It’s freezing and dark and we’re all sick of it: thank goodness for other lives in the dead of winter. I’ve just finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which has paragraphs like:
When the ceremony was over we drove to the lodge at Pebble Beach. There were little things to eat, champagne, a terrace that opened onto the Pacific, very simple. By way of a honeymoon we spent a few nights in a bungalow at the San Ysidro Ranch at Montecito and, bored, fled to the Beverley Hills Hotel.
The rented wreck of a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. The votive candles on the sills of the big windows in the living room. The thé dé limon grass and aloe that grew by the kitchen door. The rats that ate the avocados. The sun porch on which I worked.
John would wait until I came uptown at 11 or so to have dinner with me. We would walk to Coco Pazzo on those hot July nights and split an order of pasta and a salad at one of the little unreserved tables in the bar.
At this time of year it feels entirely impossible for me to believe that it will ever be warm and light again, and impossible not to continually imagine life being like that once more. If it gets bad I start to Google things like “English summer day” or “Big Sur” or “Japanese spring blossom”. Joan Didion made me want to re-read Elizabeth Smart’s At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for bringing California alive (out of everywhere I have been, nowhere beats California for nature and there is nowhere I dream of more in the winter):
The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives … Round the doorways double-size flowers grow without encouragement: lilies, nasturtiums in a bank down to the creek, roses, geraniums, fuchsias, bleeding-hearts, hydrangeas. The sea booms. The stream rushes loudly.
So many of our emotions are a result of a failure of our imagination or recall. We forget so quickly what has been. I have been pregnant for four months and already the things I no longer do feel like things I never did. When I walk up Charlotte Street at lunchtime and see people standing outside with pints and glasses of wine I just cannot believe that was ever me, I almost cannot believe that anyone does that. It seems delicious and decadent and outrageous and somehow not true. Like I do know that I definitely spent a fair few nights of my life holed up in London pubs on winter nights, the kind of night where you have nowhere to be and nothing to do except what you’re doing, and no adverse consequences than a lighter wallet and a heavier head the next morning. But it seems whole countries away, tucked into the past, like looking through a window at someone else’s life.
This is also the case for: sharing a bottle of white wine in the park after work in the summer. Evenings after work when I used to pop to Topshop and nail a whole wardrobe’s shopping in one hour and not feel guilty. “Getting ready” to “go out on a Saturday night” with a girlfriend and more white wine. And for the tiny pieces of underwear that I found in a drawer recently that were like postage stamps in my palm that I used to 1. fit into 2. want to fit into. Who was this person? Has she gone forever?
Now I am sitting on the sofa and I am 32 and our baby is hiccuping inside me. This physical experience is amazing and a bit irritating and thoroughly unbelievable to me.
In the same way that the past is hard to grasp, the future is impossible (and probably futile) to truly imagine. When you find out you’re going to be a parent of course you spend a good deal of time imagining how this might feel, and the books try and tell you and a million people will try and tell you and the really good writers try and explain it because, as Eva Wiseman wrote recently:
I thought I wouldn’t write about this, about babies and birth, but I can‘t not, because right now at least it is absolutely everything.
About the imagined worst bits I collect whole sentences, as if by considering it hard enough I can at least mitigate the element of surprise:
Eva Wiseman: “the crippling, furious, white-faced exhaustion that comes from being awake for three days and three nights, some of those in a room where the lights never went out … that exhaustion that you can almost chew on.”
Esther Walker: “I am one of those people who became down in the dumps about having a baby for no earthly reason other than I just found it, frequently, exhausting and dreadful.”
Rachel Cusk: “At its worst moments parenthood does indeed resemble hell, in the sense that its torments are never-ending, that its obligations correspond inversely to the desires of the obliged, that its drama is conducted in full view of the heaven of freedom; a heaven that is often passionately yearned for, a heaven from which the parent has been cast out, usually of his or her own volition.”
And the better bits:
Cheryl Strayed: “There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched.”
Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Anne Enright: “It is better here, and more difficult.”
I wonder if one day I will think that these are all true for me or partly true for me or some more true than others. Joan Didion was talking about death when she wrote “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” and I guess it is true for birth as well. But somewhere in California there is a jacaranda tree and a eucalyptus tree and Elizabeth Smart’s cathedral redwoods, and spring will break and whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen.
I have been terrified (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I have been euphoric (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I imagine life will have a lot more of that to show me. I am 20 weeks pregnant now, and part of me wishes I could press pause and be in this moment a while longer, getting ready for our little girl. I think that in 10-15 weeks I won’t want to press pause anymore; I will be thinking ok, out with you now baby, and your hiccups and your elbows and your knees. Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
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I am 13 weeks pregnant, it is winter, it has been the strangest three months of my life. Winter is always partly like being asleep. When I look back at the last weeks, I think I was there, I can remember most of it, but it feels more like someone else is describing it to me.
We moved house, to a new area of London, more strangeness; dislocation is always strange. Leaving the new house in the dark in the morning, coming back in the dark at night, peering at this new place where you will spend your life. Even the daytimes we had here in the first week seem to have been in the dark.
At home, when home was in Hackney, early on in morning sickness, when I was terrified by it and uncertain of how it was possible to get through the next two months, the first cathartic weep I had was at this from the introduction to Anne Enright’s Making Babies:
“I wanted to say something about the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out.”
The sense of relief that someone was talking about dying was overwhelming, I don’t know why, perhaps because feeling very ill induces grand statements in us – I’m going to die! when we’re lying on the bathroom floor after a bad prawn cocktail, when what we really mean is please, please let me die. Not forever, of course. Just let me die for now. I felt thrown and cheated that no one told me it would be this bad, when of course they had, I just hadn’t been able to listen, my imagination hadn’t been big enough to hold it.
And the oddness, the oddness. About 8 weeks in I tried to connect the images on my pregnancy app to what was lying in the silent, watery dark inside me, but it was impossible. Your baby is the size of a poppy seed. Your baby is the size of a raspberry. Neither could I connect to what I knew was my happiness that we were going to have a baby and that didn’t really worry me, I knew it was because I was trying not to throw up on a train full of people and because I would spend the day trying to get through 8 hours of not throwing up over anyone in my office, then when I got home I would try and eat something and cry over a sad dog on the telly then collapse into bed and the next day it would start again.
At the time I felt like I needed concrete reasons for why I had opted for this – volunteered for this – but of course, our reasons for wanting children are generally nebulous, gooey, irrational perhaps. Having children, from what I understand, is one of those hardest, best, worst, most difficult, most wonderful thing you ever do experiences, so perhaps it always feels slightly odd to elect for it. And pregnancy and birth, the relatively common physical or mental health complications or issues that come from it – for example the women who have severe morning sickness and vomit up to 50 times a day for 9 months and then do it all again for a second child! and a third! – do we do it because it’s worth it? Is it because we forget? Is it because we are mad? Is it because we love each other, because we want to make versions of ourselves, because we want to fall in love again, because we adore gorgeous babies, because we only get one life and we want to create something in it, because it is most bizarre, biological normality-that-feels-miraculous?
Over those 3 months I did not manage to apply the things I’ve “learned” – for example, to use mindfulness, or what yoga has taught me, to get through. I didn’t write a word, except for work emails. In this way I sort of failed, I’m not saying that to beat myself up, I just mean this is how I know I can improve when it comes to the kind of well-intentioned, strong life I would like to live (on a practical note, what it means is trying to do yoga every day – even for 5 minutes! Even when life is hard! – and writing things down when they are difficult.) Instead I relied on Adam, and others around me (both Kates, mum, dad, other friends and people who were kind at work and by email and text). I almost completely relied on Adam, physically and emotionally. I didn’t get myself through it, he got me through it.
I felt so negged out by the world (not depressed, just down). Winter doesn’t help. We did this positive thinking seminar at work and at the time it was actually very useful, it was all the obvious stuff but very well approached – there are things around you that you can’t control, all you can control is your reaction to it, and so on – and every time I think about this I conclude that you may as well be happy, you may as well see the good in stuff because there just isn’t any point to not. In this extraordinary piece of writing there is an extraordinary quote from someone called Franco Beradi:
“Depression can’t be reduced to the psychological field. It questions the very foundation of being … Faced with the abyss of non-sense, friends talk to friends, and together they build a bridge over the abyss. Depression questions the reliability of this bridge. Depression doesn’t see the bridge. It falls off its radar. Or maybe it sees that the bridge does not exist … If we consider depression the suspension of the sharing of time, as an awakening to a senseless world, then we have to admit that, philosophically speaking, depression is simply the moment that comes closest to truth.”
In eastern traditions, the wise women and men are called enlightened; the argument is that they are more wise because they have found some truth by shedding off all the peripheral rubbish, by stripping back, by simplifying down and down until you get to some bare reality. Are they right or are the melancholic right? Or do they see the same truth and draw different conclusions from it?
It’s winter, and I don’t know if there’s a bridge. I don’t know if the world is more beautiful than terrible, and maybe there is some kind of blindness, a denial in finding peace in it, but I’m not sure that it matters. Winter is hard, and a few weeks ago I saw my baby on the screen during the scan and he or she swirled around faster than I could have imagined and her/his heart beat so fast! Me and Adam stared at the screen, our mouths were wide open. There was where my joy had been hiding for these months, there is the baby, our baby. I think we all just want to be happy. I guess we may as well be allowed to try.
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At a conference recently I saw a presentation by a man who spoke with no notes for 45 minutes over a series of pre-recorded sounds. He had to tailor his talk around the noise, knowing what would come next, fitting his words into the time allotted by the previous sound – the coo of a mother talking to a baby, the dawn chorus, the pop and fizz of a bottle top coming loose and the liquid busting out of it – before the next one arrived. You could call it a soundscape, the visual equivalent being a series of images, of landscapes in the loosest sense, flashing on a screen and making you feel things.
When I was young I went to a museum on a school trip where there was a reconstruction of World War I trenches. The light aimed at twilight and you could smell the fusty scent of a museum trying to evoke damp and a hint of decaying bodies (but not enough to make schoolchildren gag). And it had the recorded sound of muffled gunfire and shouts and the odd scream to allow you to imagine a modicum of what it might be like to be fighting in trenches in France in 1918. But of course it only felt a bit like that, it mostly felt like you, a school girl in the 90s, imagining what it might be like to be a man fighting in the trenches in France in 1918.
In meditation they’ll tell you that to clear your mind of noise, all you need to focus is on the fact that you’re breathing in, and then breathing out. Sometimes it feels refreshing to gently remind yourself that you’re walking down the road, that it’s Thursday in London in August, that you’re 32. In the last few days instead of looking or thinking I’ve listened, and the effect is similarly, peculiarly calming. Listening to all the city sounds around me, all the time – the soar and sink of cars passing, the wail of an ambulance, the snippets of conversation from the people on the bus – curiously detaches you from other forms of noise. It gives a perspective on all the scenes of your day, as if you’re watching a beautifully dull, real-time art-house film about your life.
One place I walked with my ears open was Fitzroy Square in my lunch hour, strolling the streets of Bloomsbury and thinking of Virginia Woolf doing the same thing a hundred years ago. She lived on that square for a while, and I have never been able to walk around that literary stretch of London without her in the centre of my mind. I’ve thought about her a lot recently after seeing a National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition about her and reading Alexandra Harris’s (brilliant and very accessible ) biography of her. Reading about her and reading her again I marvel at her sense of story, entirely new, her confidence that there is the capacity for drama in everything, her ability to listen and drop sounds onto the page in endlessly interesting ways.
“One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
Sitting in front of the house she had lived in, on a bench, I listened to the sounds around me, just waited and listened on Fitzroy Square, to the engines and the conversations and the wind. The weather was about to turn, just like the weekend before when my family and I sat in the garden until the sky turned entirely black in seconds and forced every object to turn several shades darker and sent a sheet of rain hurtling across the garden to meet us.
There is the capacity for drama in everything.
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It’s all I have to bring to-day
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
- Emily Dickinson
I spend too much time planning, so that sometimes even when I am in the middle of some very pleasant experience I start to plan another pleasant experience so I can start looking forward to it right away. Another thing I do has a lovely name although it is not lovely – catastrophizing – imagining the worst case scenario so that an ambiguous email becomes someone I’ve offended, no phone call becomes a terrible accident, a cough becomes lung cancer. What will I be like if I am ever anyone’s mother?!
The other night I woke up and the moon was shining so bright it looked like daytime. There were patches of sky a shade light enough to resemble mid-afternoon (I thought: what do you call night when it’s not dark? How do you mark night if it’s not dark? What delineates night from day in midsummer in the northest of the northern hemisphere when there is no darkness? It was night. And it wasn’t. I almost took a picture and posted it somewhere public because a moment, once carefully curated and a filter added, hardly feels like a moment any more unless it’s been ❤ed. The thing is, it is a moment. It is) and even though it was 3.30am I seriously considered getting up and going for a walk or cracking on with my to do list because what if I look back at this moment in midwinter and bitterly regret not making the most of it?
You need to learn to relax, said an ex-boyfriend way back (I wonder if he has learned to stop telling people what to do). I guess some of these things are products of being a normal human worrying machine; others are part of a desire to enjoy life while I have it. I am lucky because there’s so much to enjoy these days. I have everything I need; there’s a midsummer feel in the air, more than enough light to go around. We are spoilt for light.
Because of where I work, I’ve thought a lot about Stephen Sutton recently, about the cognitive shift required by the dying – and those around them – towards seeing life in terms of quality and not in terms of how much time you get. I read the teen fiction wonder The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, thanks to my rad colleague Dan, and one of my favourite bits was when Hazel thinks about her recent plane journey. It will be the last one she ever takes, and she feels robbed that she won’t live to have this experience again:
“I would probably never again see the ocean from thirty thousand feet above, so far up that you can’t make out the waves or any boats, so that the ocean is a great and endless monolith … it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and better again. That is probably true even if you live to be ninety – although I’m jealous of the people who get to find out for sure.”
I’d never really thought of it like this, that the desire for more life – if you’ve had a good life – probably never disappears. Of course it’s so much harder, seems so much more unfair, when someone is young. It’s a similar wisdom to Cheryl Strayed’s in this heartbreaking letter where she explains how she found it freeing to accept that people’s lives are different lengths, they just are. We have to adjust our expectations (part of grieving, I suppose) that everyone will get long lives, accept that what we get is what we get:
When my son was six he said, “We don’t know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages.” He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was 45 years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at 89, my mother at 63, my mother at 46. Those things don’t exist. They never did.
I wish everyone I love could live forever. I wish they all got that, and I wish I never had to miss them. I hope I can rustle up the grace and strength, when I need it, to understand that this can’t be the case.
One of my favourite moments in television ever was in the last episode of Breaking Bad (SPOILER ALERT – LAST EPISODE OF BB ABOUT TO BE RUINED!!) when Skyla asks Walt why he did it, did all these terrible things, and he said: “I liked it. I was good at it. I was really … I was alive.” Suddenly we see a dying man’s behaviour in a new light. I loved that so much.
Of course, for a while after someone dies, we feel reminded to live. We were working hard to support Stephen at Teenage Cancer Trust last month and I thought of him a lot, in hospital, 19 years old, knowing it was the end of his life, and thought of how much someone in his position would give to have a tough day at the office, a stuffy commute, a pint, an argument, a slant of light hitting the pavement and their face too. Just to have a regular day, to do normal stuff. It’s very hard to feel appreciation for your life every second because you soon forget to, and the washing machine gets blocked or the baby cries all through the night or someone is a right twat at work. But how good. How good to live.
Part of the skewed logic behind catastrophizing is that if we worry enough, we will kind of pre-empt bad things happening – not that we will stop them, but we will somehow be prepared for them. I spoke to some friends of a friend recently, sisters, whose dad is very ill, and when they asked if my parents were well, I said yes they were, but that sometimes I worried about a time when they might not be. “Don’t think about this”, they both said immediately, with the kind of authority that comes from people who know. Their faces when they said this stuck with me. So I have decided to take their advice.
Part of being wise is sometimes to not think, to not dwell, just to feel. Perhaps life is a tricky balancing act of being aware of finity, of mortality, but not letting its inevitability swallow you up. So instead one must do the things those awful life lessons prescribe us to on postcards and in jpegs, in sentences stuck awkwardly up against each other, supposedly meaningful in their variety: dance like no one’s watching, count the seconds ticking past when you’re sitting quietly, read, plant something, inhale June and July and their trees, be alive, be really alive.
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Below is a story I wrote last year and was still making changes to this spring. I wanted to write it after I stayed in a hotel in LA a few years ago and felt very strongly that “the thing” that is wrong with a certain kind of people is their unshakeable sense that they are culturally relevant, that they are important to the world or history or to anyone except the people who know them. It’s a species of arrogance that is almost always relegated to cities. The story is set in a place where that sense prevails but it isn’t about that; it’s about a lonely girl in the middle of it. Most of the stories I write seem to be about lonely girls. What’s interesting about a not lonely girl?!
Although there are some bits in the story I like, and I’m proud that I wrote it, it never quite came together as a coherent whole. I did quite a lot of work on it and did all the things you’re supposed to do, like leaving it a few months and coming back to it, but I couldn’t find the change that would make it exactly what I wanted. So in the end I decided to leave as is. I think this is a good decision sometimes, after you’ve done plenty of work on a project. It makes sense to leave some things alone, as distant from perfection as they are, and so was the case with this in the end.
Anyway, if you do find time to read it, I would love to know what you think (only well-meaning feedback need apply, of course.) And needless to say, I hope you like it or it makes you think or something like that.
Girl in a box
The owners liked money a lot more than their hotel, and how little they loved it was written all over the place. Some of the ways money got saved had cute names, like “word of mouth marketing”, and some sounded shonky, like “minimum wage”, and all of them were woven into the flimsy flesh of the place. The furniture was a cheap Swedish imitation, customised just beyond recognition of its ubiquity, and the sheets were rough, but criticism never got radical, instead seeming to waver on some unconscious periphery of each patron. Maybe it was the Japanese whiskey that distracted them. Maybe the presence of the models, their lucky biology, their lives that had to be so full of glamour. The place was dark and swimming in hip music and good drink, and the formula created more openings in Shanghai, LA, Berlin, Istanbul, Reykjavik, Palm Springs, Riga, Cannes. “The Falcon has landed,” wrote a blogger for one of the openings, “and the party is only just starting.” In the wake of the buzz came young people who thought themselves creative and a City financier who stayed for a night in the Penthouse and hadn’t left yet. In the first few weeks, someone fell off a balcony and shattered their spine. But still, more people came.
It was hot, and Alana had sold her car to pay a bill, so that evening she did what no one did and walked through the city. The drivers were sinking like soufflés inside their cars; she felt victorious. When she reached the hotel she didn’t see the man cradling a drink in the foyer, but she did see Marl, leaning heavily on the reception desk to show off the muscle in his arms, and two girls in bikinis and wedges lolling on the sofa. In the staff room she took most of her clothes off and put her foot on the bottom rung of the short ladder, up towards the hatch leading to the interior of the Falcon’s glass box.
The man in the lobby had been there from the beginning, so the staff knew his name and what he drank and where to send the taxi once he’d passed out. Occasionally someone said “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Bill?”, but mostly they let him at it. His face had only got that yellow tinge in the last few weeks; it was, of course, a Bad Sign, but he hadn’t yet taken any Positive Action about it. Instead, he toyed with his glass and waited on the low-slung sofa.
On the front of the box was a brass plaque carved with the name of the girl working that shift, slid into place via two metal brackets. At first, when it was uncertain how long you would stay, you got a plaque bearing the name of some other long-gone employee. For two months Alana had been Danielle, just like when she had worked her first waitress job and her badge had said Marie, and the type of people who actually say the names on badges out loud had sometimes called her – Marie! Marie! – and wondered why she never turned around. But now she the plaque said Alana in old-fashioned italics, a name she had picked two years ago in a bar after some personal crisis that seemed minor now.
You weren’t allowed to take anything in with you, no magazines, no compact mirrors, no chocolate, no other likely paraphernalia of womanhood that Marl’s imagination threw out. And you were required to stay awake to lie on your side with your eyes open, for you to be both still like a doll and a real, breathing human. The staff were instructed not to look in, as if the management wanted the girl, who only came out at night, to be partly invisible. Don’t look at her, they were saying, and, with her presence in a glass box in a hip hotel in the city, look at her.
The man didn’t care: he sat through the night, watching her watching nothing. He ignored the people who double-took when they saw her, the others who snapped with cameras. He drank twelve glasses of Bourbon until just after three a.m., when he took up his coat and slipped from the lobby into the red night.
After the shift finished early next morning, Alana climbed down the ladder, the bones in her feet making small clicks. She sat in the staff room drinking coffee and looking at her eyes in the mirror, the bags under them puffy, as if she had been up all night weeping.
“Can I get any extra shifts?” She spoke to Marl’s back as he sat at the computer. “I only have four.”
“No, old lady,” he said quietly. “All taken.” The first time he’d teased her about being the oldest one at the hotel she’d thought about it all night, there at work where the passing of years was frowned upon, and the next night in a bar with a friend where men stared at her, for now. How much longer had she got, two, maybe three years? Then back to being a waitress, perhaps, or if she was lucky, get a part as the mother in something.
The woman she bought fruit from had one eye a tiny bit larger than the other one, so that it appeared that her head was always slightly turned towards you. She had this hair, caramel, curly, the kind of hair women obsess over and imagine men do too, and her asymmetrical eyes sat on top of sculpted cheekbones. Her father had been Apple Man Pete, as everyone called him: fruit seller, graduate of the university of life, as he said, divorcee and alcoholic, as he didn’t.
“So, you work in that box,” the woman said, pressing the button on the till that had a picture of a nectarine on it, the first words she had ever spoken to Alana except a greeting or request for payment. “I read the article about it. The hotel where someone drowned, right?”
“Yes.” Alana couldn’t help looking at the woman’s hair. It was so long and thick that she had to sweep it back with her whole hand, like a windscreen wiper.
“You like working there?”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“Well, a job’s a job, isn’t it. I didn’t exactly dream of ending up here …” The woman spread her fingers at the shop around her, at Apple Man Pete’s fruit empire.
“Well it’s … it’s nice in here.”
“It’s ok. It doesn’t matter what you do for a job, anyway? Does it?”
It felt good to feel the splintery ladder in her palm, the soft mattress of the box under her. Through the glass you could see the back of whoever was working on reception, and beyond, the foyer. On her second shift, Alana saw a woman mouthing at her “Get a real job,” and after that, she never caught anyone’s eye again. The glass was no longer transparent to her: it was a wall, or at least a closed door.
A few metres away, the yellow-faced man was drinking Aperol Spritz on a sofa. The option of calling his sponsor was ceasing to feel like an option, so much had his shame climbed ivy-like around him. The idea of it wavered somewhere in his consciousness acknowledged as the right thing to do and the thing that will not be done: the conversation you skirted around, the party you didn’t make it to. But anyway, here was the girl, appearing on the dot of eight. He knew that her moving into position was the last time she would move all night. Someone leaning on the reception desk took in the dips and peaks of her breasts and hips, but the man on the sofa only saw her body as a strangely silent instrument. Its being was incidental. It just was.
She had found that even at the moment when every muscle told you that it was impossible to remain in the same position for a second longer, there was much more beyond. You had to view it as an opportunity to go further, to find a little bit more resolution. It was easier if you took your mind somewhere entirely different. If you felt the pressure on your hip grow to a thudding pain, it helped to picture cool blue magic wands of relief flittering over the area. It was useful to make your breaths barely perceptible undulations. Ignore the thinking brain, a ballet teacher had said to her once. Concentrate on the feeling brain.
“A man left you a note,” Marl called the next morning as she got changed, and pushed it under the door. On it was handwritten, badly, How delicious to disappear! Alana screwed it up and threw it in the bin then took it out again and smoothed it out on the table, and stared at it.
At home, she leaned on the worktop and looked at the four empty calendar windows until her next shift. Each month’s image was seasonal, helped put you back on track however asleep or out of tune you had been. I am looking at the calendar with its hot July greens, she said to herself. I am listening to the loud tick of the kitchen clock. The logic of the box was useful for life, too. Just learning to be in it. Not wishing it away until – what? He had said: everyone needs a kitchen clock, and she hadn’t believed him but let him knock a nail into the wall anyway. And then, once it was up, she realised how often she had walked out of the room or scrabbled for her phone to find the time before he put it there. He was right, and she had liked looking at it, liked the time saved, liked his link to it.
She put a book and a blanket in a bag and walked down the road to the small garden square packed that afternoon with everyone else in the neighbourhood. She read the same page three times, then threw the book down and closed her eyes. Whenever she did so recently, the details of the box swerved towards her, the mattress on stilts inside, like a grown-up’s bunk-bed; the cushions scattered with birds embroidered on them; the small wooden ledge at the far side to hold a glass of water.
“Hi.” Before she opened them she felt a sinking feeling, directed towards whoever it was standing over her. “Enjoying the sun?”
Alana sat up to meet the eyes of the woman from the fruit shop, not in her normal t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms but a flowery summery dress, with her mighty hair down around her shoulders. It was strange, like seeing a teacher at a party.
“Hi. Yes. Lovely, isn’t it.”
“So, you live round here?” The woman had flicked her dress strap up where it had fallen, a micro-movement, but Alana saw it.
“Yes, around the corner. And you?”
“I live above my dad’s shop.”
“Oh, of course.”
“He left things in a bit of a mess, actually. I’ve just come back from the solicitors. I mean financially, admin-wise. He was disorganised. A nightmare, really.”
“Right. He seemed like a nice man.”
“He was … he was a nice man.”
“You said. Just after he died. In the shop. You said sorry then.”
“Did I? I can’t remember.”
“That’s ok. Thanks.” The fruit girl looked away, and started blushing before she spoke again. “I’m just going to get a drink. I don’t suppose you’d like to come?”
Alana hoped her refusal hadn’t sounded rude. When she got home it was that awkward time just before early evening, too early to make dinner and too late to make anything of the day. Just her and the tick of the clock. The worst thing, when she looked back at the time with him, was its unspectacular end, the lack of drama to latch onto, only the barely perceptible sputtering of an engine in its last throes. She sat at the kitchen table, looking at the chipped nail polish on one hand, thinking she should take it off and start over again.
A few days later, before her shift, she went to the supermarket to buy her fruit, to queue with everyone else who was buying gardening equipment and TVs and summer shoes. It was when she came out that she saw the man was slumped in a doorway, grey-faced, wearing an expensive suit which he had been sick all over. He looked familiar, but then there were so many like him at the Falcon (suits, alcohol, pretending not to be afraid). She touched his foot with her foot and his chest heaved. After a few seconds she moved away.
The journey to the hotel seemed to take forever because she was watching its progress so closely, clocking each street sign twenty metres before she reached it, spotting the reflection of the evening sun from the side of the Falcon a mile before she pushed open its door. She hated this building, its meaningless name, its glass walls, its mediocre stories. There was something tight in her stomach, a knot, or something more menacing, wolf-like, like a warning that something terrible was going to happen. But the time finally came when she could climb up the ladder, shut out the arduous night.
A few minutes later Apple Man Pete’s daughter sat the man up against the wall and, with a tissue from her pocket, wiped some of the vomit from his chin. He was babbling, slurring it’s over as they waited for the ambulance. Her dad had been a similar drunk, placid and sad, coming home with his keys gone and his wallet gone and his wedding ring gone, because he had passed out in an alley and woke up feeling the worst he had ever felt, would ever feel, even when he was dying. This man still had a wallet but it was hollowed out, with only air in the bulging pockets, an echo of wealth. Scattered next to the wallet was a sheaf of business cards with different names on them. Rory McArdle, Civil Litigation said one; Amy Carner, Psychodynamic Therapy on another. Yoga at the Vale of Health. Ndeji Granger, Indian Head Massage and Reiki. Wellbeing and mindfulness training at the Oak House. A scrap of paper sat amongst them, two sentences written on them:
This time I choose to love for once with all my intelligence.
What if, grand statements of independence aside, there is nothing better than to love and be loved?
When the ambulance took him, she stood and watched until she could no longer see its creeping path through the traffic. She wished she had said in the man’s ear: it is constantly in our nature to be asleep and then awake. She thought about walking past the hotel again, maybe even going in the lobby, but her fear clapped its hand over her. It would be unbearable to be seen. Unbearable not to be seen. For nothing to happen. For nothing to keep happening.
In the box Alana closed her eyes, let her mind take her to a time long before things had gone wrong. She hadn’t known him well that night: the lack of definition of the thing that was happening between them was what was fizzing in the air, its question mark thudding over their bodies as they lay on the floor by the French doors. A bottle of wine waited in between their wrists, and Alana saw the tips of the man’s fingers drum the cold bottle intermittently. She said his name as she propped herself up to look at him, and at the sound of it, Alana in the box felt the full force of homesickness and misguided hope shudder all over her. Every time, then, this fantasist’s reaction, a force of joy and not enough heartbreak. She lay still, inside the memory, feeling heat spread from the back of her throat to the top of her legs. That night went on all night in her night. They didn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep. When morning came, Marl had to knock on the glass to remind her to come out.
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There’s a lot of reasons why people love yoga and on the internet everyone seems to go on about it, and in real life too, and I imagine if I didn’t already do yoga, I would not want to hear any more about it. I am sometimes one of those people who blathers on as such, and when I’ve had a few drinks when I’ve even been known to use the phrase “it changed my life” (then I usually apologise). A lot of people say that their favourite thing about yoga is that it teaches you to change the way you think, so that you are not always getting carried away by a rush of thoughts or to-do lists or focusing on a point in the future when your life will be perfect. You realise, your life is today. This thing, this “living in the moment” as it is probably most clearly described, is the thing which is transformational. The present becomes more gift-like, less burdensome.
I DO love this about yoga. I love this very much, and I also know that there are lots of other non-yogic ways to move towards this way of thinking, if you want to. But what I often think is that I love yoga because it has made me strong in my body. This morning I went to a class then I came back and did the kind of housework that would have previously made my back hurt and my arms ache. I used to be so weak. I’m not, not anymore.
Also, feeling strong detracts me from concentrating on how I look, and most of us knows that if you’re not careful you can spend much time and huge amounts of energy wishing yourself to be prettier. Anyone who has done this knows how exhausting and fruitless it is. We spend so long hearing “it’s what’s inside that counts”; we know that we when we get to know someone funny and clever and interesting of either sex they start to look more beautiful, but we still have trouble believing it and keeping on believing it. What I think when I see women walking across a room, or applying make-up in the mirror in the ladies toilets, is that much of their life is, amongst many other things, a slow coming-to-terms-with not being as beautiful as they would like. It’s almost guilt you can detect in their self-consciousness. The look on their faces is not that far from being an apology.
I’m sure there are lots of women who do not care, who don’t feel like this; good for them. And it’s not just women who we judge on appearances. A new friend wrote this, which I loved for many reasons, but particularly because it acknowledges the variety in how we experience things. But being a girl has themes, of course, which is what much of this blog has been about.
A few nights ago, the night before International Women’s Day, I sat down to have dinner in a restaurant in Hackney with some female friends. At one point in the evening a woman came down the stairs in front of us and all of our jaws dropped; we couldn’t stop staring at her because she was so tall, so thin, so beautiful. For a while we talked about what it would be like to be that beautiful, the up and downsides of people finding it nearly impossible to stop staring at you. I think in the end we stopped discussing it because all that talk of very beautiful girls was making us feel inadequate and a bit depressed. Then we talked about the John Berger book I read recently which discusses the way the world (including women themselves) sees women. He says:
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or while she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping … She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself as another.”
When I read that I realised I had been walking across rooms like that for as long as I could remember.
This week I noticed a very attractive young woman on the arm of an older, not so attractive man, and thought, why has this been a cultural pattern in our society? You could posit: because men have traditionally had economic power where women have traditionally not; because men have been seen less as objects of desire than women have, but also I think it’s because they have been busy doing other things which distracts attention from just physical appearance and so we have thought “isn’t Charles Dickens a brilliant writer! Doesn’t he have a wonderful, inquisitive mind?” instead of “Charles Dickens could be more handsome. He is ok but is nose is not right.” Now women in the west get to do more than ever before which you would think would distract us all from how they look, but still we can’t stop seeing them.
What a drag it all is! How good it feels when you can let it all go!
If you look at domestic violence statistics in this country or read about sex trafficking or FGM, it feels frivolous to consider such issues. But anyone who tells you your concerns are not valid just because someone else has it worse is missing the point. In the West, a lot of the work still to do is shaking off how we see each other and are seen by others, and in other places the work is different and of frightening volume.
Eve Ensler, who organises One Billion Rising, did an extraordinary interview in the Guardian recently entitled We should be hysterical about sexual violence. You should read every word of it. Some people talk about compassion fatigue, or not being able to grasp the full horror of an atrocity, and the most effective way of explaining something in this case is to focus on one story (that’s why charities use case studies.) My yoga teacher told me recently about some women she used to teach who had been victims of sex trafficking; when she met them, they were staying in a hostel run by the charity Eaves. They loved yoga because it made them feel strong, because it was a bodily practice which was not about horror and punishment but about control and quietness and being kind to yourself and maybe the yoga, and the other work they were doing with other kind people who were helping them were the things that made them want to live. But she told me that it was a yoga practice very modified from the one she taught most of her students, and that a lot of it was about making your body small and protected, of being in a safe ball or foetal position and that she never, absolutely never, taught poses that involved opening your legs.
I couldn’t take that in for ages. Still, I can barely think about it. If I ever feel like I can’t get my head around something as truly awful as trafficking or rape as a weapon of war, I think about those women and what they can no longer countenance. IWD is supposed to be a celebration, so I hope I haven’t depressed you too much. Human problems could be counted on a scale from one to ten, on a scale to thinking to feeling to seeing to hurting. But Eve Ensler says “Women across the world are in this together”. She also says that we can end violence against women, and you should read the article to find out why this might not be so crazy and idealistic as it sounds. Happy IWD.
All photos by me on Instagram except for Victoria’s
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“our minds reshape these memories, sending them through a rose-tinted filter that redefines them as “good times”. Experiences … can be reconstructed in our minds to seem better than they were, because they represent periods in our life that are now gone forever.” – (BBC science and nature article)
What is more English than a village fete? The Wikipedia entry for fêtes says:
Village fêtes are common in Britain, although their numbers are declining.
Their numbers are declining. So much pathos in fact.
Only in England features photography by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, both great capturers of what we call Englishness from a bygone era. The world always seems to change fast when you live in it, and makes valuable astute observers who can chart visual history. When your universe has disappeared, little is of more comfort than a picture of how it used to look.
I’ve been thinking about Tony Ray-Jones, whose photography isn’t just output from the 60s/70s nostalgia factory, produced to hang us together and stop us falling to pieces – Steptoe and Son and cream teas and piers and Morris Minors and stuffy churches and hot summers and so many cups of tea. It’s more than this: each image is complete with a set of utterly aligned characters, as if they’ve been moved gently into place and tweaked and tweaked again until some kind of timeless symmetry between humans has been established.
His contact sheets are on show and for most shots, it looks like he only took 2 or 3 gos to get it right. Hemingway churned out near-perfect work the first time, while everyone else floundered and wrote terrible first drafts they had to burn and bury in shame. When people say “a rare talent” I think they mean people who have to work less (not less hard) before they make something amazing.
Ray-Jones died when he was 30, of leukaemia. He wouldn’t have known how little time there was to create something special.
I wish it was the 60s, I wish I could be happy. Thom Yorke feels it, evokes it in 12 words, that longing for a past that’s impossible because it never happened that way, it never felt like that. At the time, it just felt like life. But history seems to have a heightened sense of romance to it, a specialness that we think we see when we look back.
It reminds me of the joke about how much more simple life was when everything was black and white.
(look at how magical Piccadilly Circus looks here.)
John Berger says:
“The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognised for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and it’s past.”
Wider history and personal history do this. They’re in cahoots to constitute what you feel when you see something.
Just try and unwire yourself. It’s impossible. Ray-Jones’ images spoke to me because they were taken when my mum and dad were in their 20s, in a world that is now gone forever, a place my mind has imbued with a hopeless romance.
His pictures remind me of another visual of a few decades before but also created in the 70s, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s children’s book Peepo!. Each view is what the baby in the story sees: a baby-eyed view. Every illustration is busy but expertly balanced, packed with tiny period details of wartime Britain (and more cups of tea.) It was one of my favourite books when I was little.
Some of the words are:
He sees the shadows moving on the bedroom wall
And the sun at the window
And his teddy
And his ball
, words that are comforting to me in their profound familiarity.
In the brain, an image kicks off a feeling. Ice creams from the van two hours before dusk. A pub garden. A trip to the pictures. A steam train chugging away. A picnic by a river, then the light fades. Times change fast and we cling onto the past to get a handle on the motion. But of course it’s gone; we can’t get it back.
Only in England is on at the Science Museum until 16 March
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I went to Kenya when I was younger and we’d go on these night-time game drives, chasing after animals in the dark. In the headlights of the truck we could see the hind legs of creatures jumping out of the way of tyres, and the dry plants of the bush moving like a flick-book in the light.
If you stopped the engine and turned off the lights you had to confront all that space, land that just did its thing in the darkness and silence, regardless of you. Such experiences are disconcerting because humans always think they’re so instrumental to existence, to anything’s existence. But the dark makes you realise that small worlds are revolving without you, and animal dramas are playing out, and earth is shifting.
It was strange to hear that utter silence, to understand you were tiny, you were tiny enough to be nothing. But still, we confront ourselves as well as the world around us, we confront our lives. Is it panning out the way you thought it would? Are you happy? Do you have everything you want? We have to absorb ourselves in ourselves, even though vast plains and large galaxies exist out there. A conflict: we’re tiny and we’re all we have.
Certain landscapes give you quiet, a space to contemplate. If you try and sit quietly in the city you know that there is always noise, that you cannot rely on silence to give you peace. What I have been thinking about recently is that under noise there must be silence, in a similar way how life continues in the darkness – we just can’t see it. It’s comforting: it makes quiet accessible inside yourself. I once read a very strange book by a writer called Sara Maitland called A Book of Silence, which is a memoir about a slow, quiet (personal) revolution. As a long-time student of silence she says that it has a sound, it’s kind of like a sssssssshhhhhhh (try and get your head around that.) If silence makes a sound then if you listen hard enough, sometimes you can hear it.
I came across the poem below, Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke, in Ali Smith’s brilliant Artful. She says:
“the ‘you’ of the poem becomes not just the seen thing instead of the art, but something seen so utterly, so wholly, that ‘there is no place that does not see you’. It’s this being seen (met in the act of looking) – the exchange that happens when art and human meet – that results in the pure urgency for transformation.”
The pure urgency for transformation. I think about this poem in art galleries when I stand and look at something and minutes go by. I think about the last line whenever I feel “clarity” about a desired change. In Hollywood films and lazy literature, transformations are whole and permanent and pre-cursored by a montage and a lightbulb moment, where everything falls into place. Real life is more piecemeal and change is long: you realise things and then they don’t seem true anymore, or you change your mind, or you keep forgetting, or you don’t listen deeply to what’s under the noise, or you do but you cannot hear it. Most people rarely make big leaps; it’s often only when you look back at longer passages of time that you see the big themes emerging. Sometimes you wonder: are wheels turning, in places you can’t see them?
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Rainer Maria Rilke
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I’ve just finished re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman from 1969, a novel whose protagonist is tormented by a steadily advancing aversion to food. Vitamin pills remind her of eggs laid by an insect, meat of its fleshy animal origins, and all of it makes her run to the toilet to involuntarily purge herself of the offending articles. Today, when we took my nieces and nephew to McDonalds after a festive theatre visit and I unwrapped my chicken sandwich and glanced at the beige, tepid meat, I had to suddenly scurry over laps and scarves to the outside air with the blood rising in my face. “I think I’m going to be sick,” like a million fragile types before me. In case I had forgotten I was alive, there was my life, imitating someone else’s art.
A break at Christmas makes you remember all the things about you, the things you want and the things you fear, your chief emotions, familiar history, repetitive themes, coming at you like revelations and not the disguised traditions they really are. No wonder watching old films makes us feel better, as if the old-fashioned trains and old-fashioned phones and Old Fashioneds can connect us to something simple and good (the magic isn’t just in remembering things but remembering remembering them!) Running on a treadmill, away from imperfect moments. And better still if our palms are getting hot with phones begging us to share bits of ourselves, selected parts or unedited awkwardnesses, making those simple and good moments louder, more thing-like. Remember the first time you read that memories are rarely fresh but just a memory of the last time you recalled them? Every Christmas, an apt epiphany.
Internal wrangles of would-be writers are dull, self-pitying, repetitive, long as a dictionary and a million times as pointless; talking about them is more so. But here we are. Here is the subject not writing, unwriting, here is the subject doing this for months. Here she is running her fingers over the novels of Doris Lessing in the second hand book shop (holy christ look how many), then looking at pencil illustrations by Sylvia Plath drawn in what we could call a prolific spurt. Here is the subject kicking her tantrum legs in the living room, art dry as a bone, only one line and an impassable gulf away from not writing.
It is a strange place that is both full to the brim and sealed shut. If you pricked it liquid would yap out all over the place, unformed, with some potential but with no essential shape or colour.
For ages I wanted a tattoo in the way that you passionately want things, that is heavily and then suddenly, heinously not at all, until the cycle begins again. And one day my sister said to me: you don’t have to have a tattoo, and that felt good, for a while. Until I wanted one again, heavily, all the time.
My boyfriend’s sister gave him a great book about writing and he read it and lent it to me, and in bed last night I started to read it and then had to immediately put it down, as you do when something has more truth in it than the moment it is held in. One of the things in this book is:
“I try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”
In case you had forgotten that being happy, being anything, isn’t a moment but a long-term project requiring hard work and more importantly, revision, here is Christmas break to remind you. Here it is with its hard and beautiful truth, kicking you in the shins, just in case you had forgotten you were alive.
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The shorts were covered in sequins and clung tight on her buttocks, rising high on the hips and leaving a slice of black, wobbly flesh in between her waistband and bra top. A woman put her hand over her mouth as Janelle passed the bus stop and she laughed: today, walking felt like her feet kissing the earth.
“Hey baby. Baby. Baby. We’re talking to you, baby.”
She felt the car trailing beside her and her body begin to tremble, and told herself sternly to stop.
“Don’t be so shy, baby. We’re only being friendly.”
She shuddered, her legs wobbling like a heat haze.
“Let’s check out the goods, boys.”
His hand met the sequinned shorts, and from her shaking mouth she felt the familiar fire erupt and spurt forth like a torrent of water. The car stood scorched like a toy engine devastated by a blowtorch, two dazed bodies inside, one trying to crawl away.
She bit her lip. Fuck it, she had to run, else she’d miss the starters.
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