The tailor

I battled with myself as a teenager. I painted over myself with broad strokes, to see how much I could alter what I saw in the mirror, but I still could only ever look like myself. I fantasised about long thick hair and long thin legs, and chose to believe that I could have those things if I tried hard enough, because the reality (stuck this way, forever) was too much. My levels of self consciousness made me sour and mean. I thought I was witty, but I was cruel. I tried out stolen catchphrases, and developed strange mannerisms. You can’t make people like you if you can’t like yourself, or at least I couldn’t. There must be some people out there who manage it, projecting popularity then going back to mirror to rail at the glass.

There is a part of me that will always want a nose job. The very fact of it as a possibility is so beguiling to me, turning the worst parts of yourself over to a professional and asking that they professionally, for money, gouge and shape you. I would have done it with my own fingernails as a teenager, if I’d thought it would work.

Approaching a wedding is strange. Today I stood at the mirror in a tailor in a princess skirt and a white t-shirt with yellow armpits, looking at my haphazard bun and the rings under my eyes. The tailor, a short woman with thick black hair and a Laura Ashley kneeler painstakingly pinned the layers up, the waist in. I bought the skirt custom from Etsy and they sent it over too long and too large and the alterations are substantial. The skirt is substantial too, layers and layers of draped tulle. I am strange staring out of its triangular mass. You see a lot of dresses this elaborate and large and heavy on red carpets, but it doesn’t prepare you for wearing one. I am excessive and inelegant. I don’t know where I start and end.  

I do a lot better these days. I exercise for health and strength and to run a little bit further each weekend. I wear what I like, not necessarily what suits me. I do not have conversations about my weight or size with anyone and I walk away from conversations about diets and weight-loss. Weddings open you up to this sort of thing in a way I knew to anticipate from books and movies but didn’t expect to be quite so relentless. The tailor doesn’t say anything, though, and neither does the small child in red boots and a dinosaur raincoat, who takes a handful of tulle and stares delightedly at me in the mirror.

It takes a while to lift and pin me and in the meantime a few other customers come in. A girl about my age, who talks a lot, has recently cleared her wardrobe and donated a lot to charity, but found two dresses she couldn’t bear to throw away. They are too small, just by a little, and so she has come to the tailor to see whether she can let out a seam, move a zip, restructure a back. One of the dresses she bought from a charity store for £20, but she decides to pay £80 for the tailor to make it fit her again. “I know it’s silly,” she says. “But I love it.” It is a blue and red summer dress, and the tailor shakes her head. “It’s never silly if you love it.”

Another woman, early 20’s, comes in with a long pale grey winter coat that has split about three centimeters down the middle of the back, a strange spinal tear like a knife wound. She is going on holiday tomorrow and needs the tear fixed by today. The tailor tells her how busy they are, how many fitting appointments she has (I am still standing there in my enormous skirt, half-pinned and silent, a bit hungover, sweating slightly between my thighs, and the girl apologises to me twice) then says she can do it, but that it is a complicated job. “They can’t do it,” she says, waving to the two other tailors in the room who are clearly there to do the hems and the tucks, but not the critical stuff. “I have to unpick here, pull the fabric out here. It has to be done by hand to be invisible.” She quotes £35 to the coat owner, who looks visibly unhappy (it is a nice coat, but probably a Zara coat, a £100 coat) but has no option and pays, and leaves.

I don’t think this is an ordinary tailor. It is in a corner space on Fonthill Road in Finsbury Park, and has been there for 22 years. It is a small shop with one changing area. There are Persian carpets on the floor, and fresh flowers everywhere. It is part tailor and part museum. The walls are covered in old photographs and there are whole tables taken up with old sewing machines, and bottles, and framed photographs, dummies draped with beads and lace. I think Munever (she has 170 reviews on Google and many of them mention her by name, though they all spell it Minerva) could hire at least one more stitcher in the space if she gave up on the decorations, but I can tell that she would never do that. The mirror I am looking into is hung about with cards, many showing a happy married couple, emblazoned with thank you messages that run across both sides of the cards. “The dress was perfect.” “You made my day perfect.”

I take off the pinned skirt carefully, and put my jeans back on. Minerva tells me how much the alterations will cost, and the figure makes me blink. She is unapologetic. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You will be beautiful.”

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Cherry blossom

Why do petals make me like this? I want to lick every candy floss tree I see, I want to sit serene with pink and white wisps in my hair and grin. I walk down the uneven pavements and a gust brings me a petal shower and I could weep with twee glee over it, I could be the woman in the movie extending her arms and twirling in a circle. I am smiling, I am grinning, I am laughing at trees as I walk past them, like their limbs are extended to me.

Our garden is all petals. I swept it yesterday, crouched down low to tug up weeds with my fingers. I am dirty and bent double, I have some kind of weed adhered up and down my leggings like glue. I should be mad that my clean-swept pavement is now candy-coated, because though they are pretty they still rot, they will be brown and trodden in two hours time, but I feel like I am in an Enid Blyton novel.

I woke up this morning to parted curtains, and thought, with a glug of dread in my gut, that it was snow, because I am an idiot. It was 19 degrees yesterday, warm enough to sit benign outside in a singlet with ice in my drink and squint against the sun, and yet I still have the fear of winter inside me, and the flecks of white at the window made me certain it had turned back around. But it was petals, the opposite indicator of snow, the harbinger of summer sun and green leaves.

You do not get these stormy sweeps of flowers in semi-tropical zones, and I have not grown up with seasons. There is no clockwork turn of green leaves to red leaves to bare branches to whole streets frocked up with flowers in countries where everything is green and warm and wet pretty much always. This not a thing to complain about, and I am not mad at my lack of familiarity with snow, or the fact that I was 19 before I really owned a coat, but London is a place that will show you that things written in books are real. Seasons are a thing that divide your year into real chunks, rather than the sort-of-a-rainy-summer and then three-really-rainy-cold-weeks that makes up a year in Auckland.

There is pink everywhere. It is obscene, like my entire universe is a gender reveal party (the world is a girl, I knew it). I cannot take a photo without an arm of blossomed branch extending into the corner. This is spring as it is written about: grey branches suddenly florid with bloom, and the bees are back. I can smell the life in it. The world is a caterpillar turned butterfly.

It will last for two weeks at the very most; two weeks or one windy day which will turn every pavement pastel and leave the trees bare-limbed again, because it takes the leaves a little more time to emerge. I do not know who planted these trees along every street in London, but I would read an entire book about the decision-making process that went into planting these thin, uninteresting trees that suddenly transform a polluted city. There is something wonderful about how extremely brief and silly they are. They make everyone behave silly. Here I am, sat supine in my chilly garden with a jar of gin, smiling up at my ceiling of petals, willing one to drift into my drink.

In Japan they worship this season with something approaching mania, with entire weather reports devoted to documenting the path of blossom up the islands from the humid south to the freezing north. They celebrate sakura like a religion, and when I lived there I took part by picnicking beneath the blossom, even though in Hokkaido the trees would bloom when it was still cold enough that there were heaps of slush and snow still on the ground, but that is what plastic-lined picnic blankets are designed for. I understood it and I didn’t, because I was new to it, this seasonal shift, and I couldn’t identify, in the same way they seemed to be able to, the new sniff of life that came forth with the tiny pink flowers. There is no evergreen in Japan, there is only a cycle of death and life that gets quicker with every year.

I think I get it now, and it might be because it’s less obvious in London. The infection is quiet, as no one quite knows why they are smiling more, or insisting on sitting outside, or walking a bit more slowly. No one tracks the blossoms, they simply arrive, more startlingly pink every year, in their contrast against the grey footpaths.

In Japan, picnicking under cherry blossoms is called hanami, and it is considered good luck if a petal falls in your drink. Also in Japan, at least a few people die every year from choking on petals that have fallen in their fourth or fifth drink. I will try to avoid this, drunk on gin and the scent in the air, but there are worse ways to go.

I don’t know where to put all this dread

I don’t know where to put all this dread. I don’t have any places left to store it. It is in piles under my bed, and rotting in the fridge, it is part of the ivy bringing down the walls in the garden.

The world is ending and I don’t know where we go when it ends. To hell in a handbasket, or down to the bottom of the sea where they keep Atlantis and the merpeople and all the bikes that were ever thrown into the canal. The world is ending, but despite all the cracks, we keeping on walking to work along the same routes and buying olives with lemon. I am think about my future, as if it is a granted, written thing. I am worrying about the rot in the shed, and how you recycle an old suitcase, and the guest list for my wedding.

There is something to be said for very very small gestures, like a cat sitting next to the milk-bottles like it’s posing for a postcard or the way we dance from side to side to get out of each other’s way on the footpaths. In the window of Crisis, they arrange the donated clothes each week, thematically. Rainbow for pride, florals for spring. And all the while the damp mattresses and broken tents and protruding limbs continue to crop up in the underpass in Finsbury Park, more each day, stinking of alcohol and damp and petrol and spilled all over with donated food, and I’m still buying the Big Issue each week, with bigger bills each time, but each new seller I walk past looks at me with eyes that know I am not trying enough, and I know I am not trying enough.

Each day there are more abandoned things on the pavements. It is laziness or generosity when a chest of drawers with only one knob missing is left out on the footpath for one day, a week, sodden in the rain and then hung about with trash, a banana peel in the bottom drawer, a half-empty cider can on top? It was, to begin with, something free and now it is rubbish. Now it is someone else’s responsibility, but it isn’t mine, and I won’t accept it.

I will only leave five star reviews on Google, which means I only leave reviews for things I love. I love the prawns in the neighbourhood bistro, and the sandwiches in the shop down the road, and I love that pub that plays sport, but is friendly to babies, and also has those big green leather Chesterfield armchairs that you could sink into for an entire afternoon. Leaving only five star reviews cheapens the system, perhaps, renders it void, but then instead you could look at it this way: I leave five star reviews for everything I love, and zero star reviews for everything else. There is no inbetween, there never has been. I am not interested in feeling slightly interested, a bit piqued by something. Passion will set you apart.

On all the lamp-posts, and through our mailbox this morning, posters for missing cats and kittens. Finsbury Park teems with felines, so I don’t know where they’re going that they’ve suddenly become lost, lurking in the tents in the underpass or clinging to the trees, or burrowing underground. I cannot look at the photocopied leaflet with the round, child-like handwriting telling me that their kitten is lost, that they opened the window for air for only a moment, that she vanished into that very same air.

There are daffodils everywhere. Each year they surprise me, bright sprigs amongst the mud. They are such a strange shape when you look at them closely, not quite like anything else, and i have never seen anything so yellow against all that concrete and tarmac and brick. There is no point in putting daffodils in vases. They are too symmetrical and perfect to make sense that way. The only way to enjoy them is to be surprised by them.

And isn’t it hot today? Isn’t it warm, unseasonable, those brimming blue skies laden with something that can only be danger, even if all it brings every single receptor in your sad skin and brain is pleasure. You are, just quietly, delighting in the damnation of all of it, because it is so warm and the skies are blue and you’ve put your boots back in the cupboard because there aren’t any puddles anymore. We’ve opened the window, and the kitten has escaped.

Covent Garden

I like those first moments in the morning that are only mine, when I emerge from the gullet of the Covent Garden lifts onto the pavement. It is only empty by comparison, because there are plenty of us, thronging through the gates. There are people dressed in matched black and blue tracksuits trying to give me a leaflet for a gym membership, and others still horizontal on collapsed cardboard boxes with paper cups full of coins stood in front. Still others hose the payments, or bend double to unlock doors to stores that will later be full of shoppers. By most standards I am surrounded, but in these morning minutes, there is no one who wants to speak to me, and that is the difference.

Covent Garden in the morning is a gift-wrapped box, and each time I look at it I feel a it little bit more deeply. It is an old place, from the uneven cobblestones to the rising arches of the market and maybe that is why the buskers give me pause; painted silver and gold and twisting strangely on their hidden gravity-defiant stands, they might be unfamiliar ghosts, and not the clowns they seem. Covent Garden is a gaudy graveyard, stood around with glass boxes of lipstick and chocolate and ornaments.

I am in the minority of most of the transitory visitors to Covent Garden in that my workplaces have allowed me to be semi-permanent here. I have moved house plenty, but remained here for all but 5 weeks of my seven years spent working in London. Most people work in the city, or at least up in Soho, or Oxford Circus, where there is some population of big buildings, but I have always been in Covent Garden with the tourists. My face is in the background of a great many snaps, shared with family back home. I am that Londoner, impatiently walking against the tide and at my own pace. I do not have time for the metallic buskers.

Last week, I arrived at work to find a shit collected in a napkin and smushed against the glass walls of my office building. I described it on social media as a human shit, and someone asked me how I knew, and that was a fair question. I suppose there was something in the thickness, or the consistency, or maybe it was merely because it was in a napkin, suggestive of toilet paper. It stayed there all day, stuck to the glass immediately to the left of the spinning doors, so that wafts of shit moved inside the building with each rotation, from 8am until 6:30pm when I departed, only by the end of the day it had slid slightly down the glass, leaving a smudged trail. I suppose the desk staff didn’t see it as their responsibility to remove fecal matter from the panes, but I would have thought it worse to watch its slow progression down the glass for 10 hours. After two glasses of wine, walking past later, at 8pm, the shit was gone, with only a slight smear to show where it had once stuck. I don’t know what moves a person to pick up a shit in a napkin, let alone to stick it to an office window.

8am in Covent Garden recently has been very clear and blue and cool. The spring (the sky is falling) sky renders the stone of the market warmer, like you could lay your palms against it and feel a heartbeat. It has been a market in some form or another since 1652, longer back that I can bend my mind around, but the stones under foot help: rounded and smooth under hundreds of years of tread.

8am in Covent Garden is exactly the right kind of lonely. The tourists are still in their AirB&Bs, or safe underground clutching their suitcases with aeroplane eyes, and there is little chance of bumping into a colleague. Most of the stores are still shut and those who share the footpaths with me keep their eyes on the cobbles. Walking down Long Acre, I can see through to Leicester Square, onward to Piccadilly Circus. Inside the next 60 minutes, the city wakes up and starts to thrum with the familiar voices and lights and shouts and cars, but for those minutes I can make it mine. Sometimes I move too quickly through. I have walked the same route so many times, I can sleep through it. But sometimes the light is right, and I have slept enough, and I am awake to it: the age and beauty of it, the strange stacked juxtaposition of old stones and glass window displays of sharp new shoes, and I can appreciate the sun-warmed stone against that same blue sky.

A New Zealand wedding

In June I get married, but I have not been to very many weddings. I have never been a bridesmaid. Partially, this is because of my absence or the elopement of others; mostly it is because not very many of my good friends are married. We are growing up slowly, or, rather, doing things differently. Our milestones look different, and are further apart. But I am glad for marriages, and for flagrant, unabashed celebrations of unions. Marriage is just a piece of paper, but so is a poem, a promise, a contract, a treaty. I will never not be glad for two people, standing in front of loved ones, making promises to each other.

This week, I travelled a very long way to go to a wedding. If you were going to plan the perfect New Zealand wedding, it is this one. It takes place on a slanted green lawn (mown, at the behest of one of the grooms, in perfect straight lines) beneath an enormous green tree hung all over with paper lanterns. The pohutukawa is in bloom and the blue sky is bigger and bluer than it has been before. We cluster in the small patches of shade on the family property.

The guests are people with history. I talk to friends I haven’t seen for a decade, people whose sexual history and drunken antics I recall at the same time as hoping they have forgotten mine. Everyone is more beautiful than they used to be. We grew up crooked and not-quite-cool. We bought our clothes in surf shops and our make-up from a selection of five shades in a chemist. We had awkward haircuts and cheaply striped highlights. We had posters of All Blacks in underwear on our walls and drank Smirnoff from the bottle and ate dinner at 5pm. We text each other under 120 character restrictions, for 20 cents a pop and took our lecture notes on pads of paper. We are older now, and nicer. We tread around the edges of lives we no longer share. I look at pictures of babies and talk about babysitters. Where before I knew the details, now I know only the outlines.

I am an outsider, here. But I don’t feel like it as I watch two of my favourite people take hands and pledge love with an honesty and gratitude that pulses with life. I have left my sarcasm and skepticism at the door, and I hope never to let it back in as they gaze into each other’s eyes without blinking. Wide-eyed, the grooms survey a crowd of people who watched them wander, then find each other.

I know both grooms, but I know one particularly well. He is a perfectionist, and a planner. He is a fan of fine fabrics and matched textures. He likes to be certain. His is a wedding planned with precision, each minute allocated, with a timesheet that spans two pages. He is incremental and studied and certain, and I remember very well his certainty when he met his partner-to-be. I remember, too, that he feared his feelings, which were not careful or predictable, but instead fervid and frightening, and overflowing. He has nothing to be afraid of anymore.

I was frightened when he asked me to write a poem to be read at his wedding, especially when I learned that he didn’t want to hear it first. It was the only part of the ceremony he left beyond his control, and I was very aware of the responsibility of that. I played with the words for months before I wrote them, all in a burst, having woken up at midnight with everything neatly written in my unconsciousness.

As I read it, they watched me, taking in each word. It wasn’t easy to keep tremor from my voice (I am a nervous reader at the best of times) as their eyes welled up. In the end I forgot the crowd and only watched them, and I forgot to be nervous.

After the ceremony there were drinks, and then food and speeches, and I sat next to my fiance and across from a very old and extremely beloved friend, with my sister close by, and felt very very lucky. I am grateful for my life, but often sorry for things I have left behind. This week, I was reminded that geographical distance doesn’t need to mean anything; that true friends remain true; and that prolonged absence only means longer and better stories to tell upon reunion. Shared history is everything, and even your changes are shared. And every reunion is another strand to your history. This one is seedy motels and ginger crunch and blue views from green peaks, and the next one will be different, and the same. 

New Zealanders love a joke, and there were plenty of those at this wedding, but running through everything, from the anecdotes, to the cake the groom baked, was a thread of genuine unceremonial love. My wedding will look very different from this one, in nearly all respects, but I hope to draw that same thread with me across hemispheres, and pull it through my own vows, and my own relationship.

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For Rupert and Matt, on love

I want to spend a day behind your eyes, to see the world the way you do.

A piece of driftwood cast up on a black sand beach isn’t perfect by any reach of the imagination but in my imagination, we are sitting on it, our knuckles knots and bolts. There are boulders that rolled out of the earth whole and perfect as pearls, and then split upon arrival for no reason at all, other than the shock of arrival.

I am glad they don’t have a recording of the first time I saw you, standing tall across the room with your smile like a neon beam, because no one needs to see the moment I first understood all the fuss about Moby Dick.

The only secret I keep from you is that I like it when you get things wrong. I like it when your fingers slide off the keys and create discord, a new chord. I like reassuring you, and the way you look up. I always want to make you feel better.

People make a lot of fuss about fixing broken things, clay remade with gold, but perhaps we’re better staying as we are. Our time-rough edges have their own harmony.

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There is true love and then there is us: I would not have taken the apothecary’s poison, but rather stayed alive for 400 years, drawing pictures of you, the nose, and the eyes. I would need at least 400 years to get them right. I would draw caricatures on the street for money and each one would look like you. Dying with you would be a waste of all the things I could tell the world about you, because no one else gets to see your fingers slipping off the keys.

There are many worlds in which we did not meet. The driftwood floats on a rising tide, and there are whole perfect boulders still swallowed in the earth. The lovers live, the whale dies.

There are a thousand worlds in which we did not meet, and so, found together in this one, I will not risk leaving our sea-wrecked Oxford bench. I’m not afraid of time, and I close my eyes with you in them.

 

The bach

There is more light here than I remember, or maybe I have new, dark, London eyes. It glances off white sand and wave tops as off a mirror, crashes back at me in shades of silver, and more silver. I can’t go outside without sunglasses, and even then I squint through my cheap frames. Everything is in sharp relief and yet I can’t look at anything directly, except the shadows in the short grass that pricks my soft heels.

I am too soft for the bright light and the hot tar and the blades of grass. I shower and swim, but I’m not clean, coated all over in a thick smear of sunscreen, with sand under my nails and between my toes and drifting from my hair. Makeup sits oddly on my skin and in my pores, too obviously fake in the sunlight. My hair smells like barbecues.

I will not come back to the bach again. There are hundreds of white shells stacked beautifully between the bricks, and bright red flowers that bloom against the old wood of the garage, then close in the evening, and bloom again. There is a cold concrete floor, and two oddly placed sinks, and collages of photographs that show me growing up. The graffiti done by my little sister and her friends (slashes of silver and red and orange, science jokes, their own names again and again) will not survive the sale of this space. The area is gentrifying, baches built upon, and busted down, and rebuilt as architecturally elegant squares of glass and metal, primary homes rather than repurposed garages, and what was once a sleep-out will be a part of the bigger footprint of a more beautiful home.

This is not a place I grew up in – I was already grown, aged 20, or near enough, when it became ours. But it is under my skin in a way none of the earlier rented spaces are, and leaving it for the last time is a loss I feel. I want to remember the thin sliding doors and the badly-positioned light switches and the very small kettle; the sound of the water pump when the taps are turned, and the heavy footsteps of anyone up the groaning stairs. I will remember the umbrella on the deck lifted clean away by gusts of wind, and the wooden-slatted lounger bought by my uncle. I cannot claim ownership of the deep green armchairs or the bright red formica table but I want to take the memory of them away with me back to London, where the same worn pieces of furniture would fetch hundreds of pounds in shops in Crouch End.

Outside, by the barbecue and the huge wooden table, is a photograph of me and my sisters, taken not long after the bach was purchased, if the colour of my hair is anything to go by (striped brown, red and gold until 19, black until 21, red until 29, blonde for now, if you’re interested). We are lying in the dunes with shells over our eyes, one in a band t-shirt, one in a simple black top, one in a black dress overlaid with a flowered waistcoat and a long necklace (I have always been overdressed). We look serene and silly, but I remember the day: the wind, and the time it took to source matched pairs of shells, and how difficult it was to balance the shells without clenching our eyebrows tight. I remember the sand in my ears and how many photos it took to get the right one.

This is the only place in the world where I switch off. There is no WIFI and no television and my data costs are extortionate, though even as I embrace the solitude I hotspot my phone periodically, to remind myself of the other worlds, still in existence, far away. And I hold onto my phone; I take photo after photo of the flowers and the barbecue and the grass and my family. I can’t take enough. We are a well-documented family, better than any other I know. The photo collages on the wall of the bach will hang somewhere else when I return, a new wall on a new site, in a house I have no memories of, but I know there will be flashes of the familiar: a poster, an armchair, my own four-year-old face made yellow by three decades of sun.

I always fight on the way to airports

I always fight on the way to airports. I do this because they make me question myself. I am early – very early – for everything. Not early in a punctual, sensible way, but early in a painful, walk-around-the-block-one-more-time, how-long-can-I-stand-in-the-cold-on-Twitter, my-friend’s-face-drops-when-she-opens-the-door-to-me early. I am chronically, in-my-bones, checking-my-phone early. But I am never early enough for an airport. The airport demands that I be there three hours before my flight, which my brain interprets as four hours before my flight, which I try to adjust by saying out loud “two hours before our flight will be fine!”, which my boyfriend listens to, and plans for, and which I never really intend, and so we fight, when I am sat on the bed with my coat buttoned up and the tickets in my hand, and the journey map lit on my phone, and he is still wondering where his suitcase is.

I am going home. 9 hours to Chicago, a 4 hour layover, a brutal 16 hours to Auckland, and I will be home on the 30th of December, squeaking in under the closing gate of 2018. I don’t know Auckland airport well at all, all I know is the baggage carousel through bleary eyes, and the aggressive signs about fruit which make me question everything even though I pretty much never eat fruit, and the smell of my mother’s perfume (yes, you’re in the blog again). There is the drive back to Devonport, through the city and over the Harbour Bridge, during which I notice everything unfamiliar (advertisements, shopfronts, faces) and everything familiar (the architecture, the colour of the water, the Devonport ferry). I am 7, and 15, and 21 again, a stranger even to myself in a city I know less well each time I come back. My freckles emerge. My hair changes colour. My accent comes back. I wear less makeup, walk more, sleep more.

The longer I stay in London, the less well I know Auckland, and the more beloved it is to me. Places are people, but if that’s true then why am I here for the thick roots of the tree by the library and the tunnels in the volcano by the sea and the mangroves and the graveyard. They are filled with the ghosts of people who live still, live here, even, but walk past me without turning a head. The cats remember me though.

Christmas is a solid block of time, with no hours or evenings to differentiate it. Everything is closer and warmer and it is a surprise to pull back the curtains to a different sky. The lawn is frosted over and the inflatable snowman on the roof of the house next door has collapsed into himself overnight. I wake up, shower, eat, then return to bed because I don’t know horizontal from vertical and I have lost all sense of what I should be doing. I have cancelled all my meetings. I have read 4 books in 4 days, and barely spoken.

During the 3 weeks I will spend in New Zealand, London will stand still. I do not know what London is like without me in it, so I can only assume it ceases to exist. The pink clouds over Finsbury Park are frozen in the sky and the person who smashed in the windows of three cars in our street last week, and stole a half-eaten packet of prawn crisps from our irate upstairs neighbour, stays home. I leave a version of myself in my house. She thinks about mortgage payments and promotions. She is concerned for the pansies in her planter. She has a wedding to organise. She is stretched out on the bed behind drawn curtains, wrapped in sheets that could be cleaner, with a hot water bottle at her feet. She is hibernating.

The New Zealand version of her, on the other side of the world, will be wide awake. She has freckles on her nose and sunscreen rubbed into every inch of her shiny body. She is eager to greet the sun. She climbs volcanos and coos at babies and drinks flat whites on the pavement. She wears activewear, not pleather. She is spending time with friends who know a dated version of her, and her personality, and she suspects they might know the better version. Newer is not always better, unless you are an iPhone or a potato, or a moon. She attends the weddings of friends she loves and dunks her head in the surf without fear of damaging her hair. She is saltier, well-seasoned. She doesn’t check her phone. She wanders in, smiles, sets down a cold bottle of wine. She doesn’t apologise for being late. She doesn’t really exist.

Cats and spiders

Every morning for months I have walked into a spider web. I didn’t think England really had spiders, apart from the whispy unthreatening kind, but now I know that English gardens are spun about by thick, brown, dangerous-looking creatures who like to turn the passages between hedges into invisible and sticky death traps. I never learn, just careen on through, then frantically swipe at my head like a madman. I once worked with a man who told me a story about a morning when he was on the tube. He disembarked, and was walking along the platform when a girl walking towards him shrieked, and pointed at his head, her face a picture of horror. He reflexively cuffed at his hair, and dislodged an object, which turned out to be a spider as big as his hand, which fell to the ground, and scurried along the platform, and disappeared. He never learned how the spider came to be there, whether it was a cruel prank, or an incident of nature.

London is supposed to be dangerous, though not in the jungle-creature, poison-and-claws kind of way, but in the mugged-and-knifed-and-left-for-dead kind of way. I don’t often feel in danger, though there are moments. One night, dark but not late, I was walking home alone. I had turned off a bright busy street onto a dark quiet one, in a residential area. There were two men walking towards me, one in front of the other, close but not talking. I registered them, but didn’t think anything of it. Until one was beside me and one in front of me, and they suddenly closed in, very quickly. There was a half second in which my adrenaline spiked, I dodged around them, and walked very quickly away. My hands were clenched into fists when I walked in my front door. But maybe nothing was going to happen; maybe it was a freak of timing. My partner was mugged once. He had taken a bus the wrong way, late at night, accidentally. He got off, angry at himself, and went to an ATM to get out money for a taxi. When he turned away from the machine, there was a man standing there with a knife. He demanded the money. Adam gave it to him. Then he demanded Adam’s phone, which Adam held out to him, and which he looked at, then refused to take, and walked away. Adam turned back to the ATM, got out more money, got a cab.

Everyone has a story. Before I moved to London, while I was living in Japan, an American friend told her London mugging story. She was walking home, late, with friends, when they were set upon by a group of young people. She was holding her bag tightly, but one of them grabbed at the strap, and started sawing at it with a knife. The knife was blunt, so he sawed and sawed at the leather, while his friends took the wallets of the rest of the group. Then they ran away, so he dropped his knife and fled with them, while my friend still clutched her bag. She laughed when she told me about it.

It is cold enough now that the spider has stopped spinning his web. I don’t know much about spiders. I don’t know if they hibernate. I know that there are still a few of them in my house (the ghostly, frail, brittle, un-frightening kind, tucked up in odd corners of the high ceilings) but they don’t seem to move much. And the bugs are gone. In the hot summer, the fruit bowl was a gathering place for tiny fruit flies, lifting in their tens if I reached out for a lemon (I’m not going to pretend my fruit bowl ever contains anything other than garlic, onions and things to garnish gin with), and there were bees coming in at the window, but now it is too cold for them. I don’t miss the bugs or the spider, or starting my morning with webs in my ears, but I’m not sure about the cold, which is already intense and startling. I feel like I understand why British people talk about the weather a lot. I’m affronted by it, as if the sudden drop to single digit temperatures is a deliberate dig at me and my insufficient footwear. In New Zealand, temperatures drifted around a ten-degree radius, but always slowly. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe I was just younger, and had more things to think about.

I have fallen deeply in love with the cats of my road. There is Zeus, who is black and solid and lives next door. There is Martin, a patchwork cat with dainty paws who lives 5 houses down. There is Wallace, all white with ginger tail, and Marmalade, with a splash of ginger over his eye. And there is Loaf, a big square black boy who sits outside in all weather and is the most reliable of the cats. None of these names are actually theirs, just mine for them. We are determined to get a cat next year. He can eat the spiders.

Winter coats

Sometimes I think I need a new winter coat, and then I realise I have at least four winter coats. I have pulled them out this year, one by one, as the temperatures have dropped, plateaued, dropped again, from the plastic bags I thrust them in when we moved, back in June. The articles online will tell you to have them dry-cleaned at the end of summer, pack them away lovingly with lavender (for moths). Mine come out of the plastic crumpled and smelling slightly of smoke, dirt, and the sweat they earned on their last wearing, the one on which I realised summer, or something like it, had arrived, and set them aside for six months. They come out with pockets gritty with foil and bits of receipts and tickets.

There is the heavy grey wool one I bought in Sweden, where we went to visit my sister, who was studying in Uppsala, from a store called Bik Bok, which made us laugh. We stayed, all five of us, in an Air B&B the size of a single garage (but a Swedish garage, carefully organised and furnished and with every corner and surface doing double duty, a sink-cum-chopping-board-cum -low-lit-stool) and ate cheese from the corner store, because eating out was so expensive. I cannot remember the holiday with rose-tinted glasses, because nearly all of us behaved badly, spiky from bad sleep and close quarters. There were fights and blankness and tears. There were signposts to where we are now. But I love the coat even though it is not practical – it has deep lapels, and the first button is somewhere far south of my sternum, so it can’t be buttoned tight against winter, but must be padded with thick scarves and jumpers; and it has cropped sleeves, so that my wrists freeze while the rest of me sweats. That being said it is a serious coat; a fashion coat, and ugly-beautiful coat. In this coat I have no waist, and no gender, and in the nondescript dark grey I can fade into an evening.

There is the cropped fake-fur I bought from a Salvation Army store in Wellington for $25 10 years ago, back in a time where I wished, when I found it, that it was real fur, because I could not afford real fur. But even fake fur was unique and interesting – there was only Glassons and Supre, no Zara or TopShop or H&M or any of the fast-fashion outlets that could, today, sell me something much more realistic for only slightly more money on any major street in London. Still I cling to my old thing. The lining is ripped at both shoulders, and nothing I want to find again goes into the pockets. The fastenings are broken, so that as well as being cropped it also hangs open. It is suitable only for very still 12-degree autumn days, of which we get about 5 a year, but I gladly shake out my coat for those occasions. It makes me feel like a bear; fake fur is good to hug. And I like that I still own something from my Wellington days. I like fast fashion too much (I know it); sometimes I look down on an outfit in which every item was bought in the last 6 months. There isn’t much history to me, aesthetically.

There is a thick bright orange wool one which I bought from ASOS last year. Periodically I try to inject more colour into my somber wardrobe. I favour black and grey and dark blue and dark green, like most people I know. Most of my colour comes from my lipstick. But I was tempted by the colours in the shopfront windows, and had the deal sealed by a 50% discount on ASOS. It is a rigid coat, with two buttons, that comes to my knees. When I put it on, my overriding thought is always: orange. It is very orange. Through this coat I have realised that I have a habit of riding escalators in London with my hands very lightly touching the rail; I know this because the cuffs of my coat are rapidly turning black. The coat confuses my outfits. I don’t know what goes with it, or what constitutes a clash. It fights with some of my favourite items (red lipstick, a bright red scarf, burgundy boots). But when I am in a crush of Londoners, all clad in grey, I like being in my orange coat. It makes me feel like someone else, even though it probably just makes me easier to mug.

My last resort coat – when the weather turns brutal, when I have to go outside on a day dedicated to inside – is my snowboarding jacket, which I bought in Japan. I went snowboarding exactly twice in Japan, which makes the purchase of the jacket questionable, especially since I paid somewhere north of £150 for it. In terms of snow-wear, this makes it a reasonable price, though the cost per wear isn’t something I’m proud of. It saw me through a Japanese winter, and it’s reassuringly sensible. It’s the kind of item that people who go camping own. People who own properly warm, waterproof, really rather ugly and unfashionable coats are the people who own drills and matches and boots that they’ve properly worn in, and they’re much more likely to survive a zombie apocalypse. Its most alarming feature is inbuilt gloves, so that every time I put my hands in my sleeves I automatically slide on very tight fingerless gloves. Their real purpose it to stop snow getting under your snowboarding gloves (which I don’t own because I went snowboarding twice in two years, I’m not a mad man). The only impact they’ve had on me is giving me the ability to wipe my vagina with only the very tips of my fingers touching the toilet paper. The jacket hasn’t been washed since I bought it, and I got it second hand. Don’t borrow this jacket from me.

Chapter One: Chris

Christopher cannot even look at the lights. He wants to but he can’t, and there is a tearing in his ears. Everything is too loud, and everything is far too bright. It is louder here than it was at the gig, which doesn’t make any sense. He sits with his hands crushed tight against his ears, flattening the sweaty peaks of hair.

He is not supposed to be out this late.

Not because anyone gives a fuck, or will notice when he gets home. No one is time-keeping. His home is a one-bedroom thing in Stockwell, his home has exposed brick because no one cares enough to cover it up. His is the type of life that has one set of sheets. He sometimes wonders what it would be like to live a life like his mother’s, with rotating sheets, a life when you wouldn’t have to mind if someone suddenly had to get into your bed, caught ill or something. His mother wouldn’t have to explain the pizza sauce, and the islands of semen dried into iridescent scabs. There are always bits at the bottom of his bed, bits that he tracks in on the pads of his feet when he gets up for water, and for a wee. If he had a vacuum he could do something about it. He doesn’t even know where he would buy a vacuum. Amazon, maybe, but then you have to be the kind of person who knows when they might be home to sign for package, or live somewhere where a big brown box wouldn’t be stolen from a stoop.

He likes Stockwell because it’s not pretending to be anything it isn’t. The estate over from his is the second worst in London. That’s what an Uber driver told him, a few weeks ago, in the early morning, when he was trying to sleep. Sometimes he thinks he can will it away, the erratic thump of his heart against his ribs. He takes deep breaths and counts slowly, but he can’t slow it down. Besides, what does second worst mean? What does it take to be worse? More dead people, more stolen things. Sometimes people shoot up in his elevator, and he steps around them, and takes the stairs. No one gives him sideways looks in Stockwell.

How do you even decide which kind of vacuum to buy? You could be ironic and buy a Henry Hoover, with his red face and that black long nose. They might not even sell them anymore. Though if they’ve stopped, they’ll bring it back soon. Nostalgia is everywhere. The Henry had gone the way of the ironic Halloween costume, like a guy he’d lived with, who’d done the red face with his girlfriend’s red lipstick, and had to go to work 2 days later with a waxy red sheen still to his face, and he was a lawyer. He’d thought, with vacuums, they probably let you take them on a money-back guarantee, because that’s the kind of thing people fall for. You never send it back though, even if you hate it, even if it just takes up space. You buy it as an experiment and then if you hate it you pretend to like it anyway. Because boxing it up and arranging for it to be picked up is way more energy than turning that hate into tolerance. Besides, you can get cordless vacuums now. He’d like one of them.

There are two girls sitting opposite him, with one boy in the middle, holding hands with both of them, like he’s still deciding which one he’s going to take home, like he’d quite like it to be both. Christopher can’t bring himself to look any further up than their knees (the rushing wall of the tunnel past the panes, his own warped reflection, those bright lights) but they tell a story, all their angles, towards and away. The girl on the left has Doc Martens a bit like his, but they look better on her legs, the way they can’t quite close around her skinny shin. She’s a bit bruised, and he can see spikes of hair on her legs. He quite likes girls with hairy legs. He’d like to tell her, but his mouth had better stay shut (what might come out) and besides what would he tell the other girl? She has long socks and Converses, muddy at the toes, and he doesn’t like them as much. She wouldn’t want to know that. Nobody wants to know that they’re second best.

He shouldn’t be out this late. It must be 3, or 4, or 5, he dropped his phone about 20 minutes in, when he was too up to care, and now he’s come down and been sorry and made the choice to go back up again. Up instead of down is an easy choice. The taste is on the back of that tongue, the sweetness that is also acrid, that is like nothing else he has ever tasted. Nothing is as good. Once, at a festival, desperate for another hit, he’d bought some off a man in the crowd. He’d melted away like he’d never been there, and with the music throbbing underneath his feet and behind his teeth Chris had stuck a finger in the bag and tasted something else. The same wrong taste, the same chemical wrongness, but not the right thing. He’d kept taking it anyway, just in case, because fifty quid is fifty quid, but. It had probably been rat poison.

They’re just drunk, the three opposite him. He can tell by their movements, slow and lazy.The boy has moved his hand to the knee of the girl with the hairy legs, a bit further up than the knee. He likes hairy legs too, or maybe he just doesn’t care because it’s 3am, and you start to compromise with yourself at 3am. I will only stay another hour. I will go home in two hours, but I’ll make sure I get up and don’t waste the day. I’ll take a bit more but that will be the last of it and then I won’t take any for 6 weeks, maybe 7. I will stop. I will stop.

His vision is doing the juddering, cracking thing, and there is something welling up at the bottom of his eyes. He can’t see the hairy legs anymore, he can’t see much of anything. And he’s not sure if he’s sitting up straight anymore.

Converse laughs, and it enters his ears like music. “That dude is fucked. Man, you’re fucked.”

He is not sure when he became a man. In his mind he is a boy, acting out, trying something new. It’s not that new anymore, it hasn’t been new for seven years. Is it seven? He can feel his mouth moving. He’s grinding his teeth. They’ll hurt tomorrow. If he was still at the rave someone would have given him gum. No one one on this train is going to give him anything. He should have stayed in that dark warehouse, with other wide-eyed kids jumping around him. He is just a kid.

“Dude. Dude?” The boy opposite is leaning over to him. He has his hand on his shoulder.

“Dude, sit up. You might swallow your tongue or some shit.”

He would like to tell him to fuck off. He is a man, he does not need help, but he does need help, the lines of the train carriage aren’t staying where they should and he feels, more than ever, more than before, that he might have entered somewhere strange in his mind, somewhere he hasn’t gone before.

“Should we stop the train? Pull the thing?”

“No, all the signs say wait for a station. We can’t just stop in the middle of a tunnel. What would we do if he passed out?”

Doc Martens stands up and shouts down the carriage. “Is there a doctor on here? Something’s wrong with this guy.”

A voice from his left, older, replies, “Perhaps you should have stopped your friend from speaking to men on street corners.”

Doc Martens cocks a hip. “He is not our friend. And don’t be a cunt. Might be you dying on a train one day, you old bitch.”

Chris would like to smile. More than that, he would like to be somewhere else. He does not miss Australia very often. It is too hot and too loud. It is too outside. There are not enough bits of it that have been closed off, it is like a big uncovered scab. But he misses it right now. He would like to be seeing the sun. Then he would know which way is up.

He is lying on the floor of the train carriage, and the guy is putting him into recovery position. Converse is admiring, scuffing a toe. “Where did you learn that?”

“Rugby.” Chris is not that heavy but the guy is panting with the effort of getting him into position. “Guys choke on their tongues after tackles. Or some shit. I never saw it happen.”

Australians play rugby. A lot of sport. Chris hasn’t played rugby since he was at school, but he was good at it once. Big, and dense, and low to the ground. You can be good at high school rugby without being fast. When he moved to London he thought he might join a football league, to meet people, but you do have to be fast to be good at football, and tricky, with mastery over your toes. Chris only played two games, and then they stopped texting him to join. Cunts. But then, that left more time for other things.

If only there were music. Music always helps when people have taken too much gear. They start to come up and they freak the fuck out, but then the music gets into their blood, the thud and bang of it, and the drugs mix with the music, and then it’s magic. He likes watching first timers begin to sway with it, and close their eyes to it. He was at a gig once where a girl just shut her eyes the entire time. You never know whether you’re hearing the same things. Probably not.

He could still be at the rave right now. It won’t be over. Those things, they go until past dawn, for as long as the light can be blocked out, and there’s always another little bag. Rat poison, rat poison.

His heart is going with the rhythm of the train, as it barrels through the tunnel, underground. He can feel each railing. Do they even run on railings?

Doc Martens speaks again. “We’re slowing down.” There is relief in her voice. She is very young, he thinks. It’s too late for her to be up. She will have school soon. Not tomorrow – today – but soon. “James, we can call for help at the platform.” James, Converse, Doc Martens. His companions on this very wild ride.

Converse chimes in. “And then we’re going fucking HOME, rather than spending all night taking care of a deadbeat.”

It is hard to argue that he is not a deadbeat. The swimming in his eyes has come again and the floor is moving in pulses. His heart is hard against his ribs. The train stops, and he waits for his friend, the big guy, the guy with his hand exploring Doc Martens, to lift him, but nobody moves.

“Fuck’s sake.” It’s the old lady again, clutching her plastic bags around her, one on her knees, one hooked between her feet. He can hear them moving. She’s kneading her fingers like he’s grinding his jaw. “Where are we?”

“Dunno.”

“Why have we stopped?”

“I don’t know.”

“FUCK.” Chris’ saviour stamps his foot, like a kid in a movie. He has nice shoes on too. Chris tries to think of the word. Brogues.

“James,” chides Doc. “Fuckssake.”

He has never been this close to a floor before. Nobody has. He is puddling against it, or he would be if he wasn’t rigid with the chemicals jolting his nerves wide. A bad pill, he thinks, but the only difference between a bad pill and a good pill is where you take it, really. He has been called, on occasion, bad. His mother has called him a bad influence, his father, with an amber whiskey in one hand behind whitening knuckles, didn’t bother mincing words. “You’re never going to grow up, ya idiot. Never gonna be much of anything, are ya. Came out a bit fucked in the head, gonna stay that way. We should never have taken ya on. Shoulda known. ” They’d had that conversation (would we call it a conversation?) 9 years ago, and no conversations since (some messages, from his mother, who’d plainly got Facebook for this very purpose, written in the kind of tentative prose that comes from a woman who’d spent her life peering over the shoulder of a much larger man, ‘Love, I just want to know you’re alright’, ‘Hun it’d be lovely to hear from you, ‘Joan down the road got married, they did their first dance to that song you always played, what was it called, gem?’. Strange, when you consider the kind of woman she is. Of course, she’d deleted them later). Bad.

Bad, and now that swimming was gone, and instead a halo around the corners of his eyes. He might have chewed all the teeth out of his head by now. He pictures bits of his teeth dropping out the sides of his mouth, chalky on his tongue, spitting them out likes bits of peanut.

James was hovering by the door, forehead pressed flat against his own black reflection. “Can’t see shit.”

Doc was doing the same, through the window to the other carriage. “Can’t see anyone in the next carriage. Might be a few a bit along.” She tried the handle.

Converse jumped. “Don’t! It’ll start soon. Don’t be dumb. Don’t get stuck.”

Doc moved away from the door, scuffing the boot again. “When, though. Where’s the fucking driver? Why’s he not saying anything?”

“Might be a woman, though.”

“Fuck off.”

Converse laughed. “Sorry. Can we just fucking be in bed already?”

James stayed where he was. “Maybe we’re stuck. Maybe someone’s coming. Can’t see shit, though? Are there usually lights in the tunnels? I can’t remember.”

How long has it been, 10 minutes, more? Christopher can’t remember the last time he was lit so brightly and so lost in time. It could be 3am or 5am or 7am, but it wasn’t 7am because there were no tradies, no men headed out to shifts knocking through loft apartments. Just one old lady with a pile of plastic bags. He’d like to ask her where she’s going. Where she’s been. She’d probably tell him to fuck off though.

If there had been other passengers in the carriage, Chris couldn’t remember them. He can’t remember anyone from on the platform, or even where he got on. He could barely remember the colour of the seats (blue, alright, so he could). There was just him, and James, and Doc and Converse. And the old woman who was pretending none of this was happening, sat with her bags clutched about her like something that might be stolen. She looked a bit like his mother. HIs real mother. Maybe. Maybe she just looked old.

He couldn’t see. James would probably want to know that, if he could tell him. The shoes, the lines on the floor. There’s nothing.

There is the sound of a door opening and closing. “Hello, did you – oh.” There is a quick movement near him, and someone drops down to her knees beside him. He can tell it’s a woman because of the smell of her hair, which flicks down over him like a shawl, like a blanket, like he’s come home and laid down on the couch and passed out and someone has draped it over him. Her hair is very long and it has the smell of freesias, like a lawn in summer, and he feels quite calm. She’s lifting his eyelids, he can feel that, but he still can’t see her, except in his mind’s eye. She probably looks like a primary school teacher he had, who always had dog hairs on her sweater.

“How long have his eyes looked like that?”

“Looked like what?”

“Where’d you come from?” asks Converse, which makes Chris feel better, because he’s pretty sure it had only been them, those three, and the old woman, and she hasn’t moved.

“Through the door. There’s a woman through there with two kids, after some water. One of them won’t stop crying, she reckons he’s a bit hot.” She speaks very fast, clipped, fitting more words out than most. “This guy, why’d you put him down here on the floor like this?”

“He’s fucked,” says Doc. “On something. He looked weird before.”

James speaks. “He was leaning off his seat a bit, I thought he might fall and hit his head. Put him on the ground.” He’s proud of his work.

She nods, and puts her hand around Chris’ jaw, pulling it open. It’s a struggle. “I’m Annette. Anne. I’m a nurse.”

They make noises of relief. “Now, what has he taken? Just tell me. I can help him.”

Converse is mad, she spits her words, she wants to be in bed. “We don’t know the old cunt. Never met him.”

32. Not so old. Too old for this, but not so old.

James nods. “It’s true, didn’t even see him get on.We just noticed him when he started moving around funny.”

There are hands pressing down on him but no one has moved and so they are rave hands, the kinds of hands that lift you up and out and up and away. They can take all your weight and carry you on. Annette, he says in his head, through the pain, Annette I can’t see. And then he is moving, what’s the word, he is convulsing, he is retching, someone is shouting and he wants to tell Annette, it is alright, Annette you have lovely hair and there are worse things than being held by a stranger on the floor of the night tube, but he can’t fit his tongue out through his lips and his clenched teeth, and he is James, with his forehead against the window, staring out at a black tunnel.