My body remembers how to float

I haven’t swum properly in years, and it shows. It shows in my body, first of all, in this too-tight Nike swimsuit purchased from ASOS in the sale, and it shows in the way I approach the water: hesitant, giggly, like I’m going on a date.

At 11 I was a really good swimmer. At least, I remember being really good. Being really good amounted to multiple swimsuits, chlorine-stained, stuffed in the airing cupboard to dry between swims, and ugg boots lined with fetid wool which was never really dry, and a quick snap of fingers to put on my swim cap. We swam at the Navy pool, 30 metres long, all dark grey concrete and no frippery at all. It had white lines at the bottom so you could follow the lanes with your head down, each ending in a T so you knew when you had time for two strokes and a turn, or a bashed head. The lane ropes were made or large, hard plastic floats, rough enough to make your fingers bleed if a stroke went awry. The deep end was properly deep, deep enough that I couldn’t swim strongly enough to touch the bottom for a couple of years, deep enough that even when I could, coming back up was uncertain. Where was the top, and would I find it?

And at the sides of the pool, deep gutters where the water ran in and out, and in which you could lose your cap and goggles, sucked in the filters and into the beyond. Once something went into the filters, you never got it back.

I think I only swam twice a week, but when I look back it feels like I was there every night. It was always dark and floodlit, and we never wore proper clothes: only dressing gowns and slippers. I don’t remember what the changing rooms looked like; I’m not sure I ever went in. It was only: home from school, stuff full of toast, change into swimsuit, get driven to the pool, laps, laps, laps, towel, dressing gown, home. 

I remember being good, but I’m not sure that I was good. All I remember was the lap clock, and boards, and pull buoys. I really hated pull buoys: small pieces of foam you held between your knees to stop you kicking and put more strain on your arms. I hated the boards even more, because I relied heavily on my arms, and when I had to swim with only my legs I’d get cramp in my toes, and with the cramp, the certainty that I would drown in the dark deep end.

I went back to swimming in the Brockwell Lido, halfway round the world and bright blue rather than black, but otherwise much the same: long, laned and freezing. I entered the pool with the confidence that I was a good swimmer and came up gasping, the freezing (16 degrees, but it felt colder) water clutching at my chest and drawing my lungs in. I was out of breath before one length was through and I thought: this is age. All these years of describing myself as a good swimmer, lies.

My body remembers how to float, though. It likes the surface, and something in muscles remember the rhythm of stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, and so it is only after 1000 metres that I really stop. It feels like longer, but also part of me feels like I never really left the water: pulling off my cap, feeling the water in my untrapped hair.

And then later, in the changing rooms, looking at my face. I never remembered those red red rings around my eyes and across my nose, risible in their intensity, and I think that’s simply because I looked in the mirror less. Now, of course, I don’t leave the pool without showering, shampooing, blow-drying, snapping on a bra and sticky knickers, trying to disguise my red-rimmed face with foundation, concealer, powder, mascara, try to disguise the fact that I was submerged and sweating only ten minutes prior. I feel sad about that while knowing that if I attempted the 35 minute walk home, through the centre of Brixton, clad in nothing but a dressing gown and slippers, I might die.

There’s a contraption in the changing room that I’ve never seen before: a mechanised wringer, into which you fold your sodden swimsuit, and pump the handle, so that it spins at speed and loses most of the water. I’ve never seen one before, and I get gently mocked for that, by gentle ladies with grey hair and no makeup at all, who seem like they might live here.

On the way out, one of my gentle mockers walks on the wet concrete of the outdoor shower and falls, hard, on her back, her head meeting the concrete with a sound that makes the bones of my own skull grind. She’s surrounded by people in seconds, but lies there stunned, a fish, before she starts to yell at the staff, at the wet patch, at her attendees to bring her a towel. She’s brought 3 towels before someone finds the right one. She seems fine, but she is smart enough not to swim. She walks back into the changing room with her goggles in her hand, and someone puts an orange cone in the centre of the slippery patch.

When I went to intermediate school, I stopped swimming lengths and started playing water polo, and that’s where I learned that there is swimming and there is swimming. Suddenly, I was playing underwater rugby, male and female hands gripping at arms and fabric, coming out of the pool with bruises and tears, and I thought I might have found something worse than cramp that took you to the bottom of a cold dark deep end. One thing I took away from it was egg beater, a way of moving your legs when floating that keeps you at a steady height, and conserves energy. Sometimes, on holiday, in a blue Mediterranean sea, I swim out a little deeper than I need to, and remind my legs and my knees of the motion. They always remember.

There’s a casual water polo league at the Brockwell Lido, if you can play water polo casually, which I’m not sure I believe you can, but I like the idea of it, as a way of remembering how to stay afloat.

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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?

An Inspector Calls

The train is full, of bodies and of bits. Everyone has just a little more than they can carry comfortably, wedging cases down aisles and catching each other at the hip. Everyone, too, a bit less themselves than usual. Commuting back to London in that bit, that blip, between Christmas and New Years, means leaving people behind. Or going back to empty houses. It means you probably didn’t get a real holiday, when everyone else did. It means you’re a bit pissed off.

The man next to me doesn’t look pissed off, and he doesn’t have any luggage that I can see – just a plastic bag under the seat in front, and a coat over his knees. His table is pulled down, and on it he has a thick book of pages, heavily marked in ink. He is hunched over them, muttering to himself.

I prefer the aisle on a plane, but not on a train. On a train, sitting on an aisle is a licence for people to hit you, with the corner of boardgames that they don’t really want, suitcases stuffed with jumpers that don’t really fit them. I am tucked in tight, but that doesn’t guarantee safety. I always fall asleep on trains, planes, anything moving with that low level of sound and rhythm. I don’t fall asleep neatly, with my chin in my collar, but aggressively, swung about by dreams, mouth open, head jerking, legs and knees unhinging. I’m exactly the person you hit with your case as you bump down the aisle, looking for a seat that isn’t near children. I’d hit myself, if I saw myself, leg sticking out, torso draped like a towel.

So I’m trying to stay awake, even though I’ve eaten enough food to put 10 people to sleep, even though I haven’t been really, properly, safe-to-drive sober since November 11th, even though I haven’t sleep properly in 71 days (not all in a row, but it’s still too many days), even though sleeping would distract me from whatever is happening in my guts (twisted, and stationary, it isn’t good, whatever it is, but that’s what it’s supposed to be like).

You shouldn’t really talk to strangers on public transport, as a general rule. That’s how most murders happen: interaction. Safer by far to put your head in a book and plug in your headphones and wait until you meet someone with whom you have at least 3 mutual friends. Mutual friends prevent murder. Still, there’s not an enormous amount you can do when they speak to you, which is what he does, my seat-sharing mumbler, turning to me and saying, “I really hate this time of year.”

He is handsome, in the way of characters in movies who have been through a bad stretch but will probably come out the other side better off. He hasn’t shaved in a while, and might not have brushed his teeth in a while longer. His eyebrow hairs spiral up his forehead to meet scrubby bits of fringe. Before I lived with a man, I never knew eyebrows could do that, growing and growing like over-watered bush. I never knew some people had to clip them into submission, having spent the last fews years trying to coax life out of brows I ripped out with my fingernails in more stressful times.

The first thing I said to him couldn’t be “You should get your hairdresser to clip your eyebrows next time you go”, so I said, “Me too”, which wasn’t true, which meant our relationship wasn’t off to a good start.

He smiled, more unbrushed teeth. You know when you can tell? The gathering of white around the top of the teeth and into the gums, around the bottom of the bottom teeth, with bits in gaps.

“I’ve been up with my mother. Grumpy cow. And her cat shits everywhere. Just shits!” He laughed.

I laughed. “Gross.”

“Why are you headed back down to London? No more holiday?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Used up all my leave. Should be a quiet week though.”

He picked up the papers on his table and angled them in my direction. “I’m going back for this.”

They read “An Inspector Calls’. “You’re in a play?” I asked. It made sense. He was handsome but unkempt, exactly the right kind of someone to be an actor. It was almost too obvious, like we were in a movie ourselves.  

He nodded. “My first one in years.”

I would have continued the conversation if I’d known anything at all about the play, but all I could guess was that it was probably about a detective and that he was probably the lead. He wouldn’t have told me about it if it was a bit part. So I nodded and said “Congratulations” and then stared out into the aisle.

He was a bit pissed off. You can tell when people are a bit pissed off. He squared his shoulders away from me, and flipped a page with a bit too much vigour, glancing at me twice before sinking back into the script. After a while, he leant forward under the seat, and pulled out a small bottle of white wine, the kind of you buy from M&S for a picnic or a train journey. My mother would have said it was too early for wine, but Christmas means you can drink whenever you want, so I didn’t judge him. I didn’t judge him until he finished it in one gulp and put in back in the brown bag in the same movement as pulling out a second, and finishing that too. A third followed, sipped more slowly.

The smell came only a few minutes after that. Don’t worry, he hadn’t wet himself. It was the smell of someone who had woken up the alcohol in their bloodstream. You know what I mean? When you’ve been drinking the night before, and you decide on a hair-of-the-dog to make you feel better, and almost instantly you’re drunk again, because it’s all still there, sitting there, waiting.

He stopped marking the pages after the fourth bottle. He sunk back into his seat, wriggling down a bit more. Our coats were touching where the seats met.

“Have you ever seen it?”

I knew he was asking about the play, but I said “Seen what?”

“This”, pointing at the script. “Seen it?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t you like plays?”

“I do”. Another lie. “I just haven’t seen that one.” He was looking at me, and I could feel his breath on my nose and cheeks.

“You should,” he said. “You should come see me in it.”

I nodded. Across the aisle, a couple were watching us. They were whispering. I thought they were probably taking bets on whether we knew each other, whether we’d be going to make out in the train toilets. I wanted to show them the bag of bottles.

“It opens in May.”

I nodded again. “Sounds good!”

We were almost in King’s Cross, Kentish Town flashing past. 10 minutes or so, I’d done the journey enough. Other people had taken note of the same and were standing, stretching. I started to button up my coat, and noticed that the small wine bottles, five or six of them, had rolled free from the bag.

I nudged him, pointed. He bent down, but couldn’t get around the tray table to reach the last two, which rolled away from his fingers. The smell was stronger.

I stood up, grabbing my bag from the rack above my head. It was heavy with a bottle of rum, and I thought briefly that I should give it to him.

When I looked back at him, he was watching me, and I thought about the way I’d lifted my arms, and felt uncomfortable.

“I was on TV, you know,” he said.

The train was slowing down, people moving into the aisles, and suddenly I was in the way. “I’ll try to come see you,” I said, suddenly meaning it. “Which theatre is it?” I started moving down the aisle, moved by people, my bag catching on the seat in front.

He was nearly two rows away, sitting silently. “Which theatre?” I asked again.

He didn’t answer, only bent down, and I knew he was feeling for a full one among the empties gathered at his feet, and that there wasn’t one.

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.