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.

Abstinence

I stopped drinking for October for a number of reasons. The first was that I drank all through September. I got bad news, and good news, I had a birthday, friends had birthdays, and I drank. We mixed negronis in our kitchen and I drank strong gins on sticky dance floors. I am the type of person who gets gifted bottles of red wine; I am not the person who saves them for a special occasion. I poured a large glass on the night we got burgled, after Adam got home, and I could unclench my fists. 

The second reason was just that: we got burgled, and walking down the street we live on began to feel like walking into battle. My fingernails would dig into my palms the second I turned off the well-lit main road. I could feel my heart rate start to go up as I approached the front of our house, waiting to see the window open, the glass smashed, a strange body silhouetted by our curtains. I was too afraid to get home drunk, or even just one glass deep; scared I would vomit or cry or scream or trip. 

The third reason is because I can. Sobriety isn’t really something I’ve danced with, not since I started drinking in university, horribly strong vodka and cranberry mixes night after night. In the cold dark of January, I abstain from dairy and meat, but not from alcohol. But this July, after an alcohol-imbued, hazy, beautiful June, I went sober for a month and encountered easy early mornings, longer runs, more restful sleep. So in October I’ve done it again. 

Last night I almost slipped. I walked down to the beach for my last evening in LA and watched the sun dip under an orange-streaked horizon. I sat on my own in a busy restaurant and ordered scallops as big as the ball of my thumb. Everyone was pairing their seafood with a picpoul, a pint. I chose what I would get. I justified it to myself – my last night alone, just one small glass, the seafood would taste to much nicer – and then, I ordered an alcohol-free beer and ate my scallops slowly with Anne Patchett for company. 

I am not an alcoholic but when I’m not drinking, I think about drinking a lot. I think about how easy it is to have a conversation about wine; how much wait staff like giving recommendations, and how much I like taking them. I think about how dining alone is easier with a glass in hand; how sitting alone with a book is easier to justify with wine to slowly sip. Tonight I will be on a plane for ten hours, and I will miss the way a terrible small bottle of wine makes it easier to nod off into the roaring dark. 

Forcing abstinence upon yourself is a strange human desire. What a middle-class inclination, to practice want. With so much excess available to us, it is perverse to implement your own deprivation. I have too much, I have had too much, there is too much here for me. I am practicing saying no to the things I want, in preparation for what?

Manhattan Beach

The check-in desk for my motel is behind glass, like a fast food drive-through window. There is a hair-dryer on a shelf, and a coffee machine on a table. A post-it note on the coffee machine says, “Sometimes bubbles break me.” 

My room smells of smoke, but it’s big, and clean. The shower takes three minutes to run warm and the bulbs glow dimly, except for in the bathroom, where I am over-exposed and hyper-lit and almost neon.  The duvet cover is thin, and hard under my fingers, striped in a mustard, red and brown that matches the curtains. One side of the room is a long bench and a small sink, and I have a full-size fridge that I have nothing to put in. I hang my shirts on the five wire hangers. I listen to the traffic on the six-lane road outside my window. 

3 minutes from my room there is a 3 mile path down to the beach, and I run along it the next morning when I awake at 1am, and 3am, and finally give up on sleep at 5am. In London, the old and poor juxtaposes with the old and rich in the space of a corner and a crossed road, so I don’t know why I’m surprised that LA is the same, two turned corners from huge white cars blasting through crosswalks to a bark-lined path down to the sea. 

The sun comes up just before seven and the sky is pink and grey and blue. The people here say good morning as I jog past, as if I’m back in Devonport. The neighbourhood of Manhattan Beach is an expensive one, but it has the look and feel of a cobbled-together hippy commune. The houses are a scrap-book of tiles and styles, tipping down the hill onto the beach, which is wide and white and gives way to sea studded with ships out to the horizon. Nothing matches; nothing goes. It is October and so the houses stream webs and black spiders; elaborately arrayed skeletons lie on loungers and gaze out to sea. 

I am nervous at the moment. I am anxious all the time. I check and double-check my phone, my wallet, my locked motel door. I think about how I left the curtains cracked open, and how someone might peer in, and see my (my what? My suitcase? My three Zara shirts? My half-eaten bag of crisps?) stuff, and break down the door and steal it. When my bag is checked at the airport, I think I’ll never see it again. When I run past a red-faced, sweaty mid-forties man in college sweats who pants hello, I imagine him shoving me sideways into the bushes. 

As it turns out, you can go from cock-sure and confident in the space of one prised window, one violated space. Back in London, at night, I listen for the sounds of another break-in. I am (again) proof that you only truly believe something is happening once it happens to you. My jewellery shoved in someone’s bag, sitting in someone’s room, pawned in someone’s shop; my laptop stripped for parts or sold. I am waiting for it to happen again. Through the closed curtains I can see them looking at the locks, the frame, and planning their entrance. Someone is always waiting to do you harm. 

It isn’t a panic attack exactly, but it’s something similar. My heart beat speeds and I sweat into my hair as I turn the corner onto my street. It’s October and I can’t get home before dark. 

The sun comes up at 6:43am in LA in October, but by 6am I’m at the curtains waiting for the sky to brighten. The only good thing about jet-lag is this new morning alertness. I want to be up, I want to be out.

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.