Heels

An audio version of this post is available here.

Somehow the shoes – not the clothes – were what did for me. Two crammed bin liners in, and I abruptly threw the second one down and walked out of the room. (It needs doing. It needs doing.) All the dresses I’d had made for me by my tailor in the 90s and noughties, those went some time ago. I didn’t feel much more than a fleeting sadness for them. I’m older now. I wear different clothes. I couldn’t get into them anyway. That is the order of things as one gets older.

But the shoes, those are different. I could get into all of them. But I couldn’t walk in any of them, not five steps. And what would I wear them to? I don’t leave the house.

Dozens of spike heels. These ones I bought for a bash at the Savoy. These, I got in Church’s at Chancery Lane, their neat black ankle strap always looked so elegant. These ones went perfectly with those brown trousers I had. These were my fuck me heels. They worked. Running shoes. That I ran in, in the cool black evenings, gloves on, headphones on. Here are summer wedges, gingham, high, I made him take them off me with his teeth. These came to New York. These to Frankfurt, there’s still blood in them. These boots went to Rome and Istanbul. These Mary Janes went to Venice. Paris, Paris, and Paris: these ones. Brussels: the first Eurostar out, always, in the blue grey London dawn, in a rattling black cab over the pink waking Thames, and nobody has breathed the air yet. It is all mine. Those went to Dallas. These went to Chicago. I bought these in Vermont while skiing (skiing!), these in New York, these in … where the hell did I buy these? Spain? Portugal?

Grey patent. Red patent. Red glitter. Red velvet. Red suede. Raspberry patent. Dark blue velvet, kitten heels, I climbed a mountain in Thailand in you. Incongruously. Emerald printed cotton. Yellow silk. Purple silk. Silver.

Here are the black strappy wedge boots I was wearing that night, about a week before I got signed off work. It was autumn. I’d been falling over a lot for a year, but this one was memorable. I went over for no reason whatsoever in that little lane that leads down to Catford Bridge, and I came down on that massive wooden sleeper thing. Hand, knee. And there was a woman there and I couldn’t get up and it was the first time I’d experienced that, the complete marionetting of my body, the cutting of all strings. The lack of connection between intent and action. I couldn’t move while she asked, down a tunnel, through a blanket, in a foreign language I slowly realised was English “Are you alright?” It was only seconds and when my body switched back on again I exploded upright – “Fuck!”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes,” as I stamped off. But I wasn’t. And suddenly there wasn’t any wiggle room to pretend I was, any more, in these boots, these pretty boots.

And here’s what happened next, going into the bin liners: the Uggs that I lived in solidly from January ’09 for a year or two. The only things I could stand up in. The only things that didn’t make me bleed when I walked. After I bought them I never wore any of my lovely shoes again. Not once.

It’s like going through the possessions of someone who has died. There is no bright side to it. Just loss. I am troubled by her ghost.

I am troubled by my ghost.

I remember being alive, and it is difficult to reconcile then and now, difficult to reconcile me and this. I struggle with it. I work hard not to.

So I take a break and write this.  It needs doing. The clearing, I mean. You can’t live with the dead tucked under your bed and in the bottom of your wardrobe. You can’t live with it and expect to be ok. It needs doing.

And writing about it needs doing too. I can jam all that stuff into black bags and junk it, but I also need to sit down with that grief and look it in the eye. Not indulge it or invite it to come and live with me. But admit that it’s there. I feel sad for the things that happened to her, that girl. She was odd, but good. Odd, but loyal. Odd, and all fire. Unstoppable, until she stopped, unbreakable until she broke.  Now she is gone, and nothing rushes in to fill the space she left. Nothing. Rushes. In.

I don’t know what the future holds. But there is a future. So it must hold something. It won’t be spike heels, running shoes, ski boots.

Something else.

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North Star

You can hear me reading this here.

Keep your star in the north,
remember love.
You can only be you but remember others.
Open your arms and let them be
filled and emptied and filled again by the tide,
shhh let it move you. Lose your footing, lose your footing.
Find it again, look up.
Stand still buffeted, do not resist
dismay. Do not resist joy.
You can only be you.
Remember, love.

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History books

An audio version of this post is available here.

Oh oh oh! I’m on Amazon with my finger poised over the big yellow “Buy” button, when it strikes me. The full history of me stands up and checks me, like a border guard. And I stop.

The smell of book, an old, foxed hardback in my hands. Ex library, from my mother, its board cover sliding beneath a poorly fitted transparent plastic coat, worn semi opaque with use. The edges of the book’s closed pages are a series of ridges running the height of the book, betraying its hidden binding. Stitched, glued. Inside, it is tattooed as if it is part of a herd or interned in a prison camp, to be used until death. But it is in my hands now. Freed. Retired. Not retired. You have one more job ahead of you, book. One more.

And then

I take it with me everywhere. It is heavy, and I am small, but from the moment I discovered it, it became my bible. A book that doesn’t have a story in it. That doesn’t explain a topic. A book, a brick four inches thick, that exists solely to contain all the words, abstractly, in alphabetical order. A dictionary. 
I treat it carefully.  I carry it carefully.  Everywhere. It quickly becomes inconvenient for my family, me lugging the book about. Instead of looking on the shelf to find the dictionary, they first have to find the child who will be attached to it. It is as if the book has grown legs, or I have become a hermit crab whose home is somehow outside this solid object. And the edges of its pages betray its bindings. And when you open it, that smell.

And then

It only happens, or only seems to happen a couple of times a year. But time is a slippery thing, a wriggling thing, and who can say? The catalogue comes from the school and is full of books for children. Being one myself (technically), and with it being the 1970s, this is a thrilling event. Companies in the UK haven’t explored the option of marketing to children yet. Products other than toys – which one must deliberately go to a toy shop to seek out – aren’t aimed at us. The library has a corner for children, but the books there are colourful, shiny, illustrated, jam-tacky, and of little interest to me, other than Dr Seuss, but everyone loves Dr Seuss, not least because he is American and therefore inherently more exciting than anything which is not American. Consequently, Dr Seuss is always out on loan.  My other books are almost all adult books – very old ones at that, my grandfather’s copy of Defoe or Kipling (yes, reader, I have Kippled), or Swift; or children’s books inherited from my father, and therefore without exception, aimed squarely at boys or men. The most modern themes in these books are from the 1940s. The oldest are very old indeed. So this book catalogue is a very exotic bird. I spend days going through it. I have been given an allowance to spend and immediately discount any book that is illustrated or thin, however beautiful or popular, because I will read it in minutes, and I want a book to last me a few hours.  I make a list and cross it out and remake it and refine it.  The books are delivered to the school and on Wednesday, library day, when we go in, the desks are covered in boxes. Boxes of new books. They smell different to old books. Of ink, of solvents. There is no foxing, no ridging on the edges of the closed pages: there is no stitching, just glue. The bindings are tight, not floppy. The colours are bright, the covers, slick.  They sound different. Not the soft, flumpy sound of steam powered books, but an electric wick-wick!  You can cut yourself on them, I discover.

Then

Forward, to Fleet Street, and my new fat wages which allow me, each month, to spend a hundred pounds on books. And a husband who strongly disapproves of this, who would, I suspect, rather spend the money on weekends in the country. But frankly I find weekends in the country exhausting and they would do nothing to quell my appetite for worlds and facts and the next page. I tear through books like a circular saw, next, next, next. One a day. A hundred  pounds is probably about a third of what I need to spend, to keep my head fed. There’s me, my body, which people meet and which they think is me, which requires almost nothing except a comfortable place to sit and a cat: and there’s my hungry head, my pacing lion head, my circular saw head that sucks in all the worlds, that must be fed read meat.

Then

I can’t read. I am ill. It is 2006. The page, the words on it crawl away from my eyes, flinching, ducking. They shrink. Trying to read a word is like trying to thread a very tiny needle with cotton whose end is frayed. It just won’t. I push the sentence into my head, but it is dead, floppy, it contains no sustenance. It falls straight back out of me again. I pick it up, I am a monkey with its dead baby, trying to make it move, oh come back to me, move: but it will not move.

I do not remember when I put books down. I threw or gave away hundreds, keeping only those that I considered magical: Fraser’s Horse Book. My collection of dictionaries, which are my holy books. Rupert Thompson’s … all of Rupert Thomson’s. All of Jeanette Winterson. All of Patrick Hamilton. All of Wyndham. Golding’s perfect journeys through time, over sea. Van der Post’s blinding sentences. I could no longer access these countries.  But I could not forget them either.

Now books were strange objects of resentment. I tried re-reading easy, familiar books. No. I was in exile from the only country I had ever loved.

What changed, I do not know. My finger paused over that yellow button. “Buy for Kindle”, but however big the type was on my screen it made no difference to my ability to read and comprehend it. Suddenly what I wanted was a book. I wanted it the way you sometimes suddenly want another human body to touch yours, if you are alone. I wanted an old book, in my hands, foxed and crack backed, the quiet of much turned pages, the minute fur on the edges of its paper (have you ever put your lips against this? So soft). The smell of it. 

I bought it, second hand on eBay instead. Beautiful bashed up old Penguin Classics binding, the best-looking books in the world.  Pulp nonsense. Tiny print.  It should be impossible, doubly so, trebly so as I’m particularly ill at the moment. But this illness is strange. Facilities come and go. I can’t raise my arms to brush my hair at the moment. But it turns out I can once again step across the border between this world and the others. I read it in a day. And then I read another.

I started reading on the 28th of April, 2015. Four days ago. I have read four novels since then.

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Allotmenting

Sitting on the water tank drumming my heels on it like a slow heart beat, looking at this, I caught myself and realised that I was perfectly, perfectly happy.

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Three brown butterflies were engaged in a terrible war above me. The garlic was growing. I had marked out my asparagus with canes and balls, the globe artichokes all seemed to have taken well, and I was moments away from accidentally kicking quite a large bee. Things don’t get any better than that, my friend. They just don’t.

The trick to wonky allotmenting – that is to say, allotmenting with some form of exhausting disability – is to pick a job. One job. And go and do that. It’s very easy to get down to the plot and feel overwhelmed by all that needs doing. It’s very easy to go home after a visit to the plot, having spent all your energy working hard but not completing anything, and to feel that you’re useless and haven’t achieved anything.

No, the trick is in that one little task. Planning it. Taking the tools with you. Clean up the border on this bed. Or mow this little stretch of path. Or plant out these ten plants. Weed two foot square of that bed. Something tiny and thoroughly achievable. Something that doesn’t depend on you achieving something else first (for instance don’t make planting your task unless you’ve already weeded). Then if you’ve any oomf left, go ahead and do something else. Or better yet, do what I did and sit on your water tank and drum your heels and let your soul sink into the cool earth and the cool sky.

The important thing is to go home with a win. Then the allotment never becomes a chore.

The tiny little twig trees I planted winter before last are blooming. I will have pears, apples, dark red cherries later this year. I seem to have planted a recalcitrant apricot which shows no sign of blooming, but I don’t know the ways of the apricot people and I’m happy to give it another year or two.

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Thus far I’ve had rhubarb, asparagus, and a parsnip the size of Texas from my plot. I’ve also harvested Jack-by-the-hedge, young cow parsley shoots and young goose grass and had them in various broths (I’ve become Queen of broths lately). All very nice but watch yourself with Jack, he’s a bit acrid and better to have a few jolly sprigs rather than whacking great handfuls.  I’ve planted out four good size globe artichokes (two purple, two green), which are always so unaffordable in the shops. In the next week or so I’ve got nine rose bushes coming. Perhaps that seems daft, but (they were cheap and) cut flowers make a huge difference in the house. Everything’s alright when you’ve got roses.

The year is well under way. Grab your weeding knife and get among it.

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Killer.

An audio version of this post is available here.

Hello little sitter
Bitter little biter
Shitter, fighter.
Hello little shedder
Claw score shredder
6lbs of gangsta,
Shoulder rolling.
Hello mister misses
Kitchen twitcher
Witch’s kvetcher,
Calling.
Hello breakable
Tender, mannerly
Fool boxer, feinting
Unfakeable
Cannily, uncannily.
Leaper writher
Spiller
Half killer
Killer.

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Welcome to your new superpower.

Dear women,

Contrary to what you’ve been brought up to believe, your goodness, your worth, and in particular your sexiness, your attractiveness are YOUR properties, not a property of the person observing them. Their act of observation does not create or validate those qualities in you. They are merely noticing the bleedin’ obvious. You are not Schroedinger’s good person. You are not Schroedinger’s hottie.

Now take this news away and mull it over, crush it into yourself. Welcome to your new superpower.

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Swapping out a set of tuning pegs for a set of machine heads, on a uke.

So you picked up a bargainaceous uke on eBay, only to discover when you get it home that it has tuning pegs rather than cogged machine heads. You try to tune it. After half an hour of the friction of the peg causing you to shoot past the note you were aiming for in a wild jerk, or the LACK of friction in the head jumping the peg straight out of the note when you do find it (and yes, both these things can and will happen on the same string), you throw your uke across the room. Then, after a brief pause, you follow it and stamp on it until there are a billion little splinters in the air and no sign – none at all, that there was ever a musical instrument in your life.

OR

You get on the internet and buy some machine heads and replace those godawful pegs with something that works. I got a set of Stagg uke machine heads on Amazon (sorry) for about a fiver. There are cheaper, no-name ones, but Stagg is a pretty reliable name.

You will need a small crosshead screwdriver. A drill with a very small bit (I used a 1.5, a 1 would have worked perfectly as well, you’re only putting in a guide hole), or a very narrow brad awl, but I wouldn’t advise the latter. The potential for you to wiggle it about and make too wide a hole is too big. Get a drill with a very tiny drill bit.

This is what you’re starting with. The dreaded Peggy Head:

Peggy head

You want to undo the screw on each of the pegs.

Peg, showing screw

When you’ve undone it sufficiently, the peg will drop out of the uke’s head, leaving an unsightly hole at the back…

Thar she blows

And probably a little metal cuff on the front.

Little metal cuff

Leave the little cuff in place. Your new machine heads will slip right into it.

Now set up your drill. Make SURE that the bit is seated deeply into the drill, so that only 3/4 of a cm or so are sticking out of the end of the drill. If you seat the bit with more sticking out, what will happen is you’ll drill straight through your uke’s head and when you’ve finished the job you’ll have holes all over its face and it will look OMG TOTALLY AMATEUR. So get this right. Here you can see me measuring to see if the drill bit is seated at the right depth.

Ensure your bit cannot pass straight through your uke's head

Now unpack your new machine heads. Here I am, modeling the tiny drill bit I used – use the tiniest one you can find – 1mm or so.

New machine heads

OK, now take one of the machine heads and push it through the four cuffed holes in your uke head the WRONG WAY AROUND – front to back. This will push any little burrs in the wood or the metal through and will make sure your new heads won’t push the little cuffs off.

Push those machine heads through gently

Now seat your first machine head.

Head in place

There are left hand heads and right hand heads. The cog should be at the bottom. So you can quickly work out which head goes where, but make sure you have worked this out before you start drilling holes in your uke.

Put a head in place. Make sure it’s straight in relation to the side of the uke’s head. This is REALLY important, again, if you get this wrong you’ll end up with wonky tuners so take your time. Make a mark through each of the two screw holes (I used the tip of a sharp kitchen knife), remove the head, drill your two holes, put the head back and screw on. It really couldn’t be simpler.

Here you can see the job half done, with the guide holes drilled for the next head. Note the position of the cogs (towards the uke’s bottom end).

Half way there...

Finished product:

Machine heads

Now all it needs is a fresh set of strings (instructions for stringing your uke are on YouTube), and a few days to bed the new strings in.

Ta-daaa!

TA DAA

You may be looking at that and wondering “hey how come the G is red, what’s up with that?” – I’m trying out an Aquila low-G from the red series, which is basically their trademark Nylgut, but with added copper (hence the colour) to make the string far more dense, and capable of lower tuning. They’re notoriously brittle, but I wanted to try a low-G tuning and my verdict is that you’d have to go at the tuning like rhinoceros to snap it, which quite a few reviewers said they did. The ham fisted lummoxes.

I say that now. Give me a day …

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