No bodies down there

I am afraid of the cellar. The steps, the cold, everything that lies beneath our warm uneven floors. 

There is a breathing dark space that looks into the foundation of the house, and I am afraid of that, too. “Don’t worry, no bodies down there!” the builder cheerfully said, as I handed a glass of water down into the hole.

I never thought to check for bodies. 

The family before us left behind an old bar stool, a toboggan, long planks of wood, buried past. I don’t look too closely at any of it in case of spiders (and now, bodies). 

We have stocked the cellar with spices because of Brexit and toilet paper because of Covid, preparations for when we will barricade in the small dark space against inevitable plague. I am not exactly afraid of zombies, I’m just afraid of my own inability to prepare for their arrival. 

If you have a cellar, you’re supposed to do something with it. Wine, storage. You can put your bikes there, but first we would have to buy some bikes. Unused space is worse than hoarding is worse than being a landlord is worse than death. 

If you are a builder and you make a joke about finding bodies, that must mean that once, feeling into the dark, looking for damp, you found one. 

Eventually we will move house, and we will fill the next cellar with insurance against all our future dreads, because I believe it is possible to predict something out of existence, and so 

I spend all my time looking for something I desperately, desperately don’t want to find. 

Not drowning

I have walked around the park 100 times and I know each feather of the four ducklings that survived that bad start to spring. Each morning I take five big swallows of bad coffee to remind myself I am awake. You are familiar like a bad dream and like a hug; it is possible to love and hate in alternating strides. 

London has abandonment issues. How do you know the right moment to leave a sinking ship? For example, have you cheated your way onto a lifeboat by stealing a baby, or

Are you filling your cold blood with alcohol, clinging to an alternate outcome? 

Staying to the end means being there for the miracle. I am waving to my fellow survivors, not drowning.

Driving Lessons

I am learning to drive which on London roads is the same as learning to be OK with eventually dying. My instructor is a kind man named Shamim,

He has three children, none of whom I will recognise when I turn up to the funeral, in disguise, to hide the fact that I was the one who stamped on the accelerator instead of the brake at the roundabout at 8am, and launched us both into the side of an 18-wheeler. 

Shamim has put his life in my hands nine times. On the fourth lesson, he didn’t touch the wheel once. Sometimes my job is stressful 

But I won’t die if someone fucks up, unless the person who manufactured my mouse accidentally programmed it to explode the millionth time it was depressed. 

It will eventually break: this is what they call manufactured obsolescence, which is a nice way to look at your own mortality, and a lot of syllables for two words. Lana Del Rey told us ten years ago that we were born to die, but I was a decade more beautiful then, and the phrase made me dance. 

Shamim stopped giving lessons during lockdown because the government recognised how dangerous I was to him, but I had known it all along.

Can I have a vaccine now, please?

You are my hope for a winter’s end. I do not care for the way we have been both separated and thrown together. I would like a choice in the matter.

It is a matter of time before I am complaining about long lines at the bar, in the airport, on the tube, before I am paralysed by choice. I haven’t been sick but 

The cherry tree in my garden has grown a weeping cavity in the bark of its trunk. Long before the flowers grow, it will die, and then someone will have to chop down the cherry tree, or lie about it, or both. 

90% of what I plant in London soil dies. That seems to be a fact of life, but

Can I draw your attention to these twelve daffodils with nodding heads and yellow crowns? They are testament to something delicious in the dirt. 

Come summer we will all be deliciously dirty. We will picnic in the park and raise cans to the stars, there will be no end to the blue skies:

Inject this feeling into my veins. Or, better

I will tattoo Pfizer on my forehead for a fiver, less. I will drink a Moderna martini with three grass-green olives.

If the antidote to apathy is hope, then Covid-19 is me, slumped on a couch with unwashed hair and a lead heart, and the vaccine will sweetly kill me.

Donations

The donation bins at the entrance to the park are heavy with clothes. When no more black plastic bags of cast-offs can be stuffed through the metal mouth, they are stacked neatly around the outside. This is a high-traffic corner, cars and feet and bikes, and the stacks are never un-pawed for long. I never see anyone rifling through the bags, so they must come early morning or dusk, or night, and I don’t know what they’re looking for: clothes for their families, or high quality discards to sell online. There’s a bin for electronics, too, and it’s all old toasters and a thousand wires and plugs for appliances that are nowhere to be seen. I’ve never seen such rampant heaps of donations before, but I get the impulse. Clean, purge, strip. There are many layers to a life that are easy to peel away, and cast aside. 

The result of the generosity (or compulsion to clean, or whatever motivates the many donors) is mess. The bags are torn apart and the contents scattered, and then soaked. What remains on the ground, strewn and stepped on, you wouldn’t consider a generous gift, or anything other than trash. But the bags keep coming, because once you’ve bagged your shit, and walked it the 500 metres to the charity bin, and found the bin full, and disgusting, you can’t walk it back home. The symbolism of reabsorbing your trash is too rich. And so you add your own old, ripped finery to the sodden piles, walk away. 

Inside the park, something small changes every day. The owners of the bowling green have given up and given their space over to the geese and ducks, who strut inside the fence like fancy residents of a gated Chelsea garden. There is a small group skating on the netball courts; a pair doing burpees underneath the basketball hoops. There are three outdoor gyms in Finsbury Park and they are now fenced off with green metal sheets, at least 8 feet eyes, with no gaps, and no handholds. Up until now, attempts to keep fitness junkies off the silver bars have failed, the chain link fences all too easily scaled or parted by people who heft weights for fun. There’s no fun for them in Finsbury Park now, this is an Iron Curtain, this is the Berlin Wall, this is Trump’s wet dream. A real wall, not a symbol. 

The ponds have melted again now that the below freezing week has given way, quickly, to double digits. The cracks in the pavement are no longer solid with ice. Finsbury Park is less treacherous, and it is the only park where two-meter-distancing is really possible, with the wide road right round the perimeter. It has never been pretty, but now I appreciate its practicality. 

Northern Ireland announced today that lockdown has been extended until April, and with the news I feel the division between my heart and head more than ever. My head knows we should follow suit – must follow suit, really, to have any hope of continuing the beautiful downward death-graph trend – but my heart is already in a pub, or under a strange roof, or sat awkwardly in the driest part of the park with a friend.

I bought a frying pan

Every now and then I try to honestly consider what would improve my life, and then I try to change it. This is how I came to buy a new frying pan. 

I would like to explain that the things that improve your life are only sometimes enormous. They only occasionally rock a boat to tipping. Most of the time, things that change your life are a pebble in the water, not a meteor to dislodge a world. 

We have an induction stove, which I only sort of understand. I understood it to believe that I wouldn’t be able to burn myself on it, because I am not made of metal, but then I burnt myself on it. Most of the time it seems to mean that is noisier than a regular stove (it hums as it heats, then silences itself as it cools, then hums again to make up the difference, ad infinitum, as my onions soften), and doesn’t get quite hot enough. I’m sure there is a scale in the quality of induction surfaces you can buy, and that ours is somewhere near the bottom. At any rate, it is satisfactory to clean: just one smooth black surface. It is also easy to scratch, so it is no longer quite a smooth black surface, it wears our short history of carelessness. 

When we moved into our house, we owned almost nothing except books and shoes. Stocking a kitchen from scratch after you have just obtained your first mortgage is no easy task, and so our drawers and cupboards were filled with items of the barest utility. Now, two years later, they are beginning to fail, and so I am beginning to replace them. 

The new frying pan gets hot quickly and holds its heat evenly. My onions do not blacken. It is wide, and so there is room enough to cook things which tell me, gravely, not to “crowd the pan”. My pan is uncrowded, my mushrooms merely acquaintances. 

It cleans nicely, too. It isn’t scratched. Nothing sticks. There is no foreign, omnipresent black surface smear, which won’t be removed by dish soap but ruins all my tea towels. Oh yeah, I care about tea towels now. 

People react to stress and pressure in different ways. Retail therapy is no great shock as a coping mechanism. I wouldn’t have thought I would put all my mental health eggs in the basket of good quality homewares, but then it is difficult to predict how you will react to the unpredictable. My reactions so far have been varied: learning to bake bread, sleeping for 12 hours at a time, becoming obsessed with my nostrils, refusing to contact my family members.

There are a few other things that would improve my life, like the ability to see my family, or my friends, or my colleagues; or if it was light later that 4:30pm, but attempting to impose control over any of that is futile. So I also bought a bread bin. 

This weekend the snow fell. Kids collected in the street and threw snowballs at their parents. There are still sad, stiff snowmen standing to attention against the brick walls of front yards. The snow was a distraction from repetition, and therefore a cause for celebration. I understand why people used to personify the weather as gods. The next few days, maybe weeks, are all rain from sunrise to sundown, and so I bought a muffin tray.

The new grocery stores

There are grocery shops everywhere, springing out of the empty ruins of pubs and cafes. They’re not real grocery stores. They stock four different kinds of olives, and three different types of tinned fish. They have chocolate, but only 70% dark, or entirely vegan, or powdered and served in Ecuadorian hot chocolates with oat milk. They have fresh croissants, and oranges that still have their leaves on. They have four shelves of wine, and non-alcoholic spirits. 

They are our new playgrounds. They are the only place I can have fun. They’re allowed to exist because they’re deemed essential, but there’s nothing essential about anything they stock, unless you can’t live without a fresh custard doughnut, or a £20 jar of preserved lemons. 

Only five people are allowed in at once, which takes all the joy out of that kind of store, the kind of joy that comes from browsing for 15 minutes, eating 3 different samples, and spending £15 on three strange items that could never be brought together into a meal. But I still line up and I still enter, and I still spend my money, and I still emerge, with a very hot coffee and a brown paper bag, feeling like I’ve achieved something, because at least it is a point of difference. 

I used to get the same kind of joy out of Whole Foods in Piccadilly Circus. It was sensibly positioned, for me, because it was a good 15 minute walk from my work, and out of my way, so I couldn’t go there too often. I would always go there when I was about to get my period, or when I’d had a particularly frantic work day, or when I was going to be alone for the evening, and so there would be no one to judge the strange types of food I would buy: crispy spicy sushi, a takeout container crammed only with mashed potatoes and macaroni cheese, fresh tortilla chips, gooey blue cheese in a tub, large green nocerella olives, a sad slice of pumpkin pie, a tub of tomatoes in twelve different colours. It’s a soothing store, a grocery store that I treat like an amusement park (a rare pleasure, a reward). 

This strange bougie grocery store is the only thing open on a street of shops I know well. There’s the antique store that only sells £1200 chairs, in pairs, with sloped leather backs and worn wooden arms. I have never been inside, only stood close to the window so I can listen to Adam say “That’s riDICulous, it’s just a chair!” again, and so it makes no real difference to me that it’s closed now. There’s the pub with the big outdoor garden – in Tier 2 it erected huge enclosed tents with heaters, and called it outdoor dining, and we walked past the steamy plastic plague windows and laughed at the rules, but not even fake four-walled outdoor dining is allowed in Tier 4. There’s a shop that sells only items for babies, with a large carrot on its sign, even though babies do not have teeth. 

The fact that everything is closed hasn’t deterred anyone. We don’t have anywhere else to go. The streets are full of masked huddles of people buying jars of preserved lemons and standing at the crossing, wandering in circles in the freezing cold. It is hard to keep a reasonable berth when there are so many of us on the muddied paths of Highgate Woods. There is a wide cricket pitch, and no one playing cricket, and somehow still big throngs of spectators, watching the crows in the patches of mud. 

When shops reopened in July after the first long lockdown, I would go to those stores and let it feel like a treat. Expensive olives, and salted caramel sauce, and bottles of rose. It did feel like a treat, because everything had been closed for so long. There was immoderate joy in a face-to-face transaction. Now, with the see-saw of tiers and the drip-feed of information, it feels more like a taunt, or a cruelly-designed temptation for which I will always fall. I ate out to help out, and then watched cases soar. I shopped local, and everything shut anyway. My tracing app tells me that Tier 4 means stay home, but then even these essential-non-essential grocery stores will shut. Someone will board up the windows, and put away the lemons. What do you use preserved lemons for anyway?

Emily, this blog post is a bit less depressing, and I’ve decided to set the poetry aside for a while

These are long days. I spend whole minutes looking at my eyebrows in the afternoon light that slants through the top pane of the bedroom window and throws rainbows where it hits the mirror. I started using a brow serum in October, so they are about as long and thick as they’ve ever been (I spent the first 15 years of my life more or less eyebrow-less, they arrived at about the same time as my self-confidence), which is lucky, because I also compulsively pluck my eyebrows with my fingernails when I am anxious, and I am a glowing bundle of nerves. For the first time ever, my eyebrows are out-pacing my fingers. I have RSI in both my thumbs, and no visible gaps in my brows. Today I spent ten minutes thinking about what I would do if my thumbs didn’t work any more. I wouldn’t be able to type, so I wouldn’t be able to work, or write. And what would be the outlet for my nerves if I couldn’t use my thumbnails to pluck my eyebrow hairs? Perhaps I would disintegrate. 

Perhaps I will have to adopt voice software, like that used by writers when they succumb to arthritis. I will have to keep a straight face while composing my melancholic blog posts, telling my laptop: “The weather is grey, and the streets are full of people wearing masks.” I think it would be more difficult to be melancholic when intoning my despairing thoughts aloud to a silent MacBook. And it would be sophisticated software that could keep up with my mixed-up not-quite Kiwi vows. Sometimes I sound exactly like Justin Bieber. And anyway, I’m typing now, thumbs flying, so this is a problem for another day. 

I never usually take the days between Christmas and New Year off work unless I’m in New Zealand, and so it’s strange to have this time off in London. I’m not used to being on holiday here. I don’t know what to do with myself, particularly this year, when there are so few planning options. I keep scheduling walks after going for long runs, and tiring myself out, like I am my own petulant bored toddler. I watch television on the TV, and then turn off the TV, and go to the bedroom, and watch the same show on my laptop. I have downloaded at least ten excellent books that I can’t quite make myself read. The main outlets for pleasure are food and alcohol, and I am indulging voraciously in both. Come January, I will be vegan for my typical 31 days, and so I can only hope that the news is better then, because if I can’t medicate myself with cheese, it will fall 100% to negronis. 

The worst part about Christmas being over is that people will take their lights down. I love the Christmas lights, even though I’m lazy at putting up our own. Our front window is our bedroom widow, and it is typically shuttered, and blocked from the street from the hedge, to limit the number of people who can see me naked; but most of the houses around here have their lounges at the front, and Christmas trees in the bay window. For me, the more brightly, neon lit the better. I want to be dazzled and disoriented by your Christmas tree, I want to feel like I’m flying over New York city at nighttime in a hurricane. I do like counting the dead Christmas trees out on the pavement, though, so there’s that. 

I am looking forward to 2020 being over like everybody else but ugh: the long grey expanse of January and February. And then worst of all, March – March, if nothing has changed and the vaccine hasn’t gone round enough people, and we have to deal with the anniversary of Covid with no good news to carry us through. I had planned to run a 10K in January, and it’s been moved to March, and that’s the first time I’ve ever been upset by the cancellation of an athletic activity. I look back on March this year with nostalgia, because there was excitement (and dread and fear, but still excitement) around coronavirus and pandemics and the uncertainty of it all. There was electricity to the closure of the office, and setting up camp at home. Buying masks and toilet paper. Community spirit, etc, and even my cat seemed to like me more. Maybe that excitement should never have been there; almost certainly it was a gift of privilege and stupidity. But I am nostalgic for any kind of excitement. It’s dangerous to look forward to anything, even running 10K in a circle with people who are much faster than you. 

Having fixed my eyebrows, it might be time to consider my fingernails, which are disgusting as always. Maybe I will shave my legs, a victim of the cold weather. Or perhaps I will become a knitter – I got a knitting kit for Christmas. It’s always nice to consider the potential for latent talent lurking within oneself. Although knitting is probably thumb-heavy activity.

Welcome to Plague Island

Welcome to Plague Island. We are pleased that you could join us here

On the shortest and darkest day of the year. 

We hope you don’t like fruit or vegetables.  Please refrain from touching anyone you love. 

The last ships have already left and the fish have grown wings to be free of these waters.

***

Stay inside, and hold your breath forever. Please,

Enjoy your stay.

One minute less

I am so tired of going to the supermarket for a treat.

Somehow, it gets to 3pm on a Wednesday and I haven’t been outside. I have: been on 7 Zoom calls, fed the cat, done 50 bicycle sit-ups looking at the crack in my ceiling but I haven’t

Seen the sun. Or anyone, except my husband

Who leaves at 8am and catches an empty train to somewhere he’d rather not be. 

I keep losing my masks even though I go nowhere. I am losing my mind because I’m

Going nowhere. Yesterday, I bought a neon orange blouse because it reminds me of who I used to be. The drifts of leaves are gone, there is decay in the gutter, and

There is only winter left of 2020, the cold dregs of a year I did not anticipate,

We did not anticipate this. 

The cat panics when I leave the house. She spends the whole time mewling at the door, and when I come back she paws at the outside world, cries at my absence

And then bites my feet. 

I used to make an effort and now I don’t. I wear mismatched socks and slippers I wear

The same pair of black leggings I wear

The same three red jumpers and, most of the time, a dressing gown. 

An old house, a cracked house was OK when I spent so much of my time under other roofs. I have spent the whole of 2020 romancing birds. First I won the pigeons, and then the crows, and then the robins, and now one Great Tit, 

But mostly I have made one squirrel very fat. I can see the ivy growing. I can see it gaining length as I lose days. Every day there is one less minute of sun.