Tuesday, 12 March 2019

I've come to know the friends around you / are all you'll always have

C, a friend from university, sends me Ella Risbridger’s article about friends who are more than friends, friends who are family. And it sums up so perfectly how I have felt about the vast net of friends that pushed and pulled and cajoled me through the second half of 2018, that my eyes well up with tears reading it on the number 36 bus.

I should say, from the outset, this: that the three others in my small quartet of a family were invaluable. S, who as the first person I called, that terrible, terrible May evening, said I’m coming over, I am leaving right now and who (metaphorically at least) has not left my side since. My mother, who messaged me without fail every single morning, with a simple hi or an emoji wave, to let me know she was awake, so I could then call her, wail down the phone for ten minutes before I was able to shower, dress, begin the day ahead. My father who on random week nights when I found myself alone but not wanting to be accompanied me to the cinema, or took me for pizza, told me tales of his own past heartbreak, and how we do all eventually wade through it. So, those family three were there, in a bottomless, unconditional way, and I do not take that for granted, because not everyone is as lucky to have family like that (and in the flip reverse of friends who are more than friends, that are family, I am truly grateful that I also have family who I also count as friends).

But now to the friends. They are a wide ranging bunch. The few remaining school friends who knew me when I wore a bottle green blazer, nose buried in a Harry Potter book. The glorious, tumbling pack that is the uni crowd, years of nights out and library studying and housewarmings and weddings providing layer upon layer of shared experience and in-jokes. The Kinshasa alumni who, in as much as we all wind each other up and know exactly how to push one another’s buttons and lived in each other’s pockets throughout our expat time, are genuinely like an extended mass of siblings and cousins. And all the others in between – the incredible women I’ve held onto from the Shoreditch Sister days, the London work colleagues (non-Kinshasa) who have turned to friends, the adopted friends of friends who have become standalone friends in their own right. I think of all of these friends, and everything they did, whilst reading the Risbridger article, and think yes, yes.

They incorporated a shell-shocked husk of me into their family holiday in Greece. Gave me a bed and a room and fed me incredible home cooked dishes with peppers and courgettes from the garden, salty local feta. Let me doze for hours on a sun lounger above the warm sand, rousing myself only to immerse myself in the water. Let me read to their children and float with them on giant inflatable dinosaurs in a calm salty sea. They took me in again, a slightly less broken me, to an autumnal Washington. Bought me maple cupcakes, walked with me through Halloween decorated streets, pumpkins on porches and skeletons in flowerbeds.

One of them flew from Miami to Washington, for two nights, just to see me. Surprised me at a reunion dinner, so that when I realised she was there I squealed, and cried, hugged her hard. Spent the following day wandering the museums and monuments together, walking, talking. That same holiday, another took time off work to explore New York with me, her now home. Cooked me dinner with some of her friends in her Brooklyn apartment, invited me to her running club’s marathon watching party. Bundled me up into her life and city, so that I didn’t feel the absence of my usual holiday partner, or didn’t feel it so much.
Another undertook a summer long tour with me of North London’s ice cream parlours. Icy sweetness as a respite from the pavements that throbbed with heat, the sticky London underground, my too-warm flat. Mango and durian sorbet in Kentish Town, cookies and cream from Marine Ices, cherry frozen yoghurt two steps from the traffic of the Finchley Road, tubs of blood orange sorbet from Loft Coffee eaten in the garden of the Camden Arts Centre.

Another introduced me to the mind-numbing but addictive diversion of Love Island. We pinged WhatsApps across London to each other commenting on the contestants' outfits and attitudes, as we simultaneously got our daily fix on those hot summer nights where I sat on the sofa eating only bowls of cereal for dinner because with the heat and the heartache I could manage nothing else. She provided me with advice that seemed wise beyond her 24 years, and which I repeated to myself all summer, a mantra: It’s like Going On A Bear Hunt. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you just have to go through it.

They made me dinners and lunches and breakfasts. They sent me flowers and lent me books. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn which made me smile wryly on the Jubilee line, think about who I would throw key lime pie at, whether that would make me feel any better. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, pressed into my hands with the comment: Read this, it will transport you (and don’t worry if you drop it in the bath, it is my lending copy).

They filled spots at gigs and comedy nights and theatre performances – the dozen events in the diary that we had signed up to together, which stretched out through the summer and into the autumn, starting with a Courtney Barnett gig at the Roundhouse in early June, ending with an October performance of Hamilton. Everyone said: How lucky, at least you didn’t have children together, or jointly own property, or a own dog. But a busy social calendar and a freezer full of leftovers in portions for two and a wine rack of wine purchased together on holiday is still a pair of lives fused together, which must be wrenched apart. And when the stepping stones of our joint social life petered out (and even before it did, in the gaps) they stepped into the void, populated a new social calendar, filled it with Estonian Bluegrass bands, picnics on Primrose Hill, Maggie Rogers at Koko, gigs in greenhouses, drinks in North London pubs, dinners in local Italians, trips to The Globe.

They swam with me. In the height of summer in the green of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, watching as baby moorhens ran across lily pads, or the blue of London Fields Lido. In the early days of winter and a very different looking Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, this one with cold black water, brown reeds, bare trees above. They ran with me, around the Olympic Park, along the canals, canoed with me, filling otherwise empty, stretching Sundays with water and sunlight and aching arms.

They came over for dinner, and helped with the food prep, stuck around to clear up afterwards. Made me realise that in my many years of hosting people, I had been doing it all wrong. I didn’t need to have an entire meal plus welcome cocktail ready for when the first guest arrived. I could ask for someone to bring dessert and they would, I could ask for a couple of people to come early to squeeze limes, and yet another to move the extra table from the kitchen to the living room, and they would do that too, willingly.

They spoke soft words to me that I wanted to hear, tales of friends who had split and reunited, and hard words that I didn’t want to, but which were good for me anyway. They gave me advice by the bucketload, that was often contradictory, depending on who I was talking to, and that I didn’t always listen to, because I didn’t always agree with it, but which I valued anyway, because it came from a place of love. I learnt who to talk to on the days I was feeling resolute and Amazonian, and who to talk to on the days I felt lost and untethered. They also listened. Endlessly. And those that couldn't speak or listen in person WhatsApped me from their scattered geographic locations – Abuja, Bogota, Baghdad, Islamabad, Miami, New York, Rome, Washington – checking in with me intermittently, taking late night calls from their different time zones.

They helped me in all these ways and a myriad more, providing consolation and indignation and advice and distraction in equal measure. And like my family, their support was also bottomless, and unconditional, although it didn’t have to be. They filled that whole messy, grief filled summer and autumn with their presence, and in doing so turned it into not just a story of heartbreak and loss, but also a story of the power of friendship and non-romantic love.  

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

January So Far

A bruise, from a New Year’s Day fall at Winter Wonderland where I slip and crash down, hard, onto my right knee, my bad knee, almost cry out from the pain of it, but leap up, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting the fuss and kindness of strangers. Throughout that first week of the new year it blossoms from pink-purple to blue-green to brown-yellow, tender to the touch.

Early nights and early mornings. Stepping out onto the cold street before a 7 am spin class like stepping into a hot bath in reverse. The goosebumped shudder of the body, the smack of the cold. Leaving the sports centre, a weathered plastic bag, caught high in the branches overhead, long strands of shredded plastic moving in the wind like a stranded jellyfish.

Columbia Road. Banana bread and milky tea at Lily Vanilli. Talking about the year ahead with two of my dearest, quietly hopeful. A huge bunch of white narcissus, fatter than my arm, which scent the tube carriage all the way back, and then, split into smaller bunches, distributed in every room, the whole flat. 

A rooftop bar near Waterloo on a Friday night with four of my university friends, our faces softened under the coral glow of the overhead strip heaters. Talking and talking until we get kicked out at closing. How wise and kind and funny they have all turned out to be, although of course they were always the latter two, even when we were 19, doing tequila shots in fancy dress outfits, making faces at each other across a silent library. But I am struck by how wise they have all become, how they share that wisdom freely, making me feel better about all manner of things. Struck too by the easy intimacy that comes with time and the gradual accumulation of shared history. That evening, not wanting to be anywhere else, not feeling the lack of anyone either.

Rose Matafeo at Soho Theatre. Seen first in Edinburgh in August, where by the end there were tears of sadness and not just laughter, S squeezing my hand. And if you are a heart on your sleeve Pisces, and you are feeling loss, it only means that once upon a time you gave your 100% to something. Inaccurately remembered I'm sure, but that was the gist, the takeaway theme that stuck with this heart-on-sleeve Pisces. This time round though, only laughter, pure and from the deepest part of me. Again, that evening, wanting to be exactly there, nowhere else, with exactly those people. 

More swimming. Swimming indoors, length after length under bright lights and red, white, blue bunting. The chlorine cling of it, for hours after. Swimming outdoors, even as the thermometer drops. 4.5 degrees, 4 degrees. Shorten your swim the chalkboard warns, and I do, but once I am dressed again, I wish I’d stayed in longer. On Sunday, a female runner asks as I am leaving did you swim? How was it? Cold, I tell her, 4 degrees, and she gasps, but says she is keen to try. We talk for a bit. I share my experience so far, give tentative tips. Afterwards, I wish I had given her my number, told her to message me if she wanted some company for her first time. Kick whatever it was that held me back, me who is usually braver than most at reaching out to people in this vast, anonymous city. The worry that she would have thought me strange perhaps, that she would have listened to my small offer of friendship and politely, awkwardly, declined.

Saturating myself with cinema the way I always do at this time of year, when the awards season gives us such rich pickings. The Favourite, dark and wickedly funny, with a compelling soundtrack and sumptuous costumes. Colette, a perfectly lovely way to pass two hours on a grey Saturday afternoon, but which I didn't adore. Roma, which started slowly, built up beautifully and is lingering even now, two days on. The perspective provided by the suffering of others. 

Reading, reading. Other women's words that drape themselves around me. Words about hope, and how it is an active, striving thing. Words that weave a tale of a jackdaws and cobbled streets and a fearsome legend. Words that describe the restorative power of swimming far more eloquently than I was able to, the lure of lakes, of cold water, of wild places.

And writing. My own words, that come more readily than they have done for some time.  Words that slot themselves together in my head as I am descending the escalator to the Bakerloo line, or cycling across Hyde Park in the January darkness, words which beg to be typed up, written down. Writing can be the mental equivalent of hitting a punch bag - I read on the Instagram feed of Notes to Strangers. Bookmark it for later. Come back to it. And think, it feels like that, these days, yes.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

On Swimming

I learnt to swim in Brazil as a young child, in a pool I have only the haziest memories of. A flash of turquoise, pinky-yellow stone, a tanned instructor in tiny Speedos, eyes obscured behind reflective sunglasses, a poolside shrub with glossy green leaves and bright red berries. I may have imagined the shrub. I may have imagined it all, and these are not memories, but constructions, based on things told to me by my parents, again and again over the years, until they became fixed. At any rate, I learnt to swim, and when we moved to Australia I continued to swim, and twice in those overseas years I am told I nearly drowned.

Back in the UK, swimming was weekly sessions at primary school, my class crocodiling in pairs down the road to the local leisure centre each Wednesday, swimming lengths and diving for rubber bricks, trying to master butterfly. Later, though still the primary school years, it was Thursday night swimming squad, talcum powder and the snap of rubber swimming caps, being shouted at from the side as we swam length after length, faster, faster.

In secondary school, the regular swimming stopped. It was confined to holidays, the green pool of family friends in Provence, overlooked by an almond grove. Summer trips to the Suffolk coast, jumping the waves at Dunwich and Walberswick or, in North Norfolk, walking then wading for seemingly miles to reach anything like sufficiently deep water at Holkham. A hotel pool in Havana where over the course of a week I developed a crush on an American tourist purely on the basis of his smile and the hammer and sickle tattoo on his right shoulder. Austrian and French lakes, where I was squeamish about weeds that might grasp or fish that might skim a bare leg. Back then, I didn’t like wild, outdoor swimming, unless it was the sea.

Somewhere along the way, that changed. Maybe in Kinshasa, where at the weekend we would escape the city, take boats upstream, pass whole days on sandbanks in the middle of the wide, brown, fast-flowing Congo river. Sit in the slower moving shallows, beers in hand, as tiny fish nibbled our toes. The weekends at the Bombo Lemene nature reserve, where we would cross a bridge made from twisted vines, walk 500m upstream from the campsite, throw ourselves off a protruding tree trunk into the water then drift back downstream just like that Bare Necessities scene from The Jungle Book. The pool under the waterfall at Zongo which we would jump into from slippery rocks, rainbows arcing in the spray. Silly to be squeamish about European weeds and fish once you have swum in a place with Tigerfish and poisonous snakes, rocks that could crack open a skull miles from any decent hospital.

Certainly since Kinshasa I have been able to embrace dips in the Serpentine Lido with its scattering of intimidating swans and Canada geese, and the Hampstead Ponds (with their far less intimidating ducks and moorhens). I have swum in a freshwater, but man-made, swimming pool filtered by reedbeds in the shadow of the King’s Cross gasholders. I have swum in Copenhagen’s wood-lined, net-bottomed Harbour Baths, and the turquoise lake at Annecy. I have shouted ‘stop the car’ from the passenger seat of a hire car on the Isle of Skye, scrambled down a steep hillside to a crescent of pebble beach, undressed and marched out over grey stones and tangled brown kelp to submerge myself in an icy sea loch. Although during that July of 2017, of course, my concept of icy was relative.

March of last year. We go to Bath for the weekend, float lazily in a heated open air rooftop pool as the snow falls down around us. At the start of May, we take the sleeper to Penzance for a long weekend that feels like magic, the sun shines, the hedgerows are filled with golden gorse, we swim in tiny coves with yellow sand and clear blue waters, we wander the dark backstreets at night and talk of packing it all in and buying a house by the sea. 

Three weeks later, my heart is unexpectedly, unceremoniously broken.

I swim then in search of solace. That whole long, stifling summer, when the heat to me feels oppressive and infinite, and the pain feels equally so, swimming provides some small relief. I spend whole afternoons at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond with whichever girlfriends I can gather, or sometimes alone. I doze in the sunshine, wake up, remember, peel myself from my towel to go throw myself in the cold green water to forget. I crave that moment of initial submersion, when the shock of the cold means I can’t think of anything else. I struggle through days at work then make my muscles burn pedaling my bike up Camden High Street and Kentish Town Road for evening swims. In August I go to Greece, kick about in an azure Aegean, contemplate Karen Blixen’s words: the cure for anything is saltwater – sweat, tears or the salt sea. Know this to be true, although a cure can be a long term process. When we go to Cromer in September I persuade S to swim in the sea with me. Still seeking that moment when everything but the feel of the cold water on your skin is wiped from your mind.

In October, again at the ponds, 13 degrees C, I realise I didn’t before understand the meaning of cold water. In early December, at Brockwell Lido, 8 degrees C, I realise again that I had no idea. But the sky and the bare trees and the joyous shouts of a birthday swim going on a few lanes over soothe me, and I swim ten lengths, until I have lost feeling in my fingers and toes. Afterwards, I take an ill-conceived hot shower, almost black out as I am toweling myself dry. See a kaleidoscope of colours dance across my eyes. Have to sit in a toilet cubicle for ten minutes, head between legs before I can pull my clothes on and stagger out, white-faced and shaking, to the rest of the group. Another form of clearing the mind, but one I find I don’t much care for. In the last days of December I return to the Ladies’ Pond, prepared. 5.5 degrees C, and again my concept of cold is recalibrated. But I am ready. I wear a bobble hat, and only swim one loop of the buoys. I towel dry and bundle back up again quickly in layer upon layer, saving the shower for home, drink from a thermos of hot tea, put on gloves and keep the hat, walk briskly uphill to meet a friend at Kenwood for hot chocolate, and warm myself up that way. And it is exhilarating.

I think if 2018 hadn't been the year it was, if something hadn't broken inside me, I wouldn't have been able to submerge myself in 5 degree water, or certainly wouldn't have been able to do so with such ease. I am not just talking about a broken heart, though having something you want to forget helps. I am also talking about the bit of me that lived a happy, comfortable life and, though I frequently acknowledged that happiness and comfort, naively assumed that it would most likely continue pottering along as such. That bit of me has also broken. Ariel Levy's idea that: it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all. Expectations of the life you will lead can shatter on a random Tuesday afternoon, just as the lyrics of Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen warn us they might. I no longer blithely assume ease and comfort, either in my life or in swimming. And so, just as I swam through the summer seeking solace, I continue to swim through the winter. I don’t know if swimming is saving me. Some days I still feel a long way from being saved. But I think it has prevented me from drowning.