The Year That Was 2015

Well then. I have about an hour to write something about this year before I need to start getting ready for the party to celebrate its end.

It’s been such  momentous year I’m not quite sure where to start. Here goes.

This year I have learned that I am able, sometimes, to remain so visibly calm that no casual observer could possibly tell that I am in such a state of fear that I am actually willing myself to pass out, if only to get me away from the situation I find myself in. I never knew I could do that.

This year, I moved to America. Things are going well for my other half’s career, and in January he was about to embark on what, it turns out, will be an almost 2 year tour around the US. My career, it seemed at the time, could be maintained with little disruption anywhere in the world that had an internet connection. It was a pretty obvious thing, in the end.

I keep saying that I will write about moving, about the interview, the paperwork, the extraordinarily catch-22-ness of a process that often involves you needing to prove you are virtually living and working in a country that you are not legally allowed to live and work in, before being allowed to legally live and work there. The twisty-turny logic and required cunning solutions turned my brain inside out, and perhaps that’s why I’m not quite ready to write about it.

As it turned out I could no longer continue my work with a certain animated pig in the US. The revelation that the work I had been hoping for was not going to be possible felt like, well, the ground disappearing under my feet. Whilst being completely aware of the fact that business is business, that no one owes me anything and that it was my decision to leave in the first place, I was genuinely heartbroken in that moment. It turns out that the little pig, and my seven-and-a-half years in that company, had become a bigger part of my identity than I realised.

This year has certainly had some ups and downs. Often within hours of each other. Here is a fun example:

Although we’d discussed it not long before this particular situation, my now fiancé’s proposal of marriage was a surprise to both of us. It also came at the end of my non-stop five minute exuberant explanation (over lunch) of the retreat from Dunkirk during the Second World War. Yes. Despite what I’d been told my entire adult single life, I was able to convince the man of my dreams to marry me not through growing my hair long or dyeing it blonde, wearing short skirts and talking about boring things, but by just being completely myself.

Or, from another perspective, I bored a man into proposing. Either way I’ll take it.

On a high, we went home. Once there, I discovered that my passport was not where I though I had left it. My passport, that contained a very important insert that meant I was allowed to stay in the country, and which, if lost, would need to be re-applied for.

I had never had a panic attack until that evening. I sat there shuddering and struggling to breathe with ‘Nam style flashbacks of embassies and  being interrogated by grim-faced officers behind post office style glass counters, scrutinising my paperwork with dubious “hmm”s.

In the end it turned out I’d left it in the desk drawer of the place we’d been staying the night before. It was fed-ex’d to me the next morning.

But, I really don’t want to go on and on about the complicated process of up-ending your life completely or the resulting emotional fall-out, nor the amazing places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen this year. Because 2015, while being many things to me, has been the year in which I have really, actually, finally realised the invaluable treasure that is a good friend.

This year my friends have helped me with complicated paperwork, equations and formulas. I have passed tests with their advice and skill, I have laughed out loud though the ground quaked and rattled, and sometimes, dissolved beneath my feet. They have given me a home, a lift, a helping hand with boxes and books and bikes. They have made time to Skype me, to write to me and let me know that though I am far away I am not forgotten. I’ve cried at them down telephone lines and over the internet, and they have selflessly helped me no matter what was going on in their own life. I have worried them with my tears, my silence or flatness of voice, my health problems and sometimes my despair. They have smiled and said the right words when I have told them that I am okay, despite obviously not being that at all.

You have stuck with me. I cannot tell you all how precious this has been to me, how I will never, ever forget the way you have steadied me when I wobbled. I love you all so much and I hope with all my heart that you know how ready I am to do the same for you, should you ever need it. I may be 3000 miles and five hours away, but I will always be there.

A soppy, but true sentiment.

Happy New Year. Here’s to 2016, let it be a corker to us all.

Nicaragua – 28th Nov-5th Dec 2015


And lo, on the first night in Paradise, a Nicaraguan covers band did slaughter Alanis Morissette’s “You Ought To Know” at 1 am.

And we did despair.

2015 has been, by far, the most stressful year of my life, packed with packing, planning, shedding belongings, leaving jobs, saying goodbye. I have sat quaking in a embassy waiting room, filled out indecipherable documents, jumped through hoops, and done all the myriad things it takes to heave the leaver that moved the train of my life from one track on to another.

For Ben, it has been a year of constant forward-motion, barely being in one place for long enough to get his bearings. Before I joined him in September he had spent weeks alone in various US states on tour with his show. He has produced music videos and written tracks and worked hard on an almost-completed studio album. He has supported me and tried his best to keep me positive when I was crying, hand-wringing, or shaking with rage. All this and eight shows a week.

We stated fantasising about a holiday back in March, when it became obvious how huge and all-consuming the visa process would be (I realise I still haven’t written about that. It makes a good story. One day I’ll tell it). Ben liked to say that I had “never been to a proper beach before”, since his idea of a beach is palm trees and white sand, whilst mine is stormy skies and Hebridean seas. So after much deliberation, we chose the southwest coast of Nicaragua, and a yoga “wellness” resort.

Firstly I need to say how much I hate the word “wellness”, which I refuse to type in any way other than enclosed by quotation marks, since my sniffy Britishness can’t help but scoff and wonder if it’s actually a real word and why can’t we just use the word wellbeing like civilised people but we’re in America now so I guess not right yes sorry.

Landing in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, the humid air hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. We were greeted by a (perhaps overly, here’s my sniffy Britishness again) enthusiastic driver named Edwin, who would take us the 2.5 hour journey to the resort, aggressively pointing out the sights as we went (“Look, there. Look. See. The volcano. Look. LOOK.“).

The roads were bumpy – even the famous Pan-American highway – littered with tuk-tuks and brightly coloured buses so stuffed with passengers there were bodies smooshed against windows and piled high on the roof. There were people on bikes everywhere, push and motor both, huge lorries belching fumes and emaciated horses pulling carts. The air smelled of woodsmoke, the heavy underlying sweetness of the rainforest. On the sides of the roads were pigs and dogs, skin-and-bones cattle, horses tethered with thin string to saplings and fenceposts, loitering children and small un-tended fires, stalls selling plantain chips and things I’d never heard or seen the likes of before.

It was by far the most foreign place I have ever been. Its otherness shocked me, the one-room tin-shack poverty, the piles of rubbish at the sides of the road.

Have I been so terribly sheltered? Most family holidays were spent in Scotland. The European countries I have been to since a child (France, Spain, Italy) are not so far from England, both geographically or culturally. In the back of my mind I always knew how easy it would be to get home, if I needed to, how I could understand the language if only a little bit. Iceland is the most welcoming place I’ve been to, and possibly one of the most civilised, despite it’s sparse population and wildness of landscape and weather. New Zealand was thousands of miles away but it felt familiar because parts of it looked so much like the UK – albeit the UK on steroids. The US is very different to Britain, but even the things I don’t understand are usually known to me through film or television or pop culture of some kind or other.

Nicaragua was something entirely different, I got that from just the car drive to the resort. Ben insisted on stopping to joyously partake of every street-food stand along the way. I was given a polystyrene cup of a thick white milky substance made from corn, and sickly sweet. I drank a bit but my still-airborn stomach was not particularly happy, so I mimed drinking and tried to toss the cup in a bin on one of our sight-seeing stops while Edwin the driver wasn’t looking, thereby hugely offending Edwin the driver who it turned out absolutely was looking.

We arrived at the resort as the sun was setting, the curve of the beach and the waves visible through the boughs from our tree-top suite. We were warned to be careful of leaving doors open as the monkeys liked to drink from the plunge pool outside our room early in the mornings.

After a meal at the beach-front restaurant we crashed into bed early, twelve hours of travel and a year of work leaving us exhausted at sundown.

About half an hour later the music started – Nicaragua’s Best/Worst wedding band began playing to the party celebrating nuptials at the resort that night. It started with what sounded like terrible mic-checking, a monstrous blowing into an empty beer bottle. Ben grumbled. It can’t last long, I said.

Four hours and three increasingly irritated calls to reception later, the band stopped playing. As the female singer’s voice had become more hoarse the song choices were increasingly surreal, ending with a Central American accented take on Alanis Morrisette and the Cranberries. Our mood went past irritation into anger, to despair and on to hilarity, before circling back round to start all over again as each pregnant and hopeful pause in the music ended with the commencement of another opening riff.

A few hours later we were woken by the chorus of howler monkeys sitting by our plunge pool.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a howler monkey. I think howl is probably the wrong word. A dog howls. A howler monkey opens a portal to hell through its mouth.

When looking at reviews of the resort one negative one caught my eye, with the guest moaning that the monkeys had ransacked their kitchen during the night, which had ruined their entire trip, apparently.

Ben and I awoke to find a trail of muddy little monkey footprints into the kitchen which we had – whoops – left open. The trail lead to the kitchen surfaces where the monkeys had tore through packets of sugar and made a valiant attempt at eating a chai teabag before giving it up for a lost cause. Perhaps they’re coffee drinkers.

Anyway, rather than ruining our whole trip, it brightened our mood considerably. You see, it turns out the best thing about Nicaragua is Nicaragua itself, not the little details like accommodations or plunge pools or whether they’d left clean towels for us in our rooms (they hadn’t).

It meant that it didn’t matter that the yoga classes were held by the guests, since the resort’s instructors never turned up. It meant that ordering a grilled fish sandwich with lettuce, tomato and hollandaise sauce that turned out to be a rapidly cooling piece of fish with a shrivelled slice of tomato between two slices of equally stale bread didn’t  become annoying until the end of the holiday.

Or rather, half-way through. We were supposed to stay for eleven days, but after four we decided that making it a week long holiday would probably be just about enough.

“Oh look, it’s sunny again.”

“Another day in fucking paradise.”

“Can I have some sugar for my tea please?” (every morning)

“But…but we gave you honey.” (every morning)

“I know, but I’d like sugar.” (every morning)

My urticaria was also protesting loudly at the heat and the humidity. I began to fantasise about being clean of sunscreen and sand, godforsaken sand everywhere. We had already read three huge novels each. The waves on the beach started to get “a bit drowny”, in Ben’s words.

Yes, it was time to go home.

Due to Ben’s ongoing feud with management and that they were probably sick of the sight and sound of us, they agreed to refund us for the days we would no longer be staying. (“That means…we owe you money…?). And despite the hugely delayed return due to a huge storm-system in Miami knocking out our connecting flight, we were so overjoyed to be back in New York it was vaguely hilarious.

Despite it all, it was a wonderful holiday. I lay in hammocks reading books. We were rocked to sleep by the crash and draw of waves on the sand each night (except the first, of course). We watched the sunset from the beach, with cold beers in our hands, or once from sea-level as we swam in the ocean. Frigate-birds and pelicans and hummingbirds busied the skies and seas and treetops. One evening at dusk a group of fifteen or twenty monkeys passed by and around and through our tree-house deck. One night we watched as a tiny baby monkey ventured from its mother’s back to practice climbing the skinniest limbs of the tree in front of our room. Butterflies of every shape and size and colour surrounded us, every moment of every day.

And this is what we’ll remember in years to come. Not the Nicaraguan cover band’s take on Alanis Morissette.

In Nicaragua Ben and I realised that, perhaps in a similar vein as the wisdom of food shopping when hungry, you should never book a holiday while stressed. We thought we wanted sun and sand and nothing at all to do – but what we really wanted, in contrast to our transient lives right now, was to be at home, in New York, beginning to build our lives together on solid ground.

Rochester- November 2015

On our last day it Rochester, it finally snowed.

Ben and I talked about that as an intriguing first line of a story. Why finally? They wanted it to snow? Where were they leaving to? And, most pertinently, why were they even in Rochester?

Yes, I wanted it to snow. I could taste it in the air for days beforehand, but it still came as a surprise when I opened the curtains as we prepared to leave the theatre accommodation and saw it, all 3 inches deep and glittering in the early morning sun.

We were leaving for New York, and we were in Rochester for a two-week run of Ben’s show – after a six week run in Milwaukee, and a four week run in Lowell. A long ol’ time on the road.

But that’s not what I’m going to write about, because that’s not my abiding memory of our time spent in Rochester.

One morning, a few days before leaving Rochester, before the snow fell, Ben and I went to the National Museum of Play. The big modern building – a concrete box with a jumble of primary coloured squares like children’s building blocks sticking out of one side – had the intriguing sweeping curved V of glass-walls on one end, obviously a later addition to the museum. As we drove past I saw the brightly lit, verdant green of palms and flowers and foliage within, but only after learning its purpose as a butterfly house did I notice the resemblance to a giant, resting butterfly. Or a vulva, as someone pointed out.

Being a weekday, and being, well, Rochester, there were hardly any children in the museum, let alone in the butterfly house. We entered with our guide, a young man in a wheelchair, who cautioned us to watch where we were stepping, move slowly, and check ourselves in the mirrored exit room for any stowaways.

The air hit us like something solid, warm and earthy, the fragrance of wet soil and growing things. And there they were: butterflies of all shapes and sizes, countless, fluttering and flickering and swooping throughout the huge glass room.

Tucked away in a far corner was a glass-fronted cabinet, showing lines and lines of chrysalides, brown and angular like the dried-up leaves of winter. I stood and stared at them until my eyes pricked and stung, the odd twitch and shiver, momentary, sporadic, of the full chrysalis mesmerising me.

Amongst those rows in Rochester were a few open, empty chrysalids, and underneath them a few bedraggled butterflies. Lying on the concrete floor of the case, newly-hatched, newly-bewinged and beautiful and be-butterflied. They lay there exhausted and crumpled, worn-out by the very process of becoming who and what they were supposed to be.

But is that the wrong way to look at it? Are the butterflies any more valid a life-form than the caterpillars they were before? Because they’re more beautiful? Why don’t we regard the caterpillar phase as anything but an interim, an ugly way-station between birth and butterfly?

Does the butterfly, that one lying motionless beneath its chrysalis know that it’s a butterfly now? Does it remember being a caterpillar? Does it have any comprehension of the massive, miraculous change it has undergone? Perhaps that’s why it lies there, looking almost dead. Perhaps it is too much to fit into its tiny butterfly brain, perhaps it needs time to process what it is now, the new life before it.

For fuck’s sake, it can fly now! It is no longer earth-bound! Does it know that? How can it know that?!

And how does it take that first leap, that first unfurling of wings? How does it know that they will catch and hold and carry it through the air?

All I know is that I sympathised with those brand new butterflies, dazed and reeling beneath their now empty chrysalids. My life before – my caterpillar life – was good. It was just as valid, just as important. My job, my friends, the person I was.

Either way, meeting Ben was the catalyst that began a transformation in me, for better or worse, for caterpillar or butterfly. And it’s hard. Transformation implies something done to you, somehow (or at least it does to me). The fairy godmother transforms Cinderella into the princess. She doesn’t do it herself.

Well, I did this for myself. I am still doing it.

So, perhaps transformation is not the right word. Perhaps I am still the caterpillar, and that’s alright. I’m just a caterpillar in a whole new town. And I’m having to learn the rules all over again because many of the markers in my life have changed, or simply disappeared.

In the past few years I had slowly come to a place where I felt more accepting of myself than I ever had before. I thought I was really there – that I knew myself, and liked who and what I was.

Since making this move to America I feel like a different person, and with that comes the process of re-learning, of re-liking myself again. If people have the capacity to change throughout their lives, and if, in fact, the vagaries of life and circumstance make that change a given, perhaps coming to that acceptance within yourself is not a one-time thing. Perhaps it is a continual process. Perhaps we are caterpillar and chrysalis and butterfly, over and over again, our whole lives.

The butterflies that fluttered around that room didn’t know they were in Rochester, a small city not quite as far north as you can get in New York State, but on the shores of Lake Ontario, with Canada across the water. There were plants and warm air, flowers and fruit and pools of sticky sugar left for them. This was butterfly nirvana, free from all the predators of the wild.

And that’s how I felt too, setting foot inside, surrounded by the warm air of the tropics and the fragile butterflies like brightly coloured scraps of paper blown about on non-existent breezes, thermaling about my head. It hit me as suddenly as that warm air – how utterly and terrifyingly beautiful the things life gives us can sometimes be, how fragile.

But Nature is not an aesthete. By pure quirk of evolution, of practicality or chance, it can sometimes throw up aesthetic perfection. But as far as Nature is concerned the drab brown of a caterpillar is entirely as important, as necessary, as the glittering shock of a butterfly.

The Magic of Place

A little while ago something popped up on my Facebook feed from my lovely cousin, Martha. She has contributed in the past to a book of essays about the British Sci-Fi show Doctor Who called You & Who. This year they were looking for writers for an expanded book about a range of cult British Sci-Fi and Fantasy, so I signed up. Originally I put my name down for a number of shows: Being HumanLife on MarsThe Fades, but as it turned out there was a lot of competition for these, so I ended up being assigned my last choice: Merlin.

I’m not sure why it was my last choice. The brief was to write not a review of the show, but an essay about what it meant to us as individuals, the mark the show in question had left on us, as adults or children. And I had such fun writing about Merlin.

To have an essay in print feels wonderful. To leaf through an actual real-life book and see my words, my thoughts, my name, published….well, it doesn’t get much better than that. I hope I get to experience this extraordinary feeling again, and write more. In fact, it’s inspired me to take a writing class in the new year. I want to see where this road might take me.

A few of you have asked to read my essay. I’ve held off from posting it online in the hopes that more people might buy the book, but I doubt that me posting this here will make that much difference in the sales department. So, here goes:

The Magic of Place

How can a television programme come to mean so much to a person? How can a television programme that is, to all intents and purposes, a little bit naff come to mean so much to a person?

For the past years I have lived in London, but the entirety of my childhood was spent rampaging around the hillsides, forests and lakes on a Welsh farm, and to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, treading bejumpered through the sheepy fields. So a saturday night with Merlin gave me a little window, that I could peer through into the lush, moss-carpeted, bluebell forests and fern-fronded streams that made up the filming locations, and were familiar enough to spark a sharp ache of hiraeth that sat like a stone behind my sternum, hard and burning and wonderful.

Hiraeth is an untranslatable Welsh word: half homesickness, half longing for a past that probably only ever existed in a rose-tint of nostalgia. The landscape in Merlin took me away from the concrete and the fumes of London, back to green and growing things, back to the hills where you could watch the rain or the snow come in like a wall of hazy white from the coast. It took me back to a place where red kites wheeled in broad circles overhead, back to the heavy, sucked-up silence of moss and forest floor, packed tight with the sweetness of pine needles and darkly composted soil. These are the places of my youth, the places I go back to when I close my eyes at night.

Merlin was unique in its ability to place itself firmly in a time and location – even if that time was quasi-mythical-medieval – by using the landscape as a definite character, instead of merely somewhere nice looking to shoot. Okay, admittedly most of the action took place in one of four locations recycled for each episode (some caves in South Wales that I have definitely been to on a school trip, a moss-blanketed gully, a quarry borrowed from 70s era Doctor Who episodes and a corridor or two from a castle in France) but the weather was real, and so were the places. The very few sets built for the series were pretty obvious in comparison, but the rest of it was so lovely it didn’t seem to matter.

Merlin will never win any prizes as a quality piece of television, and it certainly doesn’t stand up to the behemoth historical/fantasy series that have come along since, like HBO’s Game of Thrones and The History Channel’s Vikings. But Merlin was the Little Show That Could. It had such heart that you forgave Richard Wilson’s increasingly terrible wig, or the fact that the character of Morgana wasn’t really played by an actress but a costume assistant who was too beautiful to stay behind the camera. The bromance-o-meter consistently hit the upper levels, and while the budget seemed to stretch to a nice new dress for Gwen once she became queen, it apparently didn’t go so far as to cover the hulking arms of Sir Perceval, whose biceps were so huge they could not be contained by the simple warp and weft of mortal fabric. The humour was slapstick and seemed to mainly involve Arthur’s trousers accidentally falling down or Merlin using magic to make a bandit run into a tree branch. But it was proper, family, saturday night television in a way that only the BBC can do.

Merlin was broadcast each year as summer was ending, just as the days were shortening towards the end of the year and the air began to take on the fresh pinch of Autumn. It was a show perfectly made for darkening evenings with the rain pattering against the window, while you sat cosy inside with your family and good old Aunty Beeb.

I am writing this piece in an apartment in small-town Massachusetts, America. In the drawer of the desk upon which my computer sits is a passport stamped with a two-year US visa. I have given away clothes and bikes and books, musical instruments and, actually, three box-sets of Merlin dvds. America, for all its similarities, is not really like Britain. One day I hope it will be home, but for now it is other in a way that makes me crave the familiarity of the BBC, and shows like Merlin.

Britain’s history is ancient and twisted as a gnarled oak. Our identities, our histories and mythologies are intrinsically linked with the landscape because it was an important and undeniably present factor in our ancestors lives. Arthur’s seat, Arthur’s Stone, Carmarthen (the Welsh translation of Merlin’s Fortress) – the echoes of the Arthurian legends are in the names of places scattered from Scotland to Cornwall. Our land, our stories, are a part of our national psyche, and are more important to us than we realise. Across this planet, fairytales and myths are dictated by the landscape and its vegetation. How would Hansel and Gretel’s story have gone had it taken part in the Arabian deserts of Scheherazade’s One Thousands And One Nights? And would the goddess Artemis have caused so much woe to mortals who accidentally witnessed her naked in the streams of ancient Greece if the climate was a little closer to that of the Norse sagas, which didn’t really lend itself to prolonged outdoor bathing if you fancied your extremities frostbite-free.

The ancient woodland and eerily still mountain lakes of the United Kingdom are the places where things happen in stories, to princesses and lumberjacks and ordinary people alike. Perhaps you’ll meet an old man who offers you magic beans, or come across a trail of breadcrumbs. I challenge anyone to walk through a pine forest on a moonless night and not think, even for a tiny moment, of wolves that beguile and consume, and monsters hiding in the dark, patient shadows. The wild landscapes of Britain still hold a power over us that’s as real as any of Merlin’s sorcery. It is no coincidence that some of the most vivid, well-loved fantasy worlds came forth from the minds of British writers. Just look at how place and landscape and weather feature in the writing of J.K.Rowling, Tolkien, C.S Lewis, to name a few. And while not British himself, George R.R Martin has explicitly said that his monstrous Wall and the lands that border it on both sides was inspired by a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, where standing atop the ruined stones and gazing into the ancient, unknowable north brought forth visions of ice demons and giants, trees with faces and wolves the size of horses.

To belong to a place is odd, because it works both ways: it belongs to you and you to it. It goes bone deep, into the nucleus of every cell, so that leaving it behind – however willingly – is a physical ache. And a place has a history too: the people and the lives lived there, the buildings raised and fallen, the stacking of rock upon rock and the taming of rivers and trees. Merlin helped me rediscover the wonder of place, and gave me back the imagination lost since childhood to conjure the spirits and fairies and myths of this green and pleasant land. It reminded me that there is beauty, and mystery, and magic to be found all around us.

Even if the show itself was a bit naff.


Salem, A Haunting – September 14th 2015

I can feel them staring at me. There are two, in particular, all sheets of straight glossy hair and designer black clothing. When Ben asks them a question they are sharp and knowing in reply, a caustic sort of flirting. They arch their eyebrows – drawn a little too thin, a little too severe – and answer with careful nonchalance. I have watched girls like this from the sidelines all of my life, have been at the end of their stiletto-point wit. If I had hackles they would be rising right now.

They are the most obvious of the lot, but the room is filled with people hanging on Ben’s every word. He is giving a lecture at the local university, and there is a good turn-out, though it turns out the turn-out is not the music and theatre and writing students, but largely the curious, and the smitten.

I can’t blame them, after all. Ben is just…louder than anybody or anything else in this small town.

It takes a while to extricate ourselves when the lecture ends, so many people have stayed behind to talk to Ben. He is given the fourth t-shirt of our few weeks in Lowell. They like their t-shirts, in Massachusetts. This one is purple, with a bright yellow number 42 embroidered on its chest. Life, the Universe and Everything. Just like that. Ben passes it straight to me.

We are parked across the street from the university building, and the evening is still warm enough to make the insides of the car hot and cloying. Ben likes the windows down when we drive. I don’t, but he opens his without thinking and the air strobes through the car and presses against my eardrums until I open mine too. It’s hot outside – unseasonably so, Ben tells me. The weather has already been hotter this September than the warmest English summer day, and sometimes the air is so thick and oppressive it combines with my jet-lag – both physical and emotional – to make it difficult to move outside. Sometimes my body feels twice as heavy, the air twice as dense. Sometimes I feel as if I have an echo. I am trying to learn the way things are around here.

In the car I am glad to have Ben to myself. There are different Ben’s: one in front of people, one in front of me. I love them both, but the small, silly one I don’t have to share with a roomful of amorous teenagers is something particular special, and makes me feel full up with love like a water balloon, liquid and bursting and warm.

Ben has two days off in a row, so we have designated Monday night as “Date Night”, (which, in turns out, will last just one glorious week). We have booked a night in the Salem Inn, an old townhouse converted into a bed and breakfast. It looks like a courthouse, an imposing red brick facade with steep steps up to a white painted portico, opposite the even more imposing, Tim Burton-esque Witch House, all crooked clapboard and slumping black gables.

The inn is “historic” since it was built in the 19th century. I scoff at it, wondering if it is even as old as my family’s house back in Wales. Even the old things are new in America. We have booked into the Honeymoon suite last minute, which is ridiculously cheap, used as we are to New York and London prices. The bed is huge and raft-like, taking up most of the room. It is gloriously welcome after the tiny bed we have been trying to sleep in for the past few weeks, and went from “snuggly” to “get your elbow out of my face” within about three days.

In the spirit of the First Ever (and last) Date Night, we go out to a raucous Mexican restaurant and get drunk on two cocktails each. Ben’s sense of direction is appalling when sober and non-existent when drunk – which he is, tonight. As the relatively sober of the pair, I navigate us back to our hotel, the long way-round and via the creepy Witch House once more. We climb the narrow wooden stairs to the top floor, and our room.

The suite has one too many doors – some open into other rooms, unnecessary. One opens into someone else’s, though it’s locked tonight. We have a brief test of the hot-tub bath, before deciding that we are about to fall asleep in the water, and the huge bed is a much better bet. As I put my glasses on the bedside table and reach to switch off the light, I think, an idle, fluttering thought, that this room in this old building is a little bit creepy. I lay for a while and listen to the sounds of traffic on the road outside floating through our open windows on the warm night breeze. A man-hole clunks every few seconds as wheels drive over it. Ben snores lightly beside me. And then I fall asleep.

There is a sound, some time later. It is incongruous enough to wake me, but the room is silent while I lie in the darkness, still and rigid and waiting for the sound to come again and make some kind of sense. There are no cars on the road outside anymore. Ben is quiet and still beside me. In my sleep-fugged mind all I can think of is a lump of sugar falling into a china teacup, the scrape and stir and settle of a spoon against the rim.

It comes again. It is somewhere near my left ear. My heart lurches in my chest. I reach out blindly and sink my fingers into Ben’s bare back, where he lies on his side next to me.

Still, I try to think logically. After all, I have grown up in an old house – older than this one – and know the kind of noises it can make when it creaks and settles, when the wind changes direction, when the hollow walls are full of mice. Whoever coined the phrase “Quiet as a mouse” has obviously never lived in an old building, because they are anything but. They gnaw and skitter and scritch, they rustle through old wrappers in wastepaper bins and patter across floorboards.

But there is nothing next to me, only a bedside table and lamp. It sounds like no mouse I have ever heard.

I begin to think I must have imagined the sound, when it comes once more. Before I know it I am bolt upright in bed, blindly scrabbling for my glasses and the lightswitch. A distinct but tiny part of my brain tells me that I am being ridiculous and will feel ten times more so in the morning.

I don’t believe in ghosts. Except for when it’s 2am, at which point I definitely do.

“What’s the matter?” asks Ben, finally awake.

“I know you’re not going to believe me and it sounds stupid but I’m definitely awake and I definitely didn’t dream it but I heard a noise like a teaspoon stirring in a china cup and it really freaked me out and I’m not imagining it…”

“A teaspoon,” Ben repeats. His voice is hoarse and sandpapered with sleep. “Okay.”

“I know it sounds stupid but I def-”

The noise comes once more, distinct, absurd, terrifying.

“Did you hear that?” I hiss, not even waiting for the sound to dissipate before I speak.

“Yes,” Ben says. “Really creepy.” His words slur into a snore as he turns over and falls asleep once more.

Fat lot of good he is. I give up everything I know and move to the other side of the world for him and he can’t even save me from a ghost.

I lay back down, every vertebrae rigid and thrumming, my heart thumping obscenely loud. The lamp casts a halo of light around the bed, but beyond it the corners of the room are pregnant with shadows. I don’t believe in ghosts, I tell myself. But it’s 2am. And I definitely do.

“Still awake?” Ben mumbles after a while. He gets up to use the en-suite, comes back around the bed and closes the windows as he goes. “Better?” he asks.

Not really.

The noise doesn’t come again. After a while I fall into a fitful half-daze. Something creaks in the corridor, I dream the door into the next room begins to open, that the chintzy antique furniture is moving, just slightly. But the noise doesn’t come again.

I am the daughter of a logical father, raised in a house of reason and science and staunch scepticism of anything that might go bump in the night. Somehow though, this has never clashed or contradicted with my flighty imagination, prone to whims of superstition and folklore. Fairy-tales – and not the saccharine princesses and flurry of helpful tweeting birds, ready to tailor me a bespoke ballgown from the scraps of ribbon and the remnants of the curtains, either. The old kind. Gleaming-toothed wolves that look like men, dark impenetrable forests and blood-red cloaks. Shoes that dance you to death, fairy rings that people disappear into and stumble from, a day later and fifty years older. The hearts of virgins and walls of thorns.

But never mind my penchant for mythology and ancient folk stories, because these make a strange kind of sense, to me. They are entwined with place and history, with both the land and the culture of people that live there. The things that really terrify me are written in the pages of National Geographic and A Brief History Of Time. There lies the cold, indifference of space and time. In fairy tales and fantasy there is almost always a way to outwit Rumpelstiltskin, to beat the Big Bad Wolf. To quote Terry Pratchett, misquoting G.K. Chesterton:

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.”

But science is another matter. It is more strange and unfathomable than superstition and fairy-tale. After all, there is no way to outwit a black-hole.

So here I lie, in a hotel in Salem, with a noise I cannot explain, and all I can think about is vast coldness of space and time, about atoms that can be in two places at once, and why is a belief in ghosts any more absurd that that?

And the truth is, that deep down, a small part of me likes to be afraid, wants to believe.

Rationally, I know that because the sound has not come again since the window was closed, it must be something that was caused by it being open. But in the fertile imaginary world that dawns when the sun dips below the horizon, I dream of the previous occupants of this 19th century house, of ladies taking tea in Salem’s parlours just like the one which now makes up the bedroom of the Honeymoon suite in which I sleep.

Enough Doctor Who episodes have told me that time is not a straight line. But what if it is, in fact, a concertina, an origami fold of paper. What if this now, this room, is pressed up against the now of the 19th century, sharing the same space but neighbours in time?

What if you could hear, as if in the next room, the filtering of conversation, of sounds from a time long ago?

My brain star-bursts with the thought. This will make a good story, I think, as I drift into sleep sometime before dawn.

Later, when the sun has risen fully and the cars are click-clacking across the manhole in the road outside, I go to the window to open the blinds.

The little toggle on the end of the blind pull scrapes against the wooden sill.

It sounds just like a teaspoon stirring a china cup of tea.

I feel stupid for the rest of the day, as Ben laughs at my “ghostly teacup”. Absurdly, it seems to make him love me more. But a tiny part of me – the part that comes alive in the darkness, the part that sparks and lights up with fear and imagination and the thrill of a quickening heart – is quietly disappointed.

London, in reverse.

On warm summer evenings I sit on my bed and hear, through our open windows, the sounds of children having their tea in the houses on my street. It’s a sound both happy and sad, makes me feel comforted and lonely, all at once.

A year ago I moved into my flat in Queen’s Park. The jasmine is in bloom as it is when I first came here, up and down the road. In the morning and evening it is a heavy, heady smell that always seems to be two steps past the mass of little white blooms themselves. I have never seen so much jasmine.

I lived in Hammersmith before then, for four years. The longest I have stayed in one place since my childhood, back in Wales. I grew tomatoes and honeysuckle and lavender on the terrace, cared for them reverentially every night when I came home, stood barefoot on the wooden decking in the warm darkness and smelt the sharp crackle of water on dry soil, the echo of perfume from blooms and growing things. Across the street teenagers gathered outside the fried chicken shop, and shouted and laughed and fought through the night.

In 2009 I moved into a flat of strangers in a beautiful mansion block in West Hampstead, to be nearer to my then boyfriend who lived nearby. We broke up a week before my moving date. There were roses in the communal gardens outside by the street, but I don’t remember ever smelling the flowers. I wasn’t very happy there.

I first came to London aged 23, having unexpectedly secured a job that needed me to begin almost immediately. I moved in with old university friends of my brother’s in a small flat in Stockwell. I hadn’t spent much time in the city before, and my ideas about London were formed from my parents’ memories of life there in the seventies and early eighties. I expected the city to be hot and orange-tinged like my mum and dad’s photos from that time, and London did not disappoint. I clambered out the rickety sash-windows and sunbathed on the too-hot asphalt of the flat roof, and the shop by the tube station played Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”  out loud all summer.

This weekend I move to Watford to stay in the spare room of some friends, and if all goes to plan, before the end of the year I will ship my belongings to America – a bigger move than I have ever made before.

London has been good to me. I have had good times and sad times and every-day times. I have been desperately lonely and surrounded by friends and, usually, somewhere in between.

I am going to spend the summer thinking about why I love this city, and the seven years I have spent here – before I leave it for a new city, and new memories.


How well do you know your body? Can you translate all its messages, its pleas, demands, gentle nudges? Do you speak its language?

It turns out, that I do not. My body is all greek to me. Not only is it completely incomprehensible, it is an enemy, a double agent that betrays me time and time again. My skin is a battleground, my insides a war-torn wasteland.

It wasn’t always this way: as a child my body was slim and brown-skinned and lithe, made for climbing trees and running fast, smudged with pine sap and sea salt. And yet, I paid it little attention.

Then came puberty, something longed-for and lusted after now suddenly too real, too adult. Once a month I would feel as though my ovaries were trying to melt their way down to my knees, besieged by blood and leaks and nausea, left red-faced and walking like a cowboy around lumpy sanitary pads. Nobody tells you about that. The fact that you will spend three to four days of your period curled into a ball around a pillow, breathing as if you’re in labour, crying at the slightest provocation….this is left conveniently un-mentioned.

Hair in places I didn’t want it. Spots. Grease. Boys would laugh at the way my breasts bounced when I moved, so I stopped running. Girls would laugh at my sticking-out ears and my pouty mouth, so I wore my long hair down to cover as much as possible. My eyesight grew steadily worse until I was entirely dependant on spectacles to be able to see the faces in front of me.

I’ve written before about the peculiar distrust of your own brain that’s often felt by sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it’s only recently that I have begun to realise the similar relationship I have with my own body. I don’t know what it’s doing. I don’t know what it wants from me.

One December, my body decided that getting rid of the freeloading little appendix we’d been carrying around for seventeen years would be painful and horrible and necessitate a traumatic hospital experience, and would therefore be an excellent strike in the war against me. (My body is an appallingly good battle tactician).

The coup de grâce though was the chronic idiopathic urticaria that came along as a result. All that meddling had royally screwed my immune system, which was now carrying out 24/7 drone strikes on itself, like an eye-twitching chain-smoking soldier who’s been in the field too long.

Chronic idiopathic urticaria.

Chronic: there was no known timeline for this one (“Could be twenty years or so,” one doctor told me cheerfully”).

Idiopathic: no known trigger.

Urticaria: raised, itchy hives on the skin. With a side-order of angioedema: swelling, in my case of lips, cheeks, joints and eyelids. Super attractive.

Countless pills, homeopathy, trips to far-away specialists, diets and relaxation exercises and blood tests blood tests blood tests. Life soon settled into a rhythm, six pills a day began to keep the condition at bay enough for me to lead a relatively normal life. But like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight, if I didn’t keep to a carefully strict timetable I would turn back into a pumpkin. I’m not even joking, that’s sometimes what I looked like.

Last december, after thirteen years of dealing with the condition, I began to push my medication timetable. I began to find that I would occasionally forget to take my pills, only remembering the next morning – a thing previously so inconceivable that I may as well liken it to forgetting to put on shoes before leaving the house. So I continued, slowly easing away, sneaking off the battlefield by playing dead and moving imperceptibly away from the fighting.

Because that’s the problem when you’re battling your own body – it is with you, everywhere you go. It owns your eyes so it sees everything, it is your skin and your muscle and your bones, so it knows every move you make.

Now, after a few months of blessed freedom, I am in the midst of a period of upheaval and stress that has resulted in bouts of broken sleep and a constantly churning stomach. I am back on medication. I have lists of foods I should and should not eat once more. My body just won’t let me go.

I am lucky in so many ways – I have had some health issues but I’ve never faced the ultimate betrayal of a degenerative disease, of cancer multiplying inside you, coming from nothing until it has utter control of you.

But I am tired of the constant struggle. I want to love my body – after all, it allows me to see beautiful people and places, to hear music that makes goose-bumps shiver up my arms. There is sour sherbet and cinnamon and lamb kofta and pepperoni pizza to taste, water to swim through, arms to hold the people I love. I don’t want it reduced to the bad feelings, to maintenance and upkeep and medication that must be taken on time, menstruation suppressed and stomach muscles deceived.

I want to be my body’s friend. I want to know what is asking of me and not begrudge the things it needs. We should be partners, but right now I feel disconnected from both my mind and body. I am a soul floating somewhere between the two, tethered but not a part of things and certainly not in control.

How do I do this? How do you start a conversation with your body? How do I call a cease-fire and bring in the negotiators in this war that’s been raging so long?

Does anyone else feel the same? I don’t know if this is peculiar to me or if the people around me just don’t feel the need to constantly and hugely over-share, like me.

I am trying. I am trying to be more careful about what I eat. I’ve joined a gym – to swim, and perhaps the odd yoga class – you won’t catch me working out. But I am trying to be healthy, and mindful, and calm. Because the more I think, and write, and ponder this everlasting battle, I wonder if perhaps my body and I are both being controlled by a shadowy overlord: the brain. And the more I think about my brain – after spending a while to marvel over how weird it is is to use my brain to think about my brain – the more I feel sorry for it. It’s done some wonderful stuff, but it has its problems. I want to help it.

And perhaps that is the key, in an odd sort of way. By feeling disconnected from my brain and body I can feel compassion, empathy, without the shame and guilt I’ve struggled with in accepting there is something wrong. I can help as I would a friend who was struggling with anxiety, or health issues. I wouldn’t judge anyone else for physical or mental problems, as I am seemingly judging myself.

So. I will give my brain some advice as a friend. I will prescribe it a remedy as if I was a concerned doctor.

Early nights. Sleep. Hot baths. Good food and good friends. S-l-o-w-n-e-s-s. Smile more. Breathe deep. Love. Make stuff but don’t judge the result.

Let it all go. Sometimes you say stupid things, sometimes you mess up. You miss deadlines, you don’t work as hard as you should, or too hard. There are things you are not good at. There are things that fail through no fault of your own, there are things that fail because, no matter how hard you tried, you didn’t do it right. And that’s okay.

Don’t hate your brain, or your body. They’re trying as hard as they can.

Be kind to yourself.

Be kind to yourself.

Be kind to yourself.