Covent Garden

I like those first moments in the morning that are only mine, when I emerge from the gullet of the Covent Garden lifts onto the pavement. It is only empty by comparison, because there are plenty of us, thronging through the gates. There are people dressed in matched black and blue tracksuits trying to give me a leaflet for a gym membership, and others still horizontal on collapsed cardboard boxes with paper cups full of coins stood in front. Still others hose the payments, or bend double to unlock doors to stores that will later be full of shoppers. By most standards I am surrounded, but in these morning minutes, there is no one who wants to speak to me, and that is the difference.

Covent Garden in the morning is a gift-wrapped box, and each time I look at it I feel a it little bit more deeply. It is an old place, from the uneven cobblestones to the rising arches of the market and maybe that is why the buskers give me pause; painted silver and gold and twisting strangely on their hidden gravity-defiant stands, they might be unfamiliar ghosts, and not the clowns they seem. Covent Garden is a gaudy graveyard, stood around with glass boxes of lipstick and chocolate and ornaments.

I am in the minority of most of the transitory visitors to Covent Garden in that my workplaces have allowed me to be semi-permanent here. I have moved house plenty, but remained here for all but 5 weeks of my seven years spent working in London. Most people work in the city, or at least up in Soho, or Oxford Circus, where there is some population of big buildings, but I have always been in Covent Garden with the tourists. My face is in the background of a great many snaps, shared with family back home. I am that Londoner, impatiently walking against the tide and at my own pace. I do not have time for the metallic buskers.

Last week, I arrived at work to find a shit collected in a napkin and smushed against the glass walls of my office building. I described it on social media as a human shit, and someone asked me how I knew, and that was a fair question. I suppose there was something in the thickness, or the consistency, or maybe it was merely because it was in a napkin, suggestive of toilet paper. It stayed there all day, stuck to the glass immediately to the left of the spinning doors, so that wafts of shit moved inside the building with each rotation, from 8am until 6:30pm when I departed, only by the end of the day it had slid slightly down the glass, leaving a smudged trail. I suppose the desk staff didn’t see it as their responsibility to remove fecal matter from the panes, but I would have thought it worse to watch its slow progression down the glass for 10 hours. After two glasses of wine, walking past later, at 8pm, the shit was gone, with only a slight smear to show where it had once stuck. I don’t know what moves a person to pick up a shit in a napkin, let alone to stick it to an office window.

8am in Covent Garden recently has been very clear and blue and cool. The spring (the sky is falling) sky renders the stone of the market warmer, like you could lay your palms against it and feel a heartbeat. It has been a market in some form or another since 1652, longer back that I can bend my mind around, but the stones under foot help: rounded and smooth under hundreds of years of tread.

8am in Covent Garden is exactly the right kind of lonely. The tourists are still in their AirB&Bs, or safe underground clutching their suitcases with aeroplane eyes, and there is little chance of bumping into a colleague. Most of the stores are still shut and those who share the footpaths with me keep their eyes on the cobbles. Walking down Long Acre, I can see through to Leicester Square, onward to Piccadilly Circus. Inside the next 60 minutes, the city wakes up and starts to thrum with the familiar voices and lights and shouts and cars, but for those minutes I can make it mine. Sometimes I move too quickly through. I have walked the same route so many times, I can sleep through it. But sometimes the light is right, and I have slept enough, and I am awake to it: the age and beauty of it, the strange stacked juxtaposition of old stones and glass window displays of sharp new shoes, and I can appreciate the sun-warmed stone against that same blue sky.

A New Zealand wedding

In June I get married, but I have not been to very many weddings. I have never been a bridesmaid. Partially, this is because of my absence or the elopement of others; mostly it is because not very many of my good friends are married. We are growing up slowly, or, rather, doing things differently. Our milestones look different, and are further apart. But I am glad for marriages, and for flagrant, unabashed celebrations of unions. Marriage is just a piece of paper, but so is a poem, a promise, a contract, a treaty. I will never not be glad for two people, standing in front of loved ones, making promises to each other.

This week, I travelled a very long way to go to a wedding. If you were going to plan the perfect New Zealand wedding, it is this one. It takes place on a slanted green lawn (mown, at the behest of one of the grooms, in perfect straight lines) beneath an enormous green tree hung all over with paper lanterns. The pohutukawa is in bloom and the blue sky is bigger and bluer than it has been before. We cluster in the small patches of shade on the family property.

The guests are people with history. I talk to friends I haven’t seen for a decade, people whose sexual history and drunken antics I recall at the same time as hoping they have forgotten mine. Everyone is more beautiful than they used to be. We grew up crooked and not-quite-cool. We bought our clothes in surf shops and our make-up from a selection of five shades in a chemist. We had awkward haircuts and cheaply striped highlights. We had posters of All Blacks in underwear on our walls and drank Smirnoff from the bottle and ate dinner at 5pm. We text each other under 120 character restrictions, for 20 cents a pop and took our lecture notes on pads of paper. We are older now, and nicer. We tread around the edges of lives we no longer share. I look at pictures of babies and talk about babysitters. Where before I knew the details, now I know only the outlines.

I am an outsider, here. But I don’t feel like it as I watch two of my favourite people take hands and pledge love with an honesty and gratitude that pulses with life. I have left my sarcasm and skepticism at the door, and I hope never to let it back in as they gaze into each other’s eyes without blinking. Wide-eyed, the grooms survey a crowd of people who watched them wander, then find each other.

I know both grooms, but I know one particularly well. He is a perfectionist, and a planner. He is a fan of fine fabrics and matched textures. He likes to be certain. His is a wedding planned with precision, each minute allocated, with a timesheet that spans two pages. He is incremental and studied and certain, and I remember very well his certainty when he met his partner-to-be. I remember, too, that he feared his feelings, which were not careful or predictable, but instead fervid and frightening, and overflowing. He has nothing to be afraid of anymore.

I was frightened when he asked me to write a poem to be read at his wedding, especially when I learned that he didn’t want to hear it first. It was the only part of the ceremony he left beyond his control, and I was very aware of the responsibility of that. I played with the words for months before I wrote them, all in a burst, having woken up at midnight with everything neatly written in my unconsciousness.

As I read it, they watched me, taking in each word. It wasn’t easy to keep tremor from my voice (I am a nervous reader at the best of times) as their eyes welled up. In the end I forgot the crowd and only watched them, and I forgot to be nervous.

After the ceremony there were drinks, and then food and speeches, and I sat next to my fiance and across from a very old and extremely beloved friend, with my sister close by, and felt very very lucky. I am grateful for my life, but often sorry for things I have left behind. This week, I was reminded that geographical distance doesn’t need to mean anything; that true friends remain true; and that prolonged absence only means longer and better stories to tell upon reunion. Shared history is everything, and even your changes are shared. And every reunion is another strand to your history. This one is seedy motels and ginger crunch and blue views from green peaks, and the next one will be different, and the same. 

New Zealanders love a joke, and there were plenty of those at this wedding, but running through everything, from the anecdotes, to the cake the groom baked, was a thread of genuine unceremonial love. My wedding will look very different from this one, in nearly all respects, but I hope to draw that same thread with me across hemispheres, and pull it through my own vows, and my own relationship.

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For Rupert and Matt, on love

I want to spend a day behind your eyes, to see the world the way you do.

A piece of driftwood cast up on a black sand beach isn’t perfect by any reach of the imagination but in my imagination, we are sitting on it, our knuckles knots and bolts. There are boulders that rolled out of the earth whole and perfect as pearls, and then split upon arrival for no reason at all, other than the shock of arrival.

I am glad they don’t have a recording of the first time I saw you, standing tall across the room with your smile like a neon beam, because no one needs to see the moment I first understood all the fuss about Moby Dick.

The only secret I keep from you is that I like it when you get things wrong. I like it when your fingers slide off the keys and create discord, a new chord. I like reassuring you, and the way you look up. I always want to make you feel better.

People make a lot of fuss about fixing broken things, clay remade with gold, but perhaps we’re better staying as we are. Our time-rough edges have their own harmony.

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There is true love and then there is us: I would not have taken the apothecary’s poison, but rather stayed alive for 400 years, drawing pictures of you, the nose, and the eyes. I would need at least 400 years to get them right. I would draw caricatures on the street for money and each one would look like you. Dying with you would be a waste of all the things I could tell the world about you, because no one else gets to see your fingers slipping off the keys.

There are many worlds in which we did not meet. The driftwood floats on a rising tide, and there are whole perfect boulders still swallowed in the earth. The lovers live, the whale dies.

There are a thousand worlds in which we did not meet, and so, found together in this one, I will not risk leaving our sea-wrecked Oxford bench. I’m not afraid of time, and I close my eyes with you in them.

 

The bach

There is more light here than I remember, or maybe I have new, dark, London eyes. It glances off white sand and wave tops as off a mirror, crashes back at me in shades of silver, and more silver. I can’t go outside without sunglasses, and even then I squint through my cheap frames. Everything is in sharp relief and yet I can’t look at anything directly, except the shadows in the short grass that pricks my soft heels.

I am too soft for the bright light and the hot tar and the blades of grass. I shower and swim, but I’m not clean, coated all over in a thick smear of sunscreen, with sand under my nails and between my toes and drifting from my hair. Makeup sits oddly on my skin and in my pores, too obviously fake in the sunlight. My hair smells like barbecues.

I will not come back to the bach again. There are hundreds of white shells stacked beautifully between the bricks, and bright red flowers that bloom against the old wood of the garage, then close in the evening, and bloom again. There is a cold concrete floor, and two oddly placed sinks, and collages of photographs that show me growing up. The graffiti done by my little sister and her friends (slashes of silver and red and orange, science jokes, their own names again and again) will not survive the sale of this space. The area is gentrifying, baches built upon, and busted down, and rebuilt as architecturally elegant squares of glass and metal, primary homes rather than repurposed garages, and what was once a sleep-out will be a part of the bigger footprint of a more beautiful home.

This is not a place I grew up in – I was already grown, aged 20, or near enough, when it became ours. But it is under my skin in a way none of the earlier rented spaces are, and leaving it for the last time is a loss I feel. I want to remember the thin sliding doors and the badly-positioned light switches and the very small kettle; the sound of the water pump when the taps are turned, and the heavy footsteps of anyone up the groaning stairs. I will remember the umbrella on the deck lifted clean away by gusts of wind, and the wooden-slatted lounger bought by my uncle. I cannot claim ownership of the deep green armchairs or the bright red formica table but I want to take the memory of them away with me back to London, where the same worn pieces of furniture would fetch hundreds of pounds in shops in Crouch End.

Outside, by the barbecue and the huge wooden table, is a photograph of me and my sisters, taken not long after the bach was purchased, if the colour of my hair is anything to go by (striped brown, red and gold until 19, black until 21, red until 29, blonde for now, if you’re interested). We are lying in the dunes with shells over our eyes, one in a band t-shirt, one in a simple black top, one in a black dress overlaid with a flowered waistcoat and a long necklace (I have always been overdressed). We look serene and silly, but I remember the day: the wind, and the time it took to source matched pairs of shells, and how difficult it was to balance the shells without clenching our eyebrows tight. I remember the sand in my ears and how many photos it took to get the right one.

This is the only place in the world where I switch off. There is no WIFI and no television and my data costs are extortionate, though even as I embrace the solitude I hotspot my phone periodically, to remind myself of the other worlds, still in existence, far away. And I hold onto my phone; I take photo after photo of the flowers and the barbecue and the grass and my family. I can’t take enough. We are a well-documented family, better than any other I know. The photo collages on the wall of the bach will hang somewhere else when I return, a new wall on a new site, in a house I have no memories of, but I know there will be flashes of the familiar: a poster, an armchair, my own four-year-old face made yellow by three decades of sun.

I always fight on the way to airports

I always fight on the way to airports. I do this because they make me question myself. I am early – very early – for everything. Not early in a punctual, sensible way, but early in a painful, walk-around-the-block-one-more-time, how-long-can-I-stand-in-the-cold-on-Twitter, my-friend’s-face-drops-when-she-opens-the-door-to-me early. I am chronically, in-my-bones, checking-my-phone early. But I am never early enough for an airport. The airport demands that I be there three hours before my flight, which my brain interprets as four hours before my flight, which I try to adjust by saying out loud “two hours before our flight will be fine!”, which my boyfriend listens to, and plans for, and which I never really intend, and so we fight, when I am sat on the bed with my coat buttoned up and the tickets in my hand, and the journey map lit on my phone, and he is still wondering where his suitcase is.

I am going home. 9 hours to Chicago, a 4 hour layover, a brutal 16 hours to Auckland, and I will be home on the 30th of December, squeaking in under the closing gate of 2018. I don’t know Auckland airport well at all, all I know is the baggage carousel through bleary eyes, and the aggressive signs about fruit which make me question everything even though I pretty much never eat fruit, and the smell of my mother’s perfume (yes, you’re in the blog again). There is the drive back to Devonport, through the city and over the Harbour Bridge, during which I notice everything unfamiliar (advertisements, shopfronts, faces) and everything familiar (the architecture, the colour of the water, the Devonport ferry). I am 7, and 15, and 21 again, a stranger even to myself in a city I know less well each time I come back. My freckles emerge. My hair changes colour. My accent comes back. I wear less makeup, walk more, sleep more.

The longer I stay in London, the less well I know Auckland, and the more beloved it is to me. Places are people, but if that’s true then why am I here for the thick roots of the tree by the library and the tunnels in the volcano by the sea and the mangroves and the graveyard. They are filled with the ghosts of people who live still, live here, even, but walk past me without turning a head. The cats remember me though.

Christmas is a solid block of time, with no hours or evenings to differentiate it. Everything is closer and warmer and it is a surprise to pull back the curtains to a different sky. The lawn is frosted over and the inflatable snowman on the roof of the house next door has collapsed into himself overnight. I wake up, shower, eat, then return to bed because I don’t know horizontal from vertical and I have lost all sense of what I should be doing. I have cancelled all my meetings. I have read 4 books in 4 days, and barely spoken.

During the 3 weeks I will spend in New Zealand, London will stand still. I do not know what London is like without me in it, so I can only assume it ceases to exist. The pink clouds over Finsbury Park are frozen in the sky and the person who smashed in the windows of three cars in our street last week, and stole a half-eaten packet of prawn crisps from our irate upstairs neighbour, stays home. I leave a version of myself in my house. She thinks about mortgage payments and promotions. She is concerned for the pansies in her planter. She has a wedding to organise. She is stretched out on the bed behind drawn curtains, wrapped in sheets that could be cleaner, with a hot water bottle at her feet. She is hibernating.

The New Zealand version of her, on the other side of the world, will be wide awake. She has freckles on her nose and sunscreen rubbed into every inch of her shiny body. She is eager to greet the sun. She climbs volcanos and coos at babies and drinks flat whites on the pavement. She wears activewear, not pleather. She is spending time with friends who know a dated version of her, and her personality, and she suspects they might know the better version. Newer is not always better, unless you are an iPhone or a potato, or a moon. She attends the weddings of friends she loves and dunks her head in the surf without fear of damaging her hair. She is saltier, well-seasoned. She doesn’t check her phone. She wanders in, smiles, sets down a cold bottle of wine. She doesn’t apologise for being late. She doesn’t really exist.

Cats and spiders

Every morning for months I have walked into a spider web. I didn’t think England really had spiders, apart from the whispy unthreatening kind, but now I know that English gardens are spun about by thick, brown, dangerous-looking creatures who like to turn the passages between hedges into invisible and sticky death traps. I never learn, just careen on through, then frantically swipe at my head like a madman. I once worked with a man who told me a story about a morning when he was on the tube. He disembarked, and was walking along the platform when a girl walking towards him shrieked, and pointed at his head, her face a picture of horror. He reflexively cuffed at his hair, and dislodged an object, which turned out to be a spider as big as his hand, which fell to the ground, and scurried along the platform, and disappeared. He never learned how the spider came to be there, whether it was a cruel prank, or an incident of nature.

London is supposed to be dangerous, though not in the jungle-creature, poison-and-claws kind of way, but in the mugged-and-knifed-and-left-for-dead kind of way. I don’t often feel in danger, though there are moments. One night, dark but not late, I was walking home alone. I had turned off a bright busy street onto a dark quiet one, in a residential area. There were two men walking towards me, one in front of the other, close but not talking. I registered them, but didn’t think anything of it. Until one was beside me and one in front of me, and they suddenly closed in, very quickly. There was a half second in which my adrenaline spiked, I dodged around them, and walked very quickly away. My hands were clenched into fists when I walked in my front door. But maybe nothing was going to happen; maybe it was a freak of timing. My partner was mugged once. He had taken a bus the wrong way, late at night, accidentally. He got off, angry at himself, and went to an ATM to get out money for a taxi. When he turned away from the machine, there was a man standing there with a knife. He demanded the money. Adam gave it to him. Then he demanded Adam’s phone, which Adam held out to him, and which he looked at, then refused to take, and walked away. Adam turned back to the ATM, got out more money, got a cab.

Everyone has a story. Before I moved to London, while I was living in Japan, an American friend told her London mugging story. She was walking home, late, with friends, when they were set upon by a group of young people. She was holding her bag tightly, but one of them grabbed at the strap, and started sawing at it with a knife. The knife was blunt, so he sawed and sawed at the leather, while his friends took the wallets of the rest of the group. Then they ran away, so he dropped his knife and fled with them, while my friend still clutched her bag. She laughed when she told me about it.

It is cold enough now that the spider has stopped spinning his web. I don’t know much about spiders. I don’t know if they hibernate. I know that there are still a few of them in my house (the ghostly, frail, brittle, un-frightening kind, tucked up in odd corners of the high ceilings) but they don’t seem to move much. And the bugs are gone. In the hot summer, the fruit bowl was a gathering place for tiny fruit flies, lifting in their tens if I reached out for a lemon (I’m not going to pretend my fruit bowl ever contains anything other than garlic, onions and things to garnish gin with), and there were bees coming in at the window, but now it is too cold for them. I don’t miss the bugs or the spider, or starting my morning with webs in my ears, but I’m not sure about the cold, which is already intense and startling. I feel like I understand why British people talk about the weather a lot. I’m affronted by it, as if the sudden drop to single digit temperatures is a deliberate dig at me and my insufficient footwear. In New Zealand, temperatures drifted around a ten-degree radius, but always slowly. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe I was just younger, and had more things to think about.

I have fallen deeply in love with the cats of my road. There is Zeus, who is black and solid and lives next door. There is Martin, a patchwork cat with dainty paws who lives 5 houses down. There is Wallace, all white with ginger tail, and Marmalade, with a splash of ginger over his eye. And there is Loaf, a big square black boy who sits outside in all weather and is the most reliable of the cats. None of these names are actually theirs, just mine for them. We are determined to get a cat next year. He can eat the spiders.

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.

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.