Can I have a vaccine now, please?

You are my hope for a winter’s end. I do not care for the way we have been both separated and thrown together. I would like a choice in the matter.

It is a matter of time before I am complaining about long lines at the bar, in the airport, on the tube, before I am paralysed by choice. I haven’t been sick but 

The cherry tree in my garden has grown a weeping cavity in the bark of its trunk. Long before the flowers grow, it will die, and then someone will have to chop down the cherry tree, or lie about it, or both. 

90% of what I plant in London soil dies. That seems to be a fact of life, but

Can I draw your attention to these twelve daffodils with nodding heads and yellow crowns? They are testament to something delicious in the dirt. 

Come summer we will all be deliciously dirty. We will picnic in the park and raise cans to the stars, there will be no end to the blue skies:

Inject this feeling into my veins. Or, better

I will tattoo Pfizer on my forehead for a fiver, less. I will drink a Moderna martini with three grass-green olives.

If the antidote to apathy is hope, then Covid-19 is me, slumped on a couch with unwashed hair and a lead heart, and the vaccine will sweetly kill me.

Donations

The donation bins at the entrance to the park are heavy with clothes. When no more black plastic bags of cast-offs can be stuffed through the metal mouth, they are stacked neatly around the outside. This is a high-traffic corner, cars and feet and bikes, and the stacks are never un-pawed for long. I never see anyone rifling through the bags, so they must come early morning or dusk, or night, and I don’t know what they’re looking for: clothes for their families, or high quality discards to sell online. There’s a bin for electronics, too, and it’s all old toasters and a thousand wires and plugs for appliances that are nowhere to be seen. I’ve never seen such rampant heaps of donations before, but I get the impulse. Clean, purge, strip. There are many layers to a life that are easy to peel away, and cast aside. 

The result of the generosity (or compulsion to clean, or whatever motivates the many donors) is mess. The bags are torn apart and the contents scattered, and then soaked. What remains on the ground, strewn and stepped on, you wouldn’t consider a generous gift, or anything other than trash. But the bags keep coming, because once you’ve bagged your shit, and walked it the 500 metres to the charity bin, and found the bin full, and disgusting, you can’t walk it back home. The symbolism of reabsorbing your trash is too rich. And so you add your own old, ripped finery to the sodden piles, walk away. 

Inside the park, something small changes every day. The owners of the bowling green have given up and given their space over to the geese and ducks, who strut inside the fence like fancy residents of a gated Chelsea garden. There is a small group skating on the netball courts; a pair doing burpees underneath the basketball hoops. There are three outdoor gyms in Finsbury Park and they are now fenced off with green metal sheets, at least 8 feet eyes, with no gaps, and no handholds. Up until now, attempts to keep fitness junkies off the silver bars have failed, the chain link fences all too easily scaled or parted by people who heft weights for fun. There’s no fun for them in Finsbury Park now, this is an Iron Curtain, this is the Berlin Wall, this is Trump’s wet dream. A real wall, not a symbol. 

The ponds have melted again now that the below freezing week has given way, quickly, to double digits. The cracks in the pavement are no longer solid with ice. Finsbury Park is less treacherous, and it is the only park where two-meter-distancing is really possible, with the wide road right round the perimeter. It has never been pretty, but now I appreciate its practicality. 

Northern Ireland announced today that lockdown has been extended until April, and with the news I feel the division between my heart and head more than ever. My head knows we should follow suit – must follow suit, really, to have any hope of continuing the beautiful downward death-graph trend – but my heart is already in a pub, or under a strange roof, or sat awkwardly in the driest part of the park with a friend.

I bought a frying pan

Every now and then I try to honestly consider what would improve my life, and then I try to change it. This is how I came to buy a new frying pan. 

I would like to explain that the things that improve your life are only sometimes enormous. They only occasionally rock a boat to tipping. Most of the time, things that change your life are a pebble in the water, not a meteor to dislodge a world. 

We have an induction stove, which I only sort of understand. I understood it to believe that I wouldn’t be able to burn myself on it, because I am not made of metal, but then I burnt myself on it. Most of the time it seems to mean that is noisier than a regular stove (it hums as it heats, then silences itself as it cools, then hums again to make up the difference, ad infinitum, as my onions soften), and doesn’t get quite hot enough. I’m sure there is a scale in the quality of induction surfaces you can buy, and that ours is somewhere near the bottom. At any rate, it is satisfactory to clean: just one smooth black surface. It is also easy to scratch, so it is no longer quite a smooth black surface, it wears our short history of carelessness. 

When we moved into our house, we owned almost nothing except books and shoes. Stocking a kitchen from scratch after you have just obtained your first mortgage is no easy task, and so our drawers and cupboards were filled with items of the barest utility. Now, two years later, they are beginning to fail, and so I am beginning to replace them. 

The new frying pan gets hot quickly and holds its heat evenly. My onions do not blacken. It is wide, and so there is room enough to cook things which tell me, gravely, not to “crowd the pan”. My pan is uncrowded, my mushrooms merely acquaintances. 

It cleans nicely, too. It isn’t scratched. Nothing sticks. There is no foreign, omnipresent black surface smear, which won’t be removed by dish soap but ruins all my tea towels. Oh yeah, I care about tea towels now. 

People react to stress and pressure in different ways. Retail therapy is no great shock as a coping mechanism. I wouldn’t have thought I would put all my mental health eggs in the basket of good quality homewares, but then it is difficult to predict how you will react to the unpredictable. My reactions so far have been varied: learning to bake bread, sleeping for 12 hours at a time, becoming obsessed with my nostrils, refusing to contact my family members.

There are a few other things that would improve my life, like the ability to see my family, or my friends, or my colleagues; or if it was light later that 4:30pm, but attempting to impose control over any of that is futile. So I also bought a bread bin. 

This weekend the snow fell. Kids collected in the street and threw snowballs at their parents. There are still sad, stiff snowmen standing to attention against the brick walls of front yards. The snow was a distraction from repetition, and therefore a cause for celebration. I understand why people used to personify the weather as gods. The next few days, maybe weeks, are all rain from sunrise to sundown, and so I bought a muffin tray.

The new grocery stores

There are grocery shops everywhere, springing out of the empty ruins of pubs and cafes. They’re not real grocery stores. They stock four different kinds of olives, and three different types of tinned fish. They have chocolate, but only 70% dark, or entirely vegan, or powdered and served in Ecuadorian hot chocolates with oat milk. They have fresh croissants, and oranges that still have their leaves on. They have four shelves of wine, and non-alcoholic spirits. 

They are our new playgrounds. They are the only place I can have fun. They’re allowed to exist because they’re deemed essential, but there’s nothing essential about anything they stock, unless you can’t live without a fresh custard doughnut, or a £20 jar of preserved lemons. 

Only five people are allowed in at once, which takes all the joy out of that kind of store, the kind of joy that comes from browsing for 15 minutes, eating 3 different samples, and spending £15 on three strange items that could never be brought together into a meal. But I still line up and I still enter, and I still spend my money, and I still emerge, with a very hot coffee and a brown paper bag, feeling like I’ve achieved something, because at least it is a point of difference. 

I used to get the same kind of joy out of Whole Foods in Piccadilly Circus. It was sensibly positioned, for me, because it was a good 15 minute walk from my work, and out of my way, so I couldn’t go there too often. I would always go there when I was about to get my period, or when I’d had a particularly frantic work day, or when I was going to be alone for the evening, and so there would be no one to judge the strange types of food I would buy: crispy spicy sushi, a takeout container crammed only with mashed potatoes and macaroni cheese, fresh tortilla chips, gooey blue cheese in a tub, large green nocerella olives, a sad slice of pumpkin pie, a tub of tomatoes in twelve different colours. It’s a soothing store, a grocery store that I treat like an amusement park (a rare pleasure, a reward). 

This strange bougie grocery store is the only thing open on a street of shops I know well. There’s the antique store that only sells £1200 chairs, in pairs, with sloped leather backs and worn wooden arms. I have never been inside, only stood close to the window so I can listen to Adam say “That’s riDICulous, it’s just a chair!” again, and so it makes no real difference to me that it’s closed now. There’s the pub with the big outdoor garden – in Tier 2 it erected huge enclosed tents with heaters, and called it outdoor dining, and we walked past the steamy plastic plague windows and laughed at the rules, but not even fake four-walled outdoor dining is allowed in Tier 4. There’s a shop that sells only items for babies, with a large carrot on its sign, even though babies do not have teeth. 

The fact that everything is closed hasn’t deterred anyone. We don’t have anywhere else to go. The streets are full of masked huddles of people buying jars of preserved lemons and standing at the crossing, wandering in circles in the freezing cold. It is hard to keep a reasonable berth when there are so many of us on the muddied paths of Highgate Woods. There is a wide cricket pitch, and no one playing cricket, and somehow still big throngs of spectators, watching the crows in the patches of mud. 

When shops reopened in July after the first long lockdown, I would go to those stores and let it feel like a treat. Expensive olives, and salted caramel sauce, and bottles of rose. It did feel like a treat, because everything had been closed for so long. There was immoderate joy in a face-to-face transaction. Now, with the see-saw of tiers and the drip-feed of information, it feels more like a taunt, or a cruelly-designed temptation for which I will always fall. I ate out to help out, and then watched cases soar. I shopped local, and everything shut anyway. My tracing app tells me that Tier 4 means stay home, but then even these essential-non-essential grocery stores will shut. Someone will board up the windows, and put away the lemons. What do you use preserved lemons for anyway?

Welcome to Plague Island

Welcome to Plague Island. We are pleased that you could join us here

On the shortest and darkest day of the year. 

We hope you don’t like fruit or vegetables.  Please refrain from touching anyone you love. 

The last ships have already left and the fish have grown wings to be free of these waters.

***

Stay inside, and hold your breath forever. Please,

Enjoy your stay.

A surprise lockdown wedding

The guests stand in huddles mandated by postcodes: couples, three flatmates, individuals separated by chairs marked with laminated signs. There are conspicuous gaps for the elephant in the room – for social distancing and for everything that has made 2020 a strange sad year. But no one is looking at the gaps. Every masked face is turned towards the door, and towards the couple moving down the aisle with no distance between them at all. 

There is nothing solemn about the way they say their vows. Everyone in the room is masked except for the bride and the groom and the small celebrant, who must have united a thousand couples with his simple secular words, but still manages to light them with new humour and understanding. It is impossible to be solemn, standing in our odd, unnatural groupings, as they repeat their promises back to each other, and into the camera in the corner of the room, which holds absent friends, and absent bridesmaids, and families up before dawn to watch a marriage over the internet. We are masked, but you can see all our smiles anyway. 

The weather is grey, the courtyard is deserted and beautiful, and the fountain foams like the champagne we sip from plastic flutes. The bride’s dress soaks up the rain from the flagstones because this, after all, is a London wedding, but the flowers are brighter in the surrounding gloom. The groom is a bunched ball of joy; he can’t stop smiling in his blue suit with his new bride, he looks into her eyes like he’s won the lottery. 

Walking down the streets to the reception only takes ten minutes but we are heralded by a hundred London commuters slamming sanitised hands on their horns for this union of strangers. The drivers of the red buses won’t join in, but everyone else does. It feels like confirmation that underneath the storm, the earth holds firm; this love is bedrock, and the virus merely another troubled sea. Even as walking in a group of thirteen feels like an impossible crime; even as hugging best friends feels unfamiliar. 

The reception is held in the upstairs room of The Alma, and when we enter the busy pub, the entire room applauds, like a scene in a romantic movie where everything turns out alright in the end. They are on their feet as we walk up the stairs, and they are not just applauding at the handsome groom with his immense grin, and not just at the beautiful bride holding her skirt as she ascends, but at the fact that they can share in the joy of strangers, and have one moment of perfect pleasure. 

The room is big, and for just a moment you feel the gaps. Wedding receptions are places where you get reunited with old friends, and where cousins stand awkwardly in corners, and where children chase each other in mad tangles under tables. At wedding receptions you peer anxiously around for waiters to get food; you chase empty trays of glasses to top yourself up. There are no crowds here, only the same familiar few who have dragged each other through the long lonely months, and found themselves here. It feels like a reward. 

The wedding favours are hand sanitisers emblazoned with the date. The food and wine is delicious, and the waitress smiles as she tops up negronis. The polaroid pictures grow blurry and dramatic as the 10pm curfew approaches. The music is warm and familiar, part of the bones of the friendships. We cannot dance; we are not allowed to touch, but we lean into each other as much as we can, we circle and sway. There are no speeches and no readings, but there are plenty of declarations of love. 

It is not the wedding they planned, but it is perfect anyway. They are not from London, but I know them as a London couple, together through hard jobs and difficult flatmates; through heat waves and road trips and protests and Sunday afternoons and moving days and picnics and gigs and theatres and restaurants and long walks in parks. I know them under umbrellas and covered in glitter; wet with sea salt and drenched by rain. I know them shoulder to shoulder on wooden pub tables and smeared with sunscreen in July. They are small bedrooms that smell of smoke, and happy reunions in crowded festivals. They are a couple who wait for each other, and put each other first. They make sense as individuals, but better sense hand-in-hand.

She is vivid and stunning; she is all eyes; she is a stream of hair and a blur of tulle. This is not the wedding it was supposed to be, in a bare New Zealand landscape topped with empty skies. We haven’t toasted marshmallows, nor stood in a tent, nor posed against a low yellow hotel. 

He is tall and impossibly happy, he is bright teeth and crushing hugs. They are never far from each other, his hand on her bare back, their heads tipped together for pictures. In the Polaroids they are shoulder to shoulder and indistinguishable, they meet in the middle in a flash of light.

On rotation

I am on rotation: phone, to laptop, to TV, to Kindle. I can force myself out under the red leaves, but I always come back. 

At the beginning we were obsessed with counting the days but the daily counting has stopped. The numbers are too high, and it no longer feels like counting down to anything. We are waiting for 2021, as if January will rinse the world. We are still anxiously counting our dead.

In the meantime: I watch Hocus Pocus and light candles and bake cinnamon rolls. I think about jumpers and hygge and leaning into the low light of autumn, but I am resisting it.

Voting in the NZ election feels like doing one thing right, though the election is over, done and won, and our votes haven’t even been counted. In past elections the overseas vote has felt important and elemental, but not this time. NZ is fine and fixed, better without us. It would drift further away if it could without coming back. 

I am on rotation: work, run, eat, sleep. At least there is distraction. On Wednesday a pipe burst in the apartment above ours and water flooded the light fittings in the bathroom. I got a bucket, got towels, cut the power to the house too late. Our garden flat has been a sanctuary and a solace, but nothing is exactly safe from 2020, and I am all too aware of the rats in the walls and the water in the ceilings. 

There are pockets of peace, in writing, and walks in the park, and calls with friends and family. It is impossible not to play a comparison game, and sometimes it feels like waiting for the inevitable. Another person leaves London, another leaves for home. We are playing chicken with our own plans for the future. I can’t even think as far ahead as Christmas. 

In spring, at the beginning of this eternal year, I used the ducklings to mark the time, but now there is just the increasing loss of light in the evening. I remember years gone, watching the evening turn night by 4pm from the wide white windows of my office, but it was less of a loss than a nighttime playground. There is no point in buying a new coat, and no one is sending me emails about Christmas pub lunches. I miss the giant Covent Garden Christmas tree, and the ridiculous oversize baubles they hang in the market hall. 

On Thursday, I got sick (from stress, from nothing, out of boredom?). A fever, and a cough, enough to make me trace my steps and order a test. I stood in the kitchen while my husband rolled a swab five times against my tonsils; I had to do the nose swab myself for fear of puncturing my own brain. I put my swab in water, in a tube, in a bag, in a chemical waste bag, in a box, with a seal, and walked it to the priority post box in my mask. It feels like an over-reaction, or a precaution, or a strain on the system, or nothing at all, or my own mild participation in the end of the world. 

On Friday a colleague asked me about an accomplishment I was proud of, and I couldn’t remember anything at all, though I know I’ve been proud (and arrogant, and vain) before.

I am on rotation: bored, sad, hopeful, grateful, scared. We make plans to paint and renovate, move and travel, get another cat. We move between the rooms of our house slowly, and separately. I pull out the weeds in the garden, cut back the impossible bramble, and watch it grow through the fence again. Winter feels long, then short, then long again. I am waiting for all kinds of things: a test result, a vaccine, any kind of certainty, and a reason to run away.

Things that help

  1. Reading books outside my comfort zone, that distract and relocate me. 
  2. Putting on makeup. I have eight different highlighters. If I’m not feeling bright on the inside, I’ll be bright on the outside. 
  3. Keeping things tidy. I get distracted and angry when everything is messy. 
  4. Moderating my obsession with tidiness. Otherwise I come to blows with the only other person in my bubble, and we can’t afford division in the ranks right now. 
  5. Writing a diary like some shit combination of Bridget Jones and Samuel Pepys, the only diarists I can think of right now. “Today I did some gardening.” The fact of keeping a diary is having faith in the fact that one day I will want to read it and marvel, because my present reality will be so frothy with social engagements and physical interaction that whatever happened in 2020 will feel a cold and remote and impossible past. 
  6. Cooking things slowly. I never usually cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes or has more than seven ingredients. This week I made french onion soup from scratch. It tooks 90 minutes to get everything looking brown enough. It was delicious, and it was worth it, even if the kitchen still smells like onions. 
  7. Talking to the cat. She hates me by this stage, this is understood. She sits with her butt towards me just so I know exactly how little a threat she knows me to be. 
  8. Weeding the garden. I am focusing on getting the roots out, not snapping the leaves off at the neck. There’s something nice about using the hook tool, getting into the dirt, navigating the worms. 
  9. Going to bed later. The opposite of accepted advice, but I was going to bed at 8pm, and waking periodically throughout the night. I think it was because my eyes were knackered from the screen, so I thought I was more tired than I was. Now I’m shooting for 10pm, more often hitting 9pm. 
  10. Running. Nothing is helping more than running. Dredging myself from bed at 7:10, hitting the pavement by 7:19, not coming back until I’m sweaty and hungry. There is space, and sky and quiet. Nothing helps more.
  11. Spending too much money on wine. Every bottle is a treat. 
  12. Setting times for calls, and keeping to them. Sometimes I dread Zoom, but I’m always glad I did it. The voices and the faces are my anchors. 

None of the above prevents long periods staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened, contemplating the cosmic ridiculousness of it all. Nothing stops me thinking about alternate realities, about my early thirties disappearing like water into soil. Still, there is always something that distracts me. Today it is a glass of rose and the cheese my sister sent me, and the thought of playing cards online later. There is always something to look forward to.

It’s hard not to feel temporary

It’s hard not to feel temporary. It’s hard to know what real roots feel like: are you deep-rooted, are you embedded, or are you just making it work? We lead transitory, light-touch lives. You are an email, not a letter. You are fast-fashion, fast-food, bullet points, biodegradable, calorie-free, lighter-than-air. You are not made up of much more than binary. You are mostly cloud. You are deletable. 

There are so many words about belonging, and the search for it. I don’t need to add to them; they’ve already been done better, and more permanently. They exist in leather books and on tombstones. The quest for a perfect fit is eternal, and exhausting, because nobody seems ever to know where they fit, except, perhaps, for the people who have never questioned that where they started was the only and best location for them. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket telling me to come home. She looks into the lens with the gaze of a mother. There is no guilt-trip in what she is saying, there is only certainty: come home. Come home before you can’t. 

And thousands are. The digital might be transient but it is also prolific, and omni-present. I am trying to do my job the best I can, better than before, but I am also watching images eddying around my social feeds. This man is eating a pie. This woman is clutching a halved feijoa. This man is wearing a dressing gown under a blue sky and they have all come home. 

It is the most obvious answer that is also the truest: your home is where you go when you are threatened. Your home is where you are safe. So many of my contemporaries, with confident knowledge of the Underground and rental contracts and impressive jobs, are gone, all of it ditched, all of it confidently nothing but collateral when faced with the choice of keeping all of it, and staying, or losing all of it, and going. Those roots, it turns out – the jobs, the new friends, the plans – might have been steadying, but they were never anything other than auxiliary. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket and she is closing the borders. We are millenials, so here is the metaphor: you work in the engine rooms on the Titanic, and the ship is going down, and they are closing the gates. We are lovers of dystopia so here is another: you are the maze runner, and the maze is closing.

The problem with both of these (obviously) is that they signal there is no hope to be had, should you choose to remain where you are. You drown. You get ripped apart by a biologically unfeasible robot spider. But there’s something comforting in testing your roots, and finding them sound. Disastrous endings make for good blockbusters, but rarely leave room for exploration of other options.

Borders that close reopen. Home can be two places for one person. Permanence is more than postcodes. Writing it down – digitally, in the cloud, in the air – makes it real. 

12 Weeks

I just keep buying tins of sweetcorn. I don’t know how to be a practical human being,

My plants are laughing at my attempts to keep us both alive, and this is spring. This is supposed to be the easy part. 

I have a new husband to take care of; he is mostly able to take care of himself, but who will we both blame for the bits that fall apart? I’d blame me,

I’d blame the soft human nature of it all, the dry suffering of lungs reliant on plastic snaked down wet pink tubes to do the act of breathing, as if that isn’t exactly what they’re there for. 

We are the same battery hens we’ve kept on plucking, and eating, and sucking the eggs from. 

 

If Mother Nature has any sense she is drunk right now. Her laughter is all the daffodils  and every piece of cherry blossom that won’t drift down into your cup, as you sit in the park on your jacket and eat olives out of greasy plastic. Think of Te Fiti from Moana if you don’t know who to picture, all thick rock thighs and flower crowns and wrath. 

 

There have always been some of us who are resistant to blackouts, but there is nothing brave about the way you’re pressing on. The Blitz spirit is something that only applies to sugar restrictions, and isn’t something you can say when you go outside and dig your elbow briefly into a stranger. You have always hated the warm press of strangers; the way they sway with the motion of the train carriage is frankly sexual and unnecessary. Just hold the bar tighter, for fuck’s sake. Stop reading your newspaper. Don’t even look at me. 

 

You are a goldfish on a hamster wheel, the hamster drowning in the goldfish bowl. Your lungs don’t work anymore. Or maybe they do, prove it, say it with me: I regret forever the time I laughed over your meal, I regret shaking hands with the stranger, with the devil, with my own mother. I remember every instance of skin. 

 

I have killed the plants that were on the windowsill, forgive me, they were so brown, and so over-watered. We’re cutting up lemons and freezing them, for our 6pm sense-of-normalcy drinks that have started to creep earlier, stronger, whoops, but there are no rules. Boris Johnson’s white knuckles straining against his pink skin are the only things keeping the crowds at bay – they want to break through your new glass windows, like zombies feverish with scent, to touch you. Oh my god, you feel so good. 

 

I have been going to the shop every day to stand in line with people who fear me. I am loaded down with sweetcorn, and toilet paper, and Lindt bars, don’t breathe on me, there is literally nothing I can do about it. Being a human is reduced to faces pixelated on laptop screens, freezing and echoing with the effort of forcing themselves down the wires. 

 

I have killed myself with corn, my roots have come undone, I have forgotten who I am, I have wiped away all recognisable vestiges of myself. I am outside your door hammering at the wood, and you are looking through the peephole at a mad woman. Unfortunately, I only recognise myself when you tell me who I am.