The Next Big One

I think we were all kind of expecting someone else to go. I’ve found myself internally semi-squinting, waiting for ‘the next big one’ – the next person to go who would prompt national outpourings of distress. As my eyes trawl across some digi-obit or other I’ve muttered little mortality mantras – “Not Tom Hanks, Not David Attenborough, Not Judi Dench, Not Dolly Parton.” – ticking off names of people I love like prayer beads. This year feels steeped in the energy of portent, we might as well see the rest of it out without expecting some sort of cosmic kindness to kick in now.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about who we’d hate to hear had died. We compiled depressing little lists of awesome people whom it would be a great shame to lose. But of course the worst losses are those people who die ‘too young’. The people who don’t make it past an age of general acceptability, which gets a little older every year such is our insistence for living longer.

We were wrapping up our Christmas night, drowsy from our day of food and booze, when I saw that George Michael had died. 53. No age at all. I was staying at my mum’s so I ran up to her bedroom and shared the horrible news with her and my step-dad. That’s a nice way to thank them for a lovely day isn’t it; being the bedtime bearer of bad news. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then I went back downstairs and sat for a bit. It felt sort of apt hearing the news while I was with mum. We listened to George’s beautiful album Listen Without Prejudice over and over again together when it came out.

As I got ready for bed I tried to block out the horrible inevitable thought that one of the great Christmas songs, Last Christmas, was forever going to be tinged with a horribly apt sadness. George had just had his last Christmas. I’m sure we all were thinking similar. I’m sure a lot of people made the bad jokes too soon as well. Some people can’t resist thinking they’re some sort of great wit when actually they’re just a great twit and should stay quiet and resist the dreary puns gushing around their brains like sloppy shit.

It’s sad to lose people at Christmas.

But of course it’s just an ordinary day for the human body. A weak heart or a tumour or a blood clot won’t wait for the new year out of obligation to festive family feasts and our urge for sloth-like contentedness. Death waits for no one. It doesn’t just stand in the corner looking for the nod. There is no respectful time for our bodies to sever themselves from us, and that is what it is, a sort of parting of ways – our mind and our body. One day the body says “No, this is not how it’s going to work anymore, and for all your wonderful strength, dear Mind, you are powerless. I’m in charge now.”

Perhaps some of us feel these Christmas losses deeper because there is usually a strange sense of all normal business coming to a standstill for a day. When someone dies on or around Christmas, we feel betrayed, like security has been breeched, like fair play has been abandoned. The child inside us still believes in a great overarching fairness, despite everything we learn to the contrary in adult life. We unconsciously demand immunity from being mortal for the day, fool ourselves we are in closer contact with some sort of great magic, whatever our religious beliefs, there’s still surely some sort of magic, please. It is a day we trick ourselves we are somehow untouchable, swaddled in a sort of sanctity we are desperate for, like babies. “Just give us this one day in our impenetrable bubble.” We all want that, as the year draws to a close and the new year stretches out before us like the not-so-distant present with a bow on top.

But our bodies are still just our bodies, wonderful beautiful miraculous, intricate frail and finite, a gift we never quite make the most of before they bow out.

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Netflix Induced Murder Immunity

I know it’s not very Christmassy but I can’t stop thinking about murder. It’s not because I’ve just been in an M&S tussle, passive-aggressively battling with a lady in a goose-down gilet for the last filo pastry parcel selection and hoping she burns the turkey and/or dies. Horribly. And gets decapitated. And her head gets stuffed inside the turkey and they don’t find it until they finish pulling the meat from the bones five days after Christmas because it’s a really fucking big turkey and then, boom, oh Christ – Judith’s skull. No. It’s because I have been watching Dexter. That series about an American serial killer that everyone was banging on about years ago.

I don’t usually watch much stuff, but every now and then I get pulled down the rabbit-hole of a major series and everything else stops existing. Usually about a decade after everyone else has watched it. I like to think it’s because I’m an individual who doesn’t get swept along with the tide but it’s actually because I’m in a bit of a daze most of the time and it takes ten years to get me to go “Huh? Sorry, what were you saying in 2006?” So I finally succumbed to watching an episode of Dexter after lots of mates told me they liked it – grand recommendations like “Dexter saved me from a life of bunny-hugging benevolent optimism and opened my eyes to the innate evil in the world”, “We actually thought about naming LouLouBelle Dexter. But then her little winky dropped off and we realised it was just a bit of ham”, and “Dexter shits all over everything”, which as a plot descriptor is alarming but as an idiom of general enthusiasm can’t be bettered.

Anyway, one short sesh in bed down and I was hooked on this dirty Miami cop epic.

Last Christmas it was Breaking Bad. There I was, propping my eyes open until the wee small hours of the morning because I had to watch Just One More. Waking in the morning with a jump because I had had feverish dreams about shit going down at the meth factory and I simply had to watch the next episode to make sure everything was ok. I needed to know that the meth was ok and that Walter White was ok; that he hadn’t got arrested while I had been irresponsibly sleeping on the job in my real life. I annihilated the entire lot in about two weeks. It became a bit of a problem. I was a bit blinky and distracted and real life felt fake and Breaking Bad world felt real. I haven’t really watched much since then. I would’ve felt cheap, cheating on Walter so soon after our emotional goodbye. Plus I had stuff to do. You can’t put your life on hold for crystal meth, things get out of hand.

But now I’m hooked on Dexter and everything’s turned to murder. I cannot look at a bin-bag without assuming my neighbours are wronguns. “Bet there’s some dude’s fingers in that Dolmio jar”, I size up as I pass. I pass an alleyway and assume that in the shadows are some muscly Cubans with a grudge. I hear the theme music in my head, all the time, and can feel my spine prickle like a psychic hedgehog; I know that something killy is about to go down nearby. But it’s not the same as Dexter. Murder fantasies in Southend are a bit more like Danny Dyer Goes to the Seaside. More likely to get suffocated with a sausage roll than splayed on a beach in a ritualistic Santa Muerte glory kill with hispanic candles neatly arranged around your decapitated noggin. Murders are dead exotic in Miami. Sigh.

I’ve found the most worrying thing about being addicted to Dexter is not that you are prepared to forego urinating for eight hours until you’ve finished a season, but that you start caring for Dexter himself. You go on a journey with the characters that far exceeds anything that can be achieved by a two hour film and you start to absorb parts of it. Moral quandary ahoy. Because you want him to get away with it all. The murders. You can’t bear the thought of him getting caught and spending the rest of his life on Death Row. I mean, that’s not right is it? That’s pretty clever telly. Making a psychopath the hero; inciting you to care about someone who ends people’s lives. Making you think “Well, it’s only a bit of stabbing, hacking, chopping, and dumping the body in the sea. People do way worse in goosedown gilets in shopping queues at Christmas.” We are very murky creatures, us humans. No wonder we get ourselves in such pickles.

I’m not sure what I’ll do when it’s over. I probably won’t kill anyone. I don’t think. I might just rest my eyes for a year until the next big series drags me down the rabbit hole. Maybe think about watching something less stabby. But it’ll take me a while to stop thinking about killing in the meantime so, er, make a list and I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure there’s such a thing as Netflix Induced Murder Immunity, there must be.

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Loop-the-Loop Versions of Ourselves

“What’s your address? I want to send you something.”

Instant intrigue. When an old school friend asks you this question part of you is immediately hauled back a couple of decades to the time when you were most together. Your sprawling hectic languid teens, writing long stream of consciousness twaddle to each other about boys you double-fancy and what a total cowbag Amelia Fairweather is. I’ve got a bureau drawer stuffed full of old letters and notes and cards; biro squiggly throwbacks to a life before email. I like knowing they’re there, these old voices, parts of people preserved, time paused between the pages.

“It’s a letter.” 

Such an ordinary thing, and yet it isn’t. Not anymore. And when your friend doesn’t give you a hint of what the letter is about, your brain emits little spurts of permutations of possibility until the imagination gets out of puff and settles in for the two day wait for the postman. Old-school waiting.

When the letter arrived, I plucked it up from the mat and instantly sat down on the stairs to look at the envelope, to honour the loveburst of recognition I felt seeing my friend’s handwriting again. Handwriting has always been powerful, and never more so than when you haven’t seen it for years but know it as surely as you did back when you saw it every day. It is a tiny loop-the-loop version of ourselves, and is evocative and characterful as our faces hands or clothes.

I read the letter and cried. A three page splurge of a lot of things, memories and musings, about the girls we were, about the women we’ve become, about writing and theatre and old friends and struggles and love and our heads and the harm we can do to ourselves as women and the changes we hope to make in the world. I could hear her voice so clearly it was like the paper didn’t exist but that she was next to me on the stairs, getting things off her chest, her letter acting as tendrils of her visceral thought, audio turned ink.

A few days later I received something else in the post, this time from a friend I haven’t known for long but to whom I feel very close. The handwriting was new to me, we live in a world of typing now, homogenised neat and fonted text, but it still came with that delightful shock of familiarity, the person somehow perfectly represented by their long-baked scrawl, the writing style they chose as children, crafted and mangled by time and design and the mysterious language of our hands and subconscious and different pens and how much of a hurry we’re in.

My friend had offered to be a reader of my book, a thing I have been prodding at for a long time which I am bashing in its final edit before I force myself stop tinkering with it. It’s driven me nuts, many times. Books are ruddy hard. He had printed it out, kept it in a filing box, and had devotedly written notes on the pages, a heart-warming mix of short and long thoughts and hand-scrawled emojis. Then he sent it back. Here was my book, decorated in the handwriting of a friend I love and trust, who had been kind and helpful. Plus a typed letter of notes. Plus a photo diary written from the perspective of the book itself whose pages had been on adventures on trains and in cars and was finished sat on the Turbine Hall floor of the Tate Modern. It made me laugh and cry and snot a bit. It was just what I needed, right at the right time, to help me get the buggering stupid head-fucking book about my dead dad finished. Finally.

We can’t all be together all the time. Our lives move on, we live in different spaces, we rarely come together as often as we’d like to. We are not those teens clasped together in a small world made up of nearby streets, nascent freedom, and scant obligation. We are grown up. And the way we choose to stay and be in each others’ lives is important. And sometimes it is in that slow stretched out hand of ink that enters your heart quicker and speaks louder and closer and arrests your ear more than any email in any inbox.

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Hot Shit

“I thought you were just going to lob that.” I turned with my bag of poo. “What? Why?” The bag of poo swung louchely from my fingers as if to say “Lob me. I want it. Make me the shotput of the poo world, you filthy slut.” I resisted telling it to behave itself because the day you start talking to poo in a bag is the day people start officially worrying. And not in a polite “have this fisherman’s friend and a little sit down” way but in an “I wonder what go-getting goodwill services might be called to best deal with this” sort of a way. I imagine it’s got its own NHS extension number: “Press one for wilful nudity in the conservation area, two for talking to faeces, three for ballroom dancing with an Aldi trolley named Helga.” I say imagine; the NHS isn’t what it was.

I should point out before things get really dark that it was the freshly plopped poo of my hound and not my own out on a jaunty daytrip. I am no outdoorsy coprophiliac with bags to spare. I had just picked it steaming from the cold pavement and the person I was with thought I might be the kind of person who, once they’ve gone to the effort of ridding the walkways of canine turds, might then fling the encased excrement into a tree. “What would you have done if I had lobbed it?” I asked. “Laughed”, they said. And I laughed too, even though my left eye twitched a bit.

Inside was that dual feeling of “What kind of heathen do you think I am?” and “Huh. You think I’m a bit of a renegade.” And even if it’s just related to hot poo in a thin bag, it’s always nice to know someone thinks you’re a bit dangerous. It’s this quiet sense of power that accompanies me on all my kills.

Not really. For the limp truth is I’ve always struggled with ‘being bad’. I was too much of a pleaser as a kid to want to be naughty. And the instances of being bad have almost all been accidental, acts carried out without thinking that were mostly followed up with neck-freezing panic or guilt. I once spent a day circa 1993 in tearful self-flagellation because I had doodled a (mostly) anatomically correct diagram on my desk (the retro lid-up kind that now commands upwards of £100 from people in deliberate cravats) of a couple having ‘fruitful relations’ (fucking unprotected and getting up the duff; nice one). There on my desk sprawled an uncomfortable but determined penis curving itself up into a very serious looking vagina, with a cross-section of the egg being resplendently fertilised by a jolly little tadpole with a face. The couple weren’t even looking at each other; I don’t even think I gave them hands. It was a very British fertilisation. “Come on Brenda, less of the kissing, let’s get this done before Top Gear.” On a scale of nil to erotic it was Kama Sutra for Kids and a quarter. And I made myself sick over it. I thought my life was over; half an hour of science-based recklessness would lead to expulsion, infamy, and a life of sucking cock on the means streets for bread & the occasional orange. I didn’t realise then in my darkest hour that my form teacher and stern headmistress were probably laughing at my psychedelic Fallopian tubes and everything would blow over by Double French.

I find it hard to throw this otherwise well-behaved child into the cellar of oblivion to liberate myself for moments of tomfoolery and mischief. My bad girl moments are appended by an awareness of how bad I’m being, which I’m sure mostly negates it. I mean just minor acts of harmless rebellion that remind you you are not owned by the system, not kicking kids in the face to get them off the swings or robbing Poppy Appeal tins. Cool bad, not bad bad. That’s bad. 

Last week I did my play Fran & Leni at the Railway Hotel, a perfect setting for a play about 1976 girl punks. My character Leni is a little tyke, no stranger to the mischief of the streets, she swears and spits and urinates standing up. Playing her feels…naughty. I enjoyed the night’s liberation, but I felt more myself when I went back the next day and cleaned up. I picked up some gum I’d spat out – even in all my punking I’d memorised with Rain Woman radar where it had fallen – and for a brief moment I allowed my inner schoolgirl to see me as I am now; the 36 year old writer, spitting out her gum, still testing herself and figuring out who she is. And I suppose that’s not a bad way of combining the good and the bad. Have a bit of fun, feel the flexing of freedom, be a bit punk, but clean up your own bloody mess, whether it be poo in a bag, gum, or a doodle of depraved fornication in an educational establishment. You can always use pencil, kids.