The Heatwave

At first they called it a heatwave. After two months, they shifted to calling it an Indian Summer. There was some discussion about whether this was racist, but everyone was too hot to get worked up. When October arrived, and the temperatures remained in the 30s, the protests began. It wasn’t as big as the Trump march, but some 50,000 Londoners took to the streets to demand attention be paid to climate change. On the day of the march, it was 36 degrees in the hottest part of the day, and the cooling systems failed on the Underground. 3 people died.

People stopped sharing pictures of the parks. It was funny when the grass was yellow, but the trees were still green, and  there were still ducks in the ponds, and teens drinking cans on rugs by the sides of the paths. It was less funny when the leaves fell, not because it was winter, but because the huge trees, which had stood for 60 years, died. Their trunks withered and stiffened. Some of them fell. Soon, even the yellow grass was gone.

In mid-November, a barbecue left unattended in Hyde Park led to a huge swathe of fire that cut across the main fields and was thwarted only by the Serpentine. The London firefighters fought courageously, but were unaccustomed to wildfire. The ground remained hot to the touch for weeks. Tourists were encouraged to avoid the park while they replanted. Fire warning signs were posted in the main parks around the city, with their arrows pointed permanently to “Fire Danger: Severe”. The supermarkets were banned from sales of portables barbecues, firelighters and kindling. There were two further, smaller, fires in other suburban parks.

At the beginning of December, a tweet from a well-known account went viral, leading to panicked Londoners beginning to stockpile water. London made international news, led by pictures of sweaty, red-faced urbanites, loading tote bags and wheelie suitcases with as many bottles of water as they could carry. Fighting broke out on the streets. On Amazon, all Prime stockists who carried water-purification tablets and water carriers began to sell out. In Hackney, there was a fight in the streets outside one local Nisa. A local teenager was stabbed. A few weeks later, travel on the Underground was banned for anyone under the age of 16 or over the age of 50, with temperatures on some lines found to be reaching nearly 55 degrees. When a delay on the Central Line resulted in 4 deaths, it was put out of commission altogether. Seaside villages began imposing steep road taxes to discourage tourists. Investors in ice deliveries got rich quick.

Sadiq Khan was forced to put out a ruling banning displays of Christmas lights, as it was found that the strings of lights, manufactured for European climes, began to start small fires, which grew when paired with the tinder of dying Christmas trees. Images of snowy Christmases and Santa Claus were circulated on social media with irony.

Organic farms around the cities began to go out of business, unable to keep crops alive as water bans became widespread. Vegetables prices doubled, then tripled, as imports struggled to keep pace for demand. Battersea Cat and Dog Home reported a 50% decrease in the number of stray animals in the city.

It wasn’t until January that people began to accept that this might be the new norm. They did this by leaving the city in droves. European citizens fled back to their hometowns, where temperatures were also high, but where the infrastructure could cope. Despite the lowering population of London, supply for water still failed to keep pace, and Thames Water began imposing a 250 litre per day limit on local households. Residents were advised not to flush urine, and to shower only once every two days. The use of dishwashers was banned. Bath water was to be kept for watering essential garden items.

By February, they were unable to keep the Lidos open. Hampstead Ponds dried up, resulting in a violent raiding of the pond beds. Over 1000 pieces of jewellery were turned into authorities, but it was thought that many more went unreported. While the Thames continued to ebb and flow, many of the inland waterways dried up. Boats were abandoned. All but 6 of the 120 breeding pairs of London swans were found dead. Those that remained were transported to Sweden for safekeeping.

As the water-table dropped, land under inner city London suburbs began to subside, and several documentaries were made when Victorian conversions began to collapse. The property market took a steep downward turn, and those who were able to remain in London quickly took advantage of plummeting prices. Office buildings without sufficient air-conditioning were found to be unusable, and employees were advised to work from home if temperatures regularly breached 40 degrees inside. It is thought this was 60% of offices, though many companies refused to let temperature readings be taken. 

At every turn, it was advised that the weather could shift, but it widely acknowledged that traditional methods of weather forecasting were now failing.

There were no spring flowers, and as the months progressed into April, it became clear how many of the trees in London had failed to survive the drought. Extra budget had to be invested in street cleaning as the bodies of birds, foxes, rabbits and households pets upset the children in suburban neighbourhoods. Schools were closed, and efforts made to relocate families with young children further north. As the Thames dried up further, it became common practice to walk across the river bed, rather than diverting to the bridges. A police raid on Shoreditch House found it to be using many times its allocation of water to keep the rooftop pool open. It was closed. The Daily Mail published images of Boris Johnson in Canada, fishing in a lake.

The new financial year saw some companies opt to move their headquarters out of London, with water prices, lack of transport, cooling costs and the dwindling talent pool making the capital economically unfeasible. Some trialled new offices in Spain and Greece, while many others moved north to Leeds and Manchester. Facebook and Google, in an unprecedented alliance, shifted their UK headquarters to Edinburough – where temperatures remained in the mid-twenties – joined swiftly by other, smaller start-ups.

In London, temperatures continued to climb. The city’s population of rats was driven out from underground by rising temperatures, and took ownership of the remaining green spaces. The NHS released a pamphlet recommending that children be allowed outside only between the hours of 7pm and 8pm, and the sale of sunscreen under 50 SPF was banned. Online guides advised tourists to avoid the capital. For the first time since opening, the curtain raised on Hamilton to empty seats.  

In June 2019, a year since the heatwave began, an unofficial census reported that the population of the capital had dropped by 30%. Many news outlets surmised the actual percentage to be much greater. Temperatures dropped occasionally to the mid-thirties, but often reached 50 degrees around midday. While Canary Wharf was still operational, it was estimated that up to 70% of offices were empty, with employees either working from home or relocated. Those that remained living in the inner suburbs were changed. They walked slowly, conserving energy, and wore long, billowing clothes that deflected the heat. Congestion was no longer an issue. It was rumoured that a cult had taken over the abandoned underground tunnels with air-conditioning units smuggled from the US illegally tapping into the grid. Certainly, if you tried to enter the system, you were greeted only by gates, and occasionally dogs.

There were many attempts to reverse the damage. Consultants were brought in from Perth and Dubai. Long-range forecasts were parsed, abandoned, parsed again. It was agreed that the costs of reworking the city to accommodate the new temperatures would go into the billions. All works on new buildings were halted until they could prove provision for the temperatures. Construction city-wide halted. The New York Times printed a picture of the London skyline without a single crane.

There were plenty of attempts to make the best of it. Young professionals who had formerly been priced out of the property market bought property in inner suburbs. There were many great innovations in ice-cream. Comparisons charts with other, hotter regions in the world brought round mockery to Londoners who had proved themselves unable to cope, and there was an influx of immigration from equatorial countries, which slowed when the sewerage systems began to fail.

A Google Earth recording of London on December 29, 2020, when midday temperatures passed 60 degrees in Covent Garden, showed a deserted city sliced in half by a brown riverbed. Rain was finally recorded on March 27, but there was hardly anyone left to witness it.

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Roots

This is what they call putting down roots. I’m glad there’s a phrase for it, because I don’t really know how it feels. I’m much better at pulling them up.

I have a garden. Behind the back wall is a line a of trees, big trees for central London. They form their own avenue, cutting behind my back garden, and the back gardens of my new neighbours. They are full of squirrels and birds. They will be here long after I am gone.

There are two much smaller trees in my back garden. One is an ornamental cherry. I know this, because I asked the man who last owned it, a tall man in a red jumper who works for Google as a physicist. I don’t know what the other one is. I think he might have told me – I think I forgot because I was trying to remember all of the other questions I was supposed to ask. When was the boiler last serviced? What are the neighbours like? Is the house warm in winter?

Buying a house is a weird thing to do. The process is difficult and alienating. Everything about it feels designed to make you cry. I spent a sum total of 20 minutes in the house before we bought it. The first time, glancing around wildly, nodding quietly in agreement, making an offer. The second time, with a mug of coffee made by the man in the red jumper, looking at furniture placement, the big mirror on the wall, the in-built bookshelves that please me so much.

When we first started house-hunting (over a year ago) the one thing I always made sure to test was the water pressure in the shower. I hate crappy water pressure more than anything. I never checked it in the house we bought because I was looking at the big storage cupboard, the bay window, the creepy dark cellar, the golden wood countertops, the first sink I’ve ever fallen in love with. Is it normal to fall in love with a sink? The water pressure is fine. There is a black cat who lives next door and sometimes comes in through the bedroom window. Our first night in the house I listened to foxes have sex on the roof of our shed. Everything is a metaphor.

On the day we completed, I arrived at the house after the work. My fiance was there already, clutching three sets of keys. We drank champagne out of plastic cups and sat on the floor. Later, my sisters came over with flowers and wine. One of them stood on the roof of the shed to take a picture of us by the front door that didn’t have bins in the way. We toasted the first time the toilet was used. We sat there until it got dark, and then we went back to our rented flat with our rented bed.

We moved in with a bookshelf and an air mattress. Everything we owned fit into the back of a big white van. Everyone said that the most difficult part to pack up was the kitchen, but that wasn’t the case for us, since all we owned were two glasses, two mugs and two ceramic dishes, one a gift from Italy and one made by a friend with her initials on the bottom. We have a lot of books and a lot of winter coats and not much else.

It’s been over a month since we moved in, and now we own more things. A black leather couch purchased from a second-hand store down the road, and moved in through the bay window the black cat likes so much. A table, with four chairs. A very expensive mattress. An entirely free bed-frame. A wardrobe with a floor-length mirror. We don’t fit into the back of a big white van anymore. Moving the wardrobe in through the bay window nearly broke the backs of three large men, so it wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if we were.

Many of my friends are gardeners. People I know in real life have written books about small gardens and making something green out of a sunny London corner. I am daunted by my small patch of land, with its crazy paving and badly constructed barbeque and fences overgrown by ivy. I do not know what good soil looks like. My lawn has a large dead patch where the previous tenants had a large inflatable paddling pool, and I do not know how to bring it back to life. The garden next door is overgrown, with large thorny brambles reaching over my trellised fences and threatening my space. I do not know which is more important to buy first: a toaster, or a grater, or a pair of lawn clippers, or fertilizer, or a television cabinet, or a vegetable peeler.

When I come home from work, I am often the only person in the house. In our small lounge there is a large window, and at about that time, it lets in a perfect square of golden light, which falls on the wooden floorboards and casts shadows of the foliage of the big trees behind the garden. Sometimes I stand in it, sometimes I just look at it. Light is something you are supposed to think about when you buy a house, but we did not. We got lucky, with a garden full of morning sun (in this first, eternal summer) and this last evening light.

As it gets later, the square of light moves up the wall, highlighting the scribbles left by children who no longer live here, and then it disappears. But I know when to expect it back. This is what it means to put down roots.

Four nights in New Orleans

Our Air B&B in New Orleans was beautiful, but not practical. Not practical, and also a very probable scene of a haunting, or a murder, or something else unsavoury.

New Orleans – or NOLA, as I recently learned it is regularly shortened to – is soaked in hauntings. There are ghosts in the cracks in the pavements, and ghosts lining the banks of the grey Mississippi. NOLA is home of voodoo and of gris gris, of souvenir shops filled with voodoo dolls. Most people buy souvenirs for the people they love, or miss, or want to make believe they loved or miss. The shops of New Orleans sell the magical means by which to pain and punish a person.

All of which is a bit strange, since NOLA is teeming with pleasure. It has me licking my lips. It is hot, and damp, and the tourists are drunk at 10am, and 2pm, and 8pm, and 3am, and all the gaps in between. You get drunk with your breakfast, on a Bloody Mary (blood, there it is) filled with bacon and shrimp, because it can be, because why wouldn’t you pack your breakfast full of blood and spirit and flesh? We should, we always should. Avocado, bland paste, has had its day. The food is rich and wet and salty; candied pecans and oil-heavy sprouts and blue cheese that burns bits off your tongue. Artichoke hearts (hearts, there they are) and spinach sauce and eggs that burst like something living. Everywhere feels a bit drunk: a bit too hot, a bit staggery, a bit swimming. The tourists walk the streets like prey. We have been eaten by New Orleans. We are going back for seconds.

The bars stay open for 24 hours, which makes me wonder why all bars don’t stay open for 24 hours. What is the point of closing for a mere 8 hours, 10 hours, whatever the normal hours of a bar looks like? Never closing means never cashing up nor cleaning up, which explains the tack of the table and the slatted swinging doors in the Ladies loo. You don’t shit in public behind a door that is half not-door; you save up your shits for home. Never closing means weary travellers (me) stepping inside the door at 1am, bleary from 8 hours of driving (not me, I was in the back reading Jojo Moyes) and winking awake in wonder at the tables full of people, and the bar stacked deep. On a Sunday. The day after St Patrick’s Day. Why aren’t they sleeping?

NOLA doesn’t sleep. The first resident I speak to is a drug dealer. The negroni I order is double-poured, filled to the brim with spirit, and the only reason it’s not full of shrimp is because I didn’t think to ask.

We arrive in the dark. I have done no research, so I don’t know what to expect in the morning when I walk outside the door onto a street that seemed, upon arrival, looming and foreboding and tightly packed with cars and houses and potential dangers (this, after Austin, where you could have driven a truck between each house on the block, with room to spare). Everything is dangerous in the dark, but in the daylight? I cannot describe New Orleans without resorting to cliches it doesn’t deserve. A riot of colour. The houses are a rainbow, each painted in a unique hue, with carefully chosen accent colours, as if someone took the idea of a splash of colour on a front door and went strategically and beautifully mad. I am from a neighbourhood that values a villa, so I know my finials from my canted windows, but these houses, shoulder to shoulder, a children’s paint-by-number; I’ve never seen anything like it. It is life viewed through stained glass. It is as if Dickens fucked a My Little Pony. It is the kind of stroll that makes you long for an eye for the camera and walls on which to hang your pictures.

We arrive a couple of weeks after Mardi Gras, a time in which, I am told, the city goes wild. To my tame eye the city is wild enough already, too wild around the edges, a wildness that makes me skittish and bit wild myself, and so I am glad (a bit, a tiny bit) that I didn’t witness it, but it has left traces. In the tourist books (OK, blogs) you read “beads are a central element to Mardi Gras” but this doesn’t mean anything at all until you see the beads: winking strands of multi-hued and faceted beads, hanging drunkenly from trees and awnings and fence posts and cacti; trod into the grass at the side of the road and clenched in rainbow balls in gutters. There are beads everywhere I look, a city adorned with the bought and sold beauty of a junk store binge, glitter gorged and emitted and retched. I am drunk and in love with this careful architectural beauty painted with bawdy hues and strung about with plastic gems. And I am actually drunk. I have had a lot of Bloody Marys.

Beautiful, but not practical, this city on the banks of a teeming fast-flowing (so much faster than our sludgy Thames) river, packed with ghosts and tourists and zombies (their toes don’t touch the ground, that’s how you know), skanking to jazz and cooling their brains with frozen margaritas.

Our Air B&B is a huge house owned by a man named Franz. It has outdoor fans, lazily turning to churn the mugginess out of the air. It is impractical because it is split down the middle. There are two front doors, but at the top of the flight of stairs there is a door with a crystal knob, locked, which if turned, would take me into another Air B&B booking, another party, I hope, drunk on this Marigny splendour. It is not a secret door, but it is still a door I cannot open, and you cannot help but wonder, in this city of ghosts, who is on the other side (I know who is on the other side, because they get up early and stomp up and down the staircase, and have loud conversations about toast on the veranda, but still). Another impracticality is the dining room, devoid of all decoration except for a single portrait of a girl, who leans from the mantle and looks down with dark eyes. All four of us decided, within a minute, individually, that she haunted the house, stalking the halls with malicious intent, though the only ill to befall us is hangovers. The third practicality is adjoining bedrooms, which makes sex a bit of a gamble, but no more needs to be said about that.

New Orleans thinks it’s old, a madam imbued with ancient magic, though to a British eye, it is a baby, a toddler wandering too close to the water. There is a drum beat under the pavements that makes you believe it, a pulse that cracks and lifts the concrete. I have eaten and drunk too much of New Orleans, a place where the seven pomegranate seeds are a pile of deep-fried shrimp, an alligator po-boy, a beignet dusted with sugar, a Bloody Mary that might be two parts blood, all consumed under the black eyes of a painted ghost girl.

My engagement story

My engagement story isn’t typical, but the story of my engagement is: I fell in love with a man, and he loved me back.

My engagement story is a practical one. It wasn’t in a restaurant, or front of a crowd, or on a holiday. It happened on a Wednesday, at about 7:30am, in the middle of our living room. It is a small living room, in a rented Stockwell flat. It is full of laundry, most days. There is more couch than there is floor space. There are half-full bottles of spirits and books on the shelves, and a lurid rainbow frog painted on canvas on the wall. He is not even a unique frog; when I was walking through Central Park in September, his twin stared out at me from behind his thickly-painted black glasses, hung on a stall at the side of the path. It was comforting, I thought: my boyfriend might be sitting underneath our own rainbow frog at this very minute.

My boyfriend is now my fiance, because a few months ago my sister and I started having conversations about rings. We would send links back and forth. She is smart, and kind, and knows me well, and did her best to send me links to rings she thought I’d like, although our tastes in jewellery are very different. I am tacky, I am oversized. The ring I chose in the end is red, with six tiny diamonds. She said, “It looks like candy.” It does. I said, “I like candy”. I do. 

I am surprised when I think about how some long-term relationships come with surprise engagements. My engagement, the fact of my boyfriend wanting to marry me, and being confident that I wanted him to, was not a surprise at all. We talked about it drunk, four years ago on a train. We were going to his 24 year old cousin’s wedding that weekend. He said “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to marry you just because I haven’t asked you. I want to ask you when I’m ready.” A couple of years after that, drunk, in the same living room where he would propose, under the same rainbow frog, he said, “When would you like me to propose?” I said, “This year, I think.” He said yes, and so really we were promised then, it was finished then.

I changed the deadline later, when it got to December and he hadn’t proposed. I was afraid of a New Year’s Eve proposal, rightly, I think, because he leaves most things to the last minute. He lives life right up to the deadline. I am the girl who wrote her university essays two weeks before they were due. In the first week of December, I said, hurriedly, “You have to do it before Christmas.”

I found the ring I loved by Googling “Unusual engagement rings” and navigating the internet from the first Elle listicle I landed on. I do not think of myself as quirky, or unusual, but I knew what I didn’t want: a big, benign anonymous diamond. That ring belongs to someone else. It goes very well with the church wedding and the white dress and the high heels and the rigid up-do and the expensive flowers that I also do not want.

He knocked on the bathroom door when I was in the shower. I was taking an unusually long time because I had slept with a hair treatment in, and it takes a few goes to get the goo out. I am very blonde and my hair is very broken; I have what my hairdresser has refrained from calling “a chemical mullet”. I also have some grey hairs – I know this because the last time I went to the hairdresser I asked him if I had any, and he said “I’ll tell you if I spot any”, and I said “You’re lying,” and he smiled because he was lying.

“Come into the lounge when you’re done,” he shouted through the door.

“Why?”

“I need you to give me a hand.” (This is the part that I have to get right when I tell the story; his very favourite part, his pun).

I think, of course, that he has broken something. The rainbow frog knocked off the wall, the television shattered, the bookshelf cracked and broken. Instead, I walk into the lounge and he is down on one knee, on a cushion he has already positioned by the door. The lounge is covered in Christmas decorations and lights and he has bought chocolate and champagne. He asks me the question and I give the answer. This part is very easy. We have already practiced this part. We have been saying yes to each other for six years, as well as no, but never maybe. Our certainty about each other is never something I have had to question.

In some versions of this story I say that I am naked, because I like the idea that I might be that quirky, drop the towel and throw down on the carpet, clad only in my new red ring. But instead I drink my champagne and dry my hair quickly, and we go to Dishoom for bacon naans. A true part of the story is that at first he tries to put the ring on the wrong finger, on the wrong hand. But then, he has never done this before.

On the way up the escalator at Leicester Square, I spot my colleague Shane. He is standing in front of me; he is very nice but we have probably had about 3 conversations in total, and they have all been about either coffee or sales targets.

I introduce Adam to him as my boyfriend, to which Adam leans around me aggressively and clarifies “FIANCE”. Shane looks startled, as well he might. I explain that we have been engaged for 20 minutes. Shane understands, but still disappears off up the stairs very quickly.

I am not being vain, or unself-aware when I say that Adam and I have a special relationship. I am sure everyone thinks this, but I know this. I know this from the number of drunk friends who tell us that they want what we have, when it’s late and we’re leaning into each other, and it’s not one of the nights when we publicly fight about wisdom teeth. I know this from how easy, and unsurprising, it was to say “yes” to him. We are engaged to each other, but it hasn’t changed anything material. Sometimes he snores, and I sleep on the couch. Often I yell at him for doing something that I do myself, and then when he points that out I get mad. We make some bad decisions together, and there are undoubtedly dubious choices in our future, but the biggest choice, with regards each other, got made long before the ring. It got made when we moved to London together, when we moved in together, when he turned down a job in Manchester.

The only time it really feels different is when we’re sat together, usually on the couch under the rainbow frog, two meters from the spot where he arranged a cushion for his knee, and one of us turns to the other and says “We’re engaged!”. We do it often (only when we’re alone, don’t worry) and every time there’s a tiny additional spark. A little spike of something. It’s a little bit like the first “I love you”, or the first material decision made together. It’s a reminder that not everyone gets this, and a reminder that six years together doesn’t make our relationship old, or boring, it makes it wonderful. I hope our wedding day carries with it that same spike. And our honeymoon. And whatever comes after that.

I chose my own ring, with the help of my sister, which some people wouldn’t view as very romantic. But we chose each other, and we’ve kept on choosing each other, and that definitely is.

On the tube

I’ve learned to take deep breaths on the tube, and to think about how lucky I am that I still have all my fingers, and all my teeth, and think about how I could be out in the rain, in snow, buried six feet deep, alive.

I think about all the things I’m grateful for, and all the things I’ve learned. I think about how very few people I love have died, and how I have money for things like cheese substitutes in Veganuary, and leopard print boots when I tire of black ones, and a hundred books I might think about reading one day. All the scarves I own. The 20p coins I’ve thrown in the bin, because thinking of a more sensible location for them was simply too much effort. The hot water in my shower, and the three types of balsamic vinegar by my oven, and makeup. I’m very grateful for makeup.

But it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t stick. For every three things I can think of that I’m grateful for, and blessed by, and lucky to have, there are three cunts trying to steal my seat, and I simply cannot hold on to my blessings. I can’t count them. They’ve flown. Back out of the hot tunnel I walked down and up the escalator I stomped down and through the barriers I stormed by.

The tube turns me into a ghoul. Maybe it’s something about being under, being down. It brings out my slimy, slippery side, the side that could absolutely pitch a baby under a bus if it meant the salvation of my own skin. I’m Gollum, sucking the innards of a fish, ruminating on every singular ill ever done to me. I’m twisted and bitter, and oh, so happy being unhappy. I think it’s the lack of light. I think it’s the lack of air.

It gets me into trouble. I’m not that big, and I’m not intimidating-looking, and I’m quick to act out. Just the other day, a man pressing at my back, aching to board the Northern Line before me, earned a dirty look and an elbow to his ribs. He followed me on the train because he was getting on the same train, and berated me. “Don’t fucking push me!” he said, to which I replied, “You pushed me”, only mine was weak, and high and worried, because I’m all elbows when we’re in a crowd and you’re to my back, but once I’m in a well-lit tightly-packed position and need to hold my ground, the wind goes right on out of me. Party it’s because I know no one deserves an elbow to their ribs at 8am on the Stockwell platform unless they have their dick in their hand, and partly it’s because part of me is both sensible and has read too many thrillers. This is why people get stalked. This is why people get followed. He’s probably not just a nicely-dressed dude who took affront to my attempt to impale him on my arm. He’s probably a killer.

That’s not the first time, obviously, because I’ve lived in London for 5 years, and had a short temper for much longer than 5 years, and I’m a Virgo, and Virgos speak before they think. And also they’re quite tidy. But that’s beside the point.

It’s not just the actual arseholes that give me grief, but simply people living their lives, behaving like they should, unaware of the strife they’re causing me. I hate the woman with the pram. I hate the short people, who are physically unable to clutch onto any kind of support, and so sway into me with every jerk of the tube. I fucking hate them. Why don’t they wear heels? Why don’t they just stay at home? I hate each and every person in the queue in front of me, even though they simply got there earlier because they got up earlier. I hate the person who takes the seat that I wanted, even if they are closer, and elderly. I particularly fucking hate it if they offered it to me first. They know I can’t say yes. Fuckers. I hate people getting off before me and hate people getting on after me. I hate people with headphones (wankers) and people with books (snobs) and people without anything (get a fucking hobby, shit-bag).

In the lifts at Covent Garden, you form an orderly queue and file on like cattle. You breathe each other’s hot breath and avoid any kind of contact, eye or otherwise, and you pray for the fifteen story journey to finish quickly, so you can get off and go to work, or just lie down and die. The queues are separated by a barrier, so you must choose one lift to queue for, and live with your decision. But there is a gap at the front, so if you’re one of the world’s worst people, you can slip across at the front, and into the adjacent lift. I took the lift with one of the world’s worst people, and told him so, piping up in my voice, which gets more Kiwi the more nervous I am, “Don’t queue-jump!”. He, at least 9 foot tall and carrying a briefcase, looked at me with something I’ll describe as incredulity, but which was definitely abject disgust, and then told me exactly what he thought of me for fifteen floors. Spoiler: he wasn’t a fan.

I’ve told the story before, always as proof of my bad London ways, and always prefaced with the idea that I might change. But I’m not sure I will, not until someone forcibly holds my head in the path of an oncoming train, and insists that I change. I can’t help it, down in the tunnels with the worms and the mice and the other abject cunts.

The other day I took the tube to work, and got a seat, and a man stood in front of me, and loudly ate a sausage roll, dropping at least half of the greasy pastry into my lap. The woman opposite me looked at him, then me and my knees covered in bits of discarded snack, with round eyes, disgusted. And I thought, you know what, that takes a certain kind of guts, and felt admiringly towards him. And when I got up, and brushed the pastry to the floor, I thought, “Food for the mice. Isn’t that nice.”

My body remembers how to float

I haven’t swum properly in years, and it shows. It shows in my body, first of all, in this too-tight Nike swimsuit purchased from ASOS in the sale, and it shows in the way I approach the water: hesitant, giggly, like I’m going on a date.

At 11 I was a really good swimmer. At least, I remember being really good. Being really good amounted to multiple swimsuits, chlorine-stained, stuffed in the airing cupboard to dry between swims, and ugg boots lined with fetid wool which was never really dry, and a quick snap of fingers to put on my swim cap. We swam at the Navy pool, 30 metres long, all dark grey concrete and no frippery at all. It had white lines at the bottom so you could follow the lanes with your head down, each ending in a T so you knew when you had time for two strokes and a turn, or a bashed head. The lane ropes were made or large, hard plastic floats, rough enough to make your fingers bleed if a stroke went awry. The deep end was properly deep, deep enough that I couldn’t swim strongly enough to touch the bottom for a couple of years, deep enough that even when I could, coming back up was uncertain. Where was the top, and would I find it?

And at the sides of the pool, deep gutters where the water ran in and out, and in which you could lose your cap and goggles, sucked in the filters and into the beyond. Once something went into the filters, you never got it back.

I think I only swam twice a week, but when I look back it feels like I was there every night. It was always dark and floodlit, and we never wore proper clothes: only dressing gowns and slippers. I don’t remember what the changing rooms looked like; I’m not sure I ever went in. It was only: home from school, stuff full of toast, change into swimsuit, get driven to the pool, laps, laps, laps, towel, dressing gown, home. 

I remember being good, but I’m not sure that I was good. All I remember was the lap clock, and boards, and pull buoys. I really hated pull buoys: small pieces of foam you held between your knees to stop you kicking and put more strain on your arms. I hated the boards even more, because I relied heavily on my arms, and when I had to swim with only my legs I’d get cramp in my toes, and with the cramp, the certainty that I would drown in the dark deep end.

I went back to swimming in the Brockwell Lido, halfway round the world and bright blue rather than black, but otherwise much the same: long, laned and freezing. I entered the pool with the confidence that I was a good swimmer and came up gasping, the freezing (16 degrees, but it felt colder) water clutching at my chest and drawing my lungs in. I was out of breath before one length was through and I thought: this is age. All these years of describing myself as a good swimmer, lies.

My body remembers how to float, though. It likes the surface, and something in muscles remember the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, and so it is only after 1000 metres that I really stop. It feels like longer, but also part of me feels like I never really left the water: pulling off my cap, feeling the water in my untrapped hair.

And then later, in the changing rooms, looking at my face. I never remembered those red red rings around my eyes and across my nose, risible in their intensity, and I think that’s simply because I looked in the mirror less. Now, of course, I don’t leave the pool without showering, shampooing, blow-drying, snapping on a bra and sticky knickers, trying to disguise my red-rimmed face with foundation, concealer, powder, mascara, try to disguise the fact that I was submerged and sweating only ten minutes prior. I feel sad about that while knowing that if I attempted the 35 minute walk home, through the centre of Brixton, clad in nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, I might die.

There’s a contraption in the changing room that I’ve never seen before: a mechanised wringer, into which you fold your sodden swimsuit, and pump the handle, so that it spins at speed and loses most of the water. I’ve never seen one before, and I get gently mocked for that, by gentle ladies with grey hair and no makeup at all, who seem like they might live here.

On the way out, one of my gentle mockers walks on the wet concrete of the outdoor shower and falls, hard, on her back, her head meeting the concrete with a sound that makes the bones of my own skull grind. She’s surrounded by people in seconds, but lies there stunned, a fish, before she starts to yell at the staff, at the wet patch, at her attendees to bring her a towel. She’s brought 3 towels before someone finds the right one. She seems fine, but she is smart enough not to swim. She walks back into the changing room with her goggles in her hand, and someone puts an orange cone in the centre of the slippery patch.

When I went to intermediate school, I stopped swimming lengths and started playing water polo, and that’s where I learned that there is swimming and there is swimming. Suddenly, I was playing underwater rugby, male and female hands gripping at arms and fabric, coming out of the pool with bruises and tears, and I thought I might have found something worse than cramp that took you to the bottom of a cold dark deep end. One thing I took away from it was egg beater, a way of moving your legs when floating that keeps you at a steady height, and conserves energy. Sometimes, on holiday, in a blue Mediterranean sea, I swim out a little deeper than I need to, and remind my legs and my knees of the motion. They always remember.

There’s a casual water polo league at the Brockwell Lido, if you can play water polo casually, which I’m not sure I believe you can, but I like the idea of it, as a way of remembering how to stay afloat.

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me. There’s nothing that weird about that, really, except that there are other free seats, and I don’t want him there.

I haven’t made eye contact with him at all. I know he’s there in the way of: he is male, he is large, his shoulder is big against mine. And his face is turned towards me, but he could be looking out of the window or he could be looking for his stop, or he could be looking at me while his shoulder presses against mine and his hip moves over his seat into mine, or he might be doing none of those things.

I won’t look at him.

The bus is pretty full. It’s 7pm on a Saturday night, and everyone is on this bus: old people and young people, people who have been shopping and people who have been drinking. I fall into the latter category. I have spent the afternoon with new friends who write, sitting at close quarters in a pub, watching how well they all know each other. I am wearing a white t-shirt and a yellow skirt and a leather jacket I bought in Camden Market for £25, and all of this happened more than four years ago, and I remember all of this.

I have to stretch across him to press the buzzer, and I know now that he is looking at me. I don’t look at him – but I do have to touch him, as I pull my jacket closer around me, hook my bag from my shoulder.

Isn’t it weird, the way we use shoulders? As convenient nooks, as biological hangers. A thing to perch a bird on, a thing to hang a bag off. And, in this case, in his case, a way to say: I am bigger than you. I am stronger than you. I will not get out of your way.

There are so many people on this bus, and nothing is happening, really, but my insides don’t know that: my stomach is balled up tight, and my brain has pushed any residual alcohol RIGHT back, so I am focused, I am present, I could run a marathon or sit an exam, everything is set to ON. I can feel the tips of my fingers. I can feel the all edges of myself. I feel every part of him that is touching me. Nothing is happening, really, but my body knows that could change.

“Excuse me.”

He doesn’t stand up. Instead he swings his knees to the side, a bit, so there is space for me to pass. This is normal, if you are friends, if you are lazy, if the aisles are full, if you are old. I press myself against the seat in front of him, and his hip and shoulder have left me now, but his hand hasn’t.

I still haven’t looked at him, because looking is an invitation. If he follows me off the bus now, rapes me, leaves me in an alleyway, I will have no way of giving anyone even the barest description of him, because I can’t make myself look at him.

He follows me off the bus. It is a busy road and I am 100 metres from my front door. His shoulder is back on my mine as he speaks for the first time.

“Where are you going? Can I come with you? I’m coming with you.” He’s trying to hold my hand.

Because it is London, I am holding an umbrella, and so I do the only thing I can think of: I put it up and hold it between us, like a shield.

My memory here is just of us, but this was Finsbury Park, early on a Saturday night. There must have been 200 people within shouting distance, there must have been 10 people watching a girl trying to fend off a man with an umbrella. But maybe, like I might have, they saw only a lover’s tiff. After all, he was only trying to hold my hand.

With my other hand, the hand that is not trying to stave off his grip with an umbrella, I call my boyfriend. He answers quickly.

“I was followed off the bus, please meet me at the front door.” I am 50 metres from my front door and closing fast. I am speaking very loudly.

“Fuck you.” And he is gone, the pressure from my umbrella gone. I am at my front door with the umbrella up, though there is no rain, and my boyfriend is there.

“Which one is he? Where did he go?”

But I have no idea.

Later, on the couch, I think it’s funny. What did he do, after he left me? Did he have to go back to the bus stop, wait for the same bus to come again, to get to where he was actually going? Or was that his plan for the evening – sit next to women until one of them let him come with her? Or until he found one who didn’t have a boyfriend down the road, who didn’t have a front door opening on to a busy street, who didn’t have an umbrella?

An Inspector Calls

The train is full, of bodies and of bits. Everyone has just a little more than they can carry comfortably, wedging cases down aisles and catching each other at the hip. Everyone, too, a bit less themselves than usual. Commuting back to London in that bit, that blip, between Christmas and New Years, means leaving people behind. Or going back to empty houses. It means you probably didn’t get a real holiday, when everyone else did. It means you’re a bit pissed off.

The man next to me doesn’t look pissed off, and he doesn’t have any luggage that I can see – just a plastic bag under the seat in front, and a coat over his knees. His table is pulled down, and on it he has a thick book of pages, heavily marked in ink. He is hunched over them, muttering to himself.

I prefer the aisle on a plane, but not on a train. On a train, sitting on an aisle is a licence for people to hit you, with the corner of boardgames that they don’t really want, suitcases stuffed with jumpers that don’t really fit them. I am tucked in tight, but that doesn’t guarantee safety. I always fall asleep on trains, planes, anything moving with that low level of sound and rhythm. I don’t fall asleep neatly, with my chin in my collar, but aggressively, swung about by dreams, mouth open, head jerking, legs and knees unhinging. I’m exactly the person you hit with your case as you bump down the aisle, looking for a seat that isn’t near children. I’d hit myself, if I saw myself, leg sticking out, torso draped like a towel.

So I’m trying to stay awake, even though I’ve eaten enough food to put 10 people to sleep, even though I haven’t been really, properly, safe-to-drive sober since November 11th, even though I haven’t sleep properly in 71 days (not all in a row, but it’s still too many days), even though sleeping would distract me from whatever is happening in my guts (twisted, and stationary, it isn’t good, whatever it is, but that’s what it’s supposed to be like).

You shouldn’t really talk to strangers on public transport, as a general rule. That’s how most murders happen: interaction. Safer by far to put your head in a book and plug in your headphones and wait until you meet someone with whom you have at least 3 mutual friends. Mutual friends prevent murder. Still, there’s not an enormous amount you can do when they speak to you, which is what he does, my seat-sharing mumbler, turning to me and saying, “I really hate this time of year.”

He is handsome, in the way of characters in movies who have been through a bad stretch but will probably come out the other side better off. He hasn’t shaved in a while, and might not have brushed his teeth in a while longer. His eyebrow hairs spiral up his forehead to meet scrubby bits of fringe. Before I lived with a man, I never knew eyebrows could do that, growing and growing like over-watered bush. I never knew some people had to clip them into submission, having spent the last fews years trying to coax life out of brows I ripped out with my fingernails in more stressful times.

The first thing I said to him couldn’t be “You should get your hairdresser to clip your eyebrows next time you go”, so I said, “Me too”, which wasn’t true, which meant our relationship wasn’t off to a good start.

He smiled, more unbrushed teeth. You know when you can tell? The gathering of white around the top of the teeth and into the gums, around the bottom of the bottom teeth, with bits in gaps.

“I’ve been up with my mother. Grumpy cow. And her cat shits everywhere. Just shits!” He laughed.

I laughed. “Gross.”

“Why are you headed back down to London? No more holiday?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Used up all my leave. Should be a quiet week though.”

He picked up the papers on his table and angled them in my direction. “I’m going back for this.”

They read “An Inspector Calls’. “You’re in a play?” I asked. It made sense. He was handsome but unkempt, exactly the right kind of someone to be an actor. It was almost too obvious, like we were in a movie ourselves.  

He nodded. “My first one in years.”

I would have continued the conversation if I’d known anything at all about the play, but all I could guess was that it was probably about a detective and that he was probably the lead. He wouldn’t have told me about it if it was a bit part. So I nodded and said “Congratulations” and then stared out into the aisle.

He was a bit pissed off. You can tell when people are a bit pissed off. He squared his shoulders away from me, and flipped a page with a bit too much vigour, glancing at me twice before sinking back into the script. After a while, he leant forward under the seat, and pulled out a small bottle of white wine, the kind of you buy from M&S for a picnic or a train journey. My mother would have said it was too early for wine, but Christmas means you can drink whenever you want, so I didn’t judge him. I didn’t judge him until he finished it in one gulp and put in back in the brown bag in the same movement as pulling out a second, and finishing that too. A third followed, sipped more slowly.

The smell came only a few minutes after that. Don’t worry, he hadn’t wet himself. It was the smell of someone who had woken up the alcohol in their bloodstream. You know what I mean? When you’ve been drinking the night before, and you decide on a hair-of-the-dog to make you feel better, and almost instantly you’re drunk again, because it’s all still there, sitting there, waiting.

He stopped marking the pages after the fourth bottle. He sunk back into his seat, wriggling down a bit more. Our coats were touching where the seats met.

“Have you ever seen it?”

I knew he was asking about the play, but I said “Seen what?”

“This”, pointing at the script. “Seen it?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t you like plays?”

“I do”. Another lie. “I just haven’t seen that one.” He was looking at me, and I could feel his breath on my nose and cheeks.

“You should,” he said. “You should come see me in it.”

I nodded. Across the aisle, a couple were watching us. They were whispering. I thought they were probably taking bets on whether we knew each other, whether we’d be going to make out in the train toilets. I wanted to show them the bag of bottles.

“It opens in May.”

I nodded again. “Sounds good!”

We were almost in King’s Cross, Kentish Town flashing past. 10 minutes or so, I’d done the journey enough. Other people had taken note of the same and were standing, stretching. I started to button up my coat, and noticed that the small wine bottles, five or six of them, had rolled free from the bag.

I nudged him, pointed. He bent down, but couldn’t get around the tray table to reach the last two, which rolled away from his fingers. The smell was stronger.

I stood up, grabbing my bag from the rack above my head. It was heavy with a bottle of rum, and I thought briefly that I should give it to him.

When I looked back at him, he was watching me, and I thought about the way I’d lifted my arms, and felt uncomfortable.

“I was on TV, you know,” he said.

The train was slowing down, people moving into the aisles, and suddenly I was in the way. “I’ll try to come see you,” I said, suddenly meaning it. “Which theatre is it?” I started moving down the aisle, moved by people, my bag catching on the seat in front.

He was nearly two rows away, sitting silently. “Which theatre?” I asked again.

He didn’t answer, only bent down, and I knew he was feeling for a full one among the empties gathered at his feet, and that there wasn’t one.

Chutney and cheese, but mostly hair

Yesterday evening, I spent £204 on my hair. This might seem like a lot. That’s because it is a lot. It’s an obscene amount of money, and sometimes I’m not sure why I pay it. I have my reasons – I assemble them every 12 weeks, when the wedge of roots at my parting is thick, but collected, on a page, in a list, I’m not sure they’re enough. It’s half my monthly rent. It’s what I paid for a pair of boots, eight years ago, when I learned that someone I loved had kissed someone I liked, and even then I could only bring myself to pay half (one boot, if you will), as a down-payment. And then I went to a lecture and saw them together, and went back the same day and bought the other boot. I still have them. The point of that being – it was so difficult for me to spend that much money on boots that it took two goes to do it, even when I was angry and sad and out-of-sorts, and now I spend that same money every 12 weeks on my hair.

George, though. When I sit in his chair and look at him reflected back at me, I feel the same way I do when I get on a long flight: like every responsibility I have at that time is gone, for a few hours. They’ve introduced WIFI on planes, now, but I’ve so far managed to pretend that they haven’t, so I can salvage those few hours of contact-free time, in which to watch a bad movie (preferably one I’ve seen before), and drink two glasses of wine, and fall asleep with my mouth open.

It’s not quite the same in George’s chair, because I do have my phone, and I do answer emails, and I do look at Instagram and Twitter. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t really do anything. So last night I sat and watched my reflection (reddened nose from two days of a cold, eyebrows in need of attention, eyes completely free of eyeliner for maybe the first time in 15 years because I keep sneezing it off) as George applied pieces of foil to it for an hour and a half, then left me sitting under a heat lamp for 45 minutes, then rinsed and toned for another 30 minutes, then cut and finished for the final 30. When you tot it up, you understand why it costs what it does. I’ve spent more time with George in the last few years than I have with my Dad.

It’s never quite perfect, because I am very exacting. Turning hair that was born brown, and has been manipulated through varying shades of ginger, black, purple and red red red over all the years, blonde is not an easy task, particularly when it keeps on growing like it does. When you think about it, it’s some sort of chemical mastery: to take two inches of grown-out virgin hair, and paint dye on every second strand, and watch it take under hot lights, until it looks as close to the rest of the hair on my head as possible. Every two inches of my hair has been dyed at a different time. I’m a patchwork. I’m a mish-mash. I’m a lot of hard work.

Anyway, four hours isn’t always that easy to come by, not when your hairdresser doesn’t work every day of the week and you don’t finish work until six at the earliest and your weekends are packed full of birthdays abroad, and leaving parties, and brunches (this isn’t a plea for pity, obviously, only an honest appraisal of the hours of a week). So I took a half day – quite a decision when you’ve only got two days of leave left for the entire year, an inevitability when you have three jobs and nine overseas holidays in a 365 day period – and abandoned my work for George, and four hours of being massaged and tugged and stroked. Maybe I don’t pay George enough.

When I left his chair it was nearly 6pm, and very dark. I roll my eyes at every person who exclaims surprise at the darkening evenings, but I do it myself. It is very dark at 4pm, and 5pm, and still very dark at 6pm. Because it was very dark, and because I have the sense of direction of a rock, I walked down a different road to my usual, and I walked past a specialist condiments shop. It calls itself a deli, which makes sense because it is one, but all I saw in the darkness was a window stacked high with hundreds of different kinds of chutney.

You might not know this about me, but I really love chutney. I love it with a passion. There are limitations to this passion, because I really only love it as an accompaniment to cheese, but when the two are paired, my love knows no bounds. If I could eat nothing for the rest of my life but strong blue cheese and caramelised onion chutney, I would be content. Smelly, and slightly mouldy, and well-preserved, and content.

They were closing up, because it was after six, at least five staff sweeping and dusting and packing away big chunks of cheese. They all said hello to me. None of them said they liked my hair. I asked to be directed to the savoury chutneys, and the tallest one showed me the way. “We arrange them by brand,” he said. “But if you don’t know which brand you like best, try these.” A wicker basket, with a Christmas ribbon, filled with small £2 pots of chutney in all different flavours. He left me to choose, and I chose three: caramelised onion, Spicy English, and Christmas chutney. “Well done”, he said, as I approached the till. And I did feel like I had done some good work, that day.

It is a nice world we live in where you can walk past a specialty chutney shop, and buy three different kinds for £6, and it felt like a nice world as I sat on my couch on a Friday night and tried my three different kinds of chutney with two different types of blue cheese (one from Sainsbury’s, one from Neal’s Yard, after I’d wandered in with with my departing best friend on a cold lunch break, and been taken on a spontaneous tour of the female cheesemakers of England). The onion one was the best, because it always is. The spicy one was good. And the Christmas one went perfectly with my female cheese. At the end, I was all crumbs and bits and perfect hair, licking chutney off my wrist. On the screen, Dakota Johnson ordered a quinoa salad.

House-hunting

I’ve been spending a lot of time in other people’s houses. It’s fake time, borrowed time – time they’re lending me on the understanding that I might take their house off their hands. I’m not seeing the house as they live in it, but as how they’d like me to see myself live in it. Uncluttered surfaces, and shower drains free from hair. Fridges that smell of soap, and gardens empty of a single living thing. There are no spiders in this garden. There are no ants. The birds don’t shit here. Isn’t it strange?

The realtors never know how to work the keys. They have so many keys in their dark blue pockets. I think that if I were a realtor, I’d do a practice run on the door, turning the keys swiftly in the lock, easily opening into the potential new home. You don’t want to make it look difficult. You don’t want to make anything look difficult, otherwise you picture yourself standing on the door mat, clutching groceries and gym kit and a laptop bag, trying to jiggle it open, calling through the keyhole into strange empty rooms while your bladder strains and the bags cut red grooves into the skin of your fingers.

The second bedroom is always a joke. “Buy two bedrooms”, they say, “the resale value is higher”, they say, but the resale doesn’t make much difference if you can’t buy it in the first place, or if you buy a place with a mortgage you can’t afford, or if you can’t let your second bedroom because it’s not really a bedroom, it’s a cupboard, a study at best. You can’t fool someone into moving into your cupboard just because it has a big window and a radiator and nice wallpaper. It’s still a cupboard.

People have a lot of stuff. I’ve been inside 10, 12, 15 houses belonging to strangers in the last 4 weeks, and what I can tell you is that people have become really good at stacking. Cards on top of books on top of framed pictures balanced on shelves. Wine bottles, empty and full, lined up and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in fireplaces that don’t work anymore, because there are whole families living where the chimney used to be. People have boxes standing in the space under tables where legs belong. Stuffed-full suitcases lined up on the top of wardrobes. Knick-knacks at the edges of staircases, every cupboard packed full to bursting. I just want to know what the storage space is like, not what your winter coats feel like, toppling down upon my head. The fake fur one is nice, though. I like that one. But you don’t need 8 half-full bottles of perfume. Or maybe you do. Maybe each scent means a different moment. It’s your house. Or maybe it’s mine.

These people are selling their houses to move their stuff into bigger places, for more stuff. I get how it works. I think about our small bedroom, about my dozens of dusty bottles and my books still packed away in boxes. I think about how our bed opens up to reveal space packed full of coats and boots and cables and cricket bats. We might need some of it. We might need none of it.

I always look at the photos in the house. Some people have boards rammed with pins, haphazard snaps of snow, and streetscapes and people snogging in hats; others have perfectly framed wedding photos, airbrushed and sepia-toned and beautiful. They all look a bit like me and my boyfriend, young-ish, at their best angles, doing interesting things. We all have the same smiling faces on. So it makes sense that we’re trading houses, one for another, adding £30K, £50K, £80K onto the price each time, pushing one another up the property ladder so we can follow slowly behind, with the weight of debt and damp on our shoulders.

They’re never there. I wonder where they are. I’ve never owned a house, so I don’t know what it must be like, putting it on the market, giving up a piece of it right then. Then tidying it up, washing down all the surfaces, so it looks a little bit less like something yours, and more like something that could belong to someone else. And then absenting yourself, putting the keys into the hands of a stranger in a cheap suit with red-rimmed eyes from last night’s drinking; going for a walk, or a roast, or to sit on a friend’s couch while strangers walk through your space, looking closely at your toilet and and your bath and your bed and the position of your plugs.

I get weirdly attached to things. I haven’t thrown out my old laptop because I’ve written too much on it, even though all that writing is elsewhere now. In New York, the handle on my suitcase broke, and I felt it like a real breakage, because I bought it when I moved to Japan and changed my life, and it’s been so many places with me. I still have underwear I bought ten years ago. I’m not sure I’d survive the selling of a house. You can’t pack up your old house and store it in your old house, like my old broken suitcase now lives inside my new, intact one.

I never leave my shoes on in my own house, and I never take them off for flat viewings. Maybe that’s how I’ll know when I find the right one – that compulsion to take off my shoes to keep things clean. Home is where your heart is, and home is where your shoes aren’t on. I have too many pairs of shoes. But – and now I know for certain – so does everyone else.