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.

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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. 

30

By the time the newest royal baby is old enough to legally drink, I’ll be approaching 50. This is what my latest birthday means to me: perspective. Not so long ago, I was appalled to find that I empathised more with Lorelai than with Rory. Now I think Emily probably had it right. Death must be soon. 

I don’t care very much about 30, academically. I’m not married, and I don’t own a house, and I don’t mind very much about those things. I want them one day, but that I won’t have them on my birthday, milestones to check off on my fingers, I don’t care very much about that. Of course, you don’t write “I don’t care” three times in a single paragraph without giving away the truth. I care about everything, including Madeline McCann and the fact that they don’t make Vinegar Blast Munchos anymore, and my parents’ separation. I never stop caring. It’s part of my charm. 

I used to be much more strident about milestones but in the opposite way. At 15 I was vocally, vehemently, against the idea of having children. I didn’t want to be a mother, not because I didn’t think I’d be good at it (I thought I was good at everything, including waterpolo, even though I nearly drowned every time I played) but because it seemed the antithesis of everything I wanted to be: thin, beautiful, rich and, ideally, a widely lauded author. I also, up until far too late, strongly believed I would one day develop magical powers, and would indulge in fantasies about thwarting robberies and saving the lives of the teachers I liked best. I let some of them die.

I’m Facebook friends with loads of people I went to high school and university with. I recognise fewer and fewer of them as I scroll through, sometimes because they’ve changed their hair, and sometimes because they’ve changed their names. I care about some of them, but not most of them. If I had magical powers, and witnessed them in mortal peril, I would probably try to save them. If I could move things with my mind, I’d stop the bus or the knife, conceivably. But I’m not keeping watch. 

I don’t really know what they see when they scroll past me. In a perfect world, they’d seen an enviable life, with good hair and expendable income and expensive travel. They’d see me surrounded by glamorous international friends. They’d see me succeeding. That’s what I curate my feed to represent, after all, so if that’s not what they’re seeing then what? Someone far away from some of her friends, and most of her family. Someone who’s not quite where she could have been (Where are the bylines? The books?). Dragged her heels, settled, revised her own expectations for herself, and then again, and then again.

People are constantly posting lists of things they learned by 30. Usually 30 things, as if there’s a designation of one important learning per calendar year. What if you lock down something essential on January 1st? Do you have to refuse to learn anything else for another 364 days? And what if that becomes a habit?

I think, in all honesty, I haven’t learned a single thing. Or, to put it another way – I haven’t learned anything I couldn’t potentially unlearn. I’m constantly revising, myself and my life, and my expectations. There are plenty of things I’ve learned that I would have considered certainties, that I now question, or completely rebuke. There are no hard truths that you learn as your hair gets grey and your skin softens that you didn’t likely already know at 12, covered in freckles, with a sunburnt nose.

Wear sunscreen. Be nice to people. Save money if you can. Be stingy with trust. Be generous with love. Wear shoes that fucking fit.

I’ll probably be a mother, and might even be a good one. 15 year old Scarlett, with streaks in her hair and orange foundation on her face, and all kinds of doubts in her brain, for all her many wisdoms, would have laughed at that. 15 years on, though, I still trust most of her judgments. Eat vegetables. Be wary of boys. Brush your teeth. Let your blisters heal. Read all the books, then read them again.

I haven’t developed any magical powers yet, but there’s a certain kind of magic in that, too. They might be just around the corner. They might be brewing, yet, in the tips of my fingers. 

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.