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.

Advertisements

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.

My Relationship with My UTI, as written by my UTI

She always tried hard.

She got up on mornings she did not want to get up on. She developed pointed elbows and pointed glares, the use of which enabled her to get on the first tube that arrived in the platform, not the third or the fourth. She looked up as she walked, and paid attention to road signs. Sometimes she put money into outstretched hands at the roadside. Sometimes she managed to resist shopping in the afternoons. She Skyped her parents. She texted her friends. But she drank too many cocktails. She forsook the cranberry. She was stupid.

I first met her when she was 9 years old, at primary school. I took her to the bathroom, and I said “Stay here”. She tried to go back to the classroom – she liked it there amongst the colours and the words and the numbers. Strange girl. I made her return, again and again, and then I convinced her to stay. The teacher came to the bathroom and knocked on the door. “Are you okay?” She replied that she was fine. She said to herself, “I am fine”. She drank a lot of water, and I left her alone.

I came back when she was 16, and going on a camping trip to celebrate the New Year. There are better ways to celebrate the coming of the new year than sleeping on the ground and drinking vodka out of unmarked plastic bottles, but she did not know that then. On the car ride to the agreed-upon location, where people were distributing tents into car boots and secreting vodka from their parents, she turned to her mother and said “I have a UTI”. That was the first time she called me by my name (I have many names). Her mother – who did not like me, but knew me well – attempted to banish me with dissolvable packets that tasted like lemon mixed with hell. She bought four bottles of cranberry juice and wished her daughter well. Mixing the cranberry juice with the unmarked vodka made me go away, eventually, but attracted small Spanish men with unusual names.

I came again the next year, at the same time. I almost think she willed me into existence with her dread, and with the presence of her boyfriend who could not, would not, on long summer evenings in the sleep-out, leave her alone. This time she let me stay, and I thought we would be together forever, until her temperature got so high that she went, crying, to a friend’s father, for a prescription. I felt betrayed. I lingered. She, her boyfriend and I were an unhappy, unwilling threesome. We hurt each other a lot, that summer.

The last time I saw her was in Japan. She waited three long days to go to the doctor, and might not have gone at all, had she not fainted in a subway bathroom stall, a small one built for a Japanese woman, so that she awoke in a tiny hunched huddle around the bowl. The doctor did not speak English but seemed to understand when she said the word “bladder” and then said the word “pain”. “Drink warm water,” he said, in stilted English, after swift consultation with a curious nurse. She shook her head at him, pulled another Japanese word out of her limited arsenal. “Drugs”. They gave her the white packets and she took them home, lying on her bed watching crows circle. I wanted to stay with her, then – I liked Japan.

We see each other less now. She wards me off daily and treats any sign that I might visit with anger and refusal. For a while I was hurt – we had spent so much time together. We had so much history. But I understand now that it is a natural parting of ways. That people grow apart. Just kidding, I’ll be back – soon.