The end of summer is everywhere

The end of summer is everywhere; the birds are grown, the leaves are beginning to turn, and in the morning I leave the house in long sleeves. The canal paths are still baked hard, and the water high with green weed, but I can already see the grooved dirt giving way to slush, and the water icing at the edges. The drowned supermarket trolley has grown a green skin. They have cleared the summer growth from the paths, widening them to walkers but revealing empty cardboard boxes, chicken bones, piles of old clothes, suitcases with gaping zips. It’s the time of year when the light plays tricks on you, growing golder earlier in the afternoon, so you lose sense of time. 

Like so many others, I have misplaced six months. There is almost exactly half a year between my sister’s birthday and my own, and only three days after hers, I left the office for the last time, set up my monitor on my kitchen table, and put a picture on Instagram with the caption, “The new normal.” In the picture, the door is open just a crack, the garden still winter-dark, with wide patches of mud in the grass. My birthday is soon, and there is a bracket around the time that has passed. You don’t have to count it towards your age, the internet laughs. It doesn’t count. Be kind to yourself. Survival is enough. 

This morning, a kind osteopath told me there was nothing structurally wrong with me. He rolled me on my side and drove his full body weight into my hip. “These new routines we have,” he said, readjusting his mask under the bridge of his glasses, “we sit more, we’re sedentary, your body has finally noticed it.” 

I have run most days of lockdown, sometimes as far as 14 kilometers, some hard mornings as short as three, or two. The cold March and April mornings were somehow the easiest. They were bluest, and the strangest, my one permitted outing into the defrosting London parks filled with other runners, taking long steps around each other. I was proud of myself for finding a new routine with my gym closed. I have always been fearful of running outside. I’m scared of getting yelled at, and getting lost, in equal measure. I bought trail shoes to navigate the cambered paths. 

Even the hottest runs were satisfying, especially the mornings when I rose too early, and had to run through 27 degree minutes. I ran myself out on the slight hills of north London. Even on the slowest runs, I could leave things behind on the paths: the parents I can’t travel to see, the books I couldn’t read, the things I couldn’t write, the horrible spiral-shaped unknown. 

When I’m really injured, or sick, a part of me steps aside, turns around, and accuses me of faking. Even when the thermometer reads hot, and I cough my guts out; even as every tread sends a shock of pain up my back, I question the veracity of my weakness. It’s because I’ve faked it too many times, I know, and spent too many hours patting my own lazy back. “You’re not trying hard enough,” I accuse her. She knows it’s true. 

Everyone I know is moving. Selling, buying, moving, fleeing. Everyone is counting down to 2021 as if on the stroke of the midnight, when the year expires, coronavirus will too, and we’ll all get a shiny new do-over. I’m not moving, or fleeing, but only because I don’t know where to go, or how to get there. It’s not just the virus, it’s the uncertainty, and the utter impossibility of making and executing a plan. 

My osteopath told me I could try running again, and so I did. I managed two kilometers before the pain came back. It’s enough to leave some of it behind, but it always catches back up. 

Rubbish Day

This is the first chapter from some fiction I’ve been writing. As always, everything is pure fiction, I can only blame my lack of imagination for placing it squarely in my own neighbourhood.


There’s a foot in the bin. It’s the heel she spots first, bulbous and cracked, surfacing between two tied plastic bags like an air bubble in dough. Angel stares at it, familiar and unfamiliar. It doesn’t look like her foot (pale, flat, nail painted black). There’s no particular smell to it, or nothing to out-reek whatever her neighbours have turfed this week (vegetable peelings, and no condoms whatsoever). She twists her neck to stare up at their expensive shutters, already inclined against the golden light. She’s spent whole hours longing for their lofty position, and the slanting evening sun that’s lost to her lower level hours earlier. 

But you would shut your shutters, wouldn’t you, if you were dismembering people? She unhooks her fingers and lets the lid fall shut. This is, categorically, not her problem. 

The park is filled with people lounging in fingers of light, silver cans crushed beside them. They are London’s lizards, peeling off their skins in the last hot flush of summer. She walks with small tight strides. Angel has never mastered the art of the stroll; she trots like a pony with its knees tied together. She once saw a video of herself walking the outer rim of a garden at a wedding she had attended alone, pretending to inspect the flowers, and felt horrified at how self-consciously awful she looked on film. She watched the video thousands of times, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to find it on her phone and watch it again. She thought about it at least once a day. 

Finsbury Park is a comfortable place for her, though. Here, a man peeing openly against a fence; there is a 30-something in rolled shirt-sleeves lowering himself into a smear of dogshit. Finsbury Park is a waste dump of a green space, all the grass yellowed and dying, more rubbish bins than flowers. Even the teenagers who look her up and down don’t bother for too long. She rounds the bottom edge, continues up the promenade, watches the even tread of runners in black lycra streaming down the slope towards her. She used to dodge them, apologetic, until she realised it worked better if she pretended she was stationary, a rock diverting the flow of a river. 

Her phone chimes from her pocket, and she answers it without looking. “Hey Flo.”

Even her sister’s intake of breath is flustered. “It’s Florence now. You know that.” 

Angel rolls her eyes beneath her glasses. “I know, I do know. It’s just… long.” 

Her sister is 5’2 and has never been able to bear up under the name Florence. Even at 32, with twin boys, a husband chosen for his suitable height (5’7, not so tall as to emphasise Florence’s short-comings, not so short as to be sexually nullified) and the title of world’s shrillest accountant to her name, she is still not quite a Florence, and she knows it. Angel is certain that the only reason her sister is insisting on upgrading to her full-size name is to distract from her new surname. 

“So, Florence Villin, how are you?” She can’t keep the grin from her voice, but her sister lets it go, if only because 20 seconds has passed in the conversation, and she hasn’t bragged yet. 

“Oh, you know. Busy as all FUCK.” There’s noise in the background. “Had a board meeting today, even though we’re going to hit profitability this year earlier than expected – that means the company’s making money, Ange – they’re still keen for us to lock down a few more deals before Europe packs up for the summer. Hey, Ange, how long do you think madeleines have to be in the oven before they’re done?” 

“Is that a serious question? When’s the last time you think I baked a madeleine?”

Flo giggled. “I don’t know, shouldn’t you learn to cook? It really is fun. You might surprise yourself.” 

Ange is nearing the top of the hill, where the park flattens out. There are teams of men playing football, some in blue vests, shouting at each other. Is this how men keep their friends? 

“But then my oven would get dirty.” 

Something bangs in the background of the call, probably the Aga. She pictures her sister, with her sleek platinum and her slim wrists, and her madeleines, and feels a weird tweak of love, like an electric shock to her middle. 

Flo fills the silence. “Come for dinner?” 

Ange silently thanks the expansive plains of London. “Oh babe, you know I wish I could. Take an hour on the Tube though! Your risotto would be ruined.” 

Florence tuts then pauses. “Hey how did you know I was cooking risotto?”

“Five nights out of seven you cook risotto.”

“Eugh, you sound like Henry.” 

Ange smirks into the phone. “Well, tell him to bloody cook something.” 

Flo sighs. “You know as well as I do that that would be worse. He’d burn it and ruin the pan, and I’d have to cook anyway. It’s easier this way. Besides, he works so hard.” 

Ange knows better than to retort to this. They’d find themselves stuck in the endless conversational loop that saw Ange defending Flo, Flo defending Henry, Flo attacking Ange, Ange attacking Flow. Rinse, ruin, repeat. It was better just to agree. One of the football men was on the ground clutching a shin to his chest while the game moved around him. Ange wondered what he would do if she ran to him, put her hands on his leg, asked him where it hurt. Probably kick her in the face. 

“Yeah no, of course he does. So hard.” 

She walks for a few more minutes with the phone pressed to her cheek, comfortable in the ambient noise of Flo serving up dinner, running the tap, calling for her kids. The sounds echo around the big, basement Tufnell Park kitchen. Flo is the only person she knows in London who owns her entire house, all six floors of it, right up to a giant loft conversion. It makes Ange sick to think of the stairs, but the sounds are good, the flags of the kitchen. She feels like she’s listening to a podcast, an ASMR rendering of an ordinary life. Flo ruins it. 

“So, when can I come over? See the renovations?” 

Ange sighs exaggeratedly. “I’ve told you, you can come over anytime you want!”

“You always say that. Just pick a date, tell me a time. You know how many people’s schedules I have to work around.”

“I know, I know. I’m heading back home now. I’ll look at my calendar when I’m back, OK?” 

“Who has a paper calendar these days? Do they even make them anymore?” 

Angel doesn’t. She doesn’t know anyone who does, unless it’s a crappy Christmas gift, hung for the pictures, and never turned over at the right month. “I’m traditional.” 

She listens to the traditional sounds of her sister, a scraping of chairs, reverberating silence from Little Henry, who does not approve of either Ange or the presence of phones at the dinner table. A click of glasses. Water, not wine; neither Flo nor Henry drink during the week. Flo thinks about the half bottle of rosé in her fridge and quickens her pace. 

“OK, I’ll let you go,” she says. 

“OK, love you!”

“Love you, too.”

“Awwww, we love you too,” smirks a tall teenager in a blush-coloured two-piece, flanked either side by a posse with impossibly glossy hair. 

“Fuck you,” says Ange, walking into and through their incredulous silence. If they say anything back her ears shut it out, blurring all sound beautifully into the ambient human fog. Kids are so dumb. She stops herself from turning to see if they’re looking at her, and focuses on her walk. Even and steady, smooth and sexy. Untie those knees. 

As is her tradition, she stops by the corner store and picks up two cheap bottles of red wine on her way home. One has a fox on the label, and the other is the one with the biggest discount. As she queues she picks up wasabi peanuts and peanut M&Ms. The spicy peanut and the sweet peanut. If the woman at the till with the perfect eyebrows and the aggressive nose ring recognises her, she doesn’t say anything. Ange keeps looking at the vegan chocolate bars. She looks at them every time she queues. It makes no sense that anyone would buy them, unless they were dying. 

“Get the Vego,” a voice behind her says. 

She turns. The owner of the comment is blonde and slim, clearly vegan from the way his ribs stand out under his shirt. 

He continues, “The others aren’t as good. They’re more expensive too, trust me.”

She picks up her wine and leaves without speaking to him. He gives a half-laugh behind her. She doesn’t understand – has never understood, rails against – why people are always talking to her. Whether to insult or merely to remark, there’s something about her that invites comment. If she could figure out what it was, hair, stance, height, she would find a way to change it. At home, on her worn black couch, she drinks both bottles of wine, plus the half bottle of rosé  from the fridge, but leaves half the peanut M&Ms for breakfast. She wakes up still on the couch at 3am and drinks water from the tap without turning on the lights. The street lights catch the ivy leaves from her window, beaded with rain she didn’t hear fall. She feels her way to the bedroom and it’s only in the morning that she remembers the foot.

A trip to the Cotswolds

Last week we left London, by tube and train. We didn’t venture far, just a few hours out of the city into the Cotswolds. Yellow stone and roses, rivers and horses. I have never been romantic about the countryside, but I felt romantic towards the horizons and thick fields of corn and wheat. I walked down roads and barely saw a soul; one woman encountering me around a corner nearly collapsed to the ground in fear. It’s not like we were even far from the action – ten minutes from a Waitrose stocked with three types of burrata and a one-way system that had me walking for full minutes to locate some coriander. But we shook out of London’s sardine-can existence, and I felt less oily. I gesticulated more, and took the locals up on some strange and nice conversations. 

One night we went to a pub and I ate some prawn linguine, where the ratio of fat prawns to spaghetti ribbons was almost one to one, and we were served by three near-identical waitresses with dark tans and long black hair and whole-face visors. They were only on their second night of reopening, and still fighting all their natural instincts, snatching back fingers from paper menus they weren’t supposed to touch as if they’d been burned. 

I looked at my phone less, and opened the fridge more. We cooked long, ornate meals (from a book directly geared towards simple cooking, but there is simple cooking and there is simple cooking, and simple cooking doesn’t call for three different types of chili and a 90 minute yoghurt marinade). We brought eleven bottles of wine for four nights and drank them slowly. We wrote down tasting notes. I read an article that told me to chew my food twenty times before I swallowed it, tried it, gave up. I tasted mint, peas. The garden was full of fruit trees, including one loaded with cooking apples that we turned into a pie, together with sour foraged black berries. We bought local lemon curd, and jam, and clotted cream. I morphed from a boring Bridget Jones into a happy participant in an Enid Blyton novel. 

I got into a long conversation with a butcher from whom I only bought cheese. 

“So where are you from then?”

“New Zealand, but, London.” 

“London, aye? I left there when I was 17. Never went back. What do you do there then?”

“I work in… tech. I help with…content. I manage a team.” 

“Smarter than me! I’m a butcher!” 

Blue cheese. Cheddar cheese. Mint sauce. 

I wore new white jeans and got soaked. I wore shorts and got stung by nettles. I wore jumpers, then peeled off layers in front of the aga. I brought swimsuits and didn’t swim. 

We played games. Kubb, in the slanting garden, hurling blocks of wood at blocks of wood. The card game 500, of which I am a better player than a teacher. Code Names, one of the few boardgames I will play (because I’m good at it, or merely not bad at it.) 

I ran, because I run now. 10k through fields and gates and hills, following arrows etched in the dirt by my faster companions. I startled deer and trudged up the hills, listening to podcasts about books and politics and bodies. I got rained on, and sweated, and watched my heart rate climb. Clad in Lululemon and Nike from head to toe, such a boring Londoner so alone on an unfamiliar landscape. 

I read books: American Wife (re-read), Fleishman is in Trouble, Such a Fun Age, Theatre for Dreamers. I deliberately left my phone in rooms I wasn’t in so I could stop that incessant tic, that compulsive pick. I deleted Twitter. I turned off my Slack and email notifications and let work drift away. I felt disgust at the number of things I had to do to make myself switch off, even for a moment. 

This was the longest time I’ve spent in London in one stretch. It was nice to feel pleasure at the return, even as I sit, now, staring at the same walls and cracks. I already miss seeing the horizon.

The Wind

The leaves on the tree outside the window are blown inside out, upside down. The silvery undersides pushed flat against the branches by the gusts look curled and dying, but this is spring. I love the big trees that line the bottom edge of our garden but I’m fearful as I watch them move; if even one branch came down it would take our whole garden, our lounge and kitchen. The wind has been worse than this before, and I’ve never had these thoughts; normally, I mock our wind-fearing cat as she skids up and down the floorboards, fleeing the invisible roaring threat. 

We walked in the park today and saw my favourite gosling family, now leggy and spindly, tottering through the fence posts, and the wind kicked up face-fulls of dirt and leaves and dust. It is too windy for picnics, but there were still some groups trying, with the corners of their writhing blankets pinned down with bicycles and backpacks. It’s the kind of wind that punches air to the back of your throat, so you have to turn to the side to force it down. The gutters are full of branches and green leaves. The roadsides are littered with items that have nothing to do with the wind: old vacuums and shelving and books and pots, the fruits, I assume, of spring-cleaning being done by people with nothing else to do, and nowhere to donate to. The donation bins by the entrance to the park are always surrounded by overflowing garbage sacks of clothes that get torn over, then damp, then removed. I suspect they go right to the dump, but I understand the impulse to clean. There is nothing else to do, and I am in my house all the time. 

A couple of weeks ago I cleaned out a series of boxes that sit in our room, filled with miscellaneous items: battery packs, pots of glitter, sunglasses, scissors, wigs, business cards, lipsticks, bumbags, belts, toilet bags. At the bottom of one I found something I thought I’d lost forever – a ring that used to belong to my mother, which I wore for nearly 15 years, and which I thought stolen along with the rest of my jewellery in September, on her birthday. I have no idea how it came to be in one of those boxes of bits instead of with the rest of my jewellery, but I cried with the relief of still having it. I threw out a lot, dried mascaras and bits of plastic and old cards, but the boxes never look any less full. In a similar fit of organisation this week I switched out my winter clothes for my summer ones. My wardrobe is more useful now, but there was a weird pain in putting away my glittery tops and silky dresses and all the lovely things I wore to all the places I went in December, January, February. Substituting in my summer clothes felt pointless, since I wear the same combination of leggings and t-shirts nearly every day. 

Yesterday was our neighbour’s birthday, and we bought him port and a fruitcake and drank some socially-distanced wine with him. Getting to know him has been a small joy of lockdown; we lived here for nearly two years before speaking to him at all. He is full of stories of a big life in London publishing, celebrity encounters and business endeavours and pleasures. He has barely left his house in 9 weeks. He cut his own hair, and it looks good. We never run out of things to talk about with him, because he has been a stranger for 73 years, and plenty of things have happened to him, and so talking to him is almost easier than talking to friends and family, with whom a shared history somehow diminishes topics rather than increasing them. 

The wind gets under my skin. It’s been three days of it now. I want to open all the windows and doors and let it funnel through, flush things out, bring something new.

Things that help

  1. Reading books outside my comfort zone, that distract and relocate me. 
  2. Putting on makeup. I have eight different highlighters. If I’m not feeling bright on the inside, I’ll be bright on the outside. 
  3. Keeping things tidy. I get distracted and angry when everything is messy. 
  4. Moderating my obsession with tidiness. Otherwise I come to blows with the only other person in my bubble, and we can’t afford division in the ranks right now. 
  5. Writing a diary like some shit combination of Bridget Jones and Samuel Pepys, the only diarists I can think of right now. “Today I did some gardening.” The fact of keeping a diary is having faith in the fact that one day I will want to read it and marvel, because my present reality will be so frothy with social engagements and physical interaction that whatever happened in 2020 will feel a cold and remote and impossible past. 
  6. Cooking things slowly. I never usually cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes or has more than seven ingredients. This week I made french onion soup from scratch. It tooks 90 minutes to get everything looking brown enough. It was delicious, and it was worth it, even if the kitchen still smells like onions. 
  7. Talking to the cat. She hates me by this stage, this is understood. She sits with her butt towards me just so I know exactly how little a threat she knows me to be. 
  8. Weeding the garden. I am focusing on getting the roots out, not snapping the leaves off at the neck. There’s something nice about using the hook tool, getting into the dirt, navigating the worms. 
  9. Going to bed later. The opposite of accepted advice, but I was going to bed at 8pm, and waking periodically throughout the night. I think it was because my eyes were knackered from the screen, so I thought I was more tired than I was. Now I’m shooting for 10pm, more often hitting 9pm. 
  10. Running. Nothing is helping more than running. Dredging myself from bed at 7:10, hitting the pavement by 7:19, not coming back until I’m sweaty and hungry. There is space, and sky and quiet. Nothing helps more.
  11. Spending too much money on wine. Every bottle is a treat. 
  12. Setting times for calls, and keeping to them. Sometimes I dread Zoom, but I’m always glad I did it. The voices and the faces are my anchors. 

None of the above prevents long periods staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened, contemplating the cosmic ridiculousness of it all. Nothing stops me thinking about alternate realities, about my early thirties disappearing like water into soil. Still, there is always something that distracts me. Today it is a glass of rose and the cheese my sister sent me, and the thought of playing cards online later. There is always something to look forward to.

It’s hard not to feel temporary

It’s hard not to feel temporary. It’s hard to know what real roots feel like: are you deep-rooted, are you embedded, or are you just making it work? We lead transitory, light-touch lives. You are an email, not a letter. You are fast-fashion, fast-food, bullet points, biodegradable, calorie-free, lighter-than-air. You are not made up of much more than binary. You are mostly cloud. You are deletable. 

There are so many words about belonging, and the search for it. I don’t need to add to them; they’ve already been done better, and more permanently. They exist in leather books and on tombstones. The quest for a perfect fit is eternal, and exhausting, because nobody seems ever to know where they fit, except, perhaps, for the people who have never questioned that where they started was the only and best location for them. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket telling me to come home. She looks into the lens with the gaze of a mother. There is no guilt-trip in what she is saying, there is only certainty: come home. Come home before you can’t. 

And thousands are. The digital might be transient but it is also prolific, and omni-present. I am trying to do my job the best I can, better than before, but I am also watching images eddying around my social feeds. This man is eating a pie. This woman is clutching a halved feijoa. This man is wearing a dressing gown under a blue sky and they have all come home. 

It is the most obvious answer that is also the truest: your home is where you go when you are threatened. Your home is where you are safe. So many of my contemporaries, with confident knowledge of the Underground and rental contracts and impressive jobs, are gone, all of it ditched, all of it confidently nothing but collateral when faced with the choice of keeping all of it, and staying, or losing all of it, and going. Those roots, it turns out – the jobs, the new friends, the plans – might have been steadying, but they were never anything other than auxiliary. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket and she is closing the borders. We are millenials, so here is the metaphor: you work in the engine rooms on the Titanic, and the ship is going down, and they are closing the gates. We are lovers of dystopia so here is another: you are the maze runner, and the maze is closing.

The problem with both of these (obviously) is that they signal there is no hope to be had, should you choose to remain where you are. You drown. You get ripped apart by a biologically unfeasible robot spider. But there’s something comforting in testing your roots, and finding them sound. Disastrous endings make for good blockbusters, but rarely leave room for exploration of other options.

Borders that close reopen. Home can be two places for one person. Permanence is more than postcodes. Writing it down – digitally, in the cloud, in the air – makes it real. 

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.

A year of Alice the cat

Tomorrow is a year since we brought home Alice. When we went to the shelter to view the cats they had we said, strictly, to one another: “We won’t adopt a cat today.” It was a 40 minute walk along cold, grey streets to Wood Green, and we walked past plenty of cats in windows and on bins. “We’re just looking.” They only had two cats at the shelter, and we walked out wanting to adopt both. It was inevitable, really. 

We adopted Alice because she was friendlier and easier, and we had fallen in love. When people learn that we rescued her, they always look slightly disbelieving, as if the fact that she’s pretty makes it impossible that she should have fallen on hard times. Even beautiful people (cats) suffer. Adam brought her home in a cage covered over with a blanket in the back of an Uber, and I left home early to be there when he let her out of the cage. I didn’t want her to imprint on him, which shows how much I know about animals, and how much I need to be loved. 

I remember when we took in a cat when I was a kid in Auckland. Family friends were moving to the US, and so we adopted their beautiful British Blue, Smokey. Upon arriving, he shot immediately under a carved wooden chest, and wouldn’t come out for anything for two days. We fed him by prodding bowls under the chest to join him; he was just a pair of round yellow eyes. Once he grew used to us he was gentle and attentive; calm and spiteless. He was the kind of cat that makes you become the kind of person who only adopts pedigrees, as if breeding guarantees you the kind of cat who will sleep on your chest and wind around your ankles. 

Alice emerged from her cage with confidence. She put her nose in everything; stayed just out of reach of hands. She prowled along the back of the couch and the windowsill, a tiny fluffy homeowner immediately. It took her a couple of days to get used to the neighbours coming in and out of the front door and stomping up the stairs. For a while, she bolted under the bed when visitors arrived. But within weeks she was fully asserted in her position in the hierarchy: comfortably below Adam, and extremely interested in contesting me for position next in the hierarchy. She does this by biting my feet. She regards me with wide eyes and ears back. She looks at me like a predator. I throw cushions at her and wear my scratches with honour. 

My sister has a deep and loving relationship with our family cats, Fanny and Katie, that I never shared to the same degree, largely because I left home earlier. Attachment to pets isn’t strange territory. But I still get surprised by how pleasing it is to see Alice’s small nose appear around the door when I get home from work. Having a cat in the house means I never have to return to an empty flat. She greets me, then sprints from me, rolls abundantly on the rug to show me exactly how long and how fluffy she has become in my absence. 

It was never really a question that I would become a crazy cat lady. It’s a trope I’m happy to welcome into my long suite of character traits, which includes early bird, bookworm, perfectionist, FOMO-sufferer, hair obsessive, among others. 

When you adopt a cat, you don’t learn their birthday. The internet would have me call January 31st Alice’s Got Ya Day. Either way, she’ll be getting presents.

Our Christmas tree

We have such a silly little Christmas tree and I love it so much. It’s spindly and uneven, and pressed up against the radiator, because our flat is small, and does not readily accommodate trees. We bought it from the park around the corner, where a cheerful man who clearly cared a lot about Christmas trees took us to the “imperfect” pile, and told us that this one was “nearly perfect”, and that he didn’t know why it was in this pile, and so we paid for it and took it home. I refused to let them use the plastic machine to wrap up the tree, and Adam walked the 6 minutes home with needles in his ears and face, while I apologised, but didn’t carry it. 

We’d never had Christmas with our cat before, and given her tendency to trot along radiators and topple chairs, we assumed a tree would never last. So we stuck it in a stand, draped it in lights, hung it with three tentative baubles and waited. It’s January last now, and she’s not done anything more aggressive than drink from the stand, and we’ve not bothered with any more baubles. Our tree is nude and spare. Perhaps next year it will be more gaudy or maybe we’ll continue to treat it like one of our many houseplants. 

I am sad about the end of Christmas, because it made our neighbourhood feel warm again. Each evening, walking home, I’d see more windows lit with trees and lights and tinsel, even as I newly observe the strong locks on those windows, and the alarms at the edges of the panes. The more beautiful the decoration, the more pronounced the security. You have to protect what you love. 

Soon – hours, not days – it will be January. I will become vegan for a period of time. Last year, my veganism trickled over into February before stilton saw its collapse, and I’d like to try for that again. I read a blog recently about someone who decided to stop drinking, and was only able to do it by not setting herself deadlines: by simply stopping, and seeing when she started again. I have always been a deadlines driven person. I need to be able to see the end before I can even contemplate crossing the start. It has worked for me, in terms of achieving things, like months dry of booze, or races run, but perhaps it’s just testament to the fact that I’m still really 14 years old, sitting in the front seat of English class, desperate to impress. 

Yesterday I booked flights for New Zealand for a very old friend’s wedding, and so that feels like a deadline too – in four months time, I will see sunshine, I will see family and old friends, I will celebrate love, I will take a break. Deadlines and having something to look forward to are ultimately the same thing; an end to difficulty and the promise of reward. 

I don’t even know how you are supposed to get rid of a Christmas tree in this country. In one flat, we had a fake tree, that we neglected to take down for several years. Other flats have been too small to spare even a corner; and other Christmases I have spent in New Zealand under pohutukawa blossom. I know how people in this country resort to getting rid of Christmas trees, because I’ve seen them, stripped and abandoned on street corners, a sad and decidedly unfestive pine graveyard. It feels like a very ignominious way to get rid of our under-decorated signpost to the season.  

I’m going into 2020 with resolutions, some big and some small. I’m usually pretty good at achieving them. It’s the deadlines thing. It doesn’t matter who imposes them, as long as they are imposed. I’ll put them here for posterity:

  1. Submit my book to 3 agents. It’s written and rewritten, and rewritten again. The query letter is done. It’s time to cast it off. 
  2. Run a 10k in under an hour. Last year, I resolved to run 3 10K races, with no determination on time. I ran the last one in 1 hour, 1 minute and 1 second. 
  3. Do one piece of home improvement. There are so many things we could do with our little chunk of London. Paint. Bash down the useless brick barbeque. We’ve lived here for 18 months and it can’t count as new any more. Time to get handy. 

There are always other ones, of course. I want to read over 50 books, I’d like to run at least 4 races. It might be time to delete Twitter off my phone. But they can go on a secondary list.

WhatsApp Image 2019-12-31 at 11.16.16

2009 – 2019

I think I became a real person in this decade. I don’t know who I was at 21, other than a person with most of a law degree and very red hair; someone who drank a lot of cheap vodka and had a lot of opinions about cheese, but not much else. She was ready to be told who to be, stepping in out of moulds to try them for size. She was turning in circles, chasing shadows. 

This is the first decade I feel properly cognisant of the beginning and of the end, ten years bottled and stoppered. I can see the entrance and exit, ten years of travelling and learning and making decisions. At the end of it, these last few days, I know who I want to be. A harder worker and a better boss. A more interesting person and a kinder friend. I know my shortcomings deeply. I have become friends with them. I hold them close as evidence of change. I line them up and count them. 

In this decade I graduated, and moved away. 2020 is 10 years of living away from home, 2 in Japan and 8 in London. I woke up on cold mornings on the 11th floor to the sound of crows, and in ground floor flats to the sound of bottles smashing. I have seen cherry trees in bloom on both sides of the world. I have lost important things, as well as had them taken from me. I have done much less than I thought I would, and much more at the same time. 

I don’t know when you get to decide that you have become an adult, as if there is a line that you cross, a waving flag. I walk backwards and forwards across that line week to week, when I make smart decisions and take them back, and dumb decisions, and work to correct them. It will never cease to amaze me how quickly you can undo progress, and how satisfying small gains can be. 

During the last summer of this decade I stood in front of a fireplace clad in tulle, hand in hand with the man I love, and made him my husband. That was an adult decision, and a real one, and one that didn’t feel adult at all, as I laughed, and shot the contents of my nose onto my vows, as we pushed rings onto fingers in unfamiliar movements. No one tells you to practice those small things. Putting a ring on a finger in front of a crowd of 80 attentive friends and family is no joke. 

I have described 2019 as a difficult year. There was sickness, and loss. I have learnt to feel less safe in my house and in my own head. I have put things into perspective, and lost that perspective, and tried hard to gain it back. I have put myself in other people’s shoes, and then struggled to take them off again. It’s not easy to live in a world where everyone wants to debate, where argument is expected, when that kind of clash of conversation makes you want to retreat, and bury your head. 

I still remember who I was when I moved to London. I lived in the attic room of my godmother’s beautiful house, and ordered clothes from ASOS to figure out who I was: the person who wore a muted pink anorak, or a strapless black top adorned with a heart. Was I someone who worked in publishing, or in a bar, or at any job at all, pulled at random, with desperation, from amongst the strangely-worded listings on Gumtree? I didn’t know whether I lived north or south of the river, or what that kind of division might mean to a London-personality, an externally-judged person. I was clinging to the strings of someone I had read about in books and wanted to recognise in myself. She strode across the Heath. She had friends who wrote, and wrote herself. She was beautiful and mysterious and eminently cosmopolitan. She was very unfamiliar, and she certainly didn’t have a New Zealand accent. 

I have learned that it is possible to both love and loathe yourself. Arrogance and humility can exist back to back, two sides of an incompatible coin, spinning on an edge, and falling either way depending on the slightest thing: overheard praise, or a glance in a mirror; a rejection, an invitation, an answer. You are allowed to have faith in yourself, even if that faith is in your inability to achieve anything. You can be both reliable and absent. 

I am both of those things to everyone I love. I am learning to be more former than latter, and learning, too, that you cannot be present to everyone at all times. They say, when someone tells you who you are, believe them. And I have learned to be that to myself: to tell myself, you are kind, you are worthy, you are full of possibility. 

It’s not all introspection and beautiful moments in tulle. There is getting a cat, and learning what it is like to be responsible for a life. A cat is not a baby, or a person, but a cat is a stage. Getting a cat is the same as saying to yourself and your partner, we can do this. We are able to be selfless for a thing. Now I track kitty litter through our small house on my bare feet as I say to myself, I am an adult. I scoop small bits of shit into the toilet. I squeeze out pouches of fish. I watch her bite into the skin of my wrist. This is the smallest, easiest, fluffiest bit of being an adult. 

I watch my friends in awe. I watch one passionate human pour herself out on social media for a political cause, and watch it burn. Another gets onstage with an ex she loved and loathed, and tells an audience how much they loved each other, and how much they hurt each other. One moves away from a long relationship that nearly broke her. Another leans into one that lets her relax. They get promotions, they write books, they run marathons, they cook, and plan, and love. 

With each year that passes, I grow closer to my family. By the time I die we will be one being, one mind operating many hands and hearts. I have learned to be grateful for exactly what I have, and who they are. Blood is thick; I am up to my elbows in it, and I am ready to be submerged. I was always my mother, just as she was always hers.

Time is a stupid thing. I didn’t enter this ten year period as one kind of person, and exit it another. You cannot wake up on January 1st born again. But we do it anyway, these arbitrary divisions and chunks, as if they mean anything other than a declaration of possibility. 

There is something in a beginning. There is something in an ending. You can change any time, but it’s easier to do it when everyone is telling you, change. Now is your moment. When this firework burns and the song is sung, turn in a circle, and look to the heavens, and tell anyone who will listen who you are going to be this year.