A trip to the Cotswolds

Last week we left London, by tube and train. We didn’t venture far, just a few hours out of the city into the Cotswolds. Yellow stone and roses, rivers and horses. I have never been romantic about the countryside, but I felt romantic towards the horizons and thick fields of corn and wheat. I walked down roads and barely saw a soul; one woman encountering me around a corner nearly collapsed to the ground in fear. It’s not like we were even far from the action – ten minutes from a Waitrose stocked with three types of burrata and a one-way system that had me walking for full minutes to locate some coriander. But we shook out of London’s sardine-can existence, and I felt less oily. I gesticulated more, and took the locals up on some strange and nice conversations. 

One night we went to a pub and I ate some prawn linguine, where the ratio of fat prawns to spaghetti ribbons was almost one to one, and we were served by three near-identical waitresses with dark tans and long black hair and whole-face visors. They were only on their second night of reopening, and still fighting all their natural instincts, snatching back fingers from paper menus they weren’t supposed to touch as if they’d been burned. 

I looked at my phone less, and opened the fridge more. We cooked long, ornate meals (from a book directly geared towards simple cooking, but there is simple cooking and there is simple cooking, and simple cooking doesn’t call for three different types of chili and a 90 minute yoghurt marinade). We brought eleven bottles of wine for four nights and drank them slowly. We wrote down tasting notes. I read an article that told me to chew my food twenty times before I swallowed it, tried it, gave up. I tasted mint, peas. The garden was full of fruit trees, including one loaded with cooking apples that we turned into a pie, together with sour foraged black berries. We bought local lemon curd, and jam, and clotted cream. I morphed from a boring Bridget Jones into a happy participant in an Enid Blyton novel. 

I got into a long conversation with a butcher from whom I only bought cheese. 

“So where are you from then?”

“New Zealand, but, London.” 

“London, aye? I left there when I was 17. Never went back. What do you do there then?”

“I work in… tech. I help with…content. I manage a team.” 

“Smarter than me! I’m a butcher!” 

Blue cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mint sauce. 

I wore new white jeans and got soaked. I wore shorts and got stung by nettles. I wore jumpers, then peeled off layers in front of the aga. I brought swimsuits and didn’t swim. 

We played games. Kubb, in the slanting garden, hurling blocks of wood at blocks of wood. The card game 500, of which I am a better player than a teacher. Code Names, one of the few boardgames I will play (because I’m good at it, or merely not bad at it.) 

I ran, because I run now. 10k through fields and gates and hills, following arrows etched in the dirt by my faster companions. I startled deer and trudged up the hills, listening to podcasts about books and politics and bodies. I got rained on, and sweated, and watched my heart rate climb. Clad in Lululemon and Nike from head to toe, such a boring Londoner so alone on an unfamiliar landscape. 

I read books: American Wife (re-read), Fleishman is in Trouble, Such a Fun Age, Theatre for Dreamers. I deliberately left my phone in rooms I wasn’t in so I could stop that incessant tic, that compulsive pick. I deleted Twitter. I turned off my Slack and email notifications and let work drift away. I felt disgust at the number of things I had to do to make myself switch off, even for a moment. 

This was the longest time I’ve spent in London in one stretch. It was nice to feel pleasure at the return, even as I sit, now, staring at the same walls and cracks. I already miss seeing the horizon.

The Wind

The leaves on the tree outside the window are blown inside out, upside down. The silvery undersides pushed flat against the branches by the gusts look curled and dying, but this is spring. I love the big trees that line the bottom edge of our garden but I’m fearful as I watch them move; if even one branch came down it would take our whole garden, our lounge and kitchen. The wind has been worse than this before, and I’ve never had these thoughts; normally, I mock our wind-fearing cat as she skids up and down the floorboards, fleeing the invisible roaring threat. 

We walked in the park today and saw my favourite gosling family, now leggy and spindly, tottering through the fence posts, and the wind kicked up face-fulls of dirt and leaves and dust. It is too windy for picnics, but there were still some groups trying, with the corners of their writhing blankets pinned down with bicycles and backpacks. It’s the kind of wind that punches air to the back of your throat, so you have to turn to the side to force it down. The gutters are full of branches and green leaves. The roadsides are littered with items that have nothing to do with the wind: old vacuums and shelving and books and pots, the fruits, I assume, of spring-cleaning being done by people with nothing else to do, and nowhere to donate to. The donation bins by the entrance to the park are always surrounded by overflowing garbage sacks of clothes that get torn over, then damp, then removed. I suspect they go right to the dump, but I understand the impulse to clean. There is nothing else to do, and I am in my house all the time. 

A couple of weeks ago I cleaned out a series of boxes that sit in our room, filled with miscellaneous items: battery packs, pots of glitter, sunglasses, scissors, wigs, business cards, lipsticks, bumbags, belts, toilet bags. At the bottom of one I found something I thought I’d lost forever – a ring that used to belong to my mother, which I wore for nearly 15 years, and which I thought stolen along with the rest of my jewellery in September, on her birthday. I have no idea how it came to be in one of those boxes of bits instead of with the rest of my jewellery, but I cried with the relief of still having it. I threw out a lot, dried mascaras and bits of plastic and old cards, but the boxes never look any less full. In a similar fit of organisation this week I switched out my winter clothes for my summer ones. My wardrobe is more useful now, but there was a weird pain in putting away my glittery tops and silky dresses and all the lovely things I wore to all the places I went in December, January, February. Substituting in my summer clothes felt pointless, since I wear the same combination of leggings and t-shirts nearly every day. 

Yesterday was our neighbour’s birthday, and we bought him port and a fruitcake and drank some socially-distanced wine with him. Getting to know him has been a small joy of lockdown; we lived here for nearly two years before speaking to him at all. He is full of stories of a big life in London publishing, celebrity encounters and business endeavours and pleasures. He has barely left his house in 9 weeks. He cut his own hair, and it looks good. We never run out of things to talk about with him, because he has been a stranger for 73 years, and plenty of things have happened to him, and so talking to him is almost easier than talking to friends and family, with whom a shared history somehow diminishes topics rather than increasing them. 

The wind gets under my skin. It’s been three days of it now. I want to open all the windows and doors and let it funnel through, flush things out, bring something new.

Things that help

  1. Reading books outside my comfort zone, that distract and relocate me. 
  2. Putting on makeup. I have eight different highlighters. If I’m not feeling bright on the inside, I’ll be bright on the outside. 
  3. Keeping things tidy. I get distracted and angry when everything is messy. 
  4. Moderating my obsession with tidiness. Otherwise I come to blows with the only other person in my bubble, and we can’t afford division in the ranks right now. 
  5. Writing a diary like some shit combination of Bridget Jones and Samuel Pepys, the only diarists I can think of right now. “Today I did some gardening.” The fact of keeping a diary is having faith in the fact that one day I will want to read it and marvel, because my present reality will be so frothy with social engagements and physical interaction that whatever happened in 2020 will feel a cold and remote and impossible past. 
  6. Cooking things slowly. I never usually cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes or has more than seven ingredients. This week I made french onion soup from scratch. It tooks 90 minutes to get everything looking brown enough. It was delicious, and it was worth it, even if the kitchen still smells like onions. 
  7. Talking to the cat. She hates me by this stage, this is understood. She sits with her butt towards me just so I know exactly how little a threat she knows me to be. 
  8. Weeding the garden. I am focusing on getting the roots out, not snapping the leaves off at the neck. There’s something nice about using the hook tool, getting into the dirt, navigating the worms. 
  9. Going to bed later. The opposite of accepted advice, but I was going to bed at 8pm, and waking periodically throughout the night. I think it was because my eyes were knackered from the screen, so I thought I was more tired than I was. Now I’m shooting for 10pm, more often hitting 9pm. 
  10. Running. Nothing is helping more than running. Dredging myself from bed at 7:10, hitting the pavement by 7:19, not coming back until I’m sweaty and hungry. There is space, and sky and quiet. Nothing helps more.
  11. Spending too much money on wine. Every bottle is a treat. 
  12. Setting times for calls, and keeping to them. Sometimes I dread Zoom, but I’m always glad I did it. The voices and the faces are my anchors. 

None of the above prevents long periods staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened, contemplating the cosmic ridiculousness of it all. Nothing stops me thinking about alternate realities, about my early thirties disappearing like water into soil. Still, there is always something that distracts me. Today it is a glass of rose and the cheese my sister sent me, and the thought of playing cards online later. There is always something to look forward to.

It’s hard not to feel temporary

It’s hard not to feel temporary. It’s hard to know what real roots feel like: are you deep-rooted, are you embedded, or are you just making it work? We lead transitory, light-touch lives. You are an email, not a letter. You are fast-fashion, fast-food, bullet points, biodegradable, calorie-free, lighter-than-air. You are not made up of much more than binary. You are mostly cloud. You are deletable. 

There are so many words about belonging, and the search for it. I don’t need to add to them; they’ve already been done better, and more permanently. They exist in leather books and on tombstones. The quest for a perfect fit is eternal, and exhausting, because nobody seems ever to know where they fit, except, perhaps, for the people who have never questioned that where they started was the only and best location for them. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket telling me to come home. She looks into the lens with the gaze of a mother. There is no guilt-trip in what she is saying, there is only certainty: come home. Come home before you can’t. 

And thousands are. The digital might be transient but it is also prolific, and omni-present. I am trying to do my job the best I can, better than before, but I am also watching images eddying around my social feeds. This man is eating a pie. This woman is clutching a halved feijoa. This man is wearing a dressing gown under a blue sky and they have all come home. 

It is the most obvious answer that is also the truest: your home is where you go when you are threatened. Your home is where you are safe. So many of my contemporaries, with confident knowledge of the Underground and rental contracts and impressive jobs, are gone, all of it ditched, all of it confidently nothing but collateral when faced with the choice of keeping all of it, and staying, or losing all of it, and going. Those roots, it turns out – the jobs, the new friends, the plans – might have been steadying, but they were never anything other than auxiliary. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket and she is closing the borders. We are millenials, so here is the metaphor: you work in the engine rooms on the Titanic, and the ship is going down, and they are closing the gates. We are lovers of dystopia so here is another: you are the maze runner, and the maze is closing.

The problem with both of these (obviously) is that they signal there is no hope to be had, should you choose to remain where you are. You drown. You get ripped apart by a biologically unfeasible robot spider. But there’s something comforting in testing your roots, and finding them sound. Disastrous endings make for good blockbusters, but rarely leave room for exploration of other options.

Borders that close reopen. Home can be two places for one person. Permanence is more than postcodes. Writing it down – digitally, in the cloud, in the air – makes it real. 

12 Weeks

I just keep buying tins of sweetcorn. I don’t know how to be a practical human being,

My plants are laughing at my attempts to keep us both alive, and this is spring. This is supposed to be the easy part. 

I have a new husband to take care of; he is mostly able to take care of himself, but who will we both blame for the bits that fall apart? I’d blame me,

I’d blame the soft human nature of it all, the dry suffering of lungs reliant on plastic snaked down wet pink tubes to do the act of breathing, as if that isn’t exactly what they’re there for. 

We are the same battery hens we’ve kept on plucking, and eating, and sucking the eggs from. 

 

If Mother Nature has any sense she is drunk right now. Her laughter is all the daffodils  and every piece of cherry blossom that won’t drift down into your cup, as you sit in the park on your jacket and eat olives out of greasy plastic. Think of Te Fiti from Moana if you don’t know who to picture, all thick rock thighs and flower crowns and wrath. 

 

There have always been some of us who are resistant to blackouts, but there is nothing brave about the way you’re pressing on. The Blitz spirit is something that only applies to sugar restrictions, and isn’t something you can say when you go outside and dig your elbow briefly into a stranger. You have always hated the warm press of strangers; the way they sway with the motion of the train carriage is frankly sexual and unnecessary. Just hold the bar tighter, for fuck’s sake. Stop reading your newspaper. Don’t even look at me. 

 

You are a goldfish on a hamster wheel, the hamster drowning in the goldfish bowl. Your lungs don’t work anymore. Or maybe they do, prove it, say it with me: I regret forever the time I laughed over your meal, I regret shaking hands with the stranger, with the devil, with my own mother. I remember every instance of skin. 

 

I have killed the plants that were on the windowsill, forgive me, they were so brown, and so over-watered. We’re cutting up lemons and freezing them, for our 6pm sense-of-normalcy drinks that have started to creep earlier, stronger, whoops, but there are no rules. Boris Johnson’s white knuckles straining against his pink skin are the only things keeping the crowds at bay – they want to break through your new glass windows, like zombies feverish with scent, to touch you. Oh my god, you feel so good. 

 

I have been going to the shop every day to stand in line with people who fear me. I am loaded down with sweetcorn, and toilet paper, and Lindt bars, don’t breathe on me, there is literally nothing I can do about it. Being a human is reduced to faces pixelated on laptop screens, freezing and echoing with the effort of forcing themselves down the wires. 

 

I have killed myself with corn, my roots have come undone, I have forgotten who I am, I have wiped away all recognisable vestiges of myself. I am outside your door hammering at the wood, and you are looking through the peephole at a mad woman. Unfortunately, I only recognise myself when you tell me who I am.

Staying In

I have ordered grass seed and topsoil and fertiliser. I have cleared out the dead: the leaves, the twigs, the plants that didn’t survive the winter. The lawn is snarled with cold wedges of moss and weeds. I pull up the large green-leaved weeds that survive so much better than everything else, they fill a whole organic waste bag on their own. Left to their own devices they would flourish, fill the garden, grow into a delighted bush around Shakespeare’s greening head. There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as weeds, only plants growing in the wrong places, but I still delight in pulling them out. The thing to do is to get them by the throat to pull them free at the root. If you break off the leaves, they’ll be lush again in weeks. It is cold but the skies are blue; they are single-digit mornings, but maybe in a few weeks we will breach late teens. It is the time of year where you start to stop with scarves and hats, and make a few mistakes, and end up late and frozen in a too-thin coat; it is the time of year when I decide I can manage an outdoor swim, and feel that sensation of deadening lungs and a rising chill. It is that time of year. 

Adam has ordered a shed, dumb-bells, mats. It isn’t easy. The whole of Britain, apparently, is retiring inside to become fucking ripped, spending the minutes not on trains and not in pubs lifting and squatting in seclusion. In the meantime, Soho is boarded up against looters and the gyms are empty. 

This is the first weekend of isolation. I’m still going to the local store too much. I’ve forgotten how to plan a meal. I’ve almost forgotten how to cook without a recipe card, and every item organised for me in a brown paper bag. In an ordinary week, we will sometimes struggle to cook all three meals before the box comes again on Sunday. Adam plays football, we both see friends, we eat one dinner in a restaurant on Stroud Green road. Staying for the three nights necessary to cook three dinners is hard on weeks when there are birthdays and bad days and cards with friends. This morning I watched the delivery man put the Hello Fresh in our shed, with his mask on, then ring the doorbell and hurriedly depart. Hello Fresh, no doubt, is probably having the best few weeks since they first came up with the idea that overworked and overly-social millennials might not have the time or imagination to come up with their own meals. Good for them, I’m glad for them. 

I unpacked the bag, recycled the box. There is a lot more in our cupboards than usual. I don’t think it counts as prepping, because it’s still not that much food. We have gone from a household that never eats breakfast or lunch at home, and struggles to manage three home-cooked meals, to the opposite. I am going to save so much money, I think, as I buy another bottle of gin and order 5 more Kindle books. I’m going to be rich, I think, cancelling my airfare to NZ, three Air B’n’B’s, the internal flights. Silver linings everywhere, I repeat, on my hands and knees in the moss, pulling out the roots. 

I’m a good person because I am paying my cleaner, who cannot come because she is sick. I am a good person because I am buying groceries for an elderly neighbour and his wife. I am not a good person because I am writing about the things that make me good, massaging these small details into someone well-equipped for emergencies, who thinks of others before she thinks of herself. I think of myself all the time: how much I miss my far-flung family (in a time where South London feels as distant as the Southern Hemisphere), how my once book-loving brain seems unable to read anything longer than a 180-character panicked tweet, how important running is to me and how likely it is that I might have to stop doing even that soon. House prices, cancelled holidays, postponed weddings, the amount of laundry I’m generating even though I’ve worn the same pair of leggings for six straight days. 

I have never sent so many messages. I have never worn so little make-up. I have never been so obsessed with tins of corn and the expiration date on almond milk. My office closed on Tuesday; the pubs closed on Friday; they shut the Hampstead ponds yesterday; the cherry blossom tree in my yard is nearly fully in bloom. I think of us all as tiny blue dots on a giant map. The journey of my dot on a typical week, back and forth from the office, venturing south to see friends, a well-work route to the wine bar, the Londis, the gym. Now I move back and forth from the lounge to the bedroom, I follow the route of the sun and my long-suffering cat, a trapped insect buzzing up against the windows.

Isolation

The groom is wearing a green velvet blazer and a dried flower buttonhole and pink tie. He is beaming, and the pub behind him is stuffed with beautifully-dressed guests celebrating his marriage. He approaches us with a grin. “Congratulations!” we say, and I move to hug him, pause. “Oh, we’re doing this!” he says, and extends a green velvet elbow. We bump elbows. “Congratulations!” I say, again, hovering in the middle of the moment. My younger colleague surges forward, all well-wishes and wide smile and joy. “Oh, you can’t hug him!” I say. The groom shakes his head ruefully. She looks shocked, horrified. “But.. I have to! One hug!” she says, extending her arms. They bump elbows. 

At the Londis on the corner, everything looks normal. The shelves of toilet paper are fully stocked, and there is hand soap (if not sanitizer) on the shelves. I buy my usual ridiculous assortment of cheese and crackers. I also buy toilet paper because it’s there, and because my social media feeds are filled with the barren shelves of other, nearby supermarkets. I am not buying all I can carry, because I’ve read too much about the affluent stocking up while the hand-to-mouth go without, but I’m still buying it when I don’t strictly need it, because I can’t bring myself to look a toilet paper horse in its four-ply mouth. There are three people in the queue ahead of me, and they are all also buying toilet paper. 

I go to OddBins to buy wine and gin for the wedding. The store is empty. The man behind the till is chatty. “Everyone is crazy!” he says, wrapping the glasses that come free with my gin in tissue paper. “The supermarket was so crowded!” We talk briefly about the wedding. He shrugs. “Your life sounds normal.” 

But it’s not normal for me to sit at my laptop every morning and type the same two words, “Coronavirus UK”, just to see what’s come up overnight. And it’s not normal that my trip to New Zealand, planned for three weeks’ time, is now likely cancelled, as the prime minister I admire very much has imposed a 14 day self-isolation period on anyone entering the country. When I read the news, I try to apply it to myself. Could I fly to NZ, and stay inside for 14 days, and still have a good time? Part of me thinks I’m just slothful enough that it could work, as long as the weather held, and someone could bring me wine, and I could pet the cats. But I think I would still be doing the same regular Googling, the same dwelling on the future. And I would be in New Zealand, but functionally as proximate to the beaches and streets and hills that I love as when I am in London. 

A few weeks ago, a concert I was really looking forward to was cancelled, and I was gutted. Now, everything is cancelled. All major sports. A birthday dinner with my uncle. Every upcoming gig. It’s hard to imagine how any kind of isolation can be enforced in a city so studiedly un-isolated. I am cheek to jowl, elbow to elbow, with strangers every day of the week, on the tube, in elevators, standing in queues, walking down the street. Advice from professionals is to be more than two metres apart, which is risible. Alone in my flat, I can hear my neighbour through the wall. His name is Robin, he knows me only through an annoying number of mis-delivered Amazon packages, but I know the cadence of his walk, and his cough. 

It is humbling to live in a time where planning has become redundant. Plan to have food on hand, plan to be able to work from home, but don’t plan your upcoming birthday. Don’t plan your honeymoon. Planning is for people living in a world where order and certainty abide, and that’s not the world we live in, at least for the time being. 

A documentary yesterday reminded me that this is not the first pandemic I have lived through. SARS broke out in 2003, and I remember it only as a series of images of chickens on the television. SARS died out quicker than experts anticipated, but it was much more frightening than coronavirus, since it could be transmitted in the air. The documentary detailed the story of someone in Hong Kong in an apartment building vomiting into a toilet, and the virus moving through the plumbing into the bathroom of the apartment below, and then out through the windows, and into neighbouring apartment blocks. That’s the stuff of nightmares, the kind of virus you can’t restrict and you can’t trace to source, and still, I’m pretty sure I was only thinking about chickens. I was sixteen. Maybe that’s an excuse. 

Coronavirus, like SARS, is a zootopic virus (see how much I’ve learned!), meaning that it occurred when a virus occurring in an animal was transmitted to a human, which is reassuring in a stupid way: it means it could have happened at any time, for any reason, and isn’t something that we as a species have specifically agented through arrogance, or idiocy. Conversely, the technologies we have developed that support frequent and fast travel mean that while we perhaps can’t be held responsible for the existence of the virus, the spread is certainly down to us. And then, on yet another hand, the prevalence of social media and the degree to which we’re all connected, might save us again. Everyone is informed. Every choice is a deliberate one. There is official advice to follow, and plenty of ways to name and shame those who don’t. 

It’s interesting to relearn our fragility. For everything we know, we are as vulnerable as we were in the time of the Spanish flu. We are humid, lonely beings who only accidentally avoid annihilation. All of my instincts (flock to my loved ones) go against the best advice for survival. Last night I hugged the groom as I said goodbye. Not in any kind of deliberate flaunting of rules or advice, but because he was so unbelievably happy in his perfect green blazer and because I’d had plenty of gin and because our new working from home policy might mean it’s weeks before I see him again. Human contact is instinctive. 

Now, I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table. I can’t see anyone at all, but because it’s London, I can hear sirens, and I can hear Robin running his taps through the wall, perhaps washing his hands for the mandated 20 seconds. London isn’t in lockdown, but it’s hard to feel like going outside is the right choice. I’ve written before about how New Zealand can feel far away. It’s never felt further.

Brexit

I have always been disproportionately proud of my UK passport, as if it meant something important about me, that I had this exclusive secondary ticket to another life that wasn’t afforded to most of my friends. It didn’t particularly occur to me that the passport was representative of choices made by my parents, and by their parents; or that considering myself special by dint of association with a country not my own was really just an expression of the otherness I felt as a teenager who didn’t fit in well. I just liked it. I liked the colour of it, and the way it stood out from the pile of black passports when we took trips away. I liked the possibility of it. 

I’ve lived in London for the last eight years, and they have been hard years for the UK. I’ll never pretend to be any kind of qualified political commentator, but I’ve watched the UK change. There is much more homelessness in London than there was when I arrived, at least in the central locations where I have worked. Conservatism is more entrenched, the likelihood of liberal majority getting further away with every election. 

And then there is Brexit, this looming slow dreadful tidal wave. The degree of cliche that I represent (privileged, a homeowner purely on the back of parental generosity) was never better represented than the way I received the news of how the vote had fallen: muddy, sequinned, wandering blithely home from 4am Glastonbury festivities. I felt shock, and disappointment, and then I felt pure disdain for the voters who had pushed this exclusionary, backwards agenda over the line. I sat around, covered in glitter, with my clever white friends, and celebrated the fact that for the next four days at least, we could resist impending doom in a liberal bubble, sipping gin, eating loaded fries, feeling superior. I felt so certain that we were bastions of good, educated decision-making, standing strong in the face of ignorance and deceit. 

The last three years were glacial, Brexit-wise. It began to feel like a farce, a cosmic Conservative joke on all of us. But even glaciers move, and the worst part of all of it was the inevitability of the way it eventually, painfully got done. I protested; I didn’t doorstop. I donated, but I didn’t lobby. I was the classic hand-wringer, pale-faced and watchful but uncertain. There was no one to stand behind. I have largely been a Labour voter, and I have been a Corbyn supporter, and it felt like the emptiest and most miserable betrayal to have no one to stand behind, or look to. We all knew it was bad; felt in our bones the loss. So why was there no one directing our formless, apathetic grief? 

I was home at 11pm on January 31st. I’ve been sick for days, a lurgy that’s filled all the spaces in my face with mucus and left me with a cough that shakes my chest like a haunted house. I was in bed when I heard the fireworks go off, in my Labour-voting neighbourhood. They felt like flares, not celebrations. 

But at least I’ve had my face pulled free of my London bubble, my Twitter echo chamber. There’s no denying that something is broken, and that we all had a hand in breaking it, when every clip of every Brexit-voter in Parliament Square featured someone a bit short, a bit old, celebrating how this move represented taking back our borders and our courts from some faceless, menacing entity who is, in their minds, responsible for every taste of poverty and every opportunity lost. The problem, I think, is that the menace is far closer. It lies in the north/south divide and the inequality that becomes harder and harder to deny. But it’s easier to blame a stranger than a neighbour. 

No one can put their finger on what they’ve lost, other than the essential otherness that being European gave us. We associate Europe with exciting alien tastes and adventures; sunlight on cobbled streets and dark wines late at night. Europe is warm seas and close growths of greenery; vineyards and mountains that taper off into the sky. To be European is to be someone who closes their mouth around fish caught that day at midnight among friends, whose glassware is thin and brilliant and whose laugh echoes around a courtyard. Europe was sex and warmth and interesting strangers. Europe was the possibility that you might also be sexy and warm and interesting, rather than someone with blisters and unused potential and an overdraft. 

It makes sense that Brexit took place in January, the longest, coldest, saddest month. In February we are self-made castaways on a proud, grey island. And it’s horrible to admit that the venture proving successful would be a terrible outcome. What if, economic certainty, better trade deals, more local industry? What if, lower unemployment rates, better weather, happier people? What if Boris gets to face down world-wide doubters through the lens, and tell them that they were wrong, and he was right? We were, after all, part of Europe pre-1973, pre-EU. There were holidays to Spain then, there were Spanish tomatoes in our Greek salads served on Holloway Road. If it comes to pass, then will we, this lost liberal crew keening for our maroon passports, find it in ourselves to forgive past wrongs, paper over those historical undemocratic machinations, embrace being British, and admit that if an economic partnership was so essential to our sense of self then perhaps there was something flawed about that sense of self? 

New Zealanders are sometimes mocked for being too patriotic. There’s something slightly too easy to parody about our powerful passion for the things we’re good at, our innate certainty that our tenacious geographic isolation makes us unique. Kiwi battlers. Underdogs. Antipodean Davids brandishing fists at a whole world of Goliaths. The opposite has happened in the UK, where it’s been thrown into sharp relief that (at least among the Remainer camp) pride lay in our associations with others, rather than what it means to be British. Left now with the Union Jack, the blue and gold flag no longer flying, the tenets of Britishness have begun to look like a celebration of division. 

Brexit is done. The glacier has melted into the sea. The aftermath has arrived. And I get to face the fact that my passport is no longer so special. Upon arriving in Spain, or France, or Italy, I will join my fellow Kiwis in the Other queue. I’m not different. I’m exactly as Kiwi, or British; interesting or boring; educated or ignorant; engaged or apathetic as I ever was. The change is around me – possibly in who I get to meet, where I get to go, what I get to eat, how much I get to earn – rather than within me. But it’s interesting how much it feels like both.

A year of Alice the cat

Tomorrow is a year since we brought home Alice. When we went to the shelter to view the cats they had we said, strictly, to one another: “We won’t adopt a cat today.” It was a 40 minute walk along cold, grey streets to Wood Green, and we walked past plenty of cats in windows and on bins. “We’re just looking.” They only had two cats at the shelter, and we walked out wanting to adopt both. It was inevitable, really. 

We adopted Alice because she was friendlier and easier, and we had fallen in love. When people learn that we rescued her, they always look slightly disbelieving, as if the fact that she’s pretty makes it impossible that she should have fallen on hard times. Even beautiful people (cats) suffer. Adam brought her home in a cage covered over with a blanket in the back of an Uber, and I left home early to be there when he let her out of the cage. I didn’t want her to imprint on him, which shows how much I know about animals, and how much I need to be loved. 

I remember when we took in a cat when I was a kid in Auckland. Family friends were moving to the US, and so we adopted their beautiful British Blue, Smokey. Upon arriving, he shot immediately under a carved wooden chest, and wouldn’t come out for anything for two days. We fed him by prodding bowls under the chest to join him; he was just a pair of round yellow eyes. Once he grew used to us he was gentle and attentive; calm and spiteless. He was the kind of cat that makes you become the kind of person who only adopts pedigrees, as if breeding guarantees you the kind of cat who will sleep on your chest and wind around your ankles. 

Alice emerged from her cage with confidence. She put her nose in everything; stayed just out of reach of hands. She prowled along the back of the couch and the windowsill, a tiny fluffy homeowner immediately. It took her a couple of days to get used to the neighbours coming in and out of the front door and stomping up the stairs. For a while, she bolted under the bed when visitors arrived. But within weeks she was fully asserted in her position in the hierarchy: comfortably below Adam, and extremely interested in contesting me for position next in the hierarchy. She does this by biting my feet. She regards me with wide eyes and ears back. She looks at me like a predator. I throw cushions at her and wear my scratches with honour. 

My sister has a deep and loving relationship with our family cats, Fanny and Katie, that I never shared to the same degree, largely because I left home earlier. Attachment to pets isn’t strange territory. But I still get surprised by how pleasing it is to see Alice’s small nose appear around the door when I get home from work. Having a cat in the house means I never have to return to an empty flat. She greets me, then sprints from me, rolls abundantly on the rug to show me exactly how long and how fluffy she has become in my absence. 

It was never really a question that I would become a crazy cat lady. It’s a trope I’m happy to welcome into my long suite of character traits, which includes early bird, bookworm, perfectionist, FOMO-sufferer, hair obsessive, among others. 

When you adopt a cat, you don’t learn their birthday. The internet would have me call January 31st Alice’s Got Ya Day. Either way, she’ll be getting presents.

Our Christmas tree

We have such a silly little Christmas tree and I love it so much. It’s spindly and uneven, and pressed up against the radiator, because our flat is small, and does not readily accommodate trees. We bought it from the park around the corner, where a cheerful man who clearly cared a lot about Christmas trees took us to the “imperfect” pile, and told us that this one was “nearly perfect”, and that he didn’t know why it was in this pile, and so we paid for it and took it home. I refused to let them use the plastic machine to wrap up the tree, and Adam walked the 6 minutes home with needles in his ears and face, while I apologised, but didn’t carry it. 

We’d never had Christmas with our cat before, and given her tendency to trot along radiators and topple chairs, we assumed a tree would never last. So we stuck it in a stand, draped it in lights, hung it with three tentative baubles and waited. It’s January last now, and she’s not done anything more aggressive than drink from the stand, and we’ve not bothered with any more baubles. Our tree is nude and spare. Perhaps next year it will be more gaudy or maybe we’ll continue to treat it like one of our many houseplants. 

I am sad about the end of Christmas, because it made our neighbourhood feel warm again. Each evening, walking home, I’d see more windows lit with trees and lights and tinsel, even as I newly observe the strong locks on those windows, and the alarms at the edges of the panes. The more beautiful the decoration, the more pronounced the security. You have to protect what you love. 

Soon – hours, not days – it will be January. I will become vegan for a period of time. Last year, my veganism trickled over into February before stilton saw its collapse, and I’d like to try for that again. I read a blog recently about someone who decided to stop drinking, and was only able to do it by not setting herself deadlines: by simply stopping, and seeing when she started again. I have always been a deadlines driven person. I need to be able to see the end before I can even contemplate crossing the start. It has worked for me, in terms of achieving things, like months dry of booze, or races run, but perhaps it’s just testament to the fact that I’m still really 14 years old, sitting in the front seat of English class, desperate to impress. 

Yesterday I booked flights for New Zealand for a very old friend’s wedding, and so that feels like a deadline too – in four months time, I will see sunshine, I will see family and old friends, I will celebrate love, I will take a break. Deadlines and having something to look forward to are ultimately the same thing; an end to difficulty and the promise of reward. 

I don’t even know how you are supposed to get rid of a Christmas tree in this country. In one flat, we had a fake tree, that we neglected to take down for several years. Other flats have been too small to spare even a corner; and other Christmases I have spent in New Zealand under pohutukawa blossom. I know how people in this country resort to getting rid of Christmas trees, because I’ve seen them, stripped and abandoned on street corners, a sad and decidedly unfestive pine graveyard. It feels like a very ignominious way to get rid of our under-decorated signpost to the season.  

I’m going into 2020 with resolutions, some big and some small. I’m usually pretty good at achieving them. It’s the deadlines thing. It doesn’t matter who imposes them, as long as they are imposed. I’ll put them here for posterity:

  1. Submit my book to 3 agents. It’s written and rewritten, and rewritten again. The query letter is done. It’s time to cast it off. 
  2. Run a 10k in under an hour. Last year, I resolved to run 3 10K races, with no determination on time. I ran the last one in 1 hour, 1 minute and 1 second. 
  3. Do one piece of home improvement. There are so many things we could do with our little chunk of London. Paint. Bash down the useless brick barbeque. We’ve lived here for 18 months and it can’t count as new any more. Time to get handy. 

There are always other ones, of course. I want to read over 50 books, I’d like to run at least 4 races. It might be time to delete Twitter off my phone. But they can go on a secondary list.

WhatsApp Image 2019-12-31 at 11.16.16