Four nights in New Orleans

Our Air B&B in New Orleans was beautiful, but not practical. Not practical, and also a very probable scene of a haunting, or a murder, or something else unsavoury.

New Orleans – or NOLA, as I recently learned it is regularly shortened to – is soaked in hauntings. There are ghosts in the cracks in the pavements, and ghosts lining the banks of the grey Mississippi. NOLA is home of voodoo and of gris gris, of souvenir shops filled with voodoo dolls. Most people buy souvenirs for the people they love, or miss, or want to make believe they loved or miss. The shops of New Orleans sell the magical means by which to pain and punish a person.

All of which is a bit strange, since NOLA is teeming with pleasure. It has me licking my lips. It is hot, and damp, and the tourists are drunk at 10am, and 2pm, and 8pm, and 3am, and all the gaps in between. You get drunk with your breakfast, on a Bloody Mary (blood, there it is) filled with bacon and shrimp, because it can be, because why wouldn’t you pack your breakfast full of blood and spirit and flesh? We should, we always should. Avocado, bland paste, has had its day. The food is rich and wet and salty; candied pecans and oil-heavy sprouts and blue cheese that burns bits off your tongue. Artichoke hearts (hearts, there they are) and spinach sauce and eggs that burst like something living. Everywhere feels a bit drunk: a bit too hot, a bit staggery, a bit swimming. The tourists walk the streets like prey. We have been eaten by New Orleans. We are going back for seconds.

The bars stay open for 24 hours, which makes me wonder why all bars don’t stay open for 24 hours. What is the point of closing for a mere 8 hours, 10 hours, whatever the normal hours of a bar looks like? Never closing means never cashing up nor cleaning up, which explains the tack of the table and the slatted swinging doors in the Ladies loo. You don’t shit in public behind a door that is half not-door; you save up your shits for home. Never closing means weary travellers (me) stepping inside the door at 1am, bleary from 8 hours of driving (not me, I was in the back reading Jojo Moyes) and winking awake in wonder at the tables full of people, and the bar stacked deep. On a Sunday. The day after St Patrick’s Day. Why aren’t they sleeping?

NOLA doesn’t sleep. The first resident I speak to is a drug dealer. The negroni I order is double-poured, filled to the brim with spirit, and the only reason it’s not full of shrimp is because I didn’t think to ask.

We arrive in the dark. I have done no research, so I don’t know what to expect in the morning when I walk outside the door onto a street that seemed, upon arrival, looming and foreboding and tightly packed with cars and houses and potential dangers (this, after Austin, where you could have driven a truck between each house on the block, with room to spare). Everything is dangerous in the dark, but in the daylight? I cannot describe New Orleans without resorting to cliches it doesn’t deserve. A riot of colour. The houses are a rainbow, each painted in a unique hue, with carefully chosen accent colours, as if someone took the idea of a splash of colour on a front door and went strategically and beautifully mad. I am from a neighbourhood that values a villa, so I know my finials from my canted windows, but these houses, shoulder to shoulder, a children’s paint-by-number; I’ve never seen anything like it. It is life viewed through stained glass. It is as if Dickens fucked a My Little Pony. It is the kind of stroll that makes you long for an eye for the camera and walls on which to hang your pictures.

We arrive a couple of weeks after Mardi Gras, a time in which, I am told, the city goes wild. To my tame eye the city is wild enough already, too wild around the edges, a wildness that makes me skittish and bit wild myself, and so I am glad (a bit, a tiny bit) that I didn’t witness it, but it has left traces. In the tourist books (OK, blogs) you read “beads are a central element to Mardi Gras” but this doesn’t mean anything at all until you see the beads: winking strands of multi-hued and faceted beads, hanging drunkenly from trees and awnings and fence posts and cacti; trod into the grass at the side of the road and clenched in rainbow balls in gutters. There are beads everywhere I look, a city adorned with the bought and sold beauty of a junk store binge, glitter gorged and emitted and retched. I am drunk and in love with this careful architectural beauty painted with bawdy hues and strung about with plastic gems. And I am actually drunk. I have had a lot of Bloody Marys.

Beautiful, but not practical, this city on the banks of a teeming fast-flowing (so much faster than our sludgy Thames) river, packed with ghosts and tourists and zombies (their toes don’t touch the ground, that’s how you know), skanking to jazz and cooling their brains with frozen margaritas.

Our Air B&B is a huge house owned by a man named Franz. It has outdoor fans, lazily turning to churn the mugginess out of the air. It is impractical because it is split down the middle. There are two front doors, but at the top of the flight of stairs there is a door with a crystal knob, locked, which if turned, would take me into another Air B&B booking, another party, I hope, drunk on this Marigny splendour. It is not a secret door, but it is still a door I cannot open, and you cannot help but wonder, in this city of ghosts, who is on the other side (I know who is on the other side, because they get up early and stomp up and down the staircase, and have loud conversations about toast on the veranda, but still). Another impracticality is the dining room, devoid of all decoration except for a single portrait of a girl, who leans from the mantle and looks down with dark eyes. All four of us decided, within a minute, individually, that she haunted the house, stalking the halls with malicious intent, though the only ill to befall us is hangovers. The third practicality is adjoining bedrooms, which makes sex a bit of a gamble, but no more needs to be said about that.

New Orleans thinks it’s old, a madam imbued with ancient magic, though to a British eye, it is a baby, a toddler wandering too close to the water. There is a drum beat under the pavements that makes you believe it, a pulse that cracks and lifts the concrete. I have eaten and drunk too much of New Orleans, a place where the seven pomegranate seeds are a pile of deep-fried shrimp, an alligator po-boy, a beignet dusted with sugar, a Bloody Mary that might be two parts blood, all consumed under the black eyes of a painted ghost girl.

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My engagement story

My engagement story isn’t typical, but the story of my engagement is: I fell in love with a man, and he loved me back.

My engagement story is a practical one. It wasn’t in a restaurant, or front of a crowd, or on a holiday. It happened on a Wednesday, at about 7:30am, in the middle of our living room. It is a small living room, in a rented Stockwell flat. It is full of laundry, most days. There is more couch than there is floor space. There are half-full bottles of spirits and books on the shelves, and a lurid rainbow frog painted on canvas on the wall. He is not even a unique frog; when I was walking through Central Park in September, his twin stared out at me from behind his thickly-painted black glasses, hung on a stall at the side of the path. It was comforting, I thought: my boyfriend might be sitting underneath our own rainbow frog at this very minute.

My boyfriend is now my fiance, because a few months ago my sister and I started having conversations about rings. We would send links back and forth. She is smart, and kind, and knows me well, and did her best to send me links to rings she thought I’d like, although our tastes in jewellery are very different. I am tacky, I am oversized. The ring I chose in the end is red, with six tiny diamonds. She said, “It looks like candy.” It does. I said, “I like candy”. I do. 

I am surprised when I think about how some long-term relationships come with surprise engagements. My engagement, the fact of my boyfriend wanting to marry me, and being confident that I wanted him to, was not a surprise at all. We talked about it drunk, four years ago on a train. We were going to his 24 year old cousin’s wedding that weekend. He said “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to marry you just because I haven’t asked you. I want to ask you when I’m ready.” A couple of years after that, drunk, in the same living room where he would propose, under the same rainbow frog, he said, “When would you like me to propose?” I said, “This year, I think.” He said yes, and so really we were promised then, it was finished then.

I changed the deadline later, when it got to December and he hadn’t proposed. I was afraid of a New Year’s Eve proposal, rightly, I think, because he leaves most things to the last minute. He lives life right up to the deadline. I am the girl who wrote her university essays two weeks before they were due. In the first week of December, I said, hurriedly, “You have to do it before Christmas.”

I found the ring I loved by Googling “Unusual engagement rings” and navigating the internet from the first Elle listicle I landed on. I do not think of myself as quirky, or unusual, but I knew what I didn’t want: a big, benign anonymous diamond. That ring belongs to someone else. It goes very well with the church wedding and the white dress and the high heels and the rigid up-do and the expensive flowers that I also do not want.

He knocked on the bathroom door when I was in the shower. I was taking an unusually long time because I had slept with a hair treatment in, and it takes a few goes to get the goo out. I am very blonde and my hair is very broken; I have what my hairdresser has refrained from calling “a chemical mullet”. I also have some grey hairs – I know this because the last time I went to the hairdresser I asked him if I had any, and he said “I’ll tell you if I spot any”, and I said “You’re lying,” and he smiled because he was lying.

“Come into the lounge when you’re done,” he shouted through the door.

“Why?”

“I need you to give me a hand.” (This is the part that I have to get right when I tell the story; his very favourite part, his pun).

I think, of course, that he has broken something. The rainbow frog knocked off the wall, the television shattered, the bookshelf cracked and broken. Instead, I walk into the lounge and he is down on one knee, on a cushion he has already positioned by the door. The lounge is covered in Christmas decorations and lights and he has bought chocolate and champagne. He asks me the question and I give the answer. This part is very easy. We have already practiced this part. We have been saying yes to each other for six years, as well as no, but never maybe. Our certainty about each other is never something I have had to question.

In some versions of this story I say that I am naked, because I like the idea that I might be that quirky, drop the towel and throw down on the carpet, clad only in my new red ring. But instead I drink my champagne and dry my hair quickly, and we go to Dishoom for bacon naans. A true part of the story is that at first he tries to put the ring on the wrong finger, on the wrong hand. But then, he has never done this before.

On the way up the escalator at Leicester Square, I spot my colleague Shane. He is standing in front of me; he is very nice but we have probably had about 3 conversations in total, and they have all been about either coffee or sales targets.

I introduce Adam to him as my boyfriend, to which Adam leans around me aggressively and clarifies “FIANCE”. Shane looks startled, as well he might. I explain that we have been engaged for 20 minutes. Shane understands, but still disappears off up the stairs very quickly.

I am not being vain, or unself-aware when I say that Adam and I have a special relationship. I am sure everyone thinks this, but I know this. I know this from the number of drunk friends who tell us that they want what we have, when it’s late and we’re leaning into each other, and it’s not one of the nights when we publicly fight about wisdom teeth. I know this from how easy, and unsurprising, it was to say “yes” to him. We are engaged to each other, but it hasn’t changed anything material. Sometimes he snores, and I sleep on the couch. Often I yell at him for doing something that I do myself, and then when he points that out I get mad. We make some bad decisions together, and there are undoubtedly dubious choices in our future, but the biggest choice, with regards each other, got made long before the ring. It got made when we moved to London together, when we moved in together, when he turned down a job in Manchester.

The only time it really feels different is when we’re sat together, usually on the couch under the rainbow frog, two meters from the spot where he arranged a cushion for his knee, and one of us turns to the other and says “We’re engaged!”. We do it often (only when we’re alone, don’t worry) and every time there’s a tiny additional spark. A little spike of something. It’s a little bit like the first “I love you”, or the first material decision made together. It’s a reminder that not everyone gets this, and a reminder that six years together doesn’t make our relationship old, or boring, it makes it wonderful. I hope our wedding day carries with it that same spike. And our honeymoon. And whatever comes after that.

I chose my own ring, with the help of my sister, which some people wouldn’t view as very romantic. But we chose each other, and we’ve kept on choosing each other, and that definitely is.

Chutney and cheese, but mostly hair

Yesterday evening, I spent £204 on my hair. This might seem like a lot. That’s because it is a lot. It’s an obscene amount of money, and sometimes I’m not sure why I pay it. I have my reasons – I assemble them every 12 weeks, when the wedge of roots at my parting is thick, but collected, on a page, in a list, I’m not sure they’re enough. It’s half my monthly rent. It’s what I paid for a pair of boots, eight years ago, when I learned that someone I loved had kissed someone I liked, and even then I could only bring myself to pay half (one boot, if you will), as a down-payment. And then I went to a lecture and saw them together, and went back the same day and bought the other boot. I still have them. The point of that being – it was so difficult for me to spend that much money on boots that it took two goes to do it, even when I was angry and sad and out-of-sorts, and now I spend that same money every 12 weeks on my hair.

George, though. When I sit in his chair and look at him reflected back at me, I feel the same way I do when I get on a long flight: like every responsibility I have at that time is gone, for a few hours. They’ve introduced WIFI on planes, now, but I’ve so far managed to pretend that they haven’t, so I can salvage those few hours of contact-free time, in which to watch a bad movie (preferably one I’ve seen before), and drink two glasses of wine, and fall asleep with my mouth open.

It’s not quite the same in George’s chair, because I do have my phone, and I do answer emails, and I do look at Instagram and Twitter. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t really do anything. So last night I sat and watched my reflection (reddened nose from two days of a cold, eyebrows in need of attention, eyes completely free of eyeliner for maybe the first time in 15 years because I keep sneezing it off) as George applied pieces of foil to it for an hour and a half, then left me sitting under a heat lamp for 45 minutes, then rinsed and toned for another 30 minutes, then cut and finished for the final 30. When you tot it up, you understand why it costs what it does. I’ve spent more time with George in the last few years than I have with my Dad.

It’s never quite perfect, because I am very exacting. Turning hair that was born brown, and has been manipulated through varying shades of ginger, black, purple and red red red over all the years, blonde is not an easy task, particularly when it keeps on growing like it does. When you think about it, it’s some sort of chemical mastery: to take two inches of grown-out virgin hair, and paint dye on every second strand, and watch it take under hot lights, until it looks as close to the rest of the hair on my head as possible. Every two inches of my hair has been dyed at a different time. I’m a patchwork. I’m a mish-mash. I’m a lot of hard work.

Anyway, four hours isn’t always that easy to come by, not when your hairdresser doesn’t work every day of the week and you don’t finish work until six at the earliest and your weekends are packed full of birthdays abroad, and leaving parties, and brunches (this isn’t a plea for pity, obviously, only an honest appraisal of the hours of a week). So I took a half day – quite a decision when you’ve only got two days of leave left for the entire year, an inevitability when you have three jobs and nine overseas holidays in a 365 day period – and abandoned my work for George, and four hours of being massaged and tugged and stroked. Maybe I don’t pay George enough.

When I left his chair it was nearly 6pm, and very dark. I roll my eyes at every person who exclaims surprise at the darkening evenings, but I do it myself. It is very dark at 4pm, and 5pm, and still very dark at 6pm. Because it was very dark, and because I have the sense of direction of a rock, I walked down a different road to my usual, and I walked past a specialist condiments shop. It calls itself a deli, which makes sense because it is one, but all I saw in the darkness was a window stacked high with hundreds of different kinds of chutney.

You might not know this about me, but I really love chutney. I love it with a passion. There are limitations to this passion, because I really only love it as an accompaniment to cheese, but when the two are paired, my love knows no bounds. If I could eat nothing for the rest of my life but strong blue cheese and caramelised onion chutney, I would be content. Smelly, and slightly mouldy, and well-preserved, and content.

They were closing up, because it was after six, at least five staff sweeping and dusting and packing away big chunks of cheese. They all said hello to me. None of them said they liked my hair. I asked to be directed to the savoury chutneys, and the tallest one showed me the way. “We arrange them by brand,” he said. “But if you don’t know which brand you like best, try these.” A wicker basket, with a Christmas ribbon, filled with small £2 pots of chutney in all different flavours. He left me to choose, and I chose three: caramelised onion, Spicy English, and Christmas chutney. “Well done”, he said, as I approached the till. And I did feel like I had done some good work, that day.

It is a nice world we live in where you can walk past a specialty chutney shop, and buy three different kinds for £6, and it felt like a nice world as I sat on my couch on a Friday night and tried my three different kinds of chutney with two different types of blue cheese (one from Sainsbury’s, one from Neal’s Yard, after I’d wandered in with with my departing best friend on a cold lunch break, and been taken on a spontaneous tour of the female cheesemakers of England). The onion one was the best, because it always is. The spicy one was good. And the Christmas one went perfectly with my female cheese. At the end, I was all crumbs and bits and perfect hair, licking chutney off my wrist. On the screen, Dakota Johnson ordered a quinoa salad.

House-hunting

I’ve been spending a lot of time in other people’s houses. It’s fake time, borrowed time – time they’re lending me on the understanding that I might take their house off their hands. I’m not seeing the house as they live in it, but as how they’d like me to see myself live in it. Uncluttered surfaces, and shower drains free from hair. Fridges that smell of soap, and gardens empty of a single living thing. There are no spiders in this garden. There are no ants. The birds don’t shit here. Isn’t it strange?

The realtors never know how to work the keys. They have so many keys in their dark blue pockets. I think that if I were a realtor, I’d do a practice run on the door, turning the keys swiftly in the lock, easily opening into the potential new home. You don’t want to make it look difficult. You don’t want to make anything look difficult, otherwise you picture yourself standing on the door mat, clutching groceries and gym kit and a laptop bag, trying to jiggle it open, calling through the keyhole into strange empty rooms while your bladder strains and the bags cut red grooves into the skin of your fingers.

The second bedroom is always a joke. “Buy two bedrooms”, they say, “the resale value is higher”, they say, but the resale doesn’t make much difference if you can’t buy it in the first place, or if you buy a place with a mortgage you can’t afford, or if you can’t let your second bedroom because it’s not really a bedroom, it’s a cupboard, a study at best. You can’t fool someone into moving into your cupboard just because it has a big window and a radiator and nice wallpaper. It’s still a cupboard.

People have a lot of stuff. I’ve been inside 10, 12, 15 houses belonging to strangers in the last 4 weeks, and what I can tell you is that people have become really good at stacking. Cards on top of books on top of framed pictures balanced on shelves. Wine bottles, empty and full, lined up and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in fireplaces that don’t work anymore, because there are whole families living where the chimney used to be. People have boxes standing in the space under tables where legs belong. Stuffed-full suitcases lined up on the top of wardrobes. Knick-knacks at the edges of staircases, every cupboard packed full to bursting. I just want to know what the storage space is like, not what your winter coats feel like, toppling down upon my head. The fake fur one is nice, though. I like that one. But you don’t need 8 half-full bottles of perfume. Or maybe you do. Maybe each scent means a different moment. It’s your house. Or maybe it’s mine.

These people are selling their houses to move their stuff into bigger places, for more stuff. I get how it works. I think about our small bedroom, about my dozens of dusty bottles and my books still packed away in boxes. I think about how our bed opens up to reveal space packed full of coats and boots and cables and cricket bats. We might need some of it. We might need none of it.

I always look at the photos in the house. Some people have boards rammed with pins, haphazard snaps of snow, and streetscapes and people snogging in hats; others have perfectly framed wedding photos, airbrushed and sepia-toned and beautiful. They all look a bit like me and my boyfriend, young-ish, at their best angles, doing interesting things. We all have the same smiling faces on. So it makes sense that we’re trading houses, one for another, adding £30K, £50K, £80K onto the price each time, pushing one another up the property ladder so we can follow slowly behind, with the weight of debt and damp on our shoulders.

They’re never there. I wonder where they are. I’ve never owned a house, so I don’t know what it must be like, putting it on the market, giving up a piece of it right then. Then tidying it up, washing down all the surfaces, so it looks a little bit less like something yours, and more like something that could belong to someone else. And then absenting yourself, putting the keys into the hands of a stranger in a cheap suit with red-rimmed eyes from last night’s drinking; going for a walk, or a roast, or to sit on a friend’s couch while strangers walk through your space, looking closely at your toilet and and your bath and your bed and the position of your plugs.

I get weirdly attached to things. I haven’t thrown out my old laptop because I’ve written too much on it, even though all that writing is elsewhere now. In New York, the handle on my suitcase broke, and I felt it like a real breakage, because I bought it when I moved to Japan and changed my life, and it’s been so many places with me. I still have underwear I bought ten years ago. I’m not sure I’d survive the selling of a house. You can’t pack up your old house and store it in your old house, like my old broken suitcase now lives inside my new, intact one.

I never leave my shoes on in my own house, and I never take them off for flat viewings. Maybe that’s how I’ll know when I find the right one – that compulsion to take off my shoes to keep things clean. Home is where your heart is, and home is where your shoes aren’t on. I have too many pairs of shoes. But – and now I know for certain – so does everyone else. 

30

By the time the newest royal baby is old enough to legally drink, I’ll be approaching 50. This is what my latest birthday means to me: perspective. Not so long ago, I was appalled to find that I empathised more with Lorelai than with Rory. Now I think Emily probably had it right. Death must be soon. 

I don’t care very much about 30, academically. I’m not married, and I don’t own a house, and I don’t mind very much about those things. I want them one day, but that I won’t have them on my birthday, milestones to check off on my fingers, I don’t care very much about that. Of course, you don’t write “I don’t care” three times in a single paragraph without giving away the truth. I care about everything, including Madeline McCann and the fact that they don’t make Vinegar Blast Munchos anymore, and my parents’ separation. I never stop caring. It’s part of my charm. 

I used to be much more strident about milestones but in the opposite way. At 15 I was vocally, vehemently, against the idea of having children. I didn’t want to be a mother, not because I didn’t think I’d be good at it (I thought I was good at everything, including waterpolo, even though I nearly drowned every time I played) but because it seemed the antithesis of everything I wanted to be: thin, beautiful, rich and, ideally, a widely lauded author. I also, up until far too late, strongly believed I would one day develop magical powers, and would indulge in fantasies about thwarting robberies and saving the lives of the teachers I liked best. I let some of them die.

I’m Facebook friends with loads of people I went to high school and university with. I recognise fewer and fewer of them as I scroll through, sometimes because they’ve changed their hair, and sometimes because they’ve changed their names. I care about some of them, but not most of them. If I had magical powers, and witnessed them in mortal peril, I would probably try to save them. If I could move things with my mind, I’d stop the bus or the knife, conceivably. But I’m not keeping watch. 

I don’t really know what they see when they scroll past me. In a perfect world, they’d seen an enviable life, with good hair and expendable income and expensive travel. They’d see me surrounded by glamorous international friends. They’d see me succeeding. That’s what I curate my feed to represent, after all, so if that’s not what they’re seeing then what? Someone far away from some of her friends, and most of her family. Someone who’s not quite where she could have been (Where are the bylines? The books?). Dragged her heels, settled, revised her own expectations for herself, and then again, and then again.

People are constantly posting lists of things they learned by 30. Usually 30 things, as if there’s a designation of one important learning per calendar year. What if you lock down something essential on January 1st? Do you have to refuse to learn anything else for another 364 days? And what if that becomes a habit?

I think, in all honesty, I haven’t learned a single thing. Or, to put it another way – I haven’t learned anything I couldn’t potentially unlearn. I’m constantly revising, myself and my life, and my expectations. There are plenty of things I’ve learned that I would have considered certainties, that I now question, or completely rebuke. There are no hard truths that you learn as your hair gets grey and your skin softens that you didn’t likely already know at 12, covered in freckles, with a sunburnt nose.

Wear sunscreen. Be nice to people. Save money if you can. Be stingy with trust. Be generous with love. Wear shoes that fucking fit.

I’ll probably be a mother, and might even be a good one. 15 year old Scarlett, with streaks in her hair and orange foundation on her face, and all kinds of doubts in her brain, for all her many wisdoms, would have laughed at that. 15 years on, though, I still trust most of her judgments. Eat vegetables. Be wary of boys. Brush your teeth. Let your blisters heal. Read all the books, then read them again.

I haven’t developed any magical powers yet, but there’s a certain kind of magic in that, too. They might be just around the corner. They might be brewing, yet, in the tips of my fingers. 

Glastonbury, again

Tomorrow I go to Glastonbury for the second time ever, and perhaps for the first time in the sun. The forecasts are divided on the latter – some, I feel, are deliberately skewing whatever the weather gods are brewing, simply to foster the fear of the myriad 20-somethings trying to stuff clothes for every clime into a single backpack. I don’t know. I don’t care. I will burn in the sun, and I will moan in the rain, and I will slip in the mud, and I will inhale the hot grey dirt, and I won’t care because I will be back in The Glastonbury Bubble.

It doesn’t exist elsewhere, at least not anywhere I’ve found. I’m sure people manage to recreate it by getting on planes to distant timezones and shutting their phones in bedside drawers and pretending to be people other than who they are (people without debt, problems, issues, deadlines). I’ve tried, lounging poolside somewhere glorious, or stomping the streets of somewhere cheap and foreign. It doesn’t compare, somehow, because for me, the Glasto Bubble exists within me, as well as without.

It doesn’t mean no cell-phone reception, or salubrious surrounds, or entertainment so utterly entertaining that my brain loses its ability to latch onto slights and sadness from months gone by. It’s some sort of haphazard intangible combination of all of them: me, standing somewhere strange but familiar, surrounded by all the people I love, with no desire to be anywhere else.

I just about always, just a little bit, wish myself somewhere else. It’s like having a brain laid out like City Mapper – this route is faster, but more crowded; this one gentle, but with multiple changes. There are many ways to get to where I want (happy, entertained, bladder empty, no ominous looming amorphous sense of guilt), but disaster strikes when I have to choose. I’m afraid of choosing the wrong one. I’m afraid of the road not taken.

Glastonbury is laden with choices but all of them are good. Eat haloumi on the grass, or down a cider in the shade. Watch this act, or that act, or the other one you’ve never heard of. Get side-tracked on a wooden bench with a dreadlocked hippy. Fall asleep in the Stone Circle. There is a sunrise and sunset, but there isn’t really time because nothing happens when it ought to. I know what I sound like. I’m a 29-year-old child of privilege paying £300 to go stand in a paddock covered in glitter. I don’t care. I wish I was there now. I wish I were there always.

Last Glastonbury was my first, and, arguably many people’s worst. I can’t tell you for sure, because it was my best, being my first, but: the mud was knee-deep and gelatinous, and while we were there, Brexit occurred. The combination is a gross one, physically unsettling and emotionally ruinous. Someone stole most of the money I’d brought with me. It rained a lot.

It didn’t ruin the mood, any of it, and I don’t know why. There was still this charge, an energy. Maybe it was even brought on by the brewing political muck, the knowledge that when we got out, we’d have to face it. It wasn’t a question of ignoring it, because that wasn’t possible: every group you passed was talking about it, and every performer who took to the stage mentioned it. Instead, it brewed.

I’d like to think that we were subsequently, on that Monday morning, released upon the world as a tide of political ferocity, but that’s shit. We were knackered and dirty, and we went home and slept for 16 hours, and when we woke up, we did what everyone else was doing: dealt with it in whatever way was easiest. It’s easy to be political at Glastonbury because everyone is on the same team. It stays within the gates.

I’d like to say that this year the worst has happened. Trump is in. The Tories might be in trouble but they still hold the power, and they’re trying to give some of it to the DNP. Manchester Arena and Borough Market and Westminster are all examples of terrorist activity that, in any other year, would stand alone as the most horrendous thing to have happened, except they happened within weeks of each other. Grenfell Tower is testament to the fact that it doesn’t take a terrorist to wreak horror. Surely, then, these 5 days stand a chance of being peaceful.

I don’t really believe that, because I have my eyes open. I don’t believe that, because the security at Glastonbury has been stepped up. What a target, this liberal playground. If you wanted to wound me in particular, it would be the best target ever: both my sisters will be there, my boyfriend, my best friends. Stormzy, Lorde (not on the same level, but I do love them both).

I don’t really believe that, because I live on Stockwell Road, where sirens chime every five minutes, blazing up and down the superheated concrete. The night Grenfell Tower went up, I was woken by them, and I wondered, what now?

One thing I try to remember is this: some of the sirens are saviours. Look for the helpers, is the sentiment I hear most now, look for the ones rushing to aid the injured and subdue the cruel. They’re everywhere.

They’ll be at Glastonbury, too: Corbyn introducing Run The Jewels, my sisters holding hands in the rain and heat, the same friends who handed money to me, unthinkingly, to reimburse my losses last year, the volunteers, the drug-testers. The strangers who yank one another out of mud, lend tissues and gum, stand in respectful queues.

The Glastonbury Bubble isn’t real, not really, but I believe in it anyway. While I am there I won’t wish myself somewhere else or someone else. Eventually, I’ll hear the sirens again. But I won’t be listening for them.

Swimming with turtles

We join a group of 13: two couples, a family of three and another of five. We’re staying in an adult-only resort (next to a nudist resort, though I never see any errant nudes along the stretches of sand), where the only crying comes from the Americans who spent their first 4 hours in the resort lying in the midday sun, and have blisters on their backs like panacotta, and so I’ve forgotten that there are children in Mexico, in the other resorts, and now in our mini-bus, on our tour.

We are going to swim with turtles. Akumal, the turtle sanctuary, is closed to visitors, which probably means we should not be swimming with turtles, but they cannot close all the coastlines. I am wearing sunscreen, thick brown-tinted Elizabeth Arden stuff that costs £80 a bottle and which I did not pay for, and for the first time in my life this is not a good idea: we are supposed to be using biodegradable sunscreen, because of the film the chemicals create on the water; because of 10,000 turtles surfacing to breathe and coating their insides with £80 sunscreen. But I applied it in the morning, before I left the hotel, because I burn in minutes, because I’m still burnt from an hour in the sun in London the previous week. I cannot bring myself to scrape it off. I cannot bring myself to burn. I leave it on. I am a turtle killer.

It is 30 degrees and sunny but before we see the turtles, we swim in the dark.

Riviera Maya is home to upwards of 15,000 cenotes, caves filled with water, 15,000 that they know of, which, if you apply the same logic as I use for stars, means there are more than that, hidden and undiscovered. I think about it as I walk along the hot gravel pathway, dodging swarms of somethings that are only partially dissuaded by my chemical coating. A few feet of rock and then endless holes, into the centre of the earth. Logically, I know, they don’t go on forever, that there is more space above than below, and that that should comfort me but: once in the caves our guide points out a tightly-tied string that divers will follow down into the dark, and it makes me clutch for the edges, even though I am a good swimmer, in a wetsuit and a life jacket, with very little to fear from a cenote. The small British girl to my right asks how big the fish get down there, and our guide, Beatrice, says “not very”, soothingly, but I’m not sure it’s comforting to be so close to somewhere where not even a medium-sized fish wants to live. Beatrice has been diving the cenotes her whole life. I ask her if she’s been in all of them. Beatrice shakes her head. Beatrice thinks I am a moron.

There are piles of stones high on the ledges of the caves, stacked by Mayans some centuries ago, offerings to the gods as permission to enter the Underworld. Later I confess that I weed in the water, as I snorkelled above a cave that dropped too dark to see. My boyfriend thinks it’s sacrilegious. I agree, and I’m ashamed, and I want to make a  joke about a libation; and I think that at least five of the 13, and thousands before, maybe even the Mayans, must have done the same.

We didn’t know we were seeing caves, going under. The tour is a turtle tour, so I pictured us on the surface, in the sun, while turtles circled below. I hadn’t pictured the wetsuits and the darkness and the stacks of stones. There is something new about a beach and something old about a cave. If I were the family of 5, burnt and British and with at least 2 kids under 4, I would be mad, because the children are scared, and out of their depth, under the earth. It is nothing at all like Finding Nemo.  They refuse to enter the last of the caves and remain in the sun, feeding empanadas to the dogs. If I were two years old clad only in a pink swimsuit because there is no wetsuit in the world small enough for me, or mother to a three year old, I would not be clambering down the slippery stone-hewn stairs either.

At the beach, the boats are small. I had pictured wading out into the water and floating on calm seas, flicking my fins like the fishes, but that is not how sea life works: we motor out to the break, where the waves are metres high and white, where the reef is and where the turtles are. If I were the family of five, burnt and British and with at least two kids under 4, I wouldn’t be happy here either, because the sand is at least two metres below, and the sea is full of thrashing swimmers and turtles, surfacing for bits of fish flung down by the Mexican guides. The children that do make it into the water reach out for the turtles, because how can you not? But you are not allowed to touch the turtles.

A single ray, a large one, scuds across the sand, deeper than the turtles, but rearing up for the fish. This is a better way to clear the water than weeing, or by conjuring two-metre waves. We are here for the turtles, nor for something that looks like it might want to kill you, though my brain tells me that a turtle, with its little nippy beak, could hurt me more, more quickly. The guide has told me to remove my jewellery for this exact reason, but one, made of two snakes curled over and about, remains on my middle finger where it has been since I was 13. I could not blame the turtles for going for it. It is probably my most delicious finger.  The ray stays at the bottom.

20 minutes, and we’re out, and done. £70 does not buy you more time than that with a turtle, not when you’ve have two caves and a bottle of water and an empanada to boot. 20 minutes, and I’m tugged back on to the boat to join the father with his two under four, who has not even touched the water, because who in his right mind pitches his two youngest off a boat in an old lifejacket, when there are waves and rays about? £70, plus whatever it costs to take two children to cry in two caves and get burnt on a boat.

2 minutes back shore, a vault over a bank of sun-hot seaweed, and then 20 minutes in the line for the toilet, with a woman from Vermont who does not want to be the line for the toilet. She asks Beatrice, “Are there any more toilets?” She is exasperated. She should have weed with the gods, in the dark, above the tunnels.

Beatrice says,”No. So much of the coast is built up. Here is a reserve. Here, they keep natural. Like it should be.” Beatrice is brown and strong and wearing earring she will try to sell me later. Beatrice is wearing biodegradable sunscreen. Beatrice would trade me in for a turtle in a heartbeat.

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond

There are mermaids in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond.

They are the green kind, and the silver kind. The ones molded from bits of lake floor – from weed and wetness and the bones and bills of ducklings. The water is very dark in the Ladies’ Pond. There are shadows from the willows and the bigger trees. The leaves trail into the water, dipping into their own reflections, so it is hard to tell where the tree ends and where the reflection begins, a green vine spinning darker and taller and longer.

It is hard to tell where the water ends and where the mermaids begin. They move like you imagine they might: that is to say, not like you, with your white wet legs jerking at angles, propelling you awkwardly, forcefully, away from the dock and into the darker bits of the green-black water. Not like you with your shivering, and the sharp chatter of your teeth. Not like you treading the water to keep your head up, to keep your ears dry. Not like you, so clearly out of your depth, and out of your element, trying to talk while your tongue quakes in your mouth and your skin screams to return to the sun and the meadow and your half-read book on your sun-warmed towel.

They move like you imagine they might: like not half-fish, but like whole-fish, like a boneless being that might be more like 90, or 95% water, armoured and cooling.

A game they play: touching. Your small pink and white feet are so pretty, dancing up above, twitching and moving, always moving. A mermaid knows how to sink, but a human only knows not to, flickering and forcing, pushing to remain on the surface even as the water draws you in. You will do just about anything not to believe in the mermaids: you will believe in small tangles of weed, or lost fish. You will believe in imagination and fear, so you do not have to think about grey-green fingers tipped with greener nails, flashing out for a touch of skin.

When you’re in the water you keep your thoughts from the bottom, though they want, very badly, to drift there. It gets darker and colder down there, much more of both than you could tolerate for long, and there are things down there: we won’t talk about it. Don’t stir it up.

They won’t pull you in, but of course they’ve done it before. The mermaids want more – there’s not much room on the surface of the pond, what with the ducks and buoys and the chattering grannies, but there’s plenty down the bottom, where the sun doesn’t reach. Mermaids don’t breed – how could they? You’ve seen the pictures. You know how it works. Where would it go? But they probably won’t pull you down. They only want a touch. You’re very warm. You carry the sun.

They don’t allow men in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond. This is a source of freedom for the women on the banks of the pond, who take their tops off and let their breasts loll free. Women look at each other’s breasts of course, because they can. Women are allowed to look at the size of each other’s nipples, the scars and the sag and the drape; pink and white and brown.

You don’t think about teeth on a mermaid, but they have them, and they get sick of fish. They nibble on weed, and suck down the occasional eel, but when they’re hungry, properly hungry, from the rigor and the rush of a life spent swimming, what they really like to eat is swan. It’s a sight, from above, in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, and if you were watching, you could see it happening: the bird, white and black and orange, on the black-green water, drifting across the surface. And then, beneath that, a shadow, a quick-flicker.

You can imagine how they do it: two quick hands wrapped around each orange foot and then a jerk beneath the surface. They have to be quick: if they’re slow, the swan will start into the sky, the way they can, and only two strong beats of those big wings and they’re up, and free, and safe – and a bird like that can lift a mermaid out of the water if it’s a small one (and they’re mostly small). But if they’re quick that’s it: beneath the surface is no place for a swan, and they break the wings, and the neck. A swan can break a man’s arm, so they say, but I’ve never seen them do the same to a mermaid. And then, from above, you’d see the stirring cease, and then perhaps, a drift of red. But there won’t be waste.

If you’re wondering where mermaids come from, don’t. They don’t breed, they just feed. I’ve never seen a pregnant mermaid. Thoughts like those are heavy ones, with a tendency to drift, and sink. It’s just a piece of weed. It’s just a silver fish.

My four jobs

I am 29 years old, 30 in September, and I have had four jobs.

  1. McHughs

Devonport, where I come from, is small and postcard-perfect. People know each other, and people stay. Families I knew there 25 years ago live their still. One man, John McHugh, owned three of the biggest restaurants in the village, making up some absurdly large section of the wealth in the area. One restaurant, big and white and damp at the seams, positioned on the beach with big, wide, white windows that offered panoramas of a volcano and a beach and an ocean, was where everyone had their weddings. My parents were married there. This was my first job: waitressing at weddings and birthdays and ordinary lunches, and for big bus loads of Japanese tourists who ate the oyster buffet dry. Fifteen years old, highlighted hair, working late, vaccuuming. I met my first boyfriend there. I met my second boyfriend there. John McHugh is dead now, but the restaurant remains, the site of weddings and birthdays and first meetings.

  1. Finc

Wellington, where I went to university, south of the north, has the largest number of restaurants and bars per capita of any city in the world – that is a fact which might be true, or might be made up, maybe by me. Finc was one of the many cafes in the city, dark wood and copper and crispy potatoes. I met some best friends there, and I met some cruel people there. I learned to talk and to charm. I learned that people disregard waitresses. I learned that Alice Cooper is not a woman. I learned to up-sell, and that people have strong feelings about the size of salt crystals, and the softness of butter. I was not sorry to leave.

  1. Sapporo High School

Sapporo, where I moved, when I decided not to be a lawyer, the coldest and furthest removed of all the cities, contains many high schools. I worked in one, with very long dark cold corridors, and scuttling students and banks of lockers and bowls of noodles and foreigners finding ways to be friends. I squatted over strange toilets and sounded out consonants, tried to win students over with my own strangeness. I am no teacher, not really, a sweating student myself trying to learn: the rules, the ways, the manners, the customs, the proper way of doing things. Unlearning: my crudeness, my Kiwiness, my dependency on the familiar. There is so much snow. So many crows. Beer, karaoke, two very cold Christmases. Another language – and, a man.

  1. Beamly

London, where I was born, where I came back to, tugged on a string I’d long acknowledged. And this job an entry point into a real life I’d long avoided: desks, and commutes and digital. Expenses, and a small (small) salary. A boss. A lunch break. Free apples on the table, Toblerones as big as my arm, Christmas parties in tunnels and hotels I could never afford. At first, any job, I-don’t-care-I’ll-do-anything, that kind of job and then: a best friend, a career, a family, more friends, connections, a grounding, a base. And then again: uncertainty, itching, moving.

It says something about who I am, this stickiness, this four-jobs-in-fifteen-years thing. You can spin it any way you want, as with anything: I am loyal. I am lazy. I am well-liked. I am boring.

Here is something that won’t be spun: I am leaving. Job #5 on the horizon, on the Northern Line, in the calendar, in the pipeline, in the offing. I am sorry I am leaving but not sorry I am going. I am grateful. I am growing.

The thoughts of a life-long fan on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

The Stars Hollow we know and love is a place where nothing happens. Where Kirk breaks in and installs an alarm system, and nothing happens. Where half of a foreshortened table for the Festival of Living Pictures goes missing, and nothing happens. The plots revolve around two lives predominantly, four lives more broadly, and the living, breathing ins and outs of a small town, gently, and nothing happens. Birth happens, death happens – and yet, nothing happens. The Stars Hollow you grew up with, or were introduced to recently by way of Netflix, exists in an unshaken snow globe, where the seasons change but nothing in the way of global warming, or broken hips on slicks of ice, ever happens.

November came, and Amy Sherman-Palladino shook the snow globe.

She didn’t give Stars Hollow an alien invasion (with the exception of Kirk, who has been there so long that he has assimilated), or even a political upheaval. Instead, she did something pretty simple, and pretty unbearable: she removed the filter.

There is a harsh reality in coming back to the show some 9 years after it last aired. We, as viewers, have changed. You’re older, probably a bit uglier, maybe a bit ruder and nastier and more jaded. 2016 has poked you in the side and called you a moron, but more than that: you Google more. You know more. When you watched it the first time around, on television, with ads, you didn’t know their real names. You didn’t know that Luke used to be a professional baseball player, or that Alexis Bledel was a native Spanish speaker. You didn’t care.

You know everything now. That Melissa McCarthy didn’t want to come back. That Alexis Bledel had just had a baby. You know the backstories and you’re actively involved in popping the bubble. You jab more, you question more. You’re no rosy-cheeked kid: you’re an amateur investigative journalist, and a Daily Mail reader and an expert on Botox.

You’re different. But no one’s holding a camera up to you and asking that you look and act and feel exactly the same way you did nearly a decade ago (I was in my first year of university, drinking Smirnoff by the bottle and writing naïve essays on New Zealand judicial system, what were you doing?).

Luke looks older. He’s gone a bit grey and softened at the jaw. His chest has thickened and his brow has drawn down. He looks a bit like your least-favourite uncle, who drinks 5 beers on the trot and goes into the garage to chop things into smaller things just to get away from you and your cousins. You don’t sort-of-wonder what it would be like to have sex with him anymore. You wonder about his nipples, whether they’re drooping in that older-man way. The single bed above the diner isn’t cute. Why won’t he open a franchise? Is this really enough for him? It’s not enough for you.

Lorelai doesn’t look the same. She’s still beautiful, of course, but not in that disarming, charming, break-you-apart way that she had: in the denim shorts and the wrap-around dresses and the wholly impractical skinny-knit scarves. She frowns more. She looks like the you you see in the mirror, or the one you might see soon – tougher, braver and also colder. A little bit disappointed. A little bit disappointing.

And Rory? Well, that’s the thing about coming to fame as an apricot-faced teen: she still looks completely beautiful. She’s post-pregnancy, our Alexis, and that’s lent her a glow she might not otherwise have. It’s also given her breasts, but we can ignore those. Rory doesn’t have breasts. Rory has brains.

Or does she? It’s not just time doing the damage, or shaking the snow globe, if we want to keep going with the metaphor, which I do. There’s Amy, standing above, shaking her head. We, her viewers, these expectant millennials, are her greatest blessing and her ultimate burden. We made her a contender, but we weren’t enough – we didn’t convert to Bunheads and we stuck it out through that maligned seventh season, even if we didn’t like it much. We’re still asking, what about the campaign trail? Why didn’t Rory send stuff to Christiane Amanpour?

This is Amy’s snow globe. She has come back, and she is asking you to stick with her vision: a Stars Hollow in which the seventh series didn’t happen, in which we have to rewrite our memories, even the good ones. Luke never sewed together all those tents. That didn’t happen. Logan didn’t propose. The second heart attack has been re-written.

Ignore Amy for a little bit here. Here is what happened in my imaginary Gilmore Girls reboot, the one I put together from memory and hope and pure attachment: Rory is now a features editor for the New York Times. She lives in the city, she is still friends with Lucy and Olivia, she is celebrated and vaunted and successful. But she protests and pickets – she cares. She makes a difference. She gets trolled on the internet. She has been subject to death threats. She stands up for what she believes in. Her mother visits her on the weekends and they have heady expensive dinners, and go to the theatre. They don’t stand in lines. And she’s with Jess, of course, because feminism be damned: my favourite fictional romance will get its happy ending. She deserves it. I deserve it. They have lots of sex and eat Deliveroo in their underwear. And they’re happy. She’s the yo-pro dream; the Millenial ideal.

Lorelai and Luke are married and have babies. She has expanded the inn, then sold it, and is a consultant. She travels, sometimes with Suki, sometimes without. Her problems aren’t really problems, like expressing breast milk and a lowered libido, her problems are fake problems, like that Luke is still trying to serve her baked chips. She is happy. Luke is happy. I am happy.

The rest is less important, but still very much decided upon by me: Paris is gay, and a judge, and a surgeon. Lane has left Zac and is a good mother but also a successful person. She finished university. She achieved something. I don’t care what – she just got to experience something outside of the snow globe.

Emily? Amy got Emily right. I’ll keep that Emily, every bit of her. Emily is perfect. So is Kirk. And Petal.

It’s not just the plot-lines, which were not as I imagined, that I mourn: it’s the filter. It’s the glow. It’s the sense that nothing from the outside world can eke in and wreck it. Even the failures in the original series were rewritable: Rory lost out on an internship, but would still succeed. Luke and Lorelai split but could still have a glorious, impossible, infinite love-affair.

The reboot smacked me in the face with a 2016-branded realism.

Rory is a failed writer, and not only that, a crappy person. She whines, and cheats, and enables further cheating. She paws at the remnants of her mother’s privacy and independence to scrape together some vestige success. She relies heavily on old friendships, and the last bits of her wide-eyed beauty. She’s vain, and arrogant, and boring.

Lorelai is bored. “They want more, and this is all you are”, foretold Dean, and there it is: Lorelai is bored. But not only that, she’s also boring: abandoned by her bestie, trying to make a 2006 business succeed in 2016, holding back her friend, upsetting her partner, allowing her daughter to wander off-track.

Lane is a housewife. Zac is balding. Miss Kim is a caricature. Richard is dead.

I watched it (twice) with an open mind, and I get it: life is not filtered, personal journeys do not come with inbuilt blessings, no one is perfect, and it’s supposed to be soothing for me, in some way, to be shown that even Rory can fall, and fail. This is Amy turning around to her audience and saying: sorry, darlings, but this is where we’re at. You’ll never own a house. You’ll never know job security. Copper boom. You’re doing alright.

But that’s not why we watched it. I shouldn’t speak for you, but I’ll speak for me, and my sisters, and my friends now watching it for the first time, gripped by it, drawn in by the absolute deliciousness of nothing happening. No terror, no doubt, no fear – only banter and dogs and burgers and lazy crazy hazy days of summer. There are any number of shows about the perfect family in the perfect town that subvert that perfection, but few – so few – that let the perfection live on, uncorrupted, ever-perfect.

And now there’s one fewer.

I’m not mad about it, not really. The characters were true, and so were the storylines. I was delighted to have so many of the original cast back (though I missed you, TJ, Liz, Madeline, Louise, Lucy, Olivia, Richard), and I slipped back into it easily. The theme song, and the gazebo and the irritatingly empty coffee cups. The antique store, and the diner, and the inn. I liked the swearing. I liked the sex. I liked that Star’s Hollow had grown up, with me. We’re both a bit seedier, and older. I’m OK with that.

But I do miss the glow. I do miss the shine. I do miss the filter.

And I do think the reboot could have been done with a softer lens, a nod to the viewers who have had a hard few years, and perhaps didn’t need quite as many knocks. The stars could have been allowed to shine a little brighter, and the life lessons needn’t have been quite so hard. A bit less Trump, a bit more Obama. I wanted my Star’s Hollow a bit less empty.