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.

A surprise lockdown wedding

The guests stand in huddles mandated by postcodes: couples, three flatmates, individuals separated by chairs marked with laminated signs. There are conspicuous gaps for the elephant in the room – for social distancing and for everything that has made 2020 a strange sad year. But no one is looking at the gaps. Every masked face is turned towards the door, and towards the couple moving down the aisle with no distance between them at all. 

There is nothing solemn about the way they say their vows. Everyone in the room is masked except for the bride and the groom and the small celebrant, who must have united a thousand couples with his simple secular words, but still manages to light them with new humour and understanding. It is impossible to be solemn, standing in our odd, unnatural groupings, as they repeat their promises back to each other, and into the camera in the corner of the room, which holds absent friends, and absent bridesmaids, and families up before dawn to watch a marriage over the internet. We are masked, but you can see all our smiles anyway. 

The weather is grey, the courtyard is deserted and beautiful, and the fountain foams like the champagne we sip from plastic flutes. The bride’s dress soaks up the rain from the flagstones because this, after all, is a London wedding, but the flowers are brighter in the surrounding gloom. The groom is a bunched ball of joy; he can’t stop smiling in his blue suit with his new bride, he looks into her eyes like he’s won the lottery. 

Walking down the streets to the reception only takes ten minutes but we are heralded by a hundred London commuters slamming sanitised hands on their horns for this union of strangers. The drivers of the red buses won’t join in, but everyone else does. It feels like confirmation that underneath the storm, the earth holds firm; this love is bedrock, and the virus merely another troubled sea. Even as walking in a group of thirteen feels like an impossible crime; even as hugging best friends feels unfamiliar. 

The reception is held in the upstairs room of The Alma, and when we enter the busy pub, the entire room applauds, like a scene in a romantic movie where everything turns out alright in the end. They are on their feet as we walk up the stairs, and they are not just applauding at the handsome groom with his immense grin, and not just at the beautiful bride holding her skirt as she ascends, but at the fact that they can share in the joy of strangers, and have one moment of perfect pleasure. 

The room is big, and for just a moment you feel the gaps. Wedding receptions are places where you get reunited with old friends, and where cousins stand awkwardly in corners, and where children chase each other in mad tangles under tables. At wedding receptions you peer anxiously around for waiters to get food; you chase empty trays of glasses to top yourself up. There are no crowds here, only the same familiar few who have dragged each other through the long lonely months, and found themselves here. It feels like a reward. 

The wedding favours are hand sanitisers emblazoned with the date. The food and wine is delicious, and the waitress smiles as she tops up negronis. The polaroid pictures grow blurry and dramatic as the 10pm curfew approaches. The music is warm and familiar, part of the bones of the friendships. We cannot dance; we are not allowed to touch, but we lean into each other as much as we can, we circle and sway. There are no speeches and no readings, but there are plenty of declarations of love. 

It is not the wedding they planned, but it is perfect anyway. They are not from London, but I know them as a London couple, together through hard jobs and difficult flatmates; through heat waves and road trips and protests and Sunday afternoons and moving days and picnics and gigs and theatres and restaurants and long walks in parks. I know them under umbrellas and covered in glitter; wet with sea salt and drenched by rain. I know them shoulder to shoulder on wooden pub tables and smeared with sunscreen in July. They are small bedrooms that smell of smoke, and happy reunions in crowded festivals. They are a couple who wait for each other, and put each other first. They make sense as individuals, but better sense hand-in-hand.

She is vivid and stunning; she is all eyes; she is a stream of hair and a blur of tulle. This is not the wedding it was supposed to be, in a bare New Zealand landscape topped with empty skies. We haven’t toasted marshmallows, nor stood in a tent, nor posed against a low yellow hotel. 

He is tall and impossibly happy, he is bright teeth and crushing hugs. They are never far from each other, his hand on her bare back, their heads tipped together for pictures. In the Polaroids they are shoulder to shoulder and indistinguishable, they meet in the middle in a flash of light.

On rotation

I am on rotation: phone, to laptop, to TV, to Kindle. I can force myself out under the red leaves, but I always come back. 

At the beginning we were obsessed with counting the days but the daily counting has stopped. The numbers are too high, and it no longer feels like counting down to anything. We are waiting for 2021, as if January will rinse the world. We are still anxiously counting our dead.

In the meantime: I watch Hocus Pocus and light candles and bake cinnamon rolls. I think about jumpers and hygge and leaning into the low light of autumn, but I am resisting it.

Voting in the NZ election feels like doing one thing right, though the election is over, done and won, and our votes haven’t even been counted. In past elections the overseas vote has felt important and elemental, but not this time. NZ is fine and fixed, better without us. It would drift further away if it could without coming back. 

I am on rotation: work, run, eat, sleep. At least there is distraction. On Wednesday a pipe burst in the apartment above ours and water flooded the light fittings in the bathroom. I got a bucket, got towels, cut the power to the house too late. Our garden flat has been a sanctuary and a solace, but nothing is exactly safe from 2020, and I am all too aware of the rats in the walls and the water in the ceilings. 

There are pockets of peace, in writing, and walks in the park, and calls with friends and family. It is impossible not to play a comparison game, and sometimes it feels like waiting for the inevitable. Another person leaves London, another leaves for home. We are playing chicken with our own plans for the future. I can’t even think as far ahead as Christmas. 

In spring, at the beginning of this eternal year, I used the ducklings to mark the time, but now there is just the increasing loss of light in the evening. I remember years gone, watching the evening turn night by 4pm from the wide white windows of my office, but it was less of a loss than a nighttime playground. There is no point in buying a new coat, and no one is sending me emails about Christmas pub lunches. I miss the giant Covent Garden Christmas tree, and the ridiculous oversize baubles they hang in the market hall. 

On Thursday, I got sick (from stress, from nothing, out of boredom?). A fever, and a cough, enough to make me trace my steps and order a test. I stood in the kitchen while my husband rolled a swab five times against my tonsils; I had to do the nose swab myself for fear of puncturing my own brain. I put my swab in water, in a tube, in a bag, in a chemical waste bag, in a box, with a seal, and walked it to the priority post box in my mask. It feels like an over-reaction, or a precaution, or a strain on the system, or nothing at all, or my own mild participation in the end of the world. 

On Friday a colleague asked me about an accomplishment I was proud of, and I couldn’t remember anything at all, though I know I’ve been proud (and arrogant, and vain) before.

I am on rotation: bored, sad, hopeful, grateful, scared. We make plans to paint and renovate, move and travel, get another cat. We move between the rooms of our house slowly, and separately. I pull out the weeds in the garden, cut back the impossible bramble, and watch it grow through the fence again. Winter feels long, then short, then long again. I am waiting for all kinds of things: a test result, a vaccine, any kind of certainty, and a reason to run away.

The end of summer is everywhere

The end of summer is everywhere; the birds are grown, the leaves are beginning to turn, and in the morning I leave the house in long sleeves. The canal paths are still baked hard, and the water high with green weed, but I can already see the grooved dirt giving way to slush, and the water icing at the edges. The drowned supermarket trolley has grown a green skin. They have cleared the summer growth from the paths, widening them to walkers but revealing empty cardboard boxes, chicken bones, piles of old clothes, suitcases with gaping zips. It’s the time of year when the light plays tricks on you, growing golder earlier in the afternoon, so you lose sense of time. 

Like so many others, I have misplaced six months. There is almost exactly half a year between my sister’s birthday and my own, and only three days after hers, I left the office for the last time, set up my monitor on my kitchen table, and put a picture on Instagram with the caption, “The new normal.” In the picture, the door is open just a crack, the garden still winter-dark, with wide patches of mud in the grass. My birthday is soon, and there is a bracket around the time that has passed. You don’t have to count it towards your age, the internet laughs. It doesn’t count. Be kind to yourself. Survival is enough. 

This morning, a kind osteopath told me there was nothing structurally wrong with me. He rolled me on my side and drove his full body weight into my hip. “These new routines we have,” he said, readjusting his mask under the bridge of his glasses, “we sit more, we’re sedentary, your body has finally noticed it.” 

I have run most days of lockdown, sometimes as far as 14 kilometers, some hard mornings as short as three, or two. The cold March and April mornings were somehow the easiest. They were bluest, and the strangest, my one permitted outing into the defrosting London parks filled with other runners, taking long steps around each other. I was proud of myself for finding a new routine with my gym closed. I have always been fearful of running outside. I’m scared of getting yelled at, and getting lost, in equal measure. I bought trail shoes to navigate the cambered paths. 

Even the hottest runs were satisfying, especially the mornings when I rose too early, and had to run through 27 degree minutes. I ran myself out on the slight hills of north London. Even on the slowest runs, I could leave things behind on the paths: the parents I can’t travel to see, the books I couldn’t read, the things I couldn’t write, the horrible spiral-shaped unknown. 

When I’m really injured, or sick, a part of me steps aside, turns around, and accuses me of faking. Even when the thermometer reads hot, and I cough my guts out; even as every tread sends a shock of pain up my back, I question the veracity of my weakness. It’s because I’ve faked it too many times, I know, and spent too many hours patting my own lazy back. “You’re not trying hard enough,” I accuse her. She knows it’s true. 

Everyone I know is moving. Selling, buying, moving, fleeing. Everyone is counting down to 2021 as if on the stroke of the midnight, when the year expires, coronavirus will too, and we’ll all get a shiny new do-over. I’m not moving, or fleeing, but only because I don’t know where to go, or how to get there. It’s not just the virus, it’s the uncertainty, and the utter impossibility of making and executing a plan. 

My osteopath told me I could try running again, and so I did. I managed two kilometers before the pain came back. It’s enough to leave some of it behind, but it always catches back up.