The small woman pulls open the accordion door of the lift.
“The lift has only broken down once in four years, ” she says, twice, and I notice something about her, the dense green sheen of her eyeshadow, or maybe the cheerfulness in her eyes. There’s a soft silence as we push our bodies into the small, metallic space, our eyes fixed on the strips of light and darkness as we move past the floors, towards the soft familiar sounds of old music.
It is dusk and the room is inviting, with its warm dim lights and wooden floorboards. On one side the city skyline stretches out through large and generous windows. It is dark purple and warm pink, at once imperious and gentle, pierced by the sharp lines of the Shard. It’s been a while since I last came to this swing class. A few weeks ago the days were longer, sun streamed through the windows, and I danced, eyes closed, wishing these blissful Sunday afternoons would never end.
The faces in the room are familiar, still. There’s Y, the smiling frenchman, and A with his quiffy mohawk and black piercings. His girlfriend Bug gives me a hug, her pretty round doll’s face framed by a green floral shirt and an inky scarf tied artfully in her short red hair. F is there, of course, with the pale skin and dark circles that have shadowed me from Shoreditch to Farringdon, Angel to Bethnal Green. E stands like a gauche praying mantis, all long limbs and open happy features, a small pork pie hat pushed back on his head.
After class we head for the pub across the road. The barmaid has bottle black hair and orange skin; her accent is thick and heavy. On a stool by the bar sits a fat persian cat, his face screwed up in disdain as I stroke his grey and white fur. “He’s a pedigree, he is. He never leaves the pub,” says the old man on the stool next to him. His eyes are glassy and his nose is bulbous and red.
We are tired and sweaty, and we sit with the awkwardness of strangers who have been in each other’s arms. I am fond of them, these familiar acquaintances, fond of their enthusiasm for dancing and laughing and things that are warm and bright. All around the room are portraits of dogs in military uniform. A lone rubber spider hangs by the side of the bar, a remnant of Halloween. Fairy lights have been strung around the window: red, green and blue – a blinking, colourful frame for the sickly potted plant and the greying man who sit beneath it. He is slumped in his seat in brown corduroy trousers. There are wisps of white hair on his chin and temples, and something in his face, something in the grey papery pallor of his skin and the sunken line of his lips tells me with certainty that he has months, maybe weeks to live. Red, green and blue. Blink, blink, blink.
The old man with the bulbous nose shuffles over to the jukebox and feeds it a few coins. He pokes at the buttons, leans back against the bar, opens his arms wide, and sings:
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me.
Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.
The more perceptive of you might have noticed that Autumn has hit the UK with the full force of a drunken lout running straight into the window of a kebab shop. #winteriscoming, readers, and I am woefully unprepared for it. The sudden change in temperature has left me wondering where my jumpers are (answer: in storage in Edinburgh), why I only seem to have one glove out of every pair (answer: pathological idiocy) and why oh why I moved back to Europe (answer: lunacy).
Thankfully the season does have its charms. We tried to light a fire in the chimney a few days ago, which was wonderfully atmospheric and comforting for the three and a half minutes it lasted. Basic survival skills: we r doin it rong. When all else fails, I say, retreat to the duvet with a hot water bottle and a pile of books. Here are my autumn reads:
What I did, by Christopher Wakling
The adult world fraying at the seams seen from the point of view of 6 year old Billy. The narrative device could have been cloying, but the author, whose sage advice I was lucky to receive on the Curtis Brown Creative course I attended earlier this year, handled it deftly and with a brutal commitment that left me on the edge of my seat. There are also some great stories and drawings on Billy’s blog.
Verre Cassé, by Alain Mabanckou
I tried to read this in English and gave up miserably after the first few pages. The version originale is riotous and unrelenting, a vision of a Congo broken and exultant, grotesque and heartbreaking.
L’Homme à l’envers, by Fred Vargas
Fred Vargas is my literary crush of 2012. I inhaled all of her books in the space of a few obsessive weeks. This is crime writing at its most poetic and subtle. Commissaire Adamsberg solves crimes by taking long walks and observing seagulls, and in this chapter of his adventures he tracks a werewolf through the French wilderness. Eternal thanks to Emma for introducing me to the series. In English here.
The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
I’ve just started reading this but I am already enthralled by the writing, its buoyancy and radiance. I am forcing myself to read this slowly and to savour every page. I want to lie my head on its shoulder and let it lull me into peacefulness.
I am feeling delicate.
I sat at my computer yesterday morning, my hair coarse and untamed, pressing my fingers against my temples. I had not slept. I tried to explain this to my mother, who was looking at me disapprovingly and with a hint of concern from her side of the Skype call.
“It’s the peacock,” I said.
My feet were raw, bloated and blistered from stumbling home from Soho after too many small, sparkling glasses of Prosecco. I rubbed my toes gently against each other. It had tasted of summer.
When I first moved to this leafy South London suburb, I was excited about the peacock. “Peakie,” my flatmate calls him. He doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. I knew he was there, somewhere in the collection of neat, English gardens my flat looks down on; I could hear him cawing out from his hiding place whenever the rain eased for long enough. I first saw him on the roof of the little house next door, silhouetted against the creeping dusk, looking into our living room. He was improbable, with his shrunken head and strong, elegant claws. When he flew, briefly, over to the roof of our building I saw the soft blue green of his belly, and the heavy drag of his tail feathers fanned out in the air.
That evening I’d removed my shoes as I reached my street. It seemed like such a long walk from the night bus stop. I tread carefully, avoiding sharp twigs and anything that sparkled in the dark. The night smelled sweet: the rich, heavy scent of trees in bloom and warm air on bare skin.
That’s when I heard him – a long, strident scream bouncing off the empty roads. I rolled my eyes. Peakie is a bastard. He is like the neighbour who listens to loud dustep on quiet Sunday mornings, or bangs his door at 3 am. Working from home, I spend too much time in his loud, obnoxious company. He is needy, always cawing for this thing and that, always keen to make his presence known. “I am here,” he shouts. “I exist. I am a peacock.”
At home I dumped my shoes in the hall and filled a glass of water in the dark. I heard him again. It was shorter, more insistent this time. I lay in bed and closed my eyes against the nauseated feeling in my stomach, grateful to be home, waiting for the oblivion of sleep. Then he cawed again. It was pained, agonised. There was something wrong. I peered out the window in the gloom but there was nothing to see, just the lazy flap of tarpaulin at the construction site next door. By 5 am my nerves were frayed, electric, my eyes wide open in anguish. The cawing had gone on all night, in five minute intervals, tearing the night apart. I got dressed and stumbled down the stairs, still dizzy, blinking at the dawn. Was Peakie hurt? Trapped or locked somewhere, crying out in despair? I walked impotently round the back garden, trying to see where he was, shaken by each new piercing screech. I imagined him struck to the ground, a broken wing flapping senselessly, easy prey for a rogue fox or cruel child.There was nothing I could do.
Later that morning the cawing stopped. Sleep was elusive. I was listless. I dragged myself to the computer again, and googled.
Peacocks can be noisy; they have a very loud high-pitched meow like call. They call a lot during the mating season (early spring to early autumn). Dawn and late evening is a favourite time for this.
Peakie was just randy. Is he wild, domesticated? I doubt there are peahens in his life, or even other peacocks, should he be that way inclined.
So every now and then when I catch his cry, harsh and heartbreaking, I can’t help thinking of the anxiety of peacocks: to die alone, on a warm summer night, with only the sound of your own voice for company.
It’s sublime. Just go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time. Where all your weaknesses of character and blemishes of personality and whatever else torments you fades away. Just doesn’t matter.
Maurice Sendak on making books and pictures. Video here.
I think I mentioned somewhere I’m currently taking the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. It’s been a wonderful experience, if you are the sort of person who thinks stubbing your toe repeatedly against stray bed posts, strumming your face with a cheese grater or flushing your own head down the toilet is wonderful. It has been, I think, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, this daily facing of my own foibles and inadequacies, this constant fight against apathy and self-loathing.
This week, we were treated to a presentation by author Jojo Moyes, who recently won the popular vote of Richard and Judy’s book club for her novel Me Before You. She was an eloquent, funny, and inspiring speaker, and this, I think, was the gist of her message:
Just sit down and write the damn thing. And turn the stupid internet off.
She recommended Freedom, a piece of software that locks you out of the internet for your own good, but I am not brave enough for it yet. Besides, I need the internet for research. See the image above for proof – all of these searches were for the book, apart from maybe “carrot coconut cake Hummingbird” and (ahem) “Adam Brody”, which was entirely fellow CBC student Sarah’s fault.
If you’re after insight into writing and publishing, want some book recommendations, or simply like to shed little tears in pleasure at other people’s well deserved success, go check out Jojo’s blog. It is lovely.
NOW GET OFF THE STUPID INTERNET.
There’s an old cherry tree in the Jardin des Plantes, stubby and gnarly like an old woman with its branches reaching all the way down to the ground. For a few weeks it blooms in the Spring. If I were 16 again I would skip class to go there and kiss boys and have not a care in the world.
I wrote a little something for the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.
Read it here.
The ourangutan sits slumped at the walnut dining table. It’s obviously been a bad night. There are broken plates everywhere, stuff spilling out from the slack-hinged cabinet against the wall. The geese – they’re fucking huge, the sort of thing that could peck your eyes out just by looking at you – are still partying hard. No one knows who invited them. The camels are so high they’re eating the house plants, and the lapdogs have fashioned robes out of some cashmere scarves. There’s talk of karaoke.
Drug-fuelled hallucination? Perhaps. This was the scene in one of the windows at the newish Hermès Rive Gauche store near the Lutétia. I love me a good Hermès window. I think that if I were horrendously rich I would want to live like this, in a riot of thick woolen carpets, taxidermy and leather saddles. I’d move from room to room swaddled in silks and cashmere, rinse my teeth in Champagne, and get minions to strew dead leaves and black pearls the size of my fist on my path. I would be, in fact, Leila Menchari, the designer who has been doing Hermès’ windows since 1977.
In my unspent youth I worked at Hermès, in the flagship store on the Faubourg St Honoré. Several times a year the blinds would be drawn, the windows shielded from the prying eyes of the public. “She’s here”, we’d whisper, and there was an unspoken rule that She should not be disturbed. Apparently when Leila came she would lie in the window displays, behind the closed blinds, reclining languorously with a glass of champagne in one hand. She would say:
Je cherche ma muse.
I’m looking for my muse.
This newer store is really quite lovely, a bright open space moulded by large yurt-like structures, set against the mosaic walls of the swimming pool it used to be.
There’s a florist so you’re greeted by the sweet smell of fresh flowers when you enter, a café (completely empty when I went, cakes looked delicious from afar) and a book section that featured this gem:
Bestiaire du Gange, a ridiculously beautiful bestiary screenprinted by hand in India on thick grainy paper. More pictures here and here. I wants it. I needs it. I lusts for it, still, 10 days later. It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.
Where: Hermès Rive Gauche, 17 rue de Sèvres, Paris 6ème. Métro Sèvres-Babylone
Tip: The Hermès stores are a little bit intimidating from the outside, but the staff is always unwaveringly friendly. If sweaty American tourists in shorts with bumbags full of crumpled euros can shop there, anyone can.
My BMF* is getting married this week end. In Paris. It’s going to be a very civilised affair: the groom will wear a standard suit (“maybe no tie”), the blushing bride will sport a seven month bump, and from what I can tell the very extensive programme of activities will mainly consist of a quick dash to the mairie followed by a lot of champagne.
Vive la République!
Now that I’m living in London, it’s an excellent excuse to try the Eurostar. Yes, I know, the thing has been going since 1994, but I have never professed to be on the cutting edge of, well, anything really.
1. The logic that made me decide to stay for a week to take advantage of cheap mid week tickets is flawed. Ticket cost: £70. Daily cake allowance: £10.50. Cost to thighs: endless.
2. Train station hell is the new airport hell. Yes, St Pancras is very lovely with its lofty high ceilings and exposed bricks and champagne bar, but get to the gates and all hell breaks loose. British people and French people queuing. TOGETHER. If I knew anything about physics I would make some sort of witty analogy involving neutrons and hadron colliders and things that explode when they come into contact with one another. But I’m not, so I will just say DO NOT CUT IN FRONT OF ME IN THE LINE, PUTAIN DE BORDEL DE MERDE.
3. Crowded train travelling at high speed in a thin man made tube under millions of cubic meters of salty water. Why can I take liquids on the Eurostar and not on planes? Discuss.
4. Since when is £100 worth €101? It is the end of days, people. THE END OF DAYS.
5. The Pain Quotidien at St Pancras is the most crowded of the food and beverage outlets. We belgo-french sneer at your Wheterspoons and your fish burgers. Your crappy conveyer belt sushi, too.
6. Let us not talk of the train boarding experience. It is similar in feel to being packed in a metal tin next to your fishy friends in a pungent tomato provençale sauce, but with the bonus treat of being shouted at over the intercom in two languages. And loud annoying people talking on the phone about “incentivising bottom lines.” And french grannies moaning and tutting. Gaaaaaaah.
7. The countryside between London and the tunnel is bleak.
8. There is a disappointing moment when you realise you are already in the tunnel under the sea. There’s no announcement, no warning, no klaxon. Just 20 minutes of dark concrete walls, during which you have to admit to yourself you were hoping against hope for see through glass walls. Let me also direct your attention to the complete lack of wifi or electrical sockets. You suck, Eurostar engineers.
9. The countryside between the tunnel and Paris is bleak.
10. Gare du Nord. What the actual shit. Welcome, wealthy foreigners! We are a third world country. Please donate your local copper coins so we may invest in, oh I don’t know, signage/waiting areas/soap/customer service agents who speak to the customer rather than each other/ceilings/trains. At least the Vigipirate** level was sufficiently low that there were no machine gun toting
death squads military milling about for that “Welcome to Kinshasa” feel.
Anyway, I am here and enjoying a diet of mostly animal fats, so I doubt there will be much bloggage for the foreseeable future. I may do a follow up post on the wonders of Paris (cheap public transport! streets paved with croissants pur beurre! philosophy magazines at the corner shop!) but don’t hold your breath.
* Best Male Friend, not Bad MoFo. Quoique.
**Vigipirate is France’s national security alert system, intended to prevent or react to terrorist threat. Because nothing makes you feel safer than, hmmm, a vigilant pirate. Arrrrrrrr.
I’ve been back in the UK for a week and suffering lightly, I think, from reverse culture shock. There’s nothing like a prolonged absence to bring the incongruities of every day life into sharp focus.
Take this ad spread at the back of Red Magazine (the magazine for stylish living), for instance:
On the left: skanky secretary ho’ hard sells cut-price undergarments while playfully covering her bare groinal area.
On the right: stoned vegan with the scintillating personality of a ferret models “incredibly stylish” mumu handwoven from deck chairs and sweat. Special mention goes to the doodle logo and completely unrelated URL, which I triple dare you to visit.
Advertising. ur doing it wrong.
In Edinburgh daylight is slow to come. I stumble around my flat, my body avoiding door frames and shelves, my fingers instinctively finding light switches in the dark. I can hear mice scurrying behind the skirting boards, in those still, wakeful hours stolen by jetlag. It’s almost comforting.
I have been back from Asia for three days. On Wednesday I crashed, literally, at a dreary airport hotel in Heathrow, wrecked with fatigue, exasperation at having missed my connecting flight, the sorrow of goodbyes. A mirror image of my trip out a year and a half ago. It is like being made to spin on yourself for several hours, then being shoved forward and asked to run in a straight line. The world, this new world of cold and grey, of strange acrid and smoky smells, is this my world? Everything is surprising and slightly off. I open the tap and ice cold water flows out. I cast around for somewhere to hide my food, then remember there are no ants to eat it. My skin is dry and stinging. There are no bottles of distilled water in the room, because tap water is good enough to drink. In the morning I wander to the nearest cash point, the cold biting at my skin through the inadequate layers of clothing. I marvel at the thick fog, because I had completely forgotten that fog existed.
For a few days now I have been reeling from the shock of this transplantation. I’ve caught myself longing for the days of slow travel, wishing I’d had weeks to acclimatise myself to the thought of going home, to soothe my mind and body with the slow progress of clouds on endless waves. Everything here is similar and yet changed, familiar but foreign, same same but different. The city, my beloved, sparkly, blustering Edinburgh, is greyer and dirtier than I remember. Dark corners and old men smell of urine and despair. The high street seems broken by the endless, aborted tramworks and the spectre of the recession. Everyone looks so pale, so sickly, bundled up as they are in shapeless, colourless coats and grim expressions. After a year and a half my feet trace the map of the city centre on their own; old routines and habits resurface slowly.
I miss the Siem Reap of ten days ago, the sweet salty taste of caramel cashew nut ice cream, the semi-darkness of the airport during the afternoon’s blackouts, the quiet, the warmth. I miss, viscerally, the Singapore I couldn’t stand to live in, the ridiculous glowy glowering mass of the Merlion over the bay, fatty porky lechon on the Esplanade, cold fresh coconut juice, falling asleep in the flickering lights by the pool as the city whispers and thrums around me.
I am, clearly, a miserable moaning git. I whine, relentlessly, about my trunk full of diamond shoes. I have the freedom and means to live and work in at least 28 countries, a passport filled with memories and possibilities, friends and family who envelop me in their warmth and shelter. In a few days I start a writing course at Curtis Brown, and the thought fills me with pride and lightness and joy. There is no time for sadness, or regret, no room for self indulgence. At night, in the dark, I let the fatigue sink into my limbs, weighing me deep into the blankets, anchoring me from what is pulling at me this way and that, here and there.
It’s occurred to me recently that my parents are lunatics.
I’m sure most people have thought this about a relative at some point in their lives. There is always a slightly batty uncle, or a sister prone to mild hysteria. I used to think of my parents as pleasingly eccentric, full of life, lame jokes and adventure, but I’ve recently had the misfortune of prolonged exposure to both of them, over the phone with my father in DC, and with my mother here in Cambodia.
There they are, above, the man in the disturbingly short shorts and the glossy haired woman brandishing the bananas. This was in Rwanda, in the early eighties, after we’d left France and before Sweden, one stop on what seems now like a mad dash to live in as many countries and continents as possible. Back then my parents used to tell me they’d found me in a trash can. (And who could blame them, really? That’s me there, on the right, looking a bit like a gnome, a cancerous cross- eyed male gnome.*)
They are full of this stuff, my parents. Samples from recent conversations:
Mum: “See that chicken over there? The pretty one with the black and white feathers? She looks nice like this, but she’s traumatised. When she was little she was gang raped by the roosters. She was only small but they all had a go. Now she just stares blankly, she doesn’t even remember how to peck sometimes.”
Me: “I saw a snake in the garden today.”
Dad: “Which direction was it going?”
Dad: “WHICH DIRECTION?!?”
Me:”Errr, left to right?”
Dad: “Oh good. That’s very good luck.”
Me: “Eh? What if it had been going the other way?”
Dad: “Oh in that case, t’es dans la merde“.
These are not, I think, the sorts of conversations one wants to have with one’s parents. Oh for progenitors of reason and grace! With age they are becoming more opinionated, more fanciful, more prone to irrationality and superstition. It is difficult, knowing your parents in this way, noticing the flaws and cracks, the looming signs of age, of things, perhaps, not being so easy one day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about them, recently, trying to see through the parent to a person in their own right. I stare at the picture and wonder what they must have been like, these young adults, this couple with two kids, a german shepherd, and a lot of bananas. In the photo my mother is roughly the same age I am now. Would I have liked her? Would we have been friends? What was it like, this constant flitting around the world, having to pick up new languages, new friends, new lives with every move? They look happy there, for a fleeting moment, but I can’t help thinking of all the small failures and cruel tragedies that had already started eating away at their lives. I think of how lost and frail they must have been at times, these people who shaped my childhood, these gregarious, risk taking, life devouring giants, how small and broken the years have been for them, how lonely.
And then I want to hold them to me, in all their madness and vexations, because they are mine, my family, my lunatics.
*I am a girl. And I did not have cancer. Just a “crusty scalp”. Allegedly.