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.

A New Zealand wedding

In June I get married, but I have not been to very many weddings. I have never been a bridesmaid. Partially, this is because of my absence or the elopement of others; mostly it is because not very many of my good friends are married. We are growing up slowly, or, rather, doing things differently. Our milestones look different, and are further apart. But I am glad for marriages, and for flagrant, unabashed celebrations of unions. Marriage is just a piece of paper, but so is a poem, a promise, a contract, a treaty. I will never not be glad for two people, standing in front of loved ones, making promises to each other.

This week, I travelled a very long way to go to a wedding. If you were going to plan the perfect New Zealand wedding, it is this one. It takes place on a slanted green lawn (mown, at the behest of one of the grooms, in perfect straight lines) beneath an enormous green tree hung all over with paper lanterns. The pohutukawa is in bloom and the blue sky is bigger and bluer than it has been before. We cluster in the small patches of shade on the family property.

The guests are people with history. I talk to friends I haven’t seen for a decade, people whose sexual history and drunken antics I recall at the same time as hoping they have forgotten mine. Everyone is more beautiful than they used to be. We grew up crooked and not-quite-cool. We bought our clothes in surf shops and our make-up from a selection of five shades in a chemist. We had awkward haircuts and cheaply striped highlights. We had posters of All Blacks in underwear on our walls and drank Smirnoff from the bottle and ate dinner at 5pm. We text each other under 120 character restrictions, for 20 cents a pop and took our lecture notes on pads of paper. We are older now, and nicer. We tread around the edges of lives we no longer share. I look at pictures of babies and talk about babysitters. Where before I knew the details, now I know only the outlines.

I am an outsider, here. But I don’t feel like it as I watch two of my favourite people take hands and pledge love with an honesty and gratitude that pulses with life. I have left my sarcasm and skepticism at the door, and I hope never to let it back in as they gaze into each other’s eyes without blinking. Wide-eyed, the grooms survey a crowd of people who watched them wander, then find each other.

I know both grooms, but I know one particularly well. He is a perfectionist, and a planner. He is a fan of fine fabrics and matched textures. He likes to be certain. His is a wedding planned with precision, each minute allocated, with a timesheet that spans two pages. He is incremental and studied and certain, and I remember very well his certainty when he met his partner-to-be. I remember, too, that he feared his feelings, which were not careful or predictable, but instead fervid and frightening, and overflowing. He has nothing to be afraid of anymore.

I was frightened when he asked me to write a poem to be read at his wedding, especially when I learned that he didn’t want to hear it first. It was the only part of the ceremony he left beyond his control, and I was very aware of the responsibility of that. I played with the words for months before I wrote them, all in a burst, having woken up at midnight with everything neatly written in my unconsciousness.

As I read it, they watched me, taking in each word. It wasn’t easy to keep tremor from my voice (I am a nervous reader at the best of times) as their eyes welled up. In the end I forgot the crowd and only watched them, and I forgot to be nervous.

After the ceremony there were drinks, and then food and speeches, and I sat next to my fiance and across from a very old and extremely beloved friend, with my sister close by, and felt very very lucky. I am grateful for my life, but often sorry for things I have left behind. This week, I was reminded that geographical distance doesn’t need to mean anything; that true friends remain true; and that prolonged absence only means longer and better stories to tell upon reunion. Shared history is everything, and even your changes are shared. And every reunion is another strand to your history. This one is seedy motels and ginger crunch and blue views from green peaks, and the next one will be different, and the same. 

New Zealanders love a joke, and there were plenty of those at this wedding, but running through everything, from the anecdotes, to the cake the groom baked, was a thread of genuine unceremonial love. My wedding will look very different from this one, in nearly all respects, but I hope to draw that same thread with me across hemispheres, and pull it through my own vows, and my own relationship.

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For Rupert and Matt, on love

I want to spend a day behind your eyes, to see the world the way you do.

A piece of driftwood cast up on a black sand beach isn’t perfect by any reach of the imagination but in my imagination, we are sitting on it, our knuckles knots and bolts. There are boulders that rolled out of the earth whole and perfect as pearls, and then split upon arrival for no reason at all, other than the shock of arrival.

I am glad they don’t have a recording of the first time I saw you, standing tall across the room with your smile like a neon beam, because no one needs to see the moment I first understood all the fuss about Moby Dick.

The only secret I keep from you is that I like it when you get things wrong. I like it when your fingers slide off the keys and create discord, a new chord. I like reassuring you, and the way you look up. I always want to make you feel better.

People make a lot of fuss about fixing broken things, clay remade with gold, but perhaps we’re better staying as we are. Our time-rough edges have their own harmony.

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There is true love and then there is us: I would not have taken the apothecary’s poison, but rather stayed alive for 400 years, drawing pictures of you, the nose, and the eyes. I would need at least 400 years to get them right. I would draw caricatures on the street for money and each one would look like you. Dying with you would be a waste of all the things I could tell the world about you, because no one else gets to see your fingers slipping off the keys.

There are many worlds in which we did not meet. The driftwood floats on a rising tide, and there are whole perfect boulders still swallowed in the earth. The lovers live, the whale dies.

There are a thousand worlds in which we did not meet, and so, found together in this one, I will not risk leaving our sea-wrecked Oxford bench. I’m not afraid of time, and I close my eyes with you in them.

 

I always fight on the way to airports

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter coats

Sometimes I think I need a new winter coat, and then I realise I have at least four winter coats. I have pulled them out this year, one by one, as the temperatures have dropped, plateaued, dropped again, from the plastic bags I thrust them in when we moved, back in June. The articles online will tell you to have them dry-cleaned at the end of summer, pack them away lovingly with lavender (for moths). Mine come out of the plastic crumpled and smelling slightly of smoke, dirt, and the sweat they earned on their last wearing, the one on which I realised summer, or something like it, had arrived, and set them aside for six months. They come out with pockets gritty with foil and bits of receipts and tickets.

There is the heavy grey wool one I bought in Sweden, where we went to visit my sister, who was studying in Uppsala, from a store called Bik Bok, which made us laugh. We stayed, all five of us, in an Air B&B the size of a single garage (but a Swedish garage, carefully organised and furnished and with every corner and surface doing double duty, a sink-cum-chopping-board-cum -low-lit-stool) and ate cheese from the corner store, because eating out was so expensive. I cannot remember the holiday with rose-tinted glasses, because nearly all of us behaved badly, spiky from bad sleep and close quarters. There were fights and blankness and tears. There were signposts to where we are now. But I love the coat even though it is not practical – it has deep lapels, and the first button is somewhere far south of my sternum, so it can’t be buttoned tight against winter, but must be padded with thick scarves and jumpers; and it has cropped sleeves, so that my wrists freeze while the rest of me sweats. That being said it is a serious coat; a fashion coat, and ugly-beautiful coat. In this coat I have no waist, and no gender, and in the nondescript dark grey I can fade into an evening.

There is the cropped fake-fur I bought from a Salvation Army store in Wellington for $25 10 years ago, back in a time where I wished, when I found it, that it was real fur, because I could not afford real fur. But even fake fur was unique and interesting – there was only Glassons and Supre, no Zara or TopShop or H&M or any of the fast-fashion outlets that could, today, sell me something much more realistic for only slightly more money on any major street in London. Still I cling to my old thing. The lining is ripped at both shoulders, and nothing I want to find again goes into the pockets. The fastenings are broken, so that as well as being cropped it also hangs open. It is suitable only for very still 12-degree autumn days, of which we get about 5 a year, but I gladly shake out my coat for those occasions. It makes me feel like a bear; fake fur is good to hug. And I like that I still own something from my Wellington days. I like fast fashion too much (I know it); sometimes I look down on an outfit in which every item was bought in the last 6 months. There isn’t much history to me, aesthetically.

There is a thick bright orange wool one which I bought from ASOS last year. Periodically I try to inject more colour into my somber wardrobe. I favour black and grey and dark blue and dark green, like most people I know. Most of my colour comes from my lipstick. But I was tempted by the colours in the shopfront windows, and had the deal sealed by a 50% discount on ASOS. It is a rigid coat, with two buttons, that comes to my knees. When I put it on, my overriding thought is always: orange. It is very orange. Through this coat I have realised that I have a habit of riding escalators in London with my hands very lightly touching the rail; I know this because the cuffs of my coat are rapidly turning black. The coat confuses my outfits. I don’t know what goes with it, or what constitutes a clash. It fights with some of my favourite items (red lipstick, a bright red scarf, burgundy boots). But when I am in a crush of Londoners, all clad in grey, I like being in my orange coat. It makes me feel like someone else, even though it probably just makes me easier to mug.

My last resort coat – when the weather turns brutal, when I have to go outside on a day dedicated to inside – is my snowboarding jacket, which I bought in Japan. I went snowboarding exactly twice in Japan, which makes the purchase of the jacket questionable, especially since I paid somewhere north of £150 for it. In terms of snow-wear, this makes it a reasonable price, though the cost per wear isn’t something I’m proud of. It saw me through a Japanese winter, and it’s reassuringly sensible. It’s the kind of item that people who go camping own. People who own properly warm, waterproof, really rather ugly and unfashionable coats are the people who own drills and matches and boots that they’ve properly worn in, and they’re much more likely to survive a zombie apocalypse. Its most alarming feature is inbuilt gloves, so that every time I put my hands in my sleeves I automatically slide on very tight fingerless gloves. Their real purpose it to stop snow getting under your snowboarding gloves (which I don’t own because I went snowboarding twice in two years, I’m not a mad man). The only impact they’ve had on me is giving me the ability to wipe my vagina with only the very tips of my fingers touching the toilet paper. The jacket hasn’t been washed since I bought it, and I got it second hand. Don’t borrow this jacket from me.

Chapter One: Chris

Christopher cannot even look at the lights. He wants to but he can’t, and there is a tearing in his ears. Everything is too loud, and everything is far too bright. It is louder here than it was at the gig, which doesn’t make any sense. He sits with his hands crushed tight against his ears, flattening the sweaty peaks of hair.

He is not supposed to be out this late.

Not because anyone gives a fuck, or will notice when he gets home. No one is time-keeping. His home is a one-bedroom thing in Stockwell, his home has exposed brick because no one cares enough to cover it up. His is the type of life that has one set of sheets. He sometimes wonders what it would be like to live a life like his mother’s, with rotating sheets, a life when you wouldn’t have to mind if someone suddenly had to get into your bed, caught ill or something. His mother wouldn’t have to explain the pizza sauce, and the islands of semen dried into iridescent scabs. There are always bits at the bottom of his bed, bits that he tracks in on the pads of his feet when he gets up for water, and for a wee. If he had a vacuum he could do something about it. He doesn’t even know where he would buy a vacuum. Amazon, maybe, but then you have to be the kind of person who knows when they might be home to sign for package, or live somewhere where a big brown box wouldn’t be stolen from a stoop.

He likes Stockwell because it’s not pretending to be anything it isn’t. The estate over from his is the second worst in London. That’s what an Uber driver told him, a few weeks ago, in the early morning, when he was trying to sleep. Sometimes he thinks he can will it away, the erratic thump of his heart against his ribs. He takes deep breaths and counts slowly, but he can’t slow it down. Besides, what does second worst mean? What does it take to be worse? More dead people, more stolen things. Sometimes people shoot up in his elevator, and he steps around them, and takes the stairs. No one gives him sideways looks in Stockwell.

How do you even decide which kind of vacuum to buy? You could be ironic and buy a Henry Hoover, with his red face and that black long nose. They might not even sell them anymore. Though if they’ve stopped, they’ll bring it back soon. Nostalgia is everywhere. The Henry had gone the way of the ironic Halloween costume, like a guy he’d lived with, who’d done the red face with his girlfriend’s red lipstick, and had to go to work 2 days later with a waxy red sheen still to his face, and he was a lawyer. He’d thought, with vacuums, they probably let you take them on a money-back guarantee, because that’s the kind of thing people fall for. You never send it back though, even if you hate it, even if it just takes up space. You buy it as an experiment and then if you hate it you pretend to like it anyway. Because boxing it up and arranging for it to be picked up is way more energy than turning that hate into tolerance. Besides, you can get cordless vacuums now. He’d like one of them.

There are two girls sitting opposite him, with one boy in the middle, holding hands with both of them, like he’s still deciding which one he’s going to take home, like he’d quite like it to be both. Christopher can’t bring himself to look any further up than their knees (the rushing wall of the tunnel past the panes, his own warped reflection, those bright lights) but they tell a story, all their angles, towards and away. The girl on the left has Doc Martens a bit like his, but they look better on her legs, the way they can’t quite close around her skinny shin. She’s a bit bruised, and he can see spikes of hair on her legs. He quite likes girls with hairy legs. He’d like to tell her, but his mouth had better stay shut (what might come out) and besides what would he tell the other girl? She has long socks and Converses, muddy at the toes, and he doesn’t like them as much. She wouldn’t want to know that. Nobody wants to know that they’re second best.

He shouldn’t be out this late. It must be 3, or 4, or 5, he dropped his phone about 20 minutes in, when he was too up to care, and now he’s come down and been sorry and made the choice to go back up again. Up instead of down is an easy choice. The taste is on the back of that tongue, the sweetness that is also acrid, that is like nothing else he has ever tasted. Nothing is as good. Once, at a festival, desperate for another hit, he’d bought some off a man in the crowd. He’d melted away like he’d never been there, and with the music throbbing underneath his feet and behind his teeth Chris had stuck a finger in the bag and tasted something else. The same wrong taste, the same chemical wrongness, but not the right thing. He’d kept taking it anyway, just in case, because fifty quid is fifty quid, but. It had probably been rat poison.

They’re just drunk, the three opposite him. He can tell by their movements, slow and lazy.The boy has moved his hand to the knee of the girl with the hairy legs, a bit further up than the knee. He likes hairy legs too, or maybe he just doesn’t care because it’s 3am, and you start to compromise with yourself at 3am. I will only stay another hour. I will go home in two hours, but I’ll make sure I get up and don’t waste the day. I’ll take a bit more but that will be the last of it and then I won’t take any for 6 weeks, maybe 7. I will stop. I will stop.

His vision is doing the juddering, cracking thing, and there is something welling up at the bottom of his eyes. He can’t see the hairy legs anymore, he can’t see much of anything. And he’s not sure if he’s sitting up straight anymore.

Converse laughs, and it enters his ears like music. “That dude is fucked. Man, you’re fucked.”

He is not sure when he became a man. In his mind he is a boy, acting out, trying something new. It’s not that new anymore, it hasn’t been new for seven years. Is it seven? He can feel his mouth moving. He’s grinding his teeth. They’ll hurt tomorrow. If he was still at the rave someone would have given him gum. No one one on this train is going to give him anything. He should have stayed in that dark warehouse, with other wide-eyed kids jumping around him. He is just a kid.

“Dude. Dude?” The boy opposite is leaning over to him. He has his hand on his shoulder.

“Dude, sit up. You might swallow your tongue or some shit.”

He would like to tell him to fuck off. He is a man, he does not need help, but he does need help, the lines of the train carriage aren’t staying where they should and he feels, more than ever, more than before, that he might have entered somewhere strange in his mind, somewhere he hasn’t gone before.

“Should we stop the train? Pull the thing?”

“No, all the signs say wait for a station. We can’t just stop in the middle of a tunnel. What would we do if he passed out?”

Doc Martens stands up and shouts down the carriage. “Is there a doctor on here? Something’s wrong with this guy.”

A voice from his left, older, replies, “Perhaps you should have stopped your friend from speaking to men on street corners.”

Doc Martens cocks a hip. “He is not our friend. And don’t be a cunt. Might be you dying on a train one day, you old bitch.”

Chris would like to smile. More than that, he would like to be somewhere else. He does not miss Australia very often. It is too hot and too loud. It is too outside. There are not enough bits of it that have been closed off, it is like a big uncovered scab. But he misses it right now. He would like to be seeing the sun. Then he would know which way is up.

He is lying on the floor of the train carriage, and the guy is putting him into recovery position. Converse is admiring, scuffing a toe. “Where did you learn that?”

“Rugby.” Chris is not that heavy but the guy is panting with the effort of getting him into position. “Guys choke on their tongues after tackles. Or some shit. I never saw it happen.”

Australians play rugby. A lot of sport. Chris hasn’t played rugby since he was at school, but he was good at it once. Big, and dense, and low to the ground. You can be good at high school rugby without being fast. When he moved to London he thought he might join a football league, to meet people, but you do have to be fast to be good at football, and tricky, with mastery over your toes. Chris only played two games, and then they stopped texting him to join. Cunts. But then, that left more time for other things.

If only there were music. Music always helps when people have taken too much gear. They start to come up and they freak the fuck out, but then the music gets into their blood, the thud and bang of it, and the drugs mix with the music, and then it’s magic. He likes watching first timers begin to sway with it, and close their eyes to it. He was at a gig once where a girl just shut her eyes the entire time. You never know whether you’re hearing the same things. Probably not.

He could still be at the rave right now. It won’t be over. Those things, they go until past dawn, for as long as the light can be blocked out, and there’s always another little bag. Rat poison, rat poison.

His heart is going with the rhythm of the train, as it barrels through the tunnel, underground. He can feel each railing. Do they even run on railings?

Doc Martens speaks again. “We’re slowing down.” There is relief in her voice. She is very young, he thinks. It’s too late for her to be up. She will have school soon. Not tomorrow – today – but soon. “James, we can call for help at the platform.” James, Converse, Doc Martens. His companions on this very wild ride.

Converse chimes in. “And then we’re going fucking HOME, rather than spending all night taking care of a deadbeat.”

It is hard to argue that he is not a deadbeat. The swimming in his eyes has come again and the floor is moving in pulses. His heart is hard against his ribs. The train stops, and he waits for his friend, the big guy, the guy with his hand exploring Doc Martens, to lift him, but nobody moves.

“Fuck’s sake.” It’s the old lady again, clutching her plastic bags around her, one on her knees, one hooked between her feet. He can hear them moving. She’s kneading her fingers like he’s grinding his jaw. “Where are we?”

“Dunno.”

“Why have we stopped?”

“I don’t know.”

“FUCK.” Chris’ saviour stamps his foot, like a kid in a movie. He has nice shoes on too. Chris tries to think of the word. Brogues.

“James,” chides Doc. “Fuckssake.”

He has never been this close to a floor before. Nobody has. He is puddling against it, or he would be if he wasn’t rigid with the chemicals jolting his nerves wide. A bad pill, he thinks, but the only difference between a bad pill and a good pill is where you take it, really. He has been called, on occasion, bad. His mother has called him a bad influence, his father, with an amber whiskey in one hand behind whitening knuckles, didn’t bother mincing words. “You’re never going to grow up, ya idiot. Never gonna be much of anything, are ya. Came out a bit fucked in the head, gonna stay that way. We should never have taken ya on. Shoulda known. ” They’d had that conversation (would we call it a conversation?) 9 years ago, and no conversations since (some messages, from his mother, who’d plainly got Facebook for this very purpose, written in the kind of tentative prose that comes from a woman who’d spent her life peering over the shoulder of a much larger man, ‘Love, I just want to know you’re alright’, ‘Hun it’d be lovely to hear from you, ‘Joan down the road got married, they did their first dance to that song you always played, what was it called, gem?’. Strange, when you consider the kind of woman she is. Of course, she’d deleted them later). Bad.

Bad, and now that swimming was gone, and instead a halo around the corners of his eyes. He might have chewed all the teeth out of his head by now. He pictures bits of his teeth dropping out the sides of his mouth, chalky on his tongue, spitting them out likes bits of peanut.

James was hovering by the door, forehead pressed flat against his own black reflection. “Can’t see shit.”

Doc was doing the same, through the window to the other carriage. “Can’t see anyone in the next carriage. Might be a few a bit along.” She tried the handle.

Converse jumped. “Don’t! It’ll start soon. Don’t be dumb. Don’t get stuck.”

Doc moved away from the door, scuffing the boot again. “When, though. Where’s the fucking driver? Why’s he not saying anything?”

“Might be a woman, though.”

“Fuck off.”

Converse laughed. “Sorry. Can we just fucking be in bed already?”

James stayed where he was. “Maybe we’re stuck. Maybe someone’s coming. Can’t see shit, though? Are there usually lights in the tunnels? I can’t remember.”

How long has it been, 10 minutes, more? Christopher can’t remember the last time he was lit so brightly and so lost in time. It could be 3am or 5am or 7am, but it wasn’t 7am because there were no tradies, no men headed out to shifts knocking through loft apartments. Just one old lady with a pile of plastic bags. He’d like to ask her where she’s going. Where she’s been. She’d probably tell him to fuck off though.

If there had been other passengers in the carriage, Chris couldn’t remember them. He can’t remember anyone from on the platform, or even where he got on. He could barely remember the colour of the seats (blue, alright, so he could). There was just him, and James, and Doc and Converse. And the old woman who was pretending none of this was happening, sat with her bags clutched about her like something that might be stolen. She looked a bit like his mother. HIs real mother. Maybe. Maybe she just looked old.

He couldn’t see. James would probably want to know that, if he could tell him. The shoes, the lines on the floor. There’s nothing.

There is the sound of a door opening and closing. “Hello, did you – oh.” There is a quick movement near him, and someone drops down to her knees beside him. He can tell it’s a woman because of the smell of her hair, which flicks down over him like a shawl, like a blanket, like he’s come home and laid down on the couch and passed out and someone has draped it over him. Her hair is very long and it has the smell of freesias, like a lawn in summer, and he feels quite calm. She’s lifting his eyelids, he can feel that, but he still can’t see her, except in his mind’s eye. She probably looks like a primary school teacher he had, who always had dog hairs on her sweater.

“How long have his eyes looked like that?”

“Looked like what?”

“Where’d you come from?” asks Converse, which makes Chris feel better, because he’s pretty sure it had only been them, those three, and the old woman, and she hasn’t moved.

“Through the door. There’s a woman through there with two kids, after some water. One of them won’t stop crying, she reckons he’s a bit hot.” She speaks very fast, clipped, fitting more words out than most. “This guy, why’d you put him down here on the floor like this?”

“He’s fucked,” says Doc. “On something. He looked weird before.”

James speaks. “He was leaning off his seat a bit, I thought he might fall and hit his head. Put him on the ground.” He’s proud of his work.

She nods, and puts her hand around Chris’ jaw, pulling it open. It’s a struggle. “I’m Annette. Anne. I’m a nurse.”

They make noises of relief. “Now, what has he taken? Just tell me. I can help him.”

Converse is mad, she spits her words, she wants to be in bed. “We don’t know the old cunt. Never met him.”

32. Not so old. Too old for this, but not so old.

James nods. “It’s true, didn’t even see him get on.We just noticed him when he started moving around funny.”

There are hands pressing down on him but no one has moved and so they are rave hands, the kinds of hands that lift you up and out and up and away. They can take all your weight and carry you on. Annette, he says in his head, through the pain, Annette I can’t see. And then he is moving, what’s the word, he is convulsing, he is retching, someone is shouting and he wants to tell Annette, it is alright, Annette you have lovely hair and there are worse things than being held by a stranger on the floor of the night tube, but he can’t fit his tongue out through his lips and his clenched teeth, and he is James, with his forehead against the window, staring out at a black tunnel.

Autumn

We’ve bought one of those lights that emulate dawn, because there are no more slow sunrises in London, only blackness giving way suddenly to grey rain. It’s supposed to be a relaxing way to wake up. The light starts to bleed in some 20 minutes before I’ve set the alarm (which sounds with crashing waves and the sounds of seagulls, because apparently I’m trying to recreate my beachside Kiwi childhood in my small English flat), but it’s not a relaxing light. It’s red, and ominous, and turns the walls the dull shade of red of a sky above a bushfire. It’s Event Horizon. It’s a blood moon. It’s the inverse of the cold grey light that creeps in naturally, which is absolutely the point, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

I’m in love with autumn, though. Finsbury Park knows its way around the waning of a season. The trees are tall and old, and shed leaves the size of both my feet. Some of them are yellow and slick and lie flat to the pavement like a tattoo, while other curl and crisp in deep red banks by the side of the road. I can’t mourn summer when I look at them, because the colours are too beautiful.

It is a slow and warm autumn, this year. Soon will be the time for skeleton trees, but at the moment, on my walk to work, all the trees are fire-coloured against the brick walls, and very beautiful, and behind them blue skies for miles. I feel lucky to live somewhere where the buildings come nowhere near to eclipsing the sky.

Every experience is a first in our new flat. It was a perfect summer space, with big windows and a generous garden, but there are ominous signs for its suitability for a London winter. The big bay windows in the bedroom rattle in the frames, and I can stick a finger between the window and the frame. When we moved in, the owners had a wedge of cardboard between the two, to stop the rattling, which transpired to be the sleeve of a Waitrose hummus tub. At some point we’ll replace it with something that might actually stop the wind from entering and the temperatures from falling, but for the cardboard sleeve of a Sainsbury’s hummus tub has to suffice. There are no Waitroses in Finsbury Park. I don’t know how to time our heating to come on sensibly, so alternate between ignoring it all together, and leaving it on too long, so that the windows steam up, and my partner arrives home to find me in shorts and a t-shirt. This, apparently, is not the British way of treating winter, but I’m yet to be convinced.

I have been neglecting my blog because I have been writing, working my way methodically through an 80,000 novel which I finished in October. The first draft is sitting in my Google Docs, and I know the work is just beginning, but for now I’m just looking at it. I don’t yet have the energy to kill any of the darlings it contains.