On My Belly: New & Blank

I am lying on my belly, camping out in our new lounge. We got the keys to the flat but because we’ve been very laissez-faire about the whole thing our removal man is not booked for a while, so til then we’re squatting like anarchist hippies. Except we have electricity and loo roll and an overwhelming mortgage shackling us to the bureaucratic strata of society.

Matt’s gone to work and I am writing this in an old vest and peeling blue nail varnish. I feel tatty but strangely new – and pretty darn edgy without any furniture to make me feel twee and domesticated. I might look to a passing eye like I could be typing out the new communist manifesto to distribute in the streets while a dreadlocked man called Bosh makes a bomb nearby out of washing up liquid on a handwoven rug from Peru, but I’m not. I’m keeping it light and friendly for the paper while simultaneously googling shower curtains that don’t have fish, dolphins or boats on them. (Are there any? Do they exist?)

I lie slightly. We are not completely without furniture. We do have a few fold-up garden chairs to see us through – we’re in our thirties for god’s sake; our coccyxes can’t take too much romantic loafing on hard floors – but the chairs creak ominously and I don’t want my first day in the new place to be marked by me breaking a family deckchair and feeling like a big old bigbutt. I figured the floor can take my weight better because it’s accustomed to heavy sofas and wardrobes, and I’m not quite a wardrobe so here I lie.

I’m looking out at trees, the topper most bit of canopy from the park opposite is like someone has removed our windows and replaced them with a pentaptych of a technicolour Turner painting. I like the fact I can sit here in whatever state I choose and not be seen. In a bleach-splotched towel, butt-naked and scratching my left boob, in a dress I haven’t got the guts to wear in public, in Matt’s old Iron Maiden T-shirt that makes me feel like I’m being dared by the devil to shout at kittens and old ladies. The only thing that will see me is the trees. And they have better things to whisper about than my love handles.

I’m only taking time to reflect quite so romantically because I have run out of cleaning to do. I had satisfied my OCDs within the first few hours of being here and then scratched around idly looking for limescale I could pick off. I’m only writing this because I was in danger of giving myself a cilit bang chemical peel.

We looked at a lot of flats on the route to this one. I fell in love with at least four others – I’m a floosy for rooms – but Matt remain untouched by them all. Until he walked in here. Then I saw something fall across his face that gave it all away. He’d stayed stoney-faced around lots of otherwise lovely properties, but something about this place lit him up like a lantern. He wanted to be here. And so did I. And, after months of solicitors conspiring against us with their unfathomably rude ineptitude, here we are, being here.

Space is so important isn’t it. Where we choose to be, and how it inspires us to be within it. I’m rather glad we’ve got these lush few days of squatting, of having no stuff, of living in emptiness. Our space and time stretched out like a fresh white page before us, new and blank for the choosing.

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Procrasti…(eats cake)…nation

I have been trying to write this column about procrastination for the last two hours but every time I’m almost ready to type, something crops up. First it was the last slice of Victoria Sponge that I knew I hadn’t wrapped up properly. I went and ate that to save on cling film. Then it was that picture that wasn’t straight that had been bugging me for ages. I made that worse. Then it was all that sitting I had to do. That was quite pressing. I did the sitting, and the picture, and the cake, and then some other stuff I can’t even remember now, and my column still stared at me, its empty landscape judging me. Even when my editor emailed to tell me to pull my finger out, I went to water my peace lily first in case it got thirsty while I was writing.

And now I’m writing. Hullo.

Normally the writing of my column is one of the best parts of my week. I like the focus it gives my mind; it’s a moment of clarity no matter how busy I am. But today, I don’t mind telling you my brain is a little frazzled, even though I’m sat here, still and quiet, primed to write.

I suspected I might be a bit frazzled the other day when I got into my best friend’s car, settled myself and my bags in the seat, turned to say hello to her, and burst into tears. She looked quite alarmed. I composed myself enough to tell her that I was okay, perfectly happy, but just overwhelmed by how much stuff there was going on.

She didn’t look very convinced, so I reeled off a list of things to fill her in and to assure her that I was ok and just had just had a little blip, probably because she smelled nice and had a kind face. I made the following amount of sense:

“I’m fine, wench, honest. (Snort.) It’s just been (sniff) one of those mornings. (Sudden ascent into a pitch for dogs.) I was trying to (an Alsatian barks at the car window) and then (mutter into sleeve) and it wasn’t even like I (wipe away mascara streaks) so that’s all really, (breathe) and I’m fine now. Let’s go. Sorry.”

The sensical essence of which was this: I am writing a book about my Dad. He died ten years ago this month. The book is very hard to do but if I don’t finish it I will be really cross at myself forever. I think I am very nearly done. I have probably deleted as many words as I have written, and I’m currently on 84 thousand. It’s taken a while to get right. It feels like the only thing I will ever be able to do to tell him that I love him. I am about to move out of the flat that my Dad bought years ago, have recently searched for and possibly found the AWOL freeholder that will make the sale possible, and the cutting of these ties is stirring up ghosts. I was recently contacted by a tracing company who think Dad might have left some money but won’t tell me anything yet, which feels odd to have occurred around the ten year anniversary, and odder because he always said there was money but never told us where and given the nature of his death we never had the strength to play detective. Junk mail in his name has recently turned up even though it never has before. And then when I got in my best friend’s car my Dad’s song ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ was playing. He seems to be everywhere, in everything – admin and nature – tying his own loose ends up and I have to let it happen. I have to move on.

None of this is bad stuff, as such. But all together it feels quite big. And the bigness of it all, the collected emotional mass of it all is making it hard to focus on individual things, like my column. Which I love doing, and now, by sharing all that with you, have done.

Sometimes things are just daunting, aren’t they. And it feels nice to share them with people, doesn’t it?
That’s all.

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Gary Barlow Stabs Puppies

There was a time when the slightest thing made me cry. An old man eating alone in a greasy spoon. A crushed snail. A crisp advert. That Extreme song played to death in the 90s where one dude sings low and the other dude sings high and there’s no drums. I was a wailer; my tear glands prolific, my ducts Niagaran ravines. I had a promiscuous humanity that didn’t discern much between true global tragedy and a dead bee. I’m surprised I didn’t get punched more.

As you get older, and life gets real, you start to realise you can’t well up every time something is a bit moving. With maturity you begin to realise that your tears don’t do anyone any good, that they are unproductive, and actually, in certain situations, insulting and inappropriate. You learn to hold in the tears. You grow up. Eventually you find your eyeballs can remain dry through moving film denouements and sometimes even people dying. Realising that most of the processes of sadness actually happen inside, you start keeping it all in there for good measure. Like an eerily quiet smokeless factory.

Then every now and then you find yourself watching X Factor with a fat glass of Chenin Blanc and you forget all that tasteful restraint you’ve scaffolded around yourself. You watch a lady in her 40s weeping because the next song is her last chance to do anything with her dreams, and you erupt. You weep for her life, her kids, and the mascara goo wibbling in her eye.

I did just that the other day. I caught an episode of X Factor and a bird started crying and that’s it, I was off. It helped that she was a good singer. There isn’t time to cry over the bad ones. The editing doesn’t let you. I blubbed, then watched another episode and blubbed again. I enjoyed it. I think some other sadnesses and possibly an old boot came flying out too.

Last night I was lured again by the memory of that release. I watched another episode.
But this time I didn’t cry. I didn’t even want to cry. I got cross. The whole ruddy lot of them were weeping and wailing like Gary Barlow had just stabbed some puppies in front of their faces. And he hadn’t. Gary Barlow hadn’t stabbed puppies. These people were crying for themselves.

I wanted to puke. It is one thing to candidly share snippets of your life and become momentarily overwhelmed by emotion and adrenaline. I suspect once through the first audition round these guys are kept teetering on the brink by a cleverly prepped production team. Fine. It is what it is.

But to publicly wail that you don’t know what you’ll do if you have to go back to your old life, back to your old job, to completely disregard your pre-television existence as entirely worthless, is a deplorable insult to pretty much everyone. It does a dump on the daily routine of most of the country. The people getting up early and earning money from something that doesn’t excite them or make them feel ‘special’. What’s wrong with stacking shelves or working in a call centre? When did it become so bad to be ordinary? When did it become not enough to be made to feel special by the people who know and love you rather than the fickle voters of a heavily constructed show?

As long as humans have souls there will always be a cleft between being an individual and being part of a race, but if the pursuit of dreams becomes something that negates our more common mode of being ‘in it’ together, we’ll forget how to be happy together, and we won’t be happy alone.

And that would definitely be something to cry about.

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Decade: Hello & Goodbye

While on tour with my boy last week I made a stop off just outside Bristol to visit my nan. I don’t make the trip as often as I’d like and my busyness and bad excuses sit uncomfortably in my heart between visits. Reasons and excuses, weeks months years. Humans have a knack, most of the time, for spending a lot of their time prioritising their time wrongly.

But there I found myself, a convenient stone’s throw away with some time on my hands, a granddaughter’s guilty coal burning in my chest and a nice boyfriend to introduce, sitting among my grandmother’s familiar things. The whittled remainders of a downsized life. Decorative plates on the wall, ornaments I nearly broke a thousand times, a fridge full of souvenir magnets from places she’s never visited, photos.

Dad on the mantelpiece in his university cap and gown, beaming proudly, boozily.

Nan’s a real talker – ring the bell and she’s off on a three hour patchwork monologue about Everything Ever before she’s even opened the door. She was on good form. She squeezed in family anecdotes, how she never thought Granddad was that handsome actually (eyes are strange things – he looked like a film star to me), politicians, immigrants, new televisions, motorised scooters, her feet, her legs, her hands, how in the WAF she was once two days late escorting some girls to an RAF dance because she allowed one of them to stop off to visit family, hot cross buns, the helpful staff in Waitrose, and would I like her marble lamp when she dies because it’ll just get thrown otherwise.

“I said to your Dad, I said, “Michael, I need a lamp. This one’s broke.” And he said “Mum, I’ll get you a lamp.” And he did. And that’s the lamp. Now do you want it when I go or it’ll just get chucked.”

I said yes to the lamp, said yes to the wait for the lamp, said yes to my Dad’s choice of lamp to replace the broken lamp, said yes to a thing I wouldn’t choose myself for the sake of saying yes, yes to the DNA that sits upon it like indelible invisible proof that he and she were here.

She was off again, onto another tour de force of the state of the nation and baking. All I could think about was the lamp. The time to leave arrived quietly at that natural juncture that opens up in chat like an escape portal back to convenience, wrong priorities, getting back on the road before the M25 turns into the maws of Hell. I think I just selfishly found being there hard.

I left her with flowers and chocolates and a card for her birthday. For tomorrow. She waved me off from her front door, the pristine welcome mat, the unneeded knocker. Cheeriness masking the fact it could be our last wave.

We had chosen not to address the elephant in the room, the shame-faced beast that lumbered guiltily around trying not to smash the china.

Ten years ago tomorrow, Dad died. Nan’s birthday. A bad day to choose to die really, but chose he did when he ended a long struggle with depression. It’s been a difficult decade, and now at the end of it I am assured of only one thing. I don’t believe in goodbyes. I don’t think we can do them, not really. Humans are bad at it. Like elephants. Our capacity to love and to remember prevents us. Our capacity to mourn is immeasurable. So I’m glad that after so long trying in vain to say goodbye, I took the time, got my priorities right, and said hello instead.

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Calm Journey, No Killings

It’s hard to stare dreamily at the sky when you’re stuck behind a bunch of BMW-driving twits thrusting at each other in stop-start traffic on the A1. Hard to stare out of the window and muse on the nature of journeys as some pillock whacks his hazards on and you’re neck-cricked back into the mundanity of the UK’s infrastructure and the tiresomeness of humans in general. It’s almost impossible to reflect on life and beauty and all that when you’re mostly fantasising about killing the tractor-driver up ahead who’s causing all this chaos; this hokey-cokey for cars.

It is sometimes in cars that you come to see how compatible you are with your partner. Some people find out slowly in their own homes, or hotels, or fancy restaurants, or family functions (if your partner belches his way through The Lord Is My Shepherd at your great nan’s funeral, for example – you might be encouraged to question the future of your union). Sometimes you can get the measure of a man in a car. Something about the confined space creates an almost laboratorial effect around a couple; the car tests you both.

Now, I always, as a rule, prefer it if a man doesn’t threaten suicide alongside the central reservation halfway to Manchester, or kick a satnav off the windscreen when he’s feeling a bit narked. That might just be me. I’m a bit sensitive that way. So it was with relief that Matt and I made it to Newcastle last week without me nervously chewing myself an internal dimple.

I navigated. This is a posh way of saying I read out the bulletpoints we printed off Google. Matt doesn’t like sat-navs. I respect him for this. In my experience sat-navs are mischievous, megalomaniacal, or just plain rude.

Test one was the CDs. I picked them. He let me. Impressive.

Test two was how soon after our leaving breakfast would we cave and confess to each other that we wanted to break open the packed lunch. I’m glad to report that we both lasted under an hour and so were our foundations strengthened; it is against human nature to ignore beef and mustard sandwiches, even if you have just had a full English. If one of us had been a low-carb carrot-wielding chub-watcher who wanted to wait til evensong to eat a slice of marrow we’d have probably broken up before we hit Peterborough.

Test three was a little more hardcore. I stupidly decided to stick my nose in Matt’s neck during a dicy bit of the roundabout leading onto the M25. Most men would be forgiven for shouting at me or for careering into an obstructive Honda then blaming me forever. Matt stayed calm and even managed to take the right exit without making me remove my nose from his earlobe. It was like he would rather we died than offend me, which is sweet.

We got to Newcastle, tackled inner-city ringroads, an NCP, and a Travelodge, and I realised at the end of it all, as we locked the car and stretched our legs, that I felt calm. That Matt, although a bit frazzled from driving, mostly just wanted to make sure I was okay. That I just wanted to make sure he was okay, better than okay – happy. And I thought that was a pretty good sign. If a six hour journey on the A1 with a load of cretins remains mostly unremarkable but for realising you are at long last content and peaceful with someone, then that’s pretty good going.

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