There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond.

They are the green kind, and the silver kind. The ones molded from bits of lake floor – from weed and wetness and the bones and bills of ducklings. The water is very dark in the Ladies’ Pond. There are shadows from the willows and the bigger trees. The leaves trail into the water, dipping into their own reflections, so it is hard to tell where the tree ends and where the reflection begins, a green vine spinning darker and taller and longer.

It is hard to tell where the water ends and where the mermaids begin. They move like you imagine they might: that is to say, not like you, with your white wet legs jerking at angles, propelling you awkwardly, forcefully, away from the dock and into the darker bits of the green-black water. Not like you with your shivering, and the sharp chatter of your teeth. Not like you treading the water to keep your head up, to keep your ears dry. Not like you, so clearly out of your depth, and out of your element, trying to talk while your tongue quakes in your mouth and your skin screams to return to the sun and the meadow and your half-read book on your sun-warmed towel.

They move like you imagine they might: like not half-fish, but like whole-fish, like a boneless being that might be more like 90, or 95% water, armoured and cooling.

A game they play: touching. Your small pink and white feet are so pretty, dancing up above, twitching and moving, always moving. A mermaid knows how to sink, but a human only knows not to, flickering and forcing, pushing to remain on the surface even as the water draws you in. You will do just about anything not to believe in the mermaids: you will believe in small tangles of weed, or lost fish. You will believe in imagination and fear, so you do not have to think about grey-green fingers tipped with greener nails, flashing out for a touch of skin.

When you’re in the water you keep your thoughts from the bottom, though they want, very badly, to drift there. It gets darker and colder down there, much more of both than you could tolerate for long, and there are things down there: we won’t talk about it. Don’t stir it up.

They won’t pull you in, but of course they’ve done it before. The mermaids want more – there’s not much room on the surface of the pond, what with the ducks and buoys and the chattering grannies, but there’s plenty down the bottom, where the sun doesn’t reach. Mermaids don’t breed – how could they? You’ve seen the pictures. You know how it works. Where would it go? But they probably won’t pull you down. They only want a touch. You’re very warm. You carry the sun.

They don’t allow men in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. This is a source of freedom for the women on the banks of the pond, who take their tops off and let their breasts loll free. Women look at each other’s breasts of course, because they can. Women are allowed to look at the size of each other’s nipples, the scars and the sag and the drape; pink and white and brown.

You don’t think about teeth on a mermaid, but they have them, and they get sick of fish. They nibble on weed, and suck down the occasional eel, but when they’re hungry, properly hungry, from the rigor and the rush of a life spent swimming, what they really like to eat is swan. It’s a sight, from above, in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and if you were watching, you could see it happening: the bird, white and black and orange, on the black-green water, drifting across the surface. And then, beneath that, a shadow, a quick-flicker.

You can imagine how they do it: two quick hands wrapped around each orange foot and then a jerk beneath the surface. They have to be quick: if they’re slow, the swan will start into the sky, the way they can, and only two strong beats of those big wings and they’re up, and free, and safe – and a bird like that can lift a mermaid out of the water if it’s a small one (and they’re mostly small). But if they’re quick that’s it: beneath the surface is no place for a swan, and they break the wings, and the neck. A swan can break a man’s arm, so they say, but I’ve never seen them do the same to a mermaid. And then, from above, you’d see the stirring cease, and then perhaps, a drift of red. But there won’t be waste.

If you’re wondering where mermaids come from, don’t. They don’t breed, they just feed. I’ve never seen a pregnant mermaid. Thoughts like those are heavy ones, with a tendency to drift, and sink. It’s just a piece of weed. It’s just a silver fish.

The Orange Man

The door opens by itself. He doesn’t open doors. They open for him. They said it couldn’t be done, back in the 80s, when he built it, stone by stone, with his own bare hands. And a large team of builders. Not immigrants though – he checked. Soon he won’t have to.

There isn’t a hallway. Hallways are for small people, who need to be led where they’re going. His home opens into a cathedral, into a colossal cavern. He can go wherever he wants. Everything is gold.

The staff don’t talk to him, but they nod a lot. Women, all of them. Men don’t apply for jobs like these, they’re not designed for it. They’re the hunters and gatherers, they need to be out in the open air. The blonde who takes his coat, in the uniform he sewed with his own bare hands, bare hands, the hands that built America, this is what she wants to be doing. She smiles at him. “Good evening, sir”.

You shouldn’t talk to them, it only encourages them. She takes his coat and he walks through the huge room, feet sinking into the carpet. He doesn’t believe in carpet, but carpet says something about a man. “Walk on my wealth”, it says, “I am goddamn rich.” He is so goddamn rich. £3 billion, that’s what they guess at. Idiots. Closer to £10, when you take into account his branding. He pats his hair and smiles. Nobody understands like he does the value of the personal brand.

That bitch, though. That scheming bitch, in her pantsuits. The kinds of things she said to him, he hasn’t heard those kind of things since he was a boy. No one speaks to him like that. Sometimes, his advisers come to him, and advise him (ha!) of people on the internet saying things about him. “Say them to my face!” he retorts, and sends them out of the room. They never come and say it to his face. They’re too afraid.

That bitch though, standing there by the microphone, swaying like she can’t quite manage the size of him in the room, like she can’t quite stand still in his presence. That’s who they think will be beat him?

No one will beat him. No one has beaten him since he was kicked out of school at 13 years old, and that wasn’t a beating, that was an opportunity. He eats bastards like them for breakfast now.

The door to the bedroom opens by itself, or maybe there’s someone there opening it, he doesn’t see them. All he sees is his big bed, his big gold bed, and beside it his wife.

“You did wonderfully, dear!”

“I know.” She picks up his favourite brand of whiskey, pours him a heavy drink. Some men drink vodka, some men drink water. Those men are weak. “Here you go, darling.” She extends her hand to hand it to him, but he walks up close to her. She melts into his touch. She’s afraid of him. Everyone is.

“Do you want me to do it?” she breathes into his ear. This would make most men melt. She has the right kind of body, the good kind, with the long hair. She looks like a woman should look like. Women like this have always gravitated to him, because they understand.

He nods, tightly, and sits in a chair, leaning back. This is the only time he relaxes, and even then, he’s watching. He never switches off. Men never do. Each night he makes her check the light fixtures for cameras. She doesn’t even know what she’s looking for, but it soothes him. She does it naked.

She moves behind him and picks up a brush. It’s gold. Softly, like he likes it (he likes most things hard, she knows that) she runs the brush through his hair. It’s all his hair, despite what the people say, his hair because he paid for it. You can make anything your own if you have enough money. He is so goddamn rich. £3 billion. What a joke. Jokers.

She pins the front down with her palm as she brushes the back, short light strokes, like you’d brush a horse. He’s never brushed a horse, but he knows how horses should be brushed. He can smell her wrist. She smells expensive.

That bitch, though. How dare she, standing there in trousers, raising her eyebrows like she knows something. Well. If a woman can still stand there, like that, when the world knows what her husband did. If not even her husband wants her, then why should anyone else? They don’t, that’s a fact. None of them. They don’t know what they want.

His advisers, the ones he listens to, they’ve told him to prepare for a loss. He doesn’t know how to do that. He’s never lost before. You’re a loser if you admit to being a loser.

Still, though. A man in his position has to think about the jealous ones, the ones who want to get him. They’d be outside the wall, if he had it his way, but they haven’t let him build it yet. They wouldn’t be above twisting things, rigging the polls. Everyone knows it happens. Everyone knows how easy it is.

“Faster,” he says. She gets sore wrists. She’s complained once before. There’s a mirror across from them, gold, and in it he can see her wincing. Weak, just like a woman.

He’d love to be able to fire them. All of them. Just point a finger and yell, “You’re fired”. Everyone loves it when he does that. He’s never lost a damn thing in his damn life, and certainly not to a woman. That nasty woman. She represents all women. The ugly ones.

The thing about women is that it’s so easy to see what they want. They think they’re complicated but there’s nothing complicated about them. They’re easy. And they always come to him first. He’s never chased a woman in his life.

“Faster,” he says, again. “Don’t make me say it again.”

“I could do this all night,” he says, cradling his whiskey in his crotch. She knows that.

Back To The Lake

The water should have been cold. It was the middle of winter.

The lake was cold. That’s how she remembered it, though they’d always come in summer, when the sun shone all day, most days.

The best days were the rare cloudy ones. That was when they were allowed to use the pool table, and when they might sneak to the adjacent cabin and prise open the freezer door, where he hung whole pigs, their throats slit and rubbery. One summer he’d padlocked the door and they’d broken it off with a rock, out of pique more than anything else, and curiosity about what could be worse than a pig, but it was empty. She remembered that – the cold smell of the empty freezer, which still had pink stains on the floor. And the cold of the lake.

She sat at the end of the jetty, dangling both feet, warped in the water. The weeds rose almost to touch her. That’s how she judged her friends, back when she was thirteen and allowed to invite one to join the family each summer – how they reacted to the weeds. Most of the girls from her school were used to swimming pools, and they’d never swum with the green, where fish might flick up against you in the shallows. Catherine had been the worst, but it made her the bravest – she’d only swim off the boat, or off the end of the longest jetty, where the weeds couldn’t grow up long enough to touch her. Jane hadn’t cared at all. She’d come back three summers all up, until that last one, when they were fifteen, and old enough to have one drink when the fireworks across the lake went up, set off by one of the rich families who owned property right on the water. You wanted to hate them, because of everything they had, but you couldn’t, because of the fireworks.

There wouldn’t be any fireworks during this trip. This was the first time Ellen had visited in winter. She hadn’t wanted to come, but Jack had heard so much about the lake, and Hot Water Rock, and the sand tennis courts that merged with the beach, that he’d insisted. Her own fault, for the tying the place up so tightly with her childhood. He’d even driven, plugging the address she had memorised into the SatNav, and managing the local roads while she sat watching the bush flash by, counting.

“19,” she’d announced to him as he made the last turn onto the five-minute downhill that would spit them out directly on the lake front.

“What? 19 what?”

“19. That’s how many dead animals we’ve driven by. 19.”

“You’re counting the roadkill?” he’d asked. He should have looked stupid in his Brits-on-holiday get-up, the chequered shirt half-tucked into knee-length shorts, but instead he looked comfortable. He always looked comfortable, born in the right skin, even when, like now, he was dotted with bites and burnt across his knees and neck. It was one of the things she liked about him.

“We always did it, on the way down,” she’d said. “It’s not weird or anything.”

He’d risked a glance at her, one eyebrow up. He was doing better than her, really. She couldn’t shake her London habit of black-all-over, especially in winter, but winter here wasn’t really winter, and she was sweating beneath her jumper and jeans.

“19’s a lot,” she’d said, half to herself. It was one of their habits, passing the time in the back of the car, after the Anne of Green Gables audiobooks had finished. Possums, cats, rats, dogs. The highest she could remember from this stretch of road was 11, but that was a long time ago. There were more cars now.

Gravel beneath the tyres. “We’re here!” Jack had announced, pulling up on the handbrake. “Let’s see what it’s all about!”

He owed her this enthusiasm, even if she didn’t particularly want it. Six years now they’d lived together in London, and even though he was northern, and had moved to the city at the same time she had, it was still his. His university friends, and his family home for Christmas. Coming here this year had been his idea.

They hadn’t managed Christmas, since prices had been impossible, but it was almost nice to come in winter. No tourists. No humidity, though of course he’d still managed to get sunburnt. The hard part was over now, hadn’t even been that hard. Her parents already knew she wasn’t coming back, even before she’d met him. She was as much of a stranger to them as he was.

Now it was just them, would be until next Sunday, when they’d drive back up north and get back on the flight.

Jack had been amazed that they’d been able to book the same cabin that her family had visited for so many years, but it wasn’t so amazing. No one visited the lake during winter. It was cold, and grey, and the nearest town was a 50-minute drive along roads so dark you’d never chance it in the rain. At this time of year it was only locals. They’d wonder what they were doing here, but they’d never ask, she knew. There was a line between those that lived, and those that visited.

She didn’t tell Jack that though. He thought everyone was so friendly; best to keep it that way.

Still: she’d have liked to ask someone why the water was this warm. It was almost sensationless against her feet and she thought, idly, that that must make it the same temperature as her. Blood temperature. 42 degrees? She could never remember. But then, it couldn’t be.

Steps on the wood behind her, and she leant her head back, waiting for Jack’s heavy hands on her shoulders.

“Warm, isn’t it?”

She jerked her head around. A woman, no more than 50, dressed in the uniform of a lake local: shorts, damp at the hem, and a fleece zipped up to her neck. She had grey hair cropped close to her head, no makeup, black eyes.

Ellen stood, slipping wet feet into her shoes, brushing off her palms against her jeans, but the woman made no move to take her hand. She’d never really shaken hands in greeting before she lived in London, but now it was instinct, and she paused awkwardly before clasping both hands before her.

“Yeah, I was just thinking that.”

The woman smiled. “Really? Most tourists are just pleased. Don’t wonder about it.”

“I used to come here every summer, for 10 years or so,” Ellen said, a tiny hint of defensiveness creeping in. “Never been here at this time of year before, I thought it’d be freezing.”

The woman didn’t react to her words, and Ellen knew she’d made herself look more of a fool than anything else, trying to pretend like this was her place. It wasn’t, not any more than London was.

“The springs. That’s why”.

It clicked. It was one of the best parts of the lake, as a kid, a spot you could get to only by boat, a tiny inlet you only knew if you knew, where natural springs bubbled up under the cliff, mixed with the lake water, formed a perfect pool of hot water. They’d spent hours there, eating cold sausages and drinking from the lake.

“But… they’re tiny. Wouldn’t that…” she trailed off. She worked in digital. She’d failed biology. She had no fucking idea. “The whole lake?”

The woman nodded, looking out at the water. “Screwed all the fishing. Made the koura spawn like anything.”

Koura were local endangered crayfish, black and the size of a child’s foot. Only the indigenous were allowed to fish them, technically, but everyone did, spotlighting them with torches after dark. She looked down into the water and suddenly she saw that the darkness at the bottom of the lake wasn’t weed, or mud, but a thick, crawling mass of crayfish, scrabbling shell on shell.

“Ellen!” Jack’s voice, bouncing off the water, brightly foreign. It was getting dark. The winter thing again; she remembered endless evenings here.

Ellen smiled with the same brightness at the woman who hadn’t offered her hand, or her name. “I’d better get back. He’s new here, doesn’t know where anything is.”

The woman was thin but the jetty was narrow and she was firmly planted, barefoot, of course, right in the centre. “You’re staying there?” She jerked a thumb at the little cabin, so much smaller now than in Ellen’s memory.

“Yes,” she said, because the car was there and because Jack stood in the doorway with moths swarming his head.

The woman stood aside at that, and Ellen smiled, said good night, walked past. There was a moment of closeness where she could have been pushed, would have had no chance at stopping it, but nothing happened, of course.

She didn’t turn around as she walked back up the sand, avoiding the sharp rocks though she had her shoes on. She walked into the cabin, but Jack was gone, and the two rooms were cool and empty.

She stepped back out, flicking off the porch lamp as she did so. She hated moths. The woman was still on the jetty, staring up towards the cabin, though there was no way she’d have been able to see Ellen in the half-light.

A scratching to her left, and she knew what Jack was doing, same thing she’d done so many times as a kid, drawn to the concrete sides and the thick slab of a door. “Hey babe,” he said. “What’s in here?”

No padlock, hardly a surprise, since the house it belonged to had stood empty all these years. You could tell by the cobwebs, and the rot of the porch. He might think it was empty because it was winter, that the family would return for summer, but it wasn’t that kind of emptiness.

He pulled on the handle, and she wanted to shout, but. And it was empty, of course.

“Looks like an abattoir,” he said, with a half-step inside.

“Don’t,” came a voice, but it wasn’t Ellen’s, though her mouth was open to say the same. Black eyes, grey hair, a bit too close behind them both. You could do that with bare feet. “No one goes near this place anymore.”

Jack stepped out, interest all over his face. “Why’s that?”

“Girl died, stuck in here, one summer. Stupid game of hide and seek. Had some sort of fit, threw her head up against the wall. Her mates found her later. Bit of a shock to the community.” She nodded her head twice. “Bit of a shock”.

Jack’s eyes were wide. “Wow.” He turned to Ellen, took her hand, as she knew he would. “Must have been horrible. Did you know her?”

She opened her mouth, but another voice filled the gap again. “Nah. After your time, wouldn’t it be, girly?”

Ellen nodded. “Yes. Later, I think.” The door was still open, white walls, pink stains.

“Anyway. You’re brave, staying here. We’re superstitious folk, round here. Not interested in trying our luck, if you know what I mean. It’ll be bowled over one day soon, prices going up like they are.”

She was already turning away, but she spoke directly to Jack, who was hanging on every deliciously dark word. “Shut that door, boy. Don’t need to invite anything out, do you?”

But it was Ellen who caught the lip of the door with her fingers and swung it shut, hard, making a noise that rang out across the lake. Jack looked at her crossly, but the local woman nodded her head, approving.

“Don’t try catching the koura, will you? Not yours to take.” She walked down the gravel driveway, fading quickly into shadow. Just the sound of the lake, warm against the sand, thick with black cray, bigger than a child’s foot.

Imogen – Chapter 17

A work in progress, currently at 60K words. 

If Imogen was being honest, which wasn’t her preferred approach, she would have to confess that things were a bit fucked. Not as fucked as they had been, for sure, but she wasn’t handling things well. Standard. Good. As expected.

She wanted to blame Chris. She really really wanted to, all beard and big dick and sexual appetite. He could cook too, which was a bit lethal. He could make curry from scratch.

She wasn’t interested in him, really, the same way he wasn’t interested in her. What they were doing for each other was gap-filling, caulking emotional fuck-ups, making do. Which was maybe a bit unfair, since he was strong and funny and had a big sexy scar down his abdomen – she’d always wanted to have sex with someone with a big scar – but she did a lot of comparing. Andre. Chris. Taller, fatter, lasted longer in bed, paid her more compliments.

She didn’t know what his fiancee had looked like. Her name was Sophie, she worked as an accountant, she liked oranges a lot and always had bits in her teeth. The bits in the teeth thing sounded disgusting, but he said it with this smile, like it was a charming quirk. That’s how she knew he had to still be in love with her. The orange bits. There was no other explanation.

The whole being in love with other people hadn’t stopped them from falling into each other’s lives, hard. It didn’t hurt that Imogen’s life had been made up of work, gym, Shane and home. That was her routine, that was her schedule. And it meant it was easy for him to slot in.

He worked contracts so he was busy most weekends, but free in the evenings. He’d taken to meeting her outside work, standing with his back pressed against the hot concrete. At first it had freaked her out – too much, too soon, too stalkery – but she decided it was better than being alone. And it was, much better, better than getting home at 6:30 and eating toast for dinner and going to bed at 9:30.

He’d even met Nancy. She hadn’t been sure. There’s a big difference between telling your tenant that she can have people to stay and it actually happening, and Imogen could see her stiffening up like a cat, all curled and taut. He was so easy though, and then it transpired that he’d heard of her, his mother liked her books, and that calmed her down, like being patted. She backed off, smiled at him a lot.

The books had moved, recently, the dust shifted around, drifted to the floor. She’d been reading again, and touching her own books. Imogen knew better than to ask.

He’d cooked them both curry, which must have been a bit weird for him. The kitchen wasn’t a mess exactly, but it wasn’t the kitchen of someone who cooked. Nancy would have sporadic cooking binges, where she made four things, a pie and homemade pasta and a cake and something else, then froze most of it and tried to make Imogen eat the rest. And Imogen ate avocado on toast, which she liked.

It had been like playing houses. He even put on an apron, which barely went over his big head, and they’d all laughed. And he’d cooked for two hours while they sat in the lounge and drank beer and watched television, like some sort of functional family with too many cats.

The food was delicious. Imogen didn’t know what Sophie could have been thinking.

Nancy went upstairs before the dishes were done, avoiding, Imogen thought, the question of whether he would stay or not. He could, she was an adult, but there was something in the decision of it that was better made just between the two of them.

He was a relationship guy, she knew. She was just a necessary half, it didn’t really matter what she was made up of, as long as she was content to exist next to him. This was the pushing away moment, this was the time at which she should have shoved. But she was too damn tired. And besides, when he was there, the little Andre voices that moved inside her skull at all times shut up a little bit. She assumed he was doing the same.

“I love you,” he said that night, turning to her in her bed and throwing a warm heavy arm over her. “I love you Imogen.”

She pretended to be asleep, holding still, keeping her breaths even. What a fucking idiot. His skin smelled of curry, and she could feel his breath on her face as he waited for an answer, waited a bit longer, then rolled over and fell asleep.

There was no excuse for that if he wasn’t drunk. She’d rather he called her Sophie when they had sex, which they did a lot, because the talking thing wasn’t as good between them as the sex thing was.

A little bit boring, that’s what it was. Maybe that’s why Sophie had done it.

She hadn’t told Shane about him, because Shane was way too sensible. “You’ll get yourself hurt,” Imogen could hear her saying, in that slightly judgmental voice. “Why don’t you just be alone for a bit?”

The thing was, she still felt alone when she was with him, because he wasn’t inside her head yet.

She was lying to her mother, too, of course. She’d rung a few times recently, just wanting to talk, for whatever reason. About the church, about the house, about her Dad. He was sick with the flu and not coping well, man flu made 1000 times worse by the fact he was always convinced he was dying when he got ill.

“How’s Andre?” she’d asked, every time, her voice warm with affection for the man she’d only met once. “Hope you’re cooking for him.”

“I’m not, Mum, but he’s good,” she’d replied, wondering, like she always did, whether someone else was cooking for him.

“You two should come back up soon. Come see your father. He’d like that.”

Her father had almost certainly forgotten that Andre existed, that they’d ever met. “Sure Mum, that sounds nice. We’re pretty busy at work at the moment, but as soon as we’ve got a few days.

“What about the end of August?” she’d pressed. “Bank holiday, you could come for a couple of nights. We could show him the sights! He doesn’t know Manchester, does he?”

“No, he doesn’t”, she’d said, wondering what excuse she could come up with.

“We’ll show him round then!”

“That sounds nice,” she’d repeated. It did sound nice. She tried to substitute Chris in instead, whether he’d manage her parents like Andre had. Probably, she thought. Everyone was good with them except for her.

He never invited her to his house, which was good, since he lived in Clapham, and she didn’t know how she’d manage it. He liked the cats, he said, he liked being away from his flatmates. He liked Nancy too, even though she was offbeat. He’d told his mother and she’d been ecstatic, like her son had met a real celebrity.

Imogen had been interested in that, and taken one of the books up to her room to read. She didn’t read much but the novel was easy-going, the tale of a man and wife raising their three children, a novel of family intimacy, and it was light and soft and good, until the mother got cancer and then the father too, and then the father died.

It was one of those stories, Imogen realised too late, which made you care and sucked you in and then spat you out. Books that made you cry. She didn’t finish it. She didn’t need to cry.

She’d told Rose about Chris, since she’d spotted him outside the building once, and asked about him. She didn’t know about Andre, so it was easier. She’d been pleased for Imogen, touchingly so. “Didn’t know you had any mates until I met that Shane. And now a man too. Doing alright, aren’t ya?”

Rose’s personal life was everywhere right now, splashed across the Daily Mail and The Sun. She’d been snapped with one of her directors, a married man with a filthy rep. At least two of the pictures appeared to show her receiving oral sex from him in a car. Imogen wished she could ask about it, wanted to go out and get drunk with her so she was brave enough to ask the question. But Rose had just signed on for a movie to play an anorexic and had dropped the booze to lose some weight for the part, though Imogen didn’t know where it would come off her. It made her sharper than usual, and ruder.

“What’s he like in bed?” she asked, during one of their bi-weekly catch up sessions. “He looks like he’d be rough”.

He wasn’t rough, hadn’t been since the first few goes, where he’d been getting something out of his system. Now it was loving sex, girlfriend sex, the kind of sex you have when you’re knocked up and don’t want to hurt the baby.

“I’m not telling,” Imogen said. Rose didn’t like it when she didn’t open up to her.

“That means it’s bad,” she said coolly, lighting up a cigarette. She wasn’t allowed to smoke in the firm, obviously, but it didn’t stop her.

The shine had gone off her a bit in recent weeks, Imogen noticed. Maybe because she was getting to know her so well, see underneath the Hollywood face. She was knackered all the time, and catty, and unwilling to agree to small changes to her contract. Now, she was refusing to cut or dye her hair for a role. Because she could.

“Jennifer Lawrence does it,” she said.

In private, Imogen had gone to Chris (too many Chris’, in her life, now – Christopher), requesting a meeting. He sat behind her desk, tall and wide, while she told him she’d been considering quitting her job as paralegal, and trying again for her training contract.

“Why’d you stop the first time?” he asked, half interested.

“Personal reasons,” she said, fudging.

“Well,” he said, “it’s something to consider. But we wouldn’t be able to take you on at the moment, so you’d have to go elsewhere. And of course, we’d have to find someone to replace you with Rose.”

She nodded, too tired to fight. She stood to go. “Maybe in a few years?” he suggested.
At least she’d tried.

Telling Her Stories – Chapter 32

This is a chapter from my second completed novel, Telling Her Stories. If you wanna publish it, you know, call me. This is a second draft, and full of errors, of course. Mind your step. 

There’s not a chance that she knows; no chance at all.

If she knew, I don’t think there’s any way she’d be able to avoid asking me, even if she knew she could never have answer. She would ask me all the questions that I ask of myself, all the time. How did you let it happen? Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you tell anybody? Even selfish people want those kinds of questions answered. When the questions are that big.

The answers to those questions have changed over the years.

When I’m lying to myself, it’s easy enough to say, “I don’t know”. Plenty of women in abusive partnerships manage to trick themselves into believing that things will change, or that things aren’t that bad. That their partner doesn’t know what they’re doing. That they want to be different. That things will only be worse if they leave.

That’s not the truth for me, though. I knew exactly who he was, and what he was capable of. The war changed a great deal of men in my generation, and did it in differently insidious ways. Some came home physically scarred but mentally unchanged, and I suspect they had no idea that they were the lucky ones. Others came looking much the same, but with a look in their eye that had shifted; something almost like suspicion, that came of having seen the worst that the human race was capable of, and the subsequent belief that it must be watched for, and quelled.

Joe was never someone who would be described as kind, but that was not a fault, exactly. Kindness is not everything, though I suppose it’s a good starting point. It’s never mattered all that much to me because I was always able to be kind enough for the both of us. It sounds ridiculous, but then in a partnership, if you’ve both got all the same characteristics, it gets boring. Someone has to be a bit worse, don’t they?

Or that’s what I thought. Anyway, he was smart, and he was curious and he asked a lot of questions. I like people who ask questions. He always wanted to know how things worked, which was a bit like how I was, but he took it much further than me, taking things apart. When I cooked for him, he would sometimes question the science, or what made this rise or this flat, and I had no idea of the answer to any of it, I just knew that it did. I realize I’m making him sound a little like one of the men off The Big Bang Theory – I watch a lot of TV – but it wasn’t like that. It was just living his life with his eyes wide open. I liked that.

After the war a lot of people stopped living like that, even if they might have been that way before.

It just started to seem like a way to get in trouble, I think, like asking too many questions had got us there in the first place. And, of course, when you’ve made it back from something that so many people didn’t, where you never expected to come back from, it does change you. Most people I knew, it closed them down a bit.

So that was a good thing, about him. But with questioning things like that comes a degree of expectation, and it also meant that he always thought there were answers he hadn’t been given yet, like I was keeping things from him.

And that’s where it all starts to fall in together in my head, when his curiosity became cruelty. I know it seems like a big leap.

One thing I remember: I’d been out, across the park, where I’d stopped for a bit to sit and read, because it was warm and dry and because I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I was a housewife, you see, after the war, which I’d never particularly thought I would be. Before the war, I was at school, and working in the store. And during the war I was a nurse, thrust into it, like so many others left behind. And while I didn’t love it, the sudden housewife thing, I must confess that the amount of time I had to myself was something. This is pre-Elizabeth, pre-all of it, pre-everything, and everything was wide open, including my days. Or I suppose, thinking about it, it wasn’t exactly pre-Elizabeth. She was in there, tucked away. I just didn’t know it yet.

And then, after I was finished reading, I went to the market and picked up meat and vegetables, talked to a few people, and headed home. It was warm and quiet and I walked slowly, because I could.

I got home and started to cook, and he came into the kitchen, leaning against the doorway in that way he had, blocking out the light from the hall. I knew from his tread that something wasn’t quite right, and so I didn’t turn around, staring out the window into my little garden and kneading the pastry with a little more energy than it needed. My heart rate went up.

It’s silly isn’t. Here I am telling the story of when I first realized, when I first thought, but it’s all wrong. It’s full of flaws, like the fact that I didn’t turn around. Why not, to face my young husband? Why not, to tell him what’s for the dinner? Why didn’t I smile? It couldn’t have been the start. It doesn’t make sense.

The fact is that trying to point out one moment when something switches, when you look into a face and see someone different: that moment doesn’t exist. It’s not a gun being fired or a punch being thrown. It’s a leak. It’s a crack. Things come through slowly.

“You were gone for a long time”, he said.

“It was such a lovely day,” I replied, still looking out into the garden where the last of the sun was playing in a large square on the bench, and where I wished I was sitting, instead of hewing a large piece of meat into chunks for stewing, the smell of flesh rising to my nose and working into my fingers. “I sat in the park and read for a while”.

“What did you read?”

“Oh, something I borrowed from Sally. I don’t even remember the title, it’s in my bag. It’s alright, she really liked it but I…”

“There’s no book in your bag”, he said, and then I did turn around, holding my hands in front of me, to where he held my bag wide, and where there was no book.

“Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “I might have put it in the bedroom. I hope I didn’t leave it in the market”.

He slapped my bag onto the table, so that my purse slid out, along with my diary, and with a lipstick.

“Where were you really?” he asked, his nose pinching up and his chin pinching forward, so that he looked like himself only older.

“Don’t be silly, Joe! I can find the book. I don’t know why you’d think I’d lie”.

He moved around behind me, not quite touching me, but close enough that I could feel his warmth. “It’s not warm enough to read anyway. You’d have mud on your dress. There’s nothing here”. His palm on my thigh, hard. Not a caress.

My fingers in the meat, the pastry to the side, the bloody strings. “It’s dry in the park, we should go there tomorrow and read the paper, you’ll see. It’s quite lovely, on the right day.”

“You were seeing him.” Not even a question this time, not even a chance at a denial. “You were seeing him, and you didn’t think that I’d figure it out”.

“Seeing who?” I asked, and this time I washed my fingers and dried my hands because I couldn’t fight with bloodied palms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Joe, why are you so angry?”

“I don’t like being lied to,” he said, and he was so close, his face above mine like a moon, close and far, not even looking at me, but above my head and through the garden and further.

“I’m not lying,” I said, and I put a hand on his arm, damp against the white cotton. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but I promise I wouldn’t lie.”

He took his hand and lifted mine, dropping it like a tea towel. He looked down at me then, but it was still like the garden, there was no focus. “Don’t lie to me again,” he said, and he left the kitchen and left the house, closing the door quietly behind him.

I followed him to the doorway and watched him walk down the street, briskly. He might have been going anywhere, but I thought probably to the pub, where he could hunch up to the brown bar and talk about sport, or not talk, and certainly not think about his wife. I locked the door. I threw the meat in the bin. I went and sat in the sun. That was the first time, that I remember.

A Bank Holiday BBQ

They went to the corner store for beer and came back with purloined wood for the bonfire: a dead Christmas tree, a plywood square, a stump from a garden. So we had to have a bonfire, pulling down bits of fence for kindling and building up the bricks around the barbeque. It’s a smoke-free zone, he said, watching the smoke curl up through the purple flowers, around the bird feeder.

Cold sausages eaten with fingers and a potato salad thick with mayonnaise and egg. A beer from Belgium opened as a treat, citrusy and surprising and ultimately abandoned in favour of familiar blue cans and cold white wine. Card games and manufactured drinking games. Have you played this one: pick a book from a shelf, pick a sentence and make the players around the table guess the final word. “Stevie turned, and saw the…”. “Murderer”. “Door”. “Wanking.” Wanking is always an acceptable answer. Wanking always wins the game.

You’d have thought they might complain, all the neighbours packed tightly in their brick houses, three families to a structure, in the smoke-free area with the air blue with smoke, but they don’t, maybe because it’s a Bank Holiday and maybe because laughter is intimidating but probably because everyone likes the smell of a bonfire, and because they can look down on the tidy brick square and be reassured, of heat and safety and that thing that fire does: security.

It’s not cold but it feels cold when the wind flicks the flames away, because a 19 degree evening can’t compete with that roaring heat, and we’re as close as we dare, so that ash burns holes in tights and eyes stream with smoke, and still we’re closer. There’s something about a fire.

The Christmas tree burns the best, the wood crisped and dry and dead, each spiny offshoot glowing orange as anything, as a sunset, as the lights that were amongst the needles only months ago, now packed away, and never as bright as the fire. It smells like pine, and heat.

The next day, with a sour stomach, your hair smells like a bonfire. You are, for a minute, back in the evening, and the heat, and the looming purple dark, with the partly-torn down fence providing a peep-hole into another life, where the backyard is bigger but the grass is as tall as your knees and growing everyday. If you could have what so many others lack – a backyard in London – why would you let it go to waste, grass to knees and a big empty square of swaying green?

Maybe for the same reason you don’t interrupt when your neighbours laugh in the dark night, even if you hear glass shatter; maybe for the same reason you sit too close to the fire even when you’re burning. Because some things are best left a small bit wild, a little bit bad. Smoke in your hair the next day isn’t the best smell but you didn’t shower until late evening anyway, and your pillows still hold the scent the next day, and the day after.

Apples

Picking her apple isn’t the hardest part of her day, she’d never say that, but it’s not as easy as you’d hope. She likes her apples a certain way, as most people do: tart, and crisp. None of the floury stuff, those bites that crumble on the tongue like styrofoam on am Amazon package. That makes her feel ill, when that happens, though she’ll still finish the apple. You don’t waste apples.

Honestly, if she had a choice, it’s not what she would be eating at all. Apples might be at the front and centre of things, in dentist’s chairs and fairy tales and big cities, but they’re not the most exciting fruit. They’re not the only fruit. There are so many better ones to choose from: passion fruit, or mandarins, or grapes, or raspberries. In fact, just about all fruits are better than apples, which too often come bruised, or floury, or with those holes that you should just cut out, but which you can’t ignore. Even once you’ve cut away the brown bits, you still think, don’t you, of what touched it already. The inside of a fruit shouldn’t be like that.

Still, the best fruits are obviously the ones that can’t come with the delivery man, since he hefts big boxes of fruit and nuts and other things, and the best fruits wouldn’t be able to handle it. Those are the fruits that are more candy that fruit, the berries and the grapes. The bright soft ones that don’t need peeling, just plucking, like pick and mix from a sweet shop. Pomegranate fits that description too, but not if you have to do the cutting and the pulling apart yourself. That takes away from the sweetness, that work. Plus, you can only ever eat six seeds, just in case, just because you never know.

Even raspberries, though: the bits. Whoever came up with raspberries as a concept hadn’t thought it all the way through, making them so delicious that you want them by the handful, and then peppering them with those sharp little seeds, the ones that stick behind your teeth, and wedge into your gums. A mouthful of raspberries comes with a mouthful of blood, later.

She’s not going to complain about the apples, obviously. Free food is free food, even if it’s not what she would have chosen, so the only important thing is to make sure she’s first to the table, first to choose from the apples. Otherwise by the time she gets there, only the Granny Smiths are left, the ones with browning finger prints, and there’s something about the waxy skin of a Granny Smith that makes her want to bite her own tongue, if you want to know.

You can make an apple more like a gift, if you want to. You can do it yourself, and it’s not in the crunch like you might expect. In the movies, when they eat apples, they never cut it up first, just clenching it in a tight fish and then biting wide, but if you’ve done that you know that the skin slips up into your tooth gaps, and the juice slides down your chin, and it’s too much like work. What you have to do it cut it up, in slices, and put it on a plate, and sit down. Don’t leave it too long, because of the browning, the beginnings of rotting that happen too fast. And eat your apple piece by piece, remembering that free fruit is better than no fruit, and that some people have no fruit and that New York isn’t the Big Apple for no reason, the fruit of someone’s labour.

A Black Scarf

This is part of an ongoing writing project. Largely unedited, so please excuse inevitable typos. 

It’s Christmas morning. Esther is fourteen and Pudduck is twelve. If you ask her she’ll tell you very seriously that she is twelve and a half. The half is important to her. She will also tell you precisely how long it will be until the half becomes three quarters.

Esther is less painstaking about her age, though she is more painstaking in most other respects. She knows that she is older, and that she will always be older. This is a race she can’t lose. That doesn’t stop her getting mad at Pudduck though, for behaving like she might one day catch up.

Christmas morning in this household is all about the girls. Esther has always known that her parents care little for the holiday, but a lot for her, and so she makes a big deal about Santa and Christmas trees and Christmas lights, so that they will continue to use it as a reason to make a big deal out of her.

Honestly, if pressed, she wouldn’t be able to say what she likes about the holiday. She doesn’t like being given gifts, because she is so pedantic about what she likes to own, and so fearful of hurting anyone’s feelings with a less than convincing show of gratitude. As a general rule, her mother will give her make-up – her father has had a few things to say about this, the most oft repeated being that 14 is too young, and he said that 13 was too young, and 12 was too young, when this tradition started – which Esther already loves, her father will get her something whimsical and altogether unsuitable, like a rainbow striped dress or a dollhouse, and Pudduck will make her something.

These homemade gifts, a staple of Christmas and birthdays, are perhaps the thing that Esther looks forward to receiving most. Production on the items commences at least six weeks before the necessary date, and are carried out in utmost secrecy. Pudduck takes her projects seriously.

She began the tradition when she was six, and realized that ten pounds to spend on a family of three did not stretch to the jewels she envisions. That first Christmas, the family gifts were created around the theme of papier mache and Pudduck’s hair, the former being deliberate and the latter being an accidental but predictable result of leaving a six year old along with a bucket of paste.

The newly short-haired Pudduck presented these gifts with a sweet fanfare. Every member of the family knew how much work had gone into them, and reacted accordingly. Their Mother (whose name was Jenny) received a papier mache hat, fashioned in green and purple, with large bunches of green and purple grapes hanging from carefully chosen points around the rim. She exclaimed over the realness of the fruit and carefully donned the hat, taking care not to remove it for the duration of the day, not even when one bunch of grapes plopped loudly into the gravy during the main meal. When Christmas Day was drawing to a close, and Jenny was doing the dishes, she chose her apron with care, that it should match her hat. The picture that Dad (whose name was Keith) took that evening, of Jenny in full evening sunlight, sporting a hat the circumference of a hula hoop, elegant dress fully masked by an apron emblazoned with the message “Whine And Dine” and printed with glasses of chardonnay and merlot, is everyone’s favourite picture of Jenny. She has yellow gloves to her elbows and an unfortunate smear of not-quite-dry paste on her cheek, and the picture hung in the study for years afterwards, with the hat mounted on a hook beside.

This year, Esther is 14, wandering into adulthood. She’s wearing her Christmas make-up from last year. Esther’s make-up is, as it has been for the last two years, somewhat hit or miss. It’s not quite as bad as last year, when she mistook a vivid red blush for an eye-shadow and looked like she’d been weeping since November. But there’s a still a decided wobbliness to the application her eyeliner and a likelihood of teeth as pink as her lips.

She feels beautiful, though, if she puts her mind to it, and this is by far the most important thing. She’s very thin, and her clothes hang on her oddly, making her stand like a deflating balloon to avoid the fabric coming into contact with her unexpectedly. The whole effect is that of a very sad clown the night after an awful performance, and is not very festive. Esther isn’t ugly, not by any measure. But Esther at fourteen is different from any other fourteen year old she knows. Esther suffers, and she isn’t even sure why. She suffers when she wakes up in the morning, and she suffers when her feet hit the warm carpet. She showers, unsure of whether she likes them long and warm or short and hot, and then she suffers as she dresses herself in the clothes that her mother buys, that feel like they have been bought for someone else. She suffers at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she couldn’t have told anyone exactly where is this suffering came from, or why she can’t make it go away.

Esther feels, though she couldn’t say it in so many words, that she got born with a little piece missing, an important piece like an eyeball or a big toe, vision and balance, important things. Her house is right and her family is right and her world is right, and she is wrong. She looks as over-dramatic as that sounds, with her over-large clothes and paint-box make-up, but it’s manufactured, a part she plays, the grumpy, flawed teenager. Because if this wrongness could be blamed on errant teenage behavior then everything would be easier. All teenagers stomp. But Esther stomps round like a sad clown for only one reason: to stop people from noticing her looking for her missing piece.

It is not the job of 14 year olds to be or to look festive, and perhaps it is for that reason that Jenny has dressed Pudduck up as a Christmas fairy. Pudduck at 12 is still as pliant and as sweet as she was at six. She seems aware that this is her role in the family.

Jenny is glamorous, Keith is irascible, Esther both worried and worrying, and Pudduck is lovely.

Today, her long blonde hair is brushed out like spun sugar and she is wearing a pink tutu. She has white tights on her skinny legs and, incongruously, one black gumboot, having just spent half an hour sweeping the driveway and pretending to be Cinderella, and having been in rather too much of a hurry to get inside. Pudduck at twelve really doesn’t look all that much different to Pudduck at six. She is a little taller, and carries herself with a little more self-awareness, but she still looks like the kind of child who might be excused for failing to notice that she is wearing only one boot.

She’s beautiful, really quite lovely, though she isn’t told so often. This is because of Esther, and even though Pudduck has never heard this said explicitly, she understands it to be true. People have trouble looking at Esther. They tend to be distracted anyway, by Pudduck, who looks far lovelier in one gumboot than most people do in two, who looks like sun shining through a clean glass pane.

Pudduck adores Christmas unashamedly. This Christmas, she has knit everyone scarves, a marathon task that required starting in July, and meant that neither her father nor her mother received birthday presents that year. She’s pretty sure everyone knows about the scarves, though they’ve pretended not to notice when she sneaks the balls of wool into her room in her backpack, and ignored the sounds of knitting needles clacking from beneath the door.

Esther is growing ever more doubtful of the Christmas trees and Christmas lights, just as even the stupidest fourteen year olds are wont to do. She can’t fake joy the way she used to, and she’s certain she’s not convincing her parents any more. She suspects that somewhere beneath the pantomime lurks something that means something, but she hasn’t been able to find it for a while.

Keith, Keith is sick of Christmas. He doesn’t like buying and carrying the tree, he doesn’t like the needles that drop on to the carpet, he doesn’t like the smell that reminds him of office toilets. He doesn’t complain about it though, he keeps up his own Christmas pantomime for his little family. He loves his girls, though he doesn’t even pretend to understand what goes on in Esther’s head anymore. He loves making them happy, but carrying them round on his back doesn’t work as well as it used to. Keith has had a number of jobs in his life, and suspects that he has performed better at all of them than he has at being a father. Currently, Keith works in construction. If anyone asks about it (they don’t often) he has taken to saying that he “deals in nails”, which makes things sound, if not exciting, then at least enigmatic. He’s starting to anticipate a life after fatherhood; and perhaps a life after being a husband. He loves Jenny, he always has, but he loves himself a little more these days. He feels that the perfect Keith, a Keith with tartan shirts and dark blue jeans and thick books and an encyclopedic knowledge of politics lurks just beyond his reach, distracted as he is by Christmas trees and teenagers. Jenny doesn’t understand him, he thinks, has never understood him, though she started to put more effort into trying a few years ago.

Jenny is just as glamorous as she always was, with her hair a little thinner and her make-up a touch thicker. Now that the girls are old enough to take themselves to and from school, and to make their lunches, and to organize their own play-dates, she has gone back to volunteering at the local information centre. She sits behind a desk for most of the day, three days a week, handing out leaflets, and imaging herself falling in love with the bearded, backpacked tourists who saunter in through the sliding doors. She’d never do anything about these imaginings, she’s devoted to Keith, who appreciates the devotion even if he’s not always entirely sure what to do with it, or how much longer he’ll need it for. Sometimes, Jenny spends a fourth day working. She calls it working, though what she really does is pick three things that tourists have asked about that week, and go to do them herself. She calls it research as she rides rollercoasters and walks through coastal and bush paths and drinks the best lattes in the city. It’s certainly research, it’s sort of work, though if she loves an activity or a latte enough she’ll neglect to mention them to any enquiring foreigners, to save them for herself.

This Christmas is the last one that Uncle Jonathan will attend, though no one knows it yet, least of all Jonathan.

Jonathan is Jenny’s brother, six years older and a lot less kind. He’s less good-looking too. He has a face that looks like memory foam, like you might be able to squeeze or mold it into any shape you like. He very rarely chooses to mold this expressive face into a smile, with the notable exception of when he’s making someone uncomfortable.

His usual victims within the family are Pudduck and Jenny; Pudduck because she’s easy, and Jenny because he’s had a lot of practice. Keith he avoids out of some kind of male fellow-feeling, and also because he has easy access to a lot of nails. Esther is different kettle of fish – as he likes to say – and he acts like he generally dislikes her, but actually he’s a little afraid of her. He doesn’t know how to act around a girl who paints herself like she does. He knows all about make-up on women. He approaches women in bars and can judge the likelihood of a positive response on the application of their make up. Red lipstick means a vamp, pale pink a prude. Any kind of lip liner means a dominatrix and smoky eye shadow demarcates a sure thing. He knows that women apply make-up so he’ll notice them, so he’ll pick them, so they’ll be the chosen one. And he doesn’t know how to act around a woman, even a young woman, who is so obviously trying to paint herself out.

He’s currently grinning, because he’s got his mouth to Pudduck’s soft cheek, her little legs caught up in his right elbow, and he’s suckling at the dimples Esther covets so.

“I’m so thirsty, I’m so thirsty”, he mutters around her soft skin.

Pudduck is stiff and silent in her arms. Pudduck is used to being grabbed and fondled, but she stopped finding Uncle Jonathan funny at eight years old, or maybe younger. She’s too polite to struggle or complain, which is just as well, because he’d enjoy it more if she did.

Fun had, Jonathan sets Pudduck back lightly on her feet, where she wipes his saliva from her cheek and goes to stand by Esther, who takes Pudduck’s hand in hers. Esther might be jealous of Pudduck on occasion, but her first instinct is always to guard her little sister.

“Well, well, well”, laughs Jonathan loudly. “What’s next?”

They’ve done the same thing for Christmas, every year, since Esther was born, so he knows very well what stage of the day they’re at. It’s mid-morning, meaning that stockings have already been opened. They will settle down under the tree now, to unwrap gifts from each other, and from the rest of the family. After that is Christmas lunch, for which Jenny always cooks a side of salmon (she doesn’t eat meat).

Jonathan knows as well as anyone how this day pans out, but he always does his best to rush his way through. For Jenny, Keith, Pudduck and Esther, the day will end in naps, explorations with new toys, the consumption of leftovers and a long night’s sleep. Jenny and Keith will have sex at midnight, after packing up the Christmas tree, and Pudduck, whose bedroom shares a wall with the sitting room, will listen, though she simply believes that packing up the tree is an alarmingly arduous task, and is glad that she doesn’t have to help. Esther will lock her bedroom door (an event frequent enough that it no longer worries any one in the family) and stand in front of the mirror, experimenting with her new products. This is her second favourite part of Christmas.

For Jonathan, however, his release from the house signals only the beginning of his celebration. He will make his way across town to the pub nearest to his house, where he knows all the locals. He will eat a full Christmas dinner. To his mind, the consumption of salmon for Christmas lunch is nothing short of non-Christian, and there is something religious about the way he washes down his ham with pint after pint. He will position himself at the darkest corner table in the pub and wait for the loneliest woman. It doesn’t always work. He doesn’t always land his Christmas prey. But that’s part of the fun.

But the meantime he delights in playing with his prettiest niece.

It makes Jenny grind her teeth, watching her older brother sigh and frown and look at his watch, and it makes her want to bite something when she sees the way his face changes when he sees Pudduck.

“Come on girls”, she says. “Men, it’s time for presents”.

Pudduck’s distress is easily shaken in the face of presents. She loves receiving them, but she particularly loves giving them, and she’s never been proud of anything the way she’s proud of these scarves.

They settle around the base of the tree, Pudduck and Esther on the floor, and the adults on various chairs drawn close to the pile of presents. It is tradition that Pudduck gives her gifts first, and she already has the soft parcels in her lap.

Order of gift reception, according to Pudduck’s rules, is youngest to eldest, and so it is always Esther who receives hers first. Secretly, Pudduck knows that the scarf she has knitted for Esther is her best, and it delights her to watch the quiet pleasure on Esther’s face as she unwraps the thick black scarf, so wide it’s almost a blanket.

“It’s perfect” says Esther, and she means it. She feels the cold, and has no real concept of how to dress herself. She wraps the scarf around her neck. It goes round twice, so all that peeps out is the tip her nose and the top of her head.

“Bit somber isn’t it, P?”, asks Keith, who doesn’t notice much.

“Say thank you, Esther”, intones Jenny.

Esther doesn’t say anything, but she flicks her almost-hidden eyes at her younger sister, and enough is said with that.

The next parcel goes to Keith, who is exactly 46 days younger than his wife. His scarf is a striped gold and black thing, thin and long, the colours of the team he supports. Despite himself, he is pleased, and he mimics Esther, wrapping the scarf around his neck up to his chin.

“Thank you P”, he laughs, catching his youngest daughter by the hand, and pulling her into his lap for a hug. Jenny clicks a photo of them like that.

Her scarf is a dusty pink in a fine wool, more of a soft square of knit than a scarf. It sets off her hair and softens the tightness in her face. As she puts it on, she’s already planning to wear it to next week’s fourth day of work, a day she’s booked to spend out on a boat watching for whales. Pudduck twinkles up at her as she exclaims with joy over the softness of the wool and she is suddenly reminded of herself at Pudduck’s age, not as she was, but as she longed to be.

Jonathan’s is handed over last, as always. He tears at the wrapping paper, scattering small shreds to the floor, and unearths a dark brown scarf in a coarse wool.

Pudduck doesn’t have a vicious bone in her body, not yet. She chose that colour in that wool because it looked warm, and solid and strong, and those are the things she feels in her Uncle when he lifts her into the air. She isn’t to know how aware Jonathan is of his farmer’s features and his thick middle; his yellowed fingers and thinning hair. She isn’t to know that he equates brown with age and death – he wears black because it’s enigmatic, and blue because it catches his eyes. Stripes because they make him look thinner and denim because it makes him feel young. But he never wears brown.

He’s had a few too many beers, obviously. Jenny has been keeping count, as she does every time she spends time with him, as they both did with their father, and she reckons he’s had seven or eight already. She doesn’t know about the bottles that he’s drained completely, knocked sideways, and kicked with a heel under the couch.

He’s had more than a few too many beers, but it’s not really the beer that makes him lash out.

He stands up, the offending scarf held loosely in one hand. He makes his way over, not to Pudduck, but to Esther.

“Swap?” he says.

Esther shakes her head.

“Come on,” he growls. “It’s more your colour, isn’t it?”

Esther shakes her head.

He turns to Pudduck. “Come on girl. This was a mistake, yeah? I want the black one, you made it for me didn’t you? You know I like black.”

Pudduck can’t even shake her head, torn between the fear butterflying in her stomach, and anger that anyone would think she’d put anything less than everything into her homemade Christmas presents. She’s not scared of Jonathan, though, she’s scared for Esther, who’s clutching at the scarf around her neck like a rosary.

Keith is growing uncomfortable. He’s not above monstering his children on occasion, but it’s quite another thing to watch another man doing it. “Come on Jonathan”, he says lightly. “The brown one’s lovely. Looks lovely and warm, doesn’t it Jenny?”

He passes the burden onto his wife, who should, he thinks, be controlling her beery brother.

Jenny opens her mouth to talk, but Jonathan beats her to it.

“Shut up, Jenny” he slurs, and he suddenly has his hands on Esther, one big hand pulling at her little clutching white ones, and the other yanking free her scarf. She’s wound it tight, and he pulls it off her with difficulty, jerking her head to the side. He tosses the brown one at her, where it drapes from her shoulder like an old Christmas decoration.

Now that he has the scarf, he’s feeling lighter, and he’s also starting to sense the possible ramifications of his behavior. He curls the hard-won black scarf around his neck and laughs.

“Alright then”, he says. “Now that that’s fixed, how about the rest of the presents?”

Arguing would make it worse, they all think, almost in perfect unison, except for Esther, the inside of whose mind is blank and cool and still.

They open the rest of the gifts. There are beautiful things among the last minute purchases. Keith has, quite by accident, given Jenny a present she has wanted for many years – a pearl necklace. He bought it only because he was running out of ideas, but not money, and because the route from where he parked his car to his office building takes him past a jewellery store with a particularly lovely attendant. But Jenny is stunned by his prescience and generosity, and by the time the jewels are looped around her neck, she has quite forgotten the unpleasantness of earlier. Jonathan is starting to feel loose and bleary, and could not, if pressed, recount a single one of the presents he has received in the last hour – with the exception, of course, of the black scarf. Pudduck holds new blue rollerskates in her lap, a present for which she could almost have forgiven Uncle Jonathan, were it not for the expression that lingers on Esther’s face. Esther’s presents remain wrapped beside her, neatly piled on top of a folded brown scarf.

There is a pause while Jenny rustles around, collecting discarded wrapping paper and tying it into a plastic bag, and then the family rises and moves as one to the dinner table.

As always, Jenny serves. Keith used to resent this somewhat, but is terrible at serving up an aesthetically pleasing piece of salmon. The plates are passed around the table, which is covered in a dark red cloth, upon which two heavy silver candlesticks rest. Although it is midday, and bright, the candles are lit, and the wax drips down the silver and cakes onto the cloth.

When everyone is served, Jenny sits and fills her glass with red wine. She raises it and intones “To Christmas!” Everyone joins in, Esther and Pudduck saluting Santa with wine glasses filled with lemonade.

Jonathan is quiet. His head is spinning. He can normally hold his alcohol well, but he has managed to overdo it this time. He shovels potatoes and beans and pink fish into his mouth at speed, thinking to soak up the liquid contents of his stomach. He’s still wearing the black scarf. He’s thinking about tonight, about sobering up enough that can he make it across town, and then settling down in his corner in the pub with a pint. Maybe a half-pint. Loading his fork high, he lifts it to his mouth, but he tilts it a little, and a wet combination of fish and tomato and potato slides down his chin and into the soft folds of the dark scarf.

Pudduck and Esther are both looking at him. He manages a big grin as he uses his fork to scrape up the food as best he can, and puts it in his mouth.

“Lucky that was there to catch it, huh?” he winks through a full mouth, but suddenly something is wrong, the food in his mouth, is hot, and getting hotter, burning and blistering. He tries to spit it out but it has adhered to the insides of his cheeks and to his tongue in a horrifying heated paste that’s starting to force its way down his throat. He grabs his bottle of beer but it’s empty. Jenny, thinking that he’s choking, whacks him on the back, and he vomits easily and suddenly, a burning torrent of brown that rushes from his throat with force and projects onto the table.

He thinks he’s dying, he’s sure he’s dying.

Just as soon as it started, it stops. The food falls away from the surfaces of his mouth and he’s able to spit it out onto his plate. He puts his fingers to his mouth, runs his tongue tentatively across his cheeks and palate but there’s nothing there, just smooth skin.

“What the fuck was that?” asks Keith, who was convinced he was witnessing the passing of his brother-in-law. He’s not exactly disappointed, not precisely.

“Manners, Keith” says Jenny, who has herself recovered rather fast, and is inwardly congratulating herself on her life-saving actions, even as she faces the repulsive clean-up.

Pudduck is pink cheeked and breathing fast and not a little splashed with vomit.

Only Esther is unmoved and silent, glowing with something that isn’t make-up, her hair standing out around her face, burning.

Chapter Four – Highgate Cemetery

I am in the process of writing a novel which, while decidedly not autobiographical, has obvious links to my own life. I’m going to publish the odd chapter here, and feedback is welcome. All you really need to know is the book is the dialogue of a young girl to her grandmother, who is incapable of communicating back. 

I don’t understand why nobody tells you how hard it is to move to London. Maybe it’s because it’s the most boringly predictable thing to do with your life as a New Zealander, short of staying behind, or moving to Australia. It’s kind of a rite of passage, just because we’re doled out these two year VISAs so easily, and the idea of sliding sideways out of uni and landing in a desk job is so dull. Or, I guess, it’s right for some people. It just wasn’t for me.

The thing is, we grow up thinking we’re part British anyway. Between the rugby and the Commonwealth and the Queen, there are pretty strong ties. And even though New Zealand’s national identity is there – almost too there, almost trying too hard – there’s always the greater looming power. It’s a safety thing too.

So people move to London because they can’t bothered thinking harder about something more interesting to do. I know that sounds harsh, judgmental, but it’s true – you can move to London and set up a life that looks very much the same as your one back in New Zealand, but it just looks better on Facebook, when your backdrop is the Thames or Big Ben rather than the house you grew up in. Move there are the right time, and all your friends will be there too, and you won’t have to make any new ones. You could go a whole day without actually speaking to someone who’s British – or even someone that isn’t a New Zealander. And of course, you can play off that whole ridiculous stereotype of New Zealanders as hard working and willing and honest. As if we’re all not as crap as anyone else at the age of 24, or whatever, moving to a new country to escape family obligations and student debt and the possibility of having to shoulder responsibility. Fact is, anyone moving to London knowing that they can’t stay there for longer than two years is doing it for one of three reasons – escape, arrogance or boredom. Usually it’s a bit of all three. And then you can go back home and occasionally drop into conversation “When I lived in London…” Never mind that nearly everyone can say the same sentence. Never mind that your life in London was the same as the one you came back to NZ. It still gives you kudos.

That’s why I did it, anyway – and I guess I’ve been shocked at how fucking hard it has been.

London might have its similarities to New Zealand, and there are plenty of us over here, and there’s money and jobs to be had if you can find them. But London is as empty as it is teeming, and everyone looks down and inwards. You can mock the Kiwi can-do attitude until you cry, but there’s something to be said for a country where people want to talk to each other, or have conversations about something other than the weather.

Maybe Londoners, the real ones, the ones who grew up here and have parents who grew up here, have come to mistrust foreigners – not for the stupid reasons, like job stealing or government bludging, but just because they never stay. London is nothing but a stopover on the way to somewhere else for most people who go there, because why would you stay somewhere that cares so little about you? Even if you’re there for 6 months, a year, two years, you’re just another thing to tolerate and turf, when you’re the kind of fat, hulking city that’s been there for one thousand years and will be there for another thousand after everyone has passed through and gone.

People speak about London as if it has spirit and personality, but really all it has is bulk. People are attracted by gravity and multitude and London sucks people in because it has everything – why would you live somewhere with one museum and one interesting historical fact, when you could live somewhere that has everything?

I don’t know, even when I’m hating it, even when I’m looking at my feet in the rain in my Primark trainers, and I’ve gone to another job interview I’ll never hear back from and I’ve paid £5 for a sandwich that tastes of nothing, I can still turn corner into a pocket of silence and a green tree growing against a grey church and forgive it. One moment like that in a week of shit, and I can remember why I’m there. That’s London’s power – because it has something for everyone. And not just something – it has the one thing that we need, that we haven’t even been looking for, until we stumble into it.

You can’t stay though. No one can stay.

Not even people who are born here and die here can stay here, because the ground is already packed solid with bodies. My friend and I went to Highgate cemetery last weekend. Everyone says it’s beautiful, but what I saw was death. I know, so original, seeing death in a cemetery. But in some parts it’s terraced and clipped and lovely, with flowers on the grave, and marble stone polished to reflect any dim light that filters through – but then you go off the path, to the graves that have been there for 80 or 100 years and they’re chipped. They’re grey and cracked, and some of them have fallen over altogether, with the names eroded so the bones below are nothing but bones, anonymous and broken. And the headstones themselves are leaning in to each other, packed like old teeth, so you can imagine the bones beneath reaching out for each other, rib cages interlocked like fingers, legs and arms linked and hooked because if there’s not enough room above then it stands to reason that there’s not enough room below, doesn’t it?

There aren’t enough living people in London to care about how many dead people there are in London, and even as the living pack in, still more people die.

Did you read about the rail developments in Liverpool St? How they were digging up the ground to make room for the tunnels, and they came across a mass grave, packed with 300 bodies, maybe 200 years old? Nobody knew they were there.

And the discovery must have been shocking, the one guy with the drill suddenly finding himself to be shattering a skull. Or that’s how I picture it anyway, because it’s better if it’s dramatic, right, a blackened skull suddenly leering out of the dirt? But realistically they probably had a full mechanical shovel full of several tonnes of dirt and they probably thought they were looking at tree roots before they realized that what they were seeing were limbs. Even then, once they realized, do you think they parsed out the bones and the bits like some ancient awful jigsaw, so the bodies were whole, and buried them beautifully, in lines, with those shiny pink headstones? They have no names, and they have no space. And they couldn’t stay where they were because otherwise where would the tunnel go? And the trains packed with the thousands of brand new Londoners desperate to go places, a hundred places, so that when they eventually go back home they have stories to say, and maybe some pictures of themselves standing in front of things? Maybe graveyards.

The news stories never contain what happens to the remains, unless they think they’ve found a king or a treasure chest, and so what I think they probably did was find somewhere – outside of London of course – where they could big a hole as big, and dumped them all back in. Or they burned them. I can’t really think of burning bones, can you? It’s not right.

The weirdest part of it all is the way people fight to be buried in London – in Highgate cemetery especially, together with Karl Marx and Christina Rosetti. I only know those names because I went there and looked at the monuments, that massive bearded statue of Marx surrounded by people commenting that he looks like Santa Claus. I don’t know why people want to be buried there. Maybe because it’s somewhere they know, which makes death less scary. Maybe because it’s somewhere where people go, so even if the people walking by their grave aren’t visiting them, at least they’re there. Maybe because the dirt is thick with famous dead people, and they think that famous dead people are better to be around than ordinary dead people, because dead people are scary but marginally less scary if they invented socialism. Or maybe because it’s the last kind of acceptance, the last nod from London that maybe you might be allowed to belong.

It could be any of them, but I think the last one might drive people most – the idea that you might finally belong somewhere if you’re literally part of the soil and carved into the stone.

People are dumb though, because even the shiniest graves chip and crack and fall. Even famous people get forgotten and even expensive tombs eventually get dug up. And nobody really belongs anywhere, even if they die there.

A short rumination on life as a real, proper, actual adult with an 8-pack of tennis socks

First published here. 

You wake up in the morning to the sound of your flatmate flat-footing it down the stairs. He got home late last night because he’s a lawyer and that’s what lawyers do; because he probably built a city or saved a company and you didn’t do much more than tweet your way from breakfast to lunch with a short trip to Boots in the middle to mix things up. You needed tampons, which you bought before your period even started, because you have a diary and a schedule and you do laundry on Saturdays and you can’t afford to be dealing with things like stains and mistakes.

There’s no shampoo left but that’s OK because as an adult you know that body wash will do much the same job; that it’s all just a ruse to get you to spend more more more on vanilla-scented products that won’t do much more than make you more attractive to bees, but that’s OK too, because the bees are dying and you, as an adult, would like to do something for the environment. “Saving the bees” can’t go on your CV as an interest or an accomplishment but it should because that’s something you’ve done this morning, and it’s not even 7 o’clock.

No, it’s 7:45, because you didn’t set your alarm last night because you were letting your phone battery run down to 0% because you read that that helps lengthen the battery life of iPhones because you read articles because you are an adult.

There’s no toothpaste left but that’s OK because your trip to Boots yesterday included the purchase of floss and mouthwash and so you have the makings of a McGyver-approved minty fresh mouth, and brushing too hard causes gum disease according to the terrifying ad with the bloodied eyes on the tube that you can’t look at anymore.

There’s no toilet paper left but that’s OK because you still have a brand new 8-pack of tennis socks that you bought from H&M on payday, and no one will know because it’s Friday and laundry day is Saturday and also, you don’t play tennis.

There’s one carriage on the tube that’s always empty enough, by some fluke, by some miracle alignment of tunnels and carriages and the tendency of people to turn right rather than left, for you to get a seat, and so you do. He’s playing a game and she’s listening to music but you, as an adult, are reading the paper, because that’s what your parents did and that’s what your boss does. People are dying. People are dying. People are dying.

No Starbucks for you. No Pret. No Nero. Fast food and over-priced coffee are for people who can’t stick to schedules and you can, and you have, even if you’re still a bit wet between the butt-cheeks because you didn’t towel off properly, even if you might be wearing the socks that you used to… never mind. You’ll buy a Big Issue, that’s what you’ll do. He smiles. You smile. You’ll never read it. He knows that.

The office is too cold and the lights are too bright and you can see the patchiness of your make-up like you couldn’t at home, but nobody here will notice. You drink a protein shake because protein will fill you up and make you strong and change you and turn you beautiful and then turn you into someone else altogether, eventually. Sugar-free and vanilla.

Nobody ever has as much work to do as you, you’re sure of it. Nobody even tries. Everyone is on Facebook and Twitter, everyone is secretly snapping selfies and private messaging each other plans for lunch. You are an adult, and you have salad ingredients in the fridge. It’s delicious, you say. It’s healthy and filling and you only spend £10 a week on lunch. Think how many things you could spend that money on. Another long sleeved slightly sheer black top from Zara. Yes.

Everyone else is drinking but you decline a beer. You’re going to the gym. You’re becoming a new person, a better version, a cleaner model with more friends and better eco-efficiency. The gym is hot and it smells and they’ve run out of towels and you’re sure you might throw up if you spend one more minute on the treadmill and also, the distance counter on this machine is off. And that one. The breakability of things is sad, isn’t it sad?

Your dinner is healthy but that beer and those four chocolate bars and the wine gum you found in your shoe and ate anyway, they’re not. But your dinner was still healthy. People have messaged you but they’re not the right ones, and the right ones always say the wrong things, and they don’t even know. The underwire has come out of your bra and is stabbing you in the heart and that is a metaphor for modern life, for modernity, for the awful crushing modern-ness of strapping your breasts aloft with wire and you’d tweet it but you couldn’t possibly express it. They wouldn’t possibly understand.

You still have no toothpaste. You still have no shampoo. You still have no toilet paper. You’ve run out of socks.

Your mother would help you but she’s far away and she doesn’t care any more because you’re an adult and she gave you all the tools you need to fix it yourself.