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.

Advertisements

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.

Autumn

We’ve bought one of those lights that emulate dawn, because there are no more slow sunrises in London, only blackness giving way suddenly to grey rain. It’s supposed to be a relaxing way to wake up. The light starts to bleed in some 20 minutes before I’ve set the alarm (which sounds with crashing waves and the sounds of seagulls, because apparently I’m trying to recreate my beachside Kiwi childhood in my small English flat), but it’s not a relaxing light. It’s red, and ominous, and turns the walls the dull shade of red of a sky above a bushfire. It’s Event Horizon. It’s a blood moon. It’s the inverse of the cold grey light that creeps in naturally, which is absolutely the point, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

I’m in love with autumn, though. Finsbury Park knows its way around the waning of a season. The trees are tall and old, and shed leaves the size of both my feet. Some of them are yellow and slick and lie flat to the pavement like a tattoo, while other curl and crisp in deep red banks by the side of the road. I can’t mourn summer when I look at them, because the colours are too beautiful.

It is a slow and warm autumn, this year. Soon will be the time for skeleton trees, but at the moment, on my walk to work, all the trees are fire-coloured against the brick walls, and very beautiful, and behind them blue skies for miles. I feel lucky to live somewhere where the buildings come nowhere near to eclipsing the sky.

Every experience is a first in our new flat. It was a perfect summer space, with big windows and a generous garden, but there are ominous signs for its suitability for a London winter. The big bay windows in the bedroom rattle in the frames, and I can stick a finger between the window and the frame. When we moved in, the owners had a wedge of cardboard between the two, to stop the rattling, which transpired to be the sleeve of a Waitrose hummus tub. At some point we’ll replace it with something that might actually stop the wind from entering and the temperatures from falling, but for the cardboard sleeve of a Sainsbury’s hummus tub has to suffice. There are no Waitroses in Finsbury Park. I don’t know how to time our heating to come on sensibly, so alternate between ignoring it all together, and leaving it on too long, so that the windows steam up, and my partner arrives home to find me in shorts and a t-shirt. This, apparently, is not the British way of treating winter, but I’m yet to be convinced.

I have been neglecting my blog because I have been writing, working my way methodically through an 80,000 novel which I finished in October. The first draft is sitting in my Google Docs, and I know the work is just beginning, but for now I’m just looking at it. I don’t yet have the energy to kill any of the darlings it contains.

Gardening

I want to be a good gardener. I like the idea of it. There is something obviously nice about coaxing life out of the dirt. I also like the frivolity of it. I am allowed to go to a store and spend money on nice plants, pretty things. It makes me a home-maker, a grown-up, to go home, de-pot them, soak their roots, plant them facing the sun. Buying arm-loads of plants is the very opposite of buying three cheap dresses from H&M because it is sunny and because it is pretty, but it is also the same. It satisfies the same urges, but it comes without judgment. I do not need the dresses. My wardrobe is full of dresses. But I also do not need the plants.

I do not like the uncertainty of it, though. I know what will happen to the dresses. I will wear them once, or twice. I will shrink them in the wash. One will rip. One will never have fit in the first place. They will take up space, I will try them on and discard them, and then eventually I will donate them. The donation will make me feel good, as I will imagine someone finding them, and loving them, and wearing them to death; someone kind and less well-off and better-shaped than me giving them a happy home, and blessing the frivolity of me, the original hapless buyer. I know the truth is that they will be shredded, turned to nothing, buried, burnt. Did you know that China is expanding its size in landmass equal to Singapore every year, reclaiming land from the sea with trash? My dresses are doing that.

Most of my plants will die. This is a fact. It’s not even because I’m a bad or a careless gardener. In the garden centre, they have tags, which you can read to learn about the plants. “Likes full sun. Plant in July.” Rows and rows of them. I don’t understand why they’re there. It is not July, and London is subject to full sun about 5 times a year. Who put them there, put them in their pots, lined them up all purple and pretty, to die? “Puppies, free to a good home, as long as they eat dogs.” I don’t understand it.

We bought some anyway because we’d walked all the way to the garden centre, and because I’ve decided that I’m prepared to believe in miracles. Boys are rescued from caves and cancer disappears, and it’s entirely possible that my garden will turn out to be the equivalent of full sun in July, when it is encroaching winter in September.

You’re supposed to plant them with their tags, so you can remember their names and characteristics, like Pokemon cards. But I forgot and threw them out, so all I know is that one has red and yellow leaves and looks autumnal, and the other has grey and silver spider leg leaves, and that I probably shouldn’t get attached because they won’t last the winter.

The hardest are the pansies. We put them in the planter box outside my bedroom window, and they are thriving. They are large and purple, and I don’t even like pansies very much, but we bought them because my sister likes their angry faces. They don’t look angry – they look delighted to be on my flaking window sill with a lovely view of our 4 rubbish bins and the shed that contains my broken suitcase. They are doing their very best to make an honest gardener out of me.

When we planted the others, first of all, Mum had me dig up the soil with a trowel, turn it over, break up the lumps. This is probably obvious to most people, but I am often late to obvious things. I couldn’t boil rice at 18. I hope there is someone to blame other than myself.

As I turned it up and broke up the clods, a big worm rose to the surface. My Mum was delighted. “That means you have good soil! Look at him.” He did look like he was probably good at his job.

But I had been stabbing at, and turning over the dirt for at least 10 minutes. Worms are fast, but they’re not that fast. I’d probably murdered his whole family. Soil is a mess of corpses. All the roots clinging bravely on were long dead. That worm’s wife and children now food for my silver-grey plant.

The circle of life is a sensible thing. I am glad it is a circle. I am now part of a very big circle that has a very large circumference, and one day I will be food for this worm, and some of his kin. This is fine. This does not frighten me, at least not yet. I am glad that there is life in death, and death in life, ashes and dust and soil and dirt and I do not doubt my ability to be much better fertiliser than I am a gardener, but also why do we bother? Here in my garden learning to be a gardener from my mother, I am hacking back the ivy. I am pulling up the weeds. I am deciding, in all my benevolence, which should live and which should die – that my pansies deserve pampering, but that I must take to the spiny crawler than curls over from my neighbour’s overgrown garden every day with clippers. Off with its head, even though it just grows another.

There is a lesson in my garden, in my pansies which I paid £5 for, doomed to die in three months or less, but my neighbour’s thorny terror making a Sleeping Beauty of me if I sleep on cutting him back for even a week or two. But I like the way the pansies face the sun.

London Parks

London parks are perfect places, though there is no one perfect park. I love them all. I walk at their edges, and sit in the middle. Perfectly green, and muddy, and studded with empty tins. Perfect in cherry blossom, and in rain and in cricket season.

I would not like to rank the parks. The best park, as a rule, is the one nearest to your front door. The one in which people you like are most likely to meet you for a picnic. The best parks are the ones with the paths you know best. I do not want to visit a park I can get lost in. I visit parks for familiarity, both for themselves, and for the part of me that is most familiar with green spaces, and grass, and water. That part of me is sometimes lost in London.

Regent’s Park is almost perfect. The lake is small, but full of birds. There are 10 different types of ducks, and big white swans. Regent’s Park is covered in shit, for all the right reasons. A park is not a park in London if it does not contain a small lake covered in small blue boats peddled by families. The threat of tipping over is part of the joy. A small blue boat is an excuse to push off.

In spring, Regent’s Park has the best blossom. It has manicured gardens, and spreading cricket fields. That strange man-made hump in the centre, under which there are public toilets, and on top of which, a cafe. I don’t know who makes the design decisions in parks; who validates the allocation of water, of field, of tree, of garden. Regent’s Park is perfectly proportionate, like the camels in the zoo which you can see for free. They keep the more exciting animals – your tigers, your lions – in the middle, past the gates. But you can hear them. And I will take a free camel (and on a good day, a warthog). I’m glad I had already moved away when the aardvark burned alive.

Off to the side, near where you exit to Camden for fish and chips and fake leather jackets, there is an enormous water fountain with four basins, the kind of fountain that is more landmark than place to quench your thirst. Dogs drink there, and children. Adults are more likely to default to the cafe, selling £3 water bottles. You do not know who has had their mouth on the spout, or what happens to the water fountain after dark. I read a book once that spoke of the kind of animals that would fall out of a city, should you tip it upside down and shake it. A python ingests a pigeon on the streets of Lewisham, and that’s in broad daylight. Imagine the water fountain after dark, crawling with creatures. There might be alligators. Bears. Tigers, and their family members yowling behind bars in the zoo just down the path. I have run a lot of kilometres in Regent’s Park, and interrupted a lot of photographs. I am red-faced and scowling in the background of many albums. If anyone makes albums anymore.

Brockwell Park is tipped on its side, and people spread themselves out, scattered closer to the gates at the foot of the hill. Further up, there are views, and logs to sit on, but for that you have to climb, and it is easier to spread your blanket at the bottom. Closer to the pub, for when the rain comes. There is the lido, where I saw a woman slip and crack her head, and where I swam 20 lengths without stopping for the first time in years. Brockwell Park is a good example of a park that I think I know well, but I tread one path. There are whole loops and slopes that I’ve never been near. Blindfolded in Brockwell Park, I wouldn’t emerge for years.

Swimming is best done on Hampstead Heath, where you don’t count lengths, but circuits. The Hampstead Ladies Pond is one of the best places in London, and not just for seeing breasts. There is a heron who perches on a float in the roped-off part of the pond. You cannot swim there, because it belongs to him. The meadow is a perfect place. I would build my house there, nesting like a duck, out of pieces of reed. I am afraid of the bottom of the pond, but buoyant enough not to worry about it yet. I am slow in the Hampstead Ponds, and placid. I move gently, at a minimum. I do not break the water. I am not afraid of growing old when I am in the pond. There are many reasons to leave London, but the pond is a reason to stay. Parliament Hill in evening light is a reason. Four different size dogs running down the hill together is a reason. The houses that border the Heath, small cottages covered in flowers and thrumming with bees, are a reason. It is hot and quiet on Hampstead Heath, and there are whole stretches where you could be the only person in the world. You’re not, there are probably teenagers fucking over the next rise, and someone could be dying ten seconds away.

Finsbury Park is my backyard now. A 5 minute walk down a road where we nearly saw a child die while we were house-hunting one Saturday morning, swinging out into the centre of the road on her bright pink bike, directly into the path of an oncoming car, while her father (with his other, small child in a trailer on the back of his own, bigger bike) shouted. Finsbury Park is a utilitarian park. It is not beautiful in the way of Regent’s Park. It is smaller, and yellower, has both fewer trees and fewer open spaces. There are wider grassless patches. But it is useful – tennis courts, and basketball courts, and a skate park. It serves more people. It is not meant only to be beautiful.

At the back, where fewer people go, where Mansion House is closest, it is quieter and greener. It is a part I am only just getting to know. It is the part where girls go alone and spread out their towels and lie in swimsuits, preparing their tans for warmer holidays, or shutting their eyes and pretending they are there already. 5 years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of swimsuits in a park, where there is no hope of swimming, unless you care to share a shallow muddy stretch with ducks and dirt, but I know better now. You do not have to go swimming to put on a swimsuit. A holiday does not have to involve a plane. Going to a park in London is part of celebrating the fact that you are here, in a place that has most things (all things? Nearly all things) you could possibly want from a big grey city on a big grey river.

When Londoners go to parks, they slow down. They are ponderous and thoughtful, and they hold hands unironically. I do not want to push people out of my way when I am in a park. I am not in a rush, and I am not late. I want to wander, or lie, or sit. I want to eat greasy olives out of plastic tub, and hold a cold can between my warm knees. I want to brush dead grass from the backs of my calves and pinch my skirt between my thighs and squint against the sun. I want to shut my eyes, I want to slow down, I want to stop.

The Heatwave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four nights in New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My engagement story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the tube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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