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.

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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.

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.

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.”

My body remembers how to float

I haven’t swum properly in years, and it shows. It shows in my body, first of all, in this too-tight Nike swimsuit purchased from ASOS in the sale, and it shows in the way I approach the water: hesitant, giggly, like I’m going on a date.

At 11 I was a really good swimmer. At least, I remember being really good. Being really good amounted to multiple swimsuits, chlorine-stained, stuffed in the airing cupboard to dry between swims, and ugg boots lined with fetid wool which was never really dry, and a quick snap of fingers to put on my swim cap. We swam at the Navy pool, 30 metres long, all dark grey concrete and no frippery at all. It had white lines at the bottom so you could follow the lanes with your head down, each ending in a T so you knew when you had time for two strokes and a turn, or a bashed head. The lane ropes were made or large, hard plastic floats, rough enough to make your fingers bleed if a stroke went awry. The deep end was properly deep, deep enough that I couldn’t swim strongly enough to touch the bottom for a couple of years, deep enough that even when I could, coming back up was uncertain. Where was the top, and would I find it?

And at the sides of the pool, deep gutters where the water ran in and out, and in which you could lose your cap and goggles, sucked in the filters and into the beyond. Once something went into the filters, you never got it back.

I think I only swam twice a week, but when I look back it feels like I was there every night. It was always dark and floodlit, and we never wore proper clothes: only dressing gowns and slippers. I don’t remember what the changing rooms looked like; I’m not sure I ever went in. It was only: home from school, stuff full of toast, change into swimsuit, get driven to the pool, laps, laps, laps, towel, dressing gown, home. 

I remember being good, but I’m not sure that I was good. All I remember was the lap clock, and boards, and pull buoys. I really hated pull buoys: small pieces of foam you held between your knees to stop you kicking and put more strain on your arms. I hated the boards even more, because I relied heavily on my arms, and when I had to swim with only my legs I’d get cramp in my toes, and with the cramp, the certainty that I would drown in the dark deep end.

I went back to swimming in the Brockwell Lido, halfway round the world and bright blue rather than black, but otherwise much the same: long, laned and freezing. I entered the pool with the confidence that I was a good swimmer and came up gasping, the freezing (16 degrees, but it felt colder) water clutching at my chest and drawing my lungs in. I was out of breath before one length was through and I thought: this is age. All these years of describing myself as a good swimmer, lies.

My body remembers how to float, though. It likes the surface, and something in muscles remember the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, and so it is only after 1000 metres that I really stop. It feels like longer, but also part of me feels like I never really left the water: pulling off my cap, feeling the water in my untrapped hair.

And then later, in the changing rooms, looking at my face. I never remembered those red red rings around my eyes and across my nose, risible in their intensity, and I think that’s simply because I looked in the mirror less. Now, of course, I don’t leave the pool without showering, shampooing, blow-drying, snapping on a bra and sticky knickers, trying to disguise my red-rimmed face with foundation, concealer, powder, mascara, try to disguise the fact that I was submerged and sweating only ten minutes prior. I feel sad about that while knowing that if I attempted the 35 minute walk home, through the centre of Brixton, clad in nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, I might die.

There’s a contraption in the changing room that I’ve never seen before: a mechanised wringer, into which you fold your sodden swimsuit, and pump the handle, so that it spins at speed and loses most of the water. I’ve never seen one before, and I get gently mocked for that, by gentle ladies with grey hair and no makeup at all, who seem like they might live here.

On the way out, one of my gentle mockers walks on the wet concrete of the outdoor shower and falls, hard, on her back, her head meeting the concrete with a sound that makes the bones of my own skull grind. She’s surrounded by people in seconds, but lies there stunned, a fish, before she starts to yell at the staff, at the wet patch, at her attendees to bring her a towel. She’s brought 3 towels before someone finds the right one. She seems fine, but she is smart enough not to swim. She walks back into the changing room with her goggles in her hand, and someone puts an orange cone in the centre of the slippery patch.

When I went to intermediate school, I stopped swimming lengths and started playing water polo, and that’s where I learned that there is swimming and there is swimming. Suddenly, I was playing underwater rugby, male and female hands gripping at arms and fabric, coming out of the pool with bruises and tears, and I thought I might have found something worse than cramp that took you to the bottom of a cold dark deep end. One thing I took away from it was egg beater, a way of moving your legs when floating that keeps you at a steady height, and conserves energy. Sometimes, on holiday, in a blue Mediterranean sea, I swim out a little deeper than I need to, and remind my legs and my knees of the motion. They always remember.

There’s a casual water polo league at the Brockwell Lido, if you can play water polo casually, which I’m not sure I believe you can, but I like the idea of it, as a way of remembering how to stay afloat.

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me. There’s nothing that weird about that, really, except that there are other free seats, and I don’t want him there.

I haven’t made eye contact with him at all. I know he’s there in the way of: he is male, he is large, his shoulder is big against mine. And his face is turned towards me, but he could be looking out of the window or he could be looking for his stop, or he could be looking at me while his shoulder presses against mine and his hip moves over his seat into mine, or he might be doing none of those things.

I won’t look at him.

The bus is pretty full. It’s 7pm on a Saturday night, and everyone is on this bus: old people and young people, people who have been shopping and people who have been drinking. I fall into the latter category. I have spent the afternoon with new friends who write, sitting at close quarters in a pub, watching how well they all know each other. I am wearing a white t-shirt and a yellow skirt and a leather jacket I bought in Camden Market for £25, and all of this happened more than four years ago, and I remember all of this.

I have to stretch across him to press the buzzer, and I know now that he is looking at me. I don’t look at him – but I do have to touch him, as I pull my jacket closer around me, hook my bag from my shoulder.

Isn’t it weird, the way we use shoulders? As convenient nooks, as biological hangers. A thing to perch a bird on, a thing to hang a bag off. And, in this case, in his case, a way to say: I am bigger than you. I am stronger than you. I will not get out of your way.

There are so many people on this bus, and nothing is happening, really, but my insides don’t know that: my stomach is balled up tight, and my brain has pushed any residual alcohol RIGHT back, so I am focused, I am present, I could run a marathon or sit an exam, everything is set to ON. I can feel the tips of my fingers. I can feel the all edges of myself. I feel every part of him that is touching me. Nothing is happening, really, but my body knows that could change.

“Excuse me.”

He doesn’t stand up. Instead he swings his knees to the side, a bit, so there is space for me to pass. This is normal, if you are friends, if you are lazy, if the aisles are full, if you are old. I press myself against the seat in front of him, and his hip and shoulder have left me now, but his hand hasn’t.

I still haven’t looked at him, because looking is an invitation. If he follows me off the bus now, rapes me, leaves me in an alleyway, I will have no way of giving anyone even the barest description of him, because I can’t make myself look at him.

He follows me off the bus. It is a busy road and I am 100 metres from my front door. His shoulder is back on my mine as he speaks for the first time.

“Where are you going? Can I come with you? I’m coming with you.” He’s trying to hold my hand.

Because it is London, I am holding an umbrella, and so I do the only thing I can think of: I put it up and hold it between us, like a shield.

My memory here is just of us, but this was Finsbury Park, early on a Saturday night. There must have been 200 people within shouting distance, there must have been 10 people watching a girl trying to fend off a man with an umbrella. But maybe, like I might have, they saw only a lover’s tiff. After all, he was only trying to hold my hand.

With my other hand, the hand that is not trying to stave off his grip with an umbrella, I call my boyfriend. He answers quickly.

“I was followed off the bus, please meet me at the front door.” I am 50 metres from my front door and closing fast. I am speaking very loudly.

“Fuck you.” And he is gone, the pressure from my umbrella gone. I am at my front door with the umbrella up, though there is no rain, and my boyfriend is there.

“Which one is he? Where did he go?”

But I have no idea.

Later, on the couch, I think it’s funny. What did he do, after he left me? Did he have to go back to the bus stop, wait for the same bus to come again, to get to where he was actually going? Or was that his plan for the evening – sit next to women until one of them let him come with her? Or until he found one who didn’t have a boyfriend down the road, who didn’t have a front door opening on to a busy street, who didn’t have an umbrella?

Chutney and cheese, but mostly hair

Yesterday evening, I spent £204 on my hair. This might seem like a lot. That’s because it is a lot. It’s an obscene amount of money, and sometimes I’m not sure why I pay it. I have my reasons – I assemble them every 12 weeks, when the wedge of roots at my parting is thick, but collected, on a page, in a list, I’m not sure they’re enough. It’s half my monthly rent. It’s what I paid for a pair of boots, eight years ago, when I learned that someone I loved had kissed someone I liked, and even then I could only bring myself to pay half (one boot, if you will), as a down-payment. And then I went to a lecture and saw them together, and went back the same day and bought the other boot. I still have them. The point of that being – it was so difficult for me to spend that much money on boots that it took two goes to do it, even when I was angry and sad and out-of-sorts, and now I spend that same money every 12 weeks on my hair.

George, though. When I sit in his chair and look at him reflected back at me, I feel the same way I do when I get on a long flight: like every responsibility I have at that time is gone, for a few hours. They’ve introduced WIFI on planes, now, but I’ve so far managed to pretend that they haven’t, so I can salvage those few hours of contact-free time, in which to watch a bad movie (preferably one I’ve seen before), and drink two glasses of wine, and fall asleep with my mouth open.

It’s not quite the same in George’s chair, because I do have my phone, and I do answer emails, and I do look at Instagram and Twitter. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t really do anything. So last night I sat and watched my reflection (reddened nose from two days of a cold, eyebrows in need of attention, eyes completely free of eyeliner for maybe the first time in 15 years because I keep sneezing it off) as George applied pieces of foil to it for an hour and a half, then left me sitting under a heat lamp for 45 minutes, then rinsed and toned for another 30 minutes, then cut and finished for the final 30. When you tot it up, you understand why it costs what it does. I’ve spent more time with George in the last few years than I have with my Dad.

It’s never quite perfect, because I am very exacting. Turning hair that was born brown, and has been manipulated through varying shades of ginger, black, purple and red red red over all the years, blonde is not an easy task, particularly when it keeps on growing like it does. When you think about it, it’s some sort of chemical mastery: to take two inches of grown-out virgin hair, and paint dye on every second strand, and watch it take under hot lights, until it looks as close to the rest of the hair on my head as possible. Every two inches of my hair has been dyed at a different time. I’m a patchwork. I’m a mish-mash. I’m a lot of hard work.

Anyway, four hours isn’t always that easy to come by, not when your hairdresser doesn’t work every day of the week and you don’t finish work until six at the earliest and your weekends are packed full of birthdays abroad, and leaving parties, and brunches (this isn’t a plea for pity, obviously, only an honest appraisal of the hours of a week). So I took a half day – quite a decision when you’ve only got two days of leave left for the entire year, an inevitability when you have three jobs and nine overseas holidays in a 365 day period – and abandoned my work for George, and four hours of being massaged and tugged and stroked. Maybe I don’t pay George enough.

When I left his chair it was nearly 6pm, and very dark. I roll my eyes at every person who exclaims surprise at the darkening evenings, but I do it myself. It is very dark at 4pm, and 5pm, and still very dark at 6pm. Because it was very dark, and because I have the sense of direction of a rock, I walked down a different road to my usual, and I walked past a specialist condiments shop. It calls itself a deli, which makes sense because it is one, but all I saw in the darkness was a window stacked high with hundreds of different kinds of chutney.

You might not know this about me, but I really love chutney. I love it with a passion. There are limitations to this passion, because I really only love it as an accompaniment to cheese, but when the two are paired, my love knows no bounds. If I could eat nothing for the rest of my life but strong blue cheese and caramelised onion chutney, I would be content. Smelly, and slightly mouldy, and well-preserved, and content.

They were closing up, because it was after six, at least five staff sweeping and dusting and packing away big chunks of cheese. They all said hello to me. None of them said they liked my hair. I asked to be directed to the savoury chutneys, and the tallest one showed me the way. “We arrange them by brand,” he said. “But if you don’t know which brand you like best, try these.” A wicker basket, with a Christmas ribbon, filled with small £2 pots of chutney in all different flavours. He left me to choose, and I chose three: caramelised onion, Spicy English, and Christmas chutney. “Well done”, he said, as I approached the till. And I did feel like I had done some good work, that day.

It is a nice world we live in where you can walk past a specialty chutney shop, and buy three different kinds for £6, and it felt like a nice world as I sat on my couch on a Friday night and tried my three different kinds of chutney with two different types of blue cheese (one from Sainsbury’s, one from Neal’s Yard, after I’d wandered in with with my departing best friend on a cold lunch break, and been taken on a spontaneous tour of the female cheesemakers of England). The onion one was the best, because it always is. The spicy one was good. And the Christmas one went perfectly with my female cheese. At the end, I was all crumbs and bits and perfect hair, licking chutney off my wrist. On the screen, Dakota Johnson ordered a quinoa salad.

Glastonbury, again

Tomorrow I go to Glastonbury for the second time ever, and perhaps for the first time in the sun. The forecasts are divided on the latter – some, I feel, are deliberately skewing whatever the weather gods are brewing, simply to foster the fear of the myriad 20-somethings trying to stuff clothes for every clime into a single backpack. I don’t know. I don’t care. I will burn in the sun, and I will moan in the rain, and I will slip in the mud, and I will inhale the hot grey dirt, and I won’t care because I will be back in The Glastonbury Bubble.

It doesn’t exist elsewhere, at least not anywhere I’ve found. I’m sure people manage to recreate it by getting on planes to distant timezones and shutting their phones in bedside drawers and pretending to be people other than who they are (people without debt, problems, issues, deadlines). I’ve tried, lounging poolside somewhere glorious, or stomping the streets of somewhere cheap and foreign. It doesn’t compare, somehow, because for me, the Glasto Bubble exists within me, as well as without.

It doesn’t mean no cell-phone reception, or salubrious surrounds, or entertainment so utterly entertaining that my brain loses its ability to latch onto slights and sadness from months gone by. It’s some sort of haphazard intangible combination of all of them: me, standing somewhere strange but familiar, surrounded by all the people I love, with no desire to be anywhere else.

I just about always, just a little bit, wish myself somewhere else. It’s like having a brain laid out like City Mapper – this route is faster, but more crowded; this one gentle, but with multiple changes. There are many ways to get to where I want (happy, entertained, bladder empty, no ominous looming amorphous sense of guilt), but disaster strikes when I have to choose. I’m afraid of choosing the wrong one. I’m afraid of the road not taken.

Glastonbury is laden with choices but all of them are good. Eat haloumi on the grass, or down a cider in the shade. Watch this act, or that act, or the other one you’ve never heard of. Get side-tracked on a wooden bench with a dreadlocked hippy. Fall asleep in the Stone Circle. There is a sunrise and sunset, but there isn’t really time because nothing happens when it ought to. I know what I sound like. I’m a 29-year-old child of privilege paying £300 to go stand in a paddock covered in glitter. I don’t care. I wish I was there now. I wish I were there always.

Last Glastonbury was my first, and, arguably many people’s worst. I can’t tell you for sure, because it was my best, being my first, but: the mud was knee-deep and gelatinous, and while we were there, Brexit occurred. The combination is a gross one, physically unsettling and emotionally ruinous. Someone stole most of the money I’d brought with me. It rained a lot.

It didn’t ruin the mood, any of it, and I don’t know why. There was still this charge, an energy. Maybe it was even brought on by the brewing political muck, the knowledge that when we got out, we’d have to face it. It wasn’t a question of ignoring it, because that wasn’t possible: every group you passed was talking about it, and every performer who took to the stage mentioned it. Instead, it brewed.

I’d like to think that we were subsequently, on that Monday morning, released upon the world as a tide of political ferocity, but that’s shit. We were knackered and dirty, and we went home and slept for 16 hours, and when we woke up, we did what everyone else was doing: dealt with it in whatever way was easiest. It’s easy to be political at Glastonbury because everyone is on the same team. It stays within the gates.

I’d like to say that this year the worst has happened. Trump is in. The Tories might be in trouble but they still hold the power, and they’re trying to give some of it to the DNP. Manchester Arena and Borough Market and Westminster are all examples of terrorist activity that, in any other year, would stand alone as the most horrendous thing to have happened, except they happened within weeks of each other. Grenfell Tower is testament to the fact that it doesn’t take a terrorist to wreak horror. Surely, then, these 5 days stand a chance of being peaceful.

I don’t really believe that, because I have my eyes open. I don’t believe that, because the security at Glastonbury has been stepped up. What a target, this liberal playground. If you wanted to wound me in particular, it would be the best target ever: both my sisters will be there, my boyfriend, my best friends. Stormzy, Lorde (not on the same level, but I do love them both).

I don’t really believe that, because I live on Stockwell Road, where sirens chime every five minutes, blazing up and down the superheated concrete. The night Grenfell Tower went up, I was woken by them, and I wondered, what now?

One thing I try to remember is this: some of the sirens are saviours. Look for the helpers, is the sentiment I hear most now, look for the ones rushing to aid the injured and subdue the cruel. They’re everywhere.

They’ll be at Glastonbury, too: Corbyn introducing Run The Jewels, my sisters holding hands in the rain and heat, the same friends who handed money to me, unthinkingly, to reimburse my losses last year, the volunteers, the drug-testers. The strangers who yank one another out of mud, lend tissues and gum, stand in respectful queues.

The Glastonbury Bubble isn’t real, not really, but I believe in it anyway. While I am there I won’t wish myself somewhere else or someone else. Eventually, I’ll hear the sirens again. But I won’t be listening for them.