Staying In

I have ordered grass seed and topsoil and fertiliser. I have cleared out the dead: the leaves, the twigs, the plants that didn’t survive the winter. The lawn is snarled with cold wedges of moss and weeds. I pull up the large green-leaved weeds that survive so much better than everything else, they fill a whole organic waste bag on their own. Left to their own devices they would flourish, fill the garden, grow into a delighted bush around Shakespeare’s greening head. There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as weeds, only plants growing in the wrong places, but I still delight in pulling them out. The thing to do is to get them by the throat to pull them free at the root. If you break off the leaves, they’ll be lush again in weeks. It is cold but the skies are blue; they are single-digit mornings, but maybe in a few weeks we will breach late teens. It is the time of year where you start to stop with scarves and hats, and make a few mistakes, and end up late and frozen in a too-thin coat; it is the time of year when I decide I can manage an outdoor swim, and feel that sensation of deadening lungs and a rising chill. It is that time of year. 

Adam has ordered a shed, dumb-bells, mats. It isn’t easy. The whole of Britain, apparently, is retiring inside to become fucking ripped, spending the minutes not on trains and not in pubs lifting and squatting in seclusion. In the meantime, Soho is boarded up against looters and the gyms are empty. 

This is the first weekend of isolation. I’m still going to the local store too much. I’ve forgotten how to plan a meal. I’ve almost forgotten how to cook without a recipe card, and every item organised for me in a brown paper bag. In an ordinary week, we will sometimes struggle to cook all three meals before the box comes again on Sunday. Adam plays football, we both see friends, we eat one dinner in a restaurant on Stroud Green road. Staying for the three nights necessary to cook three dinners is hard on weeks when there are birthdays and bad days and cards with friends. This morning I watched the delivery man put the Hello Fresh in our shed, with his mask on, then ring the doorbell and hurriedly depart. Hello Fresh, no doubt, is probably having the best few weeks since they first came up with the idea that overworked and overly-social millennials might not have the time or imagination to come up with their own meals. Good for them, I’m glad for them. 

I unpacked the bag, recycled the box. There is a lot more in our cupboards than usual. I don’t think it counts as prepping, because it’s still not that much food. We have gone from a household that never eats breakfast or lunch at home, and struggles to manage three home-cooked meals, to the opposite. I am going to save so much money, I think, as I buy another bottle of gin and order 5 more Kindle books. I’m going to be rich, I think, cancelling my airfare to NZ, three Air B’n’B’s, the internal flights. Silver linings everywhere, I repeat, on my hands and knees in the moss, pulling out the roots. 

I’m a good person because I am paying my cleaner, who cannot come because she is sick. I am a good person because I am buying groceries for an elderly neighbour and his wife. I am not a good person because I am writing about the things that make me good, massaging these small details into someone well-equipped for emergencies, who thinks of others before she thinks of herself. I think of myself all the time: how much I miss my far-flung family (in a time where South London feels as distant as the Southern Hemisphere), how my once book-loving brain seems unable to read anything longer than a 180-character panicked tweet, how important running is to me and how likely it is that I might have to stop doing even that soon. House prices, cancelled holidays, postponed weddings, the amount of laundry I’m generating even though I’ve worn the same pair of leggings for six straight days. 

I have never sent so many messages. I have never worn so little make-up. I have never been so obsessed with tins of corn and the expiration date on almond milk. My office closed on Tuesday; the pubs closed on Friday; they shut the Hampstead ponds yesterday; the cherry blossom tree in my yard is nearly fully in bloom. I think of us all as tiny blue dots on a giant map. The journey of my dot on a typical week, back and forth from the office, venturing south to see friends, a well-work route to the wine bar, the Londis, the gym. Now I move back and forth from the lounge to the bedroom, I follow the route of the sun and my long-suffering cat, a trapped insect buzzing up against the windows.

Isolation

The groom is wearing a green velvet blazer and a dried flower buttonhole and pink tie. He is beaming, and the pub behind him is stuffed with beautifully-dressed guests celebrating his marriage. He approaches us with a grin. “Congratulations!” we say, and I move to hug him, pause. “Oh, we’re doing this!” he says, and extends a green velvet elbow. We bump elbows. “Congratulations!” I say, again, hovering in the middle of the moment. My younger colleague surges forward, all well-wishes and wide smile and joy. “Oh, you can’t hug him!” I say. The groom shakes his head ruefully. She looks shocked, horrified. “But.. I have to! One hug!” she says, extending her arms. They bump elbows. 

At the Londis on the corner, everything looks normal. The shelves of toilet paper are fully stocked, and there is hand soap (if not sanitizer) on the shelves. I buy my usual ridiculous assortment of cheese and crackers. I also buy toilet paper because it’s there, and because my social media feeds are filled with the barren shelves of other, nearby supermarkets. I am not buying all I can carry, because I’ve read too much about the affluent stocking up while the hand-to-mouth go without, but I’m still buying it when I don’t strictly need it, because I can’t bring myself to look a toilet paper horse in its four-ply mouth. There are three people in the queue ahead of me, and they are all also buying toilet paper. 

I go to OddBins to buy wine and gin for the wedding. The store is empty. The man behind the till is chatty. “Everyone is crazy!” he says, wrapping the glasses that come free with my gin in tissue paper. “The supermarket was so crowded!” We talk briefly about the wedding. He shrugs. “Your life sounds normal.” 

But it’s not normal for me to sit at my laptop every morning and type the same two words, “Coronavirus UK”, just to see what’s come up overnight. And it’s not normal that my trip to New Zealand, planned for three weeks’ time, is now likely cancelled, as the prime minister I admire very much has imposed a 14 day self-isolation period on anyone entering the country. When I read the news, I try to apply it to myself. Could I fly to NZ, and stay inside for 14 days, and still have a good time? Part of me thinks I’m just slothful enough that it could work, as long as the weather held, and someone could bring me wine, and I could pet the cats. But I think I would still be doing the same regular Googling, the same dwelling on the future. And I would be in New Zealand, but functionally as proximate to the beaches and streets and hills that I love as when I am in London. 

A few weeks ago, a concert I was really looking forward to was cancelled, and I was gutted. Now, everything is cancelled. All major sports. A birthday dinner with my uncle. Every upcoming gig. It’s hard to imagine how any kind of isolation can be enforced in a city so studiedly un-isolated. I am cheek to jowl, elbow to elbow, with strangers every day of the week, on the tube, in elevators, standing in queues, walking down the street. Advice from professionals is to be more than two metres apart, which is risible. Alone in my flat, I can hear my neighbour through the wall. His name is Robin, he knows me only through an annoying number of mis-delivered Amazon packages, but I know the cadence of his walk, and his cough. 

It is humbling to live in a time where planning has become redundant. Plan to have food on hand, plan to be able to work from home, but don’t plan your upcoming birthday. Don’t plan your honeymoon. Planning is for people living in a world where order and certainty abide, and that’s not the world we live in, at least for the time being. 

A documentary yesterday reminded me that this is not the first pandemic I have lived through. SARS broke out in 2003, and I remember it only as a series of images of chickens on the television. SARS died out quicker than experts anticipated, but it was much more frightening than coronavirus, since it could be transmitted in the air. The documentary detailed the story of someone in Hong Kong in an apartment building vomiting into a toilet, and the virus moving through the plumbing into the bathroom of the apartment below, and then out through the windows, and into neighbouring apartment blocks. That’s the stuff of nightmares, the kind of virus you can’t restrict and you can’t trace to source, and still, I’m pretty sure I was only thinking about chickens. I was sixteen. Maybe that’s an excuse. 

Coronavirus, like SARS, is a zootopic virus (see how much I’ve learned!), meaning that it occurred when a virus occurring in an animal was transmitted to a human, which is reassuring in a stupid way: it means it could have happened at any time, for any reason, and isn’t something that we as a species have specifically agented through arrogance, or idiocy. Conversely, the technologies we have developed that support frequent and fast travel mean that while we perhaps can’t be held responsible for the existence of the virus, the spread is certainly down to us. And then, on yet another hand, the prevalence of social media and the degree to which we’re all connected, might save us again. Everyone is informed. Every choice is a deliberate one. There is official advice to follow, and plenty of ways to name and shame those who don’t. 

It’s interesting to relearn our fragility. For everything we know, we are as vulnerable as we were in the time of the Spanish flu. We are humid, lonely beings who only accidentally avoid annihilation. All of my instincts (flock to my loved ones) go against the best advice for survival. Last night I hugged the groom as I said goodbye. Not in any kind of deliberate flaunting of rules or advice, but because he was so unbelievably happy in his perfect green blazer and because I’d had plenty of gin and because our new working from home policy might mean it’s weeks before I see him again. Human contact is instinctive. 

Now, I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table. I can’t see anyone at all, but because it’s London, I can hear sirens, and I can hear Robin running his taps through the wall, perhaps washing his hands for the mandated 20 seconds. London isn’t in lockdown, but it’s hard to feel like going outside is the right choice. I’ve written before about how New Zealand can feel far away. It’s never felt further.

Brexit

I have always been disproportionately proud of my UK passport, as if it meant something important about me, that I had this exclusive secondary ticket to another life that wasn’t afforded to most of my friends. It didn’t particularly occur to me that the passport was representative of choices made by my parents, and by their parents; or that considering myself special by dint of association with a country not my own was really just an expression of the otherness I felt as a teenager who didn’t fit in well. I just liked it. I liked the colour of it, and the way it stood out from the pile of black passports when we took trips away. I liked the possibility of it. 

I’ve lived in London for the last eight years, and they have been hard years for the UK. I’ll never pretend to be any kind of qualified political commentator, but I’ve watched the UK change. There is much more homelessness in London than there was when I arrived, at least in the central locations where I have worked. Conservatism is more entrenched, the likelihood of liberal majority getting further away with every election. 

And then there is Brexit, this looming slow dreadful tidal wave. The degree of cliche that I represent (privileged, a homeowner purely on the back of parental generosity) was never better represented than the way I received the news of how the vote had fallen: muddy, sequinned, wandering blithely home from 4am Glastonbury festivities. I felt shock, and disappointment, and then I felt pure disdain for the voters who had pushed this exclusionary, backwards agenda over the line. I sat around, covered in glitter, with my clever white friends, and celebrated the fact that for the next four days at least, we could resist impending doom in a liberal bubble, sipping gin, eating loaded fries, feeling superior. I felt so certain that we were bastions of good, educated decision-making, standing strong in the face of ignorance and deceit. 

The last three years were glacial, Brexit-wise. It began to feel like a farce, a cosmic Conservative joke on all of us. But even glaciers move, and the worst part of all of it was the inevitability of the way it eventually, painfully got done. I protested; I didn’t doorstop. I donated, but I didn’t lobby. I was the classic hand-wringer, pale-faced and watchful but uncertain. There was no one to stand behind. I have largely been a Labour voter, and I have been a Corbyn supporter, and it felt like the emptiest and most miserable betrayal to have no one to stand behind, or look to. We all knew it was bad; felt in our bones the loss. So why was there no one directing our formless, apathetic grief? 

I was home at 11pm on January 31st. I’ve been sick for days, a lurgy that’s filled all the spaces in my face with mucus and left me with a cough that shakes my chest like a haunted house. I was in bed when I heard the fireworks go off, in my Labour-voting neighbourhood. They felt like flares, not celebrations. 

But at least I’ve had my face pulled free of my London bubble, my Twitter echo chamber. There’s no denying that something is broken, and that we all had a hand in breaking it, when every clip of every Brexit-voter in Parliament Square featured someone a bit short, a bit old, celebrating how this move represented taking back our borders and our courts from some faceless, menacing entity who is, in their minds, responsible for every taste of poverty and every opportunity lost. The problem, I think, is that the menace is far closer. It lies in the north/south divide and the inequality that becomes harder and harder to deny. But it’s easier to blame a stranger than a neighbour. 

No one can put their finger on what they’ve lost, other than the essential otherness that being European gave us. We associate Europe with exciting alien tastes and adventures; sunlight on cobbled streets and dark wines late at night. Europe is warm seas and close growths of greenery; vineyards and mountains that taper off into the sky. To be European is to be someone who closes their mouth around fish caught that day at midnight among friends, whose glassware is thin and brilliant and whose laugh echoes around a courtyard. Europe was sex and warmth and interesting strangers. Europe was the possibility that you might also be sexy and warm and interesting, rather than someone with blisters and unused potential and an overdraft. 

It makes sense that Brexit took place in January, the longest, coldest, saddest month. In February we are self-made castaways on a proud, grey island. And it’s horrible to admit that the venture proving successful would be a terrible outcome. What if, economic certainty, better trade deals, more local industry? What if, lower unemployment rates, better weather, happier people? What if Boris gets to face down world-wide doubters through the lens, and tell them that they were wrong, and he was right? We were, after all, part of Europe pre-1973, pre-EU. There were holidays to Spain then, there were Spanish tomatoes in our Greek salads served on Holloway Road. If it comes to pass, then will we, this lost liberal crew keening for our maroon passports, find it in ourselves to forgive past wrongs, paper over those historical undemocratic machinations, embrace being British, and admit that if an economic partnership was so essential to our sense of self then perhaps there was something flawed about that sense of self? 

New Zealanders are sometimes mocked for being too patriotic. There’s something slightly too easy to parody about our powerful passion for the things we’re good at, our innate certainty that our tenacious geographic isolation makes us unique. Kiwi battlers. Underdogs. Antipodean Davids brandishing fists at a whole world of Goliaths. The opposite has happened in the UK, where it’s been thrown into sharp relief that (at least among the Remainer camp) pride lay in our associations with others, rather than what it means to be British. Left now with the Union Jack, the blue and gold flag no longer flying, the tenets of Britishness have begun to look like a celebration of division. 

Brexit is done. The glacier has melted into the sea. The aftermath has arrived. And I get to face the fact that my passport is no longer so special. Upon arriving in Spain, or France, or Italy, I will join my fellow Kiwis in the Other queue. I’m not different. I’m exactly as Kiwi, or British; interesting or boring; educated or ignorant; engaged or apathetic as I ever was. The change is around me – possibly in who I get to meet, where I get to go, what I get to eat, how much I get to earn – rather than within me. But it’s interesting how much it feels like both.

A lot changes

A lot changes. Buying a house, getting married, getting a cat. Nothing changes. The weather breaks, steams and sweats and I act like it’s something brand new, even though the screenshots on my phone, the reminders served up to me one year cold, a piece of wedding cake frozen and forgotten, tell me it did exactly this, at exactly this time, last year. 

The air conditioning in our office is broken and it reminds me exactly what a basic, broken animal I am. I move from hot seat to hot seat, sweating and sticking, peeling my tacky thighs off the plastic seats of an unpleasant Thai restaurant in Soho. Somewhere since last summer, I have become a step tracker, and so I glance at my wrist, watching the small exercised increments stack up, as if wandering from meeting room to kitchen to desk might constitute real exercise. It feels like real exercise. I am tired, my flat feet blistered and sore in my Birkenstocks. I cannot keep my toenails painted, they constantly look like shit, the second nail on each foot blackened from netball. I am no athlete but now I run, 6, 7, 10 kilometers at a time, 20, 25, 30 kilometers a week, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is nothing less natural to me. 

My garden loves the summer. This is Southern Hemisphere weather: heavy, hanging days caving into rain and thunder and a washed blue sky. I know the names of things now, since my Mum stayed, and filled the planters with soil, and dotted the beds with colours. I have drowned my sad pansies, but the lobelia is lush and the fuschia is taking over, a strange and foreign bright flash in my dusty English garden. I have tried to bring back the lawn, dead and curled around the edges like an old letter since one summer gone, but I have failed. The grass seed will not take and the fertiliser mushes into the soil like cake mix and the fat pigeons have come down from the trees and pecked up anything living. There are no worms turning my dead dirt, and I knew it even as I tried it, cutting the corners on the WikiHow article on bringing back a dead lawn. I need tools and time, and I have neither. The time I have is listless and flapping. I am laundry hung badly. I am dripping. I am clean, but beginning to turn. 

I am allergic to the ivy that coats the walls of my garden. Mostly it doesn’t matter. I don’t wrap myself in it. I like the way it hides the trellis and the noisy neighbours and the wall that is about to come down. Last weekend I took to it (take to a stage, take to hedges, take to drinking, I have taken to you, a duck to water) with new Amazon hedge clippers, and felt in the new blades the strength of easy destruction. The ground was thick with big green leaves by the time I was done but the ivy-walls themselves looked no different, no thinner. There are snails lurking in the hedge of ivy, snails that are denuding my small, trying flowers and so I throw them, one by one, over into the neighbour’s garden, which is a frenzied tangle of creeper and blackberries, and into which no one goes. I know I am allergic to ivy as I do this, because my Mum is allergic to ivy, and because last time I helped in the garden I got a red rash on both my forearms that lasted two weeks, but a month, two, have passed since I learned this and so I have forgotten that urgent, agonizing not-quite-pain, and I do not put a long-sleeved top on. 

Five days later and I am paying the price, with both arms stippled red and stinging. Antihistamines help a little, steroid cream helps a little. Soaked paper towels wrapped around both arms by a colleague I don’t deserve helps a lot, but doesn’t help with my typing speed. Summer has slowed the things around me, but my to-do list creeps longer, even as I hack at it. I hold ice cubes to my skin, stand with my arms under the taps in the bathroom for 30 seconds, a minute. I am sweaty, dripping, itching, suffering, distracted, indignant. I did this to myself, and I don’t quite know why.

Our wedding

There is a new candle on our window sill. It was a wedding present from Adam’s father and his partner – a Yankee candle called Wedding Day. The wax is white and the label shows a posy of white flowers. When my own father saw it, he said, “What scent is Wedding Day?” 

The official Yankee Candle site tells me that the candle is a sophisticated and soothing blend of florals and subtle fruits. The top notes are sheer citrus, aldehydes, and greens, with base notes of sweet musk, sandalwood and tonka bean. I used to work for Coty, a beauty conglomerate who represent a lot of the major fragrances, so I’m used to writing copy from product precis that read like this – a muddled and confusing garden, familiar words rising from wreaths of unfamiliar. I also know that writing copy for scents is almost an impossibility, since every concoction changes alchemically on the skin. A perfume that is a perfect fit with one person’s chemical mix of salt and sweat and the undefinable sits confusingly with the senses on another. You might have preferences, but for the most part you only know what you like it when you smell it on your own pulse points, throat and wrists, the silage you leave behind you in familiar rooms. 

Some parts of our wedding were easily planned for. We didn’t have strong feelings towards a church wedding, and in the UK you can only get married in a small number of registered venues per borough. That led us to the County Arms, a pub which was easily reachable by public transport, within our price range, and had a small pub garden in case the June sun I was hoping for came our way. I didn’t want to wear white, nor did I want to spend a huge amount, but a scouting mission in Harrods with my mother and sisters taught me that I did, in fact, want to wear something high waisted and monumental, the kind of gown that stands up on its own and bursts from packaging exuberantly. I found a skirt that fit those requirements on Etsy, created by someone in Lithuania, and the top in TopShop after 100 Google searches of combinations of the words silk, satin, sequin, camisole, vest, evening, blush, ivory, cream, coffee. I put off buying the top for so long that TopShop nearly sold out of the one I wanted, and Maddy had to do an emergency trip to Oxford Circus two weeks before the wedding. I tried on the two items together for the first time in front of a mirror at the tailor on the hottest day of the year so far, with a flushed face and sweat trickling between my thighs. The date of the wedding, June 15, came from my hope for sun, and our desire to avoid Glastonbury. 

One of my best friends, Rupert, who had wed the love of his life in January of this year, gave us a piece of advice, that I will always be glad we took: get ready together. 

We had been wondering how best to navigate this. My sister and her two wonderful housemates had already agreed to let us use their big house, with its big garden, in Tooting Broadway, for the bridesmaids to get ready. But there was no obvious location for the groomsmen – we live in Finsbury Park and the wedding was in Wandsworth, making our house an hour-long taxi ride away. When Rupert made his suggestion, it suddenly seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Most of the members of the bride and groom’s parties are good friends. Many live south. This way we could all leave for the wedding together, and the florist could give out the buttonholes and bouquets, and champagne and beer only had to be supplied to one location. It was so obvious, and suited us so well that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. After the decision was made, it was one of the things people expressed the most surprise about. Many believed it was bad luck that Adam and I spent the night before our wedding together, watching Game of Thrones and drinking negronis. Having done it our way, I don’t understand why you would do it another. I was nervous and excited before the wedding, and I got to share those feelings with my best friend. Why be a groom, waiting nervously at the altar, fearful that the bride might not show, when you could have sat outside drinking a beer with your bride-to-be, enjoying the last few minutes before the vows?

We didn’t get sun, or not much of it. On the morning of the day, Adam was despatched south to Primark to buy 8 clear plastic umbrellas, while I went to the hairdresser and had my hair styled by George, who turned me from a redhead to a blonde some 5 years ago. I took the tube from Baker Street down to Tooting Broadway, dodging occasional rain, and hoping my plait would hold in the wind (it did). My sister’s house was like a haunted Victorian mansion, each room filled with at least two bridesmaids in white dresses. I was lucky on two counts: to have enough people dear to me that even having seven bridesmaids felt like holding back, and to have those seven happy to wear a white dress of their choosing. In the lead-up I had plenty of questions from well-meaning (and incredulous) colleagues and friends about that, but it was an easy choice that I made early. White goes with anything, so whether I wore blush or the amazing rainbow Caroline Herrera dress I tried on early on the piece, it would work. In the end they all wore different dresses, and all looked uniquely amazing, accessorised with coloured shoes and lipsticks and earrings. The florist arrived; our wonderful friend Ally presided over the flowers; another wonderful friend, Billy, took beautiful pictures of everyone getting ready in the late morning light. The wedding photos are wonderful, but Billy’s capture the atmosphere of anticipation and excitement of the hours of preparation, as well as our comfort and pleasure in familiar company. 

We took Ubers to the venue. When I arrived, many guests were already there, thronged at the front of the pub. We sat down with the registrar and celebrant, poised women who had clearly done exactly this four hundred times before. Adam and I sat together, holding hands – another moment which bride and groom would typically spend apart. And then everyone was seated, Taylor Swift was playing and I was stood at the side of the pub, arms linked with my father, ready to walk up the makeshift aisle. I knew I would walk too fast and I did, with Dad whispering in my ear to slow down. My skirt filled every inch of space between the chairs, and he did so well not to stand on my train. 

When you do a non-religious wedding ceremony, you are provided with a very clear script, from which the celebrant will not diverge by one word. I have been to magical ceremonies in New Zealand, where the celebrant speaks at length about the couple, and the individuals, and their hopes and dreams, and at our wedding there was none of that. It was crisp, formal, legal, sensible. We had two readings that brought our own colour to the script – my mother reading an excerpt from The Odyssey, and our friend Rupert reading a blog piece written by Neil Gaiman, which he performed from memory, directly to us. 

Scarlett and Adam-18

I was nervous about the ceremony. Nervous about standing there in front of so many people, nervous about how I would feel, nervous about whether it would feel farcical, in a pub, with people swilling pints behind a curtain and the kitchen trying to be quiet as they plated up meals at the rear. I was nervous in the moment; the quiver in my voice and the shake in my hand was undeniable. But – underneath the chandelier, in front of red roses and eucalyptus, reflected back in the mirror – there was something sacred about it anyway, from the formal vocabulary issuing from the mouth of a smiling stranger, to the poured-over words of the deeply contrasting readings, to our vows, spoken directly at each other. I felt the same when Adam knelt in our small Stockwell flat. That kind of promise, made with that weight of intent, shuts down the air around it. I, given to sarcasm and alleviating pressure with humour, felt no need to joke, just the working of the muscles in my jaw as I smiled at him, at once familiar and strangely serious. I cried twice, and snotted on my vows. Neither of us could get the rings on each other. My sister wept throughout. Adam had to follow me down the aisle as we walked to Queen – Best Friend, my skirt too wide to let him stand beside me. And he was my husband. 

Scarlett and Adam-19

That was the hard part, and that was the best part. In the lead-up to the event I had spoken often of looking forward to it as a chance to unite all our favourite people in the same room; a once-in-a-lifetime perfect party. And it was that, but it was more as well. I have always been sentimental, and exhaustingly monogamous, and yet simultaneously somewhat skeptical of marriage as the ultimate union between two people. I have though living together, buying a house together, opening bank accounts together to be a far greater expression of trust and dependence. Now I believe there is something in the ceremony of it, whether you do it in a pub or a church or a registry office. It means something. 

After the ceremony there was prosecco and photos. The County Arms is a beautiful pub, and it is situated near Wandsworth Common, but we were keen to do the family photos as fast as possible, and so the majority of them were taken on a grass verge near a bus stop, angled to keep the busy road out of the photos, and dog poo had to be scooped out of the way by an empty prosecco flute. The rain held off, and we didn’t need the umbrellas. Plenty of people had told me that the formal photos were unnecessary, but I’m still glad we got them – inside the pub, with 100 people, we would never have got the family photos we wanted. And we look elated, all with matching bouquets, clutched low across the white and blush. The photographer (Alice the Camera, truly brilliant) told us to look at each other and laugh, and so that elation is a bit plastic, but it looks real. And looking back at it from a distance of 3 weeks, the rain and the bus stop and the dog poo all feels essential. A London wedding, with London weather and smells. 

Scarlett and Adam-24 (1)

Everything was touched upon by someone. The music throughout the day was chosen by my sister Emily (she also advised my to follow my heart and walk up the aisle to Taylor Swift). The place-settings were calligraphy by the hand of one of my bridesmaids, Alice. The photo wall was done by Lauren, the lights hung by Liz and Ally, the sweets put into jars by Nicole, the bunting left over from my hen do untangled by Adam’s mother and sister.

Scarlett and Adam-32

The photographer was recommended by one of the best men; the florist, Emily, by my godmother. Our friends Alice A and Luke witnessed. My hen do, organised by all my bridesmaids (especially Liz, Emily and Kathryn) felt so perfectly catered to me it hurt. Organising a wedding as ex-pat is a bittersweet thing, because there are always people who can’t be there, and places you might have liked to be. But in the end, I didn’t feel alien at all, but rather like we’d been lucky enough to gather around us, by some strange and lucky gravity, everyone we needed. People who needed, and loved us. 

Scarlett and Adam-29

The speeches, after the ceremony, were my favourite part of the day: my groom on my left, my sisters surrounding me, large glasses of red wine that I had chosen for its deliciousness, and people standing up at intervals to say exceptionally nice things about me. Adam led off with a speech that was poised and practiced on his two best men. He was – as he is – warm and loving and funny, careful to thank everyone involved, nervous at the microphone, but not showing it at all. My sister Maddy then followed, reading out something I had written, then wrapping everything together in a sincere and beautiful testament to love. She shook as she read, and I looked up at her, in awe of her strength and the power of her words. 

Scarlett and Adam-52 (1)

I didn’t eat any of the food except for the fries, but I hear it was good. 

After dinner were three more speeches – the best man, my Dad and myself.

Chris, one of the best men, had been a rock throughout the wedding prep, from organising the stag do to helping practice the speech. He is a career best friend and a practiced best man, and his speech erred on kind rather than cruel (the tradition of terrible stories from the best man will never cease to confuse me). In the speech, Chris proved that he reads this blog, slightly to my detriment – so Chris, I hope you like this post a bit better than the other.

Dad spoke with the poise of a politician, with reference cards but a tendency to go off the cuff. He worked the room with smiles and wry humour and made me feel truly loved (even if he kept called me Maddy).

Scarlett and Adam-67

And then I spoke, to wrap things up. I had always intended to speak, but wasn’t entirely sure what I would say – Adam would take care of the thank you’s. In the end, it was easy and relaxed – having already cried and expressed mucus through my nose in front of the same crowd, I wasn’t nervous. After the speeches, I went to the bathroom and took off my Spanks and my (already extremely low) high heels and put on my Supergas, and felt entirely myself. 

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It was a day that felt entirely ours, from the doughnut we cut in lieu of a cake, to the dance floor absolutely packed with friends and family, new and old, singing their lungs out to the cheesiest music.

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Our budget wasn’t huge, and we spent it on food (a candy station, a large array of late night beige snacks, with plenty of vegan options) and booze.

I didn’t speak with everyone; I danced with most people.

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I stood in the spitting rain and wrapped layers of tulle around my friends’ cold shoulders. I took Polaroids of my cousins, my colleagues, our friends and family, everyone, capturing the moments in as many ways as possible. 

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Our wedding smelled like rain on hot pavements and un-mown grass; like deep fat fryers and sausage rolls and 60 people jumping up and down to Rihanna. It smelled like red roses and warm doughnuts. Every wedding is different, and our wedding wouldn’t have been perfect for anyone else. But it was perfect for us. 

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My Vows

Adam. Since the beginning you have made me feel safe and sure and certain. You have never made me question how you feel, from our beginnings in Japan to our home in London. I love how honest you are. I love how loyal you are. You’re an optimist, a thinker, curious and kind to your core. You’re a problem-solver and a pun-maker and my partner. I am 100% myself with you.

We’re not the same. You’re numbers, and I’m words. You’re strategy, and I’m creativity. You’re facts, and I’m fiction. We are opposites attracting, two minds meeting. They say that all love stories are retellings, but this kind of happiness is brand new to me. Falling in love with you was so easy. 

I promise to back you and to bolster you. I promise to be honest to you, and believe in you, and to trust in us. I promise to stick with you through the bleak times and laugh with you through the good ones. I promise to find the good in the hard bits, and to always seek silver linings. 

You’re my best friend, my partner, my very favourite person and I feel exceptionally lucky that in about 10 seconds, you’re going to be my husband. Game on, boyfriend.

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My Speech

Hello! Welcome to our wedding. I have assigned myself three minutes for this speech, and you will probably be unsurprised to learn that two minutes of this are going to be about our cat. 

When Adam and I decided to adopt a cat, we went to the Wood Green Animal Shelter, where there were only two cats available for adoption – a fluffy five year old called Alice, and a young ginger tomcat called Chunky. 

When I went into Chunky’s cage, he was tucked up in the very smallest darkest corner of the enclosure – I couldn’t see him, except for two big eyes, and I couldn’t touch him. He made me feel sad, so I only stayed in his cage for a minute. I then met Alice, who flirted with me outrageously, and then bit me, so I fell immediately in love with her. 

Adam was still in the cage with Chunky, who continued to refuse to emerge. The woman at the shelter told us that he had been bullied by the neighbourhood cats, and that his favourite food was fried chicken. 

We left soon after, but we both knew what had happened. I had fallen for Alice, and Adam wanted Chunky. 

We discussed it that night. I said that we were new independent cat owners – without parents around to do 98% of the work – and that we were better suited to a happy, trained independent cat, who would be affectionate. I said that we didn’t know what to do with a cat who was nervous and unhappy, and might never adapt to our household. Adam said that Chunky needed us. That evening we put a hold on Alice. 

The following day, Adam went back to visit Chunky. He still wouldn’t come out of his cage, still wouldn’t be touched, and Adam reluctantly accepted that he might not be the right cat for us. 

We waited three days for Alice, while she had her last vet checks, and then Adam went in to pick her up, during which visit he was told, to his delight, that Chunky had started mingling with the other cats, and that he was likely to be adopted soon, as people prefer young cats as a rule, and because ginger cats are the most popular shade of cat. After hearing this – and, I think, only after hearing this – Adam felt free to fall in love with Alice. She is now in charge of us both. 

As I wrote out that story, I realised it perhaps didn’t cast me in the best light, but I have always been a sucker for ferocious women. And it showed Adam exactly as he is – kind in his bones, a backer for the underdog (or cat), a person always swayed to aid the person most in need. Adam is the person who unhesitatingly helps old women on the street, and always listens to both sides in the debate. He is almost annoyingly universally loved. I have always been inclined towards friendships with women over men (have you met my seven bridesmaids?) but was lucky to have accrued a few strong male friendships over the years. Upon our moving to London, Adam has slowly but steadily gathered them as his own, arranging them into various teams, of sports and gaming persuasions, and I know where their loyalties lie now. Rupert, you still belong to me. I am a jealous person, but I am also extremely proud of our wide shared net of friends. As well as our actual family, we have built real family in London, out of cats and people, and it has made our lives so much better. 

Can’t believe I only assigned myself 3 minutes, what the heck was I thinking, have you read my blog? You should. I’ve been nervous in the lead up to the wedding, but now I am just extremely thankful for the family arrayed around us. My sisters Maddy and Emily, and my new sister, Laura, and brother Tom – and his partner Raluca and their amazing baby. My parents, who have been so generous and travelled so far. Adam’s parents, and Gail, who have given us so much of their time and love. All of our extended family, aunties and uncles and cousins and godmothers from overseas and over motorways. The big overseas Cayford contingent. Di, Ally and Corey, all the way from Australia, Rupert, Nicole and Lauren, from New Zealand. Friends I’ve had for 20 years, 10 years, 5 years, from school, university, work. The incredible team who organised and attended my hen do. All of our amazing friends, old and new, who have given up annual leave, loads of their time, a great deal of sleep, all of their talents, a huge amount of their patience. 

Adam has mentioned those who couldn’t be here today, but I also wanted to nod to my grandmothers, Joyce, in Timaru, who is too old to travel, but I know would have loved to be here today with so many of her daughters and sons and grandchildren. And Nancy Holmes, who died 4 years ago at 101, whose love of poetry featured in our ceremony, and has filtered down to me through my wonderful mother, and who I am honoured to have known. There are some truly marvellous matriarchs in this family. 

I wasn’t sure I wanted a big wedding – in fact, I have often described this day in the lead-up as casual, which is not how 90 people gathered in a room to eat simultaneously is usually described, but I now realise that this day not only represents a lifetime with the smartest and kindest man I have ever met, but also the only excuse I will ever have (apart from my funeral?? Not the same) to gather everybody I love in one room and tell them how much I love them, and how grateful I am for them. I am so glad you’re all here. Thank you so much for coming. Please raise a glass to all of us here today. 

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The tailor

I battled with myself as a teenager. I painted over myself with broad strokes, to see how much I could alter what I saw in the mirror, but I still could only ever look like myself. I fantasised about long thick hair and long thin legs, and chose to believe that I could have those things if I tried hard enough, because the reality (stuck this way, forever) was too much. My levels of self consciousness made me sour and mean. I thought I was witty, but I was cruel. I tried out stolen catchphrases, and developed strange mannerisms. You can’t make people like you if you can’t like yourself, or at least I couldn’t. There must be some people out there who manage it, projecting popularity then going back to mirror to rail at the glass.

There is a part of me that will always want a nose job. The very fact of it as a possibility is so beguiling to me, turning the worst parts of yourself over to a professional and asking that they professionally, for money, gouge and shape you. I would have done it with my own fingernails as a teenager, if I’d thought it would work.

Approaching a wedding is strange. Today I stood at the mirror in a tailor in a princess skirt and a white t-shirt with yellow armpits, looking at my haphazard bun and the rings under my eyes. The tailor, a short woman with thick black hair and a Laura Ashley kneeler painstakingly pinned the layers up, the waist in. I bought the skirt custom from Etsy and they sent it over too long and too large and the alterations are substantial. The skirt is substantial too, layers and layers of draped tulle. I am strange staring out of its triangular mass. You see a lot of dresses this elaborate and large and heavy on red carpets, but it doesn’t prepare you for wearing one. I am excessive and inelegant. I don’t know where I start and end.  

I do a lot better these days. I exercise for health and strength and to run a little bit further each weekend. I wear what I like, not necessarily what suits me. I do not have conversations about my weight or size with anyone and I walk away from conversations about diets and weight-loss. Weddings open you up to this sort of thing in a way I knew to anticipate from books and movies but didn’t expect to be quite so relentless. The tailor doesn’t say anything, though, and neither does the small child in red boots and a dinosaur raincoat, who takes a handful of tulle and stares delightedly at me in the mirror.

It takes a while to lift and pin me and in the meantime a few other customers come in. A girl about my age, who talks a lot, has recently cleared her wardrobe and donated a lot to charity, but found two dresses she couldn’t bear to throw away. They are too small, just by a little, and so she has come to the tailor to see whether she can let out a seam, move a zip, restructure a back. One of the dresses she bought from a charity store for £20, but she decides to pay £80 for the tailor to make it fit her again. “I know it’s silly,” she says. “But I love it.” It is a blue and red summer dress, and the tailor shakes her head. “It’s never silly if you love it.”

Another woman, early 20’s, comes in with a long pale grey winter coat that has split about three centimeters down the middle of the back, a strange spinal tear like a knife wound. She is going on holiday tomorrow and needs the tear fixed by today. The tailor tells her how busy they are, how many fitting appointments she has (I am still standing there in my enormous skirt, half-pinned and silent, a bit hungover, sweating slightly between my thighs, and the girl apologises to me twice) then says she can do it, but that it is a complicated job. “They can’t do it,” she says, waving to the two other tailors in the room who are clearly there to do the hems and the tucks, but not the critical stuff. “I have to unpick here, pull the fabric out here. It has to be done by hand to be invisible.” She quotes £35 to the coat owner, who looks visibly unhappy (it is a nice coat, but probably a Zara coat, a £100 coat) but has no option and pays, and leaves.

I don’t think this is an ordinary tailor. It is in a corner space on Fonthill Road in Finsbury Park, and has been there for 22 years. It is a small shop with one changing area. There are Persian carpets on the floor, and fresh flowers everywhere. It is part tailor and part museum. The walls are covered in old photographs and there are whole tables taken up with old sewing machines, and bottles, and framed photographs, dummies draped with beads and lace. I think Munever (she has 170 reviews on Google and many of them mention her by name, though they all spell it Minerva) could hire at least one more stitcher in the space if she gave up on the decorations, but I can tell that she would never do that. The mirror I am looking into is hung about with cards, many showing a happy married couple, emblazoned with thank you messages that run across both sides of the cards. “The dress was perfect.” “You made my day perfect.”

I take off the pinned skirt carefully, and put my jeans back on. Minerva tells me how much the alterations will cost, and the figure makes me blink. She is unapologetic. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You will be beautiful.”

Cherry blossom

Why do petals make me like this? I want to lick every candy floss tree I see, I want to sit serene with pink and white wisps in my hair and grin. I walk down the uneven pavements and a gust brings me a petal shower and I could weep with twee glee over it, I could be the woman in the movie extending her arms and twirling in a circle. I am smiling, I am grinning, I am laughing at trees as I walk past them, like their limbs are extended to me.

Our garden is all petals. I swept it yesterday, crouched down low to tug up weeds with my fingers. I am dirty and bent double, I have some kind of weed adhered up and down my leggings like glue. I should be mad that my clean-swept pavement is now candy-coated, because though they are pretty they still rot, they will be brown and trodden in two hours time, but I feel like I am in an Enid Blyton novel.

I woke up this morning to parted curtains, and thought, with a glug of dread in my gut, that it was snow, because I am an idiot. It was 19 degrees yesterday, warm enough to sit benign outside in a singlet with ice in my drink and squint against the sun, and yet I still have the fear of winter inside me, and the flecks of white at the window made me certain it had turned back around. But it was petals, the opposite indicator of snow, the harbinger of summer sun and green leaves.

You do not get these stormy sweeps of flowers in semi-tropical zones, and I have not grown up with seasons. There is no clockwork turn of green leaves to red leaves to bare branches to whole streets frocked up with flowers in countries where everything is green and warm and wet pretty much always. This not a thing to complain about, and I am not mad at my lack of familiarity with snow, or the fact that I was 19 before I really owned a coat, but London is a place that will show you that things written in books are real. Seasons are a thing that divide your year into real chunks, rather than the sort-of-a-rainy-summer and then three-really-rainy-cold-weeks that makes up a year in Auckland.

There is pink everywhere. It is obscene, like my entire universe is a gender reveal party (the world is a girl, I knew it). I cannot take a photo without an arm of blossomed branch extending into the corner. This is spring as it is written about: grey branches suddenly florid with bloom, and the bees are back. I can smell the life in it. The world is a caterpillar turned butterfly.

It will last for two weeks at the very most; two weeks or one windy day which will turn every pavement pastel and leave the trees bare-limbed again, because it takes the leaves a little more time to emerge. I do not know who planted these trees along every street in London, but I would read an entire book about the decision-making process that went into planting these thin, uninteresting trees that suddenly transform a polluted city. There is something wonderful about how extremely brief and silly they are. They make everyone behave silly. Here I am, sat supine in my chilly garden with a jar of gin, smiling up at my ceiling of petals, willing one to drift into my drink.

In Japan they worship this season with something approaching mania, with entire weather reports devoted to documenting the path of blossom up the islands from the humid south to the freezing north. They celebrate sakura like a religion, and when I lived there I took part by picnicking beneath the blossom, even though in Hokkaido the trees would bloom when it was still cold enough that there were heaps of slush and snow still on the ground, but that is what plastic-lined picnic blankets are designed for. I understood it and I didn’t, because I was new to it, this seasonal shift, and I couldn’t identify, in the same way they seemed to be able to, the new sniff of life that came forth with the tiny pink flowers. There is no evergreen in Japan, there is only a cycle of death and life that gets quicker with every year.

I think I get it now, and it might be because it’s less obvious in London. The infection is quiet, as no one quite knows why they are smiling more, or insisting on sitting outside, or walking a bit more slowly. No one tracks the blossoms, they simply arrive, more startlingly pink every year, in their contrast against the grey footpaths.

In Japan, picnicking under cherry blossoms is called hanami, and it is considered good luck if a petal falls in your drink. Also in Japan, at least a few people die every year from choking on petals that have fallen in their fourth or fifth drink. I will try to avoid this, drunk on gin and the scent in the air, but there are worse ways to go.

I don’t know where to put all this dread

I don’t know where to put all this dread. I don’t have any places left to store it. It is in piles under my bed, and rotting in the fridge, it is part of the ivy bringing down the walls in the garden.

The world is ending and I don’t know where we go when it ends. To hell in a handbasket, or down to the bottom of the sea where they keep Atlantis and the merpeople and all the bikes that were ever thrown into the canal. The world is ending, but despite all the cracks, we keeping on walking to work along the same routes and buying olives with lemon. I am think about my future, as if it is a granted, written thing. I am worrying about the rot in the shed, and how you recycle an old suitcase, and the guest list for my wedding.

There is something to be said for very very small gestures, like a cat sitting next to the milk-bottles like it’s posing for a postcard or the way we dance from side to side to get out of each other’s way on the footpaths. In the window of Crisis, they arrange the donated clothes each week, thematically. Rainbow for pride, florals for spring. And all the while the damp mattresses and broken tents and protruding limbs continue to crop up in the underpass in Finsbury Park, more each day, stinking of alcohol and damp and petrol and spilled all over with donated food, and I’m still buying the Big Issue each week, with bigger bills each time, but each new seller I walk past looks at me with eyes that know I am not trying enough, and I know I am not trying enough.

Each day there are more abandoned things on the pavements. It is laziness or generosity when a chest of drawers with only one knob missing is left out on the footpath for one day, a week, sodden in the rain and then hung about with trash, a banana peel in the bottom drawer, a half-empty cider can on top? It was, to begin with, something free and now it is rubbish. Now it is someone else’s responsibility, but it isn’t mine, and I won’t accept it.

I will only leave five star reviews on Google, which means I only leave reviews for things I love. I love the prawns in the neighbourhood bistro, and the sandwiches in the shop down the road, and I love that pub that plays sport, but is friendly to babies, and also has those big green leather Chesterfield armchairs that you could sink into for an entire afternoon. Leaving only five star reviews cheapens the system, perhaps, renders it void, but then instead you could look at it this way: I leave five star reviews for everything I love, and zero star reviews for everything else. There is no inbetween, there never has been. I am not interested in feeling slightly interested, a bit piqued by something. Passion will set you apart.

On all the lamp-posts, and through our mailbox this morning, posters for missing cats and kittens. Finsbury Park teems with felines, so I don’t know where they’re going that they’ve suddenly become lost, lurking in the tents in the underpass or clinging to the trees, or burrowing underground. I cannot look at the photocopied leaflet with the round, child-like handwriting telling me that their kitten is lost, that they opened the window for air for only a moment, that she vanished into that very same air.

There are daffodils everywhere. Each year they surprise me, bright sprigs amongst the mud. They are such a strange shape when you look at them closely, not quite like anything else, and i have never seen anything so yellow against all that concrete and tarmac and brick. There is no point in putting daffodils in vases. They are too symmetrical and perfect to make sense that way. The only way to enjoy them is to be surprised by them.

And isn’t it hot today? Isn’t it warm, unseasonable, those brimming blue skies laden with something that can only be danger, even if all it brings every single receptor in your sad skin and brain is pleasure. You are, just quietly, delighting in the damnation of all of it, because it is so warm and the skies are blue and you’ve put your boots back in the cupboard because there aren’t any puddles anymore. We’ve opened the window, and the kitten has escaped.

Covent Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always fight on the way to airports

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

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

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

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

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

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