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 window 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 window: 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.

I don’t spend any time in Marylebone anymore

I don’t spend any time in Marylebone anymore. London is so large that when you live somewhere, or work somewhere, that corner of the city becomes the only place you know well. I lived in Marylebone for three years, which meant I spent a lot of time running around or walking through Regent’s Park. I knew the shit that lined the ponds, and the birds responsible. I knew how close I could run to a goose without being attacked. I knew where the daffodils came in first, and where I would run past puppies and boot camps and people seeking Pokemon off the paths. At some times of the year there would be sculpture exhibitions around the park, and so I knew to avoid the crowds of people and the strange and ominous iron men who rose up from the grass. Sculpture exhibitions in parks always seem to involve looming metal silhouettes, crouched over guns or holding hands with children, crumpled or standing; as if the parks themselves didn’t already house enough shadowed men. 

You don’t consider yourself restricted to one section of the city, but it works out that way. When you wake up on a Sunday morning, there’s rarely the compulsion to duck underground onto a tube filled with hot familiar air, and surface somewhere strange, or at least, not for me. I like to go to places I have been before, along familiar canal routes or cut-throughs. Or I like to explore an area in increasing circles, going further afield with each passing season, to try out another pub, or cafe, or park. You could spiral your way out from the centre for a decade, and never get anywhere near the outskirts. There is always another dark-wood pub with a double-noun name and wooden tables on the footpaths and a cat that lurks behind the bar. There is always another beautiful crescent with red front doors and bright-leaved trees. You will always find another small shop selling old books to young people. In Marylebone, turned towards Edgware Road, I would always find myself on a road that started with expensive antiques, windows filled with gilt pineapples and strange low chairs, then tipped over into wide-windowed butchers and canvas topped stalls selling sneakers with fake branding. Cheap backs onto poor; jewellery onto canvas bags. 

Where do you go when you want to hide? For all the people, London is wide open and raw. There are no hills or valleys; even the forests at this time of year are sparse and clear. Everything is a window. Every corner carries a wind tunnel, and the gutters are merging with the puddles. Even the grates in the footpaths are flooded and full, and I can’t help but think of the London below, the teeming pipes and tunnels. In every movie you’ve ever seen of anyone under water, there is that scene where they take the very last gasp of air available to them, pressed up against the underside of a ship, or the top of a pipe, pressing their lips to the metal before the water closes over their heads. The underside of London, home to trains and fatbergs and rats, is full to the brim. 

I recently got an unexpected haircut, so unexpected that when I met my husband (husband) afterwards at the pub, he looked at me and asked, “When did you decide to cut it short?” and I realised I still hadn’t decided. I hadn’t thought about it at all, like you don’t think about turning left instead of right, or whether you go sock, shoe, sock, shoe or sock, sock, shoe, shoe until somebody asks. I’ve never been that cavalier about my hair; in fact, I’m the opposite, a devastatingly boring Sampson, with every opinion I’ve ever had about myself, from my appearance to my intellect, interwoven with my miserable, fine hair. I have taken so many selfies just outside the entrance of my hair salon, as if to double-check with myself that the decisions I made in the chair have followed me out the door and into the air. I’m checking I’m still there (I always am). 

When you move house, you leave a piece of London behind. I can visit Marylebone, but I will never know Marylebone Station as I knew it then, as I remember it to be at this time of year: the last-minute Christmas shops (Oliver Bonas and Hotel Chocolat) packed full of people asking for wrapping and for cards; the very tall tree that stood in the centre of things; the old piano that kids and old people would bash out carols on. Marylebone Station sometimes seems like a strange choice for a Monopoly Station, small now and off to the side of things, but it was the center of my universe once. The picture I took in its small photo booth is still in my passport, and will be for another five years. Some things move fast, and some move very slowly. In Marylebone, in our windowless bedroom, in the bathroom where I have had the best baths. I lived there three years ago now, for three years, and some moments stand out like burns on wrists, but most are gone. 

At work, nobody noticed my haircut at all. It is a commonly known fact that nobody is as interested in you as you think they are, but it’s still strange when you see that fact told back to you, clearly and plainly. Nobody cares about your haircut, or the neighbourhood you used to love, and so you have to care exactly the right amount: not too much so that it hurts you to remember, so that you miss your past more than you love your present; but not so little that it counts for nothing, three years of your life, not much in the grand scheme of things, not much at all when you think back.

Pickpockets

The thing is that I’ve already seen them, already noticed them, and that’s what makes it so galling. A tall man and a short man, both in nice coats, speaking loudly and intently in a language I don’t recognise. They’re near us right from the beginning, when we arrive at the theatre bar and join our friends on a large table. We share wine and slide into the booths, coats pulled off shoulders and collapsed onto chairs behind us. It’s winter, so everyone has too much stuff: discarded jumpers and scarves and hats and bags. It is hot and packed in the bar before the shows go in, so we’re trying not to take up too much space, but there are still bags hung from from every chair, and piles of possessions. 

They’re not doing anything other than standing there talking, but they’re too close to us, and they remain that way for the 40 minutes it takes for our group to collect and chat.

At 10 minutes to 10 the show goes in, and there’s a confused mass of movement as people move to the bar to buy a final drink, and pass each other their possessions. I pull on my coat; I’m holding my scarf and gym kit, and a glass of wine in the other hand. I’m slower than most of the others, getting my stuff ahead of me, and most of our group have already headed in the theatre. 

I walk between the two men, who are still there, and still on my radar, but who I think are angling for our table, to get to the bar where Adam is buying a beer, and as I do so, the shorter one moves into me, and bumps me hard. I don’t exactly feel his fingers in my pocket, not as precise as that, not through all my layers, but I make eye contact with the taller one, and I know exactly what has happened, but not what they’ve got. And because it’s busy and my friends aren’t quite near enough; and because it happens so quickly and because I’ve had some wine, my first move is to find somewhere to put down my wine so that I can check for what I already know.

It takes me ten seconds to put down my wine and pat myself down. They have my wallet, but not my phone (which I’ll be pleased about later, when I’m not busy feeling like a fucking idiot). I yell to Adam, I look around for them, but I can’t see them anywhere, and I’m not even sure if I’d know them if they weren’t standing together, talking loudly. The crowd is all heads taller than me and black jackets, and there’s nothing I can do but pat myself down again and again, hoping to will it back into my pocket. 

The good things: I have no cash, and I cancel my cards quickly, and it doesn’t look like anything has been taken. The bar manager and bouncer are empathetic, and get us free drinks while they scan the CCTV footage (too many people, no clear view). Adam is attentive and helpful and buys me martini and doesn’t tell me to shut up as I rant about how I knew, I just knew, why didn’t I do anything! There is no real loss to me except my old, tatty wallet and the annoyance of three cancelled cards. I didn’t even lose a tenner, or a gym pass. 

But I’m sick of the shitty stuff. Perhaps all it means is that I’ve had a charmed life up until this point, but I’m stuck on the unfairness of being robbed and pickpocketed in one year. I know I have a hundred blessings to count, and I do count them, and I do appreciate them, and I know I am lucky to have had insurance and the capacity to cancel my cards quickly but I’m counting this year down. The calendar flicking over from one year to the next might be nothing more than arbitrary but 2019 has been a year of huge joys and huge challenges and I feel it in a tightness in my neck and the hardness of Monday mornings. 2020 feels round and clean, a new orb in a blue sky. I’m ready for it.

My gym

My gym offers a training system whereby you wear a band around your ribs, with a sensor that sits above your heart. As you workout, it registers the intensity of your exertion, against the minutes you do it for, against the frequency with which you do it. Reach a certain level of exertion regularly for 12 months, and you hit Gold. 24 months equals platinum. The sensor only works when it’s damp, so if you’re not sweating enough, and it’s not picking up the signal, you have to dampen it with your water bottle. In the advertisement, a shirtless man and a sports bra-clad woman stand, proudly sporting the bands. I’ve never seen anyone wearing one in the gym, but I know people use them, so they must be sporting them surreptitiously under their sports wear, sweating into their sensors. 

My gym is neither fancy nor sleek, and it is mostly full of muscle-bound men. There are a few bikes, and about ten treadmills, but it’s nothing like gyms I have belonged to in the past, which were largely populated by women, and filled with rows and rows of black treadmills in perfect lines. My gym is a weights gym, which means that while I might get annoyed by men twice as heavy as me and ten times stronger throwing 180 pound bars to the ground as they grunt, I never have to wait for a treadmill. 

I know there’s something a bit odd about the way I work out. Every lunchtime I walk the eight minutes to my gym. It takes me five minutes to change, less in summer. I stretch briefly, run for 5, sometimes up to 8 kilometers, stretch again, foam roll, shower, change, and walk the same eight minutes back to work. I vary my running (hills, sprints, tempo, depending on what my running coach / long-suffering and endlessly time-generous pal has timetabled in for me) but never my routine. It has been suggested to me that I would get more out of a lunchtime workout if I didn’t walk eight minutes only to run on the spot for 40. I could change in the office, be running from the second my trainers hit the pavement. 

I’ve never been a confident runner (I’m getting better), and it took a long time for me to be comfortable running outside. I used to do loops of Regents Park, but then I moved to Stockwell, where a few attempts at running outside resulted in uncomfortable cat-calling, so I stopped. It’s not just the eyes; it’s also the noise, and distractions, and stoppages. Traffic lights, cars, tourists. I am not easily moved to motion, and once I stop my muscles rebel. Each time spent restarting is a little bit more difficult. Plus, there’s something embarrassing about running. I’m a well-practiced, almost angry speed-walker, and I’m proud of my ability to pound pavements, and make a mockery of estimated Google Map walking speeds. But I’m not confident of myself at higher speeds. I don’t know what I look like. I don’t trust myself not to look like an idiot. 

Now that I live in Finsbury Park, which is filled with joggers and dog-walkers at all paces and life-stages, I’m happier to practice my paces in the parks, but I’m still more inclined to comfort on a treadmill. I keep my eyes down and front, glazed and focused. The same program that requires the damp band around your middle and the sensor at your heart says that at 70 – 80% exertion, your exercise requires more mental focus; meaning, you can’t let your mind wander back to work or through your emails or forward to your weekend or you will drop the barbell or face-plant on the treadmill. That’s the percentage of exertion that I like to be at on my lunchtime runs – just hard enough that all I can think about is how many more minutes I have to do it for. I think about my breathing, and my pace, and my feet, and that’s it. 

I’ve been going there long enough now that there are people I recognise, and know well enough to smile at. I never go further than that, because I don’t go to the gym to talk. There’s the short older man who always takes the same spin bike (and will put his drink bottle down to mark it a full 30 mins before class starts), and dyes his hair a vivid black. There’s the popular gym trainer, with tattoos up both arms, who is approachable but can also hold a handstand for a full minute.  There’s the older woman who always wears a very high-legged leotard laced with purple at the back, who seems to know everyone, and whose mother died in June. I’ve listened to her talk about it, as I shower and change and patch up my makeup. She can’t talk to her brother. She’s been packing up the house. The phone number got cut off. There’s not much I don’t know. 

I don’t know how to be casual about anything. Recently, my work laptop died, and got replaced with a newer model. I held onto the old laptop for a little while, as my stolen home laptop got replaced; and when I had to wipe it and hand it in, I felt a genuine sense of loss. I put my hand on top of it and said “thank you” when I put it in the storage cupboard, knowing that it would only be sold for parts. I felt genuine loss. I know I’m insane. 

I could move gyms. We have a new health care system at work that means I could go to a closer, fancier gym which, on the subsidised rate, would be considerably cheaper. It would be the kind of gym with free towels and hair straighteners and good conditioner. But I have a familiar routine with my familiar old gym, which is now just slightly too far away to be really practical for a lunchtime session and I don’t know how to say goodbye to the damp showers and distorted mirrors, the treadmill in front of the air-conditioning vent, and the woman with the dead mother. 

When I come back from my lunchtime runs I am pink in the face, and sticky, and calm. I can focus so much better, having spent that essential 40 minutes thinking only about how much further I have to run.