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.”

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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.

Cats and spiders

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening

I want to be a good gardener. I like the idea of it. There is something obviously nice about coaxing life out of the dirt. I also like the frivolity of it. I am allowed to go to a store and spend money on nice plants, pretty things. It makes me a home-maker, a grown-up, to go home, de-pot them, soak their roots, plant them facing the sun. Buying arm-loads of plants is the very opposite of buying three cheap dresses from H&M because it is sunny and because it is pretty, but it is also the same. It satisfies the same urges, but it comes without judgment. I do not need the dresses. My wardrobe is full of dresses. But I also do not need the plants.

I do not like the uncertainty of it, though. I know what will happen to the dresses. I will wear them once, or twice. I will shrink them in the wash. One will rip. One will never have fit in the first place. They will take up space, I will try them on and discard them, and then eventually I will donate them. The donation will make me feel good, as I will imagine someone finding them, and loving them, and wearing them to death; someone kind and less well-off and better-shaped than me giving them a happy home, and blessing the frivolity of me, the original hapless buyer. I know the truth is that they will be shredded, turned to nothing, buried, burnt. Did you know that China is expanding its size in landmass equal to Singapore every year, reclaiming land from the sea with trash? My dresses are doing that.

Most of my plants will die. This is a fact. It’s not even because I’m a bad or a careless gardener. In the garden centre, they have tags, which you can read to learn about the plants. “Likes full sun. Plant in July.” Rows and rows of them. I don’t understand why they’re there. It is not July, and London is subject to full sun about 5 times a year. Who put them there, put them in their pots, lined them up all purple and pretty, to die? “Puppies, free to a good home, as long as they eat dogs.” I don’t understand it.

We bought some anyway because we’d walked all the way to the garden centre, and because I’ve decided that I’m prepared to believe in miracles. Boys are rescued from caves and cancer disappears, and it’s entirely possible that my garden will turn out to be the equivalent of full sun in July, when it is encroaching winter in September.

You’re supposed to plant them with their tags, so you can remember their names and characteristics, like Pokemon cards. But I forgot and threw them out, so all I know is that one has red and yellow leaves and looks autumnal, and the other has grey and silver spider leg leaves, and that I probably shouldn’t get attached because they won’t last the winter.

The hardest are the pansies. We put them in the planter box outside my bedroom window, and they are thriving. They are large and purple, and I don’t even like pansies very much, but we bought them because my sister likes their angry faces. They don’t look angry – they look delighted to be on my flaking window sill with a lovely view of our 4 rubbish bins and the shed that contains my broken suitcase. They are doing their very best to make an honest gardener out of me.

When we planted the others, first of all, Mum had me dig up the soil with a trowel, turn it over, break up the lumps. This is probably obvious to most people, but I am often late to obvious things. I couldn’t boil rice at 18. I hope there is someone to blame other than myself.

As I turned it up and broke up the clods, a big worm rose to the surface. My Mum was delighted. “That means you have good soil! Look at him.” He did look like he was probably good at his job.

But I had been stabbing at, and turning over the dirt for at least 10 minutes. Worms are fast, but they’re not that fast. I’d probably murdered his whole family. Soil is a mess of corpses. All the roots clinging bravely on were long dead. That worm’s wife and children now food for my silver-grey plant.

The circle of life is a sensible thing. I am glad it is a circle. I am now part of a very big circle that has a very large circumference, and one day I will be food for this worm, and some of his kin. This is fine. This does not frighten me, at least not yet. I am glad that there is life in death, and death in life, ashes and dust and soil and dirt and I do not doubt my ability to be much better fertiliser than I am a gardener, but also why do we bother? Here in my garden learning to be a gardener from my mother, I am hacking back the ivy. I am pulling up the weeds. I am deciding, in all my benevolence, which should live and which should die – that my pansies deserve pampering, but that I must take to the spiny crawler than curls over from my neighbour’s overgrown garden every day with clippers. Off with its head, even though it just grows another.

There is a lesson in my garden, in my pansies which I paid £5 for, doomed to die in three months or less, but my neighbour’s thorny terror making a Sleeping Beauty of me if I sleep on cutting him back for even a week or two. But I like the way the pansies face the sun.

London Parks

London parks are perfect places, though there is no one perfect park. I love them all. I walk at their edges, and sit in the middle. Perfectly green, and muddy, and studded with empty tins. Perfect in cherry blossom, and in rain and in cricket season.

I would not like to rank the parks. The best park, as a rule, is the one nearest to your front door. The one in which people you like are most likely to meet you for a picnic. The best parks are the ones with the paths you know best. I do not want to visit a park I can get lost in. I visit parks for familiarity, both for themselves, and for the part of me that is most familiar with green spaces, and grass, and water. That part of me is sometimes lost in London.

Regent’s Park is almost perfect. The lake is small, but full of birds. There are 10 different types of ducks, and big white swans. Regent’s Park is covered in shit, for all the right reasons. A park is not a park in London if it does not contain a small lake covered in small blue boats peddled by families. The threat of tipping over is part of the joy. A small blue boat is an excuse to push off.

In spring, Regent’s Park has the best blossom. It has manicured gardens, and spreading cricket fields. That strange man-made hump in the centre, under which there are public toilets, and on top of which, a cafe. I don’t know who makes the design decisions in parks; who validates the allocation of water, of field, of tree, of garden. Regent’s Park is perfectly proportionate, like the camels in the zoo which you can see for free. They keep the more exciting animals – your tigers, your lions – in the middle, past the gates. But you can hear them. And I will take a free camel (and on a good day, a warthog). I’m glad I had already moved away when the aardvark burned alive.

Off to the side, near where you exit to Camden for fish and chips and fake leather jackets, there is an enormous water fountain with four basins, the kind of fountain that is more landmark than place to quench your thirst. Dogs drink there, and children. Adults are more likely to default to the cafe, selling £3 water bottles. You do not know who has had their mouth on the spout, or what happens to the water fountain after dark. I read a book once that spoke of the kind of animals that would fall out of a city, should you tip it upside down and shake it. A python ingests a pigeon on the streets of Lewisham, and that’s in broad daylight. Imagine the water fountain after dark, crawling with creatures. There might be alligators. Bears. Tigers, and their family members yowling behind bars in the zoo just down the path. I have run a lot of kilometres in Regent’s Park, and interrupted a lot of photographs. I am red-faced and scowling in the background of many albums. If anyone makes albums anymore.

Brockwell Park is tipped on its side, and people spread themselves out, scattered closer to the gates at the foot of the hill. Further up, there are views, and logs to sit on, but for that you have to climb, and it is easier to spread your blanket at the bottom. Closer to the pub, for when the rain comes. There is the lido, where I saw a woman slip and crack her head, and where I swam 20 lengths without stopping for the first time in years. Brockwell Park is a good example of a park that I think I know well, but I tread one path. There are whole loops and slopes that I’ve never been near. Blindfolded in Brockwell Park, I wouldn’t emerge for years.

Swimming is best done on Hampstead Heath, where you don’t count lengths, but circuits. The Hampstead Ladies Pond is one of the best places in London, and not just for seeing breasts. There is a heron who perches on a float in the roped-off part of the pond. You cannot swim there, because it belongs to him. The meadow is a perfect place. I would build my house there, nesting like a duck, out of pieces of reed. I am afraid of the bottom of the pond, but buoyant enough not to worry about it yet. I am slow in the Hampstead Ponds, and placid. I move gently, at a minimum. I do not break the water. I am not afraid of growing old when I am in the pond. There are many reasons to leave London, but the pond is a reason to stay. Parliament Hill in evening light is a reason. Four different size dogs running down the hill together is a reason. The houses that border the Heath, small cottages covered in flowers and thrumming with bees, are a reason. It is hot and quiet on Hampstead Heath, and there are whole stretches where you could be the only person in the world. You’re not, there are probably teenagers fucking over the next rise, and someone could be dying ten seconds away.

Finsbury Park is my backyard now. A 5 minute walk down a road where we nearly saw a child die while we were house-hunting one Saturday morning, swinging out into the centre of the road on her bright pink bike, directly into the path of an oncoming car, while her father (with his other, small child in a trailer on the back of his own, bigger bike) shouted. Finsbury Park is a utilitarian park. It is not beautiful in the way of Regent’s Park. It is smaller, and yellower, has both fewer trees and fewer open spaces. There are wider grassless patches. But it is useful – tennis courts, and basketball courts, and a skate park. It serves more people. It is not meant only to be beautiful.

At the back, where fewer people go, where Mansion House is closest, it is quieter and greener. It is a part I am only just getting to know. It is the part where girls go alone and spread out their towels and lie in swimsuits, preparing their tans for warmer holidays, or shutting their eyes and pretending they are there already. 5 years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of swimsuits in a park, where there is no hope of swimming, unless you care to share a shallow muddy stretch with ducks and dirt, but I know better now. You do not have to go swimming to put on a swimsuit. A holiday does not have to involve a plane. Going to a park in London is part of celebrating the fact that you are here, in a place that has most things (all things? Nearly all things) you could possibly want from a big grey city on a big grey river.

When Londoners go to parks, they slow down. They are ponderous and thoughtful, and they hold hands unironically. I do not want to push people out of my way when I am in a park. I am not in a rush, and I am not late. I want to wander, or lie, or sit. I want to eat greasy olives out of plastic tub, and hold a cold can between my warm knees. I want to brush dead grass from the backs of my calves and pinch my skirt between my thighs and squint against the sun. I want to shut my eyes, I want to slow down, I want to stop.

The Heatwave

At first they called it a heatwave. After two months, they shifted to calling it an Indian Summer. There was some discussion about whether this was racist, but everyone was too hot to get worked up. When October arrived, and the temperatures remained in the 30s, the protests began. It wasn’t as big as the Trump march, but some 50,000 Londoners took to the streets to demand attention be paid to climate change. On the day of the march, it was 36 degrees in the hottest part of the day, and the cooling systems failed on the Underground. 3 people died.

People stopped sharing pictures of the parks. It was funny when the grass was yellow, but the trees were still green, and  there were still ducks in the ponds, and teens drinking cans on rugs by the sides of the paths. It was less funny when the leaves fell, not because it was winter, but because the huge trees, which had stood for 60 years, died. Their trunks withered and stiffened. Some of them fell. Soon, even the yellow grass was gone.

In mid-November, a barbecue left unattended in Hyde Park led to a huge swathe of fire that cut across the main fields and was thwarted only by the Serpentine. The London firefighters fought courageously, but were unaccustomed to wildfire. The ground remained hot to the touch for weeks. Tourists were encouraged to avoid the park while they replanted. Fire warning signs were posted in the main parks around the city, with their arrows pointed permanently to “Fire Danger: Severe”. The supermarkets were banned from sales of portables barbecues, firelighters and kindling. There were two further, smaller, fires in other suburban parks.

At the beginning of December, a tweet from a well-known account went viral, leading to panicked Londoners beginning to stockpile water. London made international news, led by pictures of sweaty, red-faced urbanites, loading tote bags and wheelie suitcases with as many bottles of water as they could carry. Fighting broke out on the streets. On Amazon, all Prime stockists who carried water-purification tablets and water carriers began to sell out. In Hackney, there was a fight in the streets outside one local Nisa. A local teenager was stabbed. A few weeks later, travel on the Underground was banned for anyone under the age of 16 or over the age of 50, with temperatures on some lines found to be reaching nearly 55 degrees. When a delay on the Central Line resulted in 4 deaths, it was put out of commission altogether. Seaside villages began imposing steep road taxes to discourage tourists. Investors in ice deliveries got rich quick.

Sadiq Khan was forced to put out a ruling banning displays of Christmas lights, as it was found that the strings of lights, manufactured for European climes, began to start small fires, which grew when paired with the tinder of dying Christmas trees. Images of snowy Christmases and Santa Claus were circulated on social media with irony.

Organic farms around the cities began to go out of business, unable to keep crops alive as water bans became widespread. Vegetables prices doubled, then tripled, as imports struggled to keep pace for demand. Battersea Cat and Dog Home reported a 50% decrease in the number of stray animals in the city.

It wasn’t until January that people began to accept that this might be the new norm. They did this by leaving the city in droves. European citizens fled back to their hometowns, where temperatures were also high, but where the infrastructure could cope. Despite the lowering population of London, supply for water still failed to keep pace, and Thames Water began imposing a 250 litre per day limit on local households. Residents were advised not to flush urine, and to shower only once every two days. The use of dishwashers was banned. Bath water was to be kept for watering essential garden items.

By February, they were unable to keep the Lidos open. Hampstead Ponds dried up, resulting in a violent raiding of the pond beds. Over 1000 pieces of jewellery were turned into authorities, but it was thought that many more went unreported. While the Thames continued to ebb and flow, many of the inland waterways dried up. Boats were abandoned. All but 6 of the 120 breeding pairs of London swans were found dead. Those that remained were transported to Sweden for safekeeping.

As the water-table dropped, land under inner city London suburbs began to subside, and several documentaries were made when Victorian conversions began to collapse. The property market took a steep downward turn, and those who were able to remain in London quickly took advantage of plummeting prices. Office buildings without sufficient air-conditioning were found to be unusable, and employees were advised to work from home if temperatures regularly breached 40 degrees inside. It is thought this was 60% of offices, though many companies refused to let temperature readings be taken. 

At every turn, it was advised that the weather could shift, but it widely acknowledged that traditional methods of weather forecasting were now failing.

There were no spring flowers, and as the months progressed into April, it became clear how many of the trees in London had failed to survive the drought. Extra budget had to be invested in street cleaning as the bodies of birds, foxes, rabbits and households pets upset the children in suburban neighbourhoods. Schools were closed, and efforts made to relocate families with young children further north. As the Thames dried up further, it became common practice to walk across the river bed, rather than diverting to the bridges. A police raid on Shoreditch House found it to be using many times its allocation of water to keep the rooftop pool open. It was closed. The Daily Mail published images of Boris Johnson in Canada, fishing in a lake.

The new financial year saw some companies opt to move their headquarters out of London, with water prices, lack of transport, cooling costs and the dwindling talent pool making the capital economically unfeasible. Some trialled new offices in Spain and Greece, while many others moved north to Leeds and Manchester. Facebook and Google, in an unprecedented alliance, shifted their UK headquarters to Edinburough – where temperatures remained in the mid-twenties – joined swiftly by other, smaller start-ups.

In London, temperatures continued to climb. The city’s population of rats was driven out from underground by rising temperatures, and took ownership of the remaining green spaces. The NHS released a pamphlet recommending that children be allowed outside only between the hours of 7pm and 8pm, and the sale of sunscreen under 50 SPF was banned. Online guides advised tourists to avoid the capital. For the first time since opening, the curtain raised on Hamilton to empty seats.  

In June 2019, a year since the heatwave began, an unofficial census reported that the population of the capital had dropped by 30%. Many news outlets surmised the actual percentage to be much greater. Temperatures dropped occasionally to the mid-thirties, but often reached 50 degrees around midday. While Canary Wharf was still operational, it was estimated that up to 70% of offices were empty, with employees either working from home or relocated. Those that remained living in the inner suburbs were changed. They walked slowly, conserving energy, and wore long, billowing clothes that deflected the heat. Congestion was no longer an issue. It was rumoured that a cult had taken over the abandoned underground tunnels with air-conditioning units smuggled from the US illegally tapping into the grid. Certainly, if you tried to enter the system, you were greeted only by gates, and occasionally dogs.

There were many attempts to reverse the damage. Consultants were brought in from Perth and Dubai. Long-range forecasts were parsed, abandoned, parsed again. It was agreed that the costs of reworking the city to accommodate the new temperatures would go into the billions. All works on new buildings were halted until they could prove provision for the temperatures. Construction city-wide halted. The New York Times printed a picture of the London skyline without a single crane.

There were plenty of attempts to make the best of it. Young professionals who had formerly been priced out of the property market bought property in inner suburbs. There were many great innovations in ice-cream. Comparisons charts with other, hotter regions in the world brought round mockery to Londoners who had proved themselves unable to cope, and there was an influx of immigration from equatorial countries, which slowed when the sewerage systems began to fail.

A Google Earth recording of London on December 29, 2020, when midday temperatures passed 60 degrees in Covent Garden, showed a deserted city sliced in half by a brown riverbed. Rain was finally recorded on March 27, but there was hardly anyone left to witness it.

Roots

This is what they call putting down roots. I’m glad there’s a phrase for it, because I don’t really know how it feels. I’m much better at pulling them up.

I have a garden. Behind the back wall is a line a of trees, big trees for central London. They form their own avenue, cutting behind my back garden, and the back gardens of my new neighbours. They are full of squirrels and birds. They will be here long after I am gone.

There are two much smaller trees in my back garden. One is an ornamental cherry. I know this, because I asked the man who last owned it, a tall man in a red jumper who works for Google as a physicist. I don’t know what the other one is. I think he might have told me – I think I forgot because I was trying to remember all of the other questions I was supposed to ask. When was the boiler last serviced? What are the neighbours like? Is the house warm in winter?

Buying a house is a weird thing to do. The process is difficult and alienating. Everything about it feels designed to make you cry. I spent a sum total of 20 minutes in the house before we bought it. The first time, glancing around wildly, nodding quietly in agreement, making an offer. The second time, with a mug of coffee made by the man in the red jumper, looking at furniture placement, the big mirror on the wall, the in-built bookshelves that please me so much.

When we first started house-hunting (over a year ago) the one thing I always made sure to test was the water pressure in the shower. I hate crappy water pressure more than anything. I never checked it in the house we bought because I was looking at the big storage cupboard, the bay window, the creepy dark cellar, the golden wood countertops, the first sink I’ve ever fallen in love with. Is it normal to fall in love with a sink? The water pressure is fine. There is a black cat who lives next door and sometimes comes in through the bedroom window. Our first night in the house I listened to foxes have sex on the roof of our shed. Everything is a metaphor.

On the day we completed, I arrived at the house after the work. My fiance was there already, clutching three sets of keys. We drank champagne out of plastic cups and sat on the floor. Later, my sisters came over with flowers and wine. One of them stood on the roof of the shed to take a picture of us by the front door that didn’t have bins in the way. We toasted the first time the toilet was used. We sat there until it got dark, and then we went back to our rented flat with our rented bed.

We moved in with a bookshelf and an air mattress. Everything we owned fit into the back of a big white van. Everyone said that the most difficult part to pack up was the kitchen, but that wasn’t the case for us, since all we owned were two glasses, two mugs and two ceramic dishes, one a gift from Italy and one made by a friend with her initials on the bottom. We have a lot of books and a lot of winter coats and not much else.

It’s been over a month since we moved in, and now we own more things. A black leather couch purchased from a second-hand store down the road, and moved in through the bay window the black cat likes so much. A table, with four chairs. A very expensive mattress. An entirely free bed-frame. A wardrobe with a floor-length mirror. We don’t fit into the back of a big white van anymore. Moving the wardrobe in through the bay window nearly broke the backs of three large men, so it wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if we were.

Many of my friends are gardeners. People I know in real life have written books about small gardens and making something green out of a sunny London corner. I am daunted by my small patch of land, with its crazy paving and badly constructed barbeque and fences overgrown by ivy. I do not know what good soil looks like. My lawn has a large dead patch where the previous tenants had a large inflatable paddling pool, and I do not know how to bring it back to life. The garden next door is overgrown, with large thorny brambles reaching over my trellised fences and threatening my space. I do not know which is more important to buy first: a toaster, or a grater, or a pair of lawn clippers, or fertilizer, or a television cabinet, or a vegetable peeler.

When I come home from work, I am often the only person in the house. In our small lounge there is a large window, and at about that time, it lets in a perfect square of golden light, which falls on the wooden floorboards and casts shadows of the foliage of the big trees behind the garden. Sometimes I stand in it, sometimes I just look at it. Light is something you are supposed to think about when you buy a house, but we did not. We got lucky, with a garden full of morning sun (in this first, eternal summer) and this last evening light.

As it gets later, the square of light moves up the wall, highlighting the scribbles left by children who no longer live here, and then it disappears. But I know when to expect it back. This is what it means to put down roots.