Love Letters #38

Have you ever sunk down into the belly of London?

There are vertical escalators, and sometimes they squeak and squeal, groaning under the weight of a thousand feet every second of every day. Never stopping. Hundreds of stories and minds. Millions of thoughts, whispered in thousands of accents, drowned by the voices of people getting things done.

There are pictures on the metal walls, pictures that move and shift and change shapes, kaleidoscopic in their constant swirling motion, and for a moment you want to go to the theatre and see Les Miserable, and the next moment the thought vanishes from your brain as you frantically feel your way through pale yellow tunnels, following the crowd and wondering if you are going the right way, can’t turn back or else people will shove you back the way you came, the rush of hot air pulling you further and further into the belly of London.

Old walls, crumbling civilisations giving way to new ones.

I was born in London.

Tooting.

Same hospital as my mother was born in. So strange, that thought. Twenty four years apart.

My father fell down the stairs and broke his coccyx bone the day I was born. He was rushing to the hospital to see his first child. For twenty three years he hasn’t been able to sit properly.

When I was six years old, my stomach curled and unfurled itself as I clutched a small pink straw bag, descending on those vertical escalators down, down down below the crowded surface of the busy city.

Do we have to go on the tube? Can’t we go on the overground train?

Don’t be so silly, Lenora. Look sharp now, quickly!

My mother, seasoned, marching through the tunnels with myself and my little brother in tow. Stepping onto the train, grabbing the back of her skirt, sick with fear.

Then the hurtle, the loud screaming of the train on those metal tracks, the blackness outside the windows. Why were there even windows, if there was nothing to look at? Terrified. Barely able to breathe. Is this the stop? Can we get out?

No!? Ohhhh. 

A soft groan, deep in my belly.

Any minute now the lights would turn off and the train would stop and we would be stuck down here in the dark and heat forever and ever and

forever.

Loud, screaming, hurtling, whistling, wailing. I would close my eyes, begging for this nightmare to be over.

When I was eleven I read a story about the people who cleaned the underground tunnels.

You wouldn’t believe what they found there. Giant rats, and fleas the size of cockroaches, flittering in the darkness. An old woman spoke of the horrors of those tunnels. Yet, they were a refuge to many during the war. Safe havens, in giant brick pools under the ancient city of London. Curving under the Thames and even crossing by the long forgotten rivers that people seldom remember, yet traverse past daily.

And still, I was terrified.

The tube?! Really?! We can get to Victoria on the overground. What about a bus?! A bus is so much better.

Oh, grow up, you silly girl.

Stuck to my seat, sometimes shoved under someone’s armpit, holding tight, my stomach swaying as the train hustled and swerved and screamed its way through those hot, windy tunnels. Fear seeped through my skin, soaking my clothes and beading on my upper lip.

The roaring becoming louder, and louder, and louder, rising in volume and ferocity,

 – why is it so angry -?!

I open my eyes.

I am twenty three years old. I am sitting on the tube for the first time in three years, and before that, for the first time nine.

London has not been my home for twelve years.

Yet, every time I step off the train and into Euston or King’s Cross, a rush of overwhelming familiarity hits me.

The smells and the noise pollution, rising high in the sky, thousands of lives picking their way through thousands of machines, breathing in exhaust fumes and coffee grounds, heels on newspapers, sweat pooling in the creases of skin, accents and countries and worlds colliding as people get on with their business.

And I love the tube. I love the tube with all my heart.

I love the feeling of standing on the furthest end, watching everybody and their engrossed detachment from the world around them. The ginger man sitting next to a nun, sneaking peeks at her reading material. The woman who is watching a Netflix show and the audience of standing commuters, eyes glued to her screen behind the grimy glass that separates her seat from the doors.

I love the hurtling, screaming ferocity. I love the traffic of humans, all hurrying, running, racing, sweating, on the same journey but so trained in avoiding any real contact with each other. Physically pressed up against each other but mentally floating high above the tunnels through which they are carried at top speeds.

I don’t love London at all. I might love the memories I have, which lurk around unexpected corners and in strange places. That place that I vomited outside the Natural History museum. That spot in the British library where I tried to hide those chewits. That fountain in Hyde Park where I sprained my ankle and subsequently cried all the way home on the 319. That tree where the dog barked at my brother and I, scaring our five and four year old selves half to death. That rookery where we rolled down the hills and I got grass stains on my blue Alice in Wonderland dress.

But I love the Tube.

I love the old terror that rises in my throat like bile, because my twenty three year old self recognises it for what it really is;

Adrenaline.

Excitement.

Adventure.

Thrill.

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A Journey

I binge watched Orange is the New Black this past week since I returned from Morocco. I came back on Wednesday. It was a painful journey, my posterior was aching by the end of it because I was sitting on it for way too long. I did squats in the airport with all my baggage just to stretch my muscles out.

I was treading water, barely, on 1.5 hours sleep, and the plane was circling above London in a very suspicious manner for half an hour before the pilot deigned to land and let us out of that sweaty heat cabin. They claimed it was ‘air traffic’ but my rising anxiety made a very convincing case that we were all going to spontaneously combust up in the sky, so I had to sit back and put my book away and stare into the distance saying my prayers, whilst my heart hammered against my rib cage in panic. Land never looked so inviting.

When we finally did land, a blast of hot air smacked me in the face and I had to peer out of the airport windows, to make sure we really were in England and didn’t somehow teleport back to Morocco. England was sweltering under a mighty heatwave, and the English were red-faced and melting. Was I glad to be back? I don’t know. I just needed some sleep.

We got on the coach and sat for four hours, sometimes inching our way through a treacle of traffic, and I woke up several times with my head against the glass, my mouth wide open and staring upwards. Drool snaked down my chin, cold and slimy. So very pretty.

At my mum’s house, after arriving at 10pm, my father proceeded to unpack everything while I watched like a zombie, downing glass after glass of icy water and sitting in front of the fan. It was only 29 degrees, but it felt like satan’s bedroom.

Why does 29 degrees in Morocco feel like heaven, and 29 degrees in England feel like the furnace hasn’t slept in days?

When I finally nodded off at three am, it felt like a few moments later that my stomach howled at me to get up. I raced upstairs in tremendous pain and suffered an agonising bout of Delhi bellies, which I miraculously escaped in Morocco but somehow was infected by English water? I fainted on the toilet, it was that painful. When I staggered back downstairs, I realised it was 6:30am and my train was due to leave in two hours. My mum tried to persuade me to stay and rest, but frankly, I hadn’t seen my husband in almost three weeks by that point and I just wanted to go home to him. And, well, other things.

So I did.

On the train I was nodding off in my seat, and a couple of teenagers were sniggering at me. I was faintly aware of it but I was so tired I really didn’t give a damn. When my train was about ten minutes away from the station I pulled my phone out and used the camera to smear on some makeup and make my hair look presentable because I suddenly felt a bit nervous. While I was doing that I suddenly panicked because I couldn’t find my phone in my pocket so I stood up and frantically searched my seat and the floor around me. My hands were shaking and I was near tears, when I realised, oh, stupid, I was using it as a mirror this whole time.

Exhaustion is like drugs, maybe.

My husband picked me up from the station and that was nice. He was on his lunch break so he had to drop me home and go back to work but. That was nice. I know I smelled bad, like travelling and sweat and poorliness, and I didn’t want to hug him, but he didn’t care and made me. That was really nice. It is really nice to come home to somebody who loves you. I cannot stress that enough.

It is really. Really. Goddamn. Nice.

Anyway this started out as a review of the latest season of OITNB but I ended up recounting a… well, a journey, really.

Nevermind. Maybe next time.

Ciao.

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This is my view of the edge of France from the sky. Comparing it with a satellite view of Google maps, it looks like a place called Saint-Malo. Or Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer, to be exact.

Moroccan Country Market

The sun is beaming down, turning the sky a strange sort of blueish brown. When you go out into the direct beam of light, the heat radiates through your very bones. People still venture out, in their colourful overclothes and highly patterned scarves. Their faces are scrunched from the sunlight, but their spirits are high.

The little country market squats in the wide expanse of sand, stones, and dusty desert bushes;sparse, small and set close to the ground. Stalls are wagons, held up on one end by wheels and on the other by wooden beams and bricks. The cloths which cover them are faded and worn from dust and the pure dirt of the earth, and on top they have their vegetables piled high. This is what a country market looks like in Morocco.

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Have you ever seen so very many tomatoes? I haven’t. A woman shouted at me when I tried to take photos of the tomatoes, and other vegetables.

‘Eeh, shoofo, ‘and-hal mobile! Esh ket-filmy!?’ she waved her hands at me and thrust her chin out, confrontational. Eh! Look at her, she has a phone! What are you filming? Everybody turned to look at me, suspicious and curious. My neck prickled with shame and confusion, but I also felt annoyed. I gestured towards the fruit, ‘El-Fawakih!’ I exclaimed, trying to defend myself.  The fruit! I understood then that they were worried I was filming their women and would spread their images on Youtube. She stared at me suspiciously as I walked away, and I hid my phone sharpish. They found it offensive that I was taking pictures of their wares, because the area I was walking in never saw any tourists and to take photos of an ordinary food market was unusual activity.

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I saw a withered old man in a colourful turban and wide pantaloons sprawled on a mountain of clothes, next to his empty cart, snoozing as the flies buzzed around his head and the sun clothes which draped from the wooden beams overhead fluttered gently in the breeze. The very sight of him was a vibrant photograph, just begging to be taken, but I dared not take that risk.

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As we walked away from the market, a fishmonger, standing on the outskirts of the market and well away from the vegetables with all the other fishmongers, shoved a dead, open fish in the face of my relative. She reeled, pushing it back towards him, exclaiming that she didn’t want it.

‘Smell it, smell it. It’s fresh, caught this morning.’

She sniffed it tentatively then told him she wanted a kilo of the little fish.

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This little kitten was hanging about on the verges of the market, sniffing eagerly for food. We gave it a square of cream cheese.

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Munch munch. Little creature was as big as the shadow of my phone!

 

Sunshine and Cactus

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I think sunshine has a habit of making everything look better, and feel better, and sound better, and taste better. Here in Britain we live under a perpetual cloud. The winter sky is characteristically overcast, gloomy light turning everything into monotone. When the sun finally does manage to beam her face down at us, once the relentless clouds have given her the stage for a moment or two, the world is suddenly flushed with colours I never knew existed!

Wow, grass is THAT GREEN?! 

That tarmac is looking particularly handsome today!

My goodness, I never noticed how very pink those roses are.

Oh, glory days, this doorstep is the most gorgeous russet I have ever set my eyes on. Peonies nodding in sunlit breeze. Gleaming black railings against the stark white of a Kensington building.

Everything has a humming vibrancy when the sun comes out.

n.b The photo taken above was actually in Spain.

Yeezys

When I went for a walk yesterday I wore my grey trainers. The ones I got for fifteen quid from TK Maxx. I remember the first day I wore them to school after that one of my year five students ran up to me calling, ‘Miss, Miss, is it true you’re wearing Yeezies?’

I stared at her. Her big bushy blonde hair waving in the winter breeze and her stark green eyes blinking cheekily at me. I saw her gaggle of friends giggling behind a wall.

What the heck is a yeezie?

‘What the heck is a yeezie?’ I said, ‘these were fifteen quid from TK Maxx’

Thank goodness no other teachers were nearby, saying ‘heck’ in front of a student is probably a no-no.

I googled a yeezie when I got home. First, I found out it was actually ‘Yeezy’ and not ‘yeezie’. Second, I was not impressed. Yeezy is pretty much some bone headed celebrity clothing line.

So I wore my fifteen quid NON-yeezies on my walk yesterday when I discovered some fields. The sun was shining brightly, igniting each blade of grass and turning them from sombre green into brilliant emerald. I sighed happily and walked on, letting the cool spring wind take me whichever direction it chose. I had plenty of fields to walk in, and some were filled with bright yellow rapeseed (what a nasty name) flowers taller than my five foot four frame. I was in my element. My shoes, which were severely permeable because they’re supposed to be running shoes, were doing their bouncy thing.

You know.

And I was just. So. Happy. Until I walked into what looked like a particularly fresh patch of grass, severely green, blooming and luscious, and my shoes, feet and all, sank right in, right through the deceiving little patch all the way up beyond my ankles with a wet squelch. The mud beneath bubbled up and burped satisfactorily when I tried to lift my foot out. I was well and truly stuck, and nobody around to hear me scream. I could feel the muddy deluged splotching around and soaking into my socks, it was a very cringe experience I can tell you that much.

There was a feeling of resignation, after the initial shock, when I realised that, well, now my feet and shoes were soaking and muddy and probably a bit shitty too, considering the huge cowpats everywhere, but that was that, and there was nothing I could do about it. I just stared down for a few moments, then went, ‘Oh well.’ and proceeded to squelch myself out of there, getting mud all up my leggings in the process.

I got out alright, else I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale, but my shoes, alas, did not survive. The end of the ‘yeezies’ as it were.

I enjoyed the rest of the hour and a half I spent walking after the incident, clearly mud is not a deterrent on a sunny day in England – we don’t get many of those, we tend to savour what we have!

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The M1

Did my fourth motorway drive today. Honestly I was terrified. My hands were glued to the steering wheel, when I tried to move them some point after hitting the 90mph mark, they unstuck with a squelch. Ew.

It is good practise for me but I can never shake the fear I have hurtling down the M1. Sometimes I want to stay in the slow lane, behind chugging old folks creeping along at 60mph but the car I drive has a powerful engine and I can feel it wanting to go faster, complaining whenever I lift my foot off the accelerator. When I move onto the middle lane it leaps forward at the slightest touch, and it surges past other cars so effortlessly. It is wide and menacing; definitely a man’s car. I sound so sexist but it is how I feel.

It is my husband’s car, of course. He works in the automotive industry, and one of his special talents includes being able to tell exactly what kind of car is driving by just by looking at the front and rear lights. His knowledge somehow seeps out of him because now I can tell the difference between cars and their engines as they pass me on the motorway. I don’t know what to do with that knowledge because I honestly couldn’t care less. All I want is to buy a smaller car so I can hurtle down the motorway without developing sweat patches in my armpits!

Today I had an intrusive thought; as I sped down the motorway – I should say up because I was headed up North, I thought how magnificent and powerful the machine I was controlling was. My feet and hands pushing it and urging it along. A small twist of the arm of press of the foot and I would destroy the car and myself, too. It was an abhorrent thought. A part of me wanted to pull over and let my husband stress the way home, but I didn’t because I need to practise else I will never be free. Another part of me hankered after those autonomous cars that are currently in the works. With autonomous cars the pleasure of driving is eliminated, but oh, so will those mountainous piles of stress!

I love driving, I do, but those motorways are terrifying.

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Austen Pinkerton

 

On Being Ungrateful

I am having the most awful day, folks. I missed my first day at work this week yesterday because I was up the night before swotting, and missed my 4am train because of it.

So I really enjoyed being at home; I cleaned my house for the first time in, well, a month and a half I should say. I scrubbed and scraped and my oven is gleaming and my floors smell like lavender and tea tree and my washing basket is empty. I showered and epilated and oiled and washed my hair and scrubbed my face and dressed up nice and – well-  clearly, it was the best day ever.

But it is my last week at work so I had to leave this morning. I simply had to, no amount of moaning about it or crying would change anything. But moan an cry I did. I groaned while I washed my face and cried in the mirror putting my cream on. I told my hair off for being such a relentless bush, and scraped it into the most atrocious bun you ever did see.

I scarfed a bowl of cheerios and a coffee as black and bitter as my mood. I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls at 3am and decided not to have a shower, dousing myself with deodorant and my husband’s manly perfume (don’t you agree ladies, they make men’s perfume so much stronger?).

I cried bitter tears whilst tying my shoelaces and told my husband I would not warm up the car even though he woke up at 5am to drive me to the station, never mind he had to be up at 7. But I did warm it up, I am not that cruel.

I was such a moany, horrible person this morning. Which is not very like me at all.

I think it was the fact that I woke up at 2:40am exactly, wide awake, heart throbbing, and was unable to go back to sleep. I am wired on exhaustion and concentrated coffee, much like a Gilmore Girl.

When I sat moodily in the train, I pulled out my phone to snap a routine snapchat of the train leaving the station at 5:21am, headed to London Euston.

I was about to caption it, ‘Ugh, thankfully this is the last time I have to take this crappy journey.’

But then. I sat. And thought.

Hang on.

That is pretty ungrateful.

It only took me three seconds.

So I wrote, ‘This is the last time I am doing this, hopefully it goes easy’

I don’t know what took over me there. I felt like utter crap, but why broadcast it? It wasn’t even about who would see it, it was about me projecting my bad feelings on the universe despite the fact that I am actually privileged to be on a train in the warmth going to a job that I don’t hate and will pay me – also, it’s the LAST JOURNEY?!

Sour puss, Lenora.

And I just realised that actually, I am pretty ungrateful. So.

Not a few minutes after that a lady passed me and smiled at me in such a lovely way that despite the dark cloud raining sorrow over me I was enticed to smile back at her. My teeth showed. She must have magical powers.

THEN, a few minutes later, the conductor came by asking for tickets. I realised my tickets were due to leave yesterday, and I had made an accident while booking. So we had a pretty decent chat about refund prices and how the Trainline is not the best website to book cross country train tickets and the better bet would be to use Nationalrail.co.uk (pssst, some good tips for you UK train travellers out there). And he got his special red pen that only conductors are allowed to use and MARKED MY TICKETS VALID AT NO EXTRA COST TO MYSELF!?

What a nice man. I think this morning taught me that actually, I should be more grateful and that there are nice people outside.

Also. My childhood American friend is coming to the UK from America for some time and while we were chatting on the phone she told me in the USA they do not travel cross country by train. They either plane it, drive it or take what they call a ‘greyhound bus’ and we call a ‘coach’. A ‘bus’ to us is that long metal vehicle that sometimes has two floors and smells of rubbish and sweat and costs four pounds return to take you ten minutes down the road to sodding Tesco; i.e. an ‘in-city’ bus. But it looks different from a ‘greyhound bus’ or ‘coach’.

 

The sun will rise, folks. That is a fact. Unless it doesn’t, in which case I stand corrected.

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Spain. Yours truly.

 

On Christmas in Spain and British People

Christmas day for me was spent in Granada. Actually, travelling from Granada to Cordoba. In Spain.

They drive on the right hand side of the road, as opposed to the left side which is the side we stick to in Britain. This was confusing to say the least. There were several incidents where we drove straight into oncoming traffic. To say we angered the Spaniards is to make a colossal understatement.

It was a great holiday. We did not have brussel sprouts at all, which I am glad for. I went through a period in 2013 where I had brussel sprouts daily for months. Needless to day my stomach suffered horrendously. No, on Christmas day we ate dry cereal for breakfast, then for lunch we didn’t have anything and for dinner we had, well, I can’t remember. I think we had a late lunch in an Italian restaurant. We had a very cheesy pizza with almost no crust and a beschamel soaked tortellini stuffed with something sweet. It was a very cheesy meal, and also very delicious. Later that night I awoke from some very cheesy nightmares involving a particularly stinky brie. We walked miles and miles that day, I think we did around 18,000 steps. We relaxed and watched the sun set.

My husband checked some women out and I got super pissy about that. He did it blatantly and not just once but hundreds of times throughout all seven days. And it made me severely doubt the power of my booty. Which is a pretty good one if I do say so myself.

I am, still pissy about it and it has ruined my holiday and makes me not like him very much at all.

But the holiday itself was lovely. So peaceful and I saw and learned a host of incredible things about the Nasrid empire and the Catholicism that took over soon after. The battle of cultures is emphatically displayed in the magnificent architecture of the palaces and castles and mosques in Granada, Cordoba and Malaga. It’s a clash of religions and you know, it’s stunning. You can clearly see the gothic architecture competing with the Islamic designs and there are places where whole ceilings have been replaced, only to be broken in some corners and the mathematically intricate designs of the Islamic architecture carries on along the wall and some floors are mosaic and some are flagstone and you just stand there and stare at the deathly silence of it all; and if you stand very still you can hear the echoes of civilisation forming and building and living and dying and flighting.

It is phenomenal. Humans are phenomenal.

There was one point in Granada when we were exploring the Nasrid palace in Alhambra, when a tour guide was explaining the history of the palace to an older couple. I was eavesdropping very blatantly, because we didn’t get any audio guides and there was no information at all anywhere. What he was saying was so captivating, I simply could not help myself. The guide saw me eavesdropping and I felt like such a cheat. But he did not say anything, he just carried on talking. Maybe he felt I should have given him a tip at least, if I was too stingy to pay for a tour!

But oh, Spain was so beautiful. Courtyards and cobbled alleyways and mesmerising views and palm trees and thunderous beaches and orange trees galore.

When we got on the plane to go home we were surrounded by British people and I was reminded of how much I really don’t like British people. Maybe that is a generalisation. But a man of fifty odd years was swearing horrendously at his mother who was limping along using a walking stick. And he was effing and blinding in a most British fashion. And it just reminded me of city streets and uncouth louts.

And I got this super strange stare from him on the plane and it felt very judgey because of how big my bag was. But I guess I am judging him and maybe he was just reminded of another bag in some other place which made him angry. Or something.

Anyway this man who was around 65 started talking to my husband about the forty years he served in the Navy. He spoke to my husband during the entire two and a half hour flight and while I didn’t hear much of what he had to say because the general sound in the plane is thunderous, I learned some interesting things.

And I felt bad for generalising my own people. The British. We are not so bad. Sometimes we can be awful, and drink too much alcohol, and reveal our pale, hairy bottoms in airports, and be generally quite stiff and awkward, and not like to speak what we think but like to show it in a manner of tuts and glares.

But some of us serve in the Navy for forty years and others do a myriad of different things and are their own people.

And some of us are not strong because we react to emotion. A strong person is not one who can fight and win. A strong person is one who can control themselves when they are angry. That is what I learned this Christmas.

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My photo of one of the courtyards in the Nasrid palace of Alhambra, Granada.

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A stunning view over Sacramento from atop Alhambra, Granada.

 

Spreading Some Joy

I don’t have many words to use anymore. I am spent. So I leave you with a photograph of a snippet of happiness. Children and bubbles, long summer evenings. And a man spreading joy.

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Image Credit: Yours truly