenote. The small British girl to my right asks how big the fish get down there, and our guide, Beatrice, says “not very”, soothingly, but I’m not sure it’s comforting to be so close to somewhere where not even a medium-sized fish wants to live. Beatrice has been diving the cenotes her whole life. I ask her if she’s been in all of them. Beatrice shakes her head. Beatrice thinks I am a moron.

There are piles of stones high on the ledges of the caves, stacked by Mayans some centuries ago, offerings to the gods as permission to enter the Underworld. Later I confess that I weed in the water, as I snorkelled above a cave that dropped too dark to see. My boyfriend thinks it’s sacrilegious. I agree, and I’m ashamed, and I want to make a  joke about a libation; and I think that at least five of the 13, and thousands before, maybe even the Mayans, must have done the same.

We didn’t know we were seeing caves, going under. The tour is a turtle tour, so I pictured us on the surface, in the sun, while turtles circled below. I hadn’t pictured the wetsuits and the darkness and the stacks of stones. There is something new about a beach and something old about a cave. If I were the family of 5, burnt and British and with at least 2 kids under 4, I would be mad, because the children are scared, and out of their depth, under the earth. It is nothing at all like Finding Nemo.  They refuse to enter the last of the caves and remain in the sun, feeding empanadas to the dogs. If I were two years old clad only in a pink swimsuit because there is no wetsuit in the world small enough for me, or mother to a three year old, I would not be clambering down the slippery stone-hewn stairs either.

At the beach, the boats are small. I had pictured wading out into the water and floating on calm seas, flicking my fins like the fishes, but that is not how sea life works: we motor out to the break, where the waves are metres high and white, where the reef is and where the turtles are. If I were the family of five, burnt and British and with at least two kids under 4, I wouldn’t be happy here either, because the sand is at least two metres below, and the sea is full of thrashing swimmers and turtles, surfacing for bits of fish flung down by the Mexican guides. The children that do make it into the water reach out for the turtles, because how can you not? But you are not allowed to touch the turtles.

A single ray, a large one, scuds across the sand, deeper than the turtles, but rearing up for the fish. This is a better way to clear the water than weeing, or by conjuring two-metre waves. We are here for the turtles, nor for something that looks like it might want to kill you, though my brain tells me that a turtle, with its little nippy beak, could hurt me more, more quickly. The guide has told me to remove my jewellery for this exact reason, but one, made of two snakes curled over and about, remains on my middle finger where it has been since I was 13. I could not blame the turtles for going for it. It is probably my most delicious finger.  The ray stays at the bottom.

20 minutes, and we’re out, and done. £70 does not buy you more time than that with a turtle, not when you’ve have two caves and a bottle of water and an empanada to boot. 20 minutes, and I’m tugged back on to the boat to join the father with his two under four, who has not even touched the water, because who in his right mind pitches his two youngest off a boat in an old lifejacket, when there are waves and rays about? £70, plus whatever it costs to take two children to cry in two caves and get burnt on a boat.

2 minutes back shore, a vault over a bank of sun-hot seaweed, and then 20 minutes in the line for the toilet, with a woman from Vermont who does not want to be the line for the toilet. She asks Beatrice, “Are there any more toilets?” She is exasperated. She should have weed with the gods, in the dark, above the tunnels.

Beatrice says,”No. So much of the coast is built up. Here is a reserve. Here, they keep natural. Like it should be.” Beatrice is brown and strong and wearing earring she will try to sell me later. Beatrice is wearing biodegradable sunscreen. Beatrice would trade me in for a turtle in a heartbeat.

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond.

They are the green kind, and the silver kind. The ones molded from bits of lake floor – from weed and wetness and the bones and bills of ducklings. The water is very dark in the Ladies’ Pond. There are shadows from the willows and the bigger trees. The leaves trail into the water, dipping into their own reflections, so it is hard to tell where the tree ends and where the reflection begins, a green vine spinning darker and taller and longer.

It is hard to tell where the water ends and where the mermaids begin. They move like you imagine they might: that is to say, not like you, with your white wet legs jerking at angles, propelling you awkwardly, forcefully, away from the dock and into the darker bits of the green-black water. Not like you with your shivering, and the sharp chatter of your teeth. Not like you treading the water to keep your head up, to keep your ears dry. Not like you, so clearly out of your depth, and out of your element, trying to talk while your tongue quakes in your mouth and your skin screams to return to the sun and the meadow and your half-read book on your sun-warmed towel.

They move like you imagine they might: like not half-fish, but like whole-fish, like a boneless being that might be more like 90, or 95% water, armoured and cooling.

A game they play: touching. Your small pink and white feet are so pretty, dancing up above, twitching and moving, always moving. A mermaid knows how to sink, but a human only knows not to, flickering and forcing, pushing to remain on the surface even as the water draws you in. You will do just about anything not to believe in the mermaids: you will believe in small tangles of weed, or lost fish. You will believe in imagination and fear, so you do not have to think about grey-green fingers tipped with greener nails, flashing out for a touch of skin.

When you’re in the water you keep your thoughts from the bottom, though they want, very badly, to drift there. It gets darker and colder down there, much more of both than you could tolerate for long, and there are things down there: we won’t talk about it. Don’t stir it up.

They won’t pull you in, but of course they’ve done it before. The mermaids want more – there’s not much room on the surface of the pond, what with the ducks and buoys and the chattering grannies, but there’s plenty down the bottom, where the sun doesn’t reach. Mermaids don’t breed – how could they? You’ve seen the pictures. You know how it works. Where would it go? But they probably won’t pull you down. They only want a touch. You’re very warm. You carry the sun.

They don’t allow men in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. This is a source of freedom for the women on the banks of the pond, who take their tops off and let their breasts loll free. Women look at each other’s breasts of course, because they can. Women are allowed to look at the size of each other’s nipples, the scars and the sag and the drape; pink and white and brown.

You don’t think about teeth on a mermaid, but they have them, and they get sick of fish. They nibble on weed, and suck down the occasional eel, but when they’re hungry, properly hungry, from the rigor and the rush of a life spent swimming, what they really like to eat is swan. It’s a sight, from above, in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and if you were watching, you could see it happening: the bird, white and black and orange, on the black-green water, drifting across the surface. And then, beneath that, a shadow, a quick-flicker.

You can imagine how they do it: two quick hands wrapped around each orange foot and then a jerk beneath the surface. They have to be quick: if they’re slow, the swan will start into the sky, the way they can, and only two strong beats of those big wings and they’re up, and free, and safe – and a bird like that can lift a mermaid out of the water if it’s a small one (and they’re mostly small). But if they’re quick that’s it: beneath the surface is no place for a swan, and they break the wings, and the neck. A swan can break a man’s arm, so they say, but I’ve never seen them do the same to a mermaid. And then, from above, you’d see the stirring cease, and then perhaps, a drift of red. But there won’t be waste.

If you’re wondering where mermaids come from, don’t. They don’t breed, they just feed. I’ve never seen a pregnant mermaid. Thoughts like those are heavy ones, with a tendency to drift, and sink. It’s just a piece of weed. It’s just a silver fish.

My four jobs

I am 29 years old, 30 in September, and I have had four jobs.

  1. McHughs

Devonport, where I come from, is small and postcard-perfect. People know each other, and people stay. Families I knew there 25 years ago live their still. One man, John McHugh, owned three of the biggest restaurants in the village, making up some absurdly large section of the wealth in the area. One restaurant, big and white and damp at the seams, positioned on the beach with big, wide, white windows that offered panoramas of a volcano and a beach and an ocean, was where everyone had their weddings. My parents were married there. This was my first job: waitressing at weddings and birthdays and ordinary lunches, and for big bus loads of Japanese tourists who ate the oyster buffet dry. Fifteen years old, highlighted hair, working late, vaccuuming. I met my first boyfriend there. I met my second boyfriend there. John McHugh is dead now, but the restaurant remains, the site of weddings and birthdays and first meetings.

  1. Finc

Wellington, where I went to university, south of the north, has the largest number of restaurants and bars per capita of any city in the world – that is a fact which might be true, or might be made up, maybe by me. Finc was one of the many cafes in the city, dark wood and copper and crispy potatoes. I met some best friends there, and I met some cruel people there. I learned to talk and to charm. I learned that people disregard waitresses. I learned that Alice Cooper is not a woman. I learned to up-sell, and that people have strong feelings about the size of salt crystals, and the softness of butter. I was not sorry to leave.

  1. Sapporo High School

Sapporo, where I moved, when I decided not to be a lawyer, the coldest and furthest removed of all the cities, contains many high schools. I worked in one, with very long dark cold corridors, and scuttling students and banks of lockers and bowls of noodles and foreigners finding ways to be friends. I squatted over strange toilets and sounded out consonants, tried to win students over with my own strangeness. I am no teacher, not really, a sweating student myself trying to learn: the rules, the ways, the manners, the customs, the proper way of doing things. Unlearning: my crudeness, my Kiwiness, my dependency on the familiar. There is so much snow. So many crows. Beer, karaoke, two very cold Christmases. Another language – and, a man.

  1. Beamly

London, where I was born, where I came back to, tugged on a string I’d long acknowledged. And this job an entry point into a real life I’d long avoided: desks, and commutes and digital. Expenses, and a small (small) salary. A boss. A lunch break. Free apples on the table, Toblerones as big as my arm, Christmas parties in tunnels and hotels I could never afford. At first, any job, I-don’t-care-I’ll-do-anything, that kind of job and then: a best friend, a career, a family, more friends, connections, a grounding, a base. And then again: uncertainty, itching, moving.

It says something about who I am, this stickiness, this four-jobs-in-fifteen-years thing. You can spin it any way you want, as with anything: I am loyal. I am lazy. I am well-liked. I am boring.

Here is something that won’t be spun: I am leaving. Job #5 on the horizon, on the Northern Line, in the calendar, in the pipeline, in the offing. I am sorry I am leaving but not sorry I am going. I am grateful. I am growing.

The thoughts of a life-long fan on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

The Stars Hollow we know and love is a place where nothing happens. Where Kirk breaks in and installs an alarm system, and nothing happens. Where half of a foreshortened table for the Festival of Living Pictures goes missing, and nothing happens. The plots revolve around two lives predominantly, four lives more broadly, and the living, breathing ins and outs of a small town, gently, and nothing happens. Birth happens, death happens – and yet, nothing happens. The Stars Hollow you grew up with, or were introduced to recently by way of Netflix, exists in an unshaken snow globe, where the seasons change but nothing in the way of global warming, or broken hips on slicks of ice, ever happens.

November came, and Amy Sherman-Palladino shook the snow globe.

She didn’t give Stars Hollow an alien invasion (with the exception of Kirk, who has been there so long that he has assimilated), or even a political upheaval. Instead, she did something pretty simple, and pretty unbearable: she removed the filter.

There is a harsh reality in coming back to the show some 9 years after it last aired. We, as viewers, have changed. You’re older, probably a bit uglier, maybe a bit ruder and nastier and more jaded. 2016 has poked you in the side and called you a moron, but more than that: you Google more. You know more. When you watched it the first time around, on television, with ads, you didn’t know their real names. You didn’t know that Luke used to be a professional baseball player, or that Alexis Bledel was a native Spanish speaker. You didn’t care.

You know everything now. That Melissa McCarthy didn’t want to come back. That Alexis Bledel had just had a baby. You know the backstories and you’re actively involved in popping the bubble. You jab more, you question more. You’re no rosy-cheeked kid: you’re an amateur investigative journalist, and a Daily Mail reader and an expert on Botox.

You’re different. But no one’s holding a camera up to you and asking that you look and act and feel exactly the same way you did nearly a decade ago (I was in my first year of university, drinking Smirnoff by the bottle and writing naïve essays on New Zealand judicial system, what were you doing?).

Luke looks older. He’s gone a bit grey and softened at the jaw. His chest has thickened and his brow has drawn down. He looks a bit like your least-favourite uncle, who drinks 5 beers on the trot and goes into the garage to chop things into smaller things just to get away from you and your cousins. You don’t sort-of-wonder what it would be like to have sex with him anymore. You wonder about his nipples, whether they’re drooping in that older-man way. The single bed above the diner isn’t cute. Why won’t he open a franchise? Is this really enough for him? It’s not enough for you.

Lorelai doesn’t look the same. She’s still beautiful, of course, but not in that disarming, charming, break-you-apart way that she had: in the denim shorts and the wrap-around dresses and the wholly impractical skinny-knit scarves. She frowns more. She looks like the you you see in the mirror, or the one you might see soon – tougher, braver and also colder. A little bit disappointed. A little bit disappointing.

And Rory? Well, that’s the thing about coming to fame as an apricot-faced teen: she still looks completely beautiful. She’s post-pregnancy, our Alexis, and that’s lent her a glow she might not otherwise have. It’s also given her breasts, but we can ignore those. Rory doesn’t have breasts. Rory has brains.

Or does she? It’s not just time doing the damage, or shaking the snow globe, if we want to keep going with the metaphor, which I do. There’s Amy, standing above, shaking her head. We, her viewers, these expectant millennials, are her greatest blessing and her ultimate burden. We made her a contender, but we weren’t enough – we didn’t convert to Bunheads and we stuck it out through that maligned seventh season, even if we didn’t like it much. We’re still asking, what about the campaign trail? Why didn’t Rory send stuff to Christiane Amanpour?

This is Amy’s snow globe. She has come back, and she is asking you to stick with her vision: a Stars Hollow in which the seventh series didn’t happen, in which we have to rewrite our memories, even the good ones. Luke never sewed together all those tents. That didn’t happen. Logan didn’t propose. The second heart attack has been re-written.

Ignore Amy for a little bit here. Here is what happened in my imaginary Gilmore Girls reboot, the one I put together from memory and hope and pure attachment: Rory is now a features editor for the New York Times. She lives in the city, she is still friends with Lucy and Olivia, she is celebrated and vaunted and successful. But she protests and pickets – she cares. She makes a difference. She gets trolled on the internet. She has been subject to death threats. She stands up for what she believes in. Her mother visits her on the weekends and they have heady expensive dinners, and go to the theatre. They don’t stand in lines. And she’s with Jess, of course, because feminism be damned: my favourite fictional romance will get its happy ending. She deserves it. I deserve it. They have lots of sex and eat Deliveroo in their underwear. And they’re happy. She’s the yo-pro dream; the Millenial ideal.

Lorelai and Luke are married and have babies. She has expanded the inn, then sold it, and is a consultant. She travels, sometimes with Suki, sometimes without. Her problems aren’t really problems, like expressing breast milk and a lowered libido, her problems are fake problems, like that Luke is still trying to serve her baked chips. She is happy. Luke is happy. I am happy.

The rest is less important, but still very much decided upon by me: Paris is gay, and a judge, and a surgeon. Lane has left Zac and is a good mother but also a successful person. She finished university. She achieved something. I don’t care what – she just got to experience something outside of the snow globe.

Emily? Amy got Emily right. I’ll keep that Emily, every bit of her. Emily is perfect. So is Kirk. And Petal.

It’s not just the plot-lines, which were not as I imagined, that I mourn: it’s the filter. It’s the glow. It’s the sense that nothing from the outside world can eke in and wreck it. Even the failures in the original series were rewritable: Rory lost out on an internship, but would still succeed. Luke and Lorelai split but could still have a glorious, impossible, infinite love-affair.

The reboot smacked me in the face with a 2016-branded realism.

Rory is a failed writer, and not only that, a crappy person. She whines, and cheats, and enables further cheating. She paws at the remnants of her mother’s privacy and independence to scrape together some vestige success. She relies heavily on old friendships, and the last bits of her wide-eyed beauty. She’s vain, and arrogant, and boring.

Lorelai is bored. “They want more, and this is all you are”, foretold Dean, and there it is: Lorelai is bored. But not only that, she’s also boring: abandoned by her bestie, trying to make a 2006 business succeed in 2016, holding back her friend, upsetting her partner, allowing her daughter to wander off-track.

Lane is a housewife. Zac is balding. Miss Kim is a caricature. Richard is dead.

I watched it (twice) with an open mind, and I get it: life is not filtered, personal journeys do not come with inbuilt blessings, no one is perfect, and it’s supposed to be soothing for me, in some way, to be shown that even Rory can fall, and fail. This is Amy turning around to her audience and saying: sorry, darlings, but this is where we’re at. You’ll never own a house. You’ll never know job security. Copper boom. You’re doing alright.

But that’s not why we watched it. I shouldn’t speak for you, but I’ll speak for me, and my sisters, and my friends now watching it for the first time, gripped by it, drawn in by the absolute deliciousness of nothing happening. No terror, no doubt, no fear – only banter and dogs and burgers and lazy crazy hazy days of summer. There are any number of shows about the perfect family in the perfect town that subvert that perfection, but few – so few – that let the perfection live on, uncorrupted, ever-perfect.

And now there’s one fewer.

I’m not mad about it, not really. The characters were true, and so were the storylines. I was delighted to have so many of the original cast back (though I missed you, TJ, Liz, Madeline, Louise, Lucy, Olivia, Richard), and I slipped back into it easily. The theme song, and the gazebo and the irritatingly empty coffee cups. The antique store, and the diner, and the inn. I liked the swearing. I liked the sex. I liked that Star’s Hollow had grown up, with me. We’re both a bit seedier, and older. I’m OK with that.

But I do miss the glow. I do miss the shine. I do miss the filter.

And I do think the reboot could have been done with a softer lens, a nod to the viewers who have had a hard few years, and perhaps didn’t need quite as many knocks. The stars could have been allowed to shine a little brighter, and the life lessons needn’t have been quite so hard. A bit less Trump, a bit more Obama. I wanted my Star’s Hollow a bit less empty.

The Orange Man

The door opens by itself. He doesn’t open doors. They open for him. They said it couldn’t be done, back in the 80s, when he built it, stone by stone, with his own bare hands. And a large team of builders. Not immigrants though – he checked. Soon he won’t have to.

There isn’t a hallway. Hallways are for small people, who need to be led where they’re going. His home opens into a cathedral, into a colossal cavern. He can go wherever he wants. Everything is gold.

The staff don’t talk to him, but they nod a lot. Women, all of them. Men don’t apply for jobs like these, they’re not designed for it. They’re the hunters and gatherers, they need to be out in the open air. The blonde who takes his coat, in the uniform he sewed with his own bare hands, bare hands, the hands that built America, this is what she wants to be doing. She smiles at him. “Good evening, sir”.

You shouldn’t talk to them, it only encourages them. She takes his coat and he walks through the huge room, feet sinking into the carpet. He doesn’t believe in carpet, but carpet says something about a man. “Walk on my wealth”, it says, “I am goddamn rich.” He is so goddamn rich. £3 billion, that’s what they guess at. Idiots. Closer to £10, when you take into account his branding. He pats his hair and smiles. Nobody understands like he does the value of the personal brand.

That bitch, though. That scheming bitch, in her pantsuits. The kinds of things she said to him, he hasn’t heard those kind of things since he was a boy. No one speaks to him like that. Sometimes, his advisers come to him, and advise him (ha!) of people on the internet saying things about him. “Say them to my face!” he retorts, and sends them out of the room. They never come and say it to his face. They’re too afraid.

That bitch though, standing there by the microphone, swaying like she can’t quite manage the size of him in the room, like she can’t quite stand still in his presence. That’s who they think will be beat him?

No one will beat him. No one has beaten him since he was kicked out of school at 13 years old, and that wasn’t a beating, that was an opportunity. He eats bastards like them for breakfast now.

The door to the bedroom opens by itself, or maybe there’s someone there opening it, he doesn’t see them. All he sees is his big bed, his big gold bed, and beside it his wife.

“You did wonderfully, dear!”

“I know.” She picks up his favourite brand of whiskey, pours him a heavy drink. Some men drink vodka, some men drink water. Those men are weak. “Here you go, darling.” She extends her hand to hand it to him, but he walks up close to her. She melts into his touch. She’s afraid of him. Everyone is.

“Do you want me to do it?” she breathes into his ear. This would make most men melt. She has the right kind of body, the good kind, with the long hair. She looks like a woman should look like. Women like this have always gravitated to him, because they understand.

He nods, tightly, and sits in a chair, leaning back. This is the only time he relaxes, and even then, he’s watching. He never switches off. Men never do. Each night he makes her check the light fixtures for cameras. She doesn’t even know what she’s looking for, but it soothes him. She does it naked.

She moves behind him and picks up a brush. It’s gold. Softly, like he likes it (he likes most things hard, she knows that) she runs the brush through his hair. It’s all his hair, despite what the people say, his hair because he paid for it. You can make anything your own if you have enough money. He is so goddamn rich. £3 billion. What a joke. Jokers.

She pins the front down with her palm as she brushes the back, short light strokes, like you’d brush a horse. He’s never brushed a horse, but he knows how horses should be brushed. He can smell her wrist. She smells expensive.

That bitch, though. How dare she, standing there in trousers, raising her eyebrows like she knows something. Well. If a woman can still stand there, like that, when the world knows what her husband did. If not even her husband wants her, then why should anyone else? They don’t, that’s a fact. None of them. They don’t know what they want.

His advisers, the ones he listens to, they’ve told him to prepare for a loss. He doesn’t know how to do that. He’s never lost before. You’re a loser if you admit to being a loser.

Still, though. A man in his position has to think about the jealous ones, the ones who want to get him. They’d be outside the wall, if he had it his way, but they haven’t let him build it yet. They wouldn’t be above twisting things, rigging the polls. Everyone knows it happens. Everyone knows how easy it is.

“Faster,” he says. She gets sore wrists. She’s complained once before. There’s a mirror across from them, gold, and in it he can see her wincing. Weak, just like a woman.

He’d love to be able to fire them. All of them. Just point a finger and yell, “You’re fired”. Everyone loves it when he does that. He’s never lost a damn thing in his damn life, and certainly not to a woman. That nasty woman. She represents all women. The ugly ones.

The thing about women is that it’s so easy to see what they want. They think they’re complicated but there’s nothing complicated about them. They’re easy. And they always come to him first. He’s never chased a woman in his life.

“Faster,” he says, again. “Don’t make me say it again.”

“I could do this all night,” he says, cradling his whiskey in his crotch. She knows that.

Back To The Lake

The water should have been cold. It was the middle of winter.

The lake was cold. That’s how she remembered it, though they’d always come in summer, when the sun shone all day, most days.

The best days were the rare cloudy ones. That was when they were allowed to use the pool table, and when they might sneak to the adjacent cabin and prise open the freezer door, where he hung whole pigs, their throats slit and rubbery. One summer he’d padlocked the door and they’d broken it off with a rock, out of pique more than anything else, and curiosity about what could be worse than a pig, but it was empty. She remembered that – the cold smell of the empty freezer, which still had pink stains on the floor. And the cold of the lake.

She sat at the end of the jetty, dangling both feet, warped in the water. The weeds rose almost to touch her. That’s how she judged her friends, back when she was thirteen and allowed to invite one to join the family each summer – how they reacted to the weeds. Most of the girls from her school were used to swimming pools, and they’d never swum with the green, where fish might flick up against you in the shallows. Catherine had been the worst, but it made her the bravest – she’d only swim off the boat, or off the end of the longest jetty, where the weeds couldn’t grow up long enough to touch her. Jane hadn’t cared at all. She’d come back three summers all up, until that last one, when they were fifteen, and old enough to have one drink when the fireworks across the lake went up, set off by one of the rich families who owned property right on the water. You wanted to hate them, because of everything they had, but you couldn’t, because of the fireworks.

There wouldn’t be any fireworks during this trip. This was the first time Ellen had visited in winter. She hadn’t wanted to come, but Jack had heard so much about the lake, and Hot Water Rock, and the sand tennis courts that merged with the beach, that he’d insisted. Her own fault, for the tying the place up so tightly with her childhood. He’d even driven, plugging the address she had memorised into the SatNav, and managing the local roads while she sat watching the bush flash by, counting.

“19,” she’d announced to him as he made the last turn onto the five-minute downhill that would spit them out directly on the lake front.

“What? 19 what?”

“19. That’s how many dead animals we’ve driven by. 19.”

“You’re counting the roadkill?” he’d asked. He should have looked stupid in his Brits-on-holiday get-up, the chequered shirt half-tucked into knee-length shorts, but instead he looked comfortable. He always looked comfortable, born in the right skin, even when, like now, he was dotted with bites and burnt across his knees and neck. It was one of the things she liked about him.

“We always did it, on the way down,” she’d said. “It’s not weird or anything.”

He’d risked a glance at her, one eyebrow up. He was doing better than her, really. She couldn’t shake her London habit of black-all-over, especially in winter, but winter here wasn’t really winter, and she was sweating beneath her jumper and jeans.

“19’s a lot,” she’d said, half to herself. It was one of their habits, passing the time in the back of the car, after the Anne of Green Gables audiobooks had finished. Possums, cats, rats, dogs. The highest she could remember from this stretch of road was 11, but that was a long time ago. There were more cars now.

Gravel beneath the tyres. “We’re here!” Jack had announced, pulling up on the handbrake. “Let’s see what it’s all about!”

He owed her this enthusiasm, even if she didn’t particularly want it. Six years now they’d lived together in London, and even though he was northern, and had moved to the city at the same time she had, it was still his. His university friends, and his family home for Christmas. Coming here this year had been his idea.

They hadn’t managed Christmas, since prices had been impossible, but it was almost nice to come in winter. No tourists. No humidity, though of course he’d still managed to get sunburnt. The hard part was over now, hadn’t even been that hard. Her parents already knew she wasn’t coming back, even before she’d met him. She was as much of a stranger to them as he was.

Now it was just them, would be until next Sunday, when they’d drive back up north and get back on the flight.

Jack had been amazed that they’d been able to book the same cabin that her family had visited for so many years, but it wasn’t so amazing. No one visited the lake during winter. It was cold, and grey, and the nearest town was a 50-minute drive along roads so dark you’d never chance it in the rain. At this time of year it was only locals. They’d wonder what they were doing here, but they’d never ask, she knew. There was a line between those that lived, and those that visited.

She didn’t tell Jack that though. He thought everyone was so friendly; best to keep it that way.

Still: she’d have liked to ask someone why the water was this warm. It was almost sensationless against her feet and she thought, idly, that that must make it the same temperature as her. Blood temperature. 42 degrees? She could never remember. But then, it couldn’t be.

Steps on the wood behind her, and she leant her head back, waiting for Jack’s heavy hands on her shoulders.

“Warm, isn’t it?”

She jerked her head around. A woman, no more than 50, dressed in the uniform of a lake local: shorts, damp at the hem, and a fleece zipped up to her neck. She had grey hair cropped close to her head, no makeup, black eyes.

Ellen stood, slipping wet feet into her shoes, brushing off her palms against her jeans, but the woman made no move to take her hand. She’d never really shaken hands in greeting before she lived in London, but now it was instinct, and she paused awkwardly before clasping both hands before her.

“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”

The woman smiled. “Really? Most tourists are just pleased. Don’t wonder about it.”

“I used to come here every summer, for 10 years or so,” Ellen said, a tiny hint of defensiveness creeping in. “Never been here at this time of year before, I thought it’d be freezing.”

The woman didn’t react to her words, and Ellen knew she’d made herself look more of a fool than anything else, trying to pretend like this was her place. It wasn’t, not any more than London was.

“The springs. That’s why”.

It clicked. It was one of the best parts of the lake, as a kid, a spot you could get to only by boat, a tiny inlet you only knew if you knew, where natural springs bubbled up under the cliff, mixed with the lake water, formed a perfect pool of hot water. They’d spent hours there, eating cold sausages and drinking from the lake.

“But… they’re tiny. Wouldn’t that…” she trailed off. She worked in digital. She’d failed biology. She had no fucking idea. “The whole lake?”

The woman nodded, looking out at the water. “Screwed all the fishing. Made the koura spawn like anything.”

Koura were local endangered crayfish, black and the size of a child’s foot. Only the indigenous were allowed to fish them, technically, but everyone did, spotlighting them with torches after dark. She looked down into the water and suddenly she saw that the darkness at the bottom of the lake wasn’t weed, or mud, but a thick, crawling mass of crayfish, scrabbling shell on shell.

“Ellen!” Jack’s voice, bouncing off the water, brightly foreign. It was getting dark. The winter thing again; she remembered endless evenings here.

Ellen smiled with the same brightness at the woman who hadn’t offered her hand, or her name. “I’d better get back. He’s new here, doesn’t know where anything is.”

The woman was thin but the jetty was narrow and she was firmly planted, barefoot, of course, right in the centre. “You’re staying there?” She jerked a thumb at the little cabin, so much smaller now than in Ellen’s memory.

“Yes,” she said, because the car was there and because Jack stood in the doorway with moths swarming his head.

The woman stood aside at that, and Ellen smiled, said good night, walked past. There was a moment of closeness where she could have been pushed, would have had no chance at stopping it, but nothing happened, of course.

She didn’t turn around as she walked back up the sand, avoiding the sharp rocks though she had her shoes on. She walked into the cabin, but Jack was gone, and the two rooms were cool and empty.

She stepped back out, flicking off the porch lamp as she did so. She hated moths. The woman was still on the jetty, staring up towards the cabin, though there was no way she’d have been able to see Ellen in the half-light.

A scratching to her left, and she knew what Jack was doing, same thing she’d done so many times as a kid, drawn to the concrete sides and the thick slab of a door. “Hey babe,” he said. “What’s in here?”

No padlock, hardly a surprise, since the house it belonged to had stood empty all these years. You could tell by the cobwebs, and the rot of the porch. He might think it was empty because it was winter, that the family would return for summer, but it wasn’t that kind of emptiness.

He pulled on the handle, and she wanted to shout, but. And it was empty, of course.

“Looks like an abattoir,” he said, with a half-step inside.

“Don’t,” came a voice, but it wasn’t Ellen’s, though her mouth was open to say the same. Black eyes, grey hair, a bit too close behind them both. You could do that with bare feet. “No one goes near this place anymore.”

Jack stepped out, interest all over his face. “Why’s that?”

“Girl died, stuck in here, one summer. Stupid game of hide and seek. Had some sort of fit, threw her head up against the wall. Her mates found her later. Bit of a shock to the community.” She nodded her head twice. “Bit of a shock”.

Jack’s eyes were wide. “Wow.” He turned to Ellen, took her hand, as she knew he would. “Must have been horrible. Did you know her?”

She opened her mouth, but another voice filled the gap again. “Nah. After your time, wouldn’t it be, girly?”

Ellen nodded. “Yes. Later, I think.” The door was still open, white walls, pink stains.

“Anyway. You’re brave, staying here. We’re superstitious folk, round here. Not interested in trying our luck, if you know what I mean. It’ll be bowled over one day soon, prices going up like they are.”

She was already turning away, but she spoke directly to Jack, who was hanging on every deliciously dark word. “Shut that door, boy. Don’t need to invite anything out, do you?”

But it was Ellen who caught the lip of the door with her fingers and swung it shut, hard, making a noise that rang out across the lake. Jack looked at her crossly, but the local woman nodded her head, approving.

“Don’t try catching the koura, will you? Not yours to take.” She walked down the gravel driveway, fading quickly into shadow. Just the sound of the lake, warm against the sand, thick with black cray, bigger than a child’s foot.

On being left out (AKA FOMO, AKA the worst thing to happen to anyone short of death by defenestration)

I have a very skin thin. Filo-pastry-thin, read-through-it-thin. It doesn’t break, exactly, or tear, but it lets things through.

I get hurt by a lot of small things. I’m good with big things. I think, perhaps, if the world fell down, I would be among the last 30% to die. I’d hold it together. I’d have hoarded rice. There would be pieces of gold jewelry in my shoes, and you’d want to be part of my gang because I wouldn’t fall at the first wave. The eight or ninth, another story. But by then there are fewer people to watch.

Small things, like being left out, are the worst things. Like mosquito bites or paper cuts or tooth ache. It’s not a broken leg, or a punctured lung. It’s not being impaled by a pole when the bus you’re on crashes into a Sports Direct and sends a thousand basket balls into the air.

I don’t even like to read stories about people feeling left out, because it hurts me. I feel it through my filo-pastry skin, exactly what it’s like to see on social media the things you’d like to be doing when you are, perhaps, bath-robed-post-bath, snug in bed with wine and chocolate, watching something you love and feeling loved, until you see the other thing: people you like, doing things you like, without you, not missing you. And then the bathrobe and the chocolate lose their appeal, and feel like second choice. Second place. Because you wouldn’t be there, would you, if you had options, only you didn’t.

It gets better as you get older, I have found. At not-quite-but-very-nearly-thirty, I can’t claim to know for certain that the betterness keeps on in a tidal wave of confidence until, finally, washed up on the shore of 40 you give no shits about what anyone is doing but yourself, but: you get better at choosing, yourself.

Not choosing to leave people out, you understand, because if you’re doing that after having felt the otherness of a Saturday at home when you’ve been left there by dint of someone else’s carelessness, then you’re as bad as the rest of us are bad (and we’re all bad) but: choosing not to care.

After all. If you went to everything you felt the lack of, you’d be exhausted. You’d be in bits. You’d be pieces of skin scraped against concrete, you’d be dinner-partied and club-nighted and drinks-with-the-girls and walks and movies and doubled dated out. You’d be done.

I know that. I know it very well. I know it better than I know the Harry Potter books, or Gilmore Girls Season Any Of Them (very well indeed).

The knowing, though, happens inside my thin skin, that has already let everything in, and refuses to let any of it back out. When I say it gets better as you get older, I do mean it. I’m almost certain that I do. I have broad perspectives, now. I have an appreciation for a bedtime of 10pm that I’ve never had before. I know the delights of my own company – of lying naked in clean sheets with red wine, and watching something I’ve seen one thousand times before and yet:

It’s the choice that’s really key here. The fact that I’ve chosen my solitary Friday night path, rather than been forced onto it. And not having the choice? Sucks.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Filo pastry is delicious, nights at home are very nice, don’t leave people out of things or you’re an ass.

An incomplete list of the things I love

Wine. For drinking.

Marian Keyes. For her humour and her brilliance and her rawness; for making me laugh more than any other books can; for an irrepressible voice.

Gilmore Girls. For speed and boldness and cultural references that fly over my head and for comfort when other things provide none.

Baths. For total immersion in water, for floating and warmth and the ability to lie very still behind a locked door.

Hair dye. For letting a human be a chameleon, for letting change be impermanent, for a box of a bit of something different.

Leather. For making me feel a little bit more exciting when I walk down a road on an early morning when I haven’t slept enough and don’t look like much.

Jewellery. For being gifted. For being different. For making a black outfit look like something. For being an easy birthday present.

Makeup. For hiding, for experimenting, for playing, for confidence.

Prawns. For being delicious.

Steak. As above.

And cheese.

Food needs its own list, really.

Neil Gaiman. For imagination and strangeness and not running away that time on the banks of the Thames.

Family. For safety and certainty and being around, always.

Change. For making things happen.

Friends. For love and for rants and martinis in dark bars; for holidays in familiar places and ideas and suggestions and possibilities. For shared interests and complete difference and never indifference.

Boyfriends. Singular. Boyfriend. For keeping things together.

Balsamic vinegar. For making everything taste better.

Blue cheese. FOOD GETS ITS OWN LIST.

Airplanes. For making distance nothing.

Snapchat. As above.

Skype. Same.

Afternoons in the park. For beer and grass stuck to skin and lying down and clouds and leaves and sitting in circles and tree trunks.

Endorphins. For climbing out.

Sports bras. For making breasts possible.

Late nights. For the things that can’t happen anywhere else.

London. For long walks and for distances; for everyone in it, even the bad ones; for food and drinks and smog and salt, for sadness and the cracks in the pavements. For the tube, and the bridges. For the small bits of sky between the buildings.

Water, anywhere. For life, obviously. For forming a margin. For finding an edge.

Books. All books. All the time. For escape and for comfort.

Grey’s Anatomy. For a reminder that life isn’t that bad.

Beds. For hiding.

Couches. For hiding, slightly less.

Rainy afternoons. For writing and sleeping and watching three movies in a row, all at once. For coffee and pizza and Pringles.

Writers. For writing.

Imogen – Chapter 17

A work in progress, currently at 60K words. 

If Imogen was being honest, which wasn’t her preferred approach, she would have to confess that things were a bit fucked. Not as fucked as they had been, for sure, but she wasn’t handling things well. Standard. Good. As expected.

She wanted to blame Chris. She really really wanted to, all beard and big dick and sexual appetite. He could cook too, which was a bit lethal. He could make curry from scratch.

She wasn’t interested in him, really, the same way he wasn’t interested in her. What they were doing for each other was gap-filling, caulking emotional fuck-ups, making do. Which was maybe a bit unfair, since he was strong and funny and had a big sexy scar down his abdomen – she’d always wanted to have sex with someone with a big scar – but she did a lot of comparing. Andre. Chris. Taller, fatter, lasted longer in bed, paid her more compliments.

She didn’t know what his fiancee had looked like. Her name was Sophie, she worked as an accountant, she liked oranges a lot and always had bits in her teeth. The bits in the teeth thing sounded disgusting, but he said it with this smile, like it was a charming quirk. That’s how she knew he had to still be in love with her. The orange bits. There was no other explanation.

The whole being in love with other people hadn’t stopped them from falling into each other’s lives, hard. It didn’t hurt that Imogen’s life had been made up of work, gym, Shane and home. That was her routine, that was her schedule. And it meant it was easy for him to slot in.

He worked contracts so he was busy most weekends, but free in the evenings. He’d taken to meeting her outside work, standing with his back pressed against the hot concrete. At first it had freaked her out – too much, too soon, too stalkery – but she decided it was better than being alone. And it was, much better, better than getting home at 6:30 and eating toast for dinner and going to bed at 9:30.

He’d even met Nancy. She hadn’t been sure. There’s a big difference between telling your tenant that she can have people to stay and it actually happening, and Imogen could see her stiffening up like a cat, all curled and taut. He was so easy though, and then it transpired that he’d heard of her, his mother liked her books, and that calmed her down, like being patted. She backed off, smiled at him a lot.

The books had moved, recently, the dust shifted around, drifted to the floor. She’d been reading again, and touching her own books. Imogen knew better than to ask.

He’d cooked them both curry, which must have been a bit weird for him. The kitchen wasn’t a mess exactly, but it wasn’t the kitchen of someone who cooked. Nancy would have sporadic cooking binges, where she made four things, a pie and homemade pasta and a cake and something else, then froze most of it and tried to make Imogen eat the rest. And Imogen ate avocado on toast, which she liked.

It had been like playing houses. He even put on an apron, which barely went over his big head, and they’d all laughed. And he’d cooked for two hours while they sat in the lounge and drank beer and watched television, like some sort of functional family with too many cats.

The food was delicious. Imogen didn’t know what Sophie could have been thinking.

Nancy went upstairs before the dishes were done, avoiding, Imogen thought, the question of whether he would stay or not. He could, she was an adult, but there was something in the decision of it that was better made just between the two of them.

He was a relationship guy, she knew. She was just a necessary half, it didn’t really matter what she was made up of, as long as she was content to exist next to him. This was the pushing away moment, this was the time at which she should have shoved. But she was too damn tired. And besides, when he was there, the little Andre voices that moved inside her skull at all times shut up a little bit. She assumed he was doing the same.

“I love you,” he said that night, turning to her in her bed and throwing a warm heavy arm over her. “I love you Imogen.”

She pretended to be asleep, holding still, keeping her breaths even. What a fucking idiot. His skin smelled of curry, and she could feel his breath on her face as he waited for an answer, waited a bit longer, then rolled over and fell asleep.

There was no excuse for that if he wasn’t drunk. She’d rather he called her Sophie when they had sex, which they did a lot, because the talking thing wasn’t as good between them as the sex thing was.

A little bit boring, that’s what it was. Maybe that’s why Sophie had done it.

She hadn’t told Shane about him, because Shane was way too sensible. “You’ll get yourself hurt,” Imogen could hear her saying, in that slightly judgmental voice. “Why don’t you just be alone for a bit?”

The thing was, she still felt alone when she was with him, because he wasn’t inside her head yet.

She was lying to her mother, too, of course. She’d rung a few times recently, just wanting to talk, for whatever reason. About the church, about the house, about her Dad. He was sick with the flu and not coping well, man flu made 1000 times worse by the fact he was always convinced he was dying when he got ill.

“How’s Andre?” she’d asked, every time, her voice warm with affection for the man she’d only met once. “Hope you’re cooking for him.”

“I’m not, Mum, but he’s good,” she’d replied, wondering, like she always did, whether someone else was cooking for him.

“You two should come back up soon. Come see your father. He’d like that.”

Her father had almost certainly forgotten that Andre existed, that they’d ever met. “Sure Mum, that sounds nice. We’re pretty busy at work at the moment, but as soon as we’ve got a few days.

“What about the end of August?” she’d pressed. “Bank holiday, you could come for a couple of nights. We could show him the sights! He doesn’t know Manchester, does he?”

“No, he doesn’t”, she’d said, wondering what excuse she could come up with.

“We’ll show him round then!”

“That sounds nice,” she’d repeated. It did sound nice. She tried to substitute Chris in instead, whether he’d manage her parents like Andre had. Probably, she thought. Everyone was good with them except for her.

He never invited her to his house, which was good, since he lived in Clapham, and she didn’t know how she’d manage it. He liked the cats, he said, he liked being away from his flatmates. He liked Nancy too, even though she was offbeat. He’d told his mother and she’d been ecstatic, like her son had met a real celebrity.

Imogen had been interested in that, and taken one of the books up to her room to read. She didn’t read much but the novel was easy-going, the tale of a man and wife raising their three children, a novel of family intimacy, and it was light and soft and good, until the mother got cancer and then the father too, and then the father died.

It was one of those stories, Imogen realised too late, which made you care and sucked you in and then spat you out. Books that made you cry. She didn’t finish it. She didn’t need to cry.

She’d told Rose about Chris, since she’d spotted him outside the building once, and asked about him. She didn’t know about Andre, so it was easier. She’d been pleased for Imogen, touchingly so. “Didn’t know you had any mates until I met that Shane. And now a man too. Doing alright, aren’t ya?”

Rose’s personal life was everywhere right now, splashed across the Daily Mail and The Sun. She’d been snapped with one of her directors, a married man with a filthy rep. At least two of the pictures appeared to show her receiving oral sex from him in a car. Imogen wished she could ask about it, wanted to go out and get drunk with her so she was brave enough to ask the question. But Rose had just signed on for a movie to play an anorexic and had dropped the booze to lose some weight for the part, though Imogen didn’t know where it would come off her. It made her sharper than usual, and ruder.

“What’s he like in bed?” she asked, during one of their bi-weekly catch up sessions. “He looks like he’d be rough”.

He wasn’t rough, hadn’t been since the first few goes, where he’d been getting something out of his system. Now it was loving sex, girlfriend sex, the kind of sex you have when you’re knocked up and don’t want to hurt the baby.

“I’m not telling,” Imogen said. Rose didn’t like it when she didn’t open up to her.

“That means it’s bad,” she said coolly, lighting up a cigarette. She wasn’t allowed to smoke in the firm, obviously, but it didn’t stop her.

The shine had gone off her a bit in recent weeks, Imogen noticed. Maybe because she was getting to know her so well, see underneath the Hollywood face. She was knackered all the time, and catty, and unwilling to agree to small changes to her contract. Now, she was refusing to cut or dye her hair for a role. Because she could.

“Jennifer Lawrence does it,” she said.

In private, Imogen had gone to Chris (too many Chris’, in her life, now – Christopher), requesting a meeting. He sat behind her desk, tall and wide, while she told him she’d been considering quitting her job as paralegal, and trying again for her training contract.

“Why’d you stop the first time?” he asked, half interested.

“Personal reasons,” she said, fudging.

“Well,” he said, “it’s something to consider. But we wouldn’t be able to take you on at the moment, so you’d have to go elsewhere. And of course, we’d have to find someone to replace you with Rose.”

She nodded, too tired to fight. She stood to go. “Maybe in a few years?” he suggested.
At least she’d tried.