Roots

This is what they call putting down roots. I’m glad there’s a phrase for it, because I don’t really know how it feels. I’m much better at pulling them up.

I have a garden. Behind the back wall is a line a of trees, big trees for central London. They form their own avenue, cutting behind my back garden, and the back gardens of my new neighbours. They are full of squirrels and birds. They will be here long after I am gone.

There are two much smaller trees in my back garden. One is an ornamental cherry. I know this, because I asked the man who last owned it, a tall man in a red jumper who works for Google as a physicist. I don’t know what the other one is. I think he might have told me – I think I forgot because I was trying to remember all of the other questions I was supposed to ask. When was the boiler last serviced? What are the neighbours like? Is the house warm in winter?

Buying a house is a weird thing to do. The process is difficult and alienating. Everything about it feels designed to make you cry. I spent a sum total of 20 minutes in the house before we bought it. The first time, glancing around wildly, nodding quietly in agreement, making an offer. The second time, with a mug of coffee made by the man in the red jumper, looking at furniture placement, the big mirror on the wall, the in-built bookshelves that please me so much.

When we first started house-hunting (over a year ago) the one thing I always made sure to test was the water pressure in the shower. I hate crappy water pressure more than anything. I never checked it in the house we bought because I was looking at the big storage cupboard, the bay window, the creepy dark cellar, the golden wood countertops, the first sink I’ve ever fallen in love with. Is it normal to fall in love with a sink? The water pressure is fine. There is a black cat who lives next door and sometimes comes in through the bedroom window. Our first night in the house I listened to foxes have sex on the roof of our shed. Everything is a metaphor.

On the day we completed, I arrived at the house after the work. My fiance was there already, clutching three sets of keys. We drank champagne out of plastic cups and sat on the floor. Later, my sisters came over with flowers and wine. One of them stood on the roof of the shed to take a picture of us by the front door that didn’t have bins in the way. We toasted the first time the toilet was used. We sat there until it got dark, and then we went back to our rented flat with our rented bed.

We moved in with a bookshelf and an air mattress. Everything we owned fit into the back of a big white van. Everyone said that the most difficult part to pack up was the kitchen, but that wasn’t the case for us, since all we owned were two glasses, two mugs and two ceramic dishes, one a gift from Italy and one made by a friend with her initials on the bottom. We have a lot of books and a lot of winter coats and not much else.

It’s been over a month since we moved in, and now we own more things. A black leather couch purchased from a second-hand store down the road, and moved in through the bay window the black cat likes so much. A table, with four chairs. A very expensive mattress. An entirely free bed-frame. A wardrobe with a floor-length mirror. We don’t fit into the back of a big white van anymore. Moving the wardrobe in through the bay window nearly broke the backs of three large men, so it wouldn’t be going anywhere, even if we were.

Many of my friends are gardeners. People I know in real life have written books about small gardens and making something green out of a sunny London corner. I am daunted by my small patch of land, with its crazy paving and badly constructed barbeque and fences overgrown by ivy. I do not know what good soil looks like. My lawn has a large dead patch where the previous tenants had a large inflatable paddling pool, and I do not know how to bring it back to life. The garden next door is overgrown, with large thorny brambles reaching over my trellised fences and threatening my space. I do not know which is more important to buy first: a toaster, or a grater, or a pair of lawn clippers, or fertilizer, or a television cabinet, or a vegetable peeler.

When I come home from work, I am often the only person in the house. In our small lounge there is a large window, and at about that time, it lets in a perfect square of golden light, which falls on the wooden floorboards and casts shadows of the foliage of the big trees behind the garden. Sometimes I stand in it, sometimes I just look at it. Light is something you are supposed to think about when you buy a house, but we did not. We got lucky, with a garden full of morning sun (in this first, eternal summer) and this last evening light.

As it gets later, the square of light moves up the wall, highlighting the scribbles left by children who no longer live here, and then it disappears. But I know when to expect it back. This is what it means to put down roots.

On the tube

I’ve learned to take deep breaths on the tube, and to think about how lucky I am that I still have all my fingers, and all my teeth, and think about how I could be out in the rain, in snow, buried six feet deep, alive.

I think about all the things I’m grateful for, and all the things I’ve learned. I think about how very few people I love have died, and how I have money for things like cheese substitutes in Veganuary, and leopard print boots when I tire of black ones, and a hundred books I might think about reading one day. All the scarves I own. The 20p coins I’ve thrown in the bin, because thinking of a more sensible location for them was simply too much effort. The hot water in my shower, and the three types of balsamic vinegar by my oven, and makeup. I’m very grateful for makeup.

But it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t stick. For every three things I can think of that I’m grateful for, and blessed by, and lucky to have, there are three cunts trying to steal my seat, and I simply cannot hold on to my blessings. I can’t count them. They’ve flown. Back out of the hot tunnel I walked down and up the escalator I stomped down and through the barriers I stormed by.

The tube turns me into a ghoul. Maybe it’s something about being under, being down. It brings out my slimy, slippery side, the side that could absolutely pitch a baby under a bus if it meant the salvation of my own skin. I’m Gollum, sucking the innards of a fish, ruminating on every singular ill ever done to me. I’m twisted and bitter, and oh, so happy being unhappy. I think it’s the lack of light. I think it’s the lack of air.

It gets me into trouble. I’m not that big, and I’m not intimidating-looking, and I’m quick to act out. Just the other day, a man pressing at my back, aching to board the Northern Line before me, earned a dirty look and an elbow to his ribs. He followed me on the train because he was getting on the same train, and berated me. “Don’t fucking push me!” he said, to which I replied, “You pushed me”, only mine was weak, and high and worried, because I’m all elbows when we’re in a crowd and you’re to my back, but once I’m in a well-lit tightly-packed position and need to hold my ground, the wind goes right on out of me. Party it’s because I know no one deserves an elbow to their ribs at 8am on the Stockwell platform unless they have their dick in their hand, and partly it’s because part of me is both sensible and has read too many thrillers. This is why people get stalked. This is why people get followed. He’s probably not just a nicely-dressed dude who took affront to my attempt to impale him on my arm. He’s probably a killer.

That’s not the first time, obviously, because I’ve lived in London for 5 years, and had a short temper for much longer than 5 years, and I’m a Virgo, and Virgos speak before they think. And also they’re quite tidy. But that’s beside the point.

It’s not just the actual arseholes that give me grief, but simply people living their lives, behaving like they should, unaware of the strife they’re causing me. I hate the woman with the pram. I hate the short people, who are physically unable to clutch onto any kind of support, and so sway into me with every jerk of the tube. I fucking hate them. Why don’t they wear heels? Why don’t they just stay at home? I hate each and every person in the queue in front of me, even though they simply got there earlier because they got up earlier. I hate the person who takes the seat that I wanted, even if they are closer, and elderly. I particularly fucking hate it if they offered it to me first. They know I can’t say yes. Fuckers. I hate people getting off before me and hate people getting on after me. I hate people with headphones (wankers) and people with books (snobs) and people without anything (get a fucking hobby, shit-bag).

In the lifts at Covent Garden, you form an orderly queue and file on like cattle. You breathe each other’s hot breath and avoid any kind of contact, eye or otherwise, and you pray for the fifteen story journey to finish quickly, so you can get off and go to work, or just lie down and die. The queues are separated by a barrier, so you must choose one lift to queue for, and live with your decision. But there is a gap at the front, so if you’re one of the world’s worst people, you can slip across at the front, and into the adjacent lift. I took the lift with one of the world’s worst people, and told him so, piping up in my voice, which gets more Kiwi the more nervous I am, “Don’t queue-jump!”. He, at least 9 foot tall and carrying a briefcase, looked at me with something I’ll describe as incredulity, but which was definitely abject disgust, and then told me exactly what he thought of me for fifteen floors. Spoiler: he wasn’t a fan.

I’ve told the story before, always as proof of my bad London ways, and always prefaced with the idea that I might change. But I’m not sure I will, not until someone forcibly holds my head in the path of an oncoming train, and insists that I change. I can’t help it, down in the tunnels with the worms and the mice and the other abject cunts.

The other day I took the tube to work, and got a seat, and a man stood in front of me, and loudly ate a sausage roll, dropping at least half of the greasy pastry into my lap. The woman opposite me looked at him, then me and my knees covered in bits of discarded snack, with round eyes, disgusted. And I thought, you know what, that takes a certain kind of guts, and felt admiringly towards him. And when I got up, and brushed the pastry to the floor, I thought, “Food for the mice. Isn’t that nice.”

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me

There’s nothing weird about him except that he sits next to me. There’s nothing that weird about that, really, except that there are other free seats, and I don’t want him there.

I haven’t made eye contact with him at all. I know he’s there in the way of: he is male, he is large, his shoulder is big against mine. And his face is turned towards me, but he could be looking out of the window or he could be looking for his stop, or he could be looking at me while his shoulder presses against mine and his hip moves over his seat into mine, or he might be doing none of those things.

I won’t look at him.

The bus is pretty full. It’s 7pm on a Saturday night, and everyone is on this bus: old people and young people, people who have been shopping and people who have been drinking. I fall into the latter category. I have spent the afternoon with new friends who write, sitting at close quarters in a pub, watching how well they all know each other. I am wearing a white t-shirt and a yellow skirt and a leather jacket I bought in Camden Market for £25, and all of this happened more than four years ago, and I remember all of this.

I have to stretch across him to press the buzzer, and I know now that he is looking at me. I don’t look at him – but I do have to touch him, as I pull my jacket closer around me, hook my bag from my shoulder.

Isn’t it weird, the way we use shoulders? As convenient nooks, as biological hangers. A thing to perch a bird on, a thing to hang a bag off. And, in this case, in his case, a way to say: I am bigger than you. I am stronger than you. I will not get out of your way.

There are so many people on this bus, and nothing is happening, really, but my insides don’t know that: my stomach is balled up tight, and my brain has pushed any residual alcohol RIGHT back, so I am focused, I am present, I could run a marathon or sit an exam, everything is set to ON. I can feel the tips of my fingers. I can feel the all edges of myself. I feel every part of him that is touching me. Nothing is happening, really, but my body knows that could change.

“Excuse me.”

He doesn’t stand up. Instead he swings his knees to the side, a bit, so there is space for me to pass. This is normal, if you are friends, if you are lazy, if the aisles are full, if you are old. I press myself against the seat in front of him, and his hip and shoulder have left me now, but his hand hasn’t.

I still haven’t looked at him, because looking is an invitation. If he follows me off the bus now, rapes me, leaves me in an alleyway, I will have no way of giving anyone even the barest description of him, because I can’t make myself look at him.

He follows me off the bus. It is a busy road and I am 100 metres from my front door. His shoulder is back on my mine as he speaks for the first time.

“Where are you going? Can I come with you? I’m coming with you.” He’s trying to hold my hand.

Because it is London, I am holding an umbrella, and so I do the only thing I can think of: I put it up and hold it between us, like a shield.

My memory here is just of us, but this was Finsbury Park, early on a Saturday night. There must have been 200 people within shouting distance, there must have been 10 people watching a girl trying to fend off a man with an umbrella. But maybe, like I might have, they saw only a lover’s tiff. After all, he was only trying to hold my hand.

With my other hand, the hand that is not trying to stave off his grip with an umbrella, I call my boyfriend. He answers quickly.

“I was followed off the bus, please meet me at the front door.” I am 50 metres from my front door and closing fast. I am speaking very loudly.

“Fuck you.” And he is gone, the pressure from my umbrella gone. I am at my front door with the umbrella up, though there is no rain, and my boyfriend is there.

“Which one is he? Where did he go?”

But I have no idea.

Later, on the couch, I think it’s funny. What did he do, after he left me? Did he have to go back to the bus stop, wait for the same bus to come again, to get to where he was actually going? Or was that his plan for the evening – sit next to women until one of them let him come with her? Or until he found one who didn’t have a boyfriend down the road, who didn’t have a front door opening on to a busy street, who didn’t have an umbrella?

There’s a freezer in my foyer

This is not an old house, by English standards, the standards that scoff at anything that’s been standing for fewer than two hundred years. It’s modern inasmuch as modern means “not very well put together”, with awkward corners and creaking floors. It has a green gate. It has four bathrooms. People are impressed by the number of bathrooms. “One between two,” I say, “and one for guests”. It feels nice to have a guest bathroom, even if the toilet roll holder falls to the floor every time you try to get some toilet paper. A small price to pay.

These are the things that are broken in the modern-ish house with the green gate: the freezer (we have two – there are higher numbers of most things in this house than is usual; Australians, X Boxes, televisions, vases, cupboards, copies of 50 Shades of Grey) (and also lower numbers of other things – spoons, bowls, wine glasses, full boxes of laundry powder), one of the four hobs, the washing machine, the dishwasher, the upstairs shower, the fan, the toilet roll holder.

Other things aren’t broken so much as old. The television, which hums. The couches, on which the leather peels like so much old skin. The paint job. The microwave. Whatever dripped slimily from U-bend when I unscrewed it to recover a pearl earring.

Things break one by one, toppling, as if the failure of one contributes to the load of the next, though the dishwasher did not have to freeze our ice cream, and it was never the job of the upstairs shower to keep control of the toilet paper. It’s become a bit like a tolerance test. You can handle a cold shower, but what if it’s coupled with no clean plates? The rankness of a dead freezer isn’t the worst thing in the world but if the television then doesn’t turn on when you want to watch Love Island… well. You don’t have to be an unreasonably intolerant person for that to rankle.

Of course, when something breaks, it gets fixed or replaced. Slowly, because this is London. Unwillingly, because of the same. We had a rat trapped in our dishwasher for 24 hours, which throws the 2 weeks without a working freezer into perspective. One stays with you; the other just makes for a room temperature gin and tonic, and there are worse things. I know bartenders and blondes who would disagree with me on the last, but they’ve never had a rat with a broken leg crying in their dishwasher, so they don’t know.

It’s almost a badge of honour, the breaking, when they’re simply worn through. We’re  a few in a long line of people who have resided in this space, bounced on these springs, stood beneath the sporadic spray and wondered, again, why seated showers weren’t more of a thing. The fridge has been stuffed with their choices (me: four different types of cheese and a brown bag of kale), their cupboards with the same (7 jars of canned tomatoes, 2 bags of chili flakes, some jam). We’re all just passing through, breaking things. We’ve broken the most, I feel certain of it. I know because there’s not much left to break.

He said to me the other day, “This is the nicest place we’ll ever live”. I scowled because plastic plants, and purple bath mats, and weeds on the balcony and the Christmas tree we’ve not taken down since 2014. Because our room has no windows and is built of cinder blocks, one stacked on the other like the work of toddler destined for not much. Because I am not a car even though I sleep in a space intended for a car and don’t mind it most of the time. Humans are smaller than cars, for the most part. Having a car’s bedroom as your own isn’t so bad. It’s about the same as a room temperature gin and tonic. The dangerous levels of carbon monoxide are intoxicating.

I don’t think I’m going to be a billionaire, exactly, I haven’t pictured a house on the Thames and a flat on Old Compton street, with a timeshare in the French countryside for good measure (except I did just then), so it shouldn’t have been a shock, being informed that I’ll probably never do better than 1/6th of a £3 million pound property in Marylebone.

But: we spent the weekend away from London, in a 16th century house with low beams and a spinning wheel on the staircase and casement windows – with lawns the size of London parks and a private cricket pitch and it suited me quite well, in case you were wondering. I’m not what you call an outside person, but I wasn’t against the space. And the lights. Cars don’t need sunlight to survive, but I’m beginning to suspect that I might.

It’s not that things were perfect. There’s plenty of falling apart in the putting together of a 16th century house, held up by scaffolding and the skin of its old wooden teeth. It’s just that: if it’s yours, breaking something simply means a broken thing. It doesn’t mean 9 electronic apologies, phone messages, meeting a fat deliveryman at the door who refuses to carry the freezer up the stairs.

I’ve lowered my expectations thusly: windows. Windows, and a freezer that resides anywhere but the foyer. And a timeshare in a farm house in France.