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. 

Rubbish Day

This is the first chapter from some fiction I’ve been writing. As always, everything is pure fiction, I can only blame my lack of imagination for placing it squarely in my own neighbourhood.


There’s a foot in the bin. It’s the heel she spots first, bulbous and cracked, surfacing between two tied plastic bags like an air bubble in dough. Angel stares at it, familiar and unfamiliar. It doesn’t look like her foot (pale, flat, nail painted black). There’s no particular smell to it, or nothing to out-reek whatever her neighbours have turfed this week (vegetable peelings, and no condoms whatsoever). She twists her neck to stare up at their expensive shutters, already inclined against the golden light. She’s spent whole hours longing for their lofty position, and the slanting evening sun that’s lost to her lower level hours earlier. 

But you would shut your shutters, wouldn’t you, if you were dismembering people? She unhooks her fingers and lets the lid fall shut. This is, categorically, not her problem. 

The park is filled with people lounging in fingers of light, silver cans crushed beside them. They are London’s lizards, peeling off their skins in the last hot flush of summer. She walks with small tight strides. Angel has never mastered the art of the stroll; she trots like a pony with its knees tied together. She once saw a video of herself walking the outer rim of a garden at a wedding she had attended alone, pretending to inspect the flowers, and felt horrified at how self-consciously awful she looked on film. She watched the video thousands of times, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to find it on her phone and watch it again. She thought about it at least once a day. 

Finsbury Park is a comfortable place for her, though. Here, a man peeing openly against a fence; there is a 30-something in rolled shirt-sleeves lowering himself into a smear of dogshit. Finsbury Park is a waste dump of a green space, all the grass yellowed and dying, more rubbish bins than flowers. Even the teenagers who look her up and down don’t bother for too long. She rounds the bottom edge, continues up the promenade, watches the even tread of runners in black lycra streaming down the slope towards her. She used to dodge them, apologetic, until she realised it worked better if she pretended she was stationary, a rock diverting the flow of a river. 

Her phone chimes from her pocket, and she answers it without looking. “Hey Flo.”

Even her sister’s intake of breath is flustered. “It’s Florence now. You know that.” 

Angel rolls her eyes beneath her glasses. “I know, I do know. It’s just… long.” 

Her sister is 5’2 and has never been able to bear up under the name Florence. Even at 32, with twin boys, a husband chosen for his suitable height (5’7, not so tall as to emphasise Florence’s short-comings, not so short as to be sexually nullified) and the title of world’s shrillest accountant to her name, she is still not quite a Florence, and she knows it. Angel is certain that the only reason her sister is insisting on upgrading to her full-size name is to distract from her new surname. 

“So, Florence Villin, how are you?” She can’t keep the grin from her voice, but her sister lets it go, if only because 20 seconds has passed in the conversation, and she hasn’t bragged yet. 

“Oh, you know. Busy as all FUCK.” There’s noise in the background. “Had a board meeting today, even though we’re going to hit profitability this year earlier than expected – that means the company’s making money, Ange – they’re still keen for us to lock down a few more deals before Europe packs up for the summer. Hey, Ange, how long do you think madeleines have to be in the oven before they’re done?” 

“Is that a serious question? When’s the last time you think I baked a madeleine?”

Flo giggled. “I don’t know, shouldn’t you learn to cook? It really is fun. You might surprise yourself.” 

Ange is nearing the top of the hill, where the park flattens out. There are teams of men playing football, some in blue vests, shouting at each other. Is this how men keep their friends? 

“But then my oven would get dirty.” 

Something bangs in the background of the call, probably the Aga. She pictures her sister, with her sleek platinum and her slim wrists, and her madeleines, and feels a weird tweak of love, like an electric shock to her middle. 

Flo fills the silence. “Come for dinner?” 

Ange silently thanks the expansive plains of London. “Oh babe, you know I wish I could. Take an hour on the Tube though! Your risotto would be ruined.” 

Florence tuts then pauses. “Hey how did you know I was cooking risotto?”

“Five nights out of seven you cook risotto.”

“Eugh, you sound like Henry.” 

Ange smirks into the phone. “Well, tell him to bloody cook something.” 

Flo sighs. “You know as well as I do that that would be worse. He’d burn it and ruin the pan, and I’d have to cook anyway. It’s easier this way. Besides, he works so hard.” 

Ange knows better than to retort to this. They’d find themselves stuck in the endless conversational loop that saw Ange defending Flo, Flo defending Henry, Flo attacking Ange, Ange attacking Flow. Rinse, ruin, repeat. It was better just to agree. One of the football men was on the ground clutching a shin to his chest while the game moved around him. Ange wondered what he would do if she ran to him, put her hands on his leg, asked him where it hurt. Probably kick her in the face. 

“Yeah no, of course he does. So hard.” 

She walks for a few more minutes with the phone pressed to her cheek, comfortable in the ambient noise of Flo serving up dinner, running the tap, calling for her kids. The sounds echo around the big, basement Tufnell Park kitchen. Flo is the only person she knows in London who owns her entire house, all six floors of it, right up to a giant loft conversion. It makes Ange sick to think of the stairs, but the sounds are good, the flags of the kitchen. She feels like she’s listening to a podcast, an ASMR rendering of an ordinary life. Flo ruins it. 

“So, when can I come over? See the renovations?” 

Ange sighs exaggeratedly. “I’ve told you, you can come over anytime you want!”

“You always say that. Just pick a date, tell me a time. You know how many people’s schedules I have to work around.”

“I know, I know. I’m heading back home now. I’ll look at my calendar when I’m back, OK?” 

“Who has a paper calendar these days? Do they even make them anymore?” 

Angel doesn’t. She doesn’t know anyone who does, unless it’s a crappy Christmas gift, hung for the pictures, and never turned over at the right month. “I’m traditional.” 

She listens to the traditional sounds of her sister, a scraping of chairs, reverberating silence from Little Henry, who does not approve of either Ange or the presence of phones at the dinner table. A click of glasses. Water, not wine; neither Flo nor Henry drink during the week. Flo thinks about the half bottle of rosé in her fridge and quickens her pace. 

“OK, I’ll let you go,” she says. 

“OK, love you!”

“Love you, too.”

“Awwww, we love you too,” smirks a tall teenager in a blush-coloured two-piece, flanked either side by a posse with impossibly glossy hair. 

“Fuck you,” says Ange, walking into and through their incredulous silence. If they say anything back her ears shut it out, blurring all sound beautifully into the ambient human fog. Kids are so dumb. She stops herself from turning to see if they’re looking at her, and focuses on her walk. Even and steady, smooth and sexy. Untie those knees. 

As is her tradition, she stops by the corner store and picks up two cheap bottles of red wine on her way home. One has a fox on the label, and the other is the one with the biggest discount. As she queues she picks up wasabi peanuts and peanut M&Ms. The spicy peanut and the sweet peanut. If the woman at the till with the perfect eyebrows and the aggressive nose ring recognises her, she doesn’t say anything. Ange keeps looking at the vegan chocolate bars. She looks at them every time she queues. It makes no sense that anyone would buy them, unless they were dying. 

“Get the Vego,” a voice behind her says. 

She turns. The owner of the comment is blonde and slim, clearly vegan from the way his ribs stand out under his shirt. 

He continues, “The others aren’t as good. They’re more expensive too, trust me.”

She picks up her wine and leaves without speaking to him. He gives a half-laugh behind her. She doesn’t understand – has never understood, rails against – why people are always talking to her. Whether to insult or merely to remark, there’s something about her that invites comment. If she could figure out what it was, hair, stance, height, she would find a way to change it. At home, on her worn black couch, she drinks both bottles of wine, plus the half bottle of rosé  from the fridge, but leaves half the peanut M&Ms for breakfast. She wakes up still on the couch at 3am and drinks water from the tap without turning on the lights. The street lights catch the ivy leaves from her window, beaded with rain she didn’t hear fall. She feels her way to the bedroom and it’s only in the morning that she remembers the foot.

A trip to the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

“So where are you from then?”

“New Zealand, but, London.” 

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

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

“Smarter than me! I’m a butcher!” 

Blue cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mint sauce. 

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

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

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

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

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

The Wind

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

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

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

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

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